Short fic pre-series, spoilers for the Sannin.
Orochimaru was wierd.
Jiraya decided that right off from the start when they'd sat around talking about things they wanted and things they liked and Tsunade's availability on the next weekend night. The black-haired boy hadn't seemed to care for the traditional discussion that was supposed to bring the newly assigned trio together in some kind of bonding experience. Instead, he'd turned his dark-lined eyes away and toed the ground in what would have been impatience, if not for the utter indifference by which he did it.
Orochimaru was like a girl with his hair long and straight and his face a floating disk of white in the middle. Orochimaru didn't raise his voice when Teacher Sarutobi called on him to speak, only clasping his thin fingers around his knees and murmuring a reply so quiet that Teacher had to ask him to repeat himself twice.
Orochimaru dressed in robes like a doll. Orochimaru didn't tumble in the dirt. He didn't fight for extra helpings of sweets and didn't crawl over rooftops trying to get into the women's side of the bathhouses.
Plus, Jiraya suspected, in a deep, dark part of his child's heart, Orochimaru didn't actually like girls.
What Orochimaru did seem to like was nature. Mostly an enjoyment practiced in the solitary fashion, which involved lots of walks by himself with training scrolls bundled up beneath his arms and hours spent doing nothing but sitting alone. Quiet.
Which just hammered in the final nail, in Jiraya's hot-headed opinion. It was unhealthy to be so antisocial. Orochimaru needed company and lots of it to counterbalance his lack of decent personality. Why, if only he went out with the rest of the team to get fresh takoyaki this weekend, then maybe he could actually remember how to talk and from there, who knew? Orochimaru might even figure out how to have a conversation longer than three sentences long.
Maybe that was overly ambitious, but you had to aim big if you wanted to have real results.
Orochimaru only required some prodding. It would be healthy for the doll-boy.
And Jiraya was just the person to do it.
When he found him, Orochimaru was crouched over by a set of rocks near to the stream Teacher Sarutobi called the Running Track from all the laps he made them do beside it, and Tsunade dubbed the Worst Place to Bathe. Jiraya liked the place because the mosquito count was high enough to attract wildlife, even if you had to apply pungent salves to keep them from feasting on you while you visited.
At first Jiraya thought that Orochimaru had fallen down, maybe twisted his ankle doing actual physical exertion, but then he saw that the other boy's clothes were as pristine as ever.
He wasted no time in declaring his existence aloud. "Hey! Hey, what're you doing?"
Orochimaru's face wrinkled in displeasure at the shout. "Looking," was all he replied, a short abbreviation of a better explanation that might have made sense if it was actually given. Something pale and bunched was trapped in his white fingers when the boy shifted his hand, trying to cup the contents protectively away from outside investigation.
Jiraya swaggered over, or as best he could without anything to swagger with. He made up for the lack of manly bulk by keeping his hands on his hips, elbows wide. Once he was properly looming over the other boy, Jiraya closed in his arms and squatted in a pounce. "What've you got?"
The scowl that was his reward went completely ignored; Orochimaru tried to continue the glower, but gave up when Jiraya didn't cave. "It's a snakeskin," the moon-faced boy explained, the summer rain-sound of his voice precise as if he was reciting for a test. "An almost complete one. See?" Now the boy stretched his prize out between his palms like the sheet of gauze, patient with unrolling the crinkles to keep the thing from cracking.
Jiraya thought it looked like the skim off a hot cup of milk. "Oh."
If Orochimaru noticed the lack of enthusiasm, he didn't seem to care. Instead he tilted the skin to set it upon one palm, stroking the surface of the scales with the undersides of his knuckles.
"I want to do this someday."
"What?" Jiraya shot a glance briefly up to the other boy's face, then back down to watch the horror of Orochimaru rubbing his fingers reverently over the withered cast-off.
So fascinated was the other boy that he answered automatically, his voice hushed as if in prayer. "I wish I knew how to do something like this," he repeated, continued. "Snakes can stay young forever just by casting off their skins when they get too dusty. Don't you think so?"
The question fit itself oddly in Jiraya's hearing, like a gamepiece refusing to slot into the proper niche. "Mmmmmmauah," the boy drawled at last, one hand on his chin while attempting to look studious. The sound stretched his mouth out, but gave him no answers. Failing, he responded with the first idea that came to mind.
"I don't like snakes." So proud, that announcement. "They crawl around on their stomachs everywhere. Just like a big worm." Sticking out his arm, Jiraya mimicked undulations, sleeve waving in the air like a banner-flag. "And they keep sticking their tongues out and flipping them around."
Orochimaru looked unimpressed.
"They're tasting the air when they do that."
"That's my point exactly," Jiraya affirmed. "Gross."
"Toads aren't any better. They live in swamps." Orochimaru shifted his weight on his ankles, leaning back and forth from either side of his hips. "They're all bumpy. And they make noise."
Jiraya puffed his chest out, stung. "They croak the songs of their love! Can't you hear the romance in it? The eternal quest to find a mate and to bond with that other, even if only for the bittersweet length of a summer! The music that each sends forth, glorious notes despite," he added sharply, eyeing the black-haired boy, "how some might despise their external appearance. That includes their warts."
The reward for his declaration was Orochimaru's slow, incredulous stare. "I'm supposed to appreciate... frog pornography?"
"Toad!" Jiraya was well and full affronted now, which was both a relief for having something coherent to argue over, and frustration that Orochimaru was such a dork. But the other boy was talking now, which was one promising hint for the future. Maybe now Jiraya could convince him to make jokes.
The moment slipped away before he could attend to it; Orochimaru refused to rise further to the bait and instead resumed his patient study of the shed scales.
It fell to Jiraya to repair the bridge in conversation. He did so with hesitation; trying to figure out the black-haired boy was an exercise in futility. "So... why do you want to be like a snake?"
"I want to keep being new." This, Orochimaru answered easily, as quick as a cued actor already waiting to spit out his entrance line. "If the snake doesn't find a way to win, it can just try starting over. It keeps doing that until it finds out what it wants to be." The words fought themselves to launch out of Orochimaru's mouth; exiting with a muted desperation, they flocked away on the breeze of passion suppressed. "Even when it gets older and people think it's just dry and dusty, it can just shake off its skin and become fresh. All colorful and new. And people like it again," the boy added, softly. "They remember that it's there."
Jiraya considered this, wrinkling up the side of his nose until his mouth twisted like a monkey-mask.
"I dunno, Orochimaru. Snakes are snakes. If you want something that looks cool all the time, have you thought about checking out toads? Or girls?" he added, unable to stop himself. "Girls are a good place to start."
"Great! I could set you up with what's-her-name, you know, with the double pigtails," Jiraya started, before he realized that Orochimaru wasn't paying any attention at all, had only answered a noncommittal nothingness.
This was annoying. "Hey, what do you have to worry about?" Jiraya scowled, shaking his hair for emphasis like a grand Kabuki player. He'd read the method in a book the other day and was delighted at a chance to use it. "Old Sarutobi likes you best anyway. Maybe he just has no taste, but he says good things about your talent." It hurt to admit, but Jiraya shoved his own resentment aside, as brave as a noble hero in the paperbacks smuggled out of Tsunade's room. "You don't have anything to worry about as long as you've got that."
When Orochimaru replied, it was so meek that Jiraya was glad he knew to be listening for it in advance.
"That's what I'm afraid of."
Jiraya blew air out his cheeks. "Good grades aren't something to be afraid of, you know. So... cheer up. Go do something. Come out to practice with me and Tsunade. Stop being creepy!" he continued, throwing his hands up in the air in complete exasperation. "No one's going to forget about you. We all know that. Okay?"
White fingers moved; Orochimaru folded the flattened skin carefully like the square of a bedsheet. A private, very terse amusement had curled the corners of his mouth as he stood, tucking away the snake's remains into the pocket of his sleeve and straightening his robes with a brush of his hand.
"Go ahead and keep singing in the swamps, Jiraya." Even the advice was bemused, voiced by the black-haired boy as he turned to walk away. "Not all snakes crawl belly-down."