Disclaimer: Naruto belongs to Masashi Kishimoto. Title and lyrics were taking from Kate Bush's "Song of Solomon."


Comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love.


The two boys were already dead, which didn't come as a surprise. Anko wasn't, which did. Slightly.

He'd applied the curse seal to all three of them during an unscheduled training session in the Forest of Death. After Rei and Tatsuya died, Orochimaru arranged the corpses so they appeared to have been killed by several giant centipedes. He also made sure that the curse seal was no longer traceable after death. Then he brought Anko back to his apartment, and slashed her left arm open before bandaging it. She had enough marks from the fight he'd put the three through beforehand that he felt that was sufficient.

She remained unconscious the whole time, though she made a pained noise when he touched the seal.

Then he sent a message to the Tower, saying that his team had apparently decided to train on their own in the Forest. Anko had just teleported to his apartment, mumbled something about centipedes and collapsed. He hadn't heard anything about the two boys—and he was worried, but he didn't think Anko was in any shape to be left alone.

Sarutobi sent a medicnin to his apartment with the message that Jiraiya and his students were looking for the boys. The medic rebandaged the worst of Anko's wounds, couldn't figure out why she had such a high fever, and completely missed the seal that was hidden by a genjutsu.

Jiraiya arrived at the apartment less than an hour later to give Orochimaru the bad news. He brought his favorite student with him, and for once the faint smile was gone from the boy's face.

Orochimaru let them in with concealed reluctance. He was not fond of the Uzumaki boy—Sarutobi had been showing too much attention to him lately.

He displayed a sufficient amount of emotion at the news that Jiraiya believed him, but not so much as to seem odd. He said he'd worried that that might be the case . . . they would learn more when Anko regained consciousness.

"You should have told them not to spar in there without adult supervision," Jiraiya said harshly, after he'd sent the boy out of the building. "Just because you held them to high standards doesn't mean they could live up to them, dammit! You can't demand what people don't have."

"Perhaps I did expect them to grow up too quickly," he agreed. "They were only shinobi, after all."

"Orochimaru. . . ."

He dismissed the man's anger with a small wave. "I don't have time to fight with you, Jiraiya. Anko-chan's fever hasn't broken yet."

Jiraiya's glare wavered, and he sat back in the chair. "How is she?"

"I think she'll live," Orochimaru replied.

He continued checking Anko's temperature as the afternoon passed. He made a note that the fever remained steady from hour to hour.

If the force of the seal was lowered, perhaps. . . . It would be less useful, but less stressful on the body as well.

Lesser seals for lesser talents. Orochimaru pushed Anko's hair away from her sweaty forehead and placed the damp cloth back over it. You will be my judging mark.

To his annoyance, her father showed up that evening and claimed he was going to take her home. He allowed the man just far enough into his apartment that he could see Anko lying on the bed, damp cloth still on her forehead and sweat stains on the blanket beneath her.

"I assume you heard about the trouble, Mitarashi-san," he said, stepping slightly in the way when the man tried to get closer. "As you can see, Anko-chan is in no condition to be moved. I've had a medical ninja look at her already, and when she wakes up, I'll take her to the hospital."

The man's expression was mixed with anger and hesitation. "I . . . see, Orochimaru-san, but I can't expect you to take that kind of trouble. . . . I could bring her to the hospital tonight."

"The medical ninja who checked her said that she should not be moved," Orochimaru informed him. "Mitarashi-san, I have already had the misfortune to lose two of my students today. I won't let the last one die as a result of foolish and unnecessary actions. Anko-chan will be cared for here."

The other man deflated. "Yes, Orochimaru-san. If you think it's best . . . thank you for your kind regard of my daughter."

"She is not 'your daughter' to me," Orochimaru told him. "She's 'my student.' Please keep that in mind."

Anko's fever rose between one and two that morning. Orochimaru frowned as he changed the cloth.

When he touched the seal again, she cried out sharply and curled on her side, but remained unconscious. Orochimaru made a note of the sensitivity as he picked up the cloth that had slipped to the floor.

He made coffee when the dawn broke, angry that he had to use the caffeine to keep himself awake. Eleven years of battles and missions, seven of them taking only A-class and above, were leaving their mark on his body. He'd been able to keep himself awake and alert for spans of forty-two hours when he'd been a genin . . . and now as a jounin he was relying on stimulants to stay up for twenty-six.

I'm getting old, he thought as he watched the sun rise.

An hour past dawn, there was an explosion of chakra from his bedroom. He looked up from the scroll he was reading.

Anko stumbled out of the doorway and stared at him.

She was beautiful.

The curse seal was painted along her skin. She had no idea how to control it, had no thought of even wanting to control it, and the rich purple accented her dark eyes and her half-mad grin.

"I want to fight," Anko said, and Orochimaru smiled.

Walking out of the apartment was not an option. He teleported the two of them to an area deep in the surrounding forest, nearly out of Konoha's borders and far beyond even the most talented people's ability to sense chakra. And they fought.

He pushed Anko far past her former limits, calculating how deeply she was using the curse seal and how much of an advantage it gave. He kept the fight going long after he was panting and weary himself, his lack of sleep compounding with his heavy use of chakra.

At last Anko's body had almost exhausted her stamina to supply chakra, and when she ignored the warning sensations it protectively collapsed on her again. Orochimaru called the snakes back and checked her pulse. Then he checked the time.

An hour and thirteen minutes . . . and twelve seconds, it seems. Is this the seal's limit, or just your own, Anko?

He picked her up and teleported back to the apartment.

It was impossible to determine the limits of the curse seal with only one test subject, but there was no one left in Konoha that he was interested in. The Uzumaki boy was a clear genius, but his personality wasn't appropriate; and there were always grumbling members of the Hyuuga branch family and the lesser houses of the Uchiha clan, but they rarely had the talent to justify their complaints.

Even Anko had failed to impress Orochimaru when she and her teammates were first assigned to him. When he'd asked what their goals were, hers had been to become an elite jounin, to be one of the rare female ANBU members, to "show up those cocky bastards from bloodline clans." Such small dreams. . . .

But perhaps now she would dream bigger. Or perhaps she would remain a waste of potential. Either way, she had been useful to him. There were a few things within the Leaf that were still worth looking at, it seemed.

But outside the village walls. . . . His work had caused him to see fascinating things outside the cramping forest of the Leaf, to see bloodline types that Konoha was too soft to take the measures to perfect.

The traveling he did during and between missions also caused him to meet people that were just waiting for someone to offer a hand for escaping and a promise of power. There had been the young Grassnin who used a scythe on a chain and wanted a way out of her arranged marriage and the shinobi-rank stagnation that it meant. He'd had to kill her because Jiraiya was closing in and it was the orders of their mission, but she had been ready to follow him. There was the Mistnin who wanted revenge for the rules that had demanded he fight and kill his brother in order to graduate, and there were several Sandnins who wanted to overthrow the Kazekage before he had a chance to begin a family and consolidate more power.

Orochimaru had memorized their faces and wishes, on the chance that there might be a place for them later.

Anko's breathing and heartbeat stabilized fairly quickly, so Orochimaru took an hour's nap before sending a message to Tsunade. He draped a towel over the blood-stained bandages on Anko's arm before the woman arrived. He didn't bother to conceal the curse seal.

Tsunade showed up bitching at him for not taking Anko to the hospital and for wasting her time, but she had barely kicked off her heels before heading to the bedroom.

". . . You said she woke up and then fell unconscious again?" Tsunade asked, her gaze avoiding the towel. "Was she able to move, or did she just open her eyes?"

"She was moving," Orochimaru replied. "We sparred for an hour."

Tsunade had leaned over to examine Anko, but she gave him an incredulous look over her shoulder. "You sparred with a girl that spent the night half-dead? What the hell's wrong with—what's this?"

When Tsunade touched the curse seal, Anko lashed out. Tsunade caught the reflexive kick and pushed her leg back against the bed. She stared at the wall until he tucked the towel more firmly around Anko's arm.

Tsunade ordered him to hold down Anko's arms, and she leaned a forearm heavily on the girl's legs. Her free hand was cupped over the curse seal as she tried to read it with chakra. Orochimaru watched her from his peripheral vision.

Only a few seconds passed before Tsunade's eyes widened. "You. . . ." She looked at Orochimaru. "What did you do?"

"I found a way to enhance a person's chakra. Anko-chan was devastated when she learned about her teammates' deaths, yelling at herself for being too weak to stay there and fight instead of agreeing with Rei-kun's order to get me . . . I felt it would be of use to her. She agreed."

Tsunade was standing now, facing him completely, her lips thinned in disbelieving anger. "You used her grief to . . . you bastard, why didn't you test it on yourself?"

"Because I don't need it," Orochimaru replied. "I have yet to let anyone important die on me."

Tsunade's hand clenched into a fist. "Don't you dare."

Anko had stopped thrashing once Tsunade ceased touching the seal, so he let go of her arms. "How is she?"

"She'll live," Tsunade spat out. "No thanks to you. Did you think of the consequences of this? Orochimaru!"

"'Consequences' is so negatively connotated," he replied, leaning back so that his arm was angled with the edge of the shelf over his bed. "'Advantages' is a more appropriate term. Anko-chan will be better off now than she was before."

"Damn it, Orochimaru, you abused your power as her teacher! If Sarutobi-sensei finds out—"

He stood up, gouging his arm on the corner of the shelf. Blood rapidly began to well along the scrape.

"Ah, damn," he said as he carefully removed a splinter. He squeezed the cut until there was enough blood on his fingers to drip to the floor. Then he looked at Tsunade.

The woman had backed against the wall, and was hunched in around her necklace. She was staring at his arm despite herself.

"There are certain things we don't talk about, isn't there, Tsunade-hime?" He smiled. "Thank you for telling me she'll live—I was a bit concerned. So," he lifted his arm slightly, and Tsunade shivered, "since you're useless in this way now, you can leave."

Tsunade managed to hiss a curse at him as she fled.

Orochimaru touched the seal again, waiting for the reflexive attack. Instead, Anko only shifted. He pressed harder against it, and she whimpered slightly before half-curling towards him.

Interesting, he decided.

Anko regained consciousness early that evening. She looked much paler without the glow of the curse seal coating her skin. But she still managed to grin at him as she said, "It worked."

He nodded briefly.

She looked around the room. "Where's Tatsuya and Rei?"

"They died," Orochimaru said.

When Anko's gaze snapped back to him, he added, "The three of you went sparring in the Forest of Death, and were attacked by several centipedes. Rei-kun sent you to get me, and after your part in the fight, using the chakra to teleport exhausted you. Later, when you woke up, you were so upset at the news of your teammates' death that you wanted to get stronger. You already know my offer. I realize this alibi is insulting to your skills, but accept it for the time being—it will pay off."

Anko was still staring at him with wide eyes. Orochimaru cupped her chin and tilted her head up slightly.

"They weren't strong enough," he said. "I don't want trouble, Anko-chan. You won't want questions. I trust you understand."

Anko's gaze wavered for just one more second. Then she closed her eyes and nodded sharply. "Yes, Orochimaru-sensei."

He let go and turned away. "Feel free to grieve for them," he told her as he walked out of the room. "It's the expected thing."

He washed his face at the kitchen sink. Then he rinsed out the coffee pot and returned to the bedroom.

Anko was still sitting on the bed, staring at the floor. One hand was curled over her shoulder.

"You'll need to start wearing something more substantial there," he told her. "For now. . . ." He opened a drawer and pulled out a jacket designed to go with a kimono. He draped it over her shoulders, taking care that the curse seal was covered.

"Come on," he said, stepping back. "It's time for you to go home. You parents seemed worried. Unless you think you need to visit the hospital?"

Anko pulled the jacket tighter around her. "I'm okay," she said. "I'm not weak."

Orochimaru made an approving noise. "As you've shown."

She looked up at him then, with a faltering smile.

Anko stood up and walked almost steadily out of the room. Orochimaru followed, closing the door behind him.

He made a note to wash the sweat-stained blanket before he slept that night.