Disclaimer: Naruto and its characters belong to Kishimoto Masashi.
Author's Notes: So sorry for the late (…very late, a year late…) update. I really am so very sorry! I know how it feels waiting forever for a story to update, and thank you all so much for the wonderful reviews! They are the main reasons why I haven't given up on this story.
Part of the lateness could be attributed to my laziness, another part could be blamed on Kishimoto-san. What's with all these new powerful ppl popping up in Sound? Just when I had everything planned out Sasuke went and did his thing, yet again(Argh). I'm debating whether I should incorporate the new events into the story or not, since doing so will make everything so much more complicated, but I imagine it would be something interesting (If Suigetsu have green eyes, I'm going to kill myself).
One last thing, some things will be confusing in this chapter, they are meant to be, they'll be clarified in later chapters. And I know I've made grammar errors or spelling mistakes or something, I always do. Need a very persistent and patient beta to read over stuff and poke me and help me with the names and bounce ideas off of and tell me if what I wrote is good just a warning though, my friend Gossec told me beta-ing for me was absolutely the most trying (she said "horrific") experience ever ("I'll never do it again!"), but it's only because I made it difficult for her on purpose… we love each other so.
JUNE 21, 2007 - Sorry for this chapter's pathetic length, but I swear to god this is the most horrendous chapter to write (and probably to read). God knows my own sanity would have snapped if I-... I'll come back to it when I hate this chapter a little bit less to write out that fight scene, as of right now… Next chapter will come faster, and it'll flow better than this, I swear. I just need to get rid of this chapter.
A thin ray of blue moonlight sliced through the dark of the room.
It illuminated, in its sharp unwavering path, the rich decadence of the stone chamber; the soft expensive carpet that was the color of blood, the silken armchair set beside a four-poster bed with its dark, thick drapes drawn aside. It glinted off the thousand little pieces of glass on the carpet, with something crimson clinging to their edges, and the broken frame of a mirror beside them. It lighted on the bandaged hand of a pale young man who reclined, weakened and drained, on the bed.
Could the moonlight illuminate the soul, the young man would not be a young man.
With his eyes closed, Jiraiya pondered, because there was something he had forgotten.
There was a special satisfaction to be found in watching a plan coming to fruition, Orochimaru smiled as he watched the servants placing Jiraiya's former body onto the elaborate stone table, a curious, singular feeling of contentment in knowing and watching the pieces fall together perfectly and flawlessly, as he had planned.
Jiraiya's body had already gone past rigor mortis, and fell onto the table with a boneless awkwardness, his left arm slipping off the table. The servants rearranged the body carefully into a more graceful pose, before taking their leave at their master's nod.
Two idle strides placed him at the side of the table, and Orochimaru studied the lifeless face of his former teammate thoughtfully, taking in the scars and wrinkles that adorned the other man's face.
Tracing those same weary lines with his eyes, Orochimaru wondered how Jiraiya, of all people, could stand looking into the mirror each day and watch time strip him of his former glory, one layer at a time. It had disgusted Orochimaru himself, when he had first seen the signs of old age overtaking their sensei. It revealed the cruel limitations mortality had placed upon humankind, to be trapped in a rotting dying body when the mind and soul are at the height of their forms.
The body of Nakae Tsuyoshi had not been a perfect fit, despite what he had told Jiraiya. He had not expected Konoha to send his former teammate for Tsunade, and was forced to push his plans forward prematurely, without having found the ideal sacrifice. The boy was lovely, but it was the sick, frail kind of beauty that did not at all suit Jiraiya's personality. The boy himself seemed like the antithesis of Jiraiya, sheltered, naïve, with a quiet, unassuming personality and an innocence that grit on the nerves.
The boy also had a rather troublesome bloodline limit that played an unpredictable element in his game. But more important than anything else, he had chosen the boy for the emotional impact it would play on Jiraiya. In that respect, the boy had served his purpose despite all his other shortcomings.
Next time, Orochimaru would have much more time to find a more suitable choice for Jiraiya.
Running a slender finger down the crimson stripes of his former teammate's face, Orochimaru decided that a false skin, like the one he himself was wearing, would do for now. Maybe he would make one that would resemble Jiraiya's younger self, unblemished by the scars of time. The striking green eyes could be hidden by henge, though one of his newer creations could remedy the problem just as easily. Jiraiya would not protest, given the number of mirrors he had smashed already in the past two days just to avoid seeing his new face.
The Toad Sennin's body was cold to the touch, and paler than the silver of the moon, it reminded Orochimaru of an old mission long ago, ancient history, when Jiraiya had his first brush with death. For a second he could almost see the phantom blood that surrounded his teammate. All your training and experience and life, Jiraiya, his finger strayed to Jiraiya's throat and felt for a pulse that was not there, mirroring his actions all those years ago, would all have been for nothing if you had died.
The sudden swirl of chakra beside him hailed Kabuto's arrival. Orochimaru turned and smiled, a sardonic curl of lips, as he took in the way his faithful subordinate blended with the soft light of the room. He had considered briefly using Kabuto for the exchange, but had discarded the idea just as quickly. The man, despite all his troublesome qualities, was a useful piece on his chessboard.
"Everything is prepared, Orochimaru-sama, Tsunade-hime is being escorted here by the Sound Four as we speak."
"Ah," Tsunade's actions had taken him by some surprise. To tell the truth he had not expected her to agree to heal his arms, much less deliver Jiraiya to him. In a sense she had already, unknowingly, delivered a crushing blow to their old village.
Jiraiya, until now, had been the last Sannin to maintain a strong allegiance with Konoha. His elaborate network of spies and shady contacts all over the world had provided the crucial information that had protected Konohagakure for decades and allowed it to flourish, information that would do the same for Oto. Having served Konoha all his life, Jiraiya was deeply entrenched in its politics and dealings, and familiar with all the secrets the village held. His disappearance would without a doubt hit Konoha hard, especially right after the death of its beloved Sandaime.
Tsunade could be an invaluable ally, she was the one who had first shown him the potential of using medic jutsu in his human experimentation, but Tsunade had proven to be yet another unpredictable element. He was unsure of her motivation, her determination, and above all, her loyalties. There were two paths laid out before her, and no way for him to determine which one she will choose.
Orochimaru drummed his fingers lightly on Jiraiya's shoulder, considering the changes in his plan. Once again time was of the essence, and a decision needed to be made"And what of our other guests?"
Kabuto's smirk showed his understanding. "Naruto-kun and the medic-nin are currently resting in the holding chambers."
"Good." Orochimaru stilled the drumming of his fingers. One last test of loyalties, then perhaps.
"Have them brought here."
Grandfather, sensei, I'm sorry.
Tsunade stood in front of a door, and could not bring herself to push it open. Her hand was trembling as it rested upon the ornate stone carvings of the door, feeling its unyielding coldness beneath her fingertips.
The four children around her shifted, Tsunade could feel their impatience. How childish she thought snidely but couldn't bring herself to feel anything but envy for them, envy and pity.
Have I made the right decision?
But ah she was not going anywhere near that question, that question would bring her nothing but doubts. To turn back now, after all she had done, would be a fruitless endeavor. To turn back now would be admitting that she had made a mistake. To turn back now meant turning her back to the only chance of seeing her loved ones again. So Tsunade pushed open the door and walked in.
The first thing her eyes fell upon was Orochimaru, standing in the center of the chamber. The sight of his arms brought a bitter taste to her mouth and reminded her of her sin; a student undoing what her sensei had died to accomplish. The four children walked into the chamber behind her and spread to the four corners of the room. There was another ornate door on the other side of the room, but Orochimaru's servant, Kabuto, was leaning carelessly against the wall by the door, sharp eyes watching her every move, his lips curled in a cold smile that did not reach his eyes when their eyes met. Disgusted, she turned her eyes away and froze when she saw the limp form of Jiraiya. Memories hitting her involuntarily.
"What happened?" Tsunade landed awkwardly before her teammate, sinking nearly two inches into the snow before she caught herself and employed her chakra. The various bruises and cuts all over her body protested painfully as she straightened to stand up. Her eyes fastened instantly on Orochimaru's left arm; it was bleeding through a makeshift bandage. He was paler than usual, and was shaking slightly from the biting cold. "Where's your cloak?"
"We were ambushed."
Tsunade snorted at his vague response as she moved nearer to assess the damage. "Tch, doesn't explain your cloak. Where's Jiraiya?" She moved a hand toward the arm to remove the wrappings but Orochimaru stepped back, and inclined his head pointedly to somewhere behind Tsunade.
She spared Orochimaru another hard look, but he just watched her with that unreadable expression on his face. Tsunade turned around, wondering why Orochimaru was wasting time in a situation as dangerous as this; the Snow nins were still scouring the area, looking for them.
She scanned the area briefly and saw nothing but a blanket of white in the small forest. Her mind was already flowing fluidly onto other matters, Orochimaru had said that they were ambushed, perhaps he and Jiraiya separated.
Just when she was about to turn away she spied a flash of black peeking through the thick layer of snow. And then she noticed how that part of the snow was higher than its surrounding.
Tsunade stood frozen for a second, feeling dread and fear gathering and clouding her mind, before running forward. She skid to her knees right beside the lump and tried to brush away the white snow to get to-
Her hands came away crimson, the snow was saturated with blood beneath its untouched surface of white. Tsunade's horrified eyes followed the red and saw that she herself was kneeling in snow mixed with scarlet.
She could hear herself breathing then, in long drawn-out gasps of disbelief that sounded particularly loud in the silence of the forest. Crying and trying to see through the tears as she pushed the snow off Orochimaru's cloak, its fur dyed in red. Just beneath she could see long white strands of the telltale spiky hair.
Orochimaru smiled at her, a mockingly benevolent smile, and his golden eyes told her that he knew exactly what she was remembering.
"He was ambushed."
Tsunade stiffened in her hatred for the man, in her loathing and in her guilt. Then she hesitated, the last time she had seen Jiraiya was at the food stand, slumped over the table, the drug she had slipped into his sake spreading quickly through his body.
She had half-expected him to show up at the meeting between her and Orochimaru, but he never did.
The drug would have immobilized him, but that was almost a week ago, even though it had felt like decades, as she languished in the chamber assigned to her, consoling herself with thoughts of Dan and Nawaki.
The drug should have worn off a long time ago.
Her footsteps echoed throughout the stone chamber as she approached the table, alarm building up at the pit of her stomach with each step forward. Orochimaru moved out of the way obligingly, the smile still playing at the corner of his lips as he noticed her dread at seeing their old teammate so still.
Jiraiya was stretched out on the table, his hands crossed on his stomach in a pose that looked utterly unnatural on him. A shaking hand reached for Jiraiya's wrist, and she gasped when the hand fell lifelessly down to his side, then hissed when she touched him, too cold.
She had seen death before. So she knew it before she even felt for his pulse that she wouldn't feel any, but she did it anyways. She knew before she moved forward toward his neck that she would not feel a pulse there either. The knowledge was there, but it didn't stop her from channeling all the chakra into her hand and placing it over his heart.
And even as she tried to call life back into that lifeless body, she was speaking calmly to Orochimaru. "You killed him."
Orochimaru's smile widened. "Not without help."
Tsunade's hands stilled as she drew in a long shuddering breath, and moved to grip the stone edge of the table in an attempt to hold herself steady.
A drop of moisture fell onto her hand, and Tsunade realized that she was crying. Her oldest friend, she had helped murder her oldest friend for two loved ones who would be disgusted by what she had done.
"To have been this blind…"
Orochimaru was watching her, measuring her reaction carefully and not without some amusement. Tsunade could see it on his face, knew him well enough to recognize it for what it was, Orochimaru had been waiting for something in her expression, and had not been disappointed.
Tsunade's lips curled in her loathing for this man, this man who threatened her grandfather's village, who killed her sensei, who took advantage of her love for her brother and lover to kill her friend. The stone cracked and crumbled in her grip.
Orochimaru's amused smile never faded from his face as he gestured around him carelessly. "Shall we continue then?"
Tsunade paled when she took in their surroundings more carefully and spied the two bloody circles of kanji on the floor, at either side of the stone table. Then she saw the bigger seal drawn over the table Jiraiya lay on, spreading over the cracked stone like a spider's web to run to the floor into a bigger design that circled the whole table.
An intricate circle of kanji was drawn in blood on Jiraiya's forehead.
Tsunade shivered where she knelt by her teammate's body, and reached forward to touch the carefully drawn seal, only to have her arm wrenched back brutally.
Orochimaru's eyes were hard when she turned around to stare at him. "Do not touch him."
She flinched when the other door slammed open and two struggling figures were dragged into the room.
Shizune and Naruto, the sacrifices.
Naruto was a simple individual. Not to say that he was stupid, he was not, au contraire he was quite astute most of the time. He was only simple in that he was frank and straightforward. He did not try to act, he did not try to adapt, he protected those who were dear to him and he did not back down on his morals. One of his unofficial mottos had always being to not to worry about the future.
But the future right now looked especially bleak.
It was the demon in him that realized Ero-sennin was dead. It noticed the awkward posture, the impossible paleness, and the unnatural stillness of the body on the table and concluded that there was no longer any life in that form.
The only man who had saw the potential in him and bothered to cultivate it, dead. The one responsible for it was standing right there, the snake bastard, with his superior smirk and dammit but weren't they all teammates? How could he kill his friend? The seal, already destabilized, weakened even further.
Naruto was only dimly aware of the pain, of how the strange red chakra was caressing him and burning him at the same time. A red haze was taking over his mind, and his hands came together involuntarily to form the seals for his favorite technique.
Hindsight being what it was, Orochimaru grimaced as he felt the outermost layer of his skin tear, this was probably not the best idea.
The sheer youki rolling off the demon brat in waves was almost paralyzing, the boy moved as if he could not feel the pain, his movements fluid and lethal as he attacked. Orochimaru could now see a fraction of the vast potential that Jiraiya must have seen in the boy.
The demon's chakra encased the boy and gave him rather animalistic qualities. It served as a buffer against attacks and lessened the damage but Orochimaru could also see how the volatile red chakra was eating away at the boy. The demon's gift through the seal was really a double-edged sword.
It also aroused his interest, how would the boy fare against one of his own, one marked by the cursed seal in a one-on-one match? How strong would the boy become if he allowed Jiraiya to continue to train him?
It was a tantalizing thought, but Orochimaru decided against it, the boy would remind Jiraiya too much of the past and what was taken from him when Orochimaru needed the other Sannin to look forward.
Orochimaru dodged Tsunade's punch narrowly and it landed on the wall behind him. The barrier the Sound Four erected to keep the stone chamber from collapsing flickered but held.
"Seneijashu." Ruthlessly Orochimaru gripped his former teammate's wrist and allowed his snakes to climb out of his sleeve to twine around the other Sannin and immobilize her. Tsunade's eyes widened in pain as one shadow snake sank its fangs deep into the junction of her throat and shoulder and tore.
Tsunade snarled her displeasure and raised her other fist. Orochimaru smirked in triumph and opened his mouth, a straight, double-edged blade shot out and stabbed deep into Tsunade's shoulder, Orochimaru dragged the sword upward, slicing through sinews and bones, it would have pierced her heart if she had not moved in time.
Tsunade's lips tightened in a grimace and she grasped the snakes with her other hand, using them to pull Orochimaru forward and then slam him in the wall. The barrier flickered once again.
Orochimaru could see the demon brat approaching fast from the corner of his eyes, the boy's claws were extended and bloody, he was running on all fours, like an animal. The Snake Sannin gripped the sword with his free hand and leaned forward, using his snakes to drag Tsunade flush against him.
Tsunade growled in disgust as he whispered maliciously into her ear. "I gave you three chances exactly, Tsunade-hime, to see the ones you loved again."
Even more snakes shot out of his sleeve to wrap around the other Sannin, and in the next moment Orochimaru had used Tsunade as a battering ram and would have slammed both her and the brat into the wall had the brat not jumped out of the way at last minute. The brat was crouched on the wall, wary eyes watching him like a predator watching its prey, Orochimaru caught the barest concentration of chakra before the brat was propelling forward at high speed toward him. Behind him Tsunade had straightened herself.
As fun as this was, it was time to end things. The Snake Sannin dodged the wild attack and leaped back into the center of the room, beside Jiraiya's body. Kabuto caught his signal and abandoned his games with the young medic-nin, two well-placed hits and he left her in a paralyzed heap on the floor.
Leaning back to place a hand on the seal that ran over the table, Orochimaru caught Tsunade's defiant eyes and smirked. Channeling his chakra, Orochimaru activated the seal.
In the next moment Tsunade's eyes widened in horror as an unnatural flame surrounded Jiraiya's body. Orochimaru's own eyes flickered away to focus on the lifeless body. He could feel a vague satisfaction coiling together with a strange unease inside of him at the gruesome sight, with this, Jiraiya was officially his. There was no way for the Toad Sannin to return to his old body and old life any longer.
Yet what is this feeling?
Orochimaru disregarded the thought for later and hissed a command. The Sound Four understood and released the barrier.
In the next moment the chamber was collapsing down upon itself, along with the rest of the base. Orochimaru disappeared for his other base.
Snow was falling all around him, cold, icy, chilling his body, melting and running together with the blood that was pouring out of him.
There were faint cries all around him, incessant and disembodied, making him clench his teeth in agony. Part of him realized that the inhuman screams were probably only in his mind, but the primal part of him wanted to scream along.
Someone was touching his forehead, warming the cold skin. He could feel liquid, the finger was drawing something on his forehead.
The ghostly shrieks around him were building up to a crescendo that seemed to last forever, even as the strange darkness overtook him they echoed in his mind like a twisted play that will never end.