Disclaimer: All characters and other thingies within belong to their respective creators.
Notes: Orochimaru is not 'good', and not 'evil'. He's simply an extremely amoral, extremely intelligent human being who could really give less than a flying fuck about anyone he doesn't care about. He is a considerably flawed individual, and it shows in the differences he exhibits when dealing with those he considers close when compared to, say, Anko. No, he doesn't consider her as very important to him (or precious, as Naruto would say).
Orochimaru in a nutshell: sociopathic, admittedly cruel and completely bereft of morals? Yes. Evil? No.
On a side note, Orochimaru and Jiraiya are not Sasuke and Naruto, 'only older'. While they may have some similar qualities, the sannin are their own people, and I hope you'll keep that in mind as you read. :P
"Now what?" Orochimaru asked himself, looking up at the late morning sky. His attempts to recreate Minato's new jutsu had turned out to be frustrating; it seemed that the blond ninja hadn't been joking when he said it had taken him three years to master it. Summoning the chakra and reversing its flow had been easy. Maintaining the control needed to both sustain the chakra core and force energy to revolve around it at the same time, however, had proved harder. The sting of seeing Minato's smug grin had been only slightly soothed at the sight of Jiraiya's similarly unsuccessful attempts.
"It'll take at least a few months to master it even knowing the theory behind it," Minato had said, making no attempt to hide his amusement. It wasn't every day he got to see his two 'legendary' teachers fail miserably at something he himself had already mastered. The Hiraishin no Jutsu, his best and potentially deadliest ninjutsu, was one of the few things that eluded both sennin to this day. His 'Rasengan', while not quite on that level, was certainly proving to be quite difficult.
An abrupt growl from his stomach broke Orochimaru out of his reminiscing and reminded him that his breakfast had consisted entirely of a dry, tasteless bar of field rations that he'd eaten on his way to Training Field 8. The wafers - lovingly referred to as 'shitsticks' by the ANBU - provided a quick boost of energy that served to banish sleep and fatigue much like the stronger soldier pills, but suffered from none of the side effects, aside from a lingering sense of hunger.
He was just about to hop down from his rooftop perch when he saw a familiar figure walking down towards Training Field 2. Sarutobi was hard to miss; the ANBU bodyguards who constantly ghosted him made him stand out like a beacon. Of course, any normal ninja - even highly trained jounin - would have been hard pressed to notice just one of the elite ANBU, but Orochimaru was far from normal. A thought formed in his mind and he turned it over for a while, finally heaving a sigh and shaking his head. He could pretend that Sarutobi didn't exist, and the Hokage could do the same, but sooner or later things would come to a head. It was only a matter of time.
This way, at least, he thought, dropping down to the ground, I'll be going on my terms.
Sarutobi showed no sign of surprise when Orochimaru fell into step beside him, though he'd been alone just moments before.
"Lovely morning, Hokage-sama," the snake sennin said, his voice deliberately casual. "Not a cloud in the sky."
"Indeed," Sarutobi replied. He too kept his tone level. The ANBU stayed where they were - they hadn't been informed that Orochimaru had nearly gone rogue, and before their falling-out, the Hokage and the snake sennin had often had such abrupt talks.
After a moment, Orochimaru said, "It doesn't look like it'll rain today, does it?"
We need to talk, sensei, his hands said, subtly and at an angle where none of the ANBU could see. Sarutobi shook his head, squinting at the late morning sun while one hand at his side worked out an answer.
"No, I don't suppose it will. The breeze is certainly refreshing, though." About what?
Orochimaru suppressed the urge to roll his eyes at the old man's deliberate obstinacy, instead smiling amicably. "It's the perfect kind of day for a stroll outside Konoha, wouldn't you say?" About me, you insufferable old man.
"Perhaps training can wait," Sarutobi said, making a brief gesture. Orochimaru caught multiple flashes of movement as the Hokage's bodyguards left, leaving the two ninja alone. When they were alone, the Hokage turned to his former student and sighed, resisting the sudden urge to massage his temples. He hadn't been looking forward to this at all. "Well?"
"I'll tell you when we're outside of Konoha's borders, away from prying eyes and ears," Orochimaru said briefly under his breath, quickening their pace.
They continued wordlessly past the borders of the village, crossing through the huge double gates that served to mark Konoha's boundaries. Sarutobi tipped a nod to the pair of ninja guarding the south gate, a small smile creasing his wrinkled face as they snapped to attention, doing their best to project an image of competence and efficiency. Soon they were walking in the sparse forest south of Konoha. They continued for a while, both acutely aware of the near-tangible silence hanging between them, before Sarutobi spoke.
"Yes?" the snake sennin replied, keeping his facade of calm. There was no mistaking the tone of Sarutobi's voice; Orochimaru could nearly see the disapproval lurking within his former mentor. He knew that if Sarutobi had wanted to kill him, he would have done so days ago, but nonetheless he kept himself tensed and alert.
Silence blanketed them again as they strode through the trees. At length, Sarutobi spoke, deliberately directing his gaze elsewhere.
"Do you regret them? The experiments. The lives you took."
"Yes," Orochimaru replied truthfully. He too refrained from meeting Sarutobi's eyes, choosing instead to gaze at the ground. "I do regret it. If I'd attained permission to test my theories on captured enemies, then I would never have had to worry about getting caught, as it were. The need for secrecy kept me from-"
"Not that," Sarutobi interrupted, a hint of anger seeping into his voice at his one-time student's callous reply. "I mean the families you destroyed, Orochimaru. The bonds you tore asunder."
Oh. Them. Orochimaru would have sighed at Sarutobi's dramatic flair, but since doing so would probably have sent the already incensed man over the edge he wisely refrained. He stopped to consider the question before replying honestly; he owed his former teacher that much at least. "No. I could care less. They meant nothing to me, and they would never have done anything meaningful in their lives anyway.
"Before you get started on how they were living, breathing human beings, I wish to point out that our enemies are also human beings, with their own dreams and hopes and families. While what I admit that what I did was against the law, as a ninja I feel no regret over taking the lives of others." Orochimaru smiled thinly. "If you wish to talk about laws, I'm open. Morals, on the other hand, are not my field of expertise."
Sarutobi just sighed, closing his eyes. The conversation was heading into territory that the two ninja had covered many times before; he already knew how it would end. Namely, with both men unable to come to an agreement. "I won't comment on that-"
"Because you already know what will be said," Orochimaru finished, his smile fading a little. "We could argue for days over this, Sarutobi-sensei. I know it because we've done it before." The Hokage noted the -sensei honorific and nodded slowly. "For better or worse, though, it appears that we'll simply have to tolerate each other, since Minato-kun seems hell bent on keeping me here."
Sarutobi would have replied, if the ground beneath him hadn't suddenly exploded, impaling him in a circle of jagged stone. His eyes widened in shock and blood started to seep from his mouth... before he disappeared in a cloud of smoke that disappated to reveal a log wearing the Hokage's robes of office, skewered with shards of rock.
Orochimaru was off the moment 'Sarutobi' died, darting into the trees to his left just as another burst of razor-sharp stone erupted where he'd been standing. He let chakra flood his system in a brief deluge of energy, providing him with a short burst of power that would keep his body working at its full potential until his body's natural supply of adrenaline took over. It was a technique many of the higher ranked ninja preferred to use in lieu of a warm-up even when training, effectively letting the trainee simulate an ambush - a very real possibility when on a mission involving hostile ninja. Orochimaru allowed himself a grim smile - this was no simulation.
The snake sennin seemed to materialize like smoke behind one of the enemy ninja, quickly slitting his throat with a kunai and melding into the shadows again before the body had even hit the ground. He spared a quick glance at the dead ninja's hitai-ate, noting the symbol of two boulders, one larger than the other.
A patch of undergrowth next to him changed, revealing itself as Sarutobi under a simple, but effective henge. In a fight against an unknown number of assailants, the basics were often more important than flashy, high-level jutsu, simply because said flashy jutsu took far too much chakra to use and then have enough left in case of an emergency. Especially when the basics got the job done with a minimum expenditure of effort. The Hokage was in a black bodysuit with faded silver armor plating, having shed his bright robes when he performed his kawarimi.
"We'll continue this discussion later," Sarutobi growled, his voice low enough to be inaudible by anyone more than a foot away. "Two in the trees. Three in the ground." Just what six Iwa ninja were doing so close to Konoha was a question that would have to be answered later, after the threat had been neutralized.
Both ninja seemed to fade into the sparse undergrowth, doing nothing to reveal their positions. They were skilled, that was true. What they weren't was invincible, and all the skill, all the knowledge and experience in the world wouldn't save them if a single kunai or jutsu found its mark. Full frontal assault had its uses; it was glorious, demoralizing to the enemy and made a hell of a better story to tell one's grandkids than "I snuck up in the dead of night and slit their throats while they were sleeping." But it had a way of getting one killed from time to time.
One Iwa already lay dead in the undergrowth, which left the odds at slightly less than three to one. Now that he knew the exact number of attackers, Orochimaru could use jutsu as needed. Leaving Sarutobi to fight in the trees, Orochimaru took a huge breath, formed a single seal and sunk seamlessly into the ground, letting the solid earth flow around him like water.
Ninja of the Stone tended to favor moving through dirt and rock, believing correctly that most other shinobi would be more subsceptible to attacks from beneath their feet. Over time it had become a distinctly "Iwa" tactic, along with the more advanced Doton ninjutsu which allowed brief physical combat and even usage of other jutsu while underground. In fact, the idea of "Iwagakure earthwalking" had become so entrenched in the Elemental Countries that even the Stone ninja themselves had become used to the idea that the field of subterranean battle was theirs alone.
Orochimaru grinned; it was so easy to kill people who so deeply believed in their own superiority.
A quick series of four seals twisted his chakra in his body, pushing it out and keeping the earth around him from smothering him without the need for concentration. Free to channel his energy elsewhere, the snake sennin delved deep into his mind and withdrew a jutsu that had long since fallen into antiquity.
Used normally, Tenchi Koutai no Jutsu was impractical and draining at best. All the genjutsu did was swap the target's sense of up and down. However, maintaining such an illusion when the mere sight of the open sky could bring the target back to reality required enormous amounts of chakra that, at best, would only serve to slightly disorient a ninja. Even without breaking the illusion, a skilled shinobi could ignore his or her body's signals and continue to fight - albeit at suboptimal capacity - while the user was busy channeling chakra to maintain the jutsu. These fallacies, coupled with the gradual dominance of Iwa in subterranean fighting - one of the few situations where the jutsu could conceivably be used without consuming monstrous amounts of chakra - had served to drive it into obscurity.
Contrary to what his peers thought, Orochimaru did possess a sense of humor. It lent itself mostly to cases of black irony, like Iwa ninja losing their way and perishing underground. He expended a fair amount of chakra to blanket the area around him with the genjutsu, instead of focusing it upon a single target. Once the illusion was firmly in place, he stopped actively maintaining the flow of chakra and followed it with another subtle genjutsu that would keep the ninja from noticing that they should have broken the surface by then. The double-layered genjutsu would add to the believability of the fake reality; they'd burrow until they ran out of chakra and suffocated.
He rose out of the ground to see an unharmed Sarutobi kneeling over two unconscious Iwa jounin, using a razor-sharp kunai to methodically sever their tendons without excessive blood loss. It took more time than using chakra scalpels, but it was far more permanent and often served as an effective demoralizer to captured ninja. The Hokage didn't look up as Orochimaru walked over, busy making sure that the Stone shinobi would never walk - or, for that matter, do anything but breathe under their own power - again. "I take it you dispatched of your attackers?" he asked mildly.
Orochimaru smirked. "You could say they got a little... lost."
"Genjutsu," the Hokage said after a moment, nodding slightly. "Are you sure they've been taken care of?"
"It'd take an Uchiha's sharingan to break a double-layered genjutsu that quickly while earthwalking," Orochimaru replied, shaking his head. "They haven't popped up yet, so unless they possess inhuman lung capacity they're well on their way to suffocation." Earthwalking - it couldn't be called tunneling, as the jutsu left behind no tunnel to speak of - did little to provide the user with air, which was why most users preferred to stay close to the surface where they could rise immediately in the case of an emergency.
"I see you've spared yours," Orochimaru observed, his voice indicating disapproval. He himself preferred to finish his opponents off when he could; it made for less potential enemies in the long run.
Sarutobi gave a small tsk. "I would have thought you'd know better, Orochimaru," he said, shaking his head. "This hunter-killer squad was sent to assassinate me specifically, seeing as how they attacked despite seeing my robes of office. The fact that they remained undetected despite infiltrating so close to Konoha is also cause for worry. Something is amiss, and one cannot interrogate dead ninja."
"They failed spectacularly in killing you, Sarutobi-sensei," Orochimaru noted, though they both knew that it was probably the snake sennin's presence that had made it into such an easy victory. Still, something was amiss; normally the presence of an S-ranked ninja like himself would have been cause enough to call off or delay such a potentially dangerous and important strike.
Sarutobi finished his work and stood up, seeming to relax slightly as the chakra that had been flooding his body, forcing it to work at levels that belied his age, was reabsorbed into his inner coils. He nodded at the two crippled ninja, who were still unconscious and showed no sign of waking up in the near future.
Orochimaru raised an eyebrow. "Surely you don't expect me to carry both of them back to the village."
The Hokage only grinned, his voice gaining a slight edge as he replied. "Surely you wouldn't burden an old man like me with carrying such exceedingly burly, heavy ninja."
"The old man who could throw both of these exceedingly burly, heavy ninja all the way back to Konoha if he wanted to," Orochimaru replied, though his voice held no real venom. He stooped and grabbed the Iwa ninja by the back of their vests, dragging them along on the path back to Konohagakure as Sarutobi followed behind.
"I take it this means you're paying for lunch," he said over his shoulder, stifling a laugh at Sarutobi's appalled expression.
Needless to say, the illustrious members of Konoha's ANBU Torture and Interrogation Squad were most surprised when Orochimaru entered the office, dragging behind him two unconscious and heavily beaten Iwa ninja, followed by the Hokage himself. The jounin was completely unharmed, as was Sarutobi, though his robes of office looked like they'd been used for target practice by a disgruntled weapons master. Before anybody could do more than snap to attention and try to look busy, Orochimaru dumped both enemy ninja onto a nearby desk, turned neatly around, and moseyed out, amicably talking to the Sandaime about a pleasant lunch at the Silent Leaf.
Stunned silence reigned as they looked at each other, unsure of what to think. At length, one of the younger ANBU let out a huge sigh, scratching idly at his short, spiky ponytail. "It's Tuesday, isn't it?" he asked, not even bothering to look at the calendar. Without waiting for a reply he slowly forced himself to his feet, grabbed the Iwa ninja by their vests and began dragging them away.
Hauling his charges into a room and closing the door behind him, he propped them up on a pair of chairs, taking care not to aggravate any injuries any more than could be helped. There'd be time enough for that later, during the interrogation. After all, they must possess some vital knowledge if the both Orochimaru and the Hokage himself had seen fit to bring them in. Though it looked as though they'd been thoroughly crippled, he started the arduous process of checking both men for poisoned tooth fillings, suicide pills, and other various ways of killing oneself, just to make sure.
"Troublesome," he muttered, prying the first ninja's mouth open and sticking his fingers in.
Half an hour later found Orochimaru and Sarutobi walking into the Silent Leaf, perhaps the only food establishment in Konoha that catered exclusively to shinobi. It showed in the interior decorating; instead of tables, the inside was divided completely into a multitude of small rooms padded heavily with sound-dampening material, though the walls were thin enough to be broken easily in the event of an attack. The building was bereft of any windows, instead lit completely with dim artificial lights. Each room was completely bare except for a simple wooden table and a stack of tatami in the corner, making it nearly impossible to plant any kind of listening device or camera.
In short, the restaurant sacrificed comfort for complete privacy. The odds of an assassination attempt within a hidden village were close to none, even in wartime, but spies were far more commonplace. The prices were exorbitant considering the utter absence of any creature comforts, but when Konoha shinobi wanted to discuss matters which their enemies would cheerfully kill to hear, the Silent Leaf provided an absolute confidentiality that was surpassed by only two locations in all of Konoha.
And, unfortunately, neither the Hokage's office nor the ANBU headquarters served decent kabayaki.
Sarutobi sighed as he sat down, setting his hat down on the floor next to him. "Tell me again why I'm paying?"
"Because you forced me to perform the menial task of dragging two unconscious, heavy men all the way to Konoha, and also because you get paid far more than I do," Orochimaru replied, sliding into a sitting position opposite of the Hokage. He paused as a discreet knock sounded outside, and a moment later a woman entered with a small tray holding two cups and a softly steaming kettle. She bowed wordlessly before setting the tray on the table and exiting, closing the door behind her.
Orochimaru poured the tea, passing one cup to Sarutobi and taking one himself. "I believe we were having an argument on the subject of ethics and morality, Hokage-sama?" He took a small sip before continuing. "Though I doubt either of us wishes to continue."
"I don't," Sarutobi said, grimacing. "I'd prefer to talk about topics that will actually get us somewhere. Like the conditions of your stay in my village."
Orochimaru kept his silence, letting the quiet speak for him.
Sarutobi's tone shifted, becoming more businesslike. Even as a jounin teaching his first team, he'd had no patience for dancing around issues, and old age had not tempered that bluntness in the least. "You realize I can't give you access to my library immediately."
"That's not what Minato-kun led me to believe."
"Minato-kun," Sarutobi replied evenly, "was operating completely outside the bounds of his authority. The only reason I haven't had him exiled along with you for his foolishly impetuous gamble is because the gods smiled on him, and his position happened to have some amount of merit."
Orochimaru nodded; he'd expected as much. His words had been a simple probe for more information. "Fair enough. When may I expect that part of the deal to be upheld?"
The Hokage looked reluctant. "You will have to undertake a number of missions first, including at least one S-rank or several A-rank, to prove your loyalty to Konoha." It was obvious from the way he said it that Sarutobi didn't feel it was quite enough. "When you are granted access, your ANBU escorts will be briefed on the... situation. They will, of course, be sworn to secrecy."
More people coming into knowledge of events that Orochimaru would rather have kept a secret. He kept the frown from showing on his face, instead choosing a thin smile.
The food arrived soon enough and they began to eat. The possibility of poisoned food was always there, no matter how slim, but the Silent Leaf prided itself on its security. The staff consisted entirely of retired shinobi, and every ingredient was carefully checked out before being cooked.
Orochimaru paused, setting his chopsticks down for a moment. "About my studies..." He trailed off deliberately, letting Sarutobi speak first.
"Your studies may continue," Sarutobi said slowly, the disapproval clear in his voice. "Naturally, your subjects will be restricted to the prisoners of war who are deemed to hold no value as ransom or as hostages. I'll also be expecting regular reports on your research at least four times a year. Is that acceptable?" The tone of his voice suggested that Sarutobi didn't really care much at all whether Orochimaru found it to be acceptable or not.
Orochimaru squelched the ire that had begun to simmer inside him. "Of course," he managed to say, forcefully reminding himself that Sarutobi's demands were well within the bounds of reason. At least he didn't want someone watching over me...
"Speaking of my work," Orochimaru said casually, projecting an air of only slight interest. "You had everything in my old laboratory disposed of, didn't you?"
To a casual observer, the Hokage's nod would have looked natural. Orochimaru, however, had had decades to study the man. The snake sennin easily detected the minute widening of the eyes and slight intake of breath that were the only signs of Sarutobi's surprise. He knows something.
"Did anything catch your interest, perchance?"
"No," Sarutobi replied, just an instant too quickly - as if he'd been expecting the question. Orochimaru's eyes narrowed for a moment before he inclined his head and slowly guided the conversation back to safer waters.
"Pity. I'd been hoping some records would have been left over, at least," he said, then waited a few seconds before speaking again. "You said earlier that my test subjects would be restricted to enemy prisoners. May I have the Iwa jounin who attacked today?" In reality, Orochimaru could care less about two crippled ninja, but he made a show of seeming interested.
"If they break without dying," Sarutobi said, glad to get off the topic of Orochimaru's old experiments. "Although the chances of that are low, at best. They most likely knew that they were on a suicide mission."
A few minutes of silence passed as both ninja finished their meals, interspersed by small pockets of small talk. Having eaten his fill first, Orochimaru sat back, setting his chopsticks down. He stayed seated until Sarutobi spoke. "Orochimaru..." The Hokage seemed on the verge of saying something before apparently deciding against it as he sighed, standing up. "Never mind."
Orochimaru blinked. He hated that.
A week later, Orochimaru found himself in a slight quandary. Since the failed assassination attempt, Iwa had kept its silence, resulting in an eerily tense peace that reminded the jounin uncomfortably of the calm before a storm. No missions had really caught his interest, though he supposed he'd have to take them some day. Jiraiya had disappeared as he was wont to do from time to time, no doubt doing something perverted; Orochimaru really didn't expect less. Minato, on the other hand, had taken one of his students - the snake sennin vaguely remembered that the boy was a Hatake, Sakumo's orphaned son - over to the Uchiha compound for some reason, and Sarutobi had apparently decided that one meeting with Orochimaru was enough for the month.
In short, Orochimaru was bored. He had nothing to do, no pressing matters that might have drawn his attention. And so, he found himself in Konoha's hospital, standing over the comatose form of his student, Mitarashi Anko.
Despite what he'd said on delivering her to the hospital, chakra exhaustion on the level that Anko had experienced was no trivial matter. Only the regular chakra stimulation she'd received had kept her muscles from atrophying. Thankfully, nothing had been damaged beyond the ability of Konoha's medical experts to heal. Still, she was unconscious and had been that way for over a week, from what the medics had told him. He supposed that when Anko did wake up, her first words would no doubt be laced with angry profanity.
"Hurt... like fuck, dammit..."
Orochimaru blinked. Sometimes, he supposed bemusedly, it wasn't good to be right all the time.
"So you're awake, then?" he said, placing a hand on her shoulder. He held her down firmly as she attempted to get up, shaking his head. "Your muscles may not have atrophied, but you're still in no condition to be walking around. It's been over a week since the accident."
"You've... been checking up on me?" Anko asked, her voice tinged with mild surprise. The girl even sounded touched. Orochimaru supposed the surprise was understandable; this was the first time in his life he'd ever visited anyone in the hospital, student or teammate. His reasoning behind this had been that anybody worth his time who'd been hospitalized would no doubt be out of the hospital again in short order, and anybody not worth his time didn't warrant a visit in the first place.
To be completely honest, the jounin didn't really feel much for Anko; if she'd died as a result of applying the Ten no Juin like her nine peers, he would have shed no tears. Only, perhaps, a detached sense of annoyance that none of the subjects had survived. She was an experiment and a useful tool, nothing more. Talented, granted, but nothing truly outstanding like Minato or Orochimaru himself had been.
He supposed he did feel a sort of respect for the way she blatantly refused to fear him, or worship him like so many did. Curious, he'd asked her about her apparent lack of terror and awe at being in the presence of Konoha's "evil" sannin, and had gotten a reply consisting entirely of a derisive snort and a kunai thrown unerringly at his groin.
"You look like a fucking kabuki actor," the genin had said in her high child's voice, completely unafraid of her new jounin sensei despite the fact he'd easily caught the kunai in midflight. "You'll get my respect or fear when you earn it." As if she was the one teaching him, not the other way around.
He blinked, snapping himself out of his memories. He'd dropped in only because he'd had absolutely nothing better to do, but Anko didn't need to know that. Fixing a smile on his face, Orochimaru nodded.
Though he didn't feel any affection towards his young charge, the fact remained that as the sole living bearer of his experimental seal, Anko had become invaluable, and keeping her on his side would be wise. Though foul-mouthed and bad-tempered, the girl was still young and impressionable, and Orochimaru intended on taking advantage of that as much as possible.
"How are you feeling?" the jounin asked smoothly, projecting an image of detached concern. If he seemed too warm, Anko would be suspicious, but the proper inflection used just so...
Anko grinned wryly up at her teacher. "The fuck does it look like I'm feeling?" Her voice was already stronger than it had been before; Orochimaru mentally estimated that she'd be up and about in another day at most. She tried to move and winced, pain clear in her tone. "It's like I got used as a training dummy by that crazy Maito bastard. What the hell happened to me?"
"The seal overloaded your chakra pathways, but fortunately it seems that there's been no burnout," Orochimaru explained. He watched with some consternation as Anko's face twisted at the mention of the seal. "I may have to revise the seal to mesh it properly with your system before trying again."
Anko was silent for a time before replying. "I didn't like it, sensei," she said, fear entering her voice for the first time since Orochimaru had taken her under his wing. "It felt like I was being torn to bits from the inside out."
Orochimaru mentally frowned; this wasn't good at all. Deciding to take an indirect approach, he said, "That won't come for quite a while. Before we do anything with the seal, I'll have to step up your training regimen to bolster your chakra reserves as well as enhance your control and the state of your body. Since your teammates are-" He stopped for a moment, dead on the tip of his tongue, and swiftly changed the term to one that held less grim connotations. "-gone, I'll be training only you full time once you're out of the hospital."
Thankfully, Anko didn't seem to have noticed his slip, happy at the mention of more attention from the jounin. The snake sennin was harsh, but his training had been nothing but effective, and even when his attention had been divided between her and her teammates she'd been able to feel herself improving noticeably. The prospect of being trained on a one-on-one basis was enough to drive any dismal thoughts from her tired mind.
"Really?" Anko opened her mouth to say something more before her eyes abruptly snapped closed and she fell back on her pillow, unconscious. Shortly, her breathing took on the rhythmic pattern of deep sleep.
Orochimaru wasn't surprised; sudden unconsciousness was a typical symptom of those recovering from chakra depletion, and Anko had just been asking for it by talking so much directly after waking up. It had been an unexpected but beneficial coincidence that Anko had happened to wake up when she had, letting Orochimaru cement her trust in him more deeply than it had been before. It couldn't have gone more perfectly if he'd planned it. He stayed a moment longer, gazing down at his young charge with a smile on his face before vanishing, leaving no trace that he'd ever been in the room.
He was on his way back home when an ANBU with a monkey mask over her face materialized a few feet away in a swirl of leaves. Orochimaru looked around for a moment, making sure he was alone before making his way over to the kunoichi, who was staring at him expectantly.
"What is it?" he asked, once he was close enough to be heard easily. The ANBU didn't often act as messengers, serving as couriers only for the most urgent of matters, such as attacks on the village or S-rank mission notifications.
Monkey didn't reply, simply drawing a scroll from underneath her arm guard. Orochimaru's eyes widened slightly as he noted the black paper used only when assigning S-rank missions. Wordlessly, she handed it to him before disappearing again, leaving the jounin alone once more.
He resisted the urge to unroll the scroll then and there, instead choosing to wait until he got home. Closing the door, he unsealed the scroll, took one look at its contents, and cursed angrily, destroying the delicate paper with a small katon.
"This is what that imbecile was planning?" he asked aloud, unable for once to hold his ire inside. He cursed once more for good measure and turned back around, leaving almost as soon as he'd come and heading for his temporary laboratory.
He'd be taking no part in this utter foolishness.
"Come on, Orochimaru."
"Will you at least consider-"
"You're just saying that to piss me off, aren't you?"
Jiraiya stopped, closed his eyes, let out his breath in an explosive sigh and flopped down on the small cot that occupied one corner of Orochimaru's temporary lab. Calling it an actual laboratory would be a stretch; the place was nearly barren, devoid of any comforts beyond basic heating and lights. A multitude of scrolls, books and esoteric diagrams were stacked on the walls.
Orochimaru himself stood hunched over an unfurled scroll, brush in hand, frowning down at it while taking care not to let any ink drip onto the paper. His brow was furrowed in concentration as he considered the modifications he'd made to the seal; theoretically, altering the channeling pathways like he'd done would slow the rush of excess chakra through the body, preventing the violent and uncontrolled burst of chakra that Anko's seal had caused. He still couldn't understand why the second level of the seal had failed to activate, though. Was he missing something? It was as if he was missing some sort of catalyst that would trigger the change.
"Would you at least tell me why you won't even think about it?" Jiraiya asked, exasperated.
Orochimaru had quickly gotten a reign over his emotions, and it was only with a small sigh that he set down his brush. It was obvious that he'd get nothing done with Jiraiya in the room. "Because, my well-meaning but fatally idiotic friend, I have better things to do than accepting potentially suicidal missions. Like revising the jutsu I'm researching and looking for missions that won't get me killed.
"Besides," he continued, "the entire purpose of Minato-kun's deal with me was to keep me inside the village. Tagging along with you on an S-rank equivalent surgical strike which involves infiltrating deep into Iwagakure in an attempt to assassinate the Tsuchikage would be understandably counter-productive."
Jiraiya pouted - the sight made Orochimaru shudder and look away - and said, "Well, we don't have to kill him, per se. Just spook him. Get him shivering in his sandals, you know? Put the fear of toads and snakes into him."
Orochimaru rolled his eyes. "It's obvious you're not taking this mission seriously, so you must have some sort of ulterior motive. I must profess that I'm curious about how you bullshitted this to Sarutobi. He's old, but he's certainly not senile."
"The old man knows we're not going to assassinate anybody. I told him."
Orochimaru paused, mild surprise evident in his amber eyes. "And he still let you propose a mission that would take us both out of Fire Country, the very thing that Minato-kun surmised would prompt a full-scale assault on Konoha?"
"I'm not as stupid as you think I am, Orochimaru," Jiraiya said, snorting. "While we're not really going to off the Tsuchikage, he doesn't need to know that. He sent a squad to kill the old man, right? He'll be expecting some kind of retaliation once he realizes they didn't make it. We'll just spread a few rumors here and there, intentionally get noticed a few times along the way, and voila - he'll think we're coming to return the favor. With Minato and the old man both here, Iwa can't be a hundred percent sure of victory unless they attack with absolutely everything they've got, and they can't risk leaving their own village undefended when two of Konoha's finest are going to assassinate their leader."
"Jiraiya, you are exactly as stupid as I know you are," Orochimaru replied smoothly. "Has it occurred to you that a full assault would also include the Tsuchikage? Not to mention that if we got ourselves killed, Konoha would be doomed? I highly doubt that Sarutobi would sanction such a risky mission for an objective which you have yet to disclose."
Jiraiya shook his head, the expression on his face that of a man explaining an obvious fact to a very young child. "An attack of that scale would take time to mobilize. If we're halfway to Earth Country by the time they know we've left, then they can't risk us slipping in and striking while they're busy getting prepared. Besides, he agreed with me that the real goal of this mission is worth the risk."
Orochimaru thought it over for a minute before grimacing. "You've certainly planned this out, haven't you?" he said grudgingly; he hated losing to Jiraiya in anything, and arguments were no exception.
"Alright. Say for a moment that this harebrained farce of yours won't result in Konoha's annihilation, and for some unfathomable reason I end up following you. If you're not going to assassinate the Tsuchikage, then just what kind of business do you have in Earth Country that requires my presence as well?"
Jiraiya hemmed and hawwed for a minute before replying, grinning sheepishly. "Well, y'see... According to my sources, Tsunade was last seen gambling in an Earth Country casino..."
Orochimaru looked his terminally insane friend in the eyes to make sure he wasn't making a joke, decided he wasn't, and decisively turned away. "No."