Spoilers. Set before and during the three year break. A Kabuto short. For R.

"So, you're Kabuto."

The child doesn't blink. "Yes."

He's an average student. Which is a fairly good estimation, at least where Konoha is concerned. As far as it matters, Kabuto Yakushi is a part of the middle-rank achievers, who are useful because every genius needs mediocrity for contrast. Konoha will never admit this, because it likes to foster the illusion that each and every Leaf-nin is a precious flower, but sometimes, Kabuto wonders just who it is they're trying to fool.

"How do you stand it?" Misumi asks him one day. It's a rare moment of conversation between them both; Misumi isn't very chatty. "Pretending to be this? Doesn't it bother you that your parents think... "

Kabuto looks at him with more than a little surprise; he knows the answer should be something properly rife with manipulation, since his teammate expects layers of careful deceit and the wit to deliver them. What comes out of his mouth is different. "It's simpler for them if they think I'm normal, Misumi." He moves the stack of notebooks aside. "I'm just a kid, after all."

"But you're not -- "

"But I am."

After a while, Misumi leans back with a satisfied nod, likely assuming any number of things: that Kabuto is cautious against being spied upon, that Kabuto is simply trying to emphasize the nature of his role, that Kabuto is an expert at this kind of thing.

Kabuto, meanwhile, finishes failing his homework assignment.

Kabuto of Sound is different in specifications: he is not average, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he isn't overtly spectacular either. Not like Kimimaro. Not like the Sound Four. Kabuto of Sound is something to fear, something to scoff at -- secretly -- but he is an influence to respect. All the more so because no one in Sound can claim a rapport with him; no one is safe by virtue of being his personal friend.

It suits him, to be an unknown variable. Less work on his part.

There are numerous rules for subterfuge, and one of the hardest qualities to fake is sincerity. It's a matter of exponential complexity. If you tell two separate people different information, then two falsehoods become four when that information spreads. Four becomes sixteen. Sixteen becomes hundreds of tiny explanations to keep track of, imaginary rabbits breeding out of control. Therefore, one of the simpler methods of minimizing risks for error is to clear the board -- make everything honest. Make everything real, and force the criteria for honesty to change instead.

Kabuto knows. He's versed in the rules. It's vital for a spy to remind themselves that they're more than their work. Ego degradation is always a hazard if you retain too much attachment to cover stories; you can lose your way inside your own mind, trying to uphold conflicting priorities. It's dangerous to even take pride in your ability to let go, because then you'll run into problems where you can't. There's a reason why returning to the scene is such a stereotype on the criminal behavior charts.

Kabuto's prioritized his life properly. The student in Leaf and the doctor in Sound are exactly the same. Just, with different definitions of secret.

He thinks about this all the way down the tunnels through Sound, once he has left Orochimaru's hospice ward and aimed himself at the rest of the laboratories. Or medical chambers. They're like Kabuto, in that regard: dependent on an outside perspective to put a classification on them.

"Doctor," Kimimaro greets him with as he steps through the door, and Kabuto shrugs. He heads for the syringes.

"I heard you masqueraded as a student."

"I did."

"I imagine," and Kimimaro's breath is dry air on dry lungs, "that it was a lot different than this."

Kabuto picks up a vial of saline. "No. Not really."

Kabuto Yakushi is not really his name. Kabuto of Sound is not either, but he's not picky. What matters is simplifying the facts.

Kabuto is an agent of Sasori pretending to work for Orochimaru. Kabuto is an agent of Orochimaru pretending to be a doctor. Kabuto is a doctor dressed up as a spy pretending to be a student; Kabuto is a student pretending to be a boy. Each level is more basic than the last. Each name is a different explanation for where he is located that day.

Each face he wears is technically true; the explanation for the sum of his behaviors just becomes more complicated. He is a student at Konoha, and his poor grades are a result of poor talent. He is a student at Konoha, and his poor grades are a result of pretending to have poor talent -- but that poor talent, by fact of performance, is real. He is a doctor's adopted child, wanting to help save lives. He is a cunning, depraved minion of the Snake, and none of these are paradoxes, because all of them are conditionally true.

Despite all the fine degrees of control, Kabuto knows he ultimately lacks it. He is keenly aware that his own nature is defined by who uses him. He knows that in the shifting territories of the world, only one country matters to him, one Village: the realm of perceptions that other people lock him down into, hammering facts into place with their own desires.

Without them, though, he would drift. Lacking a strong enough pillar to define him, Kabuto would wander, completely unmoored.

Orochimaru is good enough for that. For now.

Sometimes he wakes up crying. It's never the result of a dream, or even lingering stress from the night before; Kabuto simply opens his eyes to find that they're brimming over with moisture. He blinks, and liquid drips in curves down his skin. As he lies there and searches through his thoughts for any sign of what might have caused such a problem, his tear ducts continue to leak.

He usually blames allergies.

Waking up like that is always a sign of problems to come, so after Kabuto gets up and wipes off his face -- the tears stop as neatly as they started, leaving behind minor congestion and major disorientation -- he prepares himself for a rocky day. For some reason, he's always tense after those kinds of mornings. His nerves are on high alert. Energy bubbles and burrows out of his veins, threatening to turn the color of his eyes red.

It's easier to deal with the issue now that he's in Sound, where he's never had to pretend to be an innocent. It's easier, and it's harder because it's not appropriate for Sound to see anything short of Orochimaru's faithful lackey, and Kabuto is weary of pretending otherwise. For now.

He sedates himself on occasion. His chakra always negates it. He splits his knuckles punching stones, and his body always heals. The urge for self-destruction is a sign of insanity, maybe, or at least of the pressures of his job. Stress. A vitamin deficiency.

He calms down by the end of the day, or week, or month. The cause is never something Kabuto cares enough to pursue. If it's merely a byproduct of buried tension, then he'll survive. He has so far.

They stop at an inn, himself and Orochimaru. Traveling is harder with Konoha astir, and Orochimaru's new body only barely suffices to keep them on the move. There are fewer safe routes.

It's regrettable to leave Sound even briefly, but it's necessary to perform a routine check of the Village's backup locations in advance. Orochimaru had wavered furiously, putting off the task for weeks, to the point where Kabuto had blandly offered to go ahead on his own. In the end, Orochimaru's fundamental distrust of others had outweighed his greed for the Uchiha boy -- temporarily. Kabuto knows the reprieve won't last.

He'll enjoy the time away from Sasuke while he can. The presence of only Orochimaru nearby is easier to work with than trying to bounce perceptions off a sulky teenage boy as well. Having Sasuke in the Village is awkward; standing between him and Orochimaru has started to make Kabuto feel like an iron filing between two magnets.

Sasuke has no use for doctors, though. He has even less for spies.

When Kabuto comes down the stairs to fetch two trays for dinner, he finds the innkeeper's son sprawled out in the front room with a sprained ankle, swollen like a Wave Country pufferfish. After deciding that the boy is too young to fill his inventory of bodies -- which always seem to get lower and lower each day he's around Orochimaru -- Kabuto deftly applies a splint and chakra.

The innkeeper is grateful. He waves off the expenses for the lumpy pillows and cheap yaki that wasn't worth the money in the first place, which amuses Orochimaru and leaves Kabuto feeling dry-mouthed with unvoiced cynicism.

"Why did you do that?" Orochimaru asks later, finishing off a mouthful of watery tea.

Kabuto shrugs. "Because I'm supposed to be a doctor this week, aren't I?"

Orochimaru smirks, as if expecting some kind of in-joke or oblique cunning reference, but Kabuto doesn't follow up with any flourish of wit.

Eventually, they both pack for the road.

They're silent for a while as the afternoon whittles on, and the sky goes through a recurring indecision of rain. Kabuto glares at it from a corner of his eye. The clouds shift, and settle on overcast.

"So." Orochimaru's voice is sleek, but there's an undertone running through it, a neediness for conversation -- Kabuto is familiar with it by virtue of experience, though he amuses himself sometimes by wondering if anyone else can tell. "How far along do you think Sasuke will have progressed with his familiarity of the Curse Seal?"

If certain members of Sound were near, they'd expect Kabuto respond with jealousy. But they're dead; their opinions will rarely matter again. Kabuto has no real interest in Sasuke's training, but Sound-Kabuto would, Orochimaru's Kabuto, so he answers with the complete sincerity proper for such a creature: "I hope he's at least improved on his basic chakra control."

Orochimaru scoffs. "Now you're being insulting. His growth has already been remarkable -- he'll exceed your expectations. I'm sure he's already started on the intermediate exercises by now."

Sometimes, Kabuto wonders if he should have killed Sasuke. Leaf-Kabuto wouldn't have, but some variations of Sound-Kabuto would, and half of them even dovetail with how Orochimaru was using his spy during the Chuunin Exams. In the end, he hadn't been able to decide. Kabuto wasn't prepared for Tsunade to kill Orochimaru either, when that option had presented itself; there's still the opportunity for Kabuto to sabotage the Snake now, if he chooses, but he's not ready to choose.

Orochimaru dead is not an entirely unappealing concept. Leaf-Kabuto would probably do well by that decision -- but that Kabuto is entirely razed, completely destroyed when the attack on Konoha came about. If it is one thing that Fire Country is good at among their geniuses and forests and natural wilderness resources, it's holding a grudge. Kabuto can't go back.

Sound-Kabuto might be able to find a home elsewhere. It's within specifications -- the sly doctor who has been secretly planning all along to betray Orochimaru when the Sannin was weakest. But then he would be seen forever as -- as what? Hero? Villain? A stray either way, with no one to direct his destiny for him. Marked as Orochimaru's tool forever, he would never be able to progress without that stigma hanging over his talents: the apprentice who betrayed even the worst of monsters, turning on not one, but two Akatsuki masters.

The death of Orochimaru, Kabuto decides, is less of a problem than finding a place to be afterwards.

But to stay put in Sound is rapidly becoming just as much of a trap. The way that people perceive Kabuto is now inevitably intertwined with the Snake's machinations. That's a permanent niche more physical than any simple Village border, and one that's harder to escape. Kabuto is Orochimaru's tool; sometimes he wonders how much he's being ruined for any other hands.

Orochimaru has a definition for his spy, and the will to use him. Kabuto can't reject that. It's what he wants most out of the world: an identity. At the same time, he doesn't know if this -- if Kabuto of Sound, slavishly devoted follower of Orochimaru -- is the possibility he'd choose to be perceived as for the rest of his life, when it precludes being anything else.

Kabuto's viewed by the world as a monster. This doesn't really bother him, except that -- except that it might.

And, try as he might, Kabuto can't stop thinking about another part of Konoha either. Naruto struggled against being thought of as nothing more than the Kyuubi's vessel. He strove to not be seen as an animal by the world around him.

A long time ago, Kabuto had laughed at the futility of that.

He hasn't laughed in a while.

"You're right," he tells Orochimaru, breaking the long silence that swallowed their discussion. As they turn down the concealed paths to Sound, Kabuto's hands automatically form seals for obfuscation. The role he is now should be agreeable; the habits settle heavier on his shoulders, becoming more familiar and comfortable with each day he spends with no time free to be anyone else. But even as he speaks, he feels a stir in the back of his throat, and he lets that shape his next sentence. "I'm sure Sasuke will work out fine for everything we'll need."