"I'll take him off your hands," the god had said.

Kabuto's brain had just been thrust into overload. Separated from Sasori? That would be impossible! It would be unnatural and painful and simply unacceptable. Kabuto was never to be away from his master unless he had been told to go away, but Sasori had suggested no such thing. He had never even thought about the issue of kidnapping-no one had ever tried to kidnap him before and Sasori had not planted the idea in his mind, so what was the point of thinking about it? There hadn't been a point until now. But Kabuto was not given much time to consider the matter before being thrown over Orochimaru's shoulder like a sack of flour and carried away deeper into the forest. He had tried to yell or protest, but sound didn't come, as if there was something deep within his conscience that told him not to cry out. This was a good thing. Kabuto wasn't sure if he agreed with that shred of conscience or not, but there was certainly no time to ponder it.

The farther away from Sasori Orochimaru ran, the more it hurt Kabuto as chakra strings were stretched to their limits. A quarter of a mile into the forest, Kabuto began squirming, but his captor's grasp remained ridiculously tight. This time he was successful in making noise, if only a grunt here and there. Another half of a mile and making noise suddenly became easy-Kabuto found himself screaming, the strings threatening to snap. From the way Kabuto's head felt, it seemed like parts of his brain were going to be ripped out the moment the strings were severed. And he was familiar enough with the matters of medicine that an injury like that would mean instant death. Suddenly, a new idea struck him.

At least he would be free.

Is that what the dark-haired man was doing? Freeing him?

The pain didn't seem quite so bad, anymore, at least until the strings were actually cut. Kabuto had never even imagined the pain of being torn away from the control Sasori had placed over him. DIgging the roots out was even worse than when Kabuto's neck had been snapped earlier, and if it hadn't been for Orochimaru supporting his weight, surely he would have fallen over and blacked out on the spot. Instead, he contented himself with screaming and shrieking and praying to who-knows-what god that he could die. He had determined that the man in front of him was no god, but in fact some sort of corrupted and fallen angel of death.

The pain was gone, and Kabuto was free. Dizzy, but free. And then there was hazel. The brightest and most expressive hazel eyes that Orochimaru had ever seen lay behind smudged glasses too big for the boy's face.

"Kabuto." He said his name more like a question than an answer to one. And what was his last name? His real one had eluded his mind long ago, but there had been that surgeon in Konoha, the abusive one..."Yakushi. Yakushi Kabuto."

Hazel.

The boy's eyes were hazel.

Orochimaru had never been fascinated by eyes before, save for his own. Exotic color was something he looked for in everyone, and never found it. It was all black, green, gray, blue. Occasionally brown. Orochimaru was almost captivated by the beautiful green-gold mixture that now stared him back in the face, seemingly just as enraptured. A mixture of several different colors that changed by the day...Orochimaru then realized he had never seen hazel eyes before. Kabuto had the one eye color he had never seen before, considered the most interesting, personally preferred as second to his own elegant gold-it was like something out of a prophecy book. And Orochimaru was awe-struck.

The child spoke, then, giving his name. He seemed hesitant to make a sound, after all the noise he had made earlier. Orochimaru found the sound of his voice high-pitched and soft, but he was certain the boy would grow into himself in time. As he matured, that pitch would drop, that soft, tentative near-whisper would gain confidence, and maybe, who knew? The child could become something great. "Yakushi Kabuto, then," Orochimaru said slowly, turning the name over in his mouth. The parents must not have really known the child when they named him, he decided. To Orochimaru, the name just didn't fit yet. Maybe it was because Kabuto had yet to accept it for himself, and make it his own identity.

"You have a choice now, Kabuto: and for once, you may freely choose for yourself, without fear of consequences or punishment of displeasing a master. You may either leave me now-walk away from me, and never look back, never see me again-or, you may follow me, back to my village, and become a member of the Otogakure. Keep in mind, Kabuto, that at the moment, you are no loss or gain to me: but you may become one depending on your choice. I sense that you will be a great asset should you join me, and a great loss should you leave. It would be a shame to have to part with such a promising young soul so early in life."

Orochimaru was certain Kabuto knew what he meant. The boy showed promise, but he was untrained, untried. He had barely enough skills to do what Sasori had demanded of him, and that was enough. No one had bothered to teach him anything more. Orochimaru knew that, should the boy choose to walk away from him and at least have the pleasure of dying by his own will, the chances were about ninety-nine percent that he wouldn't ever live past the next few days. And living with Orochimaru might make the boy wish he was dead. But, his odds were much better with Orochimaru. The snake had a working village, size aside, complete with medical staff, a decent squad of ninja, all on various levels-and then, of course, himself. At the very least, the boy would be looked after. Orochimaru waited patiently, allowing Kabuto to think for himself for the first time. He wanted at least allow him to savor this moment, and properly appreciate it.

It was odd, really, having a choice of his own. In fact, Kabuto didn't quite know what to do with the responsibility. For a few moments, he did nothing but tilt his head and stare at his new savior with one silver eyebrow raised. Kabuto tended to do that alot. He never really knew why; it was just a little quirk of his. He had never seen anyone else do it, but whenever he was confused, it just happened naturally. The action looked rather funny combined with the thick-framed glasses around the child's face (They looked more like goggles than glasses, actually...), but to Kabuto it was completely normal. He hadn't had a proper mirror to look at in who knows how long. He had no idea what he looked like, and even if he did, he wouldn't have known whether or not he looked strange or normal. What was normal, anyway? It had been awhile since Kabuto had lived a normal life. In fact, he could remember no normality at all.

The look on the pale man's face did not make the decision any easier. Not only was Kabuto being flattered more than he had ever been, but there was a look of amazement in the golden eyes which were so entrancing. Kabuto realized that the look of wonder was for him, because of him, and it sent his soul on a joyride. Someone in the world appreciated his existence, for whatever reason. It was a completely new revelation for him, that someone could possibly care.

Although Kabuto would have liked to have known exactly who this man was before joining him, he couldn't help but want to go. It didn't really matter who the man was; all that mattered was that Kabuto had been saved. Obviously, he wasn't an enemy. Why would an enemy release Kabuto from what had been causing him to suffer for the past year? His decision was made. He wanted to be trained, wanted to know how to defend himself. He vowed to himself that now that he was free he would not allow himself to be taken advantage of ever again. He wanted to go with this mysterious man, this god.

The look of confusion on Kabuto's face faded and was replaced by a determination-an unfamiliar emotion.

The boy nodded resolutely, the silver bangs bouncing on his forehead as he did so. They were shaggy and almost too long, and Kabuto had to push them out of his eyes even as he was nodding his head.

It took Kabuto hardly a moment to make his decision: and then, he was sure of what he wanted, resolutely so. Orochimaru was pleased; he had always hated an indecisive fool. Determination shined in the boy's eyes: wonderful. he was motivated, he was certain, and he was on Orochimaru's side.

"Well, then," Orochimaru said briskly, knocking his own black hair out of his face, "come with me. It's back to Oto with you." Orochimaru swung Kabuto up onto his back, adding on, "Oh, and...hang on tight," before he dropped straight down into the ground.

Kabuto had never travelled this way before: Orochimaru was the only person who could, and he had never taken anyone with him. Truth be told, he wasn't entirely sure how it would turn out, lugging someone else along with him. But, it seemed to work fine: Kabuto's skinny arms still clutched at his shoulders, and the boy's head still rested between his shoulder blades. There was no tension in his body, and no panicked screams filled the air. He was fine, Orochimaru decided. And so, he sped up. Rushing through the ground the several miles it had taken him to get to Sasori's meeting place took little more than five minutes for Orochimaru, and he hardly expended any chakra. Without any fuss, Orochimaru shot up and out of the ground the second he knew where he was: right in front of the gates to Otogakure.

At a first glance, it didn't seem like much: a flight of purely stone steps descending down into a set of double-doors, also carved from stone. Two twisting, purple snakes were emblazoned above the doors; there was nothing else to be seen. "Not much grandeur, mm?" Orochimaru pulled Kabuto off his back again, and gently pushed him forward with a hand between the shoulder blades. "But, inside is much better...cooler, too. I can't stand the heat." Orochimaru tossed his ebony locks again, and began to walk down the stairs that led into his city. The snake appeared to not even touch the ground: he seemed to be floating above it, effortlessly gliding down the stairs into the depths of the earth. He paused at the doors, glancing over his shoulder at Kabuto.

"Coming?"

Everything was moving so quickly that Kabuto really didn't even have time to be afraid. He was still so preoccupied with the fact that he was being rescued that the five minutes or so spent underground didn't bother him in the least. No, the fact that he was underground at all was the farthest thing from his mind. Normally, he would have been fascinated, terrified. He would have wanted to know how it worked and why. But not this time. Kabuto's curiosity was yet to be rediscovered. He had just been released from Sasori's jutsu, after all, and his mind and body had a lot to work out. Every movement of his head, his feet, every breath he took still required a conscious decision on his part. His surroundings were almost too much to take in, and he was running on instinct alone. That was why, when Orochimaru slung him up onto his back, Kabuto was comfortable to let his head rest between Orochimaru's shoulder blades and just close his eyes.

Everything was like a dream. Kabuto felt weak. He feebly tried to remember what he was really supposed to be doing, but nothing came to mind. If he had ever had a purpose, he couldn't think of it at the moment, so he remained content to stay with his new guardian. There was an inkling of fear, though, when Kabuto thought of the concept of a new guardian. There was just something about the word, something from Kabuto's past, that made the idea frightening. It slowly came back to him, piece by piece, as he traveled underground. Sasori had been abusive-that much was obvious even to Kabuto. But there had been that other man before Sasori, the man from Leaf who had liked his drink a bit too much. Kabuto's namesake, Yakushi, the great surgeon who had done such a great deed by rescuing Kabuto from something the boy could not remember, had turned out to be the worst dad ever. Kabuto could still remember those beatings...

The sunlight nearly blinded him when he found himself above ground again, standing in front of what appeared to be the Gates to Hell. He was set carefully on the ground and left to make yet another decision. Once again, it wasn't a difficult decision. Orochimaru looked so incredible as he appeared to float down the stairs into what could have been Hell or maybe just a misplaced Heaven. How could one not follow him? And so Kabuto did, though he didn't appear to have floated like Orochimaru had. Quite the opposite-perhaps the boy was still trying to find his legs. His body did feel a bit like jelly now that he finally had control of it.

And there was that other feeling, too, the one that had been nagging at his innermost being ever since he had been freed. There was something in his body telling him that something was wrong, like a warning, but Kabuto couldn't place it. For the moment, he contented himself just to let it go. He looked up at Orochimaru with a sweet smile and pushed his massive glasses up onto his nose. "I'm coming."

Orochimaru slid through the underground tunnels of Otoga with a practiced ease only the creator of such a place could ever have. Others found their way around this place just fine, but it took time and patience and they would never know every shortcut, every path, every hallway, every door. Kabuto had best stick close to Orochimaru if he ever wanted to find his way. Oh, he would learn soon, as all did, but for now, he was barely thinking on his own. Orochimaru couldn't ask him to remember absolutely everything. For now, he would settle for getting the boy cleaned up, getting his wounds treated, and seeing about where he could stay, at least temporarily.

Orochimaru led Kabuto down a maze of hallways, corridors, and tunnels down to the medical ward. Nurses, doctors, and other medical staff jumped out of his way when they saw he wasn't injured; others jumped out of the way when they saw everyone else doing the same thing. Orochimaru couldn't see the person he was looking for in the crowds, though...oh, where was Ryuu? His chief medic as of now, Ryuu was competent in the medical field, calm when it came to dealing with Orochimaru, and never scolded the sannin when he came back from training sessions drenched in blood and with several broken bones. The snake had faith in the man to get the job done, and get it done right.

"Ryuu!" Orochimaru exclaimed, seeing the shaggy-haired blonde walking down the hallway fearlessly.

"Orochimaru-sama," Ryuu greeted, with a small bow. "Something you need?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact," Orochimaru said, turning slightly and beckoning Kabuto forward. He set a hand on the boy's shoulder, gentle as a butterfly's wings but with the strength behind it of a steel vice. "Treat his wounds, and clean him up," Orochimaru instructed. "Find him some new clothes, and then come and find me. I'll see about his training and such, but if you find something, please, inform me." Orochimaru gave Ryuu a curt nod, and then turned right around and left. Kabuto would be fine for a few hours with Ryuu: Ryuu was as good with kids as he was with Orochimaru. Now, did that say something about the children here, or Orochimaru? No, Orochimaru decided, that just showed that Ryuu was a spectacular medical ninja.

Kabuto felt like his eyes had never been so wide as they were at that moment, walking in an underground city that was like something out of a fairytale-a very grim fairytale. The decor was sparse, but somehow it worked. Everything was grave, yet also elegant, dark but also light, and scary yet also welcoming. He stayed so close to Orochimaru that he actually stepped on the man's heels at least once, ran into the back of his legs about three times, and other equally embarrassing things. Kabuto half-expected to be scolded or beaten each time, but to his amazement, nothing of the sort ever came. He had never received so much grace from one person in his entire life. In fact, he had probably never received so much grace period.

When the boy's eyes had finally become adjusted to the dim light of the stone corridors, he was led into another part of the "city" equipped with much better lighting. He squinted a little and ducked his head down, trying to avoid the brightness that had suddenly been thrust into his face. Another half a minute or so to adjust to the new lights, and then Kabuto realized that the sea of busy people were literally parting for Orochimaru to walk through. Every now and then one would actually bow. How important was Orochimaru, anyway? Was he actually a god like Kabuto had suspected all along? Obviously, he had a very high social standing. Hadn't he called his place his village?

Amidst this jumble of confused thoughts, Kabuto found himself being beckoned forward. He looked timidly up at Orochimaru, the worry clearly etched on his face. Was he to be transferred again to another owner like some sort of unwanted pet? His eyes pleaded with Orochimaru and seemed to ask, I thought you were rescuing me? Are you only handing me to someone else to be used again?

And then Kabuto understood. There came those marvelous commands to treat his wounds and get him cleaned up. Sasori would never go to so much trouble! No, Orochimaru was still on Kabuto's side, then. Yet, Kabuto couldn't help but be afraid when Orochimaru left him completely. He turned around and watched Orochimaru walk all the way back down the hall until he turned a corner and could no longer be seen. Only then did he look up at his new caretaker with big eyes that asked a billion questions at once.

OOOOOOOOO

The first thing Orochimaru did when he entered his room was put on the music as loud as it could go.

Death metal poured out of the stereo, complete with screaming vocals, heavy electric guitars, and pounding drums. The bass was heavy enough to be felt in one's chest; the keyboards were almost too quick to be human. Orochimaru then proceeded to strip down to nothing, and enter the bathroom. He was delighted to see that someone had already anticipated his arrival, and a hot bath awaited him. Sinking into the hot water instantly soothed his coiled muscles, all the tension draining out of him as soon as the heat enveloped his body. Orochimaru's ebony hair was soon slicked to a raven hue with blue highlights. He tipped his head back to get all of the hair wet; it felt so good to be able to soak for a while!

Orochimaru could have sat there for hours; he could have fallen asleep. But he knew that a half an hour was all he had; it was also how long the water would stay warm. After forty-five minutes, Orochimaru was about ready to get out; and the water was getting cold. As Orochimaru dressed, he went over what else he had yet to do. Retrieve Kabuto from Ryuu, find a place for the boy to sleep, find him a decent jounin sensei, and make sure to stop in on him every now and then so he wouldn't feel abandoned. The boy was bound to have some sort of disorder or complex in regards to that: he needed some consistency, some sense of loyalty and devotion. He needed to feel loved. Orochimaru was sure if he could just make Kabuto feel like someone cared about him, he would stay forever. Loyalty was a wonderful thing, and also pathetically easy to manipulate.

Orochimaru ambled down to the medical ward; he had a place in mind for Kabuto already, but he was sure Ryuu would have hung onto the kid until he got further orders. Kabuto would be fine with Ryuu; Orochimaru was confident of that. As he slowly picked his way through the long hallways stinking of cleaning fluid, Orochimaru would occasionally inquire after Ryuu's location: just to make sure he was keeping up with the doctor. So far, Ryuu's location had only changed once, and Orochimaru hadn't had to alter his path at all. He finally caught up to Ryuu in one of the examination rooms, and leaned against the open doorway for a moment. Ryuu or Kabuto would notice in seconds; he was impossible to miss.

The scene before Orochimaru was quite reversed from what he had expected. Ryuu and Kabuto sat together in a small examination room next door to Ryuu's private office. The walls were plain except for a chart here and there, and overall, the room was anything but comforting. It would have looked more like a cell in an asylum had it not been for the metal examination table on one side of the room. However, it was Ryuu who was sitting on the examination table and little Kabuto who was wearing a stethoscope too big for his head while attempting to listen to Ryuu's heartbeat. The doctor guided Kabuto's hand to just the right spot on his chest, and the boy's face lit up when he recognized the thump-thump of Ryuu's heart. Ryuu regained possession of his stethoscope a moment later only to have Kabuto point and ask about something else. But before Ryuu had the chance to explain, he turned to meet Orochimaru's golden gaze. Kabuto followed suit half an instant later and smiled brightly at his savior.

"I'm getting new glasses!" he announced proudly.

Ryuu grinned sheepishly at being caught on the table with a little boy doctoring him instead of the other way around. He nodded at Kabuto and ruffled the child's hair. "Yes, he is, but he'll need a full optometry exam, first. And," Ryuu added, as if to account for the silliness he had been caught in the midst of, "Kabuto only had one laceration in need of bandaging, but even that one was well on its way to being healed up by itself. Essentially, he had healed completely on his own-it's incredible, really, like actually regeneration. It wasn't done with healing chakra." With amazement, curiosity, and warmth in his eyes, he looked back at Kabuto. "Cleans up pretty good, doesn't he, Orochimaru-sama?"

Ryuu was absolutely right-Kabuto was incredible. Already there was a significant change in him. His hazel eyes were brighter and full of inquisitiveness; his hair and skin glowed healthily, glad to be freed from the dirt and grime; but the most amazing thing of all was that he was smiling. Kabuto Yakushi had not smiled in a long time, but the happy grin was unmistakable on his round little face. He finally looked something like a normal child of his age should look.

Orochimaru couldn't say he was particularly shocked to see Ryuu teaching Kabuto by example: he had always been a hands-on kind of person, and amazing with children. He almost had Orochimaru fooled the first time the snake asked him to take a look at anything: at the first sign of crap, Ryuu had firmly smacked him, reminded him exactly how much he could make hurt, and then proceeded as if nothing had happened. It was then that Orochimaru decided to only harass his doctors after whatever medical procedure he was having done was finished. Still, he wasn't about to let it go lying down: a few experiment sabotages traded off between the two and they finally called it a draw. Orochimaru promptly snuck a smoke bomb into an office, and walked away laughing.

Speaking of laughter, was that really was what coming out of Kabuto's mouth? He was clean, he was energetic, he was bouncing around...but what really caught Orochimaru's attention was what Ryuu had said: the boy only had one laceration that was in need of bandaging. Orochimaru knew for a fact that Kabuto had more injuries when he arrived at Otogakure. Far more. How had the boy managed to heal that quickly? What was that, an hour that had passed? Not even? Orochimaru beckoned Kabuto closer, dropped to one knee, and gently picked up one of the boy's small hands. He had seen quite a few bruises on that wrist, and wanted to check and see if-

The bruises were gone.

Orochimaru hastily rubbed at the area. No makeup came off; no illusions rippled in his eyesight; no flinching or crying of pain from Kabuto. The area was completely uninjured. Orochimaru glanced up at Ryuu for a moment, and then back at Kabuto. "I'd like a full blood test on him," Orochimaru said after a pause. "Test for the usual things, such as blood-oxygen concentration, blood type, chakra, and such, but also test for chakra types, and any special properties at all. If anything comes up a hair's breadth away from normal, I want a further inquiry into it, am I clear?" Orochimaru stood up again, and locked eyes with Ryuu. Deep down, Orochimaru knew this medic was scared of him, because he only had leverage when Orochimaru was on the table.

Ryuu hopped down from the table and watched Orochimaru curiously as Kabuto took a questioning step towards the snake. Amazing. Even if the boy had not had incredible healing abilities, just the fact that he could walk towards Orochimaru of his own will and show absolutely no fear or hesitation in doing so was a huge accomplishment in itself. Either he was just plain stupid (which Ryuu could already tell he was not after a half-hour's worth of conversation) or he really was just some sort of special kid. The doctor peered over Orochimaru's shoulder and watched Kabuto's face light up at the gentle touch of Orochimaru's hand. He did like to be loved, it appeared. Ryuu was no psychologist, but after what the boy had been through, any touch that wasn't a slap or a rough grab would have him feeling like the most special child in the world.

The request for a full blood test wasn't unexpected. At that point, Ryuu probably would have performed one on his own time whether Orochimaru had asked him to or not. Where was Kabuto from? What clan had he been born into to have such perfect healing capabilities at such an early age? His rapid healing was more than what most experienced medical ninja expected to accomplish in a lifetime, and he had hardly even been trained, if at all. Ryuu knew better than to ask Orochimaru any questions, though. Surely he didn't know the answer, and everyone knew never to ask Orochimaru a question he didn't know the answer to. It infuriated him like nothing else. "Perfectly clear, Orochimaru-sama," Ryuu replied quickly with a little bow. The bow didn't mean much, and Orochimaru knew it. It was more of an action of sarcasm than anything else. Ever since the "battle" the two had had, Ryuu had made it a point to be sarcastic towards Orochimaru at least once a day. It wasn't difficult with all the time the two spent together in the lab. Despite the sarcasm, though, he did respect Orochimaru more than he had ever respected anyone else. The sarcasm didn't bother Orochimaru, because Orochimaru knew of Ryuu's respect better than anyone. It was just a game the two played.

Kabuto looked back and forth from Ryuu to Orochimaru and suddenly broke the silence with something that seemed light and petty considering the previous conversation and the pondering moods of the older men.

"I'm hungry."

He was perfectly unaware. It was actually kind of cute, or something like that.

Orochimaru sighed, and hoisted Kabuto up into his arms. Balancing the small boy on one hip, the sannin glanced at Ryuu and jerked his head towards the door. Kabuto weighed next to nothing, Orochimaru realized. He had no problem carrying Kabuto, despite the fact that Orochimaru also had no trouble carrying a horse. Without chakra. Orochimaru waited for Ryuu to exit the room before he did, turning over in his mind a way to repay Ryuu for that sarcastic comment. Coming up with something new every day was usually Orochimaru's job, but this one new task might last a while. Orochimaru started walking towards the optometry center, Kabuto still balanced against his side and Ryuu falling into step next to him.

"Well, Ryuu, seeing as he's so taken with you, I think you can take over his care for a while. You can keep him supervised, entertained, and trained pretty much twenty-four-seven, right?" Orochimaru offered Ryuu a rather nasty smirk, and then turned and set Kabuto in the doctor's arms. "Keep me updated on his progress. This is only temporary...just until I find him someplace permanent. But get him fed, teach by example-he's going to be with you anyway, you might as well get started. See if you can get anything out of that healing ability. And of course-enjoy each others' company, and update me every day." Orochimaru gave Ryuu another triumphant smirk, and then turned right around and started slowly walking away. He did want to see if he could catch Ryuu's reaction to his new assignment.