A/N: I've just resigned myself to the fact that I am forever doomed to ship weird crap no one else ships. This is a momentous realization in my fandom life D:

Disclaimer: I must disclaim that this fic would not exist at all were it not for the incredible sinemoras09, who, to my knowledge, is the first person EVER to ship Kimimaro/Anko. Her coattails, I ride on them.

Enjoy!


Because Kotetsu's kind of a dick, he's the one who brings it up first.

"There's this new guy in the dormitory," he singsongs, shit-eating grin spreading across his face like a venereal sore across a syphilitic appendage, and Anko's pretty sure they're not supposed to be talking about this in public, if at all, but Kotetsu's dickery conveniently prevents him from conceptualizing such things as discretion. So they talk about it. In public. At training ground fifteen, which around this time of year is a mess of twitterpated birds and the kind of eye-stabbing daylight that looks like the sun decided to projectile vomit its innards all over everything.

She mauls a piece of inarizushi in the throes of sublimated rage. "Yeah?" she asks. "Why should I care?"

"I heard he's some kind of awesome," says Kotetsu maddeningly. "I heard Orochimaru-sensei's totally into him. I heard that's why he's cancelled our training session today, because he's with the new guy for—" smirk, smirk—"preliminary checkups."

Calm down, she tells herself. It's a he. You have the uterus, and hence, the edge. "Kind of a lot to hear, Kotetsu. Don't strain yourself."

Kotetsu ignores her. "I heard he's got a bloodline."

Which is just so below the belt, because anyone who's lived at Aibara dormitory should know better than to rib Mitarashi Anko about her notable lack of any bloodline whatsoever. Even Yamato seems to realize this, because he looks over from his post dozing near one of the logs and says, "Kotetsu," in a mildly warning tone.

"Just telling it like it is," Kotetsu states, which just about the most heinous lie Anko has ever heard, and given that being a lying lie-mongering liar who lies is the permanent modus operandi for Hagane Kotetsu, this is quite the accomplishment. He gets up, stretches. "Anyway. Since I can tell you're about to throw a hissy-fit and claw off someone's face, I'm heading out. See you around, dragon lady."

"Go fuck your neighbor, asshole."

"Now, now, you know I live next to a potted plant," says Kotetsu glibly, but not before turning a satisfying shade of pink and muttering something that suspiciously resembles the words "Izumo" and "not like that" thrown together in an interesting and vaguely incriminating fashion. Anko files this nugget of information away and turns her attention to the more pressing matter of The New Guy, who may or may not possess a bloodline limit.

Yamato follows her train of thought almost lazily, with the old familiarity of a cloud-watcher tracing a stray patch of cumulus across the sky. This is not to say he contributes anything helpful.

"You could go ask sensei," he offers. "He might be in a good mood."

"Right. What a stupid idea," she scoffs.

Later, as she's making her way home, surrepititiously digging burrs out of her fishnets, it occurs to her that she could totally go ask her teacher on the off chance that he might be in a good mood.

She's clearly a genius. Bloodline limits be damned.

~X~

Aibara isn't much of a dormitory, what with its mazelike corridors and utter lack of anything resembling interior decoration, but it's clean, which is more than she can say for any of the other shitholes she's lived in in accordance with Konoha's orphan policy. Which was no doubt penned during the term of the Shodaime, in whose day thatched roofs and exposed sewage pipes were probably the apex of luxe habitation. Anko had preferred to leave these dorms whenever possible, although this usually meant sneaking dinner out in the form of an apple or a few pieces of dried fish instead of watery rice or whatever they were being graced with on that particular day.

But it was okay, because somehow things tasted better out of doors. Especially when she'd managed to catch that sensation of isolation atop the village—a couple of stories, lobbing grapes off someone's fire escape, or skirting the outside of a balcony she'd never be rich enough to own herself. She learned chakra control and the slopes of the Hokage Tower almost in the same day: endless yards of metal and awning like a pillar to the world above them, and when she was on top of that, it was amazing how good things tasted. Clean snap of air, the sharp corrosion of salt at high altitudes; downwind, the vendors stringing lights across their stalls for the night shift. She would read those signs from far away—Fried Squid! Piping Hot! Ice Cream! Fresh-Squeezed Papaya Juice!—and bite her apple, and there'd be a crack! and the juice would flow down her chin, tongue-curling sweet and tart enough to leave a little bite at the tip of her tongue, a kiss with teeth in it. Eventually there'd just be lights and a sticky apple core cupped in her palm, and that was fine too. She'd stand, legs pistoning her up against the dark wash of twilight, and send the little white thing hurtling away from her like a cast-away net. It was kind of beautiful, when she didn't think about it too hard. Like a flying star. Like a bird.

Aibara, though. She doesn't leave often. The floor is clean enough to sit on, and that's what she does when she eats meals in her room, though she has her own table and chair. She doesn't usually eat by herself anymore—Yamato's usually there, or Kotetsu and Izumo, or if not, at least Orochimaru, who does table etiquette like it's going out of style (which, technically, it is).

"Sit up straight," he usually tells her. "That is not to be eaten with your fingers. Tie your hair back, if you cannot keep it out of your food. Do not embarrass me, Anko."

And she's not good with table manners, but she's good with that.

Tonight there's no Orochimaru, so she stakes out his office with studied thoroughness in the hopes that someone will recognize The Boss's No. 1 Protégé and pay dues in the form of desired information. She lurks with aplomb, shooting nasty glances at people and tripping up some hapless intern on his way past with a tray full of spleens. At some point, she decides to amuse herself by scratching an insultingly accurate caricature of the Sannin Tsunade on her teacher's door. And so it is that she's glibly accentuating some of the more recognizable assets when she actually meets The New Guy.

She knows it's him right away because she knows everyone at Aibara, and she was there when Orochimaru brought most of them to live at the dormitory. He's recognizable simply by the fact that she's never seen him before. Pale-haired, pale-skinned—some sort of freak, clearly, she thinks, and this is cemented when he turns toward her calmly and regards her with eyes the color of the sea. She's never seen anyone around Konoha with coloring like this.

"What're you looking at?" she plows forth in an unnecessarily belligerent fashion, because she hasn't really had time to put her intimidation face on, so she's going to have to make do with less refined tactics.

The New Guy ignores her in favor of drifting sideways into the office like some kind of spectre.

She follows him, because when Mitarashi Anko asks a question—even an admittedly asinine one—the universe bends its fabric to provide answers, so why shouldn't some random New Guy?

"Hey, you!" she snaps. "I asked what you were looking at!"

He blinks again, which he seems to do so sparely that when he does it constitutes an entire separate action in and of itself. She wonder if his alleged bloodline is some kind of nictitating membrane over the eye that eliminates the ordinary human need to blink. It's so disgusting it's actually kind of awesome, but before she has time to navigate this semantic quandary he speaks, and then this charitable thought disintegrates into the ether.

"I was not aware," he says politely, "that I was looking at you at all."

Anko stares. Possibly he's also "not aware" of what the fuck he's saying, which is entirely possible, because nobody says things like I was not aware unless they're really, really not aware to begin with. If that's what they're calling it these days.

"Are you trying to imply something?"

He blinks again. "Not that I was aware of."

Obviously, greater self-awareness should be cultivated here. Cultivated with a sharp and/or excruciatingly heavy object. Anko hisses and snaps one hand downward, snakes shooting from her sleeve as she does so, coiling forth to shroud the New Guy in a satisfying haze of scales and sharp teeth before he can so much as offer another of his infuriating blinks.

This is the plan, anyway.

~X~

"It's fucking disgusting!" she later howls in pain and rage, as her teacher slides the shards of bone from her skin. "The hell kind of bloodline—"

"You would not have had to experience it in such a personal fashion had you not attacked him," says Orochimaru, gingerly removing what looks like an entire clavicle embedded in her thigh. "Kimimaro-kun acted in self-defense."

"But—bones!" she cries. "Sensei, you have to warn for that stuff! I mean, it's nasty—"

She realizes she is talking to someone who is in the habit of projectile vomiting himself at enemies while simultaneously shedding his own skin, and so shuts up. She has a name to mull over now anyway, so she concentrates on this. Orochimaru swabs the inflamed skin around her leg with disapproval, which is quite the thing, really, because no one but Orochimaru could make something like swabbing seem disapproving.

"So his name's Kimimaro?" she asks, in what she thinks is a subtle fashion.

Orochimaru narrows his eyes at her. "I have brought him to Aibara under…precarious…circumstances," he says. "You would do well to treat him properly for the remainder of his stay."

"I was totally going to ask his name so I could do that," she says loftily, all the more so because this is a complete lie. "I mean—make him feel welcome, and stuff."

"I believe you have done enough of that for now."

"Sensei! Seriously—"

"Kaguya Kimimaro," says Orochimaru suddenly. "His name is Kaguya Kimimaro. He is a Kirigakure survivor."

She scowls. You can't pick on survivors of the Kirigakure massacres. You just can't. It's a violation of some unspoken international code of warfare, or something, which doesn't make any sense, because they're shinobi and it's unclear why they even have any sort of ethical norms to begin with. Orochimaru, who has been known to make snide remarks on this subject in the past, doesn't even seem to register his stunning hypocrisy in bringing it up.

"Fine," she sulks, because sometimes, even the No. 1 Protégé needs to act like one. "I'll be nice, sensei. If you want me to."

"How very kind of you to offer," says Orochimaru maddeningly, and that's that.

~X~

Having been the recipient of a vast and unfathomable kindness, she understands it better than most people do, so she knows that's not what it is.

She doesn't have a word for it, though, because it's spelled out in strange splattered letters: two bodies in a broken S at the base of a ravine, the upside-down U of a little girl's parabola mouth, the swinging lowercase B's of glinting earrings. She's been an orphan all her life, but because of Orochimaru and his private dormitory, she's never had to balance a checkbook or palm a dirty coin on the street, as she knows other children do. Children who aren't fortunate enough to gain a place at Aibara—look at that kid, Hatake Kakashi. A ward of the state, and Anko would eat nettles before signing herself over to that kind of existence.

But although she's never had to manage money herself, she understands it very well, particularly the principle of debt, which has congealed in rust-strokes over the doorways and metal boxes of her childhood since she knew enough to recognize it. Iron-scented and blood-tasting, and sometimes she coughs it up, kneeling before her teacher in the dirt as the snakes twine around her forearms. Her knees worn steel-smooth by years of scuffs and scars, so that she can no longer pull away the tissue to learn what the skin looks like beneath it.

She understands what it means to owe someone, and so at first what she did for him was just simple numbers in a ledger, crosses and balances and strikethroughs as debt after debt was found and repaid. She doesn't know when, exactly, the devotion came in, insidious and flaking off layers of charred green decay—but it was there, somehow, like a half-chewed secret caught between her back teeth.

She doesn't mind, though. She's his, and that's enough for her. She thinks, maybe, it might be enough for him too.

~X~

Within a week, it's clear that Kaguya Kimimaro has been brought to Aibara dormitory for some obscure reason. He doesn't train with the rest of them, but has a separate stretch of ground set aside for him, near the modifications laboratory where Yamato and the other test cases go for their weekly checkups. This leads Anko to suspect that Kimimaro must be a test case himself, although the fact that he already seems to have a bloodline renders him unsuitable for this purpose.

"I know Orochimaru-sensei likes kids with bloodlines," she muses one day, at a significantly low volume so as not to convey how much this statement chafes. "But—not like that! Why the hell are you so immature?"

Kotetsu stops snickering and sends the kunai soaring back at her. They're using one of Orochimaru's special training tricks, kunai with little drag chutes attached, to practice adjustment for wind. Kotetsu, neither a bloodline clan member nor a test case, has already declared weaponry as a specialization and is infuriatingly good at this, while Anko hasn't actually used kunai since she learned to summon snakes. It's the boss's signature finish, after all, and therefore, more than good enough for her. She's just doing the kunai thing to kill time while they wait for Yamato, who is at the moment in the laboratory running through mokuton drills while Orochimaru takes notes. She feels a little frisson of jealousy and shakes it away. Her kunai glints menacingly and thuds in the ground about five feet away from Kotetsu.

"I don't know," says Kotetsu. "It is a little weird, you have to admit. His bloodline's so unique it's not like anyone's going to derive any benefit from Orochimari-sensei studying him."

"Maybe not in Konoha, but there could be others with that—what's it called? Shiko—shika—"

"Shikotsumyaku," says Yamato suddenly, appearing almost from nowhere and looking like he's been pummelled with a basket of leeches, which is routine after his checkups. "And there's no one anymore. His clan's dead."

No one really reacts to this, because Aibara is full of orphans. It's the reason the dormitory was established to begin with. Anko chews on her bottom lip and ducks as Kotetsu's kunai clips past her ear at ungodly speeds, burying itself with a sound thwack! in the swathe of wood Yamato's just thrown out to receive it. She nods brusquely at him and digs it out. "How d'you know?" she asks.

"He told me. We had lunch together while waiting for our checkups."

Anko drops the kunai, both because it might sort of be an honest fumble and because she is heartbrokenly betrayed, and stuff. It makes her want to chew on her internal organs a little, or maybe Yamato's. Be nice, sure—but they don't have to hang out with the guy, particularly when it's basically an edict of solidarity and the entire hidden village that you eat lunch with your genin team, the guys who've taken senbon and whacks to the head for you, gotten the runs with you on particularly shitty missions in all sense of the word, spent the night before the chuunin exams getting trashed with you and still managed to get you through the Forest of Death in a manageable number of pieces the next day and godammit, you eat lunch with those fuckers because if you don't there's no point to having a genin team at all, and she kind of wants to say this when Kaguya fucking Kimimaro steps out of nowhere and the conversation banks left and smashes into the ground in a smoking heap of rubble.

"Hello," he says, mistakenly under the impression that it would be a good idea to address her. "I have been sent to train with you."

Well, hell no.

"Well, hell no," she grates out. "Team Orochimaru trains by itself, thanks. Anyway, we're just on our way to get…uh, haircuts—"

"Orochimaru-sama sent me," he says insistently. Anko narrows her eyes. There's an odd sort of reverence in his voice, percolating and shimmering slightly like poured water, and it feels a little unsteady, a little wrong to be hearing it in a voice that's not her own. Before she can say anything he reaches into his shirt—some pale lilac thing, which appears to be falling off, what the fuck?—and produces a slip of paper covered in a neat spidery handwriting, bearing such phrases as "no one more responsible" and "as my protégé" and other words she wants to slip into her mouth and roll around like sugar candy, slipsweet forbidden and sticky on her fingers. She runs her tongue over her lips.

"Well…okay," she says, because…okay. "Whatever. Grab a kunai."

~X~

He's never used a kunai before. Anko wants to laugh at this until he shrugs, says, "I have always managed with these," and, with an odd slurping sound, yanks out his own shoulderblades.

She spends the rest of the training session behind a punching pole, throwing up every meal she's ever had in her life.

~X~

But once she gets used to it, Kimimaro's fighting is the first thing in her life she'll ever call beautiful knowing that that's exactly what she means to say. His bones are wavetips in a slipstream of whirling water, the lilac sleeves billowed around him like sails, all unimaginable speed and twirling gyroscope rotation; the movement of the world turning as he wheels about a fixed point. She doesn't even notice the shard of bone shooting out at waist-height before it gores her in the stomach, so entranced is she by the liquid ease of the rest of his movements.

"I am sorry," he says afterwards, although this is so much bullshit. Kotetsu nearly pisses himself laughing, and Orochimaru says nothing as he staunches the blood flow and wraps a tourniquet around her midsection.

She sulks for the rest of the day, because letting pretty boys with bloodline limits beat her is an insult she hasn't had to bear since that disastrous encounter with Uchiha Obito's freak of a cousin. Who really doesn't count anyway.

"I am sorry," Kimimaro says again at dinnertime, interrupting Orochimaru's routine dinner lecture to fling the apology at her across the table. She pauses, chopsticks suspended over her second course, narrowing her eyes. Everyone is staring. A piece of food actually falls out of Kotetsu's mouth, and what's even more disturbing, no one says anything. Yamato eventually clears his throat and wrenches the conversation back into some semblance of normality, as is his habit, but the damage has already been done.

"I am sorry," Kimimaro repeats later, taking a firm grip of her wrist as they're making their way towards their rooms for the night. She twists abruptly to disengage, as she's been taught, but the bony knob at his wrist extends itself from his skin and curls itself about her fingers, trapping her in place. For his part he simply watches, pale eyes unblinking.

"Do you realize that's fucking gross?" she asks finally, because someone needs to tell him this.

He completely ignores this. "I am sorry," he repeats dutifully.

"Why do you keep saying that?"

"I did not mean to hurt you," he explains. "Hence I am apologizing."

She suddenly realizes that no one has actually ever said this to her before, although she's been hurt during training more times than she can think of. Yamato simply pauses and waits for her to collect herself; Kotetsu makes snide quasi-suicidal remarks; Orochimaru, of course, says nothing, just rips her intestines out yard over yard with his eviscerating glare. This, now that she thinks of it, is probably why the words are so uncomfortable to her, pooling over and under her bones like rasping grains of sand. But with this realization something shifts—a strange waxy liquid slides under the surface of her skin, coaxes out a quickened heartbeat, sets her pulse jumping against Kimimaro's fingers.

"Yeah," she says, stunned and a little scared. "I forgive you. Or…whatever." Fuck. She doesn't know how to do this.

He nods as if this is completely understandable.

"I knew you would."

"That so?"

A nod, and the bone cage retreats into his forearm. Then he smiles, as slow and whirling as the rest of his movements—and it's a problem, because if this were a fight, she'd be leaving herself open again, no doubt about it, and then the whole farce would repeat itself.

"You are supposed to forgive me," he says patiently. "Because you are my friend."

~X~

The next day she splits her knuckles open and knocks out one of Kotetsu's teeth for daring to laugh about this incident, which means that he refuses to speak to her until Kimimaro serenely regrows it for him.

Orochimaru tells her she is maudlin and impractical and heals it up right away, but oddly, enough, she doesn't really care.

~X~

They're given permission to take Kimimaro to a summer festival, after much wheedling (by which is meant two extra hours extracting brain fluid from swine before they can leave). The much-extolled social bonding of the festival turns out to be so much hyperbole: Orochimaru escorts them to the gates and then vanishes, Yamato mysteriously falls behind somewhere around one of the ramen stands, and Kotetsu abruptly saunters off, his self-congratulatory anecdote gaining several decibels of volume at first sight of a harried-looking Izumo.

This leaves her standing there alone with Kimimaro, who is absently palming his brachial bones, apparently under the delusion that some sort of intense training is about to commence. She rolls her eyes and forces him to stick them back into his arms, relishing the way several passerby turn slightly green as they pass.

"We're not going to train?" he asks in some confusion.

"No, you moron," she says, rolling her eyes. "It's a festival. Come on, I'll buy you some mitarashi dango."

She buys him some mitarashi dango. He doesn't like it. She doesn't know what the hell kind of person doesn't like mitarashi dango, but he doesn't, so she eats the rest of it. It's only a little weird.

Kimimaro likes the games the best, probably because he's somehow deluded himself that they're some kind of training exercise. He does wonderfully at the ring tosses and nails all the dartboards despite never having held a dart in his life, but it's the races he loves best. As the starter goes off he flies, sleeves inflating to sails behind him as he shoots forward, green eyes kindled as the night blurs around him. His flight burns across her retinas and glints in the waiting air like incandescent liquor in a glass, and when he finishes, whirling to a stop precisely at the finish line, the festivalgoers burst into applause all around him, frightening him badly. But his eyes find hers, and she grins. He smiles, an odd broken thing, but beautiful, so that she feels like she's been socked in the gut. She gasps, because of all the things she expected, this wasn't it.

On top of the Hokage tower, they sit, crunching apples. The juice runs down her chin, but his is clean.

"I like this place," he tells her, extraneously, and because he didn't need to, it's all the better. She could be okay with another head beside hers as they lie back on the skylight, which is about two hundred years old and probably some kind of unstable and imminently breakable, but for now, it supports them just fine. She could be okay with a sky that looks like this one above them, as smooth and liquid as the music that seeps towards it in tendrils of smoke, laughter and festival-goers and everything smooth, clean, waxy as the curve of his jawline. And she's watched her life shape itself in metallic lines, chipped iron or nocked steel or the impersonal brass of honor medals that turn green with decay, but this is like nothing metallic at all. No sharp corners, no taste of blood. Debts, cancelled. Blank ledgers, wide-open eyes.

When she kisses him, it's like spreading her coat wide and coasting over the buildings below them, a girl without a tether drifting unworried and unemcumbered across the glittering lights of the village.

~X~

He's fifteen and he barely understands what a kiss is, so he thinks it's all right to come up to her in public, palm the back of her head, and press his lips to hers, usually right in the middle of training or editing mission scrolls or throttling Kotetsu or some other awkward situation. It's hardly surprising that within a week, everyone at Aibara knows about it, whatever it happens to be.

For her part, she's just weirded out. It's great in a lot of ways—she has to admit, he's kind of hot when he's not doing something like absentmindedly pulling his spine out of his neck—but in other ways, it's scary as hell. His weird sense of honor, which is a word she's never even thought until he halts a fight to allow her to grasp her bearings, or calmly leaves boxes of dango on her desk when she doesn't show up at dinner. Scary, because these debts rack up more than she can count, and she doesn't know if she can repay them, doesn't know why she gets an odd filthy feeling in the pit of her stomach when she thinks of repaying at all.

"I think it's cute," says Yuuhi Kurenai snippily, and Anko throws a roll of bandages at her head, because cute is not really the word, and it's obvious that a flower-receiving, family-dinner-attending twit like Kurenai doesn't mean anything like this seriously, because her brain's obviously been addled by all the time she spends receiving flowers and attending family dinners with her prat boyfriend, Sarutobi Asuma. Anko rolls her eyes at this sort of thing. Rolls them sohard she can practically feel her optical nerves rupturing.

She tells herself it doesn't really mean anything that when Kurenai brings her fishnets as a make-up present, she starts wearing them.

~X~

Orochimaru sighs his long-suffering Every day I spend in the company of teenagers is like a knife to my genitalia sigh. Then he presents her with a set of contraceptives. Which, it's not like that's unappreciated or anything, but. Really.

Before she gets a chance to do anything about them, there's a war.

~X~

The Third Shinobi World War, or something, and Team Orochimaru is deployed to the sourthernmost border—interrogations duty, which she can't stand, but one skirmish with the Iwa nin and their signature explosives and she understands that melee combat would be suicide at this point in time.

She's appointed jonin in a hasty ceremony no one else attends, just the Hokage, terse mouth and broken shoulders snapping next as she receives her commendations and files out of the room, trading glances with a serene Hatake Kakashi being ushered in after her. Her teacher, before leaving to wage his own offensive miles north of their outpost, reminds her that everything is a learning experience.

So she learns. She learns that most people have a severe phobia of snakes, after the first four enemy shinobi have broken down at the feeling of her scaled summons sliding over and under their shirts and sinking poisonless fangs into their wrists, screaming, crying, vomiting, offering her information with bruised and bleeding mouths. She remembers everything with a sharp, starving clarity and reports it dutifully back to the base. Kotetsu writes her words down, although one day she flips open his reports to check a statistic and finds a letter instead—I don't know if you'll get this, Izu, but—and after that, she doesn't look through his papers again.

Yamato makes coffins.

At night, all of them wait by the wires to send coded messages, holding their lanterns in front of them and ignoring the shadows that trace grey fractals across their faces. Her voice sounds odd on the wires.

"Send back word if you're alive," she ends up saying finally, and the telegraph operator gives her an odd look. But she is a kunoichi, well aware of the economy of war and words, and even as she hands over her copper coins she already knows her message was the most appropriately worded of anyone's—the crying entreaties, the feverish declarations of love, the somnambulist pleas Kotetsu feeds into the machines. She envisions long ropes of numbers, oddly immeasurable despite their logic, stretching away with the wires across the plains and somewhere, to forested lands she knows well, where her teacher will decode them as easily as he decodes the movements of stars.

War makes her dirty and coats her with grime from the inside out, but when she receives word from a captured Iwa-nin that a living skeleton of a boy, fighting on the side of Konoha, has secured a stretch of border close to their encampment, she is empty and pure as an angel. Only days away, and she can wait.

He stumbles into the campsite on the exact night of her sixteenth birthday. "Fuck," she says, and then she breaks down all along the dirty lines of mud on her skin, her tangled unkempt hair, the tearstains she hasn't noticed until this moment. The signal flares behind them light his face in short bursts, shade his cheekbones a perilous twilight hue that she knows she will somehow carry with her—among all the greys and browns and blacks of the war, something true, a single perfect color like a note of music.

"Fuck," she says again. "You're so—so clean."

He draws her towards him then, because his body is and has always been a cage. But with two people inside it, even a cage might not be that bad. She smooths invisible dust away from his collarbones and comes upon a small black mark, three little seals curling in one another like conspiring insects.

"What's this?" she asks.

"Orochimaru-sama did it," he says. "It is…powerful." She waits for the flare of jealousy, but then she thinks of the explosions at the border, and the distance stretching away in unfeeling miles between then, and she's okay with this. The thought scares her more than anything else has, because she can feel herself losing her bearings for him. The taste of iron fills her mouth. She's let him—let him—

"Well, good," she finds herself saying, in a harsh voice that barely sounds like her own. "Glad something's keeping you safe, idiot, because I don't think you could do it on—on your own…"

He tilts his forehead against hers and closes his eyes, hands mapping a smooth curve over the small of her back. As he always has been, he is the center, a moment of peace and graceful vertigo among the unfamiliar lurching everything has become. She thinks that she could die the next day, not for duty, but out of the need for this to be the last that she remembers.

~X~

But as it is, the war ends, and the last of it she remembers is actually Hatake Kakashi's eyes, both a different kind of red, as he falls to his knees in the dirt and throws Iwa's white flag in front of them. It's over. It's over, and they return home.

~X~

Funerals and festivals alike, and the months pass. Sunlight seems somehow rawer, a ragged dirty thing, and when she goes up on the tower there's not enough of it, so she comes back down. He watches her quietly, because he doesn't know what else to do.

Sometimes she hates him. Sometimes she rages at him and kicks him and spits at him, one day knocking him through two of Aibara's immaculate walls, but he never does anything to mitigate this.

"What do you know?" she screams one day, and her voice sandpapers and hurts in her throat, hurts more than her words probably hurt him, but she doesn't care. "You're some kind of retard, and Orochimaru-sensei just took you in because he feels sorry for you, you're a monster, a freak—"

He turns his head to the side, his silvery hair slanting over his face like a curtain of rain, and says nothing.

One day all the days of saying nothing catch up to him, or something, because right there in the queue for their midday meal he begins to talk, short clipped sentences, a story of a cage and a Kirigakure war and a man with glinting earrings, holding out a flower. A war story, hideous and marred like burned, blistering flesh, but in his mouth it becomes liquid and pastel-colored. The flourescent lights wash him paler than usual.

"I am sorry I do not understand," he says. "I had hoped—I had hoped I would be able to learn, here. With you."

That night she sneaks into his room. She has intentions of some sort, because she brings her contraceptives wrapped up in a paper bag. But what ends up happening is just both of them sitting there, broken against the wall like a wave, moonlight washing them clean and clean again. He's still learning, note by note, the strange ethereal melody of human desire, but what she doesn't tell him then, although she knows she should, is that she needs to learn it too. He has been someone to lose in the war, and that's the single thing, in all her years, that she has never needed or wanted. But he's caught up with her in a sudden torrential downpour of need and want and hatred, soaking her through her clothes and her skin. Once she was sunlit and golden and all on top of the world, though it's impossible to imagine now. She shivers, butterfly bones caught inside a chrysalis of wrapped-paper skin and hair that chafes like a penance shirt. Mouth slack, eyes wide, her body as glowing and flexible as a new-forged sword. Without her notice, love has made her raw and real.

Kimimaro cups her shoulder in his hand. She brushes with her fingers the small black mark on his skin, the red clan symbol on his forehead. Time moves, the world spins.

"We will build a better world," he says. "It will never happen again."

She thinks she knows what we means, so she's surprised when the next thing he says is "Orochimaru-sama will make sure of it."

~X~

The jonin start disappearing approximately five months later. Anko clocks her hours in the till by the lab and helps her teacher as she always has before missions, but one day she finds a bloodstained vest she recognizes, from some lackey she'd been assigned a recon with, and shoves it into a body bag so quickly she almost sprains her hand. She's not ready to look.

Scrolls go out, littered with phrases like "investigation" and "experimentation" and she finds herself in lunchtime arguments with civilians, saying for the village's benefit and look at Yamato, look how much the mokuton's helped him. Still, rumors grow like swamp water, insidious and pooling dirtily around her ankles. She asks her teacher, because she's the No. 1 Protégé, and it's her job. She ignores the fact that no one else at Aibara will.

"You know what gossip is," says Orochimaru coldly. "I am amazed that a girl like you would pay heed to this kind of vicious slander."

"But the vest—"

"Shigure-san was already dead when I recovered his body. You're suggesting that medical science be ignored in favor of civilian sentimentality?'

"Well, no,but—"

"Kimimaro-kun," he says, noting the way she swallows awkwardly at the sound of his name, "assists me in these experiments. If you are no longer willing to pull your weight, Anko, I have no further need of you."

The list of her debts is a thing that chokes and clanks like a chain. She knows she will stay, even as she opens her mouth to affirm it.

~X~

When the Aibara test cases begin dying, one after another, she bites her lip to bleeding, but she still stays.

~X~

The night the Yondaime is inaugarated, her entire team goes out to celebrate, although she can't help sneaking glances at Orochimaru, who leaves the ceremonry almost without looking back. She loses awareness of all this quickly enough, because Kotetsu keeps pouring her sake and someone is trying to teach Kimimaro how to dance, an endeavor so doomed and hilarious that she doesn't even feel guilty in racking up monetary bets against its success. But weirdly enough, he turns out to be a natural, offering the lame-ass explanation that his attacks are graceful enough to pass as dances, and there are many similarities between—whatever, it begins to blur after a few more drinks, and then she's whirling around the bar with him, knocking over tables and laughing raucously, effortlessly, at the sight of his smile. He doesn't say a single word about Orochimaru-sama, which is fine because it's not a name she wants to hear right now. When she kisses him on the mouth in front of everyone, grinning into the curve of his lips, she feels justified in doing it. They're messy, broken children, not much of shinobi or human beings at all, really, but for the kind of lives they've led, they can't ask for much more than that.

They can't ask, but they've gotten it anyway. The fact that there's a them at all, solid and true amidst the candlelight and low murmurs of friends, is remarkable in itself. She's happy, she's uncomplicatedly happy, and in that moment, she thinks, she could run across the sky.

When she stumbles home to the dormitory, she goes by to check in on her teacher and finds him sitting on a chair in the corner, his legs crossed and his fingers steepled on a desk. His scalpel and a few unfamiliar-looking scrolls are stacked in front of him. Lamplight cuts parallelograms of soft gold across his desk, washing his eyes almost iridiscent when he finally turns to look at her. There is a terrifying sobriety about him. The aura of a coiled, waiting thing. But she is stumbling and drunk on all sorts of poisons, and she thinks, one more, because he deserves to be happy too—

It's the last time she will see him like this, but she doesn't know it.

"Ah, Anko," he says, in a voice that should inform her what he's waiting for. "Come in. I would like to try something."

She steps in and shuts the door behind her.

~X~

Pain—

--and then darkness—

—and then fire.

~X~

The official report reads:

Mitarashi Anko was recovered from Aibara dormitory with a high fever. Half of her body was covered in black marks. She appeared to be delirious at the time of her recovery. She was admitted to Konoha General Hospital at about two A.M.

~X~

The official report reads:

Orochimaru has escaped the perimeters of the village. Thirteen dead children and the morgue reports of approximately twenty-seven jonin were retrieved from his laboratory records. Pursuit squads have been mobilized. The former Sannin has been declared missing-nin, and the Fourth has authorized ANBU invovement. Aibara dormitory is to be disbanded, as it is now clear that it served as a front for illegal experimentation.

~X~

The official report reads:

The whereabouts of Kaguya Kimimaro, an orphan cared for by Orochimaru, are presently unknown.

~X~

He's gone, and Anko says: how could you?

Says: you traitorous fuck, do you have any idea what you were doing?

Says: You'll come back, right?

Right?

But she doesn't say any of this to him, just stares it out the window of her hospital room and sends insubstantial messages flying in the wind like kites, tugging on their strings to bring them home when it becomes clear they're slipping away from her. Ice solidifies and cracks and spreads beneath her feet. She's balancing, oscillating madly and not finding what she's looking for. She asks for a mirror and drags her green gown over her shoulder. The nurses look at one another apprehensively, but she snarls at them with teeth and rage, and no one says anything.

The mark on her neck is the exact inverse of his. She palms it and pinches it and doesn't say anything at all.

~X~

She's been balancing ledgers in her mind since she was a kid, because when you're a parentless girl-turned-kunoichi that's what you do, live your life in columns that add and subtract themselves so that you don't go insane with the pain and promise of everything. So she knows, as well as it can be known, that you measure your loves as you measure anything else. Smile for smile, touch for touch, memory for memory, until each person is their own set of clean numbers, and you can smooth out the wrinkles and set them in their places like so many chess pieces. Outranking and outweighing, natural processes. Constantly prioritizing. One over another. One choice made, one person chosen. She's always held her loves before her on invisible silver scales, and she's never begrudged anyone else the chance to do so either, because she knows that's the way you survive in a world filled with endless sacrifices.

But, she thinks now, she always kind of thought she was the type who'd outweigh others on his set of scales, because he had—he always had—outweighed everything else on hers.

~X~

She claws her way out of that lightless place screaming and dragging herself back towards people—Kotetsu, and Yamato, and the rest of her classmates standing around the circle of light at the edge with their hands all outstretched. She rips her nails on the sides of her pit, burns her voice out yelling obscenities agains the dark walls of her cage, and then finally she's back, skinned and bleeding and hurting so hard she can barely move some days, but they take her for walks in the sun-stained gardens of the hospital grounds, feed her food in small sweet quantities, and one day she walks out, signing her name on the ledger with a hand that doesn't shake. Yamato and Kotetsu meet her at the gates, but she walks straight past them.

That's how Hatake Kakashi finds her. They eat a dismal meal in silence, their eyes dry and hard. Afterwards she pushes him backwards onto his dirty mattress, in his bare and hideous prison of a house; she hisses at him, draws snakes from her voice and her nails and her fingers, and he turns his eyes away and watches the wall behind her as she rocks, rocks like a wreck adrift in the sea.

~X~

For eight days she loses herself in Konoha's loudest, most dismal bars, places where she knows no one but everyone knows her, and lets men with unshaven faces bury themselves between her thighs, laughing and clinking glasses of beer as they rib one another about the snake lady, how easy she is, how raw. The bars smell like urine and regret. Soon she starts to smell that way too. She makes it home three nights out of five, or maybe it's not home, maybe it's just some vomit-caked gutter in the red-light district; she doesn't know.

On the ninth day, the golden-haired Yondaime backhands some tramp away from her and pushes her against a rain-slick brick wall. She opens her mouth for his, laughing at the expectation of what she is about to receive, but he backhands her too, blue eyes emotionless and full to the brim with leadership, for there's nothing else she can call it.

"Mitarashi-san," he says. "You are a kunoichi of Konohagakure, and you are in my service. You will conduct yourself as befits your station, or consider yourself relieved of your position."

She spits in his face. He casts a genjutsu that knocks her out like a drug. She wakes up in his own bed, his red-haired wife swathing a cool cloth over her head. She's only awake for a moment, sunlight washing the edges of her vision cotton-soft and watery, and when she wakes up again it's the next morning. The village is crying once again, for the Kyuubi has come and gone, and the man who has saved her is dead.

~X~

And so she survives, in the end, not for willpower, and not for love, but—and this is the irony of her life, so incessant and stubbornly persistent that she laughs and laughs and laughs—to repay a debt.

~X~

She sees her teammates leaning against the punching poles of their old training ground. It's a misty, chilly sort of day, and both of them are wearing cloaks that flutter wildly when they jump to their feet, catching sight of her. She stands in front of them not quite knowing what to say, because regret's a choking thing welling up in each of their throats, making their voices hard to hear and sending ghosts whispering along their vocal cords. Hurting and burning, all torn up in their own ways. But—

But. Her genin team. And she's all cut open and running red with love, she bleeds it in messy spattering arcs all over them, but they won't care. She knows that already.

"We're going to live," she says, somehow assembling a grin. It comes out crooked, and smashed—she knows this because theirs do too, but she remembers an uncertain smile at a summer festival, and she thinks a smile like this is maybe the best kind. "So stop moping, you lazy fucks. We're going to build a better village."

And Kimimaro-in-her-memory, as smooth and white as the surface of milk, begins to say "Orochimaru-sama will make sure—"

But she says "We'll make sure of it," and surprisingly, it's her voice that's the loudest of all.

~X~

She does things with her years. Picks up a laugh and a shirt that earns her quite the reputation. Ranks all the dango stalls in the village first to last, and patronizes them all nonetheless. Younger kunoichi look at her with dazzled respect in their eyes, which she hates, which she wants to stab out of their faces, but it's their own ledger to balance. She realizes, somewhere between missions, that this feeling means she kind of likes kids, the stupid little fucks. She signs up to proctor the chuunin exam, and Kotetsu smirks at first, but signs up right alongside her with Izumo.

She used to hate the way she fell in love with things, desperate and bitter and oh god, this can't be happening—but now she laughs and knocks it back like burning liquor, slamming her glass back on the table and asking for more. Because life isn't much, loving like this, but it's even less without it. This time she becomes Konoha's, bone and marrow. Her loyalty is battered and her body isn't much better, but she thinks—if you'll have this, if you'll be the thing I need to love, I'll win wars for you. I'll break down walls for you. I'll die for you.

I'll live for you, because I already am. Let me, let me—

The village lets her, and some days, when the rain and the sun are both sparkling at the same time—stupid Konoha weather, what the hell?—she shrugs her jacket off and feels it on every pore of her skin, soft and solid all at the same time, but love is like that, right?

Ultimately, she's okay with that.

~X~

But the real test of her freedom comes in a forest. Sunlight dappling over the bark of trees, stippling Orochimaru's ageless white face with leaf flickers. She stands there, and she waits. She looks inside the hollowed-out place inside of her and wonders where that metallic sense of debt has gone, because she spent years cultivating guilt and longing and love inside her like an anthem in faltering movements, but there's nothing now, just a sweet humming in her bones and the comforting beat of her heart, which continues and continues just to keep her alive.

And then she hears the voices of children somewhere in the forest and there's something there, love flaring into life under her breastbone. The scale crashes down on the side of her village, because she's a wounded animal, yes, it's true, but she can bite and she can bleed and she can kill for what she loves.

She draws a kunai and licks it. Smiles. And then she charges.

~X~

Some wounds, though. Her curse seal. The line of her mouth, hard and cruel no matter how much she laughs. The half-moon marks of her clenching fingernails when an ANBU report comes back to her—

recovery of the body of one Kaguya Kimimaro—

Some wounds.

~X~

Someone, she reflects, finally got a rise out of the bastard.

His mouth is open in a silent roar. Shizune, the medic assigned to their retrieval team, runs fingers across his torso and his throat, brow furrowed as she checks his nonexistent pulse and the scars of disease inside his mouth.

"Tuberculosis," she says tentatively. "But—but it looks like general weakening because of the bloodline limit, the Shiko…Shi—"

"Shikotsumyaku," says Anko automatically.

Shizune gives her a weird look. "All right," she says. "Well…I guess that's that, then. Do you want to take him back to Konoha?"

"Yeah," says Anko. "Godaime-sama probably wants to do an autopsy. Besides, he's dead. Not going to do any harm."

But that night, when they pitch camp next to the dead man's field of bones, she crosses over to him, wearing ordinary jonin fatigues with her jacket on top. She's still waiting for old wounds to reopen, but when she looks at him, everything's the same, wind whistling in the trees, her palms cool and open from their position at her sides. But years have taught her vigilance. She's sure that without warning, she could be sixteen again, and the fact of his death could shatter and spread in her veins like a poison that doesn't die.

But there's no poison, only an old tiredness, like spaces which once held a raging river. She kneels besides the body and nudges his curse seal, still a perfect inverse of hers. Completion, herself and his, like pieces that were born to grow into one another, like the calling and answering notes of an echo.

"I'll show you mine if you'll show me yours," she mutters, and then bites her lip. "Stupid fuck."

It's growing inside her, glistening and raw, because she's not sixteen anymore, but she's Anko and he's Kimimaro and that's always evoked the same reaction. She bends her head over his body and rests her forehead on his chest.

All you can do, she knows, is wait for it to pass.

~X~

He is cremated unceremoniously after his autopsy. From the top of the Hokage tower, stirring her finger in a glass of something saccharine and suicidal, she sees the smoke curling towards the sky.

"Sorry," she says. "I wasn't a very good friend."

The lights of the vendors come on one after another as the night approaches, bright-lit signs that have been the same since she was a little girl. Far to the east, the remains of what used to be Aibara domitory turn pink and seashell-smooth in the sunset. Wind comes from god knows where, bringing with it the scent of food. She realizes she's hungry. The desires of the body, after all, are immutable, no matter how love and its forces wax and wane.

She laughs, shoves her bottle into her satchel. She might get mitarashi dango, or maybe something proper, maybe a real dinner. Maybe she'll go over to Kotetsu and Izumo's, get them to make her something. Maybe. That'll work. They'll do it, too, the idiots. And she realizes that, if she could cook worth shit, she'd do the same for them.

Kimimaro chose Orochimaru-sama, and she's spent years waiting for someone to choose her, waiting for the village or friends or someone to place her before everything else, as she's always done. Now she knows, with a clarity as pure as the last shaft of light across the sky, that maybe she should've been the one to choose herself from the very beginning. Maybe that's the only debt left to repay, and maybe she'll spend the rest of her life doing that, balancing numbers and finding all the ways they add up to her own happiness.

She smirks. Figures, figures. She should have known.

Somehow, she's okay with that.

~X~

end