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Hardest of hearts

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It is an end, a finale, a curtain-fall. Orochimaru lies on the cold, damp ground and tries to breathe past the obstruction in his lungs, past the unexpected pang at seeing Tsunade fall and Konoha swept off the map by a madman, past the sword embedded in his chest and pinning him to the ground like some sort of scientific curiosity, a butterfly on a card.

There's a shuffle of footsteps by his head, but Orochimaru doesn’t bother looking, doesn’t even open his eyes. It’s not an enemy, of that he’s certain—there's no reason for an enemy to linger here, after all. Orochimaru is dying, inches from that final, ultimate death he’s always fought so hard to escape. Anything done now will only hasten the inevitable end. He’d welcome it, truly, no matter how much he once resisted, because this is pain and failure and heartbreak when he had not thought he had a heart left to break.

But Madara is not so kind, and Orochimaru knows he will keep suffering until he draws his very last breath.

“Hey,” a weary voice says, as a figure settles beside his head, a misshapen shadow falling over him. “Still alive, Snake?”

Orochimaru knows that voice, though not well. Still, it’s enough to make him open his eyes and meet the red-and-black gaze staring down at him.

“Uchiha Obito,” he rasps, and the words hurt, but then, so does everything. “To what do I owe the honor of a deathbed visit?”

Obito, scarred and bloody and clearly weary to the bone, just snorts and sits back on his heels. He only has one eye left, the other transferred once again to the Hatake boy, and the right socket is empty beneath the translucent covering of his eyelid. They’ve been fighting for days now, many of them, and it shows in every shinobi remaining, but Obito perhaps more than most.

“Not an honor,” he corrects wryly. “A fit of desperation, more like.”

Orochimaru can't imagine what he thinks this visit will solve, because Orochimaru is so close to death that he can feel the cold seeping into his bones. He’s always hated the cold. But he inclines his head to show he’s listening, keeping his eyes on Obito's face as the man shifts again, settling a few inches closer.

“We have a chance,” the Uchiha—likely the last Uchiha besides Madara, and Orochimaru feels another sharp pang at the memory of Sasuke falling, dying, because for all his faults he was fond of the boy—says simply, and his expression is steady. “I've been holding a bit of power back, and I've got enough left for one last try with Kamui.”

A cough wracks Orochimaru's body, sends agony flaring in starbursts and streaks through him as he jolts, and he would laugh if he could, if he didn’t think the pain of it would kill him. “Teleporting?” he rasps. “Uchiha, I think we are far past the point when such a thing would be applicable.”

But Obito is already shaking his head, reaching out to gently close a hand around Kusanagi’s hilt where it protrudes from above Orochimaru's breastbone. “Not teleportation, and not intangibility.” There's a slant to his mouth, a tilt to his brows that speaks of savage satisfaction, a dark pride Orochimaru is more than familiar with. Rather than elaborating, though, Obito pins Orochimaru with a sharp look, steady and icy. “You’ve been fighting with us,” he says. “You’ve expressed remorse for what’s happened, and for Jiraiya's death. Is that still how you feel?”

Orochimaru really does laugh at him this time, regardless of the agony it brings. “More than you can know,” he whispers, once he’s no longer about to convulse from pain. “I chose a different path, chose to follow my students, and regardless this is what that man has brought the world to. I regret, Uchiha, so very much.”

Truth, without embellishment or guile behind it, and Orochimaru half-wishes that it weren’t. Sasuke chose this path, chose another way, and Orochimaru had chosen his students over his neutrality, had picked to follow when he could have retreated. He’d done it for the sake of a team he once abandoned, his last living connection to his past as a loyal shinobi, and had lasted just long enough to see every last bit of that past wiped away like so much irritating dust before Madara's vast power.

Kusanagi shifts slightly in Obito's grip, making Orochimaru tense and grit his teeth, but the Uchiha doesn’t flinch. Orochimaru might admire him for it, if he wasn’t too busy cursing the merciless bastard’s name.

“And if you had another chance? Would you pick the same path?”

With a soft scoff, Orochimaru closes his eyes again, gritting his teeth as he tries to push down the pain that continues to eat away at his nerves. “Repeat a failed path?” he jeers when he can breathe again. “What do you take me for, Uchiha? Jiraiya? But what is the point of useless speculation, boy? Surely you have better things to do.”

There's a long, long pause, and then Obito says mildly, “Kamui creates a dimension entirely separate from this one, isolated except for the bridges I build between the two.”

The theory is fascinating—Orochimaru has spent years studying the Sharingan, and never has he heard of a manifestation of the Sharingan like Obito's. It almost makes him wonder if the boy is purely Uchiha, especially given his deftness with mokuton. The Senju have mostly died out now, true, but thirty years ago there were still a few around. And it would explain why Obito was entirely shunned by his clan, growing up.

But surely this isn't a time for lectures on the working of his bloodline. Orochimaru arches a brow, trying to ignore the coppery wetness bubbling up in the back of his throat, and waits for the point.

Obito smiles at him faintly, as though he can read Orochimaru's thoughts, and reaches out his free hand to lay it over Orochimaru's brow. The touch is warm against Orochimaru's cold skin, a faint comfort though he’ll never say as much, and it very nearly makes Orochimaru miss the man’s next words.

“You know, time is really just another dimension.”

The pieces fall into place like a puzzle finally completed, and Orochimaru stills in absolute, wondering shock.

Time. Kamui creates bridges between a separate dimension and this one, emerging wherever Obito wills it. So simple, and at the same time entirely unique to this battered, scarred man in front of him.

“Why me?” Orochimaru rasps, because it’s a question that’s already burning in his mind, insistent and unyielding to his attempts to shut it out. “I would have thought that, given your change of heart, I would be very close to the last person you would offer such a thing to.”

That earns him another smile, vaguely amused but mostly fatalistic. “Yeah,” the Uchiha agrees, “but you're forgetting something, Snake. Regardless of my turning over a new leaf, I'm still a bastard. And I can recognize another bastard when I see one—namely you. Anyone else would be too soft to do what’s needed. Of those powerful enough who are still alive, Naruto would focus on the small picture, making his precious people safe, and Kakashi would stress about making too many changes. And I need to stay here to control Kamui. But you—you're cold-hearted enough that you won't let anything get in the way of stopping this, and you’ve the motivation to keep it from happening again. And you're a genius, and possibly the most powerful shinobi Konoha has ever produced. It’s simple enough math, isn't it?”

Put like that, Orochimaru supposes it is. “And how do you know—” He breaks off as another wrenching, tearing cough rips through him, staining his lips with blood and leaving him weak and panting shallowly.

Obito just watches him, implacable. “How do I know that you won't use what you know of the future to take over the world yourself? Honestly, Snake, I don’t, and at this point I really couldn’t care less. Even you would be better than the current alternative. Will you do it?”

“You ask that as though there’s a choice.” With the last of his strength, Orochimaru reaches up and closes his fingers over Obito's, tightening his hold on Kusanagi. He braces himself for the pain, for the death that will quickly follow if Obito cannot do what he says he can, but really, at this point, what is there to lose?

Holding his gaze, Obito tips his head in faintly wry acknowledgement. “I've never used Kamui this way before,” is what he says, though. “I'll send you as far back as I'm able, but I have no idea if it will be far enough. And if you do manage to land in a time where you already exist, I don’t know what will happen. Maybe nothing, or maybe two identical souls can't exist in one place at the same time. It could be anything.”

“Do it,” Orochimaru tells him, entirely out of patience with dying and hesitating and debating. They have a chance and that’s enough, no matter how slim it is.

Obito hesitates once more and then nods sharply, and Orochimaru can feel the chakra building around him. His Mangekyo is spinning lazily, bright with power and intent. “Don’t fail,” he says. “Madara is in the Mountain’s Graveyard, an old man dependent on the power of the statue to survive. I trust you can take care of him, and make sure it sticks?”

Orochimaru snorts. “Of course. Would you like me to make it painful? My gift to you, free of charge.”

“That kind of thing always seems to end badly for the one doing it.” Obito looks tired and sad and weary, older than he should be. But then, this war has aged them all, even if it’s only lasted a handful of days. “Just make it quick and permanent, and I’ll consider us even, all right?”

Then, without warning, the wave of chakra crests, and in the same moment Obito yanks Kusanagi straight up out of Orochimaru's chest. Orochimaru can't even scream through the overwhelming agony, every muscle strung as tight as wire and teeth clenched so hard he’s sure the grinding is audible. But before he can curse Obito, or even more, he’s falling, twisting away into a world of darkness and sharp edges and eerie quiet. He has maybe half a second to observe it, another half a heartbeat to brace himself for an impact, but it never comes.

Another warp, a twist, a change, and he’s falling further, through hungry darkness and then down, down, down into brilliant white light.

 

“I think that such an arrangement could be beneficial to the both of us, Orochimaru-kun,” Danzo says, impeccably polite and perfectly amiable, as he pauses in the doorway of Orochimaru's house. His smile is like a knife to the jugular, only barely hidden behind a practiced veneer of civility. “Give it some thought. Anything your heart desires in the way of materials, and all I wish for in return is a little…reciprocal knowledge. A fair trade, wouldn’t you say?”

Orochimaru doesn’t answer, coiled in his chair in the corner like a defensive snake. Golden eyes stare unblinking at the elder, cold and hard. He doesn’t move.

Danzo waits one moment more for a response, then gives in and tips his head before letting himself out.

It’s only after the man’s chakra is entirely out of range of his senses that Orochimaru finally allows his muscles to ease, tension flowing away like muddied water. He flexes his fingers thoughtfully, trying to ignore the tingle of temptation running down his spine, even though he’s been down this path once already. Danzo is good at his game, very nearly flawless, but he has a habit of underestimating the other players.

Or perhaps, Orochimaru thinks with a faint, wry smile, he’s overestimating them. After all, Danzo expects Orochimaru to roll over and play the obedient pawn, to be driven by his lust for knowledge until he’s blind to everything else. To be a merciless, cruel bastard with no redeeming features in his soul, and…

Maybe. Maybe he could be that way. He was once, after all, and had he not landed back in his past body just moments before Danzo knocked at his door, it’s likely he would be again.

But Kamui worked. Orochimaru is thirty-six years old again, in his own body that only bears a handful of modifications, with all the memories and abilities and knowledge of his self from twenty years in the future. He knows the outcome of the war that’s raging, knows what really happened after the Kannabi Bridge incident lost Minato—Yondaime Hokage, now, or soon to be—one of his students.

(Obito, he thinks, eyes narrowing as something like…responsibility, maybe, or guilt, or obligation wells up within him. Obito has reset the doomsday clock, and yet he is still suffering, trapped in a body only half his own, in the hands of the man who will tear the world apart. That is…not right, and Orochimaru knows enough about debts and honor to understand that. Once this is over, he’ll rescue the boy. He’ll go and keep his promise and bring Uchiha Obito home before Madara can corrupt him further.)

And now Danzo has approached him, the way he did last time, and tried to tempt him onto the path that will doubtless lead to his ruin.

Orochimaru turns his head away from the window, mouth tightening. He has few scruples, far fewer than most after fifty years as a full-fledged and high-level shinobi, but…children are a sticking point, one that he can ignore but never entirely shut out. They always have been, and he blames much of it on spending his formative years with two bleeding hearts like Tsunade and Jiraiya. Bad influences, both of them.

Sheer, inescapable sentiment has Orochimaru glancing across the room, to where a framed picture sits in place of pride on his largest bookshelf. Two boys and a girl, all obscenely young, with a grinning man behind them, all four wearing headbands and looking…proud. Proud of themselves, of their village, of each other, and Orochimaru has never fully managed to separate himself from that, regardless of how he’s tried. He could have tried harder, certainly, but somehow he simply never has.

He watched Tsunade fall, watched her torn to bits with her monstrous strength unable to save her. Saw her die the way he never had to see Jiraiya die, though he remembers the image from Naruto's mind, the small shrine in a lonely place, untended and far too ignoble for someone who devoted his life to doing the best he could despite the odds.

Orochimaru knows himself, knows his hubris and his sentiment and what small, stubborn pieces of his heart he’s never quite been able to carve out, and two of the largest are named Jiraiya and Tsunade. The first time he did this, when he accepted Danzo’s offer, he was retreating to a place where they would never follow him. Would never want to follow him.

Can he do it again? Can he leave them behind after thirty years of being teammates? Being friends? After their deaths that he was not able to stop?

With a grimace, Orochimaru pushes to his feet and heads for the door, barely pausing long enough to pull on his sandals before he’s striding down the path and out of the cluster of trees, back towards the village that has become his once more. There's a Root member watching him, following him closely, but Orochimaru earned his place among the Legendary Three while this child wasn’t even yet conceived, and has had another twenty years to refine his skills. Huffing indignantly, he triggers a shunshin, lands behind the hapless shinobi, and knocks him out with a single blow before disappearing without so much as a whisper.

You're underestimating us, Danzo-sama, he thinks grimly, landing in the hall just outside the Hokage's office. You're underestimating me, which you'll find is a far more grievous error.

Because Orochimaru isn't a fool, and he doesn’t take foolish risks. Not on missions, not with his teammates’ lives, and not in his experiments. And it would truly be the height of foolishness to give Danzo such blatant power over him, such clear blackmail. Danzo will be his backer, certainly, but a silent one, and all the blood will be on Orochimaru's hands. All the blame will be his, and when—not if, because this is a shinobi village, and as such it is truly impossible to hide any secret forever, even with Orochimaru's knowledge of the future—when it is discovered, no one will listen if Orochimaru tries to point fingers. He will bear all fault, as he did before, and that’s far too precarious a position for his tastes, freedom to experiment or no.

(And he has suspected, for years now, that Danzo always had yet another motive behind this, beyond knowledge of the Shodaime’s cells. Because what are the odds, really, that so many Hokage candidates have fallen and left him as one of the few strong enough to lead the village? Orochimaru was caught in his experiments, Hatake Sakumo was disgraced, Katō Dan was killed on a mission, the loss of Tsunade's loved ones drove her from the village, Namikaze Minato died because he was alone on the battlefield, the deaths of Jiraiya's treasured students and Orochimaru's own defection all but broke the Toad Sage—

Surely that is too many to be a coincidence. Surely it cannot be when Danzo has remained all but unscathed throughout so many trials and disasters.)

Taking a quick breath, he nods to the secretary at her desk and strides forward, reaching out to rap his knuckles against the heavy panels.

“Come in,” Sarutobi calls, sounding tired and worn. Orochimaru's mouth tightens slightly, because he’s about to give his former teacher—the man whose death he was directly responsible for, the man who all but raised him, as much as Orochimaru allowed it, after the deaths of his parents—even more to worry about, but this can't be put off. Not for a moment. If Danzo finds out that Orochimaru has taken this path, if he even hears so much as a hint, he’ll doubtless find some way to wiggle out of the accusations.

“Sensei,” he says formally, pausing in the doorway to dip into a shallow bow. “I have something important to discuss with you. Do you have a moment?”

There's a pause, heavy and faintly startled, and when Orochimaru looks up Sarutobi is watching him with sharp, dark eyes, his brows ever so faintly raised. “Orochimaru-kun,” he says after a beat. “Yes, of course.” A faint smile that turns Orochimaru's heart over in his chest, and he adds, “I always have time for my students. I must say, though, it’s been quite a while since you came to me with that expression on your face. Last time, I believe you’d just been kissed by one of your male year-mates and panicked because you enjoyed it.”

Orochimaru can't quite keep from rolling his eyes, because the peril of answering to the man who practically raised him is that he remembers ever single embarrassing incident Orochimaru wishes had long since faded from mind. “This,” he says dryly, “is fairly more weighty than adolescent sexuality crises, sensei.”

“I've no doubt,” Sarutobi murmurs, though the spark of humor in his gaze remains. He waves Orochimaru to the chair before his desk. “So, then. What brings you to me after so long avoiding my office?”

“Fighting a war is considered avoidance now?” Orochimaru takes the seat, though, folding his arms across his chest and cupping his hands around his elbows. Sarutobi’s face darkens slightly at that, and he sits up straighter, humor fading. He’s also well-acquainted with Orochimaru's tells, few as they are, after so long, and Orochimaru has never been more grateful for it.

“Orochimaru-kun,” he says softly, and Orochimaru meets kind, wise eyes that have always seemed to see right through him. It is…a comfort, in a way. He had not thought it would be. “Tell me what is bothering you.”

Orochimaru steels himself for one more moment—because there's been no time to plan, no time to weigh the outcomes here, only rash action more suited to Jiraiya than himself—and then breathes out, slow and careful. “You know of my involvement in Root,” he says steadily. “Under Danzo’s command.” He doesn’t wait for Sarutobi’s nod, but forges on immediately. “We disbanded as you ordered nine months ago, but— Today Danzo came to see me, offering to provide recruits from his new Root program—infants, orphans, children who would not be missed—for…experiments involving the Shodaime’s cells in the attempt to pass on mokuton. I've calculated the odds, Sarutobi-sensei. They're…very poor. In return, Danzo wanted whatever knowledge I gathered and all of my research on the Sharingan.”

There's a very, very long moment of silence. It stretches on into minutes, breathless and frozen, and then Sarutobi sighs, pressing a hand over his face in a gesture of bone-deep weariness. “I see,” he says heavily. “That is—I am glad you decided to come to me, Orochimaru-kun. This is indeed a very weighty matter. I knew Danzo was obsessed with his own idea of protecting the village, but this is…beyond what I had ever expected.”

Orochimaru says nothing, but stands and bows again before retreating. As much as he loathed Sarutobi at one point, he…trusts the man. Sarutobi is good and wise and strong, and Orochimaru is certain that such undeniable evidence as to Danzo's wrongdoing—and as wary as Sarutobi had always been about Orochimaru, he is still the Sandaime’s student, still trusted at least that much—will be a catalyst. There will be no more turning a blind eye to the old war hawk.

And even if this fails, there are other paths Orochimaru can take. This is just…the most expedient one.

He pauses in the hall outside the Hokage's office, and finally allows himself a smile, lets himself take a deep breath not strangled with blood or tasting of the metal stabbed through his chest. Because in one blow, he has—or soon will have—dismantled every last one of Danzo's plots. It is…heady, to have outwitted the chess master with one simple, straightforward move. Danzo never, ever would have suspected Orochimaru of going to Sarutobi directly, because he likes to think of them as cut from the same cloth.

But they're not, and they never will be, and Orochimaru thinks that this private coup proves it very nicely.

 

Orochimaru jolts up out of sleep, instincts singing a loud, bright warning, and throws himself out of bed just a kunai plunges into the pillow where his head had been not half a second before. The assassin is good, quick and prepared and ready to face him, but Orochimaru is quicker still and always has been, and breaks his neck before he can so much as turn around. Another one comes at him, but Orochimaru calls up his snakes and lets them take her, kills a third and a fourth before they can even fully emerge from the shadows concealing them.

Apparently Danzo is unhappy with his decision, then.

Orochimaru pulls Kusanagi from its stand, slings his kunai pouch over his shoulder, and strides out of his house, barefoot and clad only in his sleeping yukata. Sarutobi has mentioned nothing further to him about the matter, but Orochimaru will take this as a sign that his teacher is moving. It’s rather like Danzo to put such priority on taking out the one who betrayed him even in the midst of a crisis. The man is nothing if not vindictive, after all.

There's a sudden rush of footsteps from up ahead, not even attempting to be quiet, and Orochimaru narrows his eyes and draws his sword. The blade sings as it slides free of its sheath, and for a moment all Orochimaru can think of is the sight of it impaling him, but he sets his jaw and shoves the image down. Not anymore, and never again, not if he has his way.

He’s just gathering chakra, readying a particularly nasty jutsu—because Orochimaru is never at his best when just woken; Tsunade and Jiraiya always used to draw straws when it came to waking him on missions, and the loser invariably ended up either bleeding or soaked or faintly charred—when the figure stumbles around the bend of the road, all but falling out of the copse of trees that hides the house from view. Orochimaru raises a brow in faint amusement, already lowering Kusanagi.

“Namikaze,” he greets, delicately picking his way across the booby-trapped line that edges his parents’ old property before Minato can stagger over it, and obligingly steps up to the future Hokage's side. “To what do I owe the honor?”

Minato takes another moment to catch his breath before he straightens, managing a quick, wry smile at the Sannin. “Orochimaru-san,” he answers. “Probably to the same reason you're out here in your nightclothes.”

Before, in his last life, there was a burning, churning wrench of jealousy whenever he looked at Minato, a seething sort of anger that Sarutobi would pick this child as Yondaime over him. But now, with the distance of years and experience and a new leaf very much turned over, Orochimaru can offer him a faint smile in return and enjoy the shock it brings to Minato's face without any ulterior motives or resentment. “Very likely,” he agrees. “Sensei sent you, I assume?”

Minato nods, sheepishly raking a hand through his hair. “Yes. We moved on one of Danzo's Root bases and he was there, so it turned into a miniature war. Four shinobi disappeared after Danzo gave them orders, and Hokage-sama sent me to make sure they weren’t after you. They're…?”

“Dead.” Orochimaru sheathes his sword, then takes the moment to actually buckle his weapons pouch around his waist before he follows Minato down the road at a brisk pace.

Another nod, and there's steel in the blond’s eyes, very much like his son’s in that disastrous future. “Good,” is all he says, and Orochimaru wonders how Danzo can think this man weak. He is not, though he hides it very well. “I'm to take you somewhere safe. Sarutobi-sama doesn’t want to risk any tricks, since you're the one in the most danger right now.”

Orochimaru wants to scoff, because surely they don’t think him that pathetic. But one look at Minato's stubborn expression, so very much like Naruto's, and he simply rolls his eyes, giving in as gracefully as possible. “Very well, then. Where are you taking me? A safe house?” How…shameful.

But Minato is already shaking his head, hesitating slightly before reaching out and taking Orochimaru's arm. “Well…not exactly,” he says weakly, stepping closer and hiding a wince as Orochimaru arches an imperious brow at him. “Hokage-sama could only think of one place that Danzo would never expect you to go, so I'm to take you there.”

Orochimaru is not stupid. Even as yellow chakra flares, bright and blinding, his mind latches onto the pertinent facts and easily comes up with the answer.

Maybe once he would have protested running to Jiraiya's protection like a scared child, but—

But Jiraiya is alive. He’s here, in Konoha, and Orochimaru is going to have to face him when his last sight of the man was in fact his shrine.

“I hate you,” he says, purely on principle, as they reappear. Orochimaru's bare feet are firmly planted on a ratty carpet he knows he’s tried to set on fire at least three times—the scorch marks from last time are still there, even—and the entire apartment is slovenly, musty, and clearly hasn’t been so much as approached with a thought to cleanliness in years.

He’d forgotten what a pig Jiraiya was, honestly.

“Er…sit…down?” Minato suggest awkwardly, and heavens, Orochimaru knew the younger man wasn’t particularly comfortable around him—few people are, outside of his teammates, and he’s long since adjusted to it—but he hadn’t remembered it being this bad.

Orochimaru gives the couch one dubious looks, thinks of Jiraiya's unabashed perversity, well-proven by their childhood together, and easily makes his decision. “I think I’ll stand, thanks.”

Minato looks chagrined, but nods and hurries deeper into the apartment, towards the chakra signature coming from Jiraiya's office. Orochimaru knows that the polite thing to do would be to pretend he has absolutely baseline human senses and not listen in, but honestly, he’d never learn anything even remotely interesting that way, so he cocks a metaphorical ear and listens for Jiraiya's voice.

(He will never, ever admit to being disappointed when there was no resurrected Toad Sage joining the Fourth Shinobi War. Nor will he ever let on that Kabuto's explanation—that Jiraiya's body was too deep in the ocean to reach without being crushed by the pressure—sent both a thrill of horror and a dart of gratitude through him. Because Jiraiya died without changing; he died as he had lived, died as he was, and Orochimaru can hold him in his memory as the same brash, loud boy he grew up with, competed with, trained with. Because Jiraiya out of all of them deserved a grand funeral and women crying and shinobi saluting his bravery, but instead his end was…meek. And Jiraiya was never, ever supposed to be meek.)

“Sensei?” the blond calls, rapping his knuckles on the door. “Do you have a minute?”

There's a rustle, a huff, and then Jiraiya calls back, “Yeah, sure, Minato. What’s up?”

Minato slips into the room, shutting the door behind him—not that it makes much of a difference to Orochimaru's ears—and drops his voice to a hissing whisper. “Sensei, I think Orochimaru-san is plotting my death!”

Orochimaru rolls his eyes so hard it hurts.

There's a long, long moment of silence, and then Jiraiya says gently, “Minato. What have I told you about having drinking contests with Kushina-chan?”

“That it’ll help me get into her pants?” Minato sounds confused. “I mean—no! I'm not drunk! But I went to get Orochimaru-san and he didn’t sneer at me once! He was polite! He smiled at me! Obviously he’s going to kill me any minute now!”

Was I really that bad? Orochimaru wonders with some amusement, crossing his arms over his chest and thoughtfully tapping Kusanagi against his thigh. I must have been. Ah, the details one forgets over time. But this is amusing too, I suppose.

“Well,” Jiraiya asks reasonably, “was there blood involved? That usually evens out his temper.”

Minato still sounds confused. “Um. Maybe? He killed four assassins—”

What!?” There's a thud, a clatter, and footsteps thunder down the hallway. Half a second later Jiraiya flings himself into the main room, clearly about to bolt for the door, and staggers to a halt at the sight of his teammate standing on the threadbare carpet.

“Orochimaru,” he manages after a breathless moment. “Assassins?”

He is…big. Tall and broad and very much a presence, with his long, flyaway white hair and sharp dark eyes and the way he holds himself, unrepentant of his size. Orochimaru…softens, if only slightly, at the sight of him, because it’s been over a year since he last saw the man. A year and a death and a war that all but tore the world apart, and even if Jiraiya did not die a changed man, Orochimaru did.

“Jiraiya,” he answers calmly, and is content to watch rather than step away, as he would have once done, when Jiraiya moves closer with worry on his face. “I'm fine. But I…displeased someone powerful, and Sarutobi-sensei thinks it best that I stay out of sight for the moment.”

“Which reminds me,” Minato says, sounding far cheerier now, “time to get back to the Hokage. Bye, Sensei, Orochimaru-san.” A burst of yellow light and he’s gone again, a nearly elegant avoidance of the questions that are sure to come. Orochimaru would be impressed if he weren’t so annoyed.

A large hand closes deliberately around his upper arm, and Orochimaru turns his head to find himself on the receiving end of one of Jiraiya's rare serious looks. “Don’t think you're getting away with that kind of non-answer,” the Toad Sage warns. “Orochimaru, what is this about?”

Orochimaru debates what to say for a moment, but he’s well-acquainted with Jiraiya's persistence, and rather than face an entire night trapped in an enclosed space with no way out of an argument, he gives in with a soundless sigh. “Danzo,” he says, and Jiraiya's eyes narrow at the name. He’s always had good instincts when it comes to people, and the old war hawk has always rubbed him the wrong way. A sign, likely, and one that Orochimaru had blithely ignored the first time around.

One more look at Jiraiya's rapidly darkening expression urges Orochimaru to continue, though he picks every word carefully, knowing that Jiraiya is more than capable of reading between the lines when he wants to. “He…attempted to persuade me to work with him in several experiments of…questionable legality. And morality. I informed Sarutobi-sensei, who has taken this chance to prove my claims. Assumedly, Danzo is not happy with my choice to…tattle.”

The hand on his arm is a vice, though not quite bruising yet, and Jiraiya's face is pale. “Persuade,” he says flatly. “You mean coerce.”

Orochimaru rolls his eyes faintly. “As I said, persuade—

“Where, Orochimaru? Where did this happen? Did he come up to you in the library, or approach you at a training ground? A dark alley somewhere? Where?”

For the first time, Orochimaru falters. He doesn’t understand, can't follow the progression of Jiraiya's thoughts. He’s never been able to, and he had…forgotten that, after an entire year without the Toad Sage dogging his footsteps. “I—it was at my house.”

Jiraiya's eyes are blazing, his mouth a tight slash in his face as he spins Orochimaru around, grips both of his biceps firmly and pulls him one step closer. “Your home?” he demands. “Your house? Orochimaru, that’s your safe place! You don’t even let Tsunade in there, not since—”

He falters and breaks off there, but Orochimaru knows what he was going to say.

 

(Orochimaru is fifteen when they take him, fifteen and newly made a jounin, on a solo mission on the border of Wind Country. He’s good, one of the best, terrifying in his chakra control and mastery of jutsus, even now, bearing a contract with the snakes and a sword that can cut through practically anything. But skill only goes so far, outnumbered and far from any help, alone and with no promise of backup from anyone.

They throw him in a cell, shinobi from Suna or one of Konoha's other enemies or maybe even nowhere at all. They lock him up, battered and bruised and fully exhausted, chain him to the wall and leave him there to stew.

If only, Orochimaru thinks, because he’s only fifteen, only a handful of months away from the time when he was a chuunin, was on a team, and sometimes he can't help himself. If only they would come.

It’s a weak thought, a moment of lamentable humanity born in the heart Orochimaru has yet to learn how to carve out, but he’s worn and weary and defeated, if only for the moment, and doesn’t even try to resist it.

The nin drag him away, attempt to wring ever one of Konoha's many secrets from his resistant body, and then keep going for spite when he refuses to tell them.

Tsunade and Jiraiya come, of course, but they are far, far too late to do anything but pick up the pieces.

He’s sixteen when the nightmares start, but by that time he’s already driven away the only three people in the world who would—could—comfort him, and for all that he’s a genius at bringing death, he hasn’t the faintest clue how to draw them back.)

 

The words twist between them, heavy and unspoken, and Orochimaru does not hesitate to look away. Jiraiya is…correct. His home—once his parents’ home, where the only real memories that he has of his family are based—has always been sacred. And maybe, maybe had Danzo approached him elsewhere the first time he would have considered things more carefully, explored other options than the one he took. But done is done, and for him it was a very long time ago now.

“It’s over,” is what he says, and knows he’s right. Sarutobi is not a man to suffer traitors, even well-intentioned ones, and Danzo is utterly convinced that his own power and standing and claim to do everything for the betterment of Konoha will protect him from the fallout. But Sarutobi will win, regardless of the private wars between them, because Sarutobi has always won without even trying, even when he did not know there was a competition. Danzo is the darkness, and Sarutobi is the flame, and in the end there is no contest which is the greater.

“Except for the assassins,” Jiraiya points out, exasperated, and there are very few people indeed who can drive him to such distraction. Orochimaru tries not to be too smug about being one of them. But the Toad Sage isn't even looking at him, shaking his head and glancing away. He heaves a heavy sigh and then steps back, releasing Orochimaru's arms to rub his palms over his face. “Well,” he says gruffly, “come on, then. My bedroom is the most defensible place.”

The point of coming here was that Danzo wouldn’t even consider Orochimaru running to the teammate he is eternally at odds with—after all, Danzo consistently underestimates emotions and bonds, and always has—but Orochimaru doesn’t resist. He follows Jiraiya down the short hallway and into a room that is marginally neater, if still fairly messy, and drops to the ground with a faint sigh, laying Kusanagi beside him. Leaning back against the wall, he stretches his legs out and prepares for a long night, and probably an even longer day tomorrow.

Silent but watchful, Jiraiya takes a seat beside him, their thighs not quite touching but close enough to it to count. It is…utterly nostalgic, because they’ve taken this very position on many, many missions, too many to remember, and Orochimaru had quite logically thought that after last year, it would never, ever happen again.

And to think, only a few hours ago, he was dying on the battlefield with no hope in sight.

Orochimaru tips his head back, resting it against the wall, and closes his eyes, not even trying to fight the faintly bittersweet smile that pulls at his lips. Oh, but the difference time can make, he thinks, and there are plans spinning out before him, paths to be taken and avoided, people to be saved and people to be done away with. And through it all Jiraiya is a steady heat along his side, big and broad and as familiar to Orochimaru as his own heartbeat.

Time, Orochimaru thinks, and chuckles to himself.

What was it he had said to Obito, in that lonely, blood-drenched field? Repeat a failed path? What do you take me for, Uchiha?

Not again. Not this turn. It’s time for a change, I think.

And who better to shake off the dust than a snake among the leaves?

 

(It’s several minutes after midnight when Jiraiya feels a weight settle against his shoulder, and looks down in surprise. Pale skin, sharp features, and a wealth of heavy black hair, all twisted up in the strange innocence Jiraiya has only ever seen Orochimaru wear in the depths of sleep or standing before his parents’ graves.

They’ve been…distant, for a while now. Drifting. And maybe that’s to be expected with their third gone, Tsunade in self-imposed exile and wandering, but Jiraiya doesn’t like it, never has. For years now Orochimaru's eyes have been fixed beyond him, beyond all of them even as he hurtles forward, aiming for some goal Jiraiya can't see.

Tonight was the first time in almost three years that Orochimaru looked at Jiraiya instead of through him.

With a low, steady breath, Jiraiya raises his arm, slowly, carefully, and drapes it over Orochimaru's back, curls it around his shoulders and tugs him a little bit closer. Maybe when Orochimaru wakes that detachment will be back in his eyes, but…

He buries his face in midnight hair, so dark it seems to swallow the light rather than reflect it, and breathes in the sharp, clean scent of citrus with the faintest warm undertone of vanilla. Familiar and sweet, regardless of how he once teased Orochimaru for his soaps and scents.

But Orochimaru picked a path tonight, and not just the one that led him to Jiraiya's door, though that is unquestionably part of it. But he went to their teacher rather than going along with whatever Danzo wanted him to do, defied the rest of the village that still whispers monster as he passes, and Jiraiya knows that such a choice is the first step back from wherever Orochimaru has taken himself.

One step back, but that’s all Jiraiya needs to gain a foothold.

One step back, and Jiraiya will pull him to safety.)