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A Snake In the Grass, a Wolf At the Door

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 (It’s Sakumo who saves him, in the end.)

Twenty-four years old and Orochimaru is already sick of everything. Twenty-four and he’s alone again, as alone as he was the day of his parents’ death, in a village where people whisper about him and shy away from him and call him evil just slightly too loud for subtlety. Jiraiya is off with his orphans, atoning for all the things that aren’t his fault in war-torn Ame. Tsunade is gone, too, broken by Dan’s death and changed into something bitter and fallen.

Orochimaru hardly even recognizes her anymore.

He cared for Dan as well, counted him as one of his few honest friends—three of them, he had, and now he has none. None at all, no team to guard his back or distract him from the hissed whispers, no one to draw him back from the edge of obsessive madness, pull him away from his experiments and remind him to eat. No one to hover beside him and remind him how to be human, how to interact with actual people rather than targets to be killed.

Orochimaru has no one now, and it is a furious, bitter ache within him, this abandonment.

He closes his eyes, takes a breath, and opens them. One more bloody battlefield, yet another mission. His squad has been called for backup, and once upon a time he would have come with Jiraiya and Tsunade at his side, one of the Legendary Three who needed no other introduction, but not now. Now he is stuck leading a ragtag group with no love for him, who look upon him with fear in their eyes and then quickly look away.

But teamwork is something Orochimaru knows, even when the rest of his attempts to act like a sociable being fail completely, and so he steps in, blocks three kunai before they can reach the medic-nin—a poor one, and not just in comparison to Tsunade—and snatches an exploding tag right out of the air in a whirl of movement to fling it back at the missing-nin surrounding them. The detonation shakes the forest around them, steals Orochimaru’s hearing for a few precious seconds as he spins, catching a heavy halberd on the flat of Kusanagi’s blade. The man wielding it bares teeth at him, and Orochimaru bares them right back, twisting to slam a foot into his opponent’s gut.

Vicious, Tsunade always called him, in combat. Practical, Orochimaru always countered. An all-around bastard, was Jiraiya's contribution, with a grudging, but handy to have in a fight usually tacked on to the end.

Another nin in front of him, a scarred woman with a sword, but Orochimaru flashes through hand signs and hurls her away with a hurricane-force wind, sending her crashing back into the trees. Another man, and another, a flurry of kunai aimed at his back, and if he didn’t know better Orochimaru would assume he was the target here, rather than the unconscious dignitary currently convalescing under the medic’s mediocre eye.

He whistles the signal for surround and then defend, and falls into place even as his squad and the remainder of the original—under Hatake, if Orochimaru remembers the mission briefing right, and of course he does—fall back and form a perimeter. There are more missing-nin emerging from the trees, more and more, all ragged and scarred and ruthless, their eyes desperate and dark. Far more here than any of the reports guessed at, and all gathered to kidnap a relatively minor member of the Daimyo’s court. It’s…suspicious.

But even outnumbered two to one, Konoha shinobi are still Konoha shinobi, and regardless of anything else, Orochimaru can still take pride in that, in the way his squad holds the enemy off, firm and settled, unwavering in the face of their reckless charge. He blocks a sword—sloppy kenjutsu, easy to outmaneuver—then half-turns and hurls a kunai into the back of kunoichi, one of a pair trying to overwhelm the youngest squad member. Another twist, an earth jutsu, and never has Orochimaru regretted his lack of skill with fire more, because it he knew enough, if he had been skilled enough for Sarutobi to teach him the Fire Dragon Flame Bullet the way he taught Jiraiya, this fight would already be over. But in the end it’s one more thing to set him apart in Konoha, in Fire Country as a whole, and none of those with him have the strength for more than a few paltry close-combat jutsus.

Another man throws himself at Orochimaru, wielding a spear with startling deftness, and Orochimaru meets him, a disgusted huff slipping out before he can contain it. There are too many missing-nin, a good portion of them likely jounin-level, and he has no idea how this could have been missed, how any Intelligence officer worthy of the name could not have seen this. He knocks away the spear, ducks a kunai that skims past his ear, and strikes out to fend off yet another missing-nin who comes at his right side. And then—

Maybe it’s an accident, a moment of carelessness in the face of battle. Or maybe it’s deliberate, a conscious decision. Orochimaru only half-sees it, and can't be certain, though even now, even with this, he doesn’t want to believe it’s the latter. Doesn’t want to, because always, always Konoha has focused on teamwork and comrades and putting other’s lives above one’s own, and—

Behind Orochimaru, where the circle is thinnest, the shinobi most widely spaced, the tokubetsu jounin on guard there lets one more missing-nin slip through the gap. The woman wastes no time, but lunges with her sword-point leading, and Orochimaru is entirely hemmed in by two jounin-level opponents, unable to get away or move to counter the tantō aimed at his back. She’s too close for him to even attempt to dodge, and Orochimaru sets his teeth, bracing for the pain.

Is this how I will die? he thinks, grim and bitter and entirely, morbidly amused at the irony. Betrayed by those I would not let die?

But instead of the white-hot stab of a blade through his spine, what he feels is the impact of a heavy body against his back, and what he hears is a pained and breathless grunt. There's no time to contemplate it, and Orochimaru moves, as quick as a striking snake, taking this opportunity while both of his opponents are frozen in surprise. He beheads the spearman, Kusanagi slicing through bone and muscle and sinew as simply as if it were rice paper, and twists to slam a hand against the second’s sternum, a seal blooming beneath his palm that makes the man scream and fall lifeless to the ground.

There's a cry around him, a chaotic sort of retreat as the missing-nin bolt for the cover of the nighttime trees, and Orochimaru raises his voice before any of the Konoha shinobi can rush after them. “Hold!” he calls, even as he turns around. That will be a job for another squad, at another time. They were sent here as backup and retrieval only, and are unprepared for a manhunt in the dark.

Whatever else he might have to say, though, is stolen from his throat as he finally understands the last few seconds of the battle. It escapes him in a curse, learned from Jiraiya and sharp enough to make the little Hyuuga kunoichi across the circle wince, but he ignores the lapse in propriety as he sheathes Kusanagi and drops to his knees beside the silver-haired man.

“Hatake,” he says, voice flat with surprise, and despite the stab wound in his gut, the other man offers him a pained smile.

“Orochimaru,” he responds, breathless and rough.

It takes effort not to roll his eyes, despite the situation. Hatake Sakumo is one of those relentlessly cheerful people, forever sporting a smile regardless of what’s happened to him. Orochimaru narrows his eyes at the wound, gaping and most certainly mortal if left untreated, then takes a quick glance over at their medic, who’s still frantically trying to stop the nobleman’s bleeding. There will be no help from that quarter, clearly, and Hatake’s squad is down several shinobi, one of them likely their own medic. Orochimaru is no healer, but after nearly twenty years on a team with Tsunade, he understands the basics.

“Don’t move,” he warns the other jounin, deft hands quickly opening his flak jacket and carefully raising his shirt. Hatake makes a noise like he wants to comment, likely something inappropriate given the man’s passing friendship with Jiraiya, but Orochimaru ignores him with the ease of having grown up with the self-declared Super Pervert and calls up his chakra, letting it bleed pale green as he channels it into a medical jutsu. He halfway expects Hatake to flinch the way most people do at the feel of his power, oppressive and dark and overwhelming, but there's no movement. Probably because the man’s in agony, he reminds himself, watching the wound begin to close. Slowly, slowly, and Tsunade would have been done before he even started, but Orochimaru is a killer and healing hardly comes naturally to him.

It is…startling, that Hatake took that blow for him. Startling and unnerving, though Orochimaru is hardly going to show it. He’s still reeling from the small betrayal before—or the large one, though he hopes beyond all hope that it was simply a mistake, an oversight—and the juxtaposition of that against Hatake’s actions is almost too much to think about.

“You're a fool,” he tells the other man, once he’s sure that the wound is nearly closed and all possibility of infection or poison burned out. “Save your ridiculous noble gestures. Don’t you have a son to think of?”

That makes Hatake smile, regardless of the paleness of his face. “That I do,” he says cheerfully, though it rasps slightly in his throat. “Kakashi. Barely a year old, but he’s going to be a great shinobi someday, I can tell.” He reaches up, pats Orochimaru’s arm awkwardly as he tips his head back and closes his eyes again. “But we’re supposed to defend our teammates with our lives, Orochimaru. You know that. You do that, leaving yourself open just to take out a few extra opponents even when they're not yours. How could I do anything less?”

It’s said just loudly enough to carry without sounding like it was meant to, and out of the corner of his eye Orochimaru sees the tokujo who’d been behind him tense. Several of the other squad members are looking at the man now, warily distant with caution in their eyes, and once more Orochimaru wonders if his actions were accidental or on purpose. This entire mission, with its incomplete and often plainly incorrect intelligence, is suspect, though Orochimaru can't imagine the purpose of sending two high-ranking squads into a trap. Can't imagine what purpose someone in Konoha would have in targeting him. He’s hardly popular, but he also knows it’s not conceit to think that he’s one of Konoha's most powerful weapons.

He strangles a sigh, shutting that line of though away for later consideration, and repeats, “You're a fool,” though the tone isn’t nearly as sharp as he’d like it to be.

Hatake just grins at him, the expression so similar to Jiraiya's that it sends a pang through Orochimaru. He shuts that away, too, because pining is so utterly undignified, and settles back on his heels, letting his chakra fade. It’s telling, perhaps, that he’s more out of breath from five minutes of healing than he was from almost an hour of killing, but he’s not Tsunade. He never will be. She and Jiraiya are gone, and he’s been left behind, the killer, the monster, the shadow to their light.

“Do not,” he warns Hatake sharply as the other man starts to move, shoving those thoughts down as well, “undo my work. I won't care if you reopen that through stupidity.”

Hatake simply laughs, of course, and sits up gingerly, pressing a hand against his stomach for a moment before making to rise. Orochimaru really does roll his eyes this time, because he definitely can see the similarities to his absentee teammate in this man, and grudgingly offers him a hand. Hatake takes, broad and calloused hand closing almost carefully around Orochimaru’s more delicate, long-fingered one, and lets the Sannin pull him to his feet. Once he’s steady, he claps Orochimaru on the shoulder, murmurs, “Thank you,” and heads for his second in command on the far side of the clearing.

Orochimaru watches him go, sharp eyes studying the pained shortness to his movements, but doesn’t say anything. They're all shinobi here, after all, well aware of their own limits but forever pushing past them anyway. Instead, he flexes his fingers once—a single show of absentmindedness, one tiny second of weakness—and then makes his way over to the medic-nin, who’s still trying to wake the nobleman. He’ll be recommending she return to training as soon as they get back, before she can go out with another squad that doesn’t have a Sannin or Konoha's White Fang in charge and get them all killed through incompetency.

“Move,” he orders, sharp and uncaring that she flinches, and takes her place as she scurries away. The dignitary’s head wound is deep, and Orochimaru suspects that the man will come out of it without any memories of his incident, which is perhaps for the better. Still, it’s easy enough to put him into a light coma, to be broken by an actual medic-nin when they return to Konoha, and then stop the bleeding. There's no need to strain himself to wake the man when he’ll just slow down their return.

There's a pause as he sits back on his heels, and then light steps to his side. Orochimaru glances up to see the Hyuuga kunoichi approaching, looking resolute. He raises a brow at her, then glances around the clearing for his second, who should be the one reporting.

“Matsuoka was wounded,” she says, kneeling beside him with a brief dip of her head. “I have seniority, so I thought to take over his duties. I apologize for my presumption, sir.”

Orochimaru waves her contrition away. He doesn’t mind those under him taking the initiative; it’s a sign of a dedicated shinobi. “Casualties?” he asks instead.

She answers unhesitatingly. “Three wounded—Matsuoka, Hagane, and Yamanaka. No fatalities, but Hagane will be in recovery for a while. Hatake’s squad lost four, and the rest all have at least minor injuries, though all but one is mobile. And…” She hesitates, looking briefly uncertain, and then forges on regardless. “I'm going to recommend that Sato be put on suspension for his actions, pending demotion if it was…deliberate. I think Hatake will support the decision.” Her pale eyes are wary, but steady as she meets Orochimaru’s.

Orochimaru simply blinks at her for a moment, caught flat-footed by the notion that someone is trying—unnecessarily, perhaps, but still trying—to defend him. Uncertain of how to respond—because this is the point, in conversation, where Jiraiya or Tsunade always took over for him, to spare him the awkwardness of interacting with others when he has absolutely no idea what to say—he settles for a brief nod and then rises to his feet, the Hyuuga following a moment later. “Prepare to move out,” he orders. “Organize stretchers for those who can't walk. I want us on our way back before the enemy can regroup.”

“Yes, sir!” She bows, then hurries away, calling out names. Orochimaru watches for another second to make sure she won't have trouble—there is little he likes less than petty jockeying for authority and position, at least when it’s not something he can use—and then turns to scan their surroundings.

The moon is high above them, a bare sliver of silver, and the forest around them only deepens the shadows. It’s old and thick and overgrown, the only safe and unimpeded path through the branches, but that will be difficult if they're carrying their wounded along. Orochimaru has little loyalty to other people beyond his village, and less for those who are helpless and weak, but it’s been beaten into his head since he was five years old that one simply does not leave a teammate behind, regardless of the risk. It’s a part of Konoha's being, written into its very bones, and Orochimaru can respect that above all else.

It’s one of the reasons those whispers in the village drive him so very close to the brink of madness, he thinks, because he is loyal, so why can't they see that? Why can't they return it? All his life he’s been told of Konoha shinobi and their loyalty, but has only ever drifted around the outskirts of it, the bare fringes. Jiraiya and Tsunade gave him loyalty, but they abandoned him, so it obviously wasn’t enough.

Clearly, there is something wrong with him, that for all his great deeds he can't inspire even a fraction of what Sarutobi does. Not even the barest bit, and it aches. It makes him angry, and now there is no Jiraiya to redirect his rage, no Tsunade to soothe it with a few wise words or a touch of gentle teasing.

Abandoned, Orochimaru thinks, and has to consciously keep his hands from fisting. Two years now, two whole years alone and furious and entirely lost, and he still can't stop thinking about it, obsessing over it. When he throws himself into his experiments, it is at the least a little distant, but…

But the problem is that he doesn’t want to forget Jiraiya and Tsunade. They are his teammates, the only family he has left beyond Sarutobi, who is too busy for casual visits. They are his, and if Orochimaru knows anything about himself it is that he is obsessive and rapacious, as possessive as a snake guarding its nest. Letting go is all but impossible for him.

With a contained sigh, Orochimaru reaches up and tugs gently on one of his tomoe-shaped earrings, a gift from Jiraiya on his fifteenth birthday. A gag gift, actually, and there is little sweeter than the memory of Jiraiya's face when Orochimaru turned up at their practice session the next day actually wearing them. He’d brushed his hair to the side to show them off and smiled at Jiraiya, fluttered his lashes slightly just to see the blood drain from the other boy’s face at the realization that his joke had backfired. Does this mean we’re going steady? he’d asked, making his voice high and breathless, and Tsunade had fallen over laughing as Jiraiya spluttered and choked.

(Orochimaru wonders if Jiraiya has noticed the fact that he’s has never taken them off.

Probably not, or if he has, he’s likely dismissed it as meaningless.)

He sinks his teeth into his thumb until he tastes blood, then smears it over the tattoo on his arm, calling up three of his summons. Not Manda, as that would most definitely be overkill in this situation, and would result in a cranky snake boss attempting to eat him, but several of the smaller females, deadly and poisonous and breathtakingly beautiful. They coil around his feet, as thick around as his waist and twice as long as he is tall, poison-green and red-and-yellow-banded and midnight-black, and Orochimaru strokes his hands over what he can reach of them, then murmurs, “Off with you, my beauties. Watch the perimeter.”

They go with only the faint rasp of scales across the ground, and Orochimaru turns back to the squads, only to find himself the subject of Hatake’s stare, dark eyes watching him with interest and no little intrigue.

“Yes?” Orochimaru asks evenly, though he doesn’t like it, this feeling of vulnerability that comes from someone seeing his softer side, what little there is of it. It’s only even been witnessed by his former teammates and sensei, honestly, and Orochimaru thinks that even if Hatake were to shout it from the rooftops not a soul in Konoha would believe that Orochimaru even has one. He’s tried his best to keep it that way, after all, fighting in a war that even now lurks just beneath the surface of his thoughts. Conflicts like that don’t leave the psyche so easily, and they leave one wary of any openings.

But Hatake simply smiles at him, bright and warm, and doesn’t address the matter. “We’re ready to go,” is all he says.

Orochimaru nods in return, though his skin crawls faintly under the older man’s gaze, and steps away. “My snakes will guard our flanks,” he says. “I recommend Hyuuga Himawari take point, and I take the rear.” He does not defer to many people—Sarutobi, actually, is the only one he can think of, and to a lesser extent Sarutobi's teammate Utatane Koharu, who was a friend of his mother—but Hatake is five years his elder and his superior in terms of seniority. It still galls him, but less than it likely would doing the same to someone else.

Hatake nods easily. “Works for me,” he says cheerfully, then calls the squads together with a whistle and bounds over to where the Hyuuga is crouched next to Hagane’s stretcher. Orochimaru doesn’t wait to witness their conversation; he steps away, fades back into the trees the way he’s been trained to, and opens his senses. There's only silence, but that makes him more wary still. The missing-nin were skilled, but not enough to hide themselves completely, or get out of range so quickly. It is almost as if—

Almost as if they were holding back. Or perhaps aiming for a specific target and using a show of incompetency to get close.

Orochimaru frowns deeply. He knows himself to be fairly conceited, but in this case he doubts it’s arrogance to think that he was targeted more than anyone else—more than the dignitary they were supposed to be kidnapping, even. It was only down to his own skill and Hatake’s sacrifice that he came through unscathed, because Orochimaru remembers quite clearly that he faced almost twice the number anyone else did. They came at him, even before Sato let that kunoichi through.

Perhaps, had that attack gotten through—even if it had only wounded him, rather than crippling him as was clearly intended—Orochimaru would be in too much pain to think of this. Perhaps he would be caught up in his rage and sense of betrayal, but Hatake saved him from that, and Orochimaru is not called a genius for nothing. His mind is working quickly, slotting the few pieces he has together into one portion of a picture. It was a manipulation, clearly, though Orochimaru can't figure out the expected outcome. His death? His anger? Perhaps someone thought he would be angry enough to kill Sato for the slip, which would leave him disgraced, to never again lead a squad.

Bad intelligence, an enemy in greater numbers than anyone could have expected, opponents better equipped than they should have been, a kidnapping victim who wasn’t the real target, a perfectly timed moment of carelessness, and an unknown aim focused on Orochimaru. He doesn’t like this. Not at all.

Kiyohime, his black-scaled summons, slides out of the darkness to slither beside him as he walks. She’s always been the most attentive of his snakes, always remaining close at hand when he calls her, and he thinks that this must be what loyalty is like, her unwavering attention and care.

“Did you find anything?” he asks, dropping a hand to Kusanagi and shifting his attention to the squad a few hundred meters in front of them. No change there, just steady movement, aggravatingly slow in deference to the wounded.

There's a moment of thought, and then Kiyohime huffs softly. “A rabbit,” she responds. “And several birds. But there are no humans beyond yours, Orochimaru-sama.”

Not mine, Orochimaru almost says, but then Kiyohime will want to know if she can eat them, and Orochimaru is in no mood to spend the next hour explaining why she can't. He usually appreciates that his summons are as bloodthirsty as he himself is, but his patience is short today.

“Thank you,” he says instead, and can't help the quirk of his lips at the thought of what Jiraiya would say if he heard that, as the Toad Sage maintains that Orochimaru has never said it to anyone, ever, without some form of sarcasm involved. “If anyone attacks us, you may eat them.”

That gets him a pleased hiss, and Kiyohime slithers away into the bushes, likely to share the good news with her sisters. Orochimaru watches her go with fondness, though he knows he hides it well. But the snakes he calls are a legacy from his parents, his mother in particular. When he was a toddler and she was called away, she would summon a snake to watch him. Kiyohime, often, or Oyotsu, a soft-spoken white snake. They are Orochimaru’s now to call, to use, to fight alongside, and they at the least won't betray or abandon him.

Orochimaru simply wishes that the rest of his teammates could be the same.

 

Orochimaru knows his standing in the village as a whole—he is orphan prodigy genius freak monster, with all the burdens those words imply. For this reason, it’s rare for him to venture out in public, now that his buffers of Tsunade and Jiraiya have vanished like so much tragic, anguish-ridden smoke. And as the shinobi manage to be even worse than the villagers, most of the time, it’s even rarer for him to brave the stares and flinches and whispers of the Jounin Standby Station, forever populated with the higher ranks just about to go on duty or just coming off of it.

But for some things, Orochimaru will endure it. And despite his misgivings about last week’s mission, Hatake Sakumo spoke up when most others would have remained silent. Doubtless it was his words that spurred Hyuuga Himawari—a Main Branch member of her clan, but quiet and reserved—to take a stand in turn, and Orochimaru must be…grateful for that. Appreciative, if only in some small way, because the last time such a thing happened was before Jiraiya left.

(Debt, he thinks. Honor, obligation. What would Tsunade do?)

(How many times has he asked himself that, interacting with the rest of humanity? How many times has it saved him?)

People flinch as he steps into the comfortable room, no matter how tightly he contains his chakra or how innocuous he has made himself in a simple dark grey yukata. Orochimaru ignores them, as he always does, and folds his hands into the sleeves of his robe as he surveys the room. There, in the corner, is the head of wild silver hair he came here seeking, and he lets out an inaudible breath of relief that Hatake is present as he sweeps across the room. It’s easy enough to sneer at the fear these morons feel when he’s just passing through, when there's no reason to keep him, but enduring is harder. Not impossible, given that his family, with their corrosive, unsettling chakra and affinity for snakes, has always stood somewhat apart, but it still sets Orochimaru’s teeth on edge after too long. A bad-tempered bastard, Jiraiya always called him, after too long spent in a crowd, or even on the fringes of one. Testy, was Tsunade's choice of words.

(How long will it be, he wonders, before he stops defining himself in their terms? How long will it be until he can escape the pull of them, his personal betrayers? How long, and what will he have to suffer to carve them out of his heart completely?)

“Orochimaru!” Hatake’s voice is bright and warm and welcoming, everything Orochimaru is unused to, and it snaps him out of his thoughts almost instantly. The older man is on his feet, grinning at him, and Orochimaru has to force himself not to falter in the face of it.

“Hatake,” he answers after a beat, inclining his head. “I trust your wound is not troubling you anymore?”

Hatake’s smile, too, is easygoing and open. “Not in the least,” he affirms cheerfully. “The medics were impressed with your skill. Most jounin can't manage anything close to what you did, if they can even heal at all.”

Despite himself, Orochimaru smiles faintly at that. “Tsunade was…insistent that Jiraiya and I learn at least the basics, before she would let us go off on solo missions,” he explains, and can't quite manage to keep the thread of fondness out of his voice. A lost cause, really, because even if they're gone, they stayed for eighteen years, and that’s longer than anyone has but Sarutobi, who is so busy as Hokage that he hardly counts.

When he looks up again, though, Hatake is watching him with an odd expression, one that Orochimaru can't read. Not anything negative, which is almost startling, but just…inscrutable. It’s getting to be a habit with him, it seems, and Orochimaru isn’t certain whether he should feel unnerved or not.

He meets Hatake’s grey eyes squarely nevertheless, inclines his head politely, and murmurs, “I am relieved there were no complications.”

Hatake smiles, but that contemplative look doesn’t waver, even as he opens his mouth to say something. Before he can, Orochimaru steels himself, gathers his dignity up around himself like a cloak, and turns on his heel, sweeping out of the Station without looking at anyone else. It’s not…fleeing. Not exactly. He’s just—

Busy. He’s busy and otherwise occupied and has experiments that need to be overseen, and he has no time to waste even with the likes of Hatake Sakumo.

 

Sakumo sighs as he steps into his darkened house, pressing a hand against his stomach and the faint ache still lingering there. He hadn’t lied to Orochimaru—he’s healed, more or less, and the medics hardly had to do anything, given how much chakra the other man poured into healing him—but it’s hard for a body without some sort of healing bloodline to bounce back so quickly. He’ll be sore for a while yet. 

But not dead, and that can be attributed solely to Konoha's own Sannin.

It had been instinct to take that blow meant for Orochimaru—Sakumo hadn’t even realized he’d done it until he’d been on the ground with Orochimaru kneeling beside him, stiff and bewildered. Automatic, to guard a comrade’s back even at the cost of his own, but Orochimaru’s reaction clearly said that he expected only agony or death when he couldn’t meet that blow.

Sakumo will admit that he’s never paid much attention to the younger man, beyond a vague sort of acknowledgement of the Densetsu no Sannin’s collective skills. The greatest of their generation, people call them, but Sakumo has always tuned such things out, skeptical and more trusting of his own eyes than any sort of rumors. He knows their genius when alone, had fought in the war with each of them at one time or another, but to be called the Legendary Three is another matter entirely. It speaks to teamwork, to being better together than they are apart, and Sakumo has yet to see evidence of that. Indeed, the only one left in the village, the only one who actually stayed to fulfil his duties, is Orochimaru.

The light is off in the nursery. Mindful of the nurse sleeping in the connecting room, Sakumo leaves it that way, crossing the floor with silent steps to stand beside the small bed. Kakashi is asleep as well, curled up tightly and clutching stuffed dog. Sakumo feels something simultaneously tighten and melt in his chest, and reaches out to carefully smooth that flyaway silver hair. The loss of his wife in childbirth is still an open ache even thirteen months later, unhealed and untampered. She was so beautiful, so kind, and Sakumo has little to no idea of how he’s going to make it through the rest of his life without her. No idea how Kakashi will fare, raised by a man who has only ever been a shinobi, only ever wanted to be a shinobi.

The Hatake clan was great, once. Strong and numerous and very, very proud. But the Clan Wars devastated them, and now Sakumo and Kakashi are the only ones left. And people have forgotten that the Hatake Clan was a clan like any other, similar to the Inuzuka but wilder, wolves instead of domesticated dogs. They have their own traits, their own little differences from everyone else in mindset and in abilities, and the largest of those is considering their families pack.

But gone are the days when Sakumo’s pack was ten strong, or even five strong. Now it’s him and his infant son and no one else in the world who will ever understand them completely.

He leans down and brushes a kiss over Kakashi’s forehead, soft and sad and fond, and then slips out of the nursery. By all rights, he should be sleeping already, exhausted, but instead his mind has been caught by an enigma, a question, and in this Sakumo knows he is very much like his summons—once he gets his teeth in a bone, just like a wolf, he won't let go until he’s satisfied.

In his mind’s eye he can see Orochimaru as he was on the mission, ruthless and cunning among the shadows, light sliding off his long black hair like it couldn’t bear to touch such darkness. Many of the other shinobi shied away from him, especially when he called up his summons, and that makes Sakumo remember that Orochimaru, too, is the last of his clan. An old clan, even older than the Hatake if he remembers correctly, but always small. One or two families, all of them bearing Orochimaru’s particular brand of slightly otherworldly looks, metallic eyes and pale skin and dark hair. Hashirama was the one to bring them into the village, well after Konoha was established, but even so they’ve always stood apart.

But, Sakumo wonders, letting himself out into the back garden and settling on the porch stairs, how much of that is their choice, and how much is prejudice? Because he saw Orochimaru’s face in the Standby Station, saw the sudden, unexpected flicker of life that came over his determinedly neutral features when he spoke of Tsunade, of Jiraiya. And how must it feel, to be on a team so close it’s practically a pack of its own, and then be abandoned? Sakumo, at least, lost his pack to death and time and a shinobi’s life, but Orochimaru lost his to their own choices. Choices that led them to leave him behind, on his own in a village that cares only for his abilities as a weapon, and fears him for the same reason.

Sakumo has seen Orochimaru covered in blood and gore, has seen him fight with absolutely no attention paid to morals or decency or any such things, has seen the aftermath of a battlefield that looks closer to a massacre when the man is through, but…

But that was always the enemy. Never has Sakumo seen Orochimaru turn his fearsome ability to kill and destroy on even the most tentative of allies. His village is his, and everyone else is disregarded, like they're less than human. Perhaps it’s a mental disorder; perhaps it’s just the way Orochimaru was made. But either way, he knows loyalty. He understands pack and what it means. There are few enough people in the village who do, and Sakumo isn’t about to let one of the only ones who does, and who happens to be in the same position as Sakumo, slip through his fingers.

He smiles to himself, laughs up at the heavy moon hanging above the peaceful garden, and relaxes in the warm night breeze. Whether Orochimaru likes it or not, he just gained a friend. A packmate. And now Sakumo has someone to focus on, someone to protect, like a lone wolf given a purpose again at long last.

A pack of three. That sounds…just about right.

 

Orochimaru is on his way to his lab, because there is nothing else for him, nothing and no one and at least there his loneliness is buried in work and formulas and a way beyond killing to be of use. No one in the street looks at him beyond a sidewise glance before they quickly drop their eyes, and no one speaks to him, because the only three people who have ever freely done so are busy or on the other side of Fire Country. But he doesn’t care, will never care, because giving in is the same as giving up, and if Orochimaru has any redeemable qualities at all it’s his single-minded will to always win.

He is alone in a crowd, alone in a village that should be home, and—

“Orochimaru!” a bright, cheerful voice calls, just three steps behind him, and before he can turn there's an arm over his shoulders and the smell of earth and autumn in his nose, and Orochimaru blinks at Sakumo, too surprised to even throw him off.

Sakumo grins and pulls him away, off towards some unknown destination that is most certainly not his lab, and Orochimaru…

Orochimaru lets him.

He lets Sakumo drag him away with one big, calloused hand curled around his wrist, and doesn’t speak of word of protest, because somehow he knows.

(It’s Sakumo who saves him, in the end.)