Being imprisoned was intensely dull. Time slipped away in blinks and heartbeats, but it did so at glacial speeds. He’d tried counting earlier, hoping to distract himself from thinking about his teammates (who were fine, he was certain), but had run out of things to count and become bored with the entire exercise on his third time counting the number of teeth in his mouth (still thirty-three, thanks to Jiraiya.)
Orochimaru shifted, the short chains on his wrists rattling, and counted seconds before he forced his mind to stop it. The numbers were wearing on his nerves. He licked the insides of his teeth restlessly, no longer counting them, and thought about the colour green. He’d always felt like he should be partial to it.
A hint of sound came through the heavy metal door, and Orochimaru looked up, staring blindly toward the door of his cell and listening intently. Sometimes his captors talked to each other. Too soft and distant for him to make out words, but the rhythm of it was interesting. Orochimaru hoped they’d visit soon.
He was still listening, though growing sleepy from the cool air and the colder stone, when he had the strange, half-there thought that there was something in the dark with him. Orochimaru dismissed it, because he might not be much of a sensor, but he didn’t have to be an Uzumaki to know that he was alone.
The cell they'd locked him in was pitch black, rock-lined, and the cuffs on his wrists and ankles were embedded into the wall. His chakra was suppressed down to civilian levels by a seal they'd slapped on him, and he could sense nothing with it. The darkness was lit with strange kaleidoscopes of light generated by his mind. He heard nothing. Smelled nothing.
The hair on the back of his neck prickled and cold sweat broke out across his skin, seeping up under the dried blood and dirt. There was no reason to believe that there was anyone in the cell with him.
Something smooth as silk stroked his bare chest, and Orochimaru jerked back so fast that his skull cracked against the rocks behind him, his heart skipping half a dozen beats. His thoughts greyed out in sudden, helpless fear, and images torn straight from the ghost stories Jiraiya liked to tell flooded his mind.
Seconds passed, then minutes, and nothing more happened. Orochimaru fought his fear, irritated that his mind would be so fanciful. It was only darkness. He would have sensed something entering the cell, and he had not--therefore the cell was empty for any presence except his own. The touch had been his own hair, and nothing more.
Orochimaru licked his lips, eyes squeezed shut, hands curled into fists. There was nothing there. It was all in his head. His heart raced, his hands dripped sweat into the raw cuts on his wrists, and he shivered because it was cold.
He felt the darkness smile, and told himself it was nothing. He was going crazy. There was nothing there. Just air and an inescapable aura of malevolent curiosity hovering in front of him. The presence was being manufactured by his brain in the absence of outside stimulation. It was unpleasant, but normal in cases of solitary confinement.
Something cold touched his chin, and in the distance Orochimaru heard the murmur of his captor's voices. Not real, not real, this is all in my head--
-So young,- Orochimaru heard it whisper, though he knew that there was nobody there. He would know if there was another person in the cell, and there was not. It was impossible.
Something touched his mouth, and Orochimaru ducked his head, pressing his lips together. Perhaps it was genjutsu. His captors had tried it before and they were not very good at it, but they could have brought someone new in.
There was something cold in his mouth, squirming through his closed lips, a long, sick surge of freezing rancid nothing. Orochimaru stopped breathing, stopped moving, stayed as still as he could, but he could not fight the slow invasion of his body any more than he could stop his heart.
The thing crawled down his throat and settled into his guts like ice-cold poison, terrifyingly, smugly present inside him, and the darkness was empty again.
Orochimaru’s body shook, drool filling his mouth as he fought the urge to vomit. This was genjutsu, it had to be. Throwing up would do nothing.
-Break out of here,- the voice murmured from somewhere around his sternum. -We have much more important tasks to attend to.-
Genjutsu. It had to be.
Even if it wasn’t genjutsu, if Orochimaru could escape, he would have done so days ago.
His chakra was sealed down to almost nothing, and he was bound hand and foot with iron manacles.
Amusement flooded him, and Orochimaru’s stomach clenched and twisted. This was wrong. It wasn’t him. -But it is.- The voice inside him replied, and Orochimaru’s skin crawled. It was listening?
-Of course I am, foolish one. You must escape. We have things to do.-
This genjutsu was incredibly unsettling, Orochimaru decided. He shifted in his bonds, trying to keep his breathing steady. His heart rate was a lost cause--it was trying to run away from the icy thing rolling in his stomach, frantically beating. Sweat dripped down his face, down his bare chest, stinging everywhere if found an empty wound. You aren’t real , he told it.
Again he felt a sickening, pitying amusement directed at him. He would have to try to replicate this genjutsu when he was freed. Weaker opponents than himself would be swiftly destroyed by it.
Foreign thoughts hissed through his head, -When you are freed? Oh you sweet young thing, who are you imagining as your rescuer? Your precious sensei? You think he even cares? He’s the hokage now. You’re an afterthought. He isn’t even looking for you.-
“You don’t know him. You don’t know my team,” Orochimaru whispered out loud, his voice cracking from disuse. His team was coming and they would find him. “You're wrong.”
The laughter in his head sounded like his own, and Orochimaru wished he could strangle it into silence. -You’ll learn. They aren’t coming. You’re on your own in this pit. The only person who will free you from this is you.-
Orochimaru hissed, furious at the filthy thing that had squirmed into his body. You lack knowledge.
It stretched inside him, and Orochimaru gave a strangled gasp before he bit his lip and endured it. Shards of slick ice slid through his chest, slicing through his heart and lungs before they found his arms and stabbed upward into them. What are you doing?!
-Escaping. You are weaker than I thought. I should not have expected you to be capable. Poor, weak little snake. What would your sensei say if he saw how weak you are?-
Orochimaru shivered helplessly, so cold he felt like he was dead. His hands formed half-seals for a jutsu he didn’t know, ruthlessly plundering the tiny puddle of chakra he had available. His bones turned soft and his hands poured out of the iron handcuffs. Sensei would help me, he answered, in lieu of being able to do anything. If he saw me unable to save myself, Sarutobi-sensei would help me.
He couldn't stop his hands from searching his bare chest for the chakra-repression seal tag glued to his stomach, couldn't control them when they tore the seal off and tossed it aside. -Such faith, but it will never be rewarded. He'd spit on you and drive you out, repay your loyalty with betrayal if he thought you were weak. Have no faith in him, because I promise you, he has none in you.-
Pins and needles erupted inside Orochimaru’s skin as his chakra reserves woke up. The thing inside him performed the jutsu a second time, wringing out every drop of freshly released chakra to turn Orochimaru's flesh and bones unsettlingly stretchy. His ankle stretched like taffy before his heel folded inward and his body oozed out of the ankle restraints.
It hummed inside his head, seemingly satisfied. -Rest now,- it told him, slithering back into the pit of his stomach.
Orochimaru stumbled forward a few steps, and stopped somewhere in the middle of the cell, shivering and sweating. This was genjutsu. It had to be. He flexed his fingers, testing his control, but the return of it was less than reassuring. It had left willingly, and none of Orochimaru’s efforts to wrest control back had had any effect before then. It could just as easily take control again.
-You know this is not a genjutsu. Are you certain you’re a genius? Am I truly your greatest concern right now? You are in enemy hands, and I, at least, have no intention of harming you-
Orochimaru fought the urge to take the bait, and failed completely. “Of course you’re the biggest worry. You are enemy hands. Are you stupid?”
-No more so than you,- it answered, and something about that amused it enough that it decided to repeat it, -No more so than you.-
The voice didn’t respond again after that, leaving Orochimaru in the uneasy company of the dark. His body shivered in fits and starts that he couldn’t control, sweat dripping down his spine, from his face, slowly trickling from his armpits, wet and cold on his chest and arms and legs, clammy between his toes. The sweat stung countless tiny injuries from captivity and torture.
Orochimaru closed his eyes against the dark, grit all thirty-three of his teeth to stop the chattering, and counted seconds into minutes, minutes into hours as his chakra slowly returned.
He used Kai as soon as he had enough chakra, hoping he’d feel something fall away or change, but the cell--and the icy presence inside his stomach--remained unaffected.
When the tremors under his skin grew too strong to fight, he began to hear words, too clear to have come from outside the cell, but indistinct and impossible to understand. Orochimaru’s nerves wore away, hours adding up in second-long intervals, the whispers that seemed to be coming from inside his bones making sleep impossible.
It had not left. It was not genjutsu.
Footsteps in the hall outside woke him from the fitful half-doze he'd been caught in, and Orochimaru grinned, carefully wiping the sweat off his forehead. There was nothing worse than sweat in his eyes when he fought.
The thing inside him stirred for the first time in hours, brightening up at the thought of shampoo for some inexplicable reason. -If you switch shampoos, the sweat won’t burn your eyes as much. It’s soap residue that stings.-
-It’s valuable advice,- it insisted, and Orochimaru was struck by the certainty that whatever else the voice was, it was old. Really old. It sounded like some old ninja loudly dispensing out-of-date advice to anyone who wandered into earshot.
-Lovely. You know, that attitude might have something to do with why your precious team has forgotten about you and left you to be tortured by Iwa ninja. Are you sure you even know how to kill? Or do I need to hold your hand through this as well?-
Whatever, grandma, Orochimaru thought at it, rising to his feet and stretching his back as the key scraped in the lock and the seals went down. I’m sure your withered old ass is--
-Perfect, you idiot. Time might be unavoidable, but actually aging certainly isn't.- A burst of amusement followed that thought, and then the voice added, -Though even time can be fixed in the end.-
It dangled the hint in front of him, practically begging him to ask.
Orochimaru didn't. His grin turned into a smirk as its anticipation twisted into annoyance and then devolved into sulking. Whatever, he thought, prodding at the weakness he’d found with a petty kind of delight.
-You are a child,- it hissed, cold and heavy inside him, and somehow wounded by his lack of interest. -A worthless, unloved, pitiful little child . Your team has betrayed you! -
Orochimaru ignored it and cracked his knuckles as he listened to the Iwa ninja shuffle around behind the door, adrenaline making his blood sing with anticipation. The door opened and Orochimaru struck, punching the bastard in the throat. Cartilage crunched and broke under his knuckles, a perfect distraction while Orochimaru gripped the chin and the skull and twisted sharply.
The Iwa ninja dropped like a stone.
Do I know how to kill...honestly, who do you even think you’re talking to? Orochimaru rolled his eyes at the sullen silence inside him, and looked out the door, squinting in the light. There was no one outside--the torturer had come alone again. Sick fucker.
He left the door open. No one had ever come by when the torturer came alone, he doubted they were going to start now.
-Go explore,- the voice ordered him, still sullen about him calling it old.
No, Orochimaru answered silently, kneeling by the corpse and pulling off one of its boots. He compared it to his foot, and was pleased to find it only slightly too large. Orochimaru slid it on, and considered the corpse’s pants.
-He pissed himself. You aren’t that desperate.-
I might be, Orochimaru retorted. They’s stripped him when they’d captured him, and he was already disgustingly filthy--he couldn't go much worse than he already was. Orochimaru wouldn’t touch himself with a ten-foot pole, given the choice. I’d rather not break out of here naked.
It didn’t answer, and Orochimaru hesitated for far too long waiting on a reply before deciding that the voice in his head was right, and he wasn’t that desperate. He stole the corpse’s socks, other boot, chuunin vest, and shirt. The corpse had been tall. His shirt covered most of Orochimaru’s ass if he stood up straight and didn’t bend over.
I’m going to have to kill someone else for pants , Orochimaru thought, and was oddly disappointed when he got no reply. Too long alone in the dark, and he wanted to talk to the creepy thing possessing him. When he got home--
Orochimaru’s breath hitched at the insane burst of fury and rage that burned through him at the thought of Konoha. He froze until the thing’s rage simmered down and its attention shifted again. The hiss of a second set of thoughts resumed, and Orochimaru went back to stripping the corpse of anything useful, keeping his thoughts carefully empty. He searched the corpse’s bag of tools--a blood-streaked rod as long as Orochimaru’s forearm and thick as his wrist that Orochimaru pulled out of the bag and shoved into the corpse’s mouth, two kunai, three different pairs of pliers, and a notebook that looked interesting.
He hesitated, staring at the face of his torturer. The guy had been boring looking. Short brown hair, a scar on his eyebrow, a mouth that pouted better than it scowled. He'd been unimpressive in life, but was somehow even more so in death.
-Do not concern yourself with him. You were stronger. Nothing else is important.-
Orochimaru bit his lip, unsettled by the thing’s attempt at--comfort? Was it attempting to comfort him? It didn’t elaborate, nor did it take the obvious opportunity to taunt him.
Eventually Orochimaru shrugged and slung his new bag over his shoulder. Steal pants, get out, go home. Simple and easy plan. Jiraiya wasn’t a part of it, so he couldn’t possibly ruin it--Orochimaru’s success was almost assured.
Half an hour later, Orochimaru was forced to contemplate that maybe Jiraiya wasn’t the only reason half of Orochimaru’s plans ended in disaster. Maybe he was also insanely unlucky.
-Not untrue,- the voice muttered, though it was very, very distracted by the scroll Orochimaru had found. It was holding the scroll with Orochimaru’s hands and reading it with Orochimaru’s eyes in the staff room of Iwa’s T and I department .
They were very noticeably not escaping, in spite of the fact that Orochimaru had found pants that sort of fit, and stolen as many relevant-looking scrolls as he could get his hands on. They were not escaping, because the thing inside him had graduated from petulant rages and sinister suggestions to stealing his body. Again.
-They’ll never expect that you stayed,- it told him, easily crushing Orochimaru’s frantic attempts to wrestle back control. -Stop struggling and let me read.-
You have the scroll. You can read it later, Orochimaru protested, fighting the icy weight of the ghost in him. Far away from here! Being stuck inside his body as another entity moved it was horrifying, and Orochimaru’s body responded to his panic, heart racing, sweat pouring down his skin, and almost painfully short of breath, though it failed completely to respond to his efforts to move it.
Finally it set the scroll down and Orochimaru went dizzy with relief before his hands reached out to pick up a new scroll, this one labelled Subject 59. You can pack them up and take them. Read them at your leisure, I promise, please let me leave-- Orochimaru begged it, feeling the countdown to the discovery of the corpses he'd left in his wake ticking in his head like the timer of a bomb.
It ignored him and opened the new scroll. There was a sketch of Orochimaru at the top of it. Not a very good one, but between his clan markings and hair, it was difficult to believe it could be anyone else.
He couldn't follow half of the report--fuinjutsu was Jiraiya's thing, not his, but the the thing that had stolen his body seemed to understand it if the swooping surge of--panic, confusion, and fury--Orochimaru felt radiating from it was any indication.
The thief stopped reading suddenly, dropped the scroll, and reached for Orochimaru’s hair, twisting the stringy, unwashed mass around Orochimaru's hand once, then twice, and pulled it back, away from his neck. With his other hand, it grabbed a kunai, and sliced through it in a single stroke.
What are you doing?! Stop it! Stop! Orochimaru shouted inside his head, flinging himself against the intruder in his mind too late to do anything, but still frantic to stop it. That's my hair, you asshole! Orochimaru seized enough control to force it to drop the kunai and his hair , but it amounted to no more than a half-second of mild surprise from the invader in his body before it ripped control away.
-It’s just hair,- the thief told him, -it will grow again. - It grabbed the kunai off the ground, and grabbed the ragged edges of Orochimaru’s now shoulder-length hair.
An alarm went off outside the room, a low wail that cycled endlessly as Orochimaru’s hands methodically sawed off every inch of hair on his head.
He stopped struggling, appalled at his own weakness and sick with a horror he couldn't explain. He’d faced torture with an apathy that had infuriated his interrogators and pleased himself, but his breath was hitching in pathetic sobs that the thief didn't bother suppressing as the pile of hair on the ground grew.
-Such a dramatic child.- it hissed, scraping the blade along the back of Orochimaru’s neck. -You’ll thank me for this later, you know.- The thief tossed the last of his hair to the ground, spinning the kunai around his fingers in a move that felt achingly familiar before it used a tiny fire jutsu to burn Orochimaru's hair into ashes.
The door was barred, and the alarm was still blaring. Occasionally people rushed by the doorway, but whatever genjutsu the thief had cast, none of the Iwa ninja seemed to remember this office’s existence.
The thing had found a mirror.
The first thing Orochimaru noticed was how awkward his ears were. Without his hair to cover them they were hideously huge. He wasn’t sure how he’d gone through his entire life without noticing how big and freakish his ears were, but he was never going to be able to unsee them now.
His head turned to the side, and Orochimaru forgot about his ears. Is that a seal? A line of black ink swept along his scalp, forming a tomoe. There was the edge of a second one just visible on the curve of his skull.
It touched the seal, and Orochimaru remembered being forced face-down on the ground, a hand lacing through his hair, and being distracted with pain while something wet and cold pressed into his scalp.
-I don’t remember that.-
Orochimaru frowned, given control of his face for a fleeting second before it rearranged into the flat emptiness that the thing riding him preferred. Why would you remember it? Nothing about this made any sense. What was the seal for? Was it what had created the thing that was controlling him?
The thief ignored him, its thoughts rushing by in flashes of colour and light that Orochimaru couldn’t catch more than the faintest hint of. He caught a few images in the mess--some ancient guy in the Hokage’s hat, more test tubes than he’d ever seen in one place, a bunch of red clouds on a black background, but those things were meaningless without context.
The genjutsu on the door shook and barely held against someone’s attempt to break it, and the body thief’s roiling thoughts settled into a glacial calm.
His hands reached up to cup the back of his head, finding prickly, uneven stubble, and for one long second, nothing happened.
Slowly, carefully, the thief extended Orochimaru’s chakra into his skull, using tiny flares that made his hands twitch, colours bloom and spin in his vision, filled his mouth with the remembered taste of blood. A memory rose, and the thief stopped searching, intensifying the spill of chakra into Orochimaru's brain.
-There it is,- it said, clinically please to have found what it was looking for, dragging memories to the surface. Jiraiya on one side of him, Tsunade on the other, Sarutobi-sensei praising them like they were one person instead of three. The unusual joy he’d felt that day slipped out of the memory, unnaturally reproduced by needles inside his head. The prickling of chakra inside his head was itchy and incredibly disconcerting.
Orochimaru’s eyes leaked tears, and the thief prodded again, finding a memory of Jiraiya, half-asleep and draped against Orochimaru’s side like an alcohol-doused blanket. The rambling way he’d told Orochimaru that he loved his bastard asshole teammate, and the finger Jiraiya had pressed against Orochimaru’s lips after because it was a secret.
The gentle amusement he had felt then flickered through his chest and settled there, growing as the thief manipulated his memories, searching for more of them.
- Do you love them?- it asked, sounding nothing more than curious.
The thief’s interest set off alarms in Orochimaru’s head, and he lied, No . They are only my team. He didn't expect it to buy the lie, but he had to try. The thought of this thing seeking out his team...Orochimaru buried it, concentrating on the endless wailing of the base's alarms instead.
It was not fooled. -How interesting, I never thought we were capable.-
A memory of Tsunade stealing his drink and handing him her cards, telling him to play for her because she was sick of losing rose out of the pulsing chakra in his brain, and Orochimaru felt the happiness of that moment in painful intensity. It'd been--right. She was his friend.
The chakra inside his skull twisted, and Orochimaru's breath rushed out of his chest in a long, thready whine.
The thief called up layer after layer of memory, forcing his brain into flooding him with emotion, and under the twisted intensity of that, the thief peeled up sections and pieces of something inside his head that hadn’t felt foreign until it started leaving him.
Stop it, he thought at it, lost in a whirlpool of affection, happiness, and agony as something more poisonous than his snakes was drained out of his chakra.
- Would you rather be driven mad? ...a rhetorical question, of course, I will not let you break.- The thought seemed strained under the scornful amusement, but Orochimaru could not gather the will to take advantage.
He couldn’t explain how the genjutsu on the door had lasted with the thief so distracted, but it was a long, long time before it ended, leaving nothing but scoured nerves and agonising emptiness inside him. Orochimaru would have fallen to his knees if his body had been his to control. He fell unconscious, his awareness dying in stages. The thief’s control never wavered.
Orochimaru woke up five days later, alone in his head and covered in blood. The path behind him smoked gently, ashes stirring in the breeze. The path ahead led home.
He stood there for a very long time.