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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.)

Chapter Text

 “You.”

Sakumo looks up and just barely manages to swallow his laughter in time.

Perhaps, to anyone else, an angry Snake Sannin bearing down on them would be something out of a nightmare. But Sakumo can't do anything but grin as Orochimaru stalks up to him in the Jounin Standby Station, golden eyes narrowed in fury and his sharp-edged chakra seething around him like a tempest.

Of course, the terror of the image is slightly mitigated by the two-year-old clinging cheerfully to his shoulder.

“Cub!” Sakumo says brightly, sweeping forward to scoop up his son and toss him in the air. Kakashi laughs, waving his arms and demanding, “Again, again!” so Sakumo obliges. It gives him time to get his mirth under control so that it’s safe to turn back to the other man.

Orochimaru looks entirely unimpressed, his arms crossed over his chest and a smear of whatever Kakashi was eating earlier painted across the shoulder of his fine blue robe. “Hatake,” he grits out. “Where were you?”

Sakumo blinks innocently at his friend. “What do you mean, Orochimaru?” he asks guilelessly. “Oh! Were you trying to find me earlier? I'm sorry, I was probably in the forest. Dai and I were working on some new moves.” He offers up a wide grin, because Orochimaru looks rather like some veins are about to start pulsing, and he physically cannot resist for even one second more.

Orochimaru snarls wordlessly at him, reaching out to pluck Kakashi from his hands. The boy goes with a cheer, latching on to Orochimaru’s hair the way he always does and clinging monkey-like to his shoulder. With the ease of almost a year of practice, Orochimaru ignores him, narrowing his eyes at Sakumo. “The Hokage called me for a meeting,” he bites out. “And because you were off gallivanting in the woods, I had to endure an entire hour of Sarutobi-sensei beaming at me. He has not done that since I stopped adopting wild snakes, and I was glad of it. Now he’s going to be insufferable.”

The grin doesn’t fade. Sakumo can't force it to. He can just imagine Orochimaru as a child, caring for a clutch—nest? Pack?—of baby serpents, smiling down at them the way he sometimes does at Kakashi when he thinks no one is watching. It’s an adorable image, because the Orochimaru that everyone sees is cold and terrifying and sly, and this one is…more human. More approachable. It’s…good.

But the silence is growing dangerous—Sakumo can just see Orochimaru’s hand starting to twitch towards his weapons pouch. To ward him off, he raises his hands defensively and aims for his best soothing tone. “Hey, hey, no need for that, lovely. I'm sorry I wasn’t around, but that’s why I asked you to watch the cub for me.” Hearing his nickname, Kakashi looks up from where he’s weaving Orochimaru’s hair into knots with a serious look on his face, and Sakumo smiles at him. Kakashi beams in return, always more cheerful when he has access to his favorite adult/playmate/life-size doll, and goes back to his task.

It gives Sakumo an idea—not that he ever really needs an excuse to drag Orochimaru along on outings. “Hey!” he offers brightly. “You mentioned wanting to visit that cake shop by the market, right? My treat, to make up for the morning.”

Orochimaru scowls at him. “I expressed interest in the fact that they’ve managed to outlast most of their competition,” he corrects sharply, and Sakumo rolls his eyes, because where Orochimaru is concerned that’s pretty much the exact same thing. It earns him a low hiss. “Hatake—”

“Come on, come on.” Sakumo seizes him by the elbow—prudently, on the arm that’s supporting Kakashi, so that he isn’t in danger of losing his hand—and tugs him along. “I’ve been there before. You’ll like their egg custard, I think.”

Orochimaru lets himself be guided, though his expression is still a mixture of aggrieved and annoyed. “You will be paying,” he warns, but it lacks the acidic bite it once would have had, and Sakumo laughs.

(He’s seen the way people look at Orochimaru now, as compared to how they once did. It’s very, very hard to fear a man completely, even the infamous Snake Sannin, when one has seen him with a cheerful toddler bouncing on his hip, and Sakumo is entirely satisfied with the way things have turned out. This, well.

This is just about perfect.)

 

Jiraiya strolls back into Konoha with a storm on his heels, the first drops of rain just striking the dusty ground. The gate guards wave him in with grins and cheerful welcomes home, eyes bright with something that could be either hero worship or relief, and Jiraiya waves back, winking at the pretty brunette. She rolls her eyes, but can't fight a smile, and Jiraiya saunters off with a whistle because, yeah, still got it. Even after three years in the wilderness with a couple of kids.

Nagato, Konan, and Yahiko—they're going to be fine. More than fine. Jiraiya trained them himself, knows what they can do. More than that, he knows what they're capable of, what changes they’ll be able to make. They're ready to follow their own dreams, to find their own path, and Jiraiya's ready to return to his regular life. Or, well, as regular as a shinobi’s life ever can be.

Konoha is still the same, he sees with vague relief, if somewhat brighter than before. There's less of a war-shadow hanging over the place, and the people look happier even as they flee the oncoming storm. The shinobi out and about aren’t carrying nearly as many weapons as they were the last time he looked, as he and his team were leaving for Ame. Fewer weapons and less tension, and they walk more easily, no longer so tightly contained. It’s…good.

It would be better if they hadn’t left Ame a war-torn ruin full of traumatized civilians behind them, but Jiraiya pushes that thought down and buries it. He’s done what he can to help, given hope to the next generation, and that will have to be enough.

With a rattling clatter against the roof tiles, the rain starts in earnest, the former bare sprinkling becoming a deluge in the space of a breath. Jiraiya curses and changes direction, ducking into the closest restaurant before he can get completely soaked. For all that Ame lives up to its name, the rain there is steady and light, more heavy mist than anything. It has nothing on a good Konoha rainstorm. But that’s fine, because reporting in can wait, and Jiraiya is hungry anyway, more than ready to see if the cakes in this place do justice to his memories of them.

The waitress seats him with a smile and offers him a menu, then leaves to greet the next customers as the bell over the door chimes. It’s a safety precaution in a ninja village, having one—more often than not, if there's no bell, shinobi will slip in entirely unnoticed and either get fed up waiting to be seen or give the workers a heart attack by appearing seemingly out of nowhere. Jiraiya scans the offered items, half an ear cocked—as ever—towards his surroundings, though he feels secure enough in Konoha itself that he’s not quite as alert as he would be otherwise.

“Damn, that’s a heavy storm,” a man says, but his tone is entirely cheerful. “Came out of nowhere.”

“Only if you failed to read this morning’s weather report. Or somehow missed the threatening black clouds that have been moving across the sky for the last eight hours,” another man retorts, a lighter voice than the first, tenor instead of bass, and…familiar. Jiraiya freezes, his fingers tightening on his menu, because it’s very familiar and yet, to hear it here, in a public setting, joking with someone who isn’t Tsunade or himself—

 “Here, take him for a second and I’ll see if they have an extra towel or something,” the first says, even more cheerful than before, as though the biting sarcasm in the other’s words is amusing instead of disparaging and cutting. Jiraiya had thought he was the only one who could do that.

“I,” the familiar voice answers sharply, “am not in any way your nanny, you ungrateful mongrel.”

That gets him a laugh, bright and warm—astonishingly warm, given who it’s directed at. “But he likes you better than me,” is the cheery rejoinder. “See, look—he’s stopped frowning.”

A sigh, put-upon and holding a thin, almost entirely hidden undercurrent of amusement. “Well. At least he doesn’t take after you in temperament. I have no doubt that dealing with two idiotically happy menaces would drive me to suicide. Or homicide.”

“You know you adore us, lovely. Someday I’ll even make you admit it out loud.” That, too, is almost mind-bogglingly warm, and the fondness in it unmistakable even without the (slightly horrifying) nickname.

“Call me that one more time and I’ll—” A child’s happy babble interrupts the threatening hiss, and the man sighs. “Clearly, you’ve inherited your father’s self-preservation skills, cub. I mourn for you already.” Another happy noise, more words that Jiraiya, not fluent in baby-babbling, can't quite make out, and another sigh. “Go make yourself useful and get a towel. We’re leaving a puddle on the floor.”

“Yes, sir.” It’s still merry, still easy the way no one ever is around—

Unable to stand it, Jiraiya finally twists in his seat enough to see the door, and has to swallow a noise of complete and utter shock.

It really is Orochimaru standing there, just as pale and eerie-looking as he was when he and Tsunade left Ame, clad in his usual kimono shirt and dark pants. His hair is longer, almost waist-length, and in his arms is a child. A toddler, falling somewhere between the age of five months and five years—because Jiraiya's never had much experience with children younger than that, and can't pinpoint it more precisely—with a shock of silver hair, who’s clinging to Orochimaru with rather mystifying enthusiasm. Orochimaru is watching him with a well-hidden smile, just a bare tilt of his lips, but it’s more than anyone but Tsunade and Jiraiya usually get. Far more, and…a little unsettling.

The child reaches up and latches onto one glossy strand of raven hair, tugging at it with a serious look. “Want,” he says. “Oro. I want juice.” He wraps the lock of hair around his small fist and tugs again.

Orochimaru winces, and Jiraiya tenses, considers leaping up and saving the kid from whatever retribution is coming, but then the brunet simply sighs, reaching up with one hand to cover the child’s. “Gentle,” he admonishes. “Be gentle, Kakashi. We’ll get you juice, I promise, just as soon as your father gets back.”

(Jiraiya has a sudden, horrifying thought: if this kid has a father, does that make Orochimaru the mother?)

“Oro,” the kid says again, though this time it’s more cheerful than demanding, and grabs for more hair. Orochimaru rolls his eyes and lets him.

“I can't wait,” he tells the boy, “until you're actually a fully-functional person. Which means that you can't take after your father, or I won't be able to hold a real conversation with you until you're in your sixties.”

“How cruel,” the bass voice from earlier jokes as its owner rejoins them. Hatake, Jiraiya thinks, though he can't remember the man’s given name, still slightly dazed from trying to put Orochimaru and small child together with the words tolerates a in between. It just…doesn’t compute. “Are you badmouthing me to my son behind my back, Orochimaru? That’s underhanded and exceedingly devious.”

Shinobi,” Orochimaru reminds him, one hair shy of withering, and that’s still far kinder than what Jiraiya has ever heard him direct at someone outside their team. “After almost thirty years, one would hope you would be used to such things, mutt.”

Hatake laughs again, free and bright, reaching out and dropping a thick towel over Orochimaru’s head.

Jiraiya braces himself for a bloodbath.

What he gets instead is an exasperated sigh and Orochimaru tugging the length of cloth away to glare at the silver-haired man, though his hands are gentle as they start to dry off the kid. “Why do I even put up with you?” he demands.

Well, that’s what Jiraiya would like to know.

“Come on,” Hatake says lightly, taking hold of Orochimaru’s elbow and steering him over to a table, where the waitress is waiting. She looks aside as Orochimaru slips past her, but doesn’t flinch away, and…Jiraiya wonders at that, too. It’s always been bad, when Orochimaru is out in public—it’s one of the reasons he’s such a loner, has always secluded himself in his lab or the library. But this—

Either the woman has exceptional nerves for a civilian, or something has managed to change. That too is a mind-boggling thought, because surely Jiraiya wasn’t gone for that long. Surely.

Hatake laughs again, though Jiraiya missed what Orochimaru said to cause it, and reaches across the table to grip Orochimaru’s wrist in a light, clearly fond hold. And Orochimaru doesn’t make him let go.

If Jiraiya himself tried that, he’d probably get a kunai through his hand, or at least a shuriken pinning his sleeve to the table if Orochimaru was in a particularly forgiving mood. He hates being touched.

Except, apparently, by Hatake Sakumo and his toddler son, who is even now perched on Orochimaru’s lap like it’s his favorite place in the world.

Gibbering. Gibbering madness sounds ridiculously appealing right now. Then all of this will make sense, right?

“Oro,” the kid—Kakashi? But who in their right mind would name their son scarecrow?—says again, reaching up and latching on to something besides hair, through Orochimaru still winces. “Oro. No sweet. No.

Orochimaru reaches up and carefully tugs at the small, chubby hand. Jiraiya can see a flash of blue stone between their tangled fingers—Orochimaru is still wearing the tomoe earrings, then. He always has, since the first day Jiraiya gave them to him, and that’s just as mystifying as everything else, because Orochimaru is hardly one for sentiment. “Gentle, Kakashi,” he chides again, pulling the boy away. “Or you’ll have to sit with your father.”

Hatake is grinning at them, obviously amused, though his eyes are soft. “I love that you say that like it’s a punishment,” he jokes, but releases Orochimaru’s wrist to lean over the table and distract his son. “Hey, cub. Still not a fan of sweets? That’s okay. We can get you a roll or something, huh? Curry bread?”

“You can't give him curry bread, it will upset his stomach.” Orochimaru sounds exasperated again. He shifts Kakashi to a slightly different position, then pulls a square of paper from his weapons pouch and waves it gently. “Would you like an animal, Kakashi?”

The boy looks incredibly serious as he stares at the paper, then demands, “Oro. Make a dog!”

“Please,” Orochimaru reminds him. “You must say please when you ask for something.” He gets an entirely unimpressed look in response and rolls his eyes. “We’ll work on that, then.” But regardless, he places the paper on the table and begins folding it, hands quick and deft.

“I don’t understand the dog obsession,” Hatake says, a touch of wounded pride in his voice. “Wolves are our clan animal. Aren’t they cooler?” That last bit comes out almost plaintive.

Orochimaru just rolls his eyes again. “Canines are your clan animal,” he reminds the older man as the origami takes shape under his fingers. “And he’s entitled to pick any type he wants. Just because you get along so well with those flea-bitten—”

“My wolves don’t have fleas!”

Those wild animals you call summons doesn’t mean your son is required to as well.”

Hatake huffs, sinking back in his seat now that Kakashi’s attention is fixed solely on Orochimaru’s swift hands. “As someone whose main summons tries to eat you every time you call him up, you have no room to talk,” he protests.

“Manda is…opinionated,” Orochimaru says blandly, which is a big fucking understatement if Jiraiya has ever heard one. That snake is insane. “He is also very reliable, and does not slobber, unlike some summons I could name.” He sets the little origami dog down in front of Kakashi with a flourish, because Orochimaru always has and forever will be a grand, showy bastard. “Here. What will you call this one, cub?”

It takes Jiraiya a second to realize that Orochimaru is talking to the kid. That he has a nickname for someone beyond simply bastard or moron. What the hell?

Kakashi picks up the toy, startlingly careful for a toddler, and studies it with intense concentration. After a long moment, he looks up at Orochimaru and beams. “Woof,” he declares.

“That’s a very good name for a dog,” Orochimaru agrees gravely, and then glances up. His gaze locks with Jiraiya's, golden eyes going wide as he freezes without a sound. Instantly, Hatake is on his feet, tense in a way that speaks of protectiveness beyond the usual for a simple comrade, of regular threats met, and he doesn’t relax when he realizes what Orochimaru is looking at. Instead, he gives Jiraiya a sharp, almost angry look, at odds with his formerly cheerful expression. Then, in a blur if movement, he grabs Orochimaru by the elbow, hauls him to his feet as the Snake Sannin clutches Kakashi to keep from dropping him, and all but drags them right out the door, heedless of the storm still raging.

Jiraiya watches the small group—family? But it kind of makes his brain hurt to think that word in connection to Orochimaru and a kid—disappear, and stays where he is, head spinning and thoughts a jumbled mess.

What?

 

That jumbled mess doesn’t get any better when he drags himself in to report to the Hokage, because apparently Dan is dead and Tsunade is gone, has left the village without any intention of returning. Sarutobi, who looks about ten years older than Jiraiya remembers him, rather than three, has been attempting to keep tabs on her and Dan’s niece, who’s with her, but Tsunade isn’t one of the Sannin for nothing and keeps shaking her tails.

Dan is dead. Jiraiya was fond of him, liked him far better than any of Tsunade's other beaus, and he’d been solid and steady and wise beyond his years. But now he’s dead and Tsunade is gone and not coming back. Jiraiya rubs his palms over his face and tries to straighten out his thoughts, because that’s one hell of a lot to take in. She’s related to two Hokages, was trained by a third, and in the back of his mind Jiraiya always expected her to be at very least the Hokage's wife, since Dan was pretty much a shoe-in for the position. But now…

Now she’s not, and he wasn’t even here. He didn’t even know. Maybe there's nothing he could have done, but…maybe there was. Maybe this is his fault for taking off like that, for leaving his teammates behind.

Damn it.

“And…Orochimaru?” he asks after a moment, because he can't not. “I…saw him in the village. With a kid.

(Another unsettling, vaguely horrifying thought: are Orochimaru and Hatake dating? Are they married?)

That eases the lines in Sarutobi's face, if only slightly, and he taps his pipe against his lips to hide his small smile. “Ah, yes. Sakumo and his son seem to have adopted him. He was in a rather dark place after Dan’s death and Tsunade's departure, but they’ve helped him. Likely more than any of them know.” His expression is warm and fond, because Orochimaru has always been the genius on their team, the prodigy. Always favored. Jiraiya resented him for it, once, until he saw how the rest of Konoha treated him. That cured it pretty quickly.

“But,” Sarutobi continues, and there's a dark note in his voice that makes Jiraiya jerk his eyes back up and pay attention, because that’s Sarutobi's I'm-worried-and-pissed-off-that-I-have-to-be-worried tone. “There have been…incidents on Orochimaru’s missions lately. Not every mission, but enough. Near misses, misleading or false intelligence, informants who turn traitor, double agents—nothing that’s exactly out of the ordinary, taken alone, but all together…either Orochimaru has the worst luck of any shinobi I’ve ever encountered, or someone is attempting to sabotage him.”

Jiraiya remembers Hatake’s almost instantaneous defense, the way he stepped in front of Orochimaru as though to block a blow, and feels a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. Someone sabotaging Orochimaru? That’s…bad. And not just because of Orochimaru’s likely reaction when he finds the culprit. Mission knowledge is confined to a handful of shinobi, and always kept in-village. So it’s more than likely one of their own attempting to kill him. Subtly, indirectly, but it’s definitely an attempt on his life, and who knows how many times they’ve nearly succeeded by now.

Another helping of guilt to lay at Jiraiya's feet, then.

Damn it.

Jiraiya has no idea what to do, no idea how to make this better.

Futilely, angrily, with enough self-directed loathing to choke him, Jiraiya wonders if he could even if he tried.

 

Kakashi is asleep, curled up in a nest of blankets the way he always manages to do no matter how they lay him out. The rest of the house is silent but for the tick of the clock and the soft creak of the foundations settling, and Sakumo…regrets it.

He’s never been all that good with words.

(The Hatake Clan Curse, his mother always called it, laughing at his father who laughed sheepishly right along with her.)

Orochimaru is seated on the ground in front of his chair, leaning back against the arm, and nearly a year ago Sakumo would have counted this his greatest victory, the aloof and dismissive Snake Sannin unbent enough to relax in his company, to drink sake with him like any other man. But over the course of those ten months, he’s learned that Orochimaru isn’t like any other man—he’s a genius, bad with people and all but dependent on having someone with him to act as a buffer. Otherwise he’s the snake that he emulates, picking at sore spots in the psyche, twisting people’s words, getting reactions because they fascinate him and he can't quite comprehend why it’s wrong to indulge his curiosity.

Sakumo has been that buffer ever since Orochimaru grudgingly accepted his presence as something that couldn’t be changed or done away with. He’s gotten Sarutobi to include Orochimaru in his squad whenever possible, has tried to make sure their leave lines up and that Orochimaru knows he’s always, always pack.

It’s been working, he thinks, surveying the dark head turned away from him, the long fall of raven hair hiding any hint of expression. Or it had been working, and there's a spark of anger in his chest, a surge of protectiveness that the mere sight of Jiraiya could send Orochimaru back into his shell, make him brood like this. Because Jiraiya abandoned his packmate, left for whatever reason no matter how good, and that’s not what you do. Maybe other people, non-Hatake people, think of it differently, but Sakumo can't imagine why they would. Because surely, surely, abandonment is a bad thing, right? Surely it’s not good form to leave a packmate on his own in dangerous territory.

(And Konoha is dangerous, to Orochimaru. It’s his home, but only vaguely. A place to rest, a place to eat, a place where ancestors are buried—but that’s not enough, not for someone used to a pack.)

Sakumo had thought he was doing well, integrating Orochimaru into his own pack. Orochimaru is fond of Kakashi, though he’d been at a loss as to what to do with a baby at first. But Sakumo was telling the truth when he said Kakashi liked Orochimaru better—the cub cries more often when Orochimaru is gone, won't be quieted as easily. Orochimaru treats him like a slightly short person rather than a baby, and Kakashi, who is already far smarter than he should be at just-barely-two, clearly enjoys that. He likes the Sannin’s origami animals, his pretty seals and the way he can shape wind and earth with simple movements. And for his part, Orochimaru seems to accept Kakashi in a way that’s more than just tolerance, though he’s yet to admit to anything resembling fondness.

They're a pack. They're a pack, established and steady after almost a whole year, and now Jiraiya has returned and thrown that into turmoil.

Sakumo strangles the growl that wants to rise, tamps it down and instead looks up as the man in front of him stirs.

Slowly, carefully deliberate, Orochimaru sets his glass on the table and shifts, turning until he’s all but pressed up against Sakumo’s knees. There's nothing in his expression that screams drunk, and Sakumo has been dragged home from the bar by an exceedingly irritated Snake Sannin enough times to know that Orochimaru’s tolerance is Tsunade-trained and pretty much unbeatable. But…but this is more openness in his expression than Sakumo has ever seen. Not vulnerability, because Orochimaru has probably never in his life been vulnerable to anything, but…

Rawness, Sakumo thinks sadly, raising a hand to stroke over impossibly thick, silken hair. Orochimaru leans into the touch, just slightly, but enough to be telling. Enough that when he rises up on his knees, all but sliding up Sakumo’s body and then settling in his lap, Sakumo doesn’t resist. Even when Orochimaru reaches out, slides a hand around the nape of his neck and pulls him into a slow, gentle kiss.

Sakumo doesn’t close his eyes, because he knows that if he does this will get out of hand. Already, even with all of the evidence literally in front of him, it’s far too easy to imagine that the lips against his are fuller, the chest pressed to his softer, the hips beneath his hands curvier. Orochimaru is warm and lean and the fall of his hair is a heavy, silken weight against the backs of Sakumo’s hands where they rest at the Sannin’s waist. And he kisses like it’s the most fascinating thing in the world, an exploration, a challenge, a study of the unknown. Dangerously easy, then, to get caught up, to give in and do something that they’ll both regret later.

With a soft, resigned sigh against insistent lips, Sakumo slides his hand up to cup Orochimaru’s pale cheek and gently pulls away. He shakes his head with a sad smile and leans in to rest his forehead against Orochimaru’s, feeling the long-forgotten, nostalgic tickle of someone else’s breath against his skin and filling his nose with Orochimaru’s scent of faint jasmine and just a touch of green tea and good sake.

There’s a long, grim pause, and then Orochimaru sighs, too. “I'm…sorry,” he says at length, as though the words are entirely unfamiliar to him. They probably are, the standoffish bastard, Sakumo thinks with a hint of fond amusement. But the man’s tone is tense, just about to devolve into stiffness, and that’s not something he’s going to allow.

“No,” he counters softly. “Don’t be. Orochimaru, you're my best friend. You're beautiful and smart and powerful, and anyone in the world would be lucky to have you. But I'm just not attracted to men. I'm sorry. If I was, it would be you, but—”

Orochimaru lays a finger over his lips, careful to keep the touch light, but at least some of the lines around his purple-shadowed eyes have relaxed. “Insult to injury, Hatake,” he says, though there's well-hidden amusement in the gold of his gaze. “Please, let me escape this incident with at least some of my dignity and self-respect intact.”

Sakumo smiles sheepishly at him. “Right. Open mouth, insert extra-large foot. My apologies, Orochimaru.”

That at least earns him a faint smile in return, the purple markings around Orochimaru’s eyes catching the shadows and turning his face into something even more exotic than it normally is. He really is beautiful, and just for a moment, Sakumo wonders if maybe—

But no. No, that’s a terrible idea, so he just tugs Orochimaru’s head down to rest against his shoulder, one hand cupped around the back of his skull. It’s an oddly delicate touch, a strangely intimate gesture that nevertheless has more to do with friendship than anything sexual. “I'm not the one you want,” he says gently, and doesn’t have to be looking at Orochimaru’s face to see the way his eyes narrow sharply. He rolls his own eyes, because they’ve been friends long enough for him to be able to tell when Orochimaru is going to throw a fit over semantics.

“I don’t want that stupid oaf,” Orochimaru huffs, right on cue, though tellingly he doesn’t try to pull away.

Sakumo allows himself another smile, larger this time, because if Orochimaru can be indignant he’s going to be just fine. “Need, then,” he allows. “Maybe you don’t want him, but after the last three years you can't deny that you need him, Orochimaru. Not without lying.”

Because Sakumo cares for Orochimaru, and he knows that no matter how tightlipped he is on the subject, no matter how cold and sharp he is to the rest of the world, Orochimaru cares for both him and Kakashi. But Sakumo has only really known him for a handful of months, is still trying to learn all of his tells. He can't know Orochimaru as well as his old teammates do, not without years of study. And Orochimaru needs that steady support, that understanding bred by familiarity, to stay strong.

Sakumo can be so very much for him, so very much to him, but even he and Kakashi can't be everything.

Chapter Text

Orochimaru returns from a mission to the north, twenty-eight days after Jiraiya's reappearance in Konoha, to find that they’ve given his former teammate a genin team.

“He has already proven that he does well enough with children,” Sarutobi says during Orochimaru’s debriefing, when he passes the news on. There's a wary sort of resignation in his voice, but it does little to ease Orochimaru’s mind.

He left, Orochimaru wants to say. He left for three years, abandoned Konoha without so much as asking permission, and now that he’s returned you reward him?

In all truth, he can't even say why the thought of it unsettles him. Jiraiya has yet to seek him out—though, granted, there has been little time for such things, between him settling in and Orochimaru being called away—and the other man has already made it clear just how little priority he gives their old team. Perhaps it should be no surprise at all that Jiraiya is moving on, eyes already fixed on the next bright opportunity rather than the shadow that is his former teammate.

Sarutobi is still watching him, eyes dark and faintly sympathetic, though thankfully he offers no platitudes. “You encountered no problems?” he asks because if nothing else Sarutobi has always recognized the signs of Orochimaru’s mind working, knows when he needs time and space to stew.

Gratefully, Orochimaru accepts the change of subject, inclining his head. “Only mild,” he affirms, and after the complete disasters of his last four solo missions that’s close enough to ‘no trouble’ to count. “There was increased security on the outpost, and I assume someone had warned them of an attempted infiltration, but I was able to get in and out unseen.”

Sarutobi frowns worriedly, and Orochimaru is more than capable of seeing just what’s going on, this quiet sabotage. Someone wants him either dead or disgraced, though he can't quite fathom why.

“Well,” the Sandaime says with forced lightness. “You have three weeks’ mandatory leave after this last spate of missions, and I believe Sakumo has time off as well. Do you have plans?”

Orochimaru shoots him a sharp look, clearly communicating that the old man is not nearly as subtle as he thinks he is, and then looks away, out the wide windows of the Hokage's office and to where the Academy class is just getting out. The children are…very small.

It’s hard to remember that he was once one of them.

(Easier now, though, with Sakumo and Kakashi beside him.)

“I had thought to look for Tsunade,” he admits after a long moment, conscious of the heavy silence lingering between them—unspoken words, he thinks, though he has no notion what they might be. “I heard passing mention of a blonde gambler with poor luck on my way back, and…I would like to know that she is—. She would like to know of Jiraiya's safe return.”

As ever, Sarutobi doesn’t call him out on the mid-sentence switch. He’s quite familiar with Orochimaru’s habits after nearly twenty years in close proximity. “Indeed,” he says gravely, faint, wry amusement in the lines of his face. “It would ease my mind greatly if you could find her, Orochimaru. I will have a pass waiting for you tomorrow morning. But…please inform Sakumo before you leave. Last time you left without a word was…quite exciting for all involved. And little Kakashi will miss you terribly without a proper goodbye.”

Orochimaru makes a face, because what Sarutobi is actually saying is more along the lines of let Sakumo accompany you or I will put you on diplomatic missions for the rest of the year. Only Sarutobi would never be so upfront about it, and therefore feels entirely justified making use of base emotional blackmail.

There's a reason he’s one of the few shinobi Orochimaru truly respects.

“I will…let him know,” Orochimaru allows reluctantly, fighting a grimace. He is twenty-five, one of the strongest shinobi in any of the Elemental Countries, and does not need a babysitter. However, after a year of knowing Hatake Sakumo, Orochimaru is aware that if he vanishes, Sakumo will likely overturn the entire village and surrounding countryside in search of him, and not subtly either. Especially given the last four missions Orochimaru has been on, all of which have gone to hell in some truly spectacular ways.

Sarutobi doesn’t quite say I’ll prepare another pass, then, but it’s hovering unspoken in the smile he fails to hide behind his pipe. “Very well, then,” is all he says. “Consider yourself dismissed and on leave. Thank you, Orochimaru, and good work.”

Orochimaru rises to his feet, carefully concealing the stiffness in his leg from the last near miss. A shallow wound, but a good part of the reason he hasn’t protested his long leave. If Sarutobi notices—or, heaven forbid, Sakumo—those three weeks will likely become three months, and Orochimaru will truly go mad. He’s not about to spend any more time trapped in the village with Jiraiya and all the things he represents than he absolutely has to.

Tsunade will know, if he finds her. Tsunade always knows.

He has…missed Jiraiya, these past three years, Orochimaru thinks, pausing outside the Administration Building. He’s missed Jiraiya, but always with an edge of if only added on. Because for all that Jiraiya is—was—to him, like a child Orochimaru has always wanted more. More of his attention, more of his time, more of his rivalry that’s something very much like what Orochimaru assumes friendship to be. Just—more.

With Tsunade, though, it’s not like that. Things are easier between them, and always have been. Tsunade is frequently exasperated and often violent, and has never treated Orochimaru with the edge of fear-amazement-awe that the rest of the village does. Even at their first meeting, she took one look at him, put her hands on her hips, and demanded to know why the hell he was so pale, and didn’t he ever go out in the sun? Because Vitamin D was important, and she wasn’t going to be stuck with an idiot who couldn’t even remember that much.

Orochimaru had stared at her, stunned speechless, and Sarutobi had laughed. So had his mother, when he told her later.

It is…base association, to think of his mother when he thinks of Tsunade, though they hold different places in his life. His mother was tall and pale and willow-wand slender, with bronze eyes to Orochimaru’s gold and the same raven hair, nothing at all like Tsunade in looks, but they both cared, both smiled in the same manner before something stole their smiles away.

Orochimaru’s feet carry him to the cemetery without conscious thought, as thought of his parents always tends to do. He picks his way between the altars without pause, sure in his course after so very many visits here, and it is…a relief. Others might find the place eerie, especially in the descending twilight, but Orochimaru can't, not when this is where his parents are. He loved them to the point that it almost broke him when they died—together, the way they would have wanted it, but all the harder on an eight-year-old boy regardless of (or perhaps because of) his genius.

It’s hard for him to remember their faces, sometimes. Harder still to remember scents and sounds, though he knows his father’s voice was low and soft but deep, that his mother smelled of dry scales and oleander from the poisons that she brewed. She was pure-blooded, the last such of the clan, and his father was of Kiri stock, but they’d been happy together, strong and steady for all that they always stood slightly back from the rest of Konoha. Orochimaru had been a precocious child, he knows, quiet and tending more towards books than social interaction, and they had given him his space, let him be and yet always been there when he needed them.

Always, right up until the mission that took them away from him.

He crouches before the marker, pleased to see it’s still free of weeds and dirt, and passes a gentle hand over the irises growing on either side of it, a purple so dark they're nearly black. Mildly poisonous, too—he likes to think his mother would approve. She was always so fond of natural poisons.

The white snakeskin he found here that first, terrible morning he woke up alone is still with him, still carefully preserved and kept under glass as a symbol of his resolve. He wants even now, seventeen years later, to see his parents again more than anything. Wise and kind and beautiful and deadly—he misses them, and ache and a wrench whenever he thinks of their absence, no matter how much time passes. But someday, when the wheel turns again, they’ll be reborn, and Orochimaru will find them. He will. And until then, he’ll be a shinobi, as they were, as they always wanted him to be, and he’ll rise as high in the ranks as he’s able to make them proud.

The sabotage will be dealt with. Orochimaru isn’t the type to leave anything to chance.

A footstep crunches in fallen leaves, and Orochimaru raises his head, eyes narrowing in barely-hidden offence. This is a graveyard, hardly the place to talk of business, and there's nothing else this could be. After all, he and Shimura Danzo have no other reason to be speaking.

“You're a difficult man to find, Orochimaru,” Danzo says, his voice affable, though there's some sort of undercurrent that Orochimaru can hear but not quite make out. “Hiruzen has been keeping you busy, I see.”

Orochimaru wonders if the man will take a hint if he remains silent, crouched before a grave, but he doubts it. Danzo only shows tact when it suits him.

“I am a shinobi,” he says after the silence stretches for a long moment, thick with something that’s almost anticipation. “I go where I am needed, when I am sent.” Another moment, and he pushes smoothly to his feet before turning to face the older man, resisting the urge to cross his arms over his chest. That’s Jiraiya's gesture, and never has the same effect when Orochimaru uses it. “Did you need me for something, then?”

Danzo smiles at him, and a gesture that should be warm and wise is only flat and hard. Orochimaru supposes he’s grown accustomed to Sakumo and Kakashi's smiles—warm and open and clearly happy. “I had heard,” he says, voice heavy with concern, “that you have been having…trouble on your missions, Orochimaru. After assessing the situation, the only conclusion I can come to is a distressing one indeed. And I'm afraid the culprit can only be a Konoha nin, someone strategically placed in the Records or Assignments division. I thought it best to warn you, before you risk yourself again.”

The wound in Orochimaru’s thigh, where a kunai from a supposedly loyal informant had stabbed deep into the muscle, twinges and flares with pain. He doesn’t let it show on his face or in his body, but it takes more effort than it should not to flinch. Over the last year, more missions than not have gone abruptly off course, and Orochimaru is very, very tired of it. He’s good at what he does, brilliant at being a shinobi even if being a person is harder, and he can usually manage to turn things around well enough to accomplish his task, but often it’s been far too close for comfort.

It started with the mission to retrieve Sakumo’s team, and Orochimaru can still see it in his mind, Sakumo sprawled out on the ground and bleeding from the gut, his face leeched of color and his eyes too dark for his face. That was the first incident, but not the last.

Too close, too many times, for both Orochimaru and those around him. He hasn’t dealt with the situation yet, hasn’t tried more than perfunctorily to hunt down the culprit, and a large part of that is not wanting to find that it is indeed a Konoha shinobi—one of his comrades—plotting all of this.

But Orochimaru is suspicious, not just by training but by nature. He likes to twist words, to push at people until they move the way he wants them to, and because of that he always expects the same of others until proven otherwise. Sakumo is perhaps the only person in the village from whom he expects blunt, straightforward honesty, as the other man has shown that particular trait many times over. But Danzo is not like Sakumo, not in the least, and Orochimaru can already feel his hackles going up.

(Too much time spent with the Hatake Clan and their damnable summons, he thinks to himself with faint, wry amusement.)

Maybe, had he been injured on that first mission with Sakumo, as he was clearly supposed to be, he would be too much in pain, too deeply mired in his anger to consider the whys of Danzo coming to him. But Sakumo took that blow for him, could have died from it, and right now Orochimaru is entirely clearheaded and capable of a possibly-more-than-healthy dose of suspicion.

Danzo shouldn’t be asking these questions. He shouldn’t have access to the records, shouldn’t be approaching Orochimaru instead of the Investigations squad if he does. This isn’t how Konoha is supposed to work, but then, Danzo has always skirted the very edges of the laws—Sarutobi has complained about it more than once.

But he says nothing, keeps his peace and waits the other man out.

And, indeed, barely ten seconds later Danzo is stepping forward, dropping a broad, firm hand on Orochimaru’s shoulder in a fatherly motion that Orochimaru loathes, especially done here, before his real father’s grave. “I would like to invite you to join my special squad,” Danzo says warmly, though the emotion in his voice doesn’t reach his eyes. “Root, they're called. We look out for our own, Orochimaru. If you accept, we can find this traitor and bring them down.”

Ah, Orochimaru thinks, eyes narrowing as the pieces connect. So this is what he’s after.

He sees it, understands the manipulation in a way he usually wouldn’t. Perhaps it’s been good for him after all, spending so much time around Sakumo and those Sakumo calls his friends. Now, Orochimaru can recognize what's supposed to be on a face, what emotions are typical. Even more importantly, he can also see the lack of them.

The only thing in Danzo's eyes is greed.

“I will think on it,” Orochimaru murmurs, even as he takes a step back and slides smoothly out of Danzo's grasp. “If you’ll excuse me, I believe I have another mission to prepare for.”

“Consider the offer carefully,” Danzo says, almost chiding as his eye narrows faintly. “I believe you would do very well in Root, my boy. You have potential, but right now you are a dulled blade. Root will sharpen you, make you more than you are now. You could be great, greater than your teammates by far. I’ll be waiting for your answer.” He inclines his head politely, then turns and walks away, surefooted over the uneven ground despite the cane in his hand.

Orochimaru watches until Danzo is out of sight and beyond the range of all senses, and then he turns, takes four steps, and vanishes in a whirl of leaves.

 

The sky is violet-grey, the horizon just touched with gold where the sun is sinking the last few millimeters below the horizon, and the nighttime breeze is picking up, cool and scented with jasmine. Twilight turns the plants and paths of the garden to gilded shadows, and Sakumo knows that he should pick Kakashi up and start heading in for the night, but he’s too relaxed, too peaceful. Kakashi also looks perfectly content, sprawled on his stomach in the soft grass as he plays with the pack of origami dogs Orochimaru has made for him. Sakumo watches him bark and growl softly as he moves the small paper creatures in incomprehensible patterns, and smiles to himself, because this is a moment of inner peace he’d never thought to have after the death of his wife.

Hatake Clan members tend to mate for life, and have a habit of following each other to the grave. When she had died, Sakumo had felt as if his entire world had been wrenched away from him, and he had…floundered. Only Kakashi, newborn and helpless, had been enough to keep him on solid ground, because Sakumo loved her, yes, but that wasn’t the only problem. He needs to be needed, needs it with an intensity that leaves him reeling and breathless, especially since his wife’s death. Without that, without some form of regard from his fellows, without knowledge that he is in some way valued and valuable—

Well. Without that, Sakumo supposes that he would not be anything at all.

Perhaps it is shallow, perhaps it is the height of foolishness, but a wolf pushed out of his pack is quick to fade away entirely.

(He remembers seeing it happen before, with his mother after his father’s death. He’d been newly made a chuunin, considered adult by the rest of the village and therefore no longer in need of parents, and she had grown quieter and quieter with each day, had spent her nights prowling through the too-big, too-empty house instead of sleeping. And then one day she’d come to him, dressed in her ANBU gear with her jackal mask strapped to her belt, and she’d smiled at him, kissed his cheek, and said goodbye, and then left on her mission.

Only a corpse had come back.)

But he isn’t floundering anymore. Now he has Orochimaru in addition to Kakashi, Orochimaru who is quick-tempered and haughty and yet still loyal, with a slyly hidden and often macabre sense of humor. Who is gentle with Kakashi when he thinks no one is watching, and skilled at healing no matter how talented he is at killing. Who needs someone to care for him even if he himself can't see it, needs an anchor and a tether and some sort of bond to remind him that he’s human, too, and not just a detached observer playing god.

Sakumo stretches his arms above his head, twisting slightly to pop his spine, and then flops back with a contented huff, relishing the cool of the grass on his skin. He’s looking forward to his three weeks of leave, even more so than normal, because for the first time in two years he has someone besides his infant son to share the time with. It will be good, and it comes at just the right time. Any longer a stretch and Sakumo would have to sit on Orochimaru or something of the sort. The proud bastard thinks he’s been hiding his exhaustion well, but Sakumo has come to know him, and can see the lines of stress that lie deeper than normal around his eyes.

“Oro for dinner?” Kakashi asks, and Sakumo blinks his eyes open to see his son standing on startlingly steady legs above him, looking down. He takes a moment to work through the boy’s words, because he’s fairly certain that Kakashi isn’t advocating to have the Snake Sannin as their main course, but once he does, he smiles. “Probably,” he affirms, reaching up to offer Kakashi a hand. “But he’s got a meeting with the Hokage first, so we’ll have to wait a bit.”

Kakashi eyes the hand with clear disdain, then turns and makes his (slightly wobbly and awkward) way back to his toys, where he sits down hard, shakes it off as though it was intentional, and returns to his game. Sakumo chuckles to himself, because that was definitely an expression picked up from Orochimaru, and murmurs to himself, “Ouch. What a burn.”

“You're coddling him and you expect any different?” a low, sharp voice says, familiar and welcome, as an equally familiar figure steps out from behind a fall of wisteria. “Aren’t you the one insisting he’s going to be a prodigious shinobi? Try treating him as one, mutt.”

Sakumo sits up and opens his mouth to protest, then immediately snaps it shut again as his eyes narrow. Orochimaru is even paler than normal, so pale that Sakumo can actually see the furious flutter of his pulse in his throat and temples, blood dark under the skin. Golden eyes are dilated, blank, when Orochimaru hasn’t successfully hidden anything from him in months. There's no tremble in his hands—too much a shinobi for that—but Sakumo suspects that there would be if he had an ounce less iron control.

Sakumo has never seen him like this, not in an entire year of friendship, and he can safely say he doesn’t like it. At all.

“Orochimaru?” he demands, rising smoothly to his feet, and it’s no surprise at all that his voice is a bare decibel above a growl. “What happened?”

“Oro!” Kakashi says before the Sannin can answer, climbing back to his feet and all but hurling himself at Orochimaru’s legs. “Oro, stay for a night? Play with me!”

There's a long, long pause, and then, very slowly, Orochimaru bends down and scoops Kakashi up in his arms, hoisting him into his customary position on Orochimaru’s hip. Kakashi laughs, latching onto Orochimaru’s hair, and then adds, “Play seek and find! Please, Oro?”

For another moment, Orochimaru’s blank mask holds. Then, with a long, soft sigh, he wraps his arms a touch more firmly around the little boy and murmurs, “I'm sorry, cub. Not tonight.” He looks up, meets Sakumo’s gaze over Kakashi's head. “I am…leaving. Something has come up, and I have a lead on Tsunade's whereabouts that I must follow.”

It doesn’t escape Sakumo’s notice that Orochimaru has entirely failed to answer his question. He has no idea what could have happened, though after the events of the past year he no longer has quite as much faith in the fact that their presence in the village will prevent anything. And the way Orochimaru is acting—

On anyone else, Sakumo might call it “shaken”.

The decision is easily made, settled in an instant. He steps forward, catches Orochimaru by the elbow with his best genial smile, and tugs him towards the house. “Dinner’s waiting,” he says, and plows on even as Orochimaru tenses further and opens his mouth to protest. “Let’s eat, and then I’ll pack Kakashi's things and we can be on our way before full dark.”

“The Hokage—”

“Won’t mind us leaving without passes, just this once. And if he does, you can just blame it on me and a whim. Don’t worry, lovely. It won't take that much longer, and then you’ll be on the road with a good meal under your belt and two fearsome warriors to watch your back.” He winks at Kakashi, who giggles in answer and winds his arms around Orochimaru’s neck.

“We go?” the two-year-old asks interestedly, and Sakumo grins. Kakashi's always been the adventurous type, though he has yet to venture further than Konoha's fringes. Normally, Sakumo leaves him with a nurse for long trips out of the village, and Kakashi bears such things with good grace. Given Orochimaru’s current state, however, Sakumo suspects that a bit of a buffer from unpleasant thoughts might be welcome, and there are few better than an eternally curious toddler.

Orochimaru studies Sakumo for a long moment, purple-edged eyes narrow and assessing, and then he sighs, reaches up with his free hand, and gently ruffles Kakashi's hair.

“Yes, cub,” he says, somewhere between resignation and humor. “We’re going.”

 

True to his (somewhat infuriating, Sakumo will allow) character, Orochimaru says nothing at all about their sudden departure until they're several hours from Konoha, heading northeast at a fast clip. Kakashi is too young for them to take to the branches with any regularity, and he’s almost too big to tolerate a sling, but the added incentive of being carried on Orochimaru’s back—with constant access to his hair and a clear view of what was ahead of them—had kept him complacent until the late hour took its toll. Sakumo is a little offended that he’s second best, yet again, in his son’s estimation, but the indignity is eclipsed by the humor of the image.

After all, the much-feared Snake Sannin is only slightly less fearsome when sporting a sleeping toddler and some drool in his hair. It takes very, very much effort not to laugh, but Sakumo knows exactly what Orochimaru is likely to do to his hide if he does.

However, adorableness of the image aside, Sakumo isn’t about to let his friend get away with that earlier brush-off, and makes sure that Orochimaru knows it, sending him short, sharp looks whenever they pull level as they run. And after several repetitions of this, Orochimaru finally gives in with a disgusted huff and a hard roll of his eyes.

“You haven’t a subtle bone in your body, have you, Hatake?” he grouches, but Sakumo is aware that the only reason Orochimaru is complaining is that he feels safe enough to do so, rather than keeping the aloof and icy façade he adopts around the rest of Konoha, and takes it as the compliment it really is.

“I don’t think I know that word,” Sakumo agrees cheerfully, because this far from the village, the tension is finally easing out of Orochimaru’s shoulders, and that’s a definite step in the right direction. “It’s foreign, right?”

“To you, most definitely,” the Snake Sannin mutters, but it’s said with a certain measure of well-hidden fondness Sakumo knows that, besides him and Kakashi, only Sarutobi, Jiraiya, and Tsunade have earned. There's a pause as they navigate the rapids of a rain-swollen river, and then Orochimaru makes a sound in the back of his throat that Sakumo knows he picked up from one of the wolf summons and says, “I…believe I know why my missions have been going poorly.”

“Poorly” is an understatement. Were Orochimaru anyone else, he would have died ten times over in the last year, and that’s only counting the solo missions. Sakumo makes sure that Orochimaru takes as few of those as possible, but even that much prevention isn’t enough. He grits his teeth, trapping another growl in his throat, and nods to show he’s listening. It’s not like he’d be doing anything else, honestly.

Orochimaru glances at him, huffs softly, and looks away—“embarrassed”, Sakumo translates. Or, well, as close as Orochimaru can ever get, which is nearer to “mildly chagrined”. “Danzo approached me,” he continues flatly, though there's clearly something off in his tone. Shaken, Sakumo thinks again, though perhaps that’s not quite right. “He wished for me to join the Root division of ANBU, to uncover the traitor.”

It takes Sakumo a moment to connect the pieces—in his own defense, it’s after midnight, and the previous day was very long. But there's a certain sidewise slant to Orochimaru’s mouth that whispers disbelief, a suggestion of mistrust in the way he keeps his eyes fixed so firmly in front of them, and from there things come together easily.

Sakumo has encountered Danzo before. He’s seen the man’s morals at work, both on and off the battlefield—not that Danzo sees any difference between the two states, as far as he can tell. If he was indeed working to drive Orochimaru into his clutches…

He clenches his fists, tries to keep his temper and protectiveness and outrage all tightly contained. If Danzo managed to sink his claws into Orochimaru, who is five years younger than Sakumo but capable to becoming even more powerful, who doesn’t quite seem to understand the need for morals or restraint or mercy—Sakumo doesn’t even want to think about what Danzo could turn Orochimaru into. Orochimaru walks a knife’s edge as it is. Add to that Danzo's manipulation, his desire for power—to keep Konoha safe, he says, but Sakumo has seen war, has seen peace, and knows which he prefers for his son to grow up in—and the Orochimaru who came out on the other side of Root’s training would bear little resemblance to the one who went in.

A breath out, a breath in, again and once more for luck until Sakumo can fully control himself, and he says softly but implacably, “Tell him no.”

Orochimaru doesn’t look at him. “Somehow, Sakumo, I doubt Shimura Danzo is the type to accept such an answer easily.”

Sakumo doesn’t push. Nor does he deny the curl of warmth that rises in him at the use of his given name—this is the first time Orochimaru has ever called him by it. A step in the right direction, indeed.

He takes one more swift glance at his best friend and his son, at Orochimaru and his boneless grace and the way he’s so very careful not to jar Kakashi. At the way Kakashi is tipped forward over Orochimaru’s shoulder, comfortable with Konoha's snake summoner as he never is with his nurses, one hand fisted in night-dark hair as he dreams. This is his pack, his pack of three, hard-won and a little battered and very, very dear, and if Danzo wants to take any part of that away, Sakumo will fight him to his very last drop of blood and beyond.

He takes a breath, breathes out, and bounds two strides forward to run at Orochimaru’s shoulder. “So can I ask where we’re going?” he says cheerfully. “Or is that on a need-to-know basis?”

That gets him an eye-roll, as usual. Sakumo has only ever briefly been around Jiraiya and Tsunade, granted, but he kind of wonders how the three survived being on a genin team together without somebody ending up buried in the forest. Between Orochimaru’s dry snark and aloofness, Tsunade's lack of patience and monstrous strength, and Jiraiya's cheerful perversion and effusiveness—well, they must have been very interesting to train, to say the least. If he didn’t have any respect for the Sandaime before, that alone would be enough to earn it.

“There's a town,” Orochimaru allows after a moment. “On the border of Rice Paddy Country. It’s well-known for its sake, and Tsunade is nothing if not one to drown her sorrows. If rumor is anything to go by, she’s there and losing all her money to the gambling dens.”

That kills a lot of Sakumo’s good humor, and he has to fight a frown. He is…biased, probably, but it seems cruel to him that Tsunade left without thought to her teammate, and is now indulging her vices in an attempt to forget while Orochimaru is being targeted by someone after his sanity if not his life. Not that Sakumo will say anything of the sort—he knows the softness that comes into Orochimaru’s eyes when he mentions his female teammate, remembers in their first real conversation what Orochimaru said, how fond he looked when he spoke of her teaching him medical ninjutsu. Tsunade was insistent that Jiraiya and I learn at least the basics, before she would let us go off on solo missions.

That, more than anything, had been what captured Sakumo's attention. Softness where none had been before, not weakness or anything of the sort but humanity in a man who was supposed to be a soulless monster. And he’d thought ‘If they were wrong about this, what else could be false?’ Because it was a mystery, an enigma, something new and edged with a metal-death-dry-scales-forest scent that had been a puzzle of its own. Orochimaru had smelled like killing and loyalty, in equal measure, and it hadn’t fit with what was said of him.

Little does, Sakumo knows now.

“So are we going to drag her back to Konoha?” he asks, keeping his voice light.

Orochimaru glances at him, clearly startled, as they round a bluff and hit one of the main roads. The Sannin slows slightly, adjusting Kakashi's sling as he contemplates his answer. “I…had not considered it,” he says, eyes narrowing as they flicker to the waning moon above. “Tsunade had her reasons for vanishing. After Dan’s death, there was nothing for her in the village. Moreover, there were too many memories. I do not blame her for leaving.”

And yet the faint tilt of his mouth says he doesn’t understand it, not really. After years and years of being told that loyalty to the village is everything, Sakumo doesn’t blame him. Orochimaru sees things in a strange mixture of shades of grey with moments of black and white wound through in startling contrast. A good part of it seems to be his own strange morality allowing for things he’s been told, Sarutobi's morals taken as unwavering truth when, if left to his own devices, Orochimaru would not deign to care about such things.

There and then, watching his best friend contemplate his former teammate and her disappearance, seeing the sharp slant of his brows and the darkness of his golden eyes, well.

Sakumo resigns himself to doing everything in his power to make sure that Tsunade accompanies them home. Not for himself, and not for Konoha, but for Orochimaru, who needs her in the way that a compass needs to know north. It’s a feeling that Sakumo can understand all too well.

(But he wonders, just a little, because he’s always been a bit selfish, what it will mean for his friendship with Orochimaru, and what will happen when Orochimaru regains all that he’s lost. Maybe then Sakumo will be…replaceable.

He doesn’t like the thought of that at all.)

Chapter Text

Tsunade is bored.

Oh, she’s heartsick as well, of course. Grieving and weary and lonely and aching. Dan’s loss is a hole carved straight through her, soul-deep and gaping, weeping guilt and hopelessness and blood. She’ll never recover, no matter how much time passes, because it’s not the type of thing that heals. Maybe, eventually, it will scab over, and Tsunade will be able to go about her day without it constantly on her mind, but it will never be entirely gone.

Honestly, Tsunade isn’t sure she deserves to have it gone. If she couldn’t help Dan, if she couldn’t save him—

But for two decades, Tsunade has been an active shinobi, and no shinobi is ever bored for long. There are always missions or training or duties or research, and never before in her life has Tsunade had the time stretch out so emptily before her. Sleep, travel, gambling, and drinking are the only things left to distract her now, and they aren’t nearly enough.

With a soft sigh, Tsunade swirls the sake in her ochubo, though she doesn’t toss it back the way she wants to. Shizune is out picking up supplies, and Tsunade is a good many things, but careless with others’ lives isn’t one of them. She wants to drink, wants to drown herself in alcohol until all she can feel is the hum of it eating away at her grief and guilt, but she isn’t traveling alone. Shizune is still a child, Dan’s niece, who is depending on her for everything. Even now, in the midst of her self-loathing, Tsunade isn’t about to get plastered and leave the girl on her own in an unfamiliar and possibly hostile village. The war didn’t end all that long ago, after all, and while the central parts of Fire Country escaped unscathed, the borders were hard hit.

The ache of loss is ever-present, but right now, all Tsunade can feel is the mind-numbing, crushing, overwhelming tedium. It feels a little like a betrayal of Dan, to be this way, but Tsunade has been a shinobi since she was six years old, and never before has she had to endure more than a week or two without something to do. One of the perils of being both well-respected and powerful. Jiraiya and Orochimaru were never given down-time either. Never wanted it, the same way Tsunade never wanted it.

And now she has it, in excess and seemingly unending supply.

Thought of Orochimaru brings a pang of regret and something very close to guilt, and Tsunade grimaces, giving her sake another considering look. Because she left, left Orochimaru on his own in a place where he’s never quite fit in, and where he doesn’t even bother to try any longer. He’s one of her best friends, her teammate, but in the wake of Dan’s death she couldn’t even bring herself to look at him any longer. Being unable to save Dan has left no room in her for anything even remotely like comfort, to give it or accept it. Orochimaru knew Dan as well, liked him, and grieved for his loss.

Had she stayed, had she spoken to him about her decision, she would have faltered. She would have tried to comfort Orochimaru, who still hates death with a passion very much like fear. He would have tried to comfort her, in his own, awkward way. And Tsunade would have crumbled, fallen to pieces from which she likely never would have reassembled herself.

She can't break. Someone has to take care of Shizune, who is all but family. Someone has to bear the guilt of failing, of not being good enough, no matter how many people call her the best. Someone has to carry this curse of bad luck she’s never been able to escape from.

Besides, Orochimaru is hardly alone, she consoles herself. He has Jiraiya, who likely returned from Ame as soon as those three orphans knew how to run and hide well enough to survive. He has duties, after all, and a village to return to—the very things Tsunade left behind.

She is Orochimaru’s friend, but Jiraiya is the one he loves, and Tsunade is experienced enough with such emotions to understand their pull. Even if Orochimaru doesn’t mean to, he’ll still gravitate towards Jiraiya without fail, and Tsunade is mired deeply enough in her own loss that she doesn’t want to see that. Not even when it’s entirely unrequited and one-sided pining. No matter how pathetic—

Tsunade sets her sake down with a sharp clink and presses her hands over her face, cursing herself under her breath. She’s become so petty in her grief, so cruel and small and awful. What would her grandfather say, if he could see her now? What would Dan say?

She hates the person grief has made her into, this blind, spiteful, selfish person fleeing her own ill luck, as afraid to drown her sorrows as she is to face them.

What if Shizune needs her? What if someone gets hurt?

(Shizune doesn’t need her; Tsunade is the one who needs Shizune.)

(What is someone does get hurt? She’s terrified of blood, and will be precisely as useless as she was when Dan died.)

The sake is looking more and more appealing. Maybe, once Shizune is asleep upstairs—

A man settles onto the stool beside hers, tall and broad-shouldered and clad in a Konoha jounin uniform, messy silver hair bound back in a tail. For half a heartbeat Tsunade thinks it’s Jiraiya, come be beg her to return, but one quick glance is enough to see that it isn’t. Too short, for one thing, though not by much. She sighs and picks up her cup again, swirling the sake absently.

“Hatake,” she acknowledges. “You're far from home. Ayame is actually letting you run around without a collar?”

The man’s wife was one of her classmates in the Academy, a placid woman with endless kindness and a quicksilver humor buried beneath her calm. Tsunade has always liked Ayame, even if they’ve never been particularly close.

Sakumo doesn’t respond the way she half-expects him to, saying you're far from home, too, or some variation thereof. Instead, he leans his elbows on the bar and sighs softly, wearily, running a hand over his flyaway hair. “Ayame passed,” he says bluntly, though he doesn’t look at her. “Two years ago now. There were complications with the birth. The doctors couldn’t save her.”

The sharp stab of guilt takes Tsunade by surprise. Her breath catches in her throat, and she thinks, Could I have saved her? If I had been there, would she have lived? Barely aware of it, desperate to drown out the roiling in her gut, she drains her cup and immediately pours herself another.

“The child?” she manages after a moment, and if her voice is rough she can blame the burn of the sake.

Because she’s watching out of the corner of her eye, she can see the way the sadness slides off Sakumo's face, replaced with a gentle sort of joyful adoration. “Kakashi. He’s very strong. Without a doubt he’ll be one of Konoha's greatest someday.”

There's that at least, then. Tsunade rubs a hand over her face, trying to tell herself that what she feels is just happiness at the birth of a child, not guilt over having been unable to save his mother, or relief that the kid is alive even when his mother isn’t.

The silence stretches between them for a long moment, and Tsunade is very nearly suspicious, because she knows what Ayame used to say about her husband—never still, never quiet, not when he could be moving or joking or even just listening to someone talk. But here and now, he’s unmoving, contemplative, and that doesn’t seem right.

She’s just about to break in, say something needling just to get to conversation going again, maybe even help her figure out why, out of all the bars in Fire Country, Sakumo chose this one. But before she can, Sakumo shifts, laying his hands flat on the bar and casting a nearly sly sideways look at her. It’s…a familiar expression, though she can't quite figure out where she knows it from.

(Orochimaru, something in her whispers, but that can't be right.)

“I heard,” he says carefully, “that you're a bit of a gambler. Care to make a wager?”

Tsunade blinks, opens her mouth, and then closes it again. “Odds?” she hears herself say, and nearly curses herself for it. But…she’s curious. Curious and bored, and Hatake Sakumo is the most interesting thing she’s seen in at least a year. But because she’s not an idiot, she adds quickly, “And I won't agree without knowing the bet first.”

Sakumo grins, all traces of grief gone, and she can't imagine how he’s done that. Can't imagine what strength he must have to shut that away and function regardless of it. But he grins, and there's only good humor in it, bright and irrepressible. “If you win,” he says with an edge of mischief that sits on his face with far more ease than sadness, “I’ll pay back every ryo of your gambling debts, and any more you incur for the rest of the year. And if I win, I want a favor. Just one.”

She eyes him warily for a moment, but even though she’s always had good instincts about people, she can't find any trace of malice in him. There's earnestness, a warmth and a depth of conviction and underneath it all a grim sort of drive, but nothing to make her shy away or doubt his word. Were he any other man, she might refuse out of hand, because she knows how she looks and what most men want from her, regardless of her reputation.

But the lure of all her debts being paid is a strong one, and if Sakumo does win and decides to try tricking her into bed, Tsunade will put a fist through his skull and go on her way none the worse for wear.

“And the bet?” she prompts.

Another smile, this one full of sharp teeth that make him look more like his summons than anything. “One simple question. We moved in the same circles, back in the village, so it shouldn’t even be hard. Name the shinobi who would take custody of my son if something ever happened to me.”

Tsunade blinks, then quirks a brow at the man, but he looks entirely serious now, dark eyes intent on hers. He’s right that they know all the same people, because the elite jounin are hardly numerous, but beyond that Tsunade was friends—if fairly distantly—with Ayame, and listened to more than one aggrieved tirade about Sakumo getting caught up in training with his best friend and missing a date. It seems like a big wager to make on such a simple question, and Tsunade can't quite see the point of it—is Sakumo angry at her for leaving, for not being around to save Ayame? Is this a test to see how well she knows his family?

But…

But her debts have been piling up for years now, and the freedom to move around without creditors breathing down her neck would be more than welcome.

“Fine,” she agrees, leaning back and crossing her arms over her chest. “I’ll answer the question. You win, you get your favor. I win, you take care of everything.”

Sakumo nods soberly and offers his hand. “My word as a shinobi,” he affirms, and maybe to some people that wouldn’t mean much, the word of a mercenary and a killer, but Tsunade knows just how honorable Sakumo is and grips his hand without hesitation.

“And mine,” she says. “You're sure that’s what you want to ask?”

That gets her another grin. “Definitely,” the man agrees cheerfully, waving to the bartender for another bottle of sake. “You sure you want to answer it? If you’re scared, Tsunade-hime—”

Tsunade scoffs. “Might Dai,” she snaps, cutting him off, because she’s never liked people questioning her bravery—and, now that she thinks of it, that was how Jiraiya and Orochimaru always got her to go along with some of their more harebrained schemes, as a kid. And a teenager. And a young adult. Maybe there's a bit of a pattern there. “It’s Might Dai. You’d leave your kid to him.”

There's no question, honestly. Sakumo is friendly, but he tends to stay with family rather than seeking out friends. The only one he was ever really close to, besides Ayame, was Dai. Tsunade knows he respects the Hokage, likes several of the Hyuuga, has drinks with a couple of Inuzuka and Uchiha, but…it’s acquaintanceship, and a person as family-oriented as Sakumo would need a hell of a lot more to leave his only child with someone.

For a long moment, Sakumo's face is expressionless, set. He doesn’t move, and Tsunade feels victory bubbling up through her, coupled with disbelief. She’s—

“Wrong,” Sakumo says softly, lips curving into a faint, satisfied smile, though there's something like resignation buried in his eyes. “Wrong. Kakashi's guardian would be—”

“You are a dead dog,” a familiar voice hisses, sharp with murderous intent, from behind Tsunade's shoulder. Astonishingly, Sakumo's smile only grows into a wide, beaming grin. “You left me in that firetrap of an inn to come and drink at a different bar? And you left us curry bread. I have told you before, mutt—” A soft, sharp breath, then a sound suspiciously like a growl—like a wolf’s growl—as the newcomer apparently catches sight of her. “Hatake.”

Sakumo laughs, deep and honestly amused, and rises from his chair. “Orochimaru,” he says with more delight than Tsunade has ever heard someone direct at her teammate. He steps past her, reaching out, and Tsunade turns in her seat to watch, because she’s not going to believe this unless she sees it with her own eyes. But it’s really happening. Orochimaru is standing behind her, a child (Sakumo's, clearly, given the ridiculous silver mop) perched on his hip and clinging to his hair. Even Tsunade was never allowed to touch his hair, but he doesn’t even seem to notice.

Orochimaru eyes Sakumo for a moment, expression somewhere between aggravated and longsuffering, and then mutters a soft curse and rolls his eyes. “Get that look off your face,” he informs the taller man testily. “Those eyes won't work on me. Stop it.”

Tsunade can't see Sakumo's face, but she can hear the pout in his voice as he steps closer to Orochimaru, reaching out to curl a strong hand around his shoulder. “Can't we go back to the part where you were using my given name, lovely?” he practically whines. “I think I liked that better.”

(With the suddenness of an epiphany, Tsunade realizes that she doesn’t have to worry about Sakumo trying to get her into bed. Not if he and Orochimaru are… Well. She doesn’t know whether to be pleased by the thought or horrified, because it’s Orochimaru and he might as well be her brother.)

The look that Orochimaru favors his partner with would be enough to gut other men. Sakumo just laughs and throws an arm over his shoulder, pulling him into a quick half-hug that would get anyone else vivisected. But Sakumo survives without so much as a scratch, leaning over to ruffle his son’s wild silver hair. “Hey, cub,” he says cheerfully. “Want to meet someone amazing?”

The little boy looks at his father, then up at Orochimaru, who looks back at him with a somewhat dubious expression. After several moments, the kid shifts his gaze back to Sakumo, then reaches out and wraps his small arms tightly around Orochimaru’s neck. “My Oro,” he insists with all the solemn gravity of a marriage vow. “No else’s. My.”

Tsunade wonders, a little dazed, whether it’s possible to go into a diabetic coma just from witnessing something so ridiculously cute. And that is probably the only time she has ever attached the word cute to absolutely anything about her teammate. But in this case, there's just no other word that even comes close to fitting.  

It only gets worse when Orochimaru just sighs, reaching down to hoist the boy up a little higher, and ducks his head a bit to get closer to eye-level. Of course, because heaven forbid Orochimaru ever treat a child the way everyone always treated him as a toddler, which Tsunade knows he loathed. “Cub,” he says firmly. “What have we discussed in regards to sharing?”

Tsunade presses a hand over her eyes. It’s either that or start laughing hysterically, because somehow in the handful of years she was gone, Orochimaru went and made himself domestic.

Or, she thinks suddenly, casting an assessing and somewhat suspicious glance at Sakumo, he found someone worth becoming domestic for.

It’s not that she has any right to be butting into Orochimaru’s love life, or any part of his personal life, not after leaving the way she did. It’s just…Tsunade knows just how awkward and somewhat uneasy Orochimaru is around other people, knows that he’ll often miss the subtler clues and hints when it comes to interaction, and she and Jiraiya have always been his buffers. Without them, what if Sakumo swept in and Orochimaru just…couldn’t say no?

Orochimaru is good at killing, good at being a shinobi. He’s simply not so good at being human.

For all her faults, or perhaps because of them, Tsunade has always been overwhelmingly, unbearably human.

(She likes to think that they balance each other, rather than tearing each other apart.)

Finally, Orochimaru raises his head from his conversation with the toddler, meeting Tsunade's stare with an arched brow that doesn’t quite manage to hide his faint chagrin. It’s the same as embarrassment on anyone else, and Tsunade can't quite fight a smirk as she shifts off her stool and takes a step forward.

“Tsunade,” he acknowledges, taking a step of his own and then immediately stilling again. With anyone else, Tsunade would write it off as hesitation, or Orochimaru being unsure whether she would welcome his approach. But because she does know him, because she’s seen him in every state possible and then some, Tsunade recognizes the move for what it is, and her eyes narrow. She darts forward and seizes him by the elbow, fingers clamping down hard enough to make him wince.

“Orochimaru,” she responds with killing sweetness. “Who here knows you're injured?”

Sakumo's grin disappears like a slate wiped clean, grip tightening visibly on Orochimaru’s shoulder, and even the little boy—Kakashi, she reminds herself—tips his head back at an awkward angle to blink at her.

“Tsuna-da?” he asks curiously, still adhered to Orochimaru’s neck, and Tsunade can't help but be impressed. She knows it’s fairly difficult for kids to pick up names unless they have direct association, and Orochimaru’s only said her name with both her and the boy present once. Though, granted, it does explain a fair bit about why Orochimaru is allowing the clinging. He’s always had a soft spot for geniuses.

Because she is evil and will never, ever let anyone forget it, Tsunade shifts her gimlet-eyed glare from her teammate to smile down at the child clinging to him. “Hello, Kakashi-chan,” she says gently. “I'm Tsunade. I'm going to take care of your new Kaa-san. He’s hurt, and I’ll make him better.”

Orochimaru makes a noise suspiciously like a splutter, and Sakumo chokes. Tsunade just barely manages to keep from rolling her eyes at the pair of them. Really, do they think they're being subtle?

Kakashi is watching her with wide, serious eyes, and his grip on the Snake Sannin has only tightened. “Hurt?” he repeats, and glances back at Orochimaru. “Oro hurt? Tsuna-da fix.” He casts another quick glance at the man holding him, and adds in a voice that quavers dangerously, “Pease?”

Damn, Tsunade thinks a little dazedly. That’s one cute kid. Maybe Orochimaru’s attention isn’t solely dependent on his intellect.

“Don’t worry, cub,” Sakumo butts in before Tsunade can manage to scrape her brain cells back together. His hand is still tight and immovable on Orochimaru’s shoulder. “Tsunade-hime will fix him, I promise. Since it seems he forgot to mention—”

“It slipped my mind,” Orochimaru snaps. “Honestly, Sakumo, given the circumstances I believe—”

It’s the wrong thing to say, apparently. Sakumo's grey eyes go flinty, lip pulling back slightly to bare his teeth in what is definitely not a smile. “Right,” he agrees grimly. “I suppose I should take comfort in the fact that you're not so used to assassination attempts and mission sabotage that you can just write it off—”

What?” Tsunade demands, fully alarmed now. Mission sabotage? That implies that it’s originating in Konoha. Someone from Konoha is actively trying to kill Orochimaru, her friend.

Sakumo looks up and meets her eyes, and in the space of a single heartbeat Tsunade can see just how much he cares for her prickly genius of a teammate. Can see the lengths to which he’d go and the depths to which he’d sink, just what he would give to keep Orochimaru safe. It leaves her a little breathless, because she knows how much he and Ayame loved each other—as much as she loved Dan, she thinks she can safely say, and—

And Sakumo has rediscovered something similar in Orochimaru. He’s moved forward, even if he’ll never quite move on, and he’s found someone to love with just as much fervor. He has his son and Orochimaru and a home in Konoha, and just for one wild, desperate moment Tsunade wonders if maybe, maybe

“That favor,” Sakumo says softly. “I want you to return to Konoha and stay there until the person behind this has been taken care of. I can protect Orochimaru most of the time, but not enough. Never enough.”

He doesn’t say please or anything of the sort. He doesn’t beg, doesn’t try to barter or remind her of the lost bet. Just…looks at her, long and level, with his heart in his eyes.

It’s in no way an accusation, but even so, Tsunade's own guilt supplies the words. You left him and this happened. You ran without a single thought as to how he would manage. You weren’t there to save Ayame.

“I'm cursed,” she manages to choke out, the only argument that she can even vaguely grasp. “I can't—”

Sakumo smiles at her, small but very warm. “I've learned,” he says with an impossible amount of cheer, “that bad luck and burdens are most easily borne when shared between friends. And I'm very, very sure that both of us would be more than happy to help you carry this curse, Tsunade.”

Orochimaru says nothing, but he’s watching her the way he always used to watch Jiraiya when they were younger, halfway between wariness and hope.

Tsunade is many things, but cruel isn’t one of them. Nor is she someone who can disregard such a clear danger to one of her best friends.

With a soft huff, she rubs her hands over her face and then gives Sakumo a sharp nod. “You won our bet,” she says firmly. “I owe you a favor, and if you're calling it in, I’ll keep my word. Orochimaru, get your pasty ass up to my room and let me have a look at that leg. No arguing.”

“Ass!” Kakashi chimes in, delighted to be able to contribute something to conversation, and Orochimaru hisses at all three of them equally and marches towards the stairs, the toddler still perched cheerfully on his hip.

 

 

Traveling with both Tsunade and Sakumo is…strange. Orochimaru is used to moving with a squad, or even with Tsunade and Jiraiya. Used to moving quickly and silently, to watching their surroundings, to standing at a distance and covering the perimeter. He’s never gone any significant distance with them that wasn’t a mission, that didn’t require attention and care and wariness even within their own borders.

But now Tsunade has her apprentice, and Orochimaru is carrying Kakashi, and it’s…different. There is no perimeter to watch as they go, and whenever Orochimaru tries to drift to the back or the front—because he loves Tsunade, he truly does, but there is only so much browbeating he can take before he stabs someone, possibly himself—Sakumo stays at his shoulder with the kind of cheerful obliviousness that means he knows exactly what he’s doing and what Orochimaru is attempting to do. As ever, Orochimaru’s glares just slide right off of him like water off oiled canvas. It’s infuriating.

(But at the same time, Orochimaru suspects that he wouldn’t change it, even if he could. Sakumo has a tendency to grow on one—less like a fungus, and more like a particularly clingy sort of moss.)

Regardless of their younger companions, however, they make good time, and they're a little under halfway back when Tsunade catches her faltering apprentice and calls a halt for the night.

“Oh, thank goodness,” Sakumo huffs, dropping down in the grass and sprawling out on his back. “I was thinking you were like Lovely over there, and going to make us run all night.”

“On other missions,” Orochimaru tacks on in self-defense, seeing the way Tsunade's eyes immediately narrow on him. He shoots another scathing look at Sakumo for good measure. “Despite what you seem to think, I am capable of judging my own injuries and not making them worse.”

Tsunade snorts, settling her apprentice against the wide bole of a tree. The girl—Dan’s niece, Orochimaru remembers—smiles thankfully at her, unstrapping her sandals to rub at her feet. Tsunade takes a seat on her left, right across from Orochimaru, and studies her former teammate thoughtfully.

A thoughtful Tsunade is never a good sign. Orochimaru busies himself with undoing Kakashi's sling without waking the boy, and ignores whatever hideously embarrassing question she’s coming up with.

And, indeed, barely ten seconds later she drawls, “Lovely? I've heard a lot of people call Orochimaru a lot of things, but that’s a first. Care to tell me how it came about?”

Orochimaru grimaces. Of course that would be the first thing she asked.

Perhaps predictably, Sakumo just laughs, deep and free, and completely ignores the near-desperate glare Orochimaru is giving him. He pushes up on his elbows, grinning at Tsunade, and says blithely, “That’s from our second mission together, just a few weeks after Orochimaru saved my life the first time.”

Judging by the look on Tsunade's face, there will be no getting out of telling that story, either.

“Sakumo—” Orochimaru warns in a vain attempt to stop this dangerous landslide of a conversation. He honestly should know better than to try by now, but hope springs eternal and all that.

However, with the ease of a year’s worth of practice and all the momentum of that same landslide, Sakumo steamrolls right over him. “It was an assassination mission, some Lightning Country merchant who was staying at a hot spring in the east, and the Hokage picked us to go. It was supposed to look like a natural death, so we had to sneak in.” He pauses to grin at Orochimaru with the sort of obnoxious cheer that’s his default setting. To Orochimaru’s horror, he finds he doesn’t mind it quite as much as he once did. “But once we got there, we found out that the guy was in a honeymoon suite, so if we wanted to be close to him, we had to get the other honeymoon suite. And they’d put seals up to prevent henges, so that idea was out.”

Tsunade is so close to laughter now that Orochimaru isn’t entirely sure why she’s even trying to hold it back. Not for the sake of his dignity, clearly. “Did you flip a coin?” she asks cheekily, clearly remembering Orochimaru’s suggestion from that one time they needed to be a team of two girls and a boy, back when they were chuunin. Of course, both Tsunade and Jiraiya had very quickly shot his idea down, and Orochimaru had been more or less resigned even before that. Jiraiya…does not exactly have a build that can be concealed or turned even vaguely feminine by a traditional kimono.

Sakumo grins right back. “No, it didn’t quite come to that. I thought we should hire someone from the town, but before I could, Orochimaru disappeared, and turned up two hours later looking like something you’d find in the Daimyo’s court. I just called it like I saw it. Lovely.”

“You always did pass as a woman very well,” Tsunade agrees almost wistfully, eyeing Orochimaru like she’s sizing him up for a dress.

Orochimaru thinks he’s entirely justified picking the far side of the campsite to sit, and levels her with a flat look. “As you would know,” he says dryly, “seeing as I lost count of the number of times you dressed me up when we were children.”

Tsunade beams at him, that well-hidden spark of wickedness finally coming back to her eyes. It’s been…a very long time since Orochimaru saw it, and now it makes something in his chest ease, if only slightly. Maybe Tsunade really will recover from Dan’s death. “Blame your mother,” she parries slyly. “If she hadn’t asked me to teach you how to act like a kunoichi that time…”

Despite himself, Orochimaru can't fight his small smile at the memory. “My mother’s clan was always very insistent that we not be confined to a single role as a shinobi because of a small thing like gender,” he explains for the benefit of Sakumo, who’s watching him curiously. “Especially considering that we can pass as either sex with less work than it takes most.”

Sakumo hums thoughtfully, pushing up to sit cross-legged in the grass. “Like snakes,” he suggests. “There's usually not much difference between the genders—or at least, not as much as with other species. They're your clan’s animal, right? Like wolves are mine.”

So many people in Konoha, shinobi or otherwise, seem to have forgotten the significance of being from a clan. With some, like the Hyuuga, Orochimaru can understand it, can pick out a reason for their wariness of him. But with others, like the Inuzuka, it confuses him, because they are just as closely tied to their clan animal as he is to his. It’s thought to come from an ancestor closely allying with a particular summons, back long before even the Clan Wars were a concept, never mind shinobi villages, and Orochimaru supports the theory though evidence is hard to come by.

But people forget that no matter how many generations pass, the traits remain. Orochimaru has always had a closeness with his snakes that goes beyond the bond of summoner and summons. Manda recognizes it—and whatever Sakumo might say, the snake has never truly tried to eat Orochimaru, or Orochimaru would most certainly not still be in the world of the living. He obeys Orochimaru because they are similar, because there is a resemblance between them that is lost with others, and no one else seems to see that.

Allowances are made for the Inuzuka, with their wildness and fierceness. Few have ever been made for Orochimaru.

But Sakumo sees. Sakumo recognizes. Sakumo understands.

“Yes,” Orochimaru agrees, once he finds his voice again, and if it sounds faintly rough, well. That can be written off as tiredness, of course. “As with your wolves. The Hatake clan is built on a non-gender-based pack structure, isn’t it? Either a man or a woman can be the Head.”

Sakumo hums in agreement, smiling at his son who is still asleep in Orochimaru’s arms. “That’s right,” he affirms, reaching out to stroke a few flyaway silver strands out of the boy’s face. “Usually it’s a married pair, and they decide between them who will be leader. It works for us. Or, well, it did when there actually was a clan.”

Orochimaru finds himself…uneasy, seeing the darkness in those usually warm grey eyes. Almost without thinking, he reaches out and closes his fingers over Sakumo's wrist as the other man withdraws, and grips tightly enough that Sakumo glances up at him in faint surprise. “There is still a clan,” Orochimaru insists, and though he tries to keep his voice even, he doesn’t think it works as well as he wants it to. “I still have a clan. As long as we are alive, our families still exist in our blood, and that’s enough.”

For a long moment, Sakumo simply stares at him in surprise. But then, slowly, his smile appears and spreads, until finally he’s grinning again. He turns his hand in Orochimaru’s grip, pulling away just enough to tangle their fingers together and squeeze gently. “Thanks, lovely,” he says warmly, and there's only brightness in his eyes.

Orochimaru’s breath catches somewhere deep down in his throat, and he—

Sakumo understands him, and that’s a balm. And in the same way, Orochimaru understands Sakumo, can offer that same balm with a few simple words. Can bring back Sakumo’s smile the way he’s never been able to for anyone before, and that’s—

A little unnerving.

But…good.

Chapter Text

Apparently, Kakashi's presence acts as some sort of beacon, calling all children to Orochimaru. He ends up sleeping with Kakashi on one side, tucked between himself and Sakumo, and Tsunade's apprentice on the other while Tsunade takes first watch.

Orochimaru finds that he doesn’t mind nearly as much as he once would have. Shizune is very mature despite being barely ten years old, and she has a ruthless streak to her that Orochimaru can appreciate. She also has a rather charming penchant for poisons, and once she had learned that Orochimaru’s family is infamous for them, she’d attached herself to his side and started asking questions.

He had answered, and not solely because Tsunade would have hit him if he’d brushed the girl off. Not solely because Sakumo would give him wounded, disappointed eyes for a rude dismissal. Orochimaru is familiar with their reactions to his less-than-stellar interpersonal skills by now, and Sakumo has been…helping. Kakashi has been helping with his mere presence—apparently it’s very difficult to find Orochimaru as terrifying as usual when Kakashi is weaving his hair into knots and leaving food-smears all across his robes. People in the village are better, not so quick to turn their eyes away and hurry past now.

It’s still not a home, not a place Orochimaru would choose to stay over any other if forced to pick. He stays for Sakumo, for Kakashi, for Sarutobi, for his parents’ graves. For the duty that’s been drilled into his head since he could walk. But this change is enough to make it…safe, perhaps. Homey, if not yet a home.

Now, perhaps, he will have the chance to stay for Tsunade as well.

Sleep isn’t coming, isn’t even a possibility at the moment, so with a faint sigh Orochimaru slides out of his bedroll and rises to his feet, careful to keep his movements silent. Sakumo shifts faintly, but doesn’t otherwise stir, and the two children are dead to the world, so Orochimaru picks his way past them and heads to where his former teammate is sitting just outside the circle of firelight, leaning back against a tree.

Tsunade looks tired, what Orochimaru can see of her face in the moonless night. Weary and worn and so incredibly, deeply sad that it makes his stomach twist as he settles himself beside her.

“If you wanted,” he says, barely even a murmur, “you could leave now, and I will make Sakumo release you from your bet.”

She looks at him, surprise and then sweet fondness crossing her face in swift succession, and reaches out to gently touch his cheek. “Thank you, Orochimaru,” she says quietly. “But…I think I can't let you do that. This is…something I need, and something I’ll never do on my own. Not if I'm given a choice.”

It hurts, aches deep down inside him to know that she wouldn’t return without coercion, wouldn’t come back to Konoha for him or Jiraiya or Sarutobi, but Orochimaru can force himself to be understanding, even if he doesn’t quite comprehend it himself. He knew Dan as well, liked him and approved of the way he way so clearly adored Tsunade. Orochimaru was there when the team returned to the village, saw the way Tsunade had fractured into countless pieces with the loss of the man she loved. He was the one she clung to, that first night without Dan, the one she cried her heart out in front of, but—

But Orochimaru is a selfish creature. He doesn’t want to understand why she left him, when he had suffered a similar loss as a child. When he was willing to support her, even if he wasn’t quite sure how.

If he could bring the dead back to life, he would have. For Tsunade, he would break the laws of reincarnation, would resurrect anyone he could to make sure she never cried again. Whatever the sacrifice, he would make it, because he doesn’t know any other way to help.

But he has no way to put that into words, so he doesn’t. No way to say what he means and have it come out correctly, in a form that won't push Tsunade even further away, so he keeps his peace and simply nods.

Tsunade looks at him like she knows what he’s thinking anyway, fond and a little sad, and leans in to kiss him gently on the forehead. Her strong fingers curl around his arm, holding tightly, and Orochimaru leans into the touch. She’s never shied away from him, or thought of him as anything beyond a little brother to endure and protect in equal measure, and so Orochimaru shows his acceptance of her emotions by accepting her gestures. It’s always worked before, and he hopes she still understands just what it means, that he doesn’t push her away.

“I'm sorry I couldn’t stay,” she whispers against his hair. “It was all too much. I'm like a curse, Orochi. I wished them both good luck and they both died. And the village—it was the source of all their dreams, all their hopes. I couldn’t stay there, not with so many memories all so fresh and painful. Not when I failed to save both of them.”

“I was the one who failed to save Nawaki,” Orochimaru manages to get out past the obstruction in his throat. He reaches out to touch the thin cord hanging around Tsunade's neck, the necklace he managed to bring back to her when the mission became a deadly rush to retreat. “He was under my command. As the squad leader, it was my—”

“It wasn’t.” Tsunade cuts him off, but her voice is still gentle, still kind. Her fingers close over his and hold them in place. “That was—it wasn’t your fault.”

“Then it wasn’t yours either,” Orochimaru insists, because that’s simple logic. “I was present and had responsibility. If you don’t hold me accountable, you can't hold yourself. That would be—”

“Stupid?” But she’s smiling, even though her eyes are wet.

Orochimaru rolls his eyes a little. “Illogical,” he corrects.

Tsunade laughs a little, and it’s a victory hard-won and dear. “You and your logic, Orochi,” she murmurs, brushing a lock of hair back behind his ear. “All right. Nawaki—I can…accept that I couldn’t have done anything to save him, as I was then. If I had argued for medics sooner, or if my curse—”

Orochimaru hisses angrily before he can stop himself, even though this is progress, even though this is a step forward. Because he’s furious, furious that Tsunade, who has always been so strong and sure and certain, has been reduced to this, to a superstitious and broken woman. “There is no curse,” he insists, pulling back enough to meet her startled gaze. “There is coincidence, and there is a shinobi’s life, and there is death. You are not cursed, Tsunade, not unless I am as well. Was the death of my parents my fault, because I wished them luck before their mission? Would you hold me accountable?”

“Of course not!”

“Then why do you keep clinging to this? Why can you not see that it was a war? So many people died, Tsunade, because that’s what happens. That’s what being a shinobi means. If you want to break this curse,” he spits the word out, disgusted with it, with his inability to say this in a way that she can understand, “then end wars. Become Hokage and keep us from having to fight again. You are smart, Tsunade, so clever. A genius. But even you cannot control fate, no matter what you seem to think.”

Orochimaru rises to his feet, trying to pull his fury back beneath his skin before he wakes the others, and dodges Tsunade's attempt to grab his arm. He’s in no fit frame of mind to interact with other people right now, won't stay and risk saying something that can drive Tsunade away for good, because he does love her. She’s one of the few he can say with absolute certainty that he loves.

But right now, he can't quite bring himself to look at her.

He stalks away from the faint light of the campfire, into the darkest part of the shadows, and doesn’t allow himself to glance back until he can no longer hear any signs of his companions’ presence. Only then does he force his feet to stop, and leans up against the rough bark of an old oak to try recovering his equilibrium.

He shouldn’t have shouted at her. No matter how bad he is with people, he can recognize that much. Tsunade is grieving, even three years after Dan’s death. Maybe she always will be. But that’s no reason to get aggravated, to yell. Orochimaru never yells, but this—

This is abandonment. This is looking at the woman who was always his lodestone, his conscience, the woman whose words and guidance have been his model for interaction since they met, and facing the fact that she abandoned him. She left, even though Jiraiya was already gone, and Sarutobi no longer had time for them, and…

And Sakumo found him, then. Sakumo dragged him out of the shadows he’d been stewing in since her departure and made him face the light. Made him face his own inadequacies and failings, and then move on from them. Sakumo, who doesn’t mind when Orochimaru gets distracted by his research, but comes to drag him out of his lab and make him eat. Who smiles at the sight of him, who trusts him with Kakashi, his son, the last surviving member of his clan. Who pokes and prods and teases and pushes him beyond what's comfortable, pushes him to be more.

If Tsunade hadn’t left, Orochimaru might never have met Sakumo, and he’s self-aware enough to know that he would be…lesser for it.

It is…possible that he owes Tsunade an apology.

(Would he have recognized that, before Sakumo? And even if he had, he certainly wouldn’t plan on acting on it, the way he now knows he must.)

And—

A shift in the air, a thought out of place—the barest hint of a killing intent tightly leashed and Orochimaru spins away from the shelter of the tree, drawing Kusanagi automatically. A kunai clangs off the flat of the blade, spinning away into the shadows at the same time as the earth shakes beneath him, and Orochimaru leaps up and out of the grasping hands rising from the earth. There's another attacker in the branches above him, shuriken already raining down, and Orochimaru whirls to block even as he feeds chakra into his summoning tattoo.

One glancing touch to the ground before he throws himself at the shinobi emerging from the earth, and a low, furious hiss tells him that it worked. Kiyohime darts past him, black scales all but invisible in the darkness, and Orochimaru changes direction in a smooth shift, bounding up into the branches and hissing out a wind jutsu. Two men scream in unison, one shredded by blades of air and the other at the mercy of Kiyohime’s poison, but there's no time to gloat. Orochimaru leaps down, dodging a burst of fire that nearly singes the ends of his hair, and flips over a sword that tries to take off his head. The man wielding it dies quickly, losing his own head to Kusanagi’s impossibly sharp edge, and Orochimaru lands lightly and turns, seeking the last of the chakra signatures he can—

Pain, sharp and sudden enough to make him cry out as a chokutō stabs into him from behind. It makes him stagger, even as the sound of scales sliding over leaf-litter signals Kiyohime’s approach. The man swears, whirling around, and Orochimaru tries to follow through, to take advantage, but his head is spinning more than it should from blood loss alone. Poison, he thinks, and then genjutsu, and can't tell which it is.

But he is a shinobi, and has been for as long as he has memory. He has fought through wars where the field is choked with the smell of burning flesh, through battles where the air itself is poison. Through blood loss and exhaustion and rivers of blood, and this is a flesh wound and nothing more. He grits his teeth, turns his stagger into a twisting lunge, and leaves the man who wounded him to Kiyohime’s tender mercies as he takes the last remaining nin. The stranger curses, falling back, but Orochimaru hurts enough to be reckless and follows, striking low and fast. Another curse, and the man tries for a fire jutsu that lights up the night. He’s good at them, too good to have it be anything but an affinity, and that points to a Fire Country native.

Danzo, Orochimaru thinks with fury, remembering a fatherly hand on his shoulder before his real father’s grave—remembering the loathing, the anger, the sudden surge of comprehension when the man said We look out for our own, Orochimaru. If you accept, we can find this traitor and bring them down. What else, who else could it be, given all the clues he has? Danzo is a Konoha shinobi, but what other answer could Orochimaru possibly come to?

And these shinobi now, who were approaching their camp. Orochimaru feels his blood ice over in his veins at the thought, because for all that they set out a guard, they had not expected an attack. Not when two members of the Sannin and Konoha's White Fang were present. But what if these men had come upon a sleeping camp, caught them unaware? Would they have killed him? Killed Sakumo, to drive Orochimaru right to Danzo? Killed Kakashi, a child who can barely walk, let alone defend himself?

The snarl of pure fury that wrenches from his throat is enough to startle even Orochimaru, but he doesn’t let it. The other man falters, steps back as the fire fades, and Orochimaru lunges right through the remaining flame, ignoring the scorching, searing bite of burned skin as he drives Kusanagi forward. The man twists away, but the straight thrust is a feint, and as the man moves past him Orochimaru turns, hand stiffened into a blade, and strikes the back of his neck hard enough to knock him unconscious for a very long while.

A flicker of chakra signals a shunshin somewhere nearby, and Orochimaru spins, blade rising to intercept whatever attack might come. But the movement makes his head spin worse than ever, sends him staggering back in an attempt to get his feet under him, and he catches a single blurred glimpse of silver hair and wide grey eyes before everything goes black.

 

 

Tsunade's hands are shaking and her face is pale. She had wavered at the sight of so much blood, wavered and nearly collapsed, but then Orochimaru had fallen, breath stuttering in his lungs. She had moved then, hurried to his side with her hands already glowing green, and Sakumo respects her for it. Admires her, even, because from what Orochimaru said her fear of blood was a phobia, debilitating and severe, and she overcame it for Orochimaru’s sake.

She saved him, and Sakumo will never cease to be grateful for that.

Sakumo's own hands are shaking slightly as he clutches Kakashi to him, the little boy wide-eyed and silent. He holds his son tightly, buries his nose in wild silver hair because he can't touch Orochimaru right now. Can't let Kakashi go to the other man, even though Kakashi begged earlier, because Tsunade is still working, Shizune at her side. The burns are dangerous, even more so than the stab wound, with the poison most dangerous of all, and even though Orochimaru is stable now he wasn’t ten minutes ago.

But Tsunade's features are set in grim, stubborn lines, unwavering and immovable, and she hasn’t looked up from her patient yet. She’s muttering under her breath, a constant stream of invectives and pleas, curses and begging in equal measure. Orochimaru’s body is healing itself, but slowly, and the best Tsunade can do is help it along. They don’t have the equipment for anything more complicated than that, and there's no way to move Orochimaru safely.

The only one who knew that they were planning to leave was the Hokage. The Hokage and whatever ANBU happened to be in the room when Orochimaru told him of his intention to find Tsunade.

Sakumo's free hand tightens into a fist, and he wants more than anything to pound Shimura Danzo's face into paste. He won't even waste any shinobi techniques on it. A good old-fashioned brawl is just about all that could sweeten his mood right now.

Tsunade sits back on her heels with a short sigh, wiping the back of her hand over her forehead and leaving a short streak of blood there. Her eyes are still on her former teammate, heavy and grim, but not as much as they were when she started. Sakumo takes that as a good sign.

“You said that you want me to stay until whoever’s targeting Orochimaru has been taken care of,” she says, without raising her head.

Eyes narrowing, Sakumo wonders if she’s about to go back on their bet. If she’s giving up, getting ready to run. “That’s right,” he answers evenly, even though all of his muscles feel strung taut.

It’s then that Tsunade raises her head, and when she meets his gaze, her eyes are burning, blazing with something Sakumo has never seen in her before. Regret, he thinks, determination, relief, fury, protectiveness—all of them wrapped up and twisted together into a blade of white-hot resolve. “That implies you already know who’s doing this, but can't prove anything yet. Who is it?”

There's no debate whether to tell her. Sakumo lets his eyes drift back to the still, pale figure lying supine between them. “We don’t have proof,” he agrees. “But before we left, Danzo approached Orochimaru and offered to uncover the traitor if Orochimaru joined his Root division. It’s…”

“Too convenient,” Tsunade finishes, mouth twisting. She sighs and puts her hand on Shizune’s shoulder. “Get some sleep, okay? You were a brilliant help today.”

Shizune is awake enough to give a small, thankful smile, but only just. She staggers over to her bedroll and crawls under the blanket, then is asleep within moments. Kakashi is nodding off too, though he clearly doesn’t want to, and Sakumo shifts his grip on the boy, keeping his voice carefully modulated as he says, “Exactly. And Orochimaru was…not good, after they met. Rattled, almost, and I've seen him a lot of ways, but never like that before.”

Coiled tightly next to Sakumo's knee, Orochimaru’s black summons, a good four meters long at least and as vicious as her master, finally raises her head. Sakumo has met her before, while working and on one memorable occasion when Orochimaru was called away on an emergency mission while watching Kakashi, and Sakumo had come home to find a vast black snake curled up in his son’s crib. She’s quiet but observant, utterly devoted to Orochimaru, and when she murmurs, “The boneyard,” Sakumo pays attention.

“Pardon?” he asks, because like his wolves, she frames things in terms her own kind will understand.

Eerily blue eyes, an impossibly vivid color that shouldn’t be found anywhere in nature, stare back at him, utterly unimpressed by his lack of comprehension. “The boneyard,” she repeats, her voice a whispery rasp edged with something sharp. “Where you lay the bones of those who fall. The man approached Orochimaru-sama there.”

Tsunade makes a sound somewhere between a growl and a snarl. “If that’s true—if that bastard waited until Orochimaru went to visit his parents’ graves to talk to him…” She clenches one hand, and Sakumo vividly remembers tales of the Sannin Tsunade's physical strength. He winces. Not that he has sympathy for Danzo, but…the collateral damage will likely be impressive.

“I left one of them alive,” a quiet but steady voice cuts in, and Sakumo jerks his gaze down to see golden eyes regarding him, fogged with pain and anesthetic but still sharp. “Did you find him?”

Sakumo swallows, reaching out to pick up Orochimaru’s hand and carefully curl his own around the slim, pale fingers. “I did,” he assures the other man, dredging up his best smile. It’s a pale, poor effort, but hopefully Orochimaru is too out of it to notice. “He’s trussed up and under about four different seals to keep him unconscious. I'm sure the Hokage will be more than happy to pass him over to T & I when we get back.”

Orochimaru makes a vague sound of agreement, eyes already fluttering shut again. “I think he’s Fire Country,” he murmurs. “Fire affinity. Least common in other countries, and he was trained in Katon styles. Too…good at using them to be otherwise.”

It takes effort for Sakumo not to roll his eyes. Of course Orochimaru would notice such a thing, fighting in the dark while severely outnumbered, poisoned, and bleeding out from a stab wound that only just missed exceedingly vital areas.

Judging by the way she’s shaking her head, Tsunade feels the same way.

“Sleep,” she orders him, gently laying a hand over his eyes. “We’re only a few hours from the village. Even if you rest until morning, we’ll make good time back.”

“Patrol,” Orochimaru murmurs, even as his breathing evens out into sleep. When Tsunade lifts her hand, his face is peaceful, if still slightly pinched with pain.

Tsunade looks at him for a long moment, then sighs fondly and shakes her head again. “We don’t have enough people to patrol and keep watch,” she says. “Paranoid bastard.”

But the word has sparked something, and Sakumo blinks, realization setting in. “Not us,” he corrects with a soft laugh. “He means that there's a patrol headed this way. He’s been helping organize the schedules, and if I remember them correctly, they should reach us a little after dawn. I think the leader is even fond of Lovely here, if it’s who I think it is.”

Tsunade gives him an assessing look he can't understand, but simply nods instead of speaking whatever’s on her mind. “Good,” is all she says. “I don’t want Orochimaru walking any more than he absolutely has to, and if I have to tie him to a stretcher to make sure of it, I'm more than happy to do so.” She reaches out, gently stroking some blood-matted hair away from Orochimaru’s face, and sighs softly. “You're such a bastard,” she murmurs, quietly enough that Sakumo only hears it because his ears are better than normal. “I was just fine wallowing, but then you had to barge in and overturn everything. I can't even fall back on my fear of blood anymore, when I'm looking for reasons to be a coward. The only option you’ve left me is facing everything I'm ashamed of, everything that scares me.”

It’s a private thought, so Sakumo doesn’t answer it, but…he wants to. He wants to shake her, ask why she didn’t come back before even when Orochimaru was so clearly in need of her. But it’s not his place, not his to say no matter how much he wants to berate her for it. She’s coming back, she’s already saved Orochimaru once, and that’s enough. That's so much more than just enough.

“Oro,” Kakashi says suddenly, reaching out again, and this time he wriggles out of Sakumo's hold before his father can get a better grip. Three startlingly steady steps bring the toddler right up to Orochimaru’s side, and Kakashi drops down to sit in the curve of his elbow created by Sakumo's grip on the Snake Sannin’s outstretched hand. Kakashi pauses, regarding Orochimaru solemnly, and then he fists his hands in Orochimaru’s long hair and curls up right next to him, clearly unwilling to be moved.

Sakumo looks at Tsunade, and Tsunade looks back at him, both of them fighting smiles. With a chuckle, Sakumo reaches out to stroke Kakashi's flyaway hair, then Orochimaru’s, and settles back. “You should sleep as well,” he informs Tsunade kindly. “That was a lot of healing in a short amount of time. I’ll keep watch.”

For a moment, Tsunade looks ready to argue, but a yawn takes her by surprise, and in the end she just nods her tired thanks. “Wake me if anything changes,” she orders, then rises stiffly to her feet and heads for her bedroll, stretching as she goes.

“Aye, milady,” Sakumo chuckles, but she doesn’t seem to hear him, already settling next to her apprentice. He turns his eyes to Orochimaru instead, thinking of the scene they came upon just a few hours before. Blood and fire, corpses carved by sword-stroke or wind-blades or a huge snake’s venom, with Orochimaru standing in the middle of it all, drenched with blood both his own and not, a vicious sort of coldness on his face and the skin on his cheek, shoulder, and arms scorched and blistered. Sakumo has never forgotten just what Orochimaru is—a shinobi down to the very heart of him, calculating and fond of bloodshed and beyond skilled at killing—but…

Sometimes it’s hard to remember, when he’s scolding Kakashi for chewing on his hair, or watching Sakumo with a light in those strange golden eyes. Times like those, Sakumo looks at him and wonders how anyone in their right mind could be scared of this beautiful, absentminded, fiercely loyal man.

And then he seems him painted in blood, standing over the bodies of his enemies like some forgotten god of wrath, and it’s so easy to see why. Humans fear what they can't understand, and Orochimaru is everything the human mind doesn’t want to comprehend. He’s the darkness within them all, the phantom of what they could become if no little voice whispered stop in the back of their thoughts. He is the animalistic killer controlled by an all-too-human brain, and all the crueler for it. He is malice and violence with forethought and the icy edge of a blade against their throat, and they shy away from it. Anyone would.

For years, that has been the only side of Orochimaru they were allowed to see, no matter what he showed his teammates and his teacher. It took Sakumo and Kakashi to make it more obvious, to bring those hidden facets to light, and he will never, ever regret doing so.

Orochimaru is his best friend, his anchor, and Sakumo is aware enough to see that he is the same for Orochimaru. He had feared that would change, with Tsunade's return, but he’s beginning to see that it won't. Tsunade is broken in ways only she herself can begin to fix, and until she does, she cannot be the strength Orochimaru needs.

But Sakumo can. He has been for the past year, and he’s hardly about to let that change now. It is as necessary as breathing, for him to be needed, and Orochimaru needs him. Kakashi needs him. And that’s enough to keep him strong. He won't falter again, not with such things clear in his mind.

 

 

The sound of soft voices and the feeling of motion pulls Orochimaru up from the depths of sleep, and he opens his eyes to the sight of green branches above him, patches of blue sky and morning sun showing through. He’s lying on a rough stretcher, carried between two shinobi he recognizes from missions, and there's a small woman with long brown hair walking beside him, pale violet eyes sweeping their surroundings every few seconds.

“Sir,” she says politely. “How are you feeling? Should I get Tsunade-sama?”

“Hyuuga,” he answers, and closes his eyes again, assessing his body. There's a faint ache down his left side, and an odd sort of absence of feeling in his right that speaks of pain just waiting for him to move. “I'm fine. The attackers?”

Hyuuga Himawari looks down at him then, and he can't quite read her expression. “We retrieved the bodies, and have the survivor in custody. From the brief study I did, they all appear to bear the same seal on their tongues—for silence, I believe. It might hinder our investigation.”

That makes Orochimaru blink, and then arch a brow at her. It probably has less effect that normal, when he can hardly raise his head. “Investigation?” he echoes, faintly bemused.

The Hyuuga lifts her chin. She’s older than him by several years, a member of the Main House and quite good with her family’s dojutsu, but he knows little else. “Of course,” she affirms, as though it’s offensive to think of doing anything else. “Forgive me, sir, but three times now I've seen you nearly killed under suspicious circumstances. This time, I think it best to go directly to the Hokage with my concerns, as approaching the Internal Investigations division did nothing.”

Orochimaru hadn’t realized she had gone even that far. He is…uncertain as to the correct response in this situation, and simply nods, offering, “You have my thanks.”

She tips her chin in acknowledgement, murmurs “Excuse me, sir. We’re coming up on the gates,” as the patrol comes to a halt, and leaps lightly ahead to meet the gate guards.

“A good head on her shoulders, that one,” Sakumo says cheerfully as he slides into her previous spot. Kakashi is asleep in his sling, a wet spot forming on Sakumo's shirt under his mouth. Orochimaru is simply grateful that for once it isn’t his hair getting drooled on.

He makes a soft noise of absent agreement, then tilts his head to spot Tsunade, walking beside Shizune and speaking softly to her apprentice. She doesn’t catch him looking, and Orochimaru turns away before she can feel his gaze and descend on him like the mother hen she pretends not to be. He’s tired, though, which is the best indication that he’s hurt himself badly enough to have nearly exhausted his chakra, and sleep is already pulling at him again.

“Hospital?” he asks, just barely managing to get the word out clearly.

“No,” Sakumo answers gently, and callused fingers skim through his hair. “Tsunade says all you need now is rest, and to rebuild your reserves. Knowing you, you’ll rest better somewhere comfortable. I can take you to your house, if that’s what you want.” A hesitation, careful and cautious, and then Sakumo adds with a shadow of his usual cheer, “Or mine, of course. I'm sure Kakashi would love to play nursemaid for you, lovely.”

Orochimaru thinks of his quiet, lonely house, his mother’s books and his father’s weapons still on the walls, and can't bear the thought of it. Not now. Not yet.

Just as he opens his mouth to say so, a cry cuts him off.

“Tsunade!”

He forces his eyes open just in time to see a large shape come bounding past his stretcher, right up to where Tsunade is standing. Several steps away, Jiraiya slows, then halts, and from this angle Orochimaru can seem him staring at her, expression twisted up somewhere between longing and sorrow and relief. His breath catches in his throat, because no matter how much time has passed, that’s how he has always, always wanted Jiraiya to look at him, and yet—

And yet, time and again, just as he did now, Jiraiya passes him by.

Before, Tsunade treated Jiraiya's crush like something to be endured, or something to ignore. But right now, as she looks back at him, Orochimaru can see the realization settling behind her eyes, the recognition and understanding. She smiles, watery and wan, and steps forward. “Jiraiya,” she answers, and then more softly, “I missed you, you big idiot.”

Jiraiya smiles back, so in love it aches like another stab wound just to see, and takes the last step that lies between them, folding Tsunade into his arms for a hug. She curls her arms around him in return, pressing her face against his shoulder and closing her eyes, and…

They're beautiful together. They always have been.

It’s hard to breathe, Orochimaru thinks, pushing himself up from the stretcher. Or perhaps that’s the wound in his side, the burns tracing his skin like brands. Agony steals his sight for a moment, makes his head spin, but he struggles to rise regardless. He can't stay here, can't watch the death of all the dreams he already knew were hopeless.

He loves them both, he does, and he knows they are far better suited for each other than Jiraiya is for him, but.

But Orochimaru is a selfish creature, and that will never change.

A hand catches his elbow, brings him upright with a steadying touch, and that little bit of support is enough to clear the haze from his eyes. He looks up to meet a steady grey gaze, heavy with sympathy and grief, and instead of arguing Sakumo simply wraps a careful arm around his waist and holds him up.

“Your house,” Orochimaru tells him through the sandpaper-roughness clogging his throat. “If the offer stands. I would—”

Appreciate it, he wants to say, but a soft murmur reaches his ears, words shared between two old friends, and the phrase dies stillborn in his mouth.

“Of course,” Sakumo murmurs, and a moment later a whirl of leaves whisks them away.

Chapter Text

Moving forward feels like recovering, like convalescing from some soul-deep disease. It is slow, steady, though often it feels as though he is progressing in fits and starts, sliding backward as much as he ever moves forward.

The first year is the hardest.

Jiraiya looks at Tsunade with his whole heart in his eyes, as though she is a storm and a fury and the last ray of light in a world long turned to darkness. Tsunade is still mourning Dan, and likely always will be in some portion of her heart, but a regard such as Jiraiya's is a hard thing to ignore. It is as though the time spent without her has eased Jiraiya's more objectionable habits some, shown him what there is to lose if he fails to win her heart yet again, and it’s clear that Tsunade appreciates the, if not cessation, then at least the lessening of Jiraiya's perverted habits.

She looks at him, and smiles, and shakes her head. Jiraiya grins in answer, never quite managing to be sheepish, but laughing at himself just as much as Tsunade does, and even from the distance he so carefully maintains Orochimaru can see that their hearts are closer than they’ve ever been before.

Tsunade won't avoid Orochimaru, which means Jiraiya no longer can, and there is no way Orochimaru can give both of them the slip when they're determined about something. He allows himself to be drawn back, lets them think that all is forgiven and forgotten, though that is far from the actual truth. Orochimaru is good at holding grudges, nursing small bits of spite to fuel his hurt, and he clings to that feeling, to the memory of Jiraiya stepping past him without so much as a glance, because if he did otherwise he’d slide right back into the hopeless, helpless sort of love he’s always held for his teammate.

But Jiraiya has never looked twice at a man, even one like Orochimaru who can pass for a woman if he must, and it has always been a futile hope. Orochimaru has never fooled himself into thinking otherwise, even though he often wishes that he could.

Whenever the pain weighs at him, though, there is a haven to be found, a port in the storm of these unwelcome emotions. Sakumo is forever waiting, door unlocked and home welcoming, ready to lend his silent—or not-so-silent—support, even if Orochimaru can never bring himself to ask for it. There is a chair for him, a stack of texts on obscure jutsus lost during the Clan Wars, a cup of tea and a broad, bright grin to greet him the moment he steps in the door. Kakashi looks to him, never flinches away, welcomes Orochimaru’s snakes the same way he welcomes Orochimaru himself, and it’s…good. Unfamiliar, even after more than two years, but now Orochimaru is at a point where he couldn’t imagine doing without it.

(It terrifies him, sometimes, this new reliance. Because he knows the risks, the price, the cost. He remembers watching Tsunade walk away from Konoha, remembers Jiraiya's quiet, “I'll stay with the kids,” in distant Ame, and remembers how he himself broke each time. Slightly, subtly, but the cracks ran deep, no matter how invisible they seemed.

If [when] Sakumo decides to leave him, Orochimaru fears that there will no longer be even pieces of himself to patch together. All that he is will be so much dust upon the wind, and the death of the soul is something that, for all his knowledge, Orochimaru is unable to circumvent.)

 

 

The second year is easier, though Orochimaru is uncertain for the entirety of it whether his pain is easing or if he’s simply become accustomed to it.

Tsunade and Jiraiya are still circling each other, still testing the waters between them, but Orochimaru can look at them now without feeling that he should flinch. He can walk with them and feel only a faint urge to flee, or take missions with them and not be reduced to watching Jiraiya's back with hidden, resentful longing, the way he always used to. It is…good, even, to be an equal piece of a triad again, like a wobbling stool finally settled on all legs once more.

Even so, he keeps his distance, doesn’t allow himself to be pulled under the tide of nostalgia being part of the Legendary Three inspires. Once already he has been burned, and Orochimaru thinks he is well within his rights to still shy away at the first hint of fire.

In autumn Sakumo goes on a long mission to the south and returns tanned and grinning, full of stories he’s all but bursting to share. He also brings back a small blue-lacquered box, so smooth that the wood feels like the very best silk, and when Orochimaru meets him at the gates, a four-year-old Kakashi at his side, Sakumo immediately presses it into his hands.

“I thought it was about time for a change, lovely,” he says with a wink, and then scoops Kakashi up and whirls him around with a crow of greeting. Kakashi, who has long since traded the inquisitive cheer of his toddler years for a disgruntled poise, endures it with the longsuffering air of a prisoner accustomed to a complete loss of dignity, even though Orochimaru knows (will never say) that he’d spent his father’s time away moping and wandering the quiet house morosely.

Orochimaru watches them for a moment, feeling rather like his world is resettling around him, and then turns his attention to the box. It slides open easily to reveal a pair of earrings, silver and moonstone drops with an ivory fang dangling beneath each oval gem. They are delicate and lovely, slightly larger and heavier than the tomoe earrings he still wears, and the meaning couldn’t be clearer if Sakumo had actually draped him in wolf pelts and Hatake symbols.

You're part of the Hatake Clan. You're ours now, they say, and Orochimaru has not thought before how Sakumo must feel, watching Orochimaru divide his time between his old friends and his new, but this is a good indication that the man is not so selfless as he appears.

It makes something in Orochimaru ease, strangely, to know that Sakumo can be just as greedy and possessive as he is himself. Without comment, he slips off his tomoe earrings and tucks them into a pocket, replaces them with the moonstone earrings and brushes his fingers over the sharp end of one wolf-tooth. They are heavy, but it’s a good weight. Reassuring, to be able to feel the difference from the previous ones so clearly.

When he looks up, Sakumo and Kakashi are both watching him, their expressions amusingly identical. There's a touch of satisfaction, a tracery of smugness, an edge of cheer that is common in the father but unusual now in the son, and Orochimaru raises a brow at both of them, letting his hand fall away from the smooth tooth. They stare at him for another moment, then look at each other.

Kakashi nods decisively.

Sakumo grins.

There's an entire conversation to be had in their silent exchange, were Orochimaru able to read it.

“They're perfect for you, lovely,” Sakumo says cheerfully, slinging Kakashi over one shoulder like a sack of rice. The boy yelps in protest, making his father grin even wider, and Orochimaru rolls his eyes at the other man’s expression. He steps forward and rescues Kakashi, more to save himself from the sulking that will come of it than any attention paid to the boy’s dignity, and lets him slide to the ground. As soon as he’s steady, Kakashi sniffs, curls his fingers in Orochimaru’s obi, and ignores his father in a truly spectacular fashion that Orochimaru finds unnervingly familiar. It’s how he himself acts when Jiraiya aggravates him beyond measure, after all.

Perhaps Kakashi has been spending too much time with him, these past months.

Sakumo, as good-natured as ever, simply laughs, stepping up on Orochimaru’s other side and slinging an arm around his shoulders. “I think I've got more road-dust than skin on me at the moment,” he says cheerfully. “Let’s go home. I want a shower and then a meal that isn’t rations. At this point, I'm desperate enough for a change of pace that I’d probably eat someone’s hot sandal, and I'm sure you two could do without that kind of shame.”

Orochimaru carefully does not mention the pot of curry that is waiting on the stove. “I believe we can spare a sandal,” he says blandly, letting Sakumo drag him in the direction of the house that has somehow become “home”. “As long as you're willing to eat it where no one can see you, I have no objections. Agreed, cub?”

From his father, Kakashi would protest the nickname. From Orochimaru, he allows it with only the faintest roll of his eyes. “Why not,” he agrees with equal blandness, hunkering down a little so the bottom half of his face is hidden by his scarf. It’s become something of a habit, lately, and Orochimaru makes a mental note to suggest a mask instead; there's less risk of an enemy stepping on the end and choking him that way.

Sakumo protests their studied indifference with a wounded sort of dismay, more exaggeration than actual offence taken, and is summarily ignored.

 

 

Three years after Tsunade's return, Kakashi enters the academy with the rest of those his age and graduates in the space of a year, at the very top of his class. He’s a genius, people whisper, the best of his generation, and Orochimaru hears them and his expression goes tight. Sakumo watches him and Kakashi equally, sees the way his son looks to Orochimaru first and foremost, always gauges how to take things by measure of the Sannin’s reaction, and it warms him down to the bone. Likely Orochimaru should not be anyone’s yardstick when it comes to social interactions, but he’s better now, with Tsunade at his back and Sakumo at his shoulder.

(The way he and the other Sannin have traded positions, the fact that even with his old teammates around Orochimaru gravitates towards his new family first, brings a smile to Sakumo's face every time he thinks of it. Tsunade and Jiraiya are still an inescapable part of the present, as well as the past, but for all of that Sakumo is the one Orochimaru now seeks out. He still trains with the other Sannin, still walks beside them on nights out so that the other two won't have to call their outings dates, but far more of his time is spent with Sakumo and Kakashi, no matter what they happen to be doing.)

No matter how much easier Orochimaru finds it to walk through the village now, the expression he wears whenever someone whisper genius is likely the reason Kakashi sneers at such words. He’s a touchy, arrogant child, aloof and temperamental, but deep down Sakumo can still see the sweetness in him. It’s there, subtle and reserved for his father and Orochimaru, but still present, no matter how many derisive words he trades with an ever-cheerful Gai.

No one knows what to do with a tiny, tetchy genius, forever dismissive of anyone not as strong as the two men who have raised him, and for the first few months Kakashi is shunted between jounin instructors whose teams are a man short. It’s a disaster all around, because the other children are often twice Kakashi's age and have half his skill, and even the instructors are intimidated by him. After the third one approaches the Hokage, asking desperately for Kakashi to be reassigned, Sakumo surrenders to the inevitable and mentioned it to Orochimaru over lunch.

“I just—I don’t know what to do,” he admits, dragging a hand through his hair and resisting the urge to pull at it. If he starts, he likely won't stop until his head is as smooth as a monk’s. “He won't take any advice from me, and I can hardly influence how the other kids will treat him, which is where most of the problem is. They're intimidated, so they lash out, and Kakashi shows them up the best way he knows how, as a shinobi. That just makes it worse, though, and it’s not going to stop unless something changes.”

Orochimaru thoughtfully stirs his oyakodon, expression considering. “I have often wondered what would have happened were I assigned to a different team as a child,” he says after a moment, looking up to catch Sakumo's gaze. Outwardly he doesn’t look troubled, but Sakumo can see the truth of it in his eyes. “Or even a different jounin instructor. It is…likely that I would have grown frustrated with being so limited, and…”

He doesn’t finish, but Sakumo knows him well enough to understand the thought. Orochimaru would have left, would have abandoned the village and those who held him back, and even though he might have hesitated, he still would have gone in the end. Tsunade, Jiraiya, and Sarutobi were the ones who tied him down, gave him bonds he didn’t want to break.

Kakashi doesn’t have that, outside of the two of them.

With a sigh, Sakumo leans forward, crossing his arms on the table and resting his chin on them wearily. He’s been on back-to-back missions lately, given the rising tensions with Suna and Iwa, and it isn’t helping his stress levels in the least.

When he looks up again, though, Orochimaru is watching him carefully, golden eyes sharp. “You are tired,” the younger man says, glancing back at his meal with disinterest and then setting his chopsticks aside. “Perhaps you should sleep.”

Four years ago, Orochimaru would never have even implied concern for his health, and the fact that he does so now with such ease makes Sakumo smile at him. “I'm all right,” he denies, pushing himself upright in his chair again. “I just…wish that I had a solution.”

“Perhaps there isn’t one,” Orochimaru suggests, and it makes Sakumo blink, not quite believing his ears. Seeing his expression, Orochimaru rolls his eyes faintly and stands, filling the tea kettle and placing it on the stove to heat. “Kakashi is a genin, but he’s far too skilled to stay as one for long. Once he’s a chuunin, he won't be required to have a jounin instructor, and can take simple missions. Perhaps that is the best solution—we wait for the Chuunin Exams, and adjust our plans accordingly from there. He may take them, or he may find a team he can work with before then. Either way, we must give him time.”

Our, we—Orochimaru includes himself in their pack without even thinking about it now, and Sakumo beams at him, unable to help himself. The faint tip of Orochimaru’s head reveals a glitter of silver, a flash of moon-white stone as his earrings catch the light. He’s always wearing them, has since Sakumo pressed them into his hands at the gate, and it’s the closest Sakumo can come to a declaration of intent without formally filing the papers to make him a Hatake. Not that he needs to be—Orochimaru has his own Clan, his own legacy, and Sakumo would never dream of taking that away from him. But…proof is nice. He likes the way his clan’s unofficial symbols look on Orochimaru, and it’s enough to keep him content, no matter how far away Orochimaru ventures with his teammates.

“I think that’s the best idea we’re going to come up with,” he agrees after a beat, when Orochimaru raises a brow at him curiously and he realizes the silence has stretched too long. “I just…wish it wasn’t so frustrating for all involved.”

The kettle whistles, and Orochimaru pours it into two cups and stirs in the green tea. It’s a sharp, bitter, but comforting scent, and Sakumo accepts the cup Orochimaru passes him gratefully. The younger man retakes his seat, expression still considering, and then says quietly, “He idolizes you.”

Sakumo blinks again, caught flat-footed, and it earns him a faint, nearly sly smile from his companion. Orochimaru takes a sip of his tea, lets the words linger for another moment, and then adds, “He wants to be like you, as a shinobi and a man. I believe he currently feels so irritated with his teams because he aspires to walk the same path you did, and rise quickly through the ranks. They won't allow him to, so he sees them as holding him back and thwarting his dream.”

That is…a shock to hear, because Kakashi's default setting right now is ‘derisive’, and even his father isn’t spared the sharp edge of his tongue—Ayame’s influence, Sakumo acknowledges with a certain amount of bittersweet fondness and regret. His wife was quiet and calm until riled, and then she was a terrifying hellion who could bring down men three times her size with nothing more than a few biting words.

“Don’t look so surprised.” Orochimaru is watching him again, but this time it’s with amusement that’s clear in his golden gaze. “You are his father, after all. Don’t all little boys want to be like their fathers?”

“Did you?” Sakumo asks, overcome by curiosity. He knows nothing about Orochimaru’s family, beyond their deaths and the few facts he has about the clan as a whole.

There's a pause, careful and considering. Orochimaru studies his tea, tracing his fingers over the faint pattern in the cup’s glaze, and then inclines his head slowly. “I…suppose I did,” he acknowledges, and then smiles faintly. “My father wasn’t strong, as far as chakra reserves are concerned, but he was devastating on the battlefield. He could take three entirely separate jutsus and twist them together into something new, and I always admired that. It was…inspiring. But in the end, I am far more like my mother.”

Sakumo has seen Orochimaru’s pictures of her, few as they are, and admits that from what he can tell the two are indeed very similar. In looks as well, and he can't help but grin at the thought, even though he knows that Orochimaru would likely take it as a compliment, rather than insult the most men would consider it.

“I think they’d both be proud of you,” he says, and the look Orochimaru gives him is…odd. Not quite gratitude, not quite annoyance. There's a trance of surprise there, something like a flash of understanding, and then—

Orochimaru laughs. Just softly, barely more than a chuckle, but it’s undeniably a laugh. He rises to his feet, leaning over the table, and his long hair swings forward like a heavy silken curtain around them as dry lips touch Sakumo's forehead for the briefest instant. “Thank you,” he murmurs, already pulling away, but Sakumo is…stunned. He’s never received such a gesture from Orochimaru, not in any stretch of the imagination. He looks up at the other man, who’s staring down at him with something fierce in his strange eyes, something expansive and unnamable, and—is this how it feels? Is this the way Orochimaru has always looked at Jiraiya? Or is it different, and Sakumo is just fooling himself, deluding himself because—

Because he wants it to be.

But is it even something that he wants?

Before he can ask himself that, before he can make any sort of sense of the tangled jumble of emotions knotting up his chest, Orochimaru is stepping away, head turning towards the sound of the door opening, an annoyed voice calling, “I'm back.”

“Cub,” Orochimaru greets him, and gets a roll of dark grey eyes in response to the nickname. “You've finished training, then?”

“Yuuhi-sensei dismissed us early,” Kakashi answers, sounding entirely unimpressed. He doesn’t say I think he was going to meet with the Hokage, but from the look on his face—what’s visible of it, since he’s taken to constantly wearing a mask—that’s clearly the assumption. Probably not an incorrect one, either, given the past few weeks.

It’s only because Sakumo is watching for it that he manages to catch the slanting sideways glance Kakashi gives him, half a second of assessing his father’s reaction before he returns to his conversation with Orochimaru. But Sakumo does catch it, and he grins to himself in response, pushing out of his chair and ruffling Kakashi's hair. “Well, maybe it will give the other kids time to catch up with you,” he says philosophically. “How about we do some training ourselves this afternoon, since you're free? It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

A brief widening of the boy’s eyes is the only tell, but the suggestion still gets a sharp, nearly enthusiastic nod; it’s the most positive reaction Sakumo has seen him show in a while now, and that saddens him. But the sorrow is beaten back by the idea of an afternoon spent solely with his son, because it really has been a while.

“Then I will see you this evening. I have several experiments that could do with my attention,” Orochimaru says, taking a step back from them as he looks away. It’s a retreat, and from the stubborn expression that flickers over Kakashi's face, he isn’t any more inclined to allow it than Sakumo.

Seeing that his son is in agreement, Sakumo ducks past the boy and wraps an arm around Orochimaru’s waist, dragging him forward bodily. “Do you really think we’ll let you get away that easily, lovely?” he asks cheerfully, and is gratified when Kakashi ever-so-casually tucks his fingers into Orochimaru’s obi and adds his own weight to the pull. “Oh, no. You're coming with us. Training for the whole family.”

Orochimaru hisses at them in aggravation, but doesn’t fight as he’s steered right back into his chair. “I will set Oyotsu on both of you,” he threatens, but Sakumo's had enough time to become familiar with his summons, and he knows that Oyotsu is the gentlest of those Orochimaru usually calls. It’s hardly a threat at all, really.

“I think Fuyu could hold her off,” Sakumo counters cheerfully, grinning at the thought of his oldest summons facing off with Orochimaru’s white snake. The she-wolf is as tall as a horse, as cold and biting as her namesake, but the same way Orochimaru’s summons are a legacy of his parents, so too are Sakumo's, and he loves all of them. “Wait here. I’ll just grab my gear and then we can go.”

With a soft huff, Orochimaru ignores him, turning his attention to Kakashi instead. “Have you eaten?” he demands, and the tone is testy, but the expression that accompanies it is one of barely hidden grudging amusement.

Kakashi studies him for a moment with narrowed eyes, then inclines his head, clearly reading the capitulation that Orochimaru will never voice outright. “Kurenai brought us food.” His nose wrinkles slightly. “More or less.”

If the girl’s tastes are anything like those of the elder Yuuhi, Sakumo has no doubt that it was an interesting meal. He’s eaten with the man on missions, and can recall a distinct fondness for octopus and wasabi, and copious amount of liquor. Sakumo chuckles, heading for the rack where he keeps most of his equipment

The situation is still stressful, still uncertain. There's tension rising between the Nations, border skirmishes breaking out among the smaller countries and villages. There are still moments that scream of sabotage on Orochimaru’s missions, if far fewer than before. Sakumo just looked at his best friend and thought beautiful, and it had a deeper meaning than that word has ever carried before.

But this one afternoon is peaceful, a single moment shared by only three people in the entirety of the world, and Sakumo knows enough of the fleeting nature of such things to value it with all of his heart.

 

 

Four years on, and Orochimaru realizes he is falling in love with his best friend.

(I think they’d both be proud of you, Sakumo says.

They would be proud of who I have become because of you, Orochimaru thinks.)

(He never tells him, never shows it, and he’s had practice at such things, hasn’t he? But Sakumo has already said once that he simply doesn’t like men in that way, and it eases the sting of inevitable rejection, to have heard it back when his heart wasn’t so invested.

Besides, it’s not like it was with Jiraiya. Sakumo is present, standing next to him no matter what, and even the worst of Orochimaru’s temper can't convince him to move. He is rooted in the village, tied to it in several tangible ways, and his eyes never look to the horizon as though seeking the next adventure. He is not in love with Orochimaru’s first friend—indeed, is still devoted to his deceased wife—and this infatuation is…safe. Simple, because in this case Orochimaru’s emotions are not knotted up with competition and rivalry and the strain of being a genius prodigy and a shinobi who wasn’t. They are friends and that’s the extent of it, if an oversimplification. Sakumo is his grounding, his support, but there is no undercurrent of their relationship that could so easily shift to resentment and hatred.

It’s easy to endure, so easy that it is more like a state of being than something to suffer, and for the most part Orochimaru can put it out of mind, and does.)

There are whispers of war on the horizon, of Iwa building up resources and Suna training more shinobi than ever before, and whenever Orochimaru sees the Hokage now, Sarutobi's face is lined and drawn, the wear of the years on him visible in a way it’s never been before. There are more missions, a show of force that Konoha shouldn’t have to put on, because it’s the first shinobi village and still the strongest, but jounin and chuunin go out in droves, bringing in as much money as possible even as assignments are quietly shuffled around, until only the top-ranked jounin are allowed over Fire Country’s borders.

Tsunade and Jiraiya grow grimmer by the day, though Jiraiya hides it well, and Orochimaru watches them carefully, warily, waiting to see how the cards will fall. He’s lived through one war already, and well remembers the horror of it, the way it wore them all to the bone and further still. He half-expects his teammates to flee the village again, though perhaps that is an uncharitable thought to have, and takes to spending whatever time is not taken up with a desperate sort of training around Kakashi and Sakumo. While not untouched by the rising tension, they're more immune to it—Kakashi because for all his prowess he’s still a child, and Sakumo because he’s perpetually cheerful even in the face of war.

It is, Orochimaru thinks a little whimsically, settling cross-legged beneath a tree, rather like walking across a pane of thin glass. One wrong step will shatter it irreparably, and send the entire world spiraling down into chaos.

There's been talk of graduating Academy students early, before that happens. Accelerated training, and Orochimaru isn’t certain whether he approves. His team graduated early because of skill, and for all that he often mocked Jiraiya's abilities, they were not inconsequential. To push other children that much harder, to fling them into a situation they aren’t prepared for—that smacks of murder, and Orochimaru cannot think of such a thing without imaging Kakashi, body lifeless and mangled in some far-off field.

He is not a good man, even with Sakumo's influence and Tsunade's tempering presence. Greedy and selfish and self-centered, prone to losing sight of humanity. But for all of that, Orochimaru knows that he is loyal so long as he is given reason to be. And Sakumo and Kakashi have given him very many reasons over the years. So he is loyal to them, to Sarutobi who has always looked on him as another son, to Konoha where he can now walk the streets without cruel whispers following him.

He is loyal. He speaks against training children solely to be used for war, and ignores the way Sarutobi looks at him in surprise, the way Danzo's cold stare settles on him with something very close to disgust. Build up the foundations, he urges Sarutobi, and it sparks a thoughtful regard from wise brown eyes.

Konoha is not the largest village, but it is the strongest even now. They have more jounin than most, more prodigies and geniuses and shinobi known throughout the Nations, spoken of in awed tones. The White Fang, the Sannin, the Clans—they are all powerful, all fearsome. Konoha is home to two of the three great dojutsus, and the remaining one is long since lost to time. They have the Kyuubi jinchuuriki, a strong kunoichi in her own right, and Namikaze Minato, already hailed as one of the best despite his young age. Orochimaru dreads war, yes, but he doesn’t fear it. It will take something very strong indeed to shake Konoha's foundations.

The faint crunch of loose stones beneath geta makes him look away from his contemplation of the horizon, and he raises a brow as Jiraiya wanders over to him, expression absently morose. The Toad Sage drops to the ground at his side with a heavy sigh, leaning back against the tree. Their shoulders brush, because Jiraiya has no sense of personal space, and once Orochimaru would have hated the contact just as much as he loved it. Now, though, it sparks nothing but a vague affection in him.

Four years of seeing Jiraiya love Tsunade, four years of seeing that there is more for him than to simply exist as an unnecessary third, and Orochimaru has moved on. It is…bittersweet, perhaps, because he has loved Jiraiya since he was a child, because there is still no hope for him in this new love, but despite that, Orochimaru is…comfortable, in this new life.

He is greedy enough to want his love returned, always, but he is also logical and practical enough to know that it is, if not in the way he would desire. Jiraiya and Sakumo both love him, and because it is a shinobi’s way to make do with what they have, Orochimaru is content to do just that.

There is a long stretch of comfortable silence between them, the way there would not have been three years ago, the way Orochimaru had thought they lost when Jiraiya chose to stay in Ame. Their shoulders are braced together, and Orochimaru has his face turned to the warmth of the sun, eyes closed to enjoy it.

And then Jiraiya says, “You have a mission tonight, don’t you?”

Orochimaru opens one eye, not quite willing to relinquish his lazy moment, even though Jiraiya looks serious. “I do,” he acknowledges, even though it’s supposed to be top secret, known to the Hokage alone. He’s only ever kept one secret from Jiraiya, after all, and there's no one nearby to overhear. “To Ame. There are reports of an uprising against Hanzō, and Sensei seeks allies who might agree to halt Suna if forces attempt to cross the border there.”

Jiraiya shakes his head wearily. “The people of Ame will hate that,” he mutters, rubbing his hands over his face. “They're only just beginning to put things back together after the last war, and with this one brewing…”

“It hasn’t turned to war yet, and it may not,” Orochimaru points out logically. “Perhaps something will change before it can.”

There's another long moment of silence, and when he shoots a curious look at his companion, Jiraiya is watching him with a small, faint smile on his face. Orochimaru raises a brow, and his teammate shakes his head, still smiling.

“You're different, Orochi,” he says, but his voice is warm. “You're… Before, you’d have wanted a war, because it would be an opportunity to fight. But I heard what you told Sensei at that last meeting, about the kids, and creating a foundation for the future rather than building quickly and having it collapse around us. That’s—that’s not what you would have said before.”

It’s entirely true. He’d told Jiraiya to kill the Ame orphans, after all, suggested it easily and without care, because it was a logical solution. Now he thinks of Kakashi whenever someone says children, and it rather clouds his judgement. In a good way, perhaps, if he’s to judge by the reactions of those around him.

Orochimaru wonders, suddenly, because he can't quite help himself, whether his suggestion was one of the reasons Jiraiya didn’t simply send the children on their way. Was it a gesture of defiance against his teammate’s cold heart? An attempt to show that not all Konoha shinobi were like Orochimaru?

He doesn’t ask, because this is one question he can live without learning the answer to.

“Everyone changes,” is all he says, noncommittal. A pause, and then he sighs softly, because he is one to give credit where it is due, and in this case that’s entirely to one man. “Sakumo is a truly irresistible force, and I am…not the immovable object I had once thought myself.”

Jiraiya laughs at that, lighthearted and free. “I was jealous of him,” he admits easily, slinging an arm over Orochimaru’s shoulders and knocking their temples together. Because he’s always been a handsy sort of friend, Orochimaru endures it with a roll of his eyes that makes Jiraiya snort. “Jealous,” he repeats pointedly, as though Orochimaru is the one losing the thread of the conversation, “because I got back and you were so close to him. It was like you’d replaced me, and a lot of why I avoided you stemmed from that. I left you alone, and then Tsunade left too, and I know how you feel about Konoha. It was—guilt, I guess? And a good portion of me being an asshole, too.”

It is…nice to hear an explanation, and Orochimaru is familiar enough with his teammate to know what this is as close to an apology as he’s likely to get. He inclines his head, a silent acceptance of what remains unsaid, and the grin that breaks across Jiraiya's face is three parts relief and one part gratitude. He tugs Orochimaru a little closer, squeezing tightly, and then releases him to riffle through his weapons pouch.

“Oh, hey, I got you something!” he says cheerfully. “Tsunade asked for some sake, since I was already in Rice Country, so I figured I’d get souvenirs for you and Sensei while I was at it.”

Orochimaru is mildly horrified, because he’s had experience with what Jiraiya considers an appropriate gift. But before he can get away, there's a hand on his, pressing something soft against his fingers, and Orochimaru warily accepts the thing and drops his gaze to study it.

It’s a ribbon, like girls often put in their hair, sleekly soft and a deep, quiet shade of silver. Orochimaru runs it through his fingers, testing the strength of it. He isn’t entirely comforted, because Jiraiya once got him a full set of silk bondage ties for his birthday, and he raises a brow at his teammate in query.

Jiraiya, apparently remembering Orochimaru’s less than grateful reaction to presents past, rolls his eyes in return. “You used to tie your hair back when we were practicing, back when we were kids,” he huffs, crossing his arms with an offended scowl. “I thought you might like the opportunity to try something new, and…” He trails off, then reaches forward and, with an expression of faint, amused regret, taps a finger against Orochimaru’s moonstone earrings. “The color matches these, doesn’t it?”

Orochimaru is not good with people, but in an instant he understands what this is. Jiraiya is offering acceptance, showing his approval in the only way he knows how. A simple, subtle gesture, because he is well aware that Orochimaru would not change his life even if Jiraiya disapproved, but it’s acceptance all the same, and Orochimaru didn’t even know he wanted such a thing. But he did.

He takes a breath, then reaches up and slides the ribbon beneath his hair, pulling the strands back from his face in a low, loose tail and tying it carefully. Jiraiya is still watching him, and there's warmth in his eyes, clear on his face. It isn’t the warmth Orochimaru looked for, desired, for so very long, but it’s fondness and contentment and a complicated friendship built up over the years. They're nearly thirty now, the three of them, and all but seven of those years have been spent together; such closeness is hard to undermine, no matter what emotions they hide from each other.

“Looks good, bastard,” Jiraiya says gruffly, because he is, as always, allergic to sentiment. He claps Orochimaru on the shoulder, then rises to his feet and looks into the distance. “If you…happen to come across those three brats in Ame,” he says, and though he’s aiming for casual he falls far short, “would you let me know how they are? Changing the world isn’t an easy thing. I worry.”

Orochimaru inclines his head, and even though Jiraiya's eyes are turned away from him, the tension in his shoulders eases. He doesn’t say thank you, and Orochimaru doesn’t otherwise acknowledge the request, because that’s how favors work between them, and always have.

“Our team leaves at sunset. Sakumo and I will both be gone,” he says, and then pauses. He adds carefully, “Kakashi is a bright child. Too bright for many genin teams. If there are problems…”

Jiraiya's grin is easy. This request too goes unacknowledged beyond a casual shrug. “Minato's laid up right now,” he suggests. “Busted arm. I need to see if the Hokage will give him something to focus on beyond mooning over Kushina-chan. A gofer to find him all those dusty scrolls he likes to suffocate himself with might be just the thing.”

It sounds like a good enough solution to Orochimaru, who snorts softly at the image of a pint-sized, scowling Kakashi half-buried under musty old scrolls. He rises, checking the position of the sun, and brushes a few stray leaves from his robes before he turns to go.

“Good luck, Orochi,” Jiraiya offers, quiet but heartfelt, and Orochimaru smiles faintly to himself. It’s the most meaningful talk they’ve ever had, perhaps, likely the longest since Jiraiya's return, and he feels…lighter for it.

“The same to you as well, Jiraiya,” he returns, and his heart doesn’t twinge at all as he walks away.

Chapter Text

The sky grows darker the closer they get to Ame, dark, heavy clouds building every time Orochimaru glances up. Rain is starting too, intermittent splatters of it that do little to ease Orochimaru’s tension. It crawls up his spine, tightening muscles, making him twitch at the smallest noises, and he can't even understand why. Their mission has been quiet so far, uneventful, and Orochimaru’s summons report nothing but small animals stirring ahead of them.

Seated cross-legged by the meager warmth of the campfire, Orochimaru stares into the shifting flames and tries to even out his breathing. He’s drawn up as tense as a koto string, and there's no reason for it. Perhaps it is because his last mission to Ame ended in the cracking of his world, but Orochimaru doesn’t want to think he is so easily rattled.

Regardless, it doesn’t feel like unfounded nerves. It feels like there are eyes on him, like someone is staring and has been since they left Konoha, even though he can sense no one.

He touches the sharp tip of his earring, worries the tooth between his fingers, and thinks.

Danzo has been quiet lately, which is unnerving, especially with war building on the horizon. Oh, he’s sat in on meetings, given Sarutobi dire warnings and made thinly veiled digs about Konoha's strength not being what it used to be, but Orochimaru can't recall the last time he actually saw the man walking around the village. Perhaps it means nothing—Danzo is an old man, after all, and one can hardly expect him to remain active in all ways—but Orochimaru is…suspicious. Danzo is a war hawk. In the face of these hair-trigger tensions with Iwa and Suna, Orochimaru would expect him to be more visible than ever, feeding the talk of war and pushing every shinobi to train their hardest.

Orochimaru has seen his absence, and marked it. He sees many things, even—perhaps especially—when people don’t want him to. He doesn’t forget easily, either. Even now he remembers Danzo's offer to join his special Root squad, and the last few months his eyes have tracked the number of ANBU in the village and come up some two dozen short. It is not a large-scale Hokage-ordered mission—Orochimaru discreetly checked with Sarutobi, careful not to mention his suspicions, though his teacher’s eyes grew warily thoughtful when he asked—and so Orochimaru’s only conclusion can be that Danzo is taking independent action.

Sarutobi has long turned a blind eye to Danzo and his doings because he believes they are always for the good of the village, but Orochimaru is not nearly so trusting. He thinks of Danzo's avaricious eyes, seen across a grave, and presses his thumb to the cool curve of the moonstone drop.

He is not a child with an overactive imagination. He is a shinobi, almost thirty years old, with experience in one war already and a lifetime of trying to puzzle out people’s motives. Perhaps there is another explanation, perhaps he is simply seizing on Danzo as the culprit because of past experiences with the man, but—

“Heavy thoughts there, lovely,” a warm voice says, and Orochimaru glances up, startled, as Sakumo takes a seat beside him. Their knees brush as Sakumo sprawls out, legs stretched in front of him and feet practically in the fire, and Orochimaru feels his breath catch in his throat. He forces himself not to otherwise react, though, rearranges his face into blandly curious lines and arches a brow at his friend.

Reading the question in his gaze, Sakumo chuckles. He tips his chin at Orochimaru’s hand. “You only play with your earrings when you're struggling with something. Can I be of any help?”

Caught, Orochimaru lets his fingers drop away from the moonstone, slightly chagrined. He hadn’t realized his tell was quite so obvious. “Just…pondering,” he says, because he knows if he mentions anything further Sakumo will start bristling, his eyes darkening with the tightly contained anger that makes him so fearsome. He’s a big man, if not as broad across the shoulders as Jiraiya, and his fury is like a raging current hidden deep beneath the river’s placid surface. Once already Orochimaru has seen it turned on Danzo in his own defense, but Danzo is a dangerous man. Too many pushes from someone as powerful and well-liked as Sakumo, and he’ll push back.

The expectant expression on Sakumo's face tells him he’s not getting off that lightly, however. Orochimaru rolls his eyes and decides he can give a little, if it will get the older man to back down. Besides, Sakumo is his squad leader until they get to the border, where Orochimaru will separate and head off to fulfill his own mission.

“There are…eyes on us, I believe,” he allows, picking his words carefully. “Have you felt them?”

Sakumo's eyes sharpen, and though his sprawl stays loose-limbed and lazy, Orochimaru is suddenly reminded of a snake’s stillness just before it strikes. “I can't say I have,” he says, and the tone is light but the words are quiet enough not to carry beyond the two of them. His gaze lingers on Orochimaru’s face for a moment, unreadable, and then he smiles. “Of course, you're better than I am at spotting tails,” he allows without hesitation, and it still feels like a shock to Orochimaru, after so long competing with Jiraiya even as he loved him. Sakumo is free with his praise, with his unending admiration, and every time Orochimaru feels a little like his feet have been cut out from under him because of it.

Orochimaru takes a breath, rolls his shoulders a little, and tries not to lean into Sakumo's warmth. Sakumo has been…looking at him, recently. Stolen moments, little bits of thoughtful regard, a lingering sense of decisions slowly coming into being. Orochimaru doesn’t know what it means, but he wonders.

“I haven’t felt anything concrete,” he admits, folding his hands in his lap and twisting his fingers together. “And not even Kiyohime can find any trace of the watchers, if they're present. Perhaps I'm simply being paranoid.”

Sakumo looks thoughtful, even as he reaches out to gently grab Orochimaru’s wrists and lift them onto his own thigh. “If you say you feel something, I don’t doubt you,” he says absently, and then frowns, curling his fingers around Orochimaru’s. “Damn, lovely, your hands are like ice. Did you bring your gloves? Why don’t you move closer to the fire?”

Orochimaru’s eye-roll is very, very obvious, but he doesn’t even attempt to pull his hands from Sakumo's grasp. The Hatake is impossibly warm against the cool of the night air, and Orochimaru is willing to admit that he is…slightly chilled. Though Sakumo is, as ever, exaggerating, because he is doesn’t even try to hide the fact that mentally he is actually a gigantic mother hen stuffed into a wolf’s body.

“It’s hardly even winter yet,” he protests. “I hadn’t thought to need them. And I cannot get physically closer to the fire without sitting in it, so you will excuse me if I stay right here, mutt.”

Sakumo just laughs. “You need to work on your pet names, Orochimaru. Come on, if you're ‘lovely’ can't I at least be ‘handsome’?”

Orochimaru opens his mouth to respond cuttingly, but loses his breath in an undignified yelp as Sakumo uses the grip on his hands to haul him bodily into the older man’s lap. He twists, elbow coming up to hopefully give the oaf a black eye, but Sakumo deftly dodges, then wraps his arms around Orochimaru’s torso to pin the Sannin’s arms to his sides and drops his chin on one boney shoulder.

“There,” he says cheerfully. “Now you won't be cold.”

Orochimaru hisses at him in pure aggravation, wriggling and squirming against Sakumo's hold, but unable to break it. He can feel the other shinobi accompanying them glance their direction, then shake their heads and go back to setting up their bedrolls again, clearly dismissing it as a Sakumo thing. They're all his friends, and quite obviously used to his bouts of insanity.

By now, after more than half a decade, Orochimaru should be used to it as well, but he’s still not. Sometimes he doesn’t think he ever will be, because compared to most people Sakumo is just so much more.

“I will strangle you in your sleep, Hatake,” he hisses, finally giving up and letting his struggles subside. He’ll never admit to it, of course, but Sakumo does have a very small point. Orochimaru has a hard time regulating his body temperature, and the cold makes him sluggish. With the furnace-warmth of Sakumo's body at his back, he can finally feel the faint shivers he refused to acknowledge disappearing, life creeping back into limbs he hadn’t realized felt deadened.

Really, he should just give up on having any sort of dignity at all when Sakumo is around. It would probably be better for him in the long run.

Warm breath tickles his neck as Sakumo shifts, settling a little more comfortably and tipping his head so that his cheek rests against Orochimaru’s shoulder. A faint trace of stubble catches at Orochimaru’s hair, and he doesn’t allow himself to shiver. “You won't,” Sakumo denies, cheerful but also completely certain.

“Oh?” Orochimaru arches a brow, even though Sakumo can't see it. “Such faith in my good nature, Sakumo. I assure you, the consensus is that I possess no such thing.”

That earns him a soft snort, warm against his skin. “Mm, but people are stupid,” Sakumo points out, and his arms tighten around Orochimaru’s waist as he shifts again, burying his face in Orochimaru’s long hair and pulling a large chunk of it free from its ribbon. It slides forward when Orochimaru shifts, half-obscuring Sakumo's face, but Orochimaru can still see the stubborn set to his mouth out of the corner of his eye. “They’ve never taken the time to get to know you, or they’d realize just how incredible you actually are.”

It feels like his heart has flipped sideways but kept on beating, like the shock of electricity without any of the pain. Sakumo has said such things before, of course, but not…like this. Not from such a short distance away, his hands on Orochimaru’s skin, his mouth mere centimeters away from Orochimaru’s throat. Orochimaru knows this is simply sharing warmth, a gesture of friendship, but…

But Sakumo's eyes, when he turns his head, are dark and full of impossible warmth, and Orochimaru might be bad with people but he is good with Sakumo. There is something waiting, just out of their sight, and Orochimaru wonders if he’s brave enough to take that last step towards it.

If he won't be, maybe Sakumo will, and Orochimaru’s breath catches in his throat as all the many implications of that thought hit him.

Trust, he thinks, and it’s nothing new, not where Sakumo is concerned. But never before has it seemed so…blatant.

Love, he thinks, and for the very first time since his parents died, it doesn’t hurt at all.

“You are a fool,” Orochimaru says, voice rough, and can't tell which of them he means.

Sakumo's eyes crinkle, and his smile is impossibly fond and familiar. “Maybe,” he allows. “But then I'm a very, very luck fool.”

That, Orochimaru thinks, applies to both of them. He lifts a hand, carefully, cautiously, and lays it over Sakumo's on his stomach. Just a touch, not a caress or an attempt to hold hands or anything of the sort, but it’s more than Orochimaru has ever offered to anyone beyond Kakashi, who is a child and therefore safe. It’s more than he had ever thought to give anyone, before Sakumo came into his life.

It gets him a chuckle, soft and warm, in thanks, and that’s enough.

Orochimaru allows the moment to hold for an endless number of heartbeats before he elbows Sakumo in the gut, smacks him over the head, and slides out of his lap again. He likes to retain at least a little dignity, after all, even if Sakumo never allows him much.

Because he’s undoubtedly a fool (at least as much as Orochimaru himself is), Sakumo simply laughs.

 

 

“Don’t worry, kid, Minato will love you!” the white-haired oaf says cheerfully, clapping Kakashi on the shoulder. Kakashi staggers from the force of it, then manages to find his footing and turns his sharpest glare on Orochimaru’s former teammate.

“I'm not worried,” he says, with all the derision that comment deserves. “I just don’t understand why I'm being indentured to a jounin who can't even manage to remain uninjured.”

Jiraiya rolls his eyes. He probably thinks it’s subtle, but Kakashi is used to Orochimaru, who might as well be the patron saint of exasperation, especially when Sakumo is around. “You're not being ‘indentured’, brat, so lighten up. Minato just needs someone familiar with the library to find stuff for him, and from what Orochimaru’s said of you, that won't be a problem. Besides, the bastard asked me to keep an eye on you, and this makes it easy.”

Kakashi feels absolutely not one shred of remorse for turning sharply and kicking Jiraiya as hard as he can in the shin. There's a howl of pain and Jiraiya leaps backward, trips over the leg of a chair, and slams into the wall with an earth-shaking thud. He slides down it, clutching at his leg and staring at Kakashi with wide, wounded, deeply offended eyes, but Kakashi doesn’t waver. He plants his hands on his hips and hisses, “Next time you call my Oro a bastard I'm aiming for something a little higher up and a lot more precious to you, got it?”

“But—but—he is a bastard!” Jiraiya protests, then snaps his hands up to cover his groin when Kakashi lifts a threatening foot.

Well. Kakashi is willing to admit that’s mostly true where other people are concerned, but still. “Don’t. Call. Him. That.”

“Are you threatening my teammate?”

The soft, dry voice makes Kakashi look up and around to find that they have a spectator. Sharp brown eyes take in the scene—Jiraiya on the ground clutching his family jewels with a skinny six-year-old looming over him—and then narrow. Tsunade stares for one more moment, then looks back at Kakashi and arches a brow.

“Yes,” Kakashi confirms blandly. Maybe if she takes offense at his actions she’ll drag him away to punish him, and instead of helping this idiot bed-bound jounin, he can do something more appealing. Like scrubbing bedpans.

Tsunade snorts, reaching out and ruffling his hair fondly. “Good boy. If you need an edge, he’s weak against acrobatics—heaven alone knows why, after being on a team with Orochimaru for so many years, but it’s just more proof that he’s hopeless.”

Kakashi files this information away for future use, even as Jiraiya squawks with wounded dignity and flails his arms at the blonde. “Wha—Tsunade! You're supposed to be on my side!”

Her answering smile has the sweetest, most cutting edge Kakashi has ever witnessed, and he is dutifully impressed. “Oh, Jiraiya, whatever gave you that impression?” Then she turns her attention to Kakashi again. “I take it you're the one they got to play babysitter for Namikaze?” When he nods, she sighs. “I was just on my way to check on him. Come on, I’ll lead you there.”

Casting one last glare back at the Toad Sage, Kakashi follows her though the corridors of the hospital and up a flight of stairs. He has to hurry to keep up with her long strides, but he appreciates that she doesn’t try to slow down as a favor to him—he’d rather rush than have people cater to him, and Tsunade clearly understands that, if the sideways glance he gets is anything to go by.

“I take it your father and Orochimaru are away?” Tsunade asks, pushing open a pair of swinging doors and holding them so Kakashi can duck through. She consults the clipboard tucked under one arm, then turns left, heading down another too-white hall.

“Yes,” Kakashi confirms. “Tou-san and Oro are on overlapping missions, but they couldn’t tell me where.”

Tsunade hums thoughtfully. “Well, hopefully your father will be able to keep Orochimaru out of trouble, even if that’s a high order. If you need anything while they're away, Kakashi, I’d be more than happy to help. Shizune could always use a training partner.”

It takes effort not to grimace. Kakashi has sparred with Shizune several times already, and her poisons make it far more complicated than he’s used to. Add to that an edge of ruthless recklessness oddly like Orochimaru’s, and Kakashi would be more than happy to skip out on any sort of training featuring the Slug Sannin’s apprentice.

Gai, who is obviously an idiot, cheerfully insists that a good portion of it is jealousy stemming from the fact that Orochimaru is very fond of the girl. He is absolutely wrong, because Kakashi is not jealous.

“Thank you, Tsunade-sama,” he says dutifully, because she’s Orochimaru’s friend first and foremost, and he’ll be rude to Jiraiya, who brings up a strange sort of melancholy in the Snake Sannin at times, but he won't inflict the same on Tsunade, who regularly makes him smile.

Tsunade casts him an amused glance, as though she knows what he’s thinking, and then pushes open one of the doors leading off the hall. She sweeps in, clipboard coming up, and Kakashi trails after her, a little curious despite himself. He’s heard a lot about Namikaze Minato, from his father and Orochimaru as well as the rest of the village, and knows that the jounin is a genius like him and Orochimaru, hailed as the best of his generation. Kakashi has been dreading this meeting, mostly because he assumes he’ll be treated like either a child or a weapon and doesn’t want to deal with either, but—

He stops short, blinking dazedly at the scene before him, and carefully revises his opinion.

“Tsunade-sama!” the man in the bed squeaks as he goes crimson, attempting to jerk the covers up to his chin and failing miserably, thanks to the redheaded woman perched on top of him. The blond’s shirt is missing and his pants are gaping open, and the woman is in just a chest wrap and panties. There is absolutely no doubt as to what they're doing, and Kakashi gags a little, clapping his hand over his eyes. This is far, far worse than the time he walked in on Orochimaru sleeping on his father’s shoulder, and his father playing with Orochimaru’s hair and wearing the stupidest, dopiest smile Kakashi had ever seen in his life.

However, Tsunade just sounds amused as she says, “Kushina-chan. Finally got fed up with Minato’s blushing virgin impression, I see.”

The redhead laughs. “Oba-san, can you come back in an hour? I was just about to get his pants off, and it’s taken me weeks to make it this far.”

Namikaze Minato, Konoha's Yellow Flash and widely lauded genius regarding all things shinobi, makes a strangled, gurgling, gasping noise like a dying cat.

Kakashi wonders absently if breaking his own leg will get him out of what is clearly going to be half a month of sheer torture, because he will never be able to look at Minato and not see this.

“Sure.” Kakashi risks a glance up, and Tsunade is on the verge of laughter, a wickedly amused light in her eyes. “I was just coming to introduce Minato to the genin who will be helping him for the next two weeks.” She ignores the pitiful, plaintive, mortified sound Minato makes, and continues right over top of it, “But I'm sure Kakashi needs to eat by now, so I’ll wander back this way when we’re done. Take your time.”

Kushina’s grin is both foxy and roguish. “Don’t worry, I plan to. Minato, stop that! Just hold still. This is your own fault for not even being able to hold my hand without me starting it.”

“But—but—why am I on the bottom? And I was going to bring you roses before—before we—” Minato wails plaintively, just before Tsunade pushes Kakashi out into the hall, locks the door from the inside, and pulls it shut.

The blonde shakes her head, regarding the door with a look that’s halfway been fondness and exasperation, and then turns her smile on Kakashi. “Come on, kid. Let’s leave them to it. Kushina’s been fed up with Minato's shyness for months—I'm just surprised this didn’t happen weeks ago.”

Kakashi grimaces, swearing to himself that he will never, ever enter a room occupied by Minato with first knocking. Very loudly, at that.

 

 

Fire Country’s forests thin as they approach Ame’s border, fading into nothing but a handful of scraggly, half-drowned copses by the time they make it to the meeting point. It’s an outcropping of tall, jagged rocks that form just enough of a shelter to fit Orochimaru, Sakumo, and the three jounin accompanying them. A river several meters to the west provides enough sound to cover low-voiced conversation, and Orochimaru takes advantage of it, laying out their maps in the relative dryness of the overhanging stone.

“You know your path?” he asks, and Sakumo's second, a Hagane by the spiky black hair, inclines his head.

“The Suna outpost is here,” he says, tapping the spot on the map. Nothing is marked, on the off chance that the maps are stolen or the one carrying them is captured, but they all remember the briefing well enough. “We’ll be in and out in the space of a week, hopefully. Two days there, two days back, a day to plan and complete the infiltration, and a buffer just in case.”

Orochimaru nods, because their mission is far more dangerous. He’s merely a diplomatic courier, in comparison.

“We’ll be waiting for you, lovely,” Sakumo says gently, clasping his shoulder. “You shouldn’t worry about us. You're the one without backup.”

He rolls his eyes faintly, though the expression is lost in the shadows, and huffs. “I am also unlikely to encounter any serious threats,” he points out. “You will need to secure records of Suna’s troop movements without being detected.”

Sakumo just laughs, like he always does when Orochimaru shows his entirely justified concern. “All in a day’s work,” he deflects cheerfully, and then rises to his feet. Orochimaru follows him, passing the map on to the slender Kamizuki woman with an inclination of his head. She tips hers in return, then slips back out into the rain, the other two jounin trailing behind her.

“You’ll be careful?” Sakumo says, not taking solemn eyes off of Orochimaru as he hovers in the opening. “I don’t like you going off by yourself, but given that you know Ame the best of the five of us—”

“Do you think I'm Jiraiya?” Orochimaru scoffs, but can't quite muster up the bite those words would once have had. “Of course I will. My sense of self-preservation is still entirely intact, thank you.”

That wins him a chuckle, and the hand on his shoulder softens, curves around it rather than grips. It’s a gentle touch, a little more than friendly, and Orochimaru flicks his eyes to it and then back up to meet Sakumo's gaze. They hold there for a moment, the weight of things unsaid between them, but Orochimaru can't find the words he needs.

Still, there is no crushing feel of pressure, the way there was when Jiraiya declared he was remaining in Ame. And Orochimaru knows without even a shadow of doubt that nothing could make Sakumo stay here, not when Konoha is truly his home, with ties to pull him back no matter how far he travels away. He lets out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, and with a surge of bravery he hadn’t expected, lifts his own hand in return. His fingers cover Sakumo's broader ones, slide into the gaps between them and curve down to touch his palm, and Sakumo smiles. He curls his fingers over Orochimaru’s, squeezing lightly.

“Come back safe, Orochimaru,” he says quietly. “When we’re back in the village—let’s talk.”

And there is the first step, laid out before them. Or maybe it’s simply another step, and the first one was taken when Sakumo moved in front of a blow for him. Orochimaru would prefer to think of it as the latter. This is…just another part of what they already have, and even if it is not what he thinks, he will accept anything. Anything at all, to keep that warmth in Sakumo's smoke-grey eyes.

“Let’s talk then,” he agrees, and forces himself to take a step back. “Keep yourself well, Sakumo.”

As always, use of his given name makes Sakumo grin, and he leans forward, arms coming up to wrap Orochimaru in a hug just this side of too tight as he practically lifts him off his feet. Orochimaru gets a face-full of messy silver hair, a breath of warmth that smells of earth and autumn, an ache in his ribs that echoes the one inside his chest. Then Sakumo is gone, slipping back out into the rain and calling his squad around him. Laying a hand on the cool stone, Orochimaru watches him until the four shinobi pass from his sight, and then turns his attentions to his surroundings.

The feeling of eyes on him is still unmistakable.

Orochimaru tilts his head, assessing the shiver of awareness crawling up his spine. Paranoid bastard, Jiraiya has always called him, but it saved their lives more than once. He won't allow himself to dismiss the feeling as overactive imagination, not given the way most of his solo missions devolve into messes of bad luck and deadly danger. But at least on solo missions Orochimaru has no one to protect, no one else to account for. He is a wily bastard, a snake able to slip from any trap, and it’s high time his watchers learned that.

Taking a breath, he twists his fingers into a seal and calls up his chakra. With a poof of smoke, two identical copies appears beside him, and the three of them leap out of the obscuring rock in tandem. The clones head east and north, but Orochimaru takes the west, aiming for the river there. His doubles will get as far as they're able before they dispel, keeping to the shadows and moving quickly. It’s fairly well-known, however, that Orochimaru despises the cold and hates the wet. Chances are, his watchers will dismiss him as a clone right away. And that’s worth the edge, even though what he’s about to do makes Orochimaru grimace.

He drops the outer layer of his kimono on the riverbank, braces himself, and dives. The water is a shock of ice that all but stops his lungs, but Orochimaru doesn’t allow himself to quail. Gritting his teeth, he kicks off the slippery bottom and turns into the swift-moving current, letting it carry him westward in a rush.

The things I do for you, Sarutobi-sensei, he thinks, already feeling the ache of holding his breath building in his lungs.

His gear is all packed in water-tight cases, and the scroll he carried from the Hokage to the leader of the Akatsuki is also safely stowed. There is no reason he can't follow the river right to Amegakure itself, where he’s heard Akatsuki have made themselves a base within the cliffs and caves beyond the village. Right beneath Hanzō’s nose, and there's something distinctly satisfying about that. Orochimaru has no love of the man who defeated him, Tsunade, and Jiraiya, even if it earned them their title. Failure is something he doesn’t easily accept, and the fact that these Akatsuki oppose Hanzō’s regime is just one more reason to seek an alliance with them, as far as Orochimaru is concerned.

Judging himself to be far enough away from any watchful eyes, Orochimaru allows himself to surface briefly, taking a deep gulp of air that feels practically balmy in comparison to the water around him. But it’s too soon to risk emerging, and with a sound of disgust Orochimaru allows himself to sink back into the current, wending his steady way towards Ame’s Hidden Village.

 

 

His first realization that something has changed comes with a sudden darkening of the water around him, packed earth banks replaced with solid stone as the current narrows and deepens. Orochimaru pauses, bracing himself against a jagged edge of stone, and debates the wisdom of surfacing and looking around. He’s been underwater for almost half the day already, pulling air down around him to breathe in what is the most unorthodox use of a wind jutsu he’s ever attempted. Still, it’s kept him from having to reveal himself every three minutes, which can only benefit him in reaching his destination unseen.

A shape moves above the surface, joined by another, and then a third, obviously having spotted him. Orochimaru resigns himself to discovery, pushing off the stone and letting himself rise. Just before he reaches it, a hand is thrust into the water, empty of a weapon, and with the palm open in a clear offer. Orochimaru hesitates, but takes it, nearly-numb fingers curling around the stranger’s wrist. The stranger pulls, and Orochimaru clears the water with a gasp, letting himself be dragged up onto the smooth stone at the river’s edge. Immediately he starts trembling in the almost painful warmth of the air, wrapping his arms around himself and trying to chafe life back into his limbs.

“Konoha shinobi are all insane,” a flat voice says, and half a heartbeat later a thick, heavy cloak drops over Orochimaru’s shoulders. He inclines his head in thanks, clutching it more tightly to him, and looks up at his companions.

Two young men and an equally young woman, one redhead, one with orange hair, and the woman with a dreamy shade of blue and a paper flower tucked behind her ear. Familiar, right down to the wary eyes regarding him carefully.

“Jiraiya sends his regards,” he manages, before he loses control of himself and his teeth start chattering too hard to speak.

The orange-haired boy’s eyes clear then, a grin breaking across his face, and the redheaded boy smiles too. The girl studies him for another moment, then tips her head in acknowledgement and rises to her feet.

“I’ll find you something dry to wear,” she says. “I assume there's a reason you were attempting to freeze to death?”

Orochimaru would take offense, but he’s too cold to manage more than mild indignation at the moment. He pulls the cloak—Yahiko’s, judging by the black fabric and red clouds—up around his neck and nods. “There were watchers, all the way from Konoha to Ame’s border. I believe I threw them off, but I didn’t want to risk discovery. The river was the easiest route here.”

Yahiko smiles a little. “Well, I don’t think anyone saw you until you passed into the caverns. One of our scouts was refilling his waterskin and saw a dark shape, and he sent the message on ahead. I'm glad you're not an enemy, because that was clever.”

“Ridiculous,” Orochimaru corrects with a huff. “I have clearly been spending far too much time around Jiraiya and Sakumo for my own good, but I am glad it worked.”

“If Konoha's willing to aid us against Hanzō, we are too,” Yahiko agrees cheerfully, rising to his feet. “I'm Yahiko, but you probably knew that already.”

“We’ve met before,” Nagato puts in unexpectedly, and Orochimaru turns to meet his unnerving Rinnegan eyes squarely. “You're the one who said Jiraiya-sensei should just kill us and put us out of our misery.”

There is no hiding it, and Orochimaru knew that when he accepted the mission. He may have changed, but not much where appearance is concerned. He inclines his head and rises to his feet, holding the two boys’ accusing stares. “I am,” he acknowledges. “A…miscalculation on my part, I will admit.”

Yahiko blinks and frowns, but Nagato tips his head a little, considering. “You mean that,” he says, and there's a flicker in his eyes that says he understands the meaning behind Orochimaru’s words—not just the deflection they sound like, but the truth within, the apology he won't explicitly voice. “You're…not the same person you were.”

“Six years can bring a great many realizations,” Orochimaru allows, not quite agreement but as close as he’ll let himself come. Such things are entirely personal, and he has no desire to air them in front of near-strangers.

“You're sure?” Yahiko asks, but he’s looking at Nagato, not Orochimaru.

Nagato nods, not glancing away from Orochimaru, who holds his stare. “I am,” he affirms, and then turns to head deeper into the mountains. “Come on, Yahiko. Orochimaru probably needs to hurry.”

Yahiko chuckles, falling into step with Orochimaru as they both follow after the redhead. “He’s a bossy little brat,” he says fondly, and then gives Orochimaru a sidelong glance. “I take it that you are bringing good news? That’s been in short supply around here, so we could use some.”

Orochimaru is willing to bet it has; Hanzō is a fearsome enemy, and Akatsuki is a small organization with lofty dreams. Admirable, of course, but touched with the determined naivety Orochimaru has always despaired of in Jiraiya, and he can't quite bring himself to voice his doubt. There have been greater victories against worse odds, after all.

“Assistance and supplies,” he answers. “Konoha offers both in return for Ame placing a guard on the Wind Country border, once your position is secured. To attempt to patrol it ourselves would leave Konoha short on manpower, and to make up for the difference we would have to start graduating genin early. A possibility, but one Konoha would like to remain a last resort.”

Soft footsteps cut Yahiko off before he can answer, and Konan rounds the corner in front of them, arms filled with cloth. “Here,” she says briskly. “You're about Nagato’s size, so these should fit. Hurry and change before you actually freeze.”

“Aren’t I supposed to be the leader here?” Yahiko complains good-naturedly, even as he turns to give Orochimaru some small measure of privacy. At the orange-haired man’s impatient gesture, Konan passes Orochimaru the clothes and does the same, though she rolls her eyes a little.

Amused despite himself, because they remind him very much of Tsunade and Jiraiya as children, Orochimaru dresses quickly, the clothes a uniform dark grey with paler blue edging. He pulls the kimono top on, securing it with the wide sash, and feels a thousand times warmer even with his hair still drenched. He frees it from its ribbon, letting it hang loose so it will dry more quickly in the warmth of the cavern, and steps back to Yahiko’s side. “Thank you,” he tells Konan, tipping his head in a faint bow. “I appreciate your thoughtfulness.”

She smiles back, just a little. “You're welcome. Yahiko, I think someone was waiting to speak with you in the meeting room. Nagato was with him when I passed by.”

Yahiko frowns, concern drawing lines between his brows. “What? I'm not expecting anyone. Did you see who it is?”

Konan shrugs a little. “No one I'm familiar with, sorry. But he was dressed like an Ame shinobi.”

The worry grows, and Yahiko moves at a fast clip down the tunnel. Konan follows, and Orochimaru doesn’t hesitate before he does the same. Future allies or not, more information on Akatsuki’s movements can only be to Konoha's benefit. Beyond that, if there's a real threat, Orochimaru is well-placed to defend Akatsuki’s leaders and place them in Konoha's debt.

Unfamiliar with the base’s layout, Orochimaru is several seconds behind Konan as she ducks into a room, and he approaches just in time to hear a familiar voice say, “I am Kanzō, a trusted friend of Hanzō of the Salamander. He asked me to come in order to extend a hand of friendship to the Akatsuki, in an attempt to bring peace to this country.”

The fury that snaps through Orochimaru almost takes him by surprise. He leaps through the doorway, passing Konan in a blur, and as he plants himself between the newcomer and the three Akatsuki members he has the distinct pleasure of watching the man’s face go lax with shock, his mouth dropping open mid-sentence.

“Truly?” Orochimaru asks silkily, straightening to his full height and fixing narrowed eyes on the intruder. “Then shall I assume that, along with giving up your name, you have renounced all claims to your position as a shinobi of Konoha, Shimura Danzo?”

Danzo's mouth twists into a snarl, and he steps back, on hand falling on his weapons pouch. “Orochimaru,” he spits, and then pauses, clearly fighting to bring his temper under control. Another moment, and when he meets Orochimaru’s eyes again his face is blandly pleased. “How convenient. It will be simple to remove you from the picture here, without any of your watchdogs. You're becoming a thorn in my side, my boy.” A gesture, and masked figures in black slip out of the shadows, one after another. Orochimaru narrows his eyes, but their identity is obvious. Danzo's Root, the missing ANBU—fewer of them than there should be, so Danzo has either separated the group or already lost a good half of them.

“I will ruin you,” he hisses, just loud enough to carry. “For this, Danzo, for everything, I will ruin you.”

Danzo smiled, genially amused, and raises his hand. “You may try, my boy, but there is no light in you, no matter how you pretend. And only light may destroy the roots that thrive in the darkness.” He flicks his fingers, and the Root ANBU charge as one.

Orochimaru doesn’t wait for a more blatant opening. He calls up his chakra, draws Kusanagi, and lunges for Danzo with his sword leading.

Chapter Text

Orochimaru’s speed and cunning have forever been his greatest assets. Tsunade has always been stronger, her reserves greater, and Jiraiya has more endurance, more raw power. His genius is what sets him apart, what lets him keep three steps ahead in a way even his physical prowess does not.

Danzo is experienced and wily and clever, but he is no genius. He is a desperate man, all of his lies laid out in the light, and should he fail to win this Orochimaru will utterly delight in grinding his good name into the deepest mud he can find. Because of that Danzo meets his charge head-on, even as his Root forces move, and there is a tranquil sort of fury in his expression.

Even in this, Orochimaru realizes. Even in this, Danzo still believes he is in the right.

The lunge is a feint. Orochimaru twists at the last moment, chakra flaring, and slides neatly beneath Danzo's striking kunai. A glancing touch of his hand to the stone floor and power surges, smoke whirling up towards the ceiling. In its wake a vast shape rises, dark and foreboding, and Orochimaru doesn’t even have to call out an order before Manda lashes out. Root scatters before the massive serpent, falling back to regroup, and Orochimaru smirks in Danzo's face as he ducks another blow.

“Do you really wish to pit yourself against me, old man?” he taunts, and whirls past Danzo in a sweep of borrowed robes that nearly hides the slice of Kusanagi’s blade. Danzo manages a glancing block, his kunai sliding against the sword’s flat with a ringing scrape, and when they separate the elder’s face is a mask of determination.

“I will do whatever I must to preserve Konoha's power,” he says flatly. “I had thought you promising, Orochimaru. Can you not see that we grow weak, stagnant? The other villages jockey for power, and Hiruzen has let Konoha fade away. But that can change. You are a powerful shinobi, my boy, the greatest of your generation. Let me help you, and you can become Hokage. Together, we can show the world why Konoha is to be feared.”

Maybe once, Orochimaru would have accepted the offer. It was his dream once, to be the Yondaime, to have Sarutobi and everyone else in the village acknowledge just how skilled he is, just how important and valuable. But for all that it is a good dream, it belongs to a child. A small, lost, lonely boy who never quite understood everyone’s terror of him. A boy whose only good memories were of his kind parents, his strong sensei, and his loyal team.

The power is tempting, because power is always tempting. Danzo knows just what to offer, just what to say. He knows Orochimaru’s weaknesses and his one-time dreams and all the dark, shadowy corners of his soul that he has never allowed others to see.

But the Orochimaru that Danzo knows is still the betrayed, angry man from five years ago. As before, Danzo is overestimating him, overestimating his greed for knowledge and his lack of morals, his inability to be anything more than a weapon.

Perhaps, even now, Orochimaru is nothing but a sword, meant for wielding and little else. Perhaps he has no future in Konoha, because minds once changed can change again. Perhaps.

But he is a sword that will cut the hand that attempts to wield him. He is a sword only held by those he chooses, and as he has been told many times by Sakumo and Jiraiya both, Orochimaru is a stubborn, particular, subjective creature. There are only a handful of people he calls friend, and fewer still he would trust with his entire being. Only a handful, and of those one already has nearly died on Danzo's orders. More than once, even, and Orochimaru has never, ever been the type to forgive and forget.

“I have learned,” Orochimaru says mildly, “just why Konoha should be feared. And it is not for the reasons you cling to, Danzo. But you are a coward, hiding in the shadows, playing your games and telling yourself it is for the good of the village. Tell me, how does it sting, to see Sarutobi walk so fearlessly in the light, facing death for his beliefs, while you cling to the darkness like some eyeless, creeping worm, too terrified of dying to even think of painting a target on your own back?”

The barb strikes true. Orochimaru can see it register, can see the way it slides right past Danzo's defenses and buries itself deep. It was mere speculation on his part, a thought and a guess he never expected to hold some grain of truth, but now he can see that it does. Danzo fears death, resents Sarutobi for his forthright courage, and it is a crack in Danzo's armor that Orochimaru is more than willing to use.

He ducks another stabbing lunge, slips in a blur around the edges of a scything wind jutsu, and slides behind Danzo too quickly for the other man to match. “Coward,” he hisses again, just to see the older man bristle. “You’ve made your life living in the shadow of greater men, Danzo, but now you have nowhere to run.”

It’s true. There is only one entrance to the cavern, and Yahiko stands in front of it, grappling with a pair of Root shinobi and laughing as though it’s great fun. Konan is a whirl of razor-edged paper to their left, Manda flanking her and tearing into black-clad figures with bloodthirsty glee. Across the cavern, Nagato is a thing of awe, the Rinnegan’s power near complete, and between the four of them nine shinobi—even ANBU trained by Danzo himself—are little threat.

There is no escape, not for a man so clearly treacherous.

Wind screams out again, impossibly sharp blades from nothing, and Orochimaru dodges, leaping high and landing lightly, then lashing out with a scything kick. Danzo falls back, but strikes again, this time with a handful of kunai that embed themselves deep into the stone as Orochimaru ducks away. A glint of light is just enough warning, and he jumps back barely in time as ninja wire lashes out, curling dangerously. Orochimaru takes the retreat and uses it, buying himself enough time to raise his hands, spitting out a lightning jutsu that crackles dangerously as it flies.

Danzo slips to the side, lunging after Orochimaru’s retreating steps, and a flick of his wrist sends three more kunai flying. It’s easy enough for Orochimaru to parry the first with Kusanagi, duck the second and leap nimbly over the first, landing in a roll that brings him back to his feet right inside Danzo's guard. He lashes out, blade-hand striking even as Kusanagi blocks Danzo's right hand, and the elder only just twists away in time. The crackle of chakra around Orochimaru’s hand, a seal held in waiting, dies away, and he curses, throwing himself back.

“One last chance, my boy,” Danzo warns tightly, though Orochimaru can see the lines around his eyes and spread across his weathered features. He’s not as confident as he was just moments ago, and it already tastes of victory on Orochimaru’s tongue. “Join me, or lose everything.”

That, at least, makes Orochimaru pause, studying the man with narrowed eyes. “You know nothing of anything if you think you can threaten me, Danzo,” he sneers.

That dark gaze settles on him, alight with haughty triumph. “You have made yourself just as weak as Konoha is now,” Danzo scoffs. “Sentiment before power, romanticism over strength. There is no future in that. And if I must pull the world down into chaos to forge a stronger village in the flames, then so be it.”

It is the finality of those words that strikes Orochimaru the hardest—they speak of something already done, a deed that cannot be taken back. And there is only one person who drives Orochimaru to sentimentality, one person alone who has made him weak in Danzo's eyes.

One person vulnerable, far from Orochimaru’s reach and left somewhere death can find him all too easily.

“What have you done?” Orochimaru hisses, and from someone else it would likely be desperate, disbelieving. In Orochimaru’s mouth, however, the words are nothing short of furious. “You would go this far?”

Danzo lifts his chin, and the conviction in his gaze is somehow far more frightening than any twisted madness would be. “I would,” he says simply. “Whatever must be done, for the good of the village. I will make her strong, able to withstand the threats that clamor at her borders, and if a war is required to do so, I will orchestrate one.”

Sakumo, Orochimaru thinks, sharp with the clarity of singular focus. Sakumo. The missing Root ANBU. Suna.

I see, but how I wish I didn’t.

Even moving at his fastest speed, there is no hope of catching Sakumo now. It has been nearly twenty-four hours since they parted ways, and they are on opposite sides of Ame. If Orochimaru left this instant, ran without pausing, he might arrive in time for the very tail end of the mission, but it would leave him exhausted and on the verge of collapse, nowhere near useful. For all his power, for all his genius, Orochimaru is helpless.

He cannot save Sakumo. But if there is any justice in the world, he will capture Danzo and drag him back to the Hokage in chains. Sakumo is strong, as well. There is little that can touch him when he stops holding back, and Orochimaru knows that to come home safely, Sakumo will do just that.

He can have faith. It aches, it burns, but in this Orochimaru will not allow himself to falter.

Determination drives him forward, wind meeting wind as Orochimaru counters Danzo's jutsu without even looking. There is a rhythm to every fight, a predictability in the pattern of even the least predictable opponent, and Orochimaru is enough of a genius to see it with only a few minutes of exposure.

More than anything, Danzo is a spy, a sneak, an assassin. There is a feint in every forward step, a parry and misdirection in every retreat. He lunges with his kunai, hiding a wind jutsu in the motions, and Orochimaru has to duck and roll beneath it. He comes up with Kusanagi in hand and Danzo is waiting, slashing kick aimed at his temple. Another roll, a twist, and Orochimaru braces himself against the floor, swings his sword up in a blurring arc, and only just misses taking off Danzo's leg as the man pulls back. There's a cry, a splatter of blood, but Danzo doesn’t falter. He strikes again, harder this time, and the blade is edged with the blurred sharpness of wind chakra. The edge of it tears across Orochimaru’s side, leaving a trail of fiery pain, but he ignores it and forges ahead with all the stubbornness he’s learned from five years walking next to Sakumo.

It bites at Orochimaru’s pride, facing down his own element. Jiraiya is fire and Tsunade is earth, and while Orochimaru has some skill with the latter at least he’s always been far better with Fuuton jutsus. It has been years since anyone matched him, years and the entirety of a war, and to see Danzo do so now grates. Orochimaru is the genius here, while Danzo is the coward, and this fight is beginning to feel distinctly one-sided.

With a snarl, Orochimaru rolls to his feet, left hand forming a single seal. Wind howls, screams past him like a dying beast even as he follows it, darting right up in front of Danzo as the elder tries to recover from the sudden onslaught. A whirling turn, sliding past the tip of a chakra-enhanced kunai, and Orochimaru lashes out, putting as much of his strength as he can behind the motion. Kusanagi’s blade is impossibly sharp, has only a handful of times encountered something it couldn’t cut, and from the expression on Danzo's face he knows that very well. He curses and ducks back, one hand coming up with a hum of chakra, but Orochimaru recognizes the paralyzing seal just in time and leaps up, flips over, and lands lightly on Danzo's blind side.

Danzo meets his next blow squarely, turning Kusanagi to the side with his kunai against the flat of the jian’s blade, and huffs in what is very close to disappointment.

“You are weak, my boy,” he says again, shaking his head and stepping back. His guard doesn’t waver, but his expression turns compassionate. “Sarutobi has done so poorly by you. I told you once already, didn’t I, that Root could make you great? There is such potential in you, in your mind and your power. To see you waste that walking this irresponsible road you have turned down pains me greatly, Orochimaru.”

Orochimaru snorts, flicking his sword to shake a few drops of blood off the blade as he circles, slow and deliberate. Around them the fighting is winding down, the last few Root ANBU falling before the combination of Akatsuki’s three leaders, but Orochimaru doesn’t spare them his attention. Unless one of them calls for help, he’ll assume they're having no problems.

“Irresponsible?” he echoes, entirely amused by the idea. “Oh, no, Danzo, you're wrong. The choice I've made isn’t the foolish one. Walking the road you would set me on, to betray everything my teacher, my teammates, and Sakumo have taught me—that would be irresponsible. To follow you when I know it will only end in my death, or my sacrifice when Sarutobi catches on to your plot—that would be irresponsible. To let you lead Konoha blindly into a war, to sacrifice hundreds just so you may prove yourself right and inflate your ego—also irresponsible. But as I am now, I am loyal. I will not waver, and all of your honeyed words will not make me, Danzo. Never.”

He doesn’t wait for Danzo to answer, but lunges, Kusanagi raised and flashing brilliantly in the light. Danzo sneers, falls back one step, two—

A dark form rises behind him, midnight black, thicker around than a man’s leg and twice as long as Orochimaru is tall. It lashes out, just on this side of too fast to see, and long, glittering fangs strike deep into Danzo's throat. Kiyohime withdraws, then strikes again, and then again, before Danzo can so much as move to defend himself.

Orochimaru halts his showy lunge with a faint smirk, sheathing his sword smoothly. “Thank you, dearest one,” he tells his summons, and she hisses softly with pleasure, coiling in on herself at the edges of the shadow she used to hide. Her electric-blue are fixed on Danzo, though, watching as the elder wavers. His face has bleached to bone-white, and his eyes are glazed. There is no escaping Kiyohime’s poison, not unless one has the healing factor of a jinchuuriki, and for all his hubris Danzo is but a man. Orochimaru watches without pity as he wavers, stumbles a single step forward, and then crumples with a dying rattle of breath.

Orochimaru’s genius has always set him apart, let him think three steps ahead. It was a simple matter, to summon Kiyohime when he did Manda, and she is familiar enough with his fighting style that she knew to keep to the shadows until he gave her an opening.

Danzo thought himself in the right; he was hardly about to pass up an opportunity to convince Orochimaru of that. And once Orochimaru had predicted that, it was easy enough to draw the elder into his trap.

His victory, but with worry for Sakumo weighing heavy on his tongue and creeping through his heart, it’s hard to treat it like one.

Concern makes him vicious. With a low hiss, he turns on his heel, a sharp-edged wind jutsu scything from his fingers and beheading one of the Root ANBU still fighting Yahiko. The redhead recoils with a yelp, but Orochimaru ignores him, striding across the room to grab the last remaining attacker by the throat. He slams the heavier figure into the wall, tearing away the porcelain mask to reveal pale features that can only belong to a Yamanaka, and then snarls with deadly intent, “Where are the rest of your forces? Tell me!

The man gags, hands scraping at Orochimaru’s arm. He attempts to kick out, tries to form a hand seal, but Orochimaru presses in too close to strike, snatches the right hand out of the air as it rises and coldly breaks the man’s wrist.

Because he’s ANBU, because he’s Root, he doesn’t scream, but his face goes about three shades paler and Orochimaru bares his teeth in savage threat. Sakumo's gesture, far more suited to a Hatake’s wild fury than Orochimaru’s sleeker menace, but still effective. He jerks the ANBU forward, slams him back against the stone, and drops his voice to an ominous hiss. “The rest of your forces. Tell me. Danzo is dead, your comrades are dead, and I have no compunctions sending you after them. Is that worm really worth your loyalty, your life? Tell me.”

With a choking sound, the man goes still, turning his face away. “Six were after you,” he rasps. “With orders to follow and divert you, or detain if necessary. Three—three back to Konoha, to start rumors. And six to the Suna outpost, to disguise themselves as Suna shinobi and interrupt Hatake’s infiltration.”

There is ice in Orochimaru’s veins in place of blood. He takes a slow breath, then another, trying to contain his rage, and says silkily, “Thank you. That was very helpful. And because of that, I will show more mercy than you deserve. Get out of my sight. If we cross paths again, I will slaughter you without hesitation. But until then, by all means, live as a free man now that you are out of Danzo's shadow.”

As soon as Orochimaru releases him, the Yamanaka bolts, making it halfway to the entrance before he remembers he’s a shinobi and blurs out of sight. Orochimaru watches him go with narrowed eyes, then turns to find his new allies.

One step and the world swims before his eyes, making him stagger like a drunk as he reaches out in search of the wall.

Instead, his fingers find smooth, sleek scales, the blunted curve of a vast snout, and it’s familiar enough that Orochimaru doesn’t try to stop himself from collapsing against it. Manda catches him, because no matter their arguments or differences in opinion, the snake is Orochimaru’s summons first and foremost, and always loyal. He spills across the snake’s broad head, fingers grasping ineffectually for some sort of handhold, and makes a soft, breathless sound that is more surprise than anything when his abdomen starts to throb with pulsating agony.

“Little idiot,” Manda huffs, dipping his head to lay Orochimaru on the ground as gently as he’s able. “I should eat you for being so stupid.”

Another scaled head touches Orochimaru’s arm, and he manages to focus hazy eyes just enough to see an intent blue gaze only a handful of centimeters from his face. Reaching out, he slides a hand down Kiyohime’s side and manages to get out, “I’ll be fine. Go to Kakashi, as fast as you're able. Protect him.”

Kiyohime gives an unhappy hiss, but disappears in a near-blur, and in her place Orochimaru can see Yahiko, bending over him with a frown. “Blood loss,” the Akatsuki’s leader says, and his gaze is worried but not overly so. “It’s a long laceration, but not too deep. Konan went to get a medic. You’re a bit woozy, but not in danger. I think.”

Straightforward, blunt, optimistic, and still a fool—Orochimaru can see why the boy got on so well with Jiraiya. Managing a faint nod, Orochimaru tips his head back and closes his eyes, trying to shut out the way the world is swimming nauseatingly. “Heal me—quickly,” he huffs, though everything is fading. “Must go back—Konoha…Sakumo—”

A hand touches his, curls gently around his wrist, and Nagato says softly, “We’ll get you home, Orochimaru. I’ll take you myself as soon as you're well enough.”

There isn’t the air in his lungs to make them understand the urgency. There's no way to communicate just how dire the need is, to make sure Sakumo is safe. Sure he is, surely, because Sakumo is strong, the strongest in Konoha, and Orochimaru can't let himself forget that.

But he’s walking into a trap, and Orochimaru has no way to warn him. No way to reach him, no chance of doing so before it’s too late. There wasn’t a chance even before he was wounded, and it makes Orochimaru want to rail against everything and anything.

His lips frame the word Sakumo, and then the world fades away.

 

 

He hears the whispers the moment they set foot in Konoha.

It takes him barely a minute after that to comprehend them.

War, a woman wails.

Betrayed us, says a man.

Shouldn’t be a shinobi if he can't follow orders, a kunoichi murmurs, faint, as if it’s heresy. Broke the rules. The mission comes first.

He was supposed to be our best, a jounin hisses, bitter and incensed. But the White Fang has driven us to ruin. War with Suna? We’ll all die.

Orochimaru closes his eyes, and the fury in him is a living thing, a beast unlike any bijuu could ever hope to be. It snarls and claws at the iron chains of his self-control, tears at his will and whatever fondness he has for his village. There is no forgiveness he can muster, not for this, not when poison fills the air and muddies the earth beneath his sandals, cloying and cunning and vicious.

Nagato is watching him carefully, one Rinnegan eye trained on him even as he surveys their surroundings. He doesn’t speak, just halts when Orochimaru does, waiting patiently. There's a grim sort of understanding on his face, and Orochimaru is…grateful. Distantly, dimly, beyond the loathing that crawls up his spine and sinks tendrils deep into his nervous system, but still he feels it. Even so, the disgust and fury and horror drowns out all but the edges of it.

“Here,” he says, and his voice is sibilant and low, barely a hiss and entirely beyond his control. Pulling Kusanagi from his sash, he presses the sheathed sword into Nagato’s unresisting hands, then drops his hitai-ate on top of it. Perhaps it’s a symbolic gesture; honestly, there is nothing in Orochimaru that is able to care right now. “Those will win you audience with the Hokage. Tell him I sent you, and that it’s urgent. I am—needed.”

Nagato studies him for another moment, then inclines his head and steps back. “I will see you again?” he asks evenly, as though either answer will suffice, and be met with the same open understanding.

For one mad moment, Orochimaru considers responding with a negative, thinks of snatching up his piecemeal, makeshift family and spiriting them away, sweeping them off to somewhere without whispers or hate or fear. But—

But there are many things that make Sakumo the man he is, and Orochimaru is sure that even broken, even utterly shattered, loyalty will still make up the very core of him, soul-deep and unshakeable.

“You will,” he says, and if it’s ever so slightly grudging, Nagato doesn’t so much as blink. “Go. See the Hokage. Tell him of Danzo's actions. If he has need of me, he will know where to look.” Without pausing to glance back, Orochimaru spins on his heel, calls up a shunshin, and lets it carry him away in a whirl of leaves.

When the world resolves itself once more, he’s standing on a familiar garden path, slender maples bending around him and the smell of wisteria and jasmine heavy in the air. Orochimaru gives the old house half a second of attention, but the windows are dark, as he expected. Sakumo, for all his unpredictability, has certain habits he will always fall back on, and though Orochimaru has only rarely seen him in the grasp of grief—and much less often recently—he knew the moment he felt the condemnation in the village where Sakumo would be.

The stone-lined path is silent underfoot, and it is more habit than desire for surprise that has Orochimaru minding his steps as he slips deeper into the greenery, brushing aside branches and heavy sweeps of flowers until he can see a small pond, barely two meters across. There is a bench, a twisted willow leaning out over the water, a ring of stones around the bank, and a bowed figure in the midst of it all, bent as if beneath the weight of the world.

Orochimaru doesn’t stop, doesn’t falter. He crosses the space between them in four quick strides and sinks to his knees on the hard stone before the bench, one hand curling around Sakumo's knee as if in supplication.

Sakumo doesn’t start at the touch, just raises his head, and Orochimaru feels as if he is breaking at the sight of tear-tracks on that pale face. It is lined, weary in a way that makes Orochimaru think of those halfway to dead of insidious poison, with the exhaustion of too much sleeplessness carved deeply into the skin. Grey eyes are blank and hopeless, red with weeping, and Orochimaru has never seen anyone so rent with grief before. He cannot even recall feeling that way himself, when he lost his parents. Grief and betrayal have taken Sakumo and torn him, ripped him apart and stitched him back together, a mockery of a familiar shape with vital pieces missing.

But Orochimaru will not let him stay that way. He is no good with sentiment, has no skill with mending what has been broken, but for Sakumo, he will try.

For Sakumo, he can do no less.

“I would drown this world in blood to see you safe,” he says, and never before has he said I love you to anyone beyond his parents, but he supposes this is how it would sound if he did. “What is a single war, compared to that?”

Sakumo closes his eyes, as if struck with a mortal blow, and Orochimaru leans forward, rising on his knees to cup that weary face between his palms. He pulls Sakumo down, leans in until he can rest their foreheads together and feel Sakumo's shaky breaths feather against his lips. The space between them tastes like grief, like tears, and Orochimaru wishes he could brush them all away and make the world brighter, the way Sakumo has always done for him.

“Every death,” Sakumo rasps, and that too sounds broken. “Every death from here on out will be on my head alone. I could—I could have chosen not to save them, could have kept going. The mission is supposed to come first, but I—”

So that’s the reason. Orochimaru almost wants to smile, but even he knows enough to realize such a thing would be inappropriate. “You could not have done anything else and still remained the man you are,” he says. Knows it is a cold comfort, but forges on regardless. “You know as well as I that war has been building for years. Had you not given Suna this excuse, they would have found one eventually. Perhaps this is earlier than either village intended, but we are prepared. The rest of Konoha simply refuses to see it. They are blind fools, all of them.”

Sakumo laughs, hoarse and strained, and his hands press over Orochimaru’s, trembling faintly, nearly starved for touch. “Years, you dealt with this same thing,” he whispers, closing his eyes and leaning his cheek into Orochimaru’s touch. “A handful of days and I'm already on the edge of breaking. Your strength astounds me, lovely.”

You care, Orochimaru wants to say, but doesn’t. Even now you care for every single one of those inside Konoha's walls. Before you found me I only ever cared for three.

Instead, he closes the last few centimeters between them, fits his lips against Sakumo's and kisses him carefully, gently, a slow slide of mouths with only the barest suggestion of heat behind it. Soothing heat to ease, rather than a wildfire to consume. It is an offer, if Sakumo wants to take it that way—a gift, given and received in equal measure; a silent promise that Orochimaru will no longer allow to remain unspoken. Not when Sakumo is wavering, and those words might bolster him just enough to keep him from a long, hard fall.

“Then lean on me,” he murmurs, pulling back just enough to speak. Sakumo's eyes are on him, drowning-dark and desperate. “I will stand between you and those blind, petty fools, as you once did for me. Allow me to return the favor, Sakumo.”

Sakumo closes his eyes, breathes deep, and then looks up again. This close, his gaze has become Orochimaru’s whole existence. He would not change it for anything.

“Is that all it is?” Sakumo breathes. “A favor?”

Orochimaru remembers an empty world, remembers fear and loathing and a grim, grey, lonely life that was shattered by this kind, selfless, incredible man, who has saved his life again and again ever since. “To myself,” he says, and allows himself to smile, just a little. “And to you, I suppose, mutt. But only incidentally. I have found that I…require you. Sheer madness, and entirely your fault.”

To his satisfaction, it makes Sakumo laugh hoarsely, and there is a thread of warmth in it that makes Orochimaru nearly dizzy with relief. A big hand cups the back of his head, gently twisting into his thick hair, and a mouth slants over his, almost painfully careful. Orochimaru has never in his life been fragile, never been anything remotely close to breakable, but he can tell without having to ask that Sakumo needs the gentleness right now, and answers him in kind. He slides one hand back, winding his own fingers in shaggy grey hair, while the other slides down to brace on Sakumo's shoulder. It’s an awkward angle, Sakumo bent forward and Orochimaru leaning up, Orochimaru’s wound twinging faintly in his side, but the sheer comfort of each touch is enough to leave Orochimaru breathless even so.

“Oh, lovely,” Sakumo whispers roughly, turning his head until their cheeks are pressed together. His breath tickles Orochimaru’s ear, makes the Sannin shiver faintly in the heat of the afternoon. “What are we doing?”

In any other situation, Orochimaru would roll his eyes, mock and make light of the question. But there is fear in Sakumo's eyes, a terror the likes of which Orochimaru has never seen before, and he cannot bring himself to meet it with anything but sincerity.

“We are taking hold of what has always been between us,” he answers, and kisses Sakumo's cheek, lets his lips linger in a way that is far closer to enamored than it is to wanting. “For the first time, I am not drunk and you are not being noble, I am ready and you are the same. Perhaps our timing could be better—”

Sakumo barks out a laugh, as if it’s been yanked up from somewhere deep inside him. He reaches down, wraps an arm around Orochimaru’s waist, and pulls as he leans back. Orochimaru moves with him and ends up sprawled across Sakumo's lap, knees bracketing the older man’s thighs, with Sakumo's hands like twin points of heat along the line of his spine.

“Oh, lovely,” he repeats, leaning forward to press his forehead against Orochimaru’s sternum. Orochimaru stares down at the top of his bowed head for only a moment before he raises his arms, wrapping them tightly around Sakumo's shoulders and holding the other man to him. He dips his own head, pressing his cheek to flyaway hair, and breathes in the scent of earth and autumn. Despite himself, he wonders how close he came to losing this, what would have happened had he stayed in Ame even another week, had his injury delayed them more than the two days it did. It rattles him, to consider it. It is impossible to imagine Konoha without Sakumo in it now, to imagine having any kind of life at all here without his anchor to keep him grounded, to give him what he’s lacked since he was eight years old.

“I will always need you,” he says, because he had thought it understood, had thought Sakumo knew. Perhaps he does, but Orochimaru is willing to take no chances right now. “Anyone who seeks to harm you, or blame you for this war—I will destroy them. You have my word, Sakumo.”

The smile it earns him is weary and worn, but grateful. “You set yourself against Konoha with this,” Sakumo warns him, but the tone is gentle, glad. “Lovely, I would not ask—”

“You never would,” Orochimaru murmurs, sliding his fingers through Sakumo's hair, then cupping the back of his head and pressing another careful kiss to the corner of his mouth. “But I will do it anyway, because it is what I want.”

Sakumo laughs again, and it’s lighter this time, closer to his normal cheer. Orochimaru is not foolish enough to think all the hurt has been banished, but…this is a start. A very good start indeed, given the broken man he first found when he returned.

“My wild, willful god of war,” Sakumo whispers, and it is impossibly fond. “Why would you fight this battle when I’m the one at fault?”

“Because you are not,” Orochimaru says simply. “At the cost of the mission, you saved your comrades. If there is anything I have learned from Sarutobi-sensei, or from you, it is that Konoha shinobi do not abandon their friends. You upheld those ideals, no matter the cost to yourself. How does that make you anything less than amazing, you foolish man?”

Another quiet laugh, and the hand on Orochimaru’s waist slides up to frame his cheekbone, tracing the edge of his face. Orochimaru lowers his eyes, feeling his lashes brush foreign skin, and kisses the pad of a thumb as it smooths over his lips. Sakumo chuckles, a bare rasp of sound, and kisses Orochimaru’s forehead in return.

“You were so sweet that for a moment there I thought you might be some sort of genjutsu,” he says, clearly amused. “But only you, lovely, could give solace, offer a compliment, and call me a fool in the same breath.”

“I am very talented,” Orochimaru allows, hiding the curve of his smile against Sakumo's palm. “And always correct. Do not bother arguing further; you will only prove yourself even more irrational. Accept my words, and then go and sleep. The world will be brighter when next you wake.”

“Ah, but how will I sleep when I know my nightmares will be far worse than my reality, now that you're back, lovely?” Despite his words, Sakumo gives him one last, careful kiss, chaste and sweet, and then lets go. Orochimaru rises to his feet and pulls the bigger man up with him, urging him towards the house.

“Go,” he orders. “I will be along in a moment, and I will stay with you.”

The relief in Sakumo's eyes at that is hard to miss. He smiles gratefully, ghosts his hand over Orochimaru’s dark hair, and heads towards the porch with his shoulders set in weary determination rather than bowed with grief.

Orochimaru watches until he’s out of sight, twists his fingers into a seal, and summons a shadow clone. It glances at him, then nods and follows Sakumo inside, and Orochimaru allows himself to take a full, steadying breath. This way, he can remain with Sakumo, who undoubtedly needs him, while still keeping his rash promise.

Not so rash, though, he thinks, feeling his lips pull down in a sharp frown. He spoke nothing but the truth; should Sakumo require it, he would raze the world and slaughter thousands. His ties to anywhere are tenuous at best, and can be readily forsaken. Not easily, perhaps, because Tsunade and Jiraiya and Sarutobi are all still…dear, but for Sakumo he will do it in a heartbeat.

One more glance at the house, just long enough to see his own silhouette pass before a now-lighted window, and Orochimaru turns away. He has business in the village, but it shouldn’t take overlong. Even so it is unpleasant to contemplate, to think that what he has come to cling to has already been broken beyond repair, and was shattered without him even present. All of his hopes rest on the idea that he is wrong, but somehow Orochimaru does not think he is.

Kakashi is still glaringly conspicuous in his absence.

Chapter Text

As Orochimaru reaches the very edge of the training ground, Sarutobi slips out of the shadows to join him. It is not quite as much of a surprise as it likely should be, but Orochimaru still casts a wary sideways glance at his old teacher nevertheless.

Sarutobi smiles at him, weary and worn, and then turns his gaze before them. His steps slow, and Orochimaru matches his pace, all too aware that, in terms of power and cold calculation, the Sandaime is very much his match. He does not believe that Sarutobi has come to kill him for killing Danzo, but—

But were his death ordered, there is no doubt that Sarutobi would carry it out himself, simply because he would feel it his duty. Simply because Orochimaru was once his responsibility, and though a student can outgrow many things, a teacher’s charge is never one of them.

“That man who escaped—” Sarutobi begins, and stops when Orochimaru snorts. He arches a brow at his pupil expectantly, and Orochimaru allows himself the bare edge of a smirk.

“All rats return to their holes eventually,” he says dismissively. “And who better to sniff them out than a snake who has already caught their scent once?”

Sarutobi chuckles, fond and pleased. “As I should have expected of you, Orochimaru. Are you referring to yourself, or Kiyohime?” he asks lightly. “I would assume Manda is overkill.”

Perhaps, but the idea is still…tempting. Orochimaru might have let the man flee without pursuing, but the situation here in Konoha has only increased his anger a hundredfold. There is a very, very large part of him that wants to call the giant snake up and loose him on Root’s trail, and then step back to watch the resulting destruction. Even so, the collateral damage, while unimportant in the long run, would end up turning the population of Konoha against him. As they have reached an odd peace in the last few years, entirely through Sakumo's efforts, and Sakumo still values what they think, Orochimaru is reluctant to destroy all chance of turning their opinion of the White Fang around for the better.

After all, Konoha is to fight a war soon. The Legendary Three have only one match in Fire Country, and that is Hatake Sakumo. Surely even the villagers, divorced as they are from the world of shinobi, will realize that they are set on breaking one of the greatest weapons that stands in their defense.

And if they will not, Orochimaru is more than willing to…persuade them.

Sakumo has taught him the value of such understanding, after all.

“Kiyohime,” he allows after a moment. “She caught his scent before he ran, and I have little doubt that he will retreat somewhere familiar, in the absence of further orders.” Danzo was not the type to allow divided loyalty, and moreover he feared his own mortality. Orochimaru suspects that there are few, if any, who the Root ANBU are conditioned to follow outside of Danzo himself. To Danzo, death was an unacceptable outcome—he likely never made allowances for it.

When Sarutobi simply nods, accepting this, Orochimaru casts him a cautious look and says carefully, “You do not seem…grieved.”

The Hokage's mouth pulls into a crooked smile, and his eyes are tired. “It has been a very long time since Danzo was just a friend,” he murmurs, and when he stops Orochimaru turns to face him. “And even longer since we agreed on anything. He was a brilliant man, uniquely driven, but it blinded him to much of reality, I'm afraid.” Catching the surprise Orochimaru can't quite hide fast enough, he chuckles. “You thought I’d drag you before the Investigations Division for his death, Orochimaru? It’s unlikely. I am very aware of what lengths Danzo would go to in order to make Konoha match his vision of it. He tried to have me assassinated once, but he was valuable enough that I gave him a second chance. Unfortunately, I believe he simply saw that as another damning moment of weakness in my character, and it only made him more determined.”

That is…surprising, but also not. Orochimaru considers it for a long moment, and then turns to look towards the curve of the small stream in the distance, where a stand of boulders hides Kakashi's flickering chakra.

“If you would rather keep Danzo's actions a secret,” he starts carefully, minding each word, “you should know that I will have…little patience, and even less temper for such a thing.”

Wise, dark eyes settle on him, linger. Sarutobi sees too much, and always has. Never before has it been a comfort quite like this, and it earns him another smile, more fond and proud than anything.

That—that alone is more than enough to steal Orochimaru’s breath. He’s used to satisfaction, or wariness, or guarded approval—always just a little too much a monster to ever win the unguarded expressions Tsunade and Jiraiya always did with ease. But this is something very close to the smiles Sarutobi always gave them, without any edge of judgmental caution to it, and in the face of it Orochimaru feels as though the world has spun out from beneath his feet.

“Then,” Sarutobi says judiciously, “it’s a very good thing I have no intention of hiding it, isn’t it? No, this war was inevitable, but Konoha should know who it truly was that started it. The same way they should know that a hard choice was made, and while perhaps it was the wrong one where the mission was concerned, it was the right one where our fellow shinobi were concerned. Three jounin came back alive because of Sakumo's actions, and that’s three more to stand against Suna and Iwa when they attack.”

The relief is like a flame, raging through Orochimaru’s chest and making him breathe in a single shaky breath that feels like every success he’s ever had compressed into one instant. He maintains enough composure to incline his head to Sarutobi in thanks, and tries not to think of the way his emotions must be writ large on his face right now.

It is, perhaps, inevitable to look up into Sarutobi's widening smile, the glimmer of fondness now blatant. An age-gnarled hand presses against his shoulder, gripping gently, and Sarutobi squeezes for a moment before stepping back. “You have grown into quite the shinobi, Orochimaru,” he says quietly. “I will admit, I feared for you when Jiraiya and Tsunade left. But you are…better. Much better now, I think.”

It is laughably ironic, that one of the very worst times in his life could give rise to the one that has led him here—respected, no longer so feared, his two friends returned, with something very like a family. Bitterly ironic that just as he is settling into place, Sakumo's world could come crashing down, leaving him the pariah that Orochimaru once was.

Odd, too, that Sarutobi's words could so mimic Nagato’s, when Sarutobi has known him for an entire lifetime and Nagato a mere handful of days, all told. Somehow, that drives it home all the more, and Orochimaru has been aware that he was changing, that he has changed, but…

It’s different, to hear it like this. To hear it from the man he has always admired more than any other, whose footsteps he once aspired to follow.

(Once, when asked his dream by a kindly man with sparking brown eyes, Orochimaru, all of six, had looked up at his soon-to-be sensei. Had looked up at a man who was one of the first not to flinch away from him, or frown when he came into a room. A man who smiled, and greeted all three genin the same, and who even his parents respected as someone truly great. There hadn’t even been a choice, then.

Hokage, he had said, and maybe a very large part of it was a desire to have people stop flinching, or a desire for power, or hearing his parents speak the title with a reverence they reserved for very little else—but a part of it was still Sarutobi.

I want to be Hokage someday.

And Sarutobi had laughed, as though he was delighted, as though he liked the idea, and said, Well, let’s get started on that, then.)

“I am,” Orochimaru manages, and it rasps uncomfortably in his throat—not quite an admission of weakness, but…perhaps something uncomfortably similar. A confession of humanity, when he once disdained such things. And then, because manipulation and motives are far easier than emotion, “This is…for me?”

Sarutobi chuckles, apparently pleased with his insight. “Not entirely,” he allows. “But you are like another son to me, Orochimaru. You and Jiraiya both. There is quite a lot I would do to keep you happy. Besides that, this information will harm no one. Root is still hidden, and can be merged back into ANBU with no one the wiser once their loyalty is assured. Danzo is the only one who would be effected, and he is dead. There is nothing that will stop Suna, now that they have an excuse, but knowing it might divide opinions in Wind Country, so it cannot hurt to spread it. Perhaps it being known will even help.” Sharp eyes flicker towards Kakashi's position, softening a little with understanding, and then return to meet Orochimaru’s. “I am a father as well,” Sarutobi reminds him gently. “To have a divide like that between a father and a son—I can't think of much that would be more painful.”

It is easy to forget that there is a Sarutobi Hiruzen who does not wear the Hokage's robes, who does not wear a shinobi’s hitai-ate. More than twenty years—almost thirty, now—that Orochimaru has known Sarutobi Biwako, and it still surprises him every time, to remember that she is tied to his sensei in such a way. He nods, expression carefully even, and Sarutobi's face creases into a small smile.

“Here,” he says, and the shape he slides from his belt is as familiar as Orochimaru’s own image in a mirror—perhaps even more so. A moment later, a well-worn hitai-ate joins it. “I was hoping you didn’t mean to surrender these permanently to my care.”

Orochimaru accepts Kusanagi with a faint grimace. “I was…impatient to see Sakumo,” he allows. “And Nagato agreed to carry word to you, but I thought his story would be hard to believe, without some form of proof that he spoke for me.” He slides the sheathed sword through his belt, then takes the hitai-ate and carefully ties it around his brow. Normally, when he’s not on missions, he simply tucks it into his belt, but with times being as they are, it will help people to see him displaying his loyalty so clearly. And if he can be loyal to Konoha and still stand beside Sakumo—

Well. It’s a hope. Perhaps the people of the village won't be so foolish as to ignore all hints, especially when the truth is so clear.

(Loyalty is just another manipulation, he thinks, and knows Sakumo wouldn’t approve. But in truth, Orochimaru’s loyalty is to one man overall, and because that man loves Konoha Orochimaru has decided that he will love it too. More than all of Sarutobi's lectures, more than Jiraiya's words and Tsunade's determination, it is Sakumo who has decided Orochimaru’s path, and Orochimaru can't find it within himself to regret it.)

“Best that you did,” Sarutobi tells him soberly. “I have seen many men driven to drastic action when they despaired, and Sakumo was very close. It would not be arrogance to think you saved his life, Orochimaru.” He sighs, then touches Orochimaru’s shoulder again and steps back with a weary smile. “Go, help Kakashi see the truth. I have to announce Danzo's death and begin arrangements. I've no doubt Suna’s declaration of war will arrive with the dawn, if it even takes that long, and Iwa will not be far behind.”

Orochimaru nods, but before Sarutobi can do more than turn, he says swiftly, “You spoke of dividing opinions in Suna. Konoha never lost so much as a major battle in either of the previous wars. Maybe they think us weak now, but…a show of force in the first pitched battle would likely be enough to remind them, and change many minds.”

Still half-turned away, Sarutobi glances back, raising a speaking brow at him. “Perhaps a legendary show of force?” he suggests dryly, and then shakes his head a little. “Have you discussed this?”

“Not yet,” Orochimaru admits evenly. “But do you really doubt that they’ll agree?”

The snort Sarutobi gives is perilously close to laughter. “Unfortunately, I have long since given up my faith in any of you having even a modicum of sensibility,” he says, dry as dust. “Discuss it. We’ll see what the winds blow in, but…maybe. Konoha is still strong, and getting stronger by the day. If we can end this war in a few decisive blows, we’ll all be the better for it.” With a firm motion, he straightens his hat and strides back towards the village, head held high.

Orochimaru watches him until he’s out of sight, and then smiles a little. There is…relief in him, that Sarutobi is still on his side, that whatever his next move, he won’t need to set himself against his sensei to make it.

Now there's only one important matter left to deal with, and it’s brooding behind a rock a few hundred meters away.

With a low sigh, Orochimaru tugs hard on one of his earrings and heads towards the bend of the stream. This is likely going to be a long conversation.

 

 

Kakashi feels so many things he can't even begin to give name to any of them, and it…hurts. Maybe not in a conventional way, not like an open wound or a cut or a headache, but…there's still pain. It still feels like something is pulling at him, tugging him in ways he’s never gone before and not allowing him any peace to sort out his thoughts. There's only a swirling rush of confusion, like a river in flood, that bears away all sense and beats at everything Kakashi had once thought he knew until it’s unrecognizable.

His father is a hero, but he’s a traitor.

His father is a great shinobi, but he’s a failure.

His father is a good man, but he’s started a war.

Since his father’s return, Kakashi has seen him once, briefly. A moment in between Sakumo's meetings with the Hokage and his seclusion in the garden, but…

I thought you were a good shinobi. Why would you do something like that?

He’d meant it in honest bewilderment, but the words had emerged biting even so. Sharp-edged and angry, even though Kakashi didn’t have the first idea if that was actually what he was feeling, and his father had flinched. Flinched and gone pale and stuttered out something before he fled, and Kakashi has been adrift ever since.

There are whispers in the village, and the people—shinobi and civilians alike—stared at Kakashi as he passed, as though he had the answers as to why his father would refuse to follow rules they all knew so well. But Kakashi has no answers, none at all,

The Hatake are a shinobi family, and always have been. Sakumo, Kakashi, and every other member of their clan has been raised to be a ninja since before the time of the Clan Wars. Of all the people in the world, Sakumo should know just what the ninja rules mean, why they stand. But he went against them, rescued his team rather than completing the mission, and now Suna knows and can prove that Konoha is moving against them. That will give Iwa all the excuse they need, and plunge Konoha into a war on two fronts.

But his father is the kindest person Kakashi knows. Surely, surely, he wouldn’t have doomed so many people on purpose, right?

There's a whisper of cloth over stone, the faint scrape of a blade against the rock, and a moment later a familiar form slides over the boulders to sink down next to Kakashi. Kakashi looks up, hardly able to believe his eyes, because Konoha has felt so achingly empty and now—

Now everyone in their makeshift little family is back. Surely things can only get better now, right?

“Oro,” he manages, but it comes out choked and half-strangled.

Orochimaru gives him a small, weary smile, still clad in a dusty jounin uniform that says he’s only just returned. There are faint lines of pain in his face and he looks tired, but the hand he holds out to Kakashi is as steady as ever.

“Cub,” he says softly. “Are you all right?”

He’s too old, too much a shinobi to throw himself at the Snake Sannin and take the hug he wants so badly. All he can do is slide over, press himself almost desperately against Orochimaru’s side, and take comfort in the arm that curls around his shoulder and holds him close. He buries his face in cloth that smells faintly of river-weed and smoke and earth, breathes in the underlying scent of citrus and crushed green leaves that is Orochimaru, and tries not to shake.

“They're saying Tou-san is a traitor,” he manages after a long moment. “They're saying that he started a war.”

Orochimaru doesn’t immediately jump to Sakumo's defense, but pauses to consider. Somehow, that makes it all the more believable when he says carefully, “You must remember that this is a shinobi village above all, cub. We play at being normal humans around the civilians, but there is not one among us who truly thinks like them. We’re mercenaries, selling our services to anyone who can pay, and that wears away at a great many morals. The shinobi rules were set in place to fight that, to make sure that if we cannot be normal humans, we can at least be very good at what we do. At the same time, Konoha holds itself above the rest of the villages, because we rely on teamwork, on never leaving a friend behind, on fighting to the death to protect what is precious to us.”

There's another pause, and then Orochimaru sighs softly and leans into Kakashi, turning his head to stare out over the river. His hair, falling almost completely free of its silver ribbon, slides over Kakashi's skin like stray bits of dark silk, impossibly comforting in its familiarity. “Your father broke a rule, yes, but he broke it to follow one of Konoha's unspoken rules. War was brewing regardless of his actions, and so I would prefer to see it as Sakumo upholding Konoha's legacy, rather than betraying its values.”

A touch to his cheek, tipping his head up, and Kakashi reluctantly meets steady golden eyes edged with streaks of violet. “What do you think, Kakashi? Saving the life of a friend, at the expense of the mission—which would you choose? If it were Sakumo or I in danger, and abandoning the rules would save us, how would you pick, cub?”

Ten minutes ago, Kakashi wouldn’t have hesitated to say he would finish the mission. Because that’s what a shinobi does. That’s what's expected. Anything else is unacceptable.

But…it’s actually not, is it?

Kakashi closes his eyes, trying to breathe past the lump in his throat, and tries to imagine it. Tries to picture his father or Orochimaru in danger, about to die, and he can either turn back and save them or leave them to their fate for the sake of a job.

And really, phrased like that, it’s not a choice at all, is it?

“You,” he whispers, and it feels as though a weight has lifted off his body with the admission. Maybe it doesn’t make what his father did right, but…he understands it now. He’d make the same choice. That’s all he really needs to know. “I’d pick you, I’d pick my friends, just like Tou-san did.”

That gets him a smile, fierce and proud, and Orochimaru bends in to press a kiss to his forehead. It’s a rare gesture, because Orochimaru is forever aloof, but it’s one that Kakashi needs desperately right now. He leans into it, breathes in the smell and feel of the man who might as well be a second father to him, and can't be anything but overwhelmingly, achingly grateful.

A hand ruffles his hair, and he looks up again to see Orochimaru watching him fondly. “The rules are important,” he says softly. “They keep us from becoming animals, hold us to standards because we would likely crumble without such things. But the rules can never be everything, Kakashi. Sometimes, even when the logic says you should obey, it’s better to follow the Will of Fire inside you.” One long, slender finger taps the center of his chest. “Sarutobi-sensei always told me it was very much like following your heart.”

Instructors at the Academy always used to talk about the Will of Fire, and Kakashi just as readily dismissed it as complete tripe. It’s odd, now, to hear Orochimaru—who is very far from sentimental, and just as far from being one to resort to truisms—speak of such a thing so easily.

“I thought,” he says carefully, because careless words have already done enough damage lately, “that the Will of Fire was the urge to love the village, and bring peace through that love.”

Orochimaru makes a thoughtful sound, tipping his head back to look up at the sky. His long hair slides like liquid over his shoulders, and his earrings flicker with silver brilliance in the waning light. Kakashi reaches out before he can stop himself, brushes his fingers over an ivory tooth the way he’s seen Orochimaru do so many times. It’s sharp but smooth, honed to a dangerous point, and very like the man who wears it. Just as quickly, he pulls his hand back, thinking he might have crossed a boundary, but Orochimaru just casts him a sideways look that’s nearly a smirk, and Kakashi feels his breath leave him in a rush. Reassured, he drops his hand, twists his fingers into a long lock of hair instead, like he used to when he was a small child.

A hand closes over his, squeezing gently, and then releases. Orochimaru looks back to the evening sky, the stretching shadows, and smiles a little. “That’s certainly one definition of it,” he agrees. “However, everyone is different. Why should the definition always be the same? For some people, the village is all they need.” Shadows not caused by the setting sun flicker over his face, linger around his eyes, and his next smile is wry. “Some shinobi need…more. It is not a failing, even if it may feel like it. Sometimes, finding something to protect needs to be…personal.”

He’s talking about himself, Kakashi realizes, and it shouldn’t be the surprise it is. Kakashi has always known very well just how Orochimaru views the rest of the village outside his small circle, knows how they view him even now—better, according to his father, with awe rather than pure terror, but still. Such a thing wears, as Kakashi has come to find since they labeled him a genius and took a collective step back.

Another long glance at the sky, and then Orochimaru pushes to his feet, bonelessly graceful, and offers Kakashi a hand up. Kakashi takes it with the hand not still caught up in black hair, and Orochimaru pulls him to his feet but doesn’t let go immediately. Golden eyes catch on grey, and Orochimaru’s gaze is fierce, focused, the way his summons are when they finally pick up a trail. “Being a shinobi means many things, and many choices, cub. But perhaps the most important is to decide whether you have anything you would truly die for. Find whatever it is that you would lay down your life to protect, and then never let go of it.”

“You found it?” Kakashi asks, even though he’s already fairly certain he knows the answer.

Orochimaru’s lips tilt into a wry smile, and he inclines his head. “There was a time when I hadn’t, and I…drifted. I very nearly set my feet on a path from which there was no return. But then I met your father, and you. To have something to care about, after so long without—it is as addictive as it is unnerving.” One pale hand ruffles Kakashi's hair—gently, because even if to everyone else in the world Orochimaru is a dangerous killer with destruction lurking just under his skin, he’s never been anything but gentle with Kakashi—and he looks up to meet that weighted gaze again. Orochimaru smiles, leaning down to touch another glancing kiss to his forehead, and then steps back. Kakashi lets him go, feeling raven hair slip through his fingers like water as he opens his hand.

“Tou-san is…okay?” he finally manages, even though the words want to stick in his throat. It takes effort not to flinch, remembering his father’s reaction to his careless words this morning.

With another small inclination of his head, Orochimaru turns, eyes seeking the lights of the village as they flicker on in the growing gloom. “He will be,” the Sannin says, and the tone of his voice is somewhere between certainty and a promise. Kakashi can't quite tell which relieves him more. “Opinion is a fickle thing, and those who started these whispers will be dealt with shortly. War is coming, but it has been for years, practically since the last one ended. People will come to see that. And if there is one thing war is good for, it is providing a common enemy to unite against. Perhaps it will take time, but this state cannot last forever.”

Kakashi manages a nod, even when it feels as though Orochimaru physically reached into his chest and tugged all the worry right out to leave him empty, if in a good way. It takes effort not to stagger. “Thank you,” he whispers.

Orochimaru smiles at him, faint but warm. “Come home when you are ready, cub. We’ll be waiting.” One more glancing touch of pale fingers through his hair and then Orochimaru turns away, taking three long steps back towards the village before he calls up a shunshin and vanishes in a whirlwind of leaves.

For a long moment, Kakashi stares after him, then slowly sinks back down onto the rocks. He presses his hands over his face, rubbing hard, and then lets out a shaky breath.

He’s not an idiot. Those who started these whispers, Orochimaru said—that implies a cause behind the hate, more than just a failed mission and a coming war. Because even Kakashi knows what’s been brewing, and for all his genius he’s only six. Kakashi knows he’s a prodigy, but he still manages to miss things, to overlook things. That even he hasn’t missed the careful preparations for future hostilities, which have been happening for as long as he can remember, means that the coming war was obvious. To blame his father alone, rather than uniting behind him because he did follow Konoha's unspoken rules even at the risk of his life, points to some kind of malicious intent, aimed against the White Fang himself.

Kakashi isn’t worried. Orochimaru implied he would deal with it, and that’s enough to set Kakashi almost completely at ease. The Snake Sannin loves Sakumo, after all, and loves Kakashi himself, and Kakashi doesn’t need him to speak the words to know that. His actions say more than enough.

Scales scrape over rock, a bare his of sound over the rustle of wind-tossed leaves, and Kakashi smiles, lifting his arm so that Kiyohime can coil up beside him and rest her sleek head on his knee. He strokes his fingers over midnight-dark scales, watching a long tongue flicker out to taste the air, and knows that this is another of those unspoken expressions. Kiyohime is one of Orochimaru’s favorites, was one of his mother’s favorites, even if he’ll never say as much, and the fact that he has all but adopted Kakashi to her says a great deal. Kakashi doesn’t mind. Orochimaru’s snakes are beautiful, coldly intelligent in a way Kakashi can appreciate, and even if most people shy away from them Kakashi never will.

“Oro went back to Tou-san?” he asks, just to make sure—he doesn’t want to think of his father being alone right now.

Kiyohime considers for a moment, then dips her head in a motion that’s very much like the one Kakashi has seen Orochimaru use so many times. “Yes,” she confirms in her razor-edged, whispery voice. “He banished the shadow and took its place.”

A shadow clone, Kakashi understands with a flicker of relief. Orochimaru must have left it with his father when he went out to look for Kakashi. It’s honestly not a surprise; for all that Orochimaru is bad with most people, he knows Sakumo better than anyone.

“Good,” he manages, letting himself relax a little. Opens his mouth to ask another question (because if anyone can figure out Orochimaru’s plans, it’s Kiyohime) and—

A surge of fire, a pained yelp, a splash from further up the stream. Kakashi jolts to his feet, Kiyohime a flash of darkness sliding past him in a flicker of impossible speed. A chakra-assisted bound sends him over the boulders, landing in a crouch with a kunai in hand, to face…

A boy. A familiar boy, with black hair that manages to be wildly messy even when waterlogged, equally dark eyes wide behind a pair of tinted goggles as they fall on Kakashi. On the snake coiling herself around his feet defensively, and Kakashi braces himself for screams, for terror, for a flinch at the very least.

Instead, Uchiha Obito's eyes widen further, and his entire face lights up with enthusiasm. “Oh, wow, is that your summons? He’s amazing!”

“She,” Kakashi corrects automatically, still mired in bewilderment. “And she’s not mine, she’s Oro’s.”

Confusion flickers over Obito's mobile features, followed by a spark of understanding, and he pulls himself out of the stream with a bright grin, letting his scorched jacket drop to the ground with a squelch. “Oh, you mean the Sannin Orochimaru? No wonder she’s so big.” Then he blinks, looks at Kiyohime, and says, “Sorry. You're beautiful!”

Kiyohime tilts her head, tongue flickering out as her electric-blue eyes linger on the Uchiha. “I am,” she agrees, and if anything Obito looks even more enthusiastic at hearing her speak. “Most people don’t notice.”

Obito just laughs, bright and happy, and drops to sit cross-legged on the bank, cheerfully wringing out his sleeves. “People are stupid,” he agrees easily, pushing his orange goggles up into his hair.

Belatedly, Kakashi realizes he’s still holding his kunai, and tucks it back into his weapons pouch. He gives Obito a cautious glance, because he remembers the other boy from the Academy, the brief time he was in the same class before he moved up. They’d fought frequently, both in spars and in less-sanctioned squabbles, and from what Kakashi remembers beyond the antagonism, Obito was…decent. Too impatient, too prone to bursts of emotion, but still fairly good for a non-genius student. He’d held his own against Kakashi several times, at least, and Kakashi has been bounced around enough genin teams in the last few months to know that even some of the genin can't do the same.

“Were you…trying a fire jutsu?” he asks, eyeing the boy’s charred sleeves and singed eyebrows, streaks of soot still clinging to his face despite his dip in the water.

Obito makes a face, turning his own weapons pouch upside down and letting the water drain out of it in an impressive stream. “Yeah,” he admits, frowning. “The Grand Fireball jutsu. The Uchiha don’t consider you an adult until you can manage it, but I just…can't.”

The frustration is clear in his words, sharp with an edge of self-loathing Kakashi can't help but hear. He hesitates, casting another look at the deep violet sky, because Minato asked him to pick up a whole stack of books for him at the library, and Kakashi wants to get that done quickly so he can go home. But…

But Obito is out here alone, struggling with a jutsu, and Kakashi remembers the rumors he heard in the Academy, that Obito lives alone, that his parents are dead. Remembers that no one ever, ever came to pick Obito up, or drop him off. Obito always showed up alone, and with his father still at the forefront of his mind, Kakashi is…sensitive to loneliness, right now.

“If it blew up in your face, your chakra control isn’t good enough to maintain the jutsu,” he says, and only after the words have left his mouth does he realize just how blunt and tactless that sounded. Remembering just how this whole mess with his father started, Kakashi winces.

But instead of offence, there's only surprise on Obito's face as he pauses in laying out his coat. A long moment of silence, and then Obito blinks, brows furrowing. “Are you…helping me?” he asks disbelievingly.

Kakashi flushes before he can stop himself, shoulders coming up defensively. “Yes,” he spits out. “I’m good at ninjutsu, and—”

Obito laughs. Not cruelly, not mockingly, but…surprised. Bright, as Kakashi thought before, and when he looks up again his smile is even more brilliant. Like a bonfire in the dark, even with half his face in shadow, and Kakashi doesn’t quite know what to do with that. People just don’t—don’t look at him like that. Always, always, it’s with an edge of arrogance, a twist of jealousy, a flicker of awe or fear or anger. Not—

Not friendship, open and warm and so easily offered.

“Thanks, Kakashi!” Obito says. He pushes himself to his feet, still grinning, and says, “We should spar! There's only a couple other Uchiha my age, and they’ve all got sticks up their asses already, so they won't. I thought you were the same way, but I guess you're pretty cool.”

Kakashi blinks. He’s been called a lot of things, but…cool is a first. Well, unless one counts Gai. (Kakashi never, ever counts Gai.)

“O…kay?” he manages, through his astonishment. Then suspicious rears its head, and he tenses, adding waspishly, “I'm not helping you cheat in class, though.”

Indignation flushes Obito's face, and he scowls, bristling like a wet cat. “Bakashi!” he snaps. “I wouldn’t ask you to do that! I'm gonna be an awesome shinobi, and I'm gonna do it myself!”

“Oh.” Kakashi blinks again, stepping back and almost treading on Kiyohime’s coils. She hisses at him, making him freeze automatically—because she was his babysitter more than once, when he was young enough to need one, and he knows that tone very well—and…

Obito starts laughing again, all the fury leaving him in a rush. “You look like she just threatened to put you in time-out,” he offers cheerfully, outrage apparently forgotten.

“It wouldn’t be the first time, little hatchling,” Kiyohime says, and her tone is knife’s-edge amused, traced with just the faintest gilding of fondness that Kakashi only hears because he knows her well.

If anything, Obito just looks even more delighted by that. He opens his mouth, but before he can say anything, Kakashi cuts in, desperate to save himself any more embarrassment. “I’ll spar with you,” he says quickly. “I have to lug books for an idiot jounin right now, but…tomorrow?”

Obito smiles, bouncing up next to Kakashi as if they really are friends, and not just people who picked fights with each other in the Academy. “You're working for a jounin? That’s cool! Do you need any help carry stuff? I'm good at that.”

Kakashi has seen Obito around the village, trailing after old ladies with bags of groceries that probably outweigh him. He doesn’t doubt Obito's physical strength for even a minute, and…well. Minato really did ask for a lot of books. It would definitely be easier with two people, and would mean he could finish faster and get home sooner.

“You're all wet,” is what he says, though. Then Obito's face falls, expression bleeding over to hurt, and before Kakashi's brain can okay it, his mouth adds, “My house is close, if you want to borrow something dry to wear.”

Wide black eyes meet Kakashi's own, full of something very like astonishment and…affection. Gratitude. Maybe even joy, and Kakashi has never seen anything quite like it directed at him before.

“Sure!” Obito agrees, and his smile is brilliant in the darkness. “Thanks, Kakashi!”

Kakashi doesn’t really have enough experience with such things to know, but he’s fairly certain that he just gained a friend.

Chapter Text

The shower is running when Orochimaru slips back into the house, and there's a pot of miso soup heating on the stove while the rice steams. The clone has a set of Orochimaru’s off-duty clothes laid out already, and he changes into them gratefully, glad to escape the smell of the river he spent so much time in on his way to Ame. He’s just dumping the uniform into a rag bin when Sakumo wanders down the hall, his hair still dripping and a towel draped around his shoulders.

With a sigh that’s three parts aggravation and one part amusement, Orochimaru abandons his task and crosses to Sakumo's side, stealing the towel and tossing it over his head. “You're going to make yourself sick,” he informs him, “and I won't be the one to care for you.”

Sakumo laughs, leaning in to kiss Orochimaru quickly, and catches his wrists in gentle hands as he starts to rub the older man’s hair dry. “Lies,” he counters. “You’d make a great nursemaid, lovely.”

“Not for you.” Orochimaru raises a brow at him, trying not to let any more amusement show. “You whine terribly when you have a cold, Sakumo. I would leave you to Tsunade's tender mercies without regret.”

Another laugh, softer this time, and Sakumo steps forward, gently tipping Orochimaru’s chin up and sliding their mouths together in a slow, exploratory kiss. “Really?” he murmurs as he leans back.

“Do you doubt me?” Orochimaru counters.

Solemnity slides over Sakumo's face, though thankfully there's nothing grim about it. He pulls back a little, hands settling on Orochimaru’s hips, and just…looks at him for a long moment. Then he smiles, small and warm, and pulls Orochimaru towards him. “Never,” he murmurs against Orochimaru’s hair. “Never you, Orochimaru. I would doubt everything else in the world before I’d doubt you.”

There's a faint ache in Orochimaru, somewhere he can't quite pinpoint. He rests his head against Sakumo's shoulder, carefully looping his arms around the man’s back, and doesn’t quite dare to close his eyes. Just for a moment he doesn’t think of loss, of what could have been, of what might have happened if Sakumo had given in to grief. What might have happened if Sakumo had never saved him, on that long-ago mission. Just this once, there are no possibilities in Orochimaru’s head, no speculations, no thoughts. Just…warmth, soul-deep and skin-warm, Sakumo's large hand sliding up and down his spine in gentle strokes.

Orochimaru is a creature of death and blood and cold, sharp intellect like the edge of a blade. He has never been otherwise, never wanted to be otherwise, and Sakumo has never asked him to change those parts of himself. There have been moments, seconds where Sakumo simply looked at him and smiled, and Orochimaru had looked back and seen that maybe, just maybe, there was more to him than that. Little pieces of something greater, fitting in against his jagged edges and smoothing them out, not quite making him whole but…something. Something good, which wouldn’t exist without this man.

Fingers sweep his hair back from his face, smoothing it over his shoulders, and Orochimaru glances up to find Sakumo smiling at him. His silver hair is still dripping a little, and his eyes are soft. Orochimaru holds his gaze, tilting his cheek into that careful touch, and finally says, “I'm not made of glass, Sakumo. You will never manage to hurt me.”

Because he can see the worry in Sakumo, as clear as day—the ragged tear of everything is breaking, what if this does too? It itches at him like an open wound, that Sakumo should feel that way, because Orochimaru will never leave. He’s strong enough to stand and keep fighting no matter what, regardless of anything, and the feeling of being needed by this man is enough to push him onward through whatever comes.

There's a pause, a hesitation, and then Sakumo chuckles softly. His touch firms, sliding back so he can twist his fingers in Orochimaru’s hair and tip his head back. “I suppose it’s just the association,” he says with some humor, and even more warmth. “Precious things are usually delicate, too. You're simply an exception to the rule, lovely.”

Never in his life has anyone called Orochimaru precious. He can't even remember his parents speaking the word, and from anyone other than Sakumo he thinks he’d hate it. But there's a kernel of something rooted in his chest, small and white-hot, and in its wake he can only shake his head bemusedly.

“You shouldn’t be able to say such things with a straight face, mutt,” he complains, though his heart isn’t in it.

That earns a full-blown laugh, bright and happy, and Sakumo leans in to drop a kiss on the purple clan markings around Orochimaru’s eyes. “What can I say?” he asks, and though it isn’t quite with his usual cheer he’s still a thousand miles from the broken man Orochimaru returned to. “You inspire me, lovely.” A pause, and then he dips down with clear intent. Orochimaru tips his head to meet him, and the kiss isn’t quite as gentle as before, but still soft. A thank you, almost, touched with gratitude and fondness and friendship, bound by something Orochimaru is very sure he could call love.

But he has no skill with such things, and his declaration in the garden is the closest he’s ever come to speaking those words. He thinks Sakumo understands regardless.

Orochimaru is not a gentle man, not kind. He’s a weapon brought to bear against a world with too many weapons in it already, and the only way he’s survived is being stronger, better, harsher than all the rest. He cuts deeper, wounds mortally, and he’s never learned how to be different.

Sakumo is a sheath. Sakumo doesn’t dull him, but contains him, holds him back without changing who he is, gives him a touch of restrain that makes him…acceptable. Wanted.

Like this, with Sakumo beside him, Orochimaru can be both human and weapon, and that’s all he’s ever wanted or needed to be.

From the front of the house comes the sound of the door clicking open, then footsteps in the hall. There's a pause, a little worried and wary, and then Kakashi calls quietly, “Tou-san? Oro?”

Sakumo's breath catches in his throat, and he lifts his head, eyes widening as they snap to meet Orochimaru’s. Orochimaru just smiles a little in answer, stepping back, and tips his head in a silent order.

The smile that blooms across Sakumo's face is more brilliant than any Orochimaru has seen before, shining with gratitude and hope and bone-deep relief, and he laughs, loud and free. With a sound that’s almost a whoop he ducks forward to grab Orochimaru around the waist and lifts him right off the ground, whirling him into a spin. Orochimaru squawks in surprise, snatching at Sakumo’s shoulders. The arms around his waist tighten, clutching him close, and Sakumo whispers a desperate, “Thank you,” against his lips, half an instant before he calls back, “Just a second, cub!” and then tosses Orochimaru right over his shoulder like a sack of rice before he heads down the hall with jaunty steps.

“Sakumo!” Orochimaru protests with a sharp hiss, banging an ineffectual fist against the man’s back. “Sakumo, put me down or I will show you just what Tsunade taught me about pressure points, you oversized oaf!”

“Oh, come on, lovely,” Sakumo laughs, shifting an arm around the backs of Orochimaru’s knees so he can't kick the idiot in the gut. “What's the harm in it? Indulge me.” He ducks to get through the kitchen doorway, then straightens again and lets Orochimaru slide to the ground, though he doesn’t move his hands from the other man’s waist.

“You have no concept of dignity,” Orochimaru hisses, glaring at Sakumo, though he doesn’t try to step away, either. “And if I ‘indulge you’ even for a second, mutt, it will go straight to your head.”

“Well, we can't have that,” Sakumo agrees, smiling, and leans in to kiss Orochimaru swiftly.

There's a pause, and then Kakashi sighs, sounding entirely longsuffering as he asks, “Should I come back later?”

Sakumo's head snaps up, and his smile softens, gaining an almost tentative edge. “Kakashi,” he says, brushing his fingers over Orochimaru’s cheek one last time before he steps towards his son. At the edge of the hallway, he pauses, clearly uncertain of his welcome, and looks at Kakashi with something like desperation in his eyes. “You're back.”

Kakashi takes a deep breath and nods, looking up and meeting Sakumo's eyes. “Sorry I didn’t tell you when I left,” he says, and even with the mask his expression of determination is clear. He steps forward, equally tentative, and offers simply, “I'm glad you made it home safe, Tou-san.”

Sakumo's smile deepens, warms. He reaches out as he drops to his knees, wraps an arm around Kakashi's shoulders, and hugs him gently. “Me too,” he whispers. “Thanks, cub.”

Kakashi makes a sound that is somewhere between deeply relieved and grumpy, and then asks pointedly, “Does this mean I should start calling Oro Kaa-san?”

Sakumo almost falls over from laughing too hard, and Orochimaru rolls his eyes, stepping past the idiot to see that Kakashi isn’t alone in the hall. There's a boy his age hovering in the background, watching with wide and slightly wary black eyes. He can't be anything other than an Uchiha, but the clan jealously guards its children. To have him here, just after dark, without any apparent hurry to head back to his home, makes Orochimaru curious.

He’s also dripping on the floor.

“Hello,” he greets, moving closer. “I'm Orochimaru. Please don’t mind the fool.”

That gets him a hesitant smile, one that manages to light up the boy’s face. He ducks into a quick bow and answers, “I'm Uchiha Obito! It’s nice to meet you, Orochimaru! Your Kiyohime is really, really pretty.”

Orochimaru decides that this boy is entirely acceptable as Kakashi's friend. “Thank you,” he responds, offering a faint smile in return. “Kiyohime would thank you for the compliment as well. Why don’t you come in and let me find you a towel?”

“Obito offered to help me find some books for Minato,” Kakashi volunteers, extracting himself from his father’s grasp. “But he fell in the river, so I said he could borrow some of my clothes first.”

“Kind of you, cub.” Sakumo pats him on the shoulder, ignoring the halfhearted glare Kakashi gives him for the nickname, and turns a welcoming smile on Obito as he stands. “Still, it’s getting late. I think Namikaze will survive the night without his books, as long as you bring them first thing in the morning.”

Because he’s watching, Orochimaru sees the faint resignation that slips through Obito's eyes, the faint flicker of clear loneliness that settles over his expression for half an instant before he banishes it with a bright smile. Ah, he thinks, and has to look away to hide his amusement.

Just like his father, Kakashi has started taking in strays.

“Would you like to stay the night, Obito?” he asks, deliberately offhand. “It’s a long walk back to the Uchiha section at this time of night, and I'm sure Kakashi won't object to sharing a room.”

Obito looks up at him with wide eyes, then glances over at where Kakashi is determinedly looking in the other direction. “I don’t care,” Kakashi says. “Whatever. But there's an extra futon if you want it.”

Sakumo, Orochimaru can see, is trying very hard not to start laughing again.

“Thanks,” Obito says, something like awe in his voice, and then laughs. He bounces over to Kakashi side and all but throws himself on the other boy’s shoulders. “I've never had a sleepover before! This will be fun! Thank you, Kakashi, Orochimaru, sir.”

“Just Sakumo,” Sakumo says dismissively, waving that away. He ruffles Kakashi's hair, earning an indignant huff, and then pats Obito's shoulder as he passes. “Why don’t you boys go find some dry clothes? Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.”

“This way,” Kakashi urges, grabbing Obito's wrist and tugging him down the hall.

Sakumo watches them go, expression light and a smile on his lips. When Orochimaru gives him a sideways look, he just shakes his fondly and murmurs, “I don’t think he’s ever gone out of his way to make a friend before.”

This is true, Orochimaru concedes. Dai’s son decided to befriend Kakashi on his own, and Shizune is more a friend because Tsunade and Orochimaru spend so much time together, and the two children have been thrown together by circumstance. For Kakashi to actually bring someone home is entirely new. “Do you know the boy?” is all he says, however, because the curiosity of an Uchiha on his own is enough to catch his attention.

“I think he’s Minami’s kid,” Sakumo answers thoughtfully. “Never heard her mention a father, though, and she died two years ago. Do you think he’s been living alone since then?”

Orochimaru rescue the miso and take the rice off the heat. “I can't imagine that the Uchiha approve of mixing bloodlines,” he points out. “If his father is from outside their clan, it would explain his isolation.”

“Somehow, I don’t think Kakashi is going to let him stay that way.” Sakumo sounds amused. “And Obito doesn’t seem like the type to allow himself to be forgotten. Maybe we can just—”

“Let you take in another stray?” Orochimaru finishes for him, raising a pointed brow. “Well, he certainly fits your type: dark hair, no family, lonely—”

Strong arms curl around his waist, and Sakumo drops his chin onto his shoulder, tilting his head to press his cheek against Orochimaru’s hair. “Are you admitting that you were lonely, then?”

A week ago, Orochimaru would have kicked him for even implying it. Now, with the memory of Sakumo's slumped, defeated form far too clear in his mind, Orochimaru sighs. He doesn’t look up from his hands as he stirs cubes of tofu and eggplant into the soup, but says, as carelessly as he’s able, “Not so much lonely as…alone. Desperately.”

The breath catches in Sakumo's chest, and he shifts Orochimaru’s hair aside to lay a careful kiss on the back of his neck. He doesn’t address the confession directly, because they both know what it cost Orochimaru in pride, but he murmurs something against Orochimaru’s skin that just might be, “Me too.”

Knowing that is enough to ease some of the tension from Orochimaru’s shoulders, and breathes out. Sakumo kisses the curve of his shoulder where it’s bared by his yukata, and then says quietly, “There will still be a war.”

It’s a warning and an apology and a plea all wrapped up together, and Orochimaru shakes his head, turning in Sakumo's arms to face him fully. He isn’t as grim as he was before, because the desolation has eased into mere weariness, but he’s more serious than Orochimaru has seen him in a very long time.

“We always knew that,” Orochimaru counters. “War doesn’t start from one incident, Sakumo. No single man can spark one. It’s an excuse, and I regret that you must serve as it this time, but we would have come to this point eventually. Suna’s economics are poor, and Iwa wants more territory. Konoha has the bad luck to be caught between them, with grudges from the last war on either side. That’s all this is.”

That gets him a smile, small but heartfelt. “So I see. But even if I'm not to blame, it will still be war. We’re both going to be called to the front. We’re both going to be in danger. Every shinobi in Konoha will be.”

“Not the genin,” Orochimaru reminds him. “We may have to move quickly to secure Akatsuki’s position in Ame, but it can be done. After that, we’ll have one less border to guard, and that makes things…feasible.”

“They're going to ask you to face Hanzō again.” The worry is clear in Sakumo's eyes. “You and Jiraiya and Tsunade—the Hokage won't send anyone else against him. And that’s only the first battle. Once this war starts, we’ll be the first they turn to.”

“Then we’ll have to be certain we end things quickly.” Orochimaru leans forward, dropping his head against Sakumo's chest. “Don’t borrow trouble, mutt,” he says, faintly aggravated. “There will be fighting, and death, and blood. But you won't die, and neither will I, and neither will Kakashi. Between the White Fang, the Densetsu no Sannin, and the Yellow Flash, Konoha is strong. We have superior shinobi, and Sarutobi-sensei has always been stubborn.”

“As a goat,” Sakumo agrees with a chuckle. “All right, I’ll save the worry for another day. Is that all we’re having for dinner, then, lovely?”

Orochimaru rolls his eyes. “If you wanted something fancier, you should have suggested takeout,” he says tartly. “Go call the boys, I’ll set the table.”

Sakumo showily kisses his cheek, pinches his ass, and deftly dodges the furious kick Orochimaru directs at him. He’s laughing when he ducks into the hallway, one of Orochimaru’s senbon thudding into the wall where his head was moments ago, and Orochimaru swears after him, just making him laugh harder.

“You mange-ridden mutt!” Orochimaru hisses. “I will gut you!”

“I adore you, lovely!” he calls back, voice full of mirth and mischief in equal measure, and then, “Are you decent, boys? Should I get out the chastity belts and marriage licenses?”

There's an offended squawk from Kakashi, a mortified splutter from Obito, and a bright cackle from Sakumo. Orochimaru sighs aggrievedly and rubs a hand over his brow, belatedly realizing just what it is he seems to have so willingly volunteered for.

Still, he’s smiling faintly when he moves to lay out places at the table, because for all the disasters of the past few days, for all the war that’s looming, this feels rather like the perfect culmination of home.

He glances back towards the hallway, catching a glimpse of Sakumo toppling to the ground with Kakashi and Obito both on top of him, and shakes his head bemusedly before he turns away. Half a moment later there's a thunder of footsteps as Sakumo races into the kitchen, both boys on his heels as he laughs. He lunges, catching Orochimaru around the waist before he can sidestep, and throws him over his shoulder again with a cry of victory before he bolts for the garden. Kakashi is shouting, Obito giggling so hard he can barely run, and Orochimaru hisses in indignation and slaps Sakumo around the head, but doesn’t go for the kunai up his sleeve, which he supposes is the same as allowing it to happen.

Orochimaru knows he shouldn’t indulge the cheerful fool, but—

He lets Sakumo drag him away with one big, calloused hand tangled in his, laughter warm in his ears, and doesn’t speak of word of protest, because somehow he knows.

(They’ve managed to save each other, in the end.)