Orochimaru doesn’t really have a non-mad scientist stage. He’s unhinged before he hits adolescence and he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t interested in investigating reality. How real is real, exactly, anyway? And how can he change it? (Not very, he discovers, and in many, many ways. Gratifying.)
What he does have is a time when his proclivities are better hidden, when social skills are – not something he understands very well, but something he wants to understand. He knows that many of his interests aren’t fit for polite society, so he keeps them to himself.
Sometimes they slip out anyway. It’s tiring otherwise.
He does find a baby, alone and alive and unhappy in a recently abandoned laboratory. It can’t have been left for more than a day or two, but it’s dehydrated – finding it helps, actually, with tracking the ninja they’re looking for. The baby’s a better indication than a cold campfire.
It has no parents, Orochimaru supposes. He knows that feeling.
He must lose his mind somewhere on that mission, because he takes it home.
He tries to foist it off on Tsunade. It is not, as she seems to suspect, because she’s a woman - it’s because he only has two friends and nobody in their right mind would trust Jiraiya with anything more complicated than a kunai.
Tsunade refuses, of course.
“It needs someone,” Orochimaru says, awkwardly. It comes out like a question. It needs someone? Right? Like he’s not sure, like being human is so far distant from wherever Orochimaru’s standing that he has to squint to figure it out.
“Sure,” Tsunade agrees, signing off on somebody’s discharge summary. “Are you volunteering?”
Orochimaru blinks slowly at her, which is the closest to incredulity his expression gets, but Tsunade doesn’t relent.
Sarutobi won’t take it off him either, as it turns out.
The truth is, he doesn’t have time for a child. He leaves the baby with Anko a couple of times and she isn‘t any better than him, because she stares at him bewildered and clutching gingerly at the child. “What–?”
But he’s gone before she finishes, and for an absurd second he recognises that this is irresponsible and stupid, something Jiraiya would do, which is – no. He stops that train of thought. He has work to do and he’s being the opposite of irresponsible. He races off to do something more relevant (and more interesting, and remotely profitable).
The baby starts calling him something that sounds a lot like Ongchi. Or, well, no - the baby calls him something that only usually starts with ‘O’ and it changes day to day, gaining new - and not necessarily more accurate - forms as her language skills develop.
Ongchi is sometimes ochimanu, which is…
People are, he is aware, supposed to care about the children they adopt - accidentally or otherwise. Orochimaru is pretty sure most days that he doesn’t even like her.
She doesn’t have a name. He hasn’t thought of one. She hardly needs one: she’s “the baby” and she’s the only baby he interacts with.
“She needs a name,” Jiraiya tells him, looking at him over a dish of sake and a novel of uncertain provenance. He looks like he’s forgotten how weird Orochimaru is in the time they’ve been apart. “She’s a person, she needs a name.”
Orochimaru is stubborn. To name something is an expression of permanence that he is not really willing to undertake.
“Do you want her?” he asks, more resigned than hopeful.
Jiraiya laughs in his face. “Maybe in sixteen years or so,” he says, cheerfully lecherous.
Orochimaru stares at him, unblinking.
“Wow,” mutters Jiraiya, “you’re not cut out for fatherhood, are you?”
Orochimaru does not dignify that one with an answer.
Orochimaru tries, but in the end he cannot help himself: he drugs and vivisects the child before her third birthday.
There’s nothing especially different or new about her. It’s completely unnecessary. But he’s been watching her developmental milestones, frowning at the rate she develops language and thought, examining her early experiments in motor control…
He’s been there the whole time and he has has to see how it works, how she works.
How could he not?
She is semi-conscious and only slightly frightened, and Orochimaru feels, for the first time, perfectly in control of his relationship with this strange young creature.
Sarutobi would not approve, he’s sure.
Nobody finds out, anyway. She’s young and the scars will fade over time.
She calls herself Child when she’s old enough to do so, and it isn’t for years and years that she seems to realise it’s never been a proper noun - it’s just what he calls her when he wants her attention. She’s the only child there, after all.
Child trusts him in a way that Orochimaru has never experienced, doesn’t expect, and cannot comprehend.
People don’t trust people like that. It’s a terrible idea. She must be defective, or stupid or –
She thinks he’s her father, he realises one day, pausing in the middle of painting out the bloody seals for tapping a person into nature chakra without all that tiresome sage business.
With dawning horror, he is forced to consider that he actually kind of is.
“How did you not notice that?” Tsunade asks over her own sake dish, bleary-eyed and weary even though it’s noon on Tuesday. (And, really, is he the only one who didn’t grow up to be an alcoholic?)
“You feed her. You teach her. You bitch at her when she does something dumb. How did you not–?”
Orochimaru stares at her.
Tsunade is actually beginning to look more confused than cynically bemused.
Yes, he thinks, he does those things, but he does them – like a check list. Is the child clean? Fed? Learning something instead of running about underfoot? Good, done.
He thinks of her like an experiment he’s monitoring, not like – he’s not her parent.
Except for the part where somehow he is.
Orochimaru doesn’t know what to say, and the truth of the matter is that he doesn’t trust anybody, not really - he trusts them to look out for their own best interests, but not with pieces of himself. His flaws and insecurities are already too obvious for a woman like Tsunade.
He is lucky she doesn’t have the temperament to use them against him.
(Root is another matter, though, isn’t it?)
“She trusts me,” he says finally, uncertain if that was the right thing to say and unbalanced and off-kilter in a way he hasn’t been in years.
“I’m terrified for her,” drawls Tsunade, and tosses back the rest of her drink
He never tells Child that she can’t, although sometimes his throat itches with the pressure of words stoppered up inside of it.
She shouldn’t, he knows that much. He can still see the lines, faintly but clearly, where he cut her open.
He thinks about it sometimes, and knows that he could cut her throat in her sleep without ever shedding a tear.
He doesn’t, because it’s not worth the hassle.
Orochimaru tells her not to call him father, and packs her off to the academy without lingering too hard on the thought.
Child is an occasional test subject.
Orochimaru sometimes struggles to define who is and who isn’t a test subject, but he knows it’s strange with Child. Different.
On one level, he knows he reduces her to this because the idea of her being something more upsets him in a way he can’t afford to analyse. It’s better for him when she’s just anatomy and particles, chakra and seals and meticulous notes.
“It hurts,” she tells him once, when he’s carefully stimulating part of her brain with a tiny spark of lightning chakra, “I don’t like this. I want to stop.”
“You can’t stop,” he says, half-annoyed but mostly just distracted reading something much more relevant. “You’re representing the control group.”
Orochimaru cuts the heads of the experimental group open and changes the method of stimulation. They are prisoners of war and not Konoha citizens of course, but –
Well, she’s not hurt. He didn’t cut open her head.
“I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” he tells her distantly.
She’s woozy and sleepy, but he still takes it upon himself to show her which part of the brain is responsible for stimulating the language centres, and how they’re using new applications in interrogation.
“It’s a rather new idea,” he cautions her.
One of the experimental subjects has an anomaly in his brain structure - useless as part of the sample - so he lets her practice her chakra control on him.
He’s a little bit proud when she makes him talk nonsense without killing him. That feeling makes him blink.
“Orochimaru-san?” Child says his name in a way that is particularly precise. Her mangling it annoyed him when she was younger, and she is very careful now.
Orochimaru doesn’t really understand what’s happened until Child mentions a strange old man with a mangled arm talking to her. One of the Hokage’s advisors. Something about a group –?
She seems unsettled, although she’s too careful to show it much. Orochimaru nods at appropriate places when she tells him, but his mind is ticking and whirling behind his eyes. It’s going too fast and he can’t stop it.
“Child,” he says, sounding very far away to himself. She stops talking immediately. “Go to bed.”
She looks at him for a second too long but she doesn’t protest, even though it’s miles too early.
Orochimaru’s mind is not laced tightly. It isn’t until he’s washing the blood off his hands that he even realises Danzo’s dead.
When Orochimaru leaves Konoha, it is with an increasingly awkward murder investigation underway. He has no thoughts of being Hokage. He couldn’t care less. He already has too much to deal with.
He’s fucked up.
“Are we ever coming back?” Child asks. She’s not quite a genin yet, but close enough - he can leave her to her own devices most of the time so it’s not so dangerous to take her with him.
“No,” he says, hard and final, and Child never once looks back.