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riding the echo down

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He’s not quite sure when it happens.

Maybe it’s the twentieth time Jiraiya comes back for him on a mission, even though he doesn’t need the help and can handle himself in just about any fight. Maybe it’s the way Jiraiya grins at him as he helps him to his feet, that twenty-first time when he really did need the help. Maybe it’s the first time Jiraiya's stomach growls because he has no one to make him lunches and is absolutely hopeless and helpless in the kitchen, and Orochimaru rolls his eyes and shoves his own bento box across the space between them. Maybe it’s the third time Jiraiya punches another genin for calling Orochimaru a creepy freak to his face. Or the fifth time he punches some sleaze-ball in a bar who mistakes Orochimaru for a woman and grabs his ass.

Maybe it’s when the three of them are sprawled out on the grass after a day of impossibly hard training, breathing in unison, with the night sky full of stars as it spins above them, Tsunade giggling and Jiraiya laughing and even Orochimaru chuckling softly, because they can do this, they can be shinobi. And Tsunade is his best friend, his shelter and support since childhood, his safe haven in the storm of grief after his parents’ death, but Jiraiya…

Jiraiya is something else altogether.

It’s not…supposed to go this way. Orochimaru wants to live forever, wants to learn every jutsu ever created and surpass even the Sage of Six Paths, to escape this endless cycle of birth-death-rebirth that humanity has fallen into. He isn't supposed to have a heart, isn't supposed to care for anyone besides himself, but—

But Jiraiya has always been so very, very good at breaking his expectations, his plans.

Maybe it happens any number of ways, or gradually, carefully. A smile or a word or a gesture—Orochimaru knows he is the type to read into such things, to see a maze where a simple curve exists, but he’s heard (never believed, not before, never before) that love is supposed to make one crazy, and thinks that in this at least he can't be blamed.

 

It starts like this:

His parents are six months in the ground, and Orochimaru is…cold. Nothing breaks through, and nothing breaks out, and he exists in an icy void of empty thought and emptier action. Eight years old, newly made a chuunin while the rest of their age-mates are still in the Academy, and he feels nothing. His first kill, their first B-rank mission and Sarutobi-sensei speaks words of praise that he can't quite grasp, can't quite hear through the empty roaring in his ears. Too much and not enough, not when every day is one step closer to death and Orochimaru doesn’t want to die, doesn’t want to leave this world the way almost everyone dear to him has.

He’s reading under a tree, because the fresh air feels good and he’s always reading something, when a shadow falls over him. Orochimaru glances up to see a trio of chuunin boys, older and bigger and broader, though even Tsunade is at this point. Slowly, he lowers his book, though he says nothing, watching them warily. It takes effort not to frown, but he tries anyway, because reacting always makes things worse, and technically these three outrank him.

“You're a creepy little nerd, aren’t you?” the boy in front taunts, a wide grin on his face as he lashes out, plucks the book from Orochimaru's unresisting grasp. Orochimaru slowly clenches his hands into fists, forcing himself not to react, because he’s only Sarutobi-sensei’s favorite as long as he follows the rules, and fighting with boys a good five years older isn't going to win him any points, or more passes to the restricted section of the library.

“Give it back,” he says evenly, and most people flinch away from him, avoid him because of his corpse-pale skin and golden eyes and silent stare, call him eerie and odd and frightening even though he’s only eight, only a chuunin from a very small shinobi family that’s all but wiped out now. Only eight, with his family’s specific summoning tattoo already inked onto his wrist and Manda at his call, but it’s not enough, not in the face of things like this. Not enough power, not enough respect, not enough regard to keep this kind of inane bullying at a distance.

Not yet, at least.

But these three boys don’t step back or cower, brave in their stupidity and bold in their certainty that they are safe here, in the middle of Konoha in broad daylight. Orochimaru could kill them, if he wanted to. He knows enough jutsus, has already taken his first life on a mission and been left entirely unaffected. There are kunai in his leg holster, and his long hair is twisted back and out of his face and secured with a pair of senbon. He could even summon a snake, if he was feeling particularly vicious.

But they are all Konoha shinobi, and even now that means something to him, when his sensei is the Sandaime Hokage and this is the village his parents gave their lives for, so he does nothing, just sits there as the three laugh mockingly, and the book comes flying back at him. He catches it before it can clip him in the eye, but doesn’t open it again, waiting to see what they’ll do.

It gets him a face-full of dirt as one of them kicks the ground, but he just blinks it away as they laugh, and then—

“Hey, assholes!”

The punch is sloppy, the kick even more so, and the flip is executed so badly that it makes Orochimaru, who has always been more limber and acrobatic than a tumbler, wince as if in pain. But the three boys are cowards, and when faced with opposition they gather themselves quickly and beat a retreat, leaving Orochimaru sitting stunned under the oak tree and Jiraiya standing in front of him, chest heaving, looking righteous and pissed off and a little bit furious.

“Orochi-teme!” he snaps, rounding on Orochimaru. “What the hell was that about? If they're calling you names, roast their asses or something! Or blow them away, or—or anything! Don’t just sit there like a moron!”

“But,” Orochimaru says, faintly bewildered, and it’s just about the first emotion to crack the iciness in six long, cold months, “Sarutobi-sensei—”

“You're such an ass-kisser,” Jiraiya huffs, throwing himself down next to his teammate and leaning back against the oak as well. Their shoulders brush, and Orochimaru is…stunned, at the warmth of him. Had he forgotten that all humans are this warm, or is it just Jiraiya? “Really, teme, don’t do that. And if Sarutobi-sensei wants to make something out of it, I’ll back you up.” He hooks a thumb at his own chest, puffed up proudly, and grins at Orochimaru like they're best friends.

This is…fairly astonishing, given that Orochimaru was very close to certain that the other boy hated him with a passion even greater than most.

“Oh,” he says, and buries his nose in his book once more, pretending to ignore Jiraiya's offended protestations of awesomeness.

 

It happens like this:

It’s a mission, A-rank, gathering intelligence on a minor lord in the north of Fire Country, and depending on their findings they're supposed to either remove or issue a warning to the man in question regarding his actions.

(“If he’s killed anyone,” the Sandaime tells them, repeating the Daimyo’s orders, and there's a secret sort of mocking in his eyes, that this is such a sticking point for normal people. Orochimaru agrees, doesn’t understand it, because surely, surely the Daimyo of all Fire Country knows what they are, what they are capable of, realizes just how many shinobi living more or less peacefully in Konoha would be able to level mountains and wipe clean the earth if they truly tried. But orders are orders and they are tools, beautiful and deadly and dangerously efficient tools, so they obey.)

They're sixteen, all three of them, and people are starting to know them, their names and reputations and the fact that if you hire Konoha for an A- or S-rank right now you're more than likely to get the Shodaime’s granddaughter, the eerie genius, and the loudmouthed juggernaut. Sixteen and riding the rising tides of fame and infamy, cautiously testing the waters to see if this is who they wish to be. Sixteen and tentative but far stronger and more of a team than anyone else in their age group, three misfits thrown together who might just possibly manage to become something great.

An easy mission, or it’s supposed to be, but the lord has hired missing-nin, and of course the missing-nin know the faces of Konoha's newest threats well; they sound the alarm, throw everything into chaos and a simple intelligence-gathering becomes a fight to the death. Team 7 had split up upon entering the man’s manor, separated to cover more ground because the time-limit is one even they might have trouble with, and Orochimaru knows that the odds are against them here, against him, but he draws his sword regardless and makes his stand.

The lord is with the group that corners him, a tall and fit man with brown eyes and an arrogant smile. Orochimaru doesn’t hate him, but only because he isn't worth such emotion, and watches as the lord approaches him with narrowed eyes, caught in a corner of a closed room like a rat in a trap. That much he hates, because he is no rat. Most definitely not.

“I’d heard,” the lord says, boisterous and cheery, as though he does not have the bodies of twenty-seven village children laid out in his basement, carefully mutilated, “that of Konoha's newest stars, the one to worry about was the creepy little genius. But I guess that’s not so true, is it, boy?” He reaches out, lifts a lock of long black hair between his fingers, and smooths his thumb over it with a triumphant smile. “I wonder. Has Konoha taught you how to beg for your life?”

Orochimaru stares back at him, unblinking, heart a heavy tattoo in his chest, because he had looked at those bodies and he remembered Nawaki, Tsunade's little brother whom everyone loved. Remembered the ambush that caught him and the way Tsunade screamed at the news, grief and mourning and impotent, undirected fury at the world at large.

He’s still human, still has a heart no matter what he tries to tell himself.

The lord takes another step closer, another, twists his fingers into Orochimaru's hair and pulls his head back with a light tug, and Orochimaru lets him. Lets him get closer, closer, and just as lips are about to touch his throat reaches out and breaks the man’s neck.

Too kind a death for the likes of him, but then Orochimaru is too busy fighting to regret the time he did not take.

And when it’s over, when he’s staggering through pools of red to leave the room, crimson footprints behind him and blood soaking his hair and splattered over his clothes, when it’s been done and he’s alive and his opponents are dead, he leaves at a walk with his head held high and a creeping, invasive urge to hack off the locks of hair that man touched.

Jiraiya is just rounding the far corner of the hall when he steps out of the room, in little better shape than Orochimaru himself, with a kunai still in hand and a scent of scorched and charred meat hovering around him. He looks at Orochimaru, and even though Orochimaru knows very well what he looks like right now—“Monster,” they whisper in the village, “twisted” and “freak” and “aberration”—there is only relief in the other boy’s eyes.

“Orochi,” he says, light and jovial despite the wet-copper stench around both of them. He points to his cheek, grinning like it’s the greatest joke ever conceived, and offers, “You missed a spot.”

Orochimaru rolls his eyes and sheathes his sword, because if Jiraiya can joke he’s just fine, and says, “The lord is dead. I have his body for the Daimyo. Most of it. I think.”

Jiraiya rolls his eyes right back. “Freak,” he says, but unlike the hissed whispers in Konoha this is fond, and he slings an arm over Orochimaru's shoulders with no concern for the blood and other things ground into his once-nice kimono top. They're in the north, a good ways up a mountain, and the air has a bite and the wind has teeth, but Jiraiya pressed up against his side is kotatsu-warm and eases something Orochimaru didn’t know was still wound tense.

“Tsunade?” he asks to distract himself from the twisting, fluttering feeling in his stomach that’s been happening all too often of late.

Jiraiya chuckles, like that too is a joke. “Finishing up,” he says, and there's a deeply buried sort of dark satisfaction in his voice that Orochimaru doesn’t question. They all saw the bodies, after all. “I think she said she was going after the scientist who was doing the harvesting.”

Orochimaru wishes her luck with that. Tsunade has always taken the deaths of children personally, and here it’s only made worse by the fact that it was a former medic-nin taking the organs of the village children. He can't say he would be entirely…merciful, either, were it left in his hands.

They start up a flight of stairs, heading for where they can feel their teammate’s chakra bubbling and flaring, and Orochimaru trips. It’s a small thing—there's blood on his sandals and the steps are well-polished wood, he’s tired and his chakra is running low and they haven’t slept for more than an hour at a time since leaving Konoha a week ago—but he trips and stumbles and resigns himself to meeting the floor face-first the way he hasn’t since he was a very small child.

And Jiraiya catches him. A simple arm around his waist, tugging him back against a broad chest, a huff of belated surprise and a quick, “Everything okay?”

But Orochimaru's heart turns over in his chest, whirls and flips and thunders into a double-time beat, even as warmth curls in his stomach and settles into his bones.

“Yes,” he says, even as he realizes just what’s happened with a curious buoyant sinking in his gut, because surely not. But at the same moment, yes, of course this is the answer.

“Yes,” he repeats, and closes his eyes, though even he can't tell if it’s to berate himself or savor the feelings rising in his chest. “Yes, Jiraiya, I'm fine.”

 

This is how Tsunade sees them:

They're her boys, her idiots, and they have been since the day teams were assigned. Even if she loathed Jiraiya at first, and mildly detests him still, they're hers. And Orochimaru has always been hers, right from the moment their parents pushed them together as four-year-olds and told them to get along. She’s only older by two months, but Orochimaru has always been slight and slender, too distracted by books and training to remember to eat unless forced. Tsunade has been hounding him since they first became friends, and by now he hardly even puts up a fight, just rolls his eyes at her and lets her drag him around.

Tsunade loves him. He’s her brother in everything but blood, but her best friend too, and so much smarter than the rest of the boys. She can talk to him about anything, and while he’ll usually act put-upon and annoyed and exasperated, he’ll listen.

The villagers—even the other shinobi—call him a freak and twisted, and yes, all right, she can maybe sort of sometimes see where they're coming from, because Orochimaru is a genius and yet has absolutely no idea what to do with other people except kill them or kill people with them. Tsunade's always thought it rather sad, because in reality Orochimaru is a lonely little boy with no parents living in a place that’s never bothered to try and understand him, and it hurts the heart he hides beneath layers of sarcasm and standoffishness and superiority.

She’s always felt…vaguely guilty, that she can't entirely understand Orochimaru either. Guiltily relieved, too, but then Orochimaru comes back from a mission with his face about twelve shades paler than usual, bleeding heavily, team reduced to a mere handful from the large squad that went out. He looks at her with a world of grief in his eyes as he presses her grandfather’s necklace, Nawaki’s necklace, into her hand, and then she understands. Then she knows what he feels, that seed of madness deep within her, just waiting to take root and grow. Orochimaru and Jiraiya and Sarutobi-sensei are the ones who save her, who kill that seed, but…

Sometimes she looks at Orochimaru and wonders who’s going to save him. Not her, to her regret, no matter how she loves him, because they're entirely platonic and Orochimaru needs someone he can actively lean on. Someone, someday, and she hopes that day comes before he’s too far gone to pull back from the edge.

And as for Jiraiya…

Jiraiya is the weird, freakish cousin you pretend you're not related to and don’t know when out in public, but can…grudgingly tolerate elsewhere.

(Well, perhaps he’s not quite that bad, though Tsunade will break even more of his ribs if he tries to peep on any bathhouse with her in it ever again. Really, Orochimaru is polite and smart and quiet and would never dream of doing such a thing; why can't all boys be like him? Granted, it’s likely because he’s entirely gay, but still.)

She loves them both, one like a brother and one in a way that’s probably more akin to Stockholm Syndrome than anything remotely healthy. They're her anchors and the string to her kite, the same way she is to them, and they ground each other, push each other, help each other forge ahead because they're becoming the best, somehow, even though they started out as little more than a wreck of a team.

Tsunade loves them, adores them, but—

But they're absolute morons about each other, and they always will be.

 

This is how they grow:

Two boys, so different, night and day and a thousand shades of grey between, caught in a three-man squad with a girl that by all rights, by all romance novel plots they should both love but who loves someone else entirely. Two boys with the world stretching out before their feet and growing large around them, two boys without no families but a future far brighter than most, bloodstained as it is. They're killers and children and humans before all else, burying their hearts to serve their village, to fight a hundred thousand little wars and one great one. Two boys thrown together by lots, by chance, by fate, by being first in the class and dead-last, no matter their twin potential.

Two boys, one pale and quiet and the other loud and bright. Two, together since that first day, alone together and together with the girl and their teacher and a thousand others, though really in the end it all comes down to them. Two boys and when Orochimaru staggers and trips Jiraiya is the one to catch him. When Jiraiya falls behind it is Orochimaru who risks life and limb—and to a shinobi limbs are life, really—to come back for him, even disobeying orders. It makes them trash, maybe, breaking the rules set by generations and villages and a whole host of hired killers playing at being human, but—

But always, always, they're just two boys, and in the face of that are rules really anything?

In the face of that, in the face of Jiraiya and Orochimaru and Tsunade standing firm against the world, it truly doesn’t matter if they're trash or treasure or somewhere in between.

 

He fractures in this way:

Jiraiya chases women. They shriek at him, hit him, avoid and abuse him, but he pursues them relentlessly and can only be brought to heel by Tsunade at her most threatening. But for all of that he’s not entirely unsuccessful, and Orochimaru, by virtue of friendship, is unwillingly treated to an extolling of each woman’s virtues and assets and abilities before she inevitably dumps Jiraiya and moves on to less perverted pastures.

It hurts, aches, stings like salt in an open wound, and sometimes Orochimaru thinks that half of Tsunade's vigor in disciplining Jiraiya comes from some misguided but secretly appreciated urge to protect him. But he ignores the other boy, rolls his eyes and buries his nose in a book or a scroll or distracts himself with katas, and mostly endures.

But…perhaps it’s a part of his reasoning, three weeks after his seventeenth birthday, when he accepts a stranger’s offer for a single night.

He’s never looked at women with anything vaguely resembling lust—and really, Jiraiya does enough of that for any five regular men anyway—never felt attraction to soft curves and full lips and rounded hips. But Jiraiya isn't the only man to have caught his eye, and so when Uchiha Kagami approaches him, he doesn’t brush the older man, a tokubetsu jounin, off. It helps that Kagami is handsome, even for an Uchiha, with an easy, open smile and warm eyes and a taste for the pretty, androgynous type, regardless of gender. He sits next to Orochimaru at the bar, shares a bottle of umeshu with him and laughs and smiles as though Orochimaru isn't a freak even amongst the other shinobi. It is…gratifying, especially after listening to Jiraiya's latest rant about his new D-cup girlfriend and Tsunade waxing poetic about the gentlemanly and smart jounin she encountered in their last strategy meeting.

He knows quite well what Kagami is doing, knows the mechanics of sex and attraction even if he’s never truly bothered with them before, but it is…pleasant, to be wanted. So he doesn’t resist, even when Kagami puts a hand on his arm when the bar is closing and asks him for a night’s company.

They end up in Orochimaru's apartment, because the other option is the Uchiha compound and it’s at the other end of the village. Orochimaru tells him upfront that he has had no experience in this area, and if Kagami wishes to back out that’s acceptable.

Kagami just smiles at him, a little sly and a little sweet, and answers, “Your first time, Orochimaru-kun? I'm honored. Thank you.”

Orochimaru is about to tell him not to get full of himself, a bit annoyed and fairly embarrassed though he’ll never let himself show it, but a heartbeat later Kagami is on him, and the next time Orochimaru comes up for air he’s on his bed, three of Kagami’s fingers pressing deep inside him and fire scorching at his blood, a clever mouth teasing his collarbone and not a thought remaining in his head.

It is…better than he had thought it would be, for his first time. Not nearly so mortifying as he had expected, honestly, though he suspects that’s mostly due to Kagami rather than himself. But it’s good, to feel another’s body so close, so intimately, and he thinks he even likes it when he really hadn’t expected to.

When they're done, Kagami rolls off him and thankfully doesn’t cling, stretching out on the futon with a satisfied sigh and then leaning over to kiss Orochimaru, messy and deep, like a thank you that’s somehow less crass for being given like this. And then he rolls over, tucks an arm behind his head, and falls asleep, and Orochimaru just huffs a sigh and cleans then both up, then nudges the Uchiha over until he has an equal share of the mattress and slides beneath the covers.

It is, of course, Jiraiya who comes barging in the next morning, shouting something about a mission to Iwa and no time to waste, only to choke with the words halfway out of his mouth when what he’s seeing registers. Orochimaru, who had been planning on sleeping until at least noon and then indulging his pleasantly sore body by catching up on some reading, growls in disgust and rolls over, attempting to pull the blankets over his head.

Next to him, awake now, Kagami chuckles and sits up, foiling Orochimaru’s plan by smoothing a hand over his hair and leaning down for a quick but entirely unchaste kiss. “I think that’s my cue to leave,” he says with good-natured amusement, pulling back with one last brush of his fingers over Orochimaru's cheek.

“I…enjoyed last night,” Orochimaru says, because he feels he should, and rises to his feet with the other man, hiding a wince as overused muscles protest.

Kagami catches him by the elbow, though he hardly needs it, and his smile is bleeding towards smug. “Look me up anytime, Orochimaru-kun,” he offers cheerfully, and then dons his pants and gathers the rest of his clothes before sauntering out past a still-gaping Jiraiya. Orochimaru stares back at his teammate for a moment, then stalks over, completely and unashamedly naked, and slides the door shut in the other boy’s face.

Petty, perhaps, but eminently satisfying.

 

Tsunade realizes it like this:

They have a mission in two hours, but Jiraiya is in her room, pacing like a man possessed. His expression is bewildered and his eyes are hurt, though Tsunade wonders if he even knows why he’s feeling such things. Likely not.

“That bastard,” Jiraiya seethes, and Tsunade pauses in checking over her medical kit to raise an eyebrow at the boy.

“Orochimaru?” she asks.

The look Jiraiya shoots her is one she’s never seen from him before, not when directed at herself. It’s a welcome change from the fawning, at least. “No. Well, yes, but he was with Uchiha Kagami. The guy would sleep with anything, so long as it’s vaguely attractive and stands still long enough for him to ply it with wine. I thought Orochimaru was fucking smarter than that. Uchiha's gonna have jumped in some other bed by the time we’re back, and Orochimaru's bad enough about emotions as it is. I don’t want to fucking deal with a heartbroken Snake bastard, do you?”

She doesn’t, but Tsunade has known about Orochimaru's raging crush on their thickheaded teammate for years now, and suspects that Orochimaru knew very well what he was getting into with the Uchiha. “Maybe Orochimaru wasn’t looking for forever,” she suggests, trying not to roll her eyes as she rearranges her antidotes.

“But—but it was his first time!” Jiraiya protests, raking a hand through his hair. She’s not even going to question how he knows that. She knows, but that’s because she has the ability to actually make Orochimaru talk, unlike ninety-nine percent of the known world. “That’s—it’s supposed to mean something. Like—like something!”

She really does roll her eyes this time, because honestly? Men. Expect for Orochimaru, who seems an entirely different species most of the time. “Like you're still passionately in love with Ichihara Ruri, your first time?” she asks dryly. “Jiraiya, leave it alone. Orochimaru's smart. He’ll be fine.”

Jiraiya huffs, crossing his arms and clearly fed up with Tsunade not getting it. She gets it just fine, actually, but until Jiraiya pulls his head out of his ass and realizes that Orochimaru's been looking at him like he’s a ten-course buffet since they hit puberty, there’s not much she can do.

“Not about people, he isn't,” Jiraiya argues, and Tsunade pauses, reluctantly conceding the point. As long as he’s manipulating them to his own ends, Orochimaru is brilliant with people, but for everyday interactions? It’s akin to watching a very slow train wreck.

“I don’t see,” she says, fairly annoyed with this conversation because boys are dumb, dear god, “what it has to do with you, Jiraiya. Orochimaru's old enough to make his own decisions. He’s a legal adult and entitled to whatever kind of sex life he wants.” She pauses, and then, just because she can, adds slyly, “Why? With this much of a reaction, I’d think you were jealous, Jiraiya.”

Jiraiya chokes, splutters, and turns crimson, and Tsunade goes back to her packing with a grin on her face and a song in her heart, because torturing Jiraiya is fun.

And if it has the added advantage of steering him in the right direction, well. That’s just her playing the good and helpful sister to her romantically hopeless brother-in-all-but-blood. Orochimaru will express his gratitude by taking her gambling, of course, even if he doesn’t know it yet.

 

This is how it shifts:

Jiraiya chases women and laughs and smiles and is beautiful. Orochimaru stands ahead of him, or possibly behind him, pale and shadowed with their sensei’s eye on him—still a favorite, still favored, but always, always held at a wary distance. Sometimes he thinks Sarutobi is just waiting for him to stumble, to do something even though he doesn’t quite understand what, all of nineteen with so much potential and so much future before him.

So Jiraiya chases women and Orochimaru watches, buries himself in his experiments and the creation of new jutsus, because that’s what he has always been good at. Maybe, maybe he could be experimenting more, because he has ideas, used to have plans, but the few times he’s brought it up Jiraiya looks grim and Tsunade looks worried, and at nineteen they are each other’s entire world, so Orochimaru sets his grand ideas aside and focuses on seals and jutsus and the war that ebbs and flows with them at the center.

Jiraiya chases women and Orochimaru chases knowledge, chases after him but never quite manages to catch up, not when Jiraiya is bright and cheerful and good with people in a way Orochimaru cannot even comprehend.

He kills a man with a new jutsu, his own creation, touches the man and tears him apart with wind chakra and precisely controlled power, and the next day when he’s walking down the street people flinch away from him, avoid his eyes and cross the road to escape his path. Orochimaru keeps his head up and his eyes fixed forward, though inwardly he seethes. I saved the Hokage, he wants to shout at them. That man was an assassin, coming for the Sandaime you love so much. I was his guard and I did my duty; you hate me for that?

But it’s not hatred, not really. Orochimaru could perhaps understand that, because hatred is straightforward and something he has had experience with. But no, they fear him, even when he has never turned his strength against them, never made himself a threat to any but Konoha's enemies. They avoid him outright, even the shinobi who should by all rights know better, avoid him and avoid his gaze and leave whatever room he enters as quickly as possible.

For that, for their fear, he thinks he could hate them.

Only Tsunade and Jiraiya will spar with him, spend time with him now, as even Sarutobi watches him with more care than ever before, wary and shadowed eyes following each of his movements. They are his world, small and narrow, supplemented by dry texts on theory and obscure lore, by training himself until he drops each day and then going out to fight a war that makes him sick. And he’s a good soldier, a good killer, which only makes the fear deeper every time he returns splattered with blood, battles won.

Jiraiya pauses, then, in his constant chasing, his endless attempt to distract himself from the war that rages, and smiles at Orochimaru, bitter and sad.

“Okay, Orochi-teme?” he asks, slinging an arm over Orochimaru's shoulders as they head towards the training grounds. People—civilians and shinobi alike—turn away from them, from Orochimaru, drop their eyes to the ground and hurry past, but Jiraiya doesn’t show that he notices. Orochimaru is ridiculously grateful for it, for this one small bit of normality as the rest of existence turns against him. He still wants to live, still wants the chance to stay in this world long enough to meet his parents again, but sometimes he can't help but wonder how much easier it would make things, should he go out to fight and not come back.

He could leave, of course, abandon the village to a bloody conflict he has never wanted to be a part of, become a missing-nin in some far-off country and focus on his search for immortality, but—

But Jiraiya and Tsunade love this village, would never even dream of leaving it, and Orochimaru can't quite convince himself that leaving them behind is worth the lack of fear.

“Fine,” he tells his friend, his best friend, the man he loves even though he shouldn’t, even though he’s fairly certain that Jiraiya will never, ever look at him and see anything beyond a teammate and a friend. It’s a lie, and they both know it, but they are shinobi and lie as easily as they breathe. More easily, sometimes.

Jiraiya smiles at him in that particular slant that’s also a lie, the acceptance of a lie, a mask of humor and cheer even though their world runs crimson and their sky bleeds each time they look up. Then a woman—short and curvy and lovely, with long flowing blonde hair and big blue eyes—steps across their path and Jiraiya turns to follow her, grin spreading and walk turning into a swagger.

Orochimaru could stop him, could remind him that they were going to spar, could slip his fingers into the pocket of Jiraiya's vest and pull him back, but—

But their world runs crimson and their sky bleeds each time they look up. They’ve spent the last month on the battlefield, leading troops of men and women doomed to die, even with the new inclusion of medic-nins in each squad thanks to Tsunade and her lover Dan. They’ve fought and bled and died a little more inside each time they’ve had to seal yet another comrade’s body inside a scroll for transport home, and Orochimaru is a bastard and no good with ordinary human reactions, but he can't take this little bit of escapism from his best friend.

He stays silent, keeps his hands by his sides, and lets Jiraiya go.

His house is small and dusty, empty of most things normal people keep. The walls are lined with bookshelves, though, and his equipment is neatly arranged on racks. There are cushioned chairs and a low table between them, because no matter how content Orochimaru is to sit on the floor for just about everything from reading to eating, Tsunade is not, and has never—will never, he assumes, at this point—outgrown her need to mother him. A small kitchen, rarely used, and a bedroom used only a little more often. Empty spaces, all of it, cold and open.

It’s not a home, exactly, but Orochimaru lost all hope of having such a thing when his parents died.

This is where he thinks about it most often, of leaving Konoha permanently and not just to fight the war. He would be a good missing-nin, he assumes, because he’s ruthless and clever and more than happy to live out his days without anyone around. But missing-nin are usually the villains of their tales, he knows, and he probably wouldn’t make a good villain. He’s too given to playing with his opponents, to breaking them with words and only going in for the kill when they're truly shattered. It’s a psychological tactic, perfect for demoralizing the enemy, and all but ingrained after the last three years of fighting. But it wouldn’t be of much use against a single person, rather than an army—too much chance of it giving them an opening, an opportunity to pull a trick and win the fight.

Jiraiya would hate him, too, if he did anything to harm Konoha. And because he’s never wanted Jiraiya's hate, even when the other man has no attention to spare for him at all, Orochimaru knows he can't be the villain. Not at this time, not yet. Probably not ever, honestly.

With a soft sigh, Orochimaru sets Kusanagi on its stand, unbuckles his weapons pouches and puts them away, drops his jounin vest on the hook. Sarutobi has all but ordered their team to take the next seven days off, because after the last four weeks of intensive, unrelenting fighting they're all worn to the bone, very close to dropping from exhaustion. Orochimaru is a genius, and knows his own limits well. As much as he hates the time confined to Konoha, it’s necessary.

He fixes himself a light meal and picks a book at random, settling beside the window with both as the moon begins to rise. The house echoes emptily with nighttime sounds, creaking gently as it settles, and Orochimaru wonders if this is going to be the rest of his life. He’s strong and well-known and a feared opponent, openly ambitious, has contributed more jutsus to the scrolls than any shinobi in the last four decades, and is a student of the God of Shinobi himself. By all rights, on the list of possibilities to become the next Hokage, he should be right at the top. It is…an appealing goal, and Orochimaru has caught himself considering more often than he’d care to admit.

Recognition, he thinks. If I am Hokage, they will see that I have devoted myself to keeping them safe. They will see that even if I am something to be feared, they do not have to fear me. That would be…good.

Battle-honed instincts catch the approach of chakra then, even though Orochimaru's house is a good distance from the village proper, set back among the trees. He raises his head, eyes narrowing as he stares out the window. There's a man on the path, tall and pale-haired and easy with himself, and Orochimaru rolls his eyes and stands, setting the dinner he’s barely touched on the table and going to open the door.

“Dan,” he says, as the man comes up the steps. “Tsunade isn't here. You might check Training Ground 9.”

Dan smiles at him, open and warm, and Orochimaru will never let on, but he like the man very much. He’s good for Tsunade, good for the village, strong and kind and personable, and he’s likely another on the list of candidates for Hokage. Orochimaru thinks that he would probably be a better one than Orochimaru, accepts it, and returns the smile with a quiet one of his own.

“Actually,” Dan says, faintly sheepish, “I was looking for you, Orochimaru. It’s…it’s going to be our anniversary soon, Tsunade's and mine. I got her the time off, and I…” He trails off, rubbing a hand over his white hair, but Orochimaru already knows what he wants to say.

“You are going to ask her to marry you?” he questions, leaning against the doorframe, and chuckles softly when Dan’s head snaps up. “Please, I like to think I'm at least intelligent enough to notice that you’ve been even more nauseatingly adorable together than normal. But why come to me?”

Dan’s face turns serious at that, edging towards grim, and he makes a short, helpless gesture with the scroll he’s carrying. “Our squad was called for a mission,” he says. “Week-long, A-rank, leading a jounin team into Wind Country. But Tsunade has the time off, and I'm already scheduled to return to the front next week, and if I take this—”

There will be no chance to propose, Orochimaru acknowledges. Dan will keep fighting, as will Tsunade, and what little happiness there is to steal in wartime will pass them by. He doesn’t hesitate to take the scroll, plucking it from Dan’s fingers regardless of the fact that he’s been all but grounded for the next week. By the time the paperwork for a last-minute personnel change hits the Hokage's desk, he will be deep in enemy territory and beyond reach of a recall.

(Perhaps, in some other universe, Orochimaru would be too caught up in experiments and training and unaware of the mad sort of loneliness building within him. Perhaps, in some other universe, he would be so busy that Dan would not even ask him, or if he did Orochimaru would refuse on principle. But here and now, with the empty house looming behind him and nothing but fear and disgust and loathing and Jiraiya with a new infatuation filling the days ahead, Orochimaru doesn’t pause.)

“Of course,” he tells Dan, already cataloguing what he’ll need to pack, unrolling the scroll to study the mission parameters. “Make the most of your week, then.”

Dan grins at him, brilliant with relief and gratitude. “Thank you, Orochimaru,” he says, almost laughing. “Thank you! I'm in your debt.”

“Just make her happy,” Orochimaru answers, and then turns away before Dan can respond, shutting the door to keep himself from spouting any more of that sentimental nonsense Jiraiya has apparently infected him with. But then he thinks of the way Tsunade will doubtless smile, when Dan asks her, thinks of how she’ll glow and crow and laugh when he gets back, showing off the ring and nearly crying in her joy, and he smiles to himself.

That’s worth it. That is entirely worth it, exhaustion or no.

(And if he thinks of Jiraiya and the blonde woman they saw tonight, Jiraiya chasing yet another girl while Orochimaru sits in his empty house and waits for whatever bits of time the Toad Sage can spare—

He’s hardly about to tell, and no one will ever know.)

 

This is what he wakes to:

The beeping of machines and the smell of antiseptic and old blood, the ghost of a breeze across his cheeks and a tingling sort of numbness throughout his body that speaks of large amounts of pain held at bay by even larger amounts of medication. Orochimaru opens his eyes to stare up at the hospital ceiling, a mix of relief and frustration rolling through him. He survived, and that’s good, but he was hurt badly enough that he can barely remember it, and that might as well be a failure.

Pale blonde hair fills his vision as Tsunade leans over him, and he blinks eyes that don’t want to focus and meets her gaze. She’s pale as a ghost, with lines of stress around her mouth and marring her brow, hair unkempt and bags beneath her reddened eyes. Orochimaru knows without having to ask that it was bad, this time, very close to being the end of him, and offers her a faint, wry, apologetic smile in acknowledgement.

“Tsunade,” he says, voice a rough rasp. “You look terrible.”

She laughs, choked and tearful, and buries her face in her hands. “Oh, Orochimaru,” she whispers, and on her finger the ring glitters silver and bright. “Oh, you bastard. As soon as you're out of here I'm going to send you right back. You bastard. You magnificent bastard.”

“My squad?” he asks, because his memory is sketchy and uncertain, in those last moments, though he remembers an explosion.

Tsunade shakes her head, dropping her hands, and her face is bleak. “Manda brought you back,” she says. Only you, is the implication. “He said that there was no one else. But the Suna forces are in chaos, and we’ve managed to push them right back to the old border, so I think we can assume your mission was a success.” She meets his eyes, and her expression is warring between relief and guilt and gratitude. “You—you only managed to pull through because of the changes you’ve made to your body, the way you’ve sped up your healing ability and increased your durability.”

Anyone else would have been killed, she doesn’t say. Anyone normal. And for all that he’s brilliant and skilled and experienced, Dan is certainly normal.

Orochimaru just smiles, dropping his gaze to the ring again. “So he asked you,” he murmurs. “I take it you said yes, then? Or are you just wearing it to tease him?”

Tsunade chokes on a laugh, but her eyes are bright. “Of course you know,” she huffs. “I bet that’s how he convinced you to go in his place, the romantic sap. And you are, too, Orochimaru, don’t think I haven’t realized it by now.”

Orochimaru would argue the point, because he most certainly is not, but then Tsunade is sliding into the open side of the bed, pressing close and curling up next to him, careful of his wounds as she lays her head on his shoulder and entwines their fingers.

She doesn’t say thank you, because it’s not the sort of thing that requires it, or where such a thing is appropriate, but that’s all right, because they both understand.

He wraps an arm around her and holds her close, his first friend, his rock, his strength, and closes his eyes.

 

This is what Jiraiya sees:

Jiraiya drags himself home from five days in Tanzaku-Gai, sorting through reams of conjecture and rumor to uncover tiny bits of truth, and immediately makes his way to the Hokage's office. There are fewer shinobi in the village than normal, which could be either good or bad, and the administrative drones scurry left and right across his path, speaking in hushed voices. He glances after them, debates calling them back and asking what’s going on, but changes his mind at the last moment and heads up the stairs to meet his sensei.

Sarutobi is brooding by the window and smoking his pipe, even though Jiraiya has told him multiple times that he looks like an old geezer when he does that. But the taunt dies on Jiraiya's lips when he catches sight of the weary, worn, grieving look on the Hokage's face, and he shuts the door softly behind him.

“Sensei?” he asks, almost afraid of what the answer will be. But his team is on near-leave this week, aren’t they? Jiraiya only managed to finagle a pass to Tanzaku-Gai because he was mixing work with pleasure, and Sarutobi knew that. But that expression—Jiraiya has only ever seen it when one of their missions has come too close to death, when one of them has been sent back from the front all but in pieces.

Sarutobi sighs out a cloud of smoke, tipping his head back and closing his eyes. “Jiraiya,” he says tiredly. “You have come back safe, then?”

Which means someone else didn’t. Jiraiya feels something settle around his heart, as heavy as lead, and swallows. “Yes,” he answers. “What’s happened? Is something wrong?”

For a long moment, Sarutobi doesn’t answer. He looks out the window over the village, eyes distant, and then says, “The war will be over soon. Our teams struck a great blow to the enemy’s command structure, and our forces are taking full advantage of it.” He sighs again, and then adds dully, “Orochimaru is in the hospital. He was leading the team in Wind Country, and was the only one to return. Tsunade is with him now, and says that his chances of making a full recovery are good. It seems that he and Dan traded places at the last moment, as Dan was unaware that he was supposed to be on leave.”

He doesn’t have to say how close it was, this time. Jiraiya can read it on his face, and has to swallow back an irrational surge of anger at Tsunade's lover. His fault, something inside him whispers, though he knows very well just how skilled Orochimaru is, just how carefully he protects the comrades who watch him with poorly concealed fear. If Orochimaru barely survived, if his chances are only ‘good’ rather than ‘certain’ even with a medic like Tsunade seeing to him, it’s definite that Dan would have died leading that mission, died and left Tsunade absolutely shattered in his wake.

“Go,” Sarutobi says gently, offering Jiraiya a small smile. “I'm sure both of them are as eager to see you as you are them. Your report can wait.”

Jiraiya mutters his thanks and bolts, leaps right out the window and heads straight for the hospital, because he remembers the last time he saw Orochimaru, that day on the street when they were supposed to train together and he got distracted by Hirano Airi’s C-cup and long blond hair. He’d left, walked away even though he knew Orochimaru hated the whispers, the fear, the wary looks, because half an hour of diversion from thoughts of blood and death was solid gold, and, and—

And Jiraiya is an asshole, because what if Orochimaru hadn’t come back? What then? Would he have lived for years, for decades knowing that he’d squandered his best friend’s last few hours alive? That he’d blown him off for a girl with no interest in him and no part in his future?

Never again, Jiraiya promises himself, hands closing into fists as he slips through an open window and starts down the hall, following the familiar buzz of his teammates’ chakra. He pushes open the door, as quietly as he’s able, and pauses there, just looking.

There are two figures on the bed, pressed together and sound asleep, Tsunade with her head pillowed on Orochimaru's shoulder and her fingers tight around his. Orochimaru is absolutely still and silent, and he’s paler than Jiraiya has ever seen him before. His veins stand out against the colorless skin, starkly visible, like a tracery of indigo and violet carrying what life remains. His head is bandaged, and his long, thick hair has been braided over his shoulder, something Jiraiya has never seen Orochimaru do of his own free will—the man is ridiculously vain about his hair, after all, and has left it loose all the time Jiraiya's known him. More bandages around his arms and chest, across his throat and down his side, and Jiraiya can't even remember the last time he saw Orochimaru in a hospital, let alone in such bad shape.

He was leading the team in Wind Country, and was the only one to return.

Jiraiya lets out a long, slow, heavy breath, rubbing a hand over his face. The image of Orochimaru on that bed is imprinted on the back of his eyelids, stark and grim, and he can't banish it. Slow breath and bloodless skin and pale lips, strange and startling golden eyes closed even though Orochimaru never sleeps much near others. Sharp cheekbones standing out even more than normal, because the unrepentant little nerd always gets so caught up in his research that he forgets he needs to eat like a normal human. No dry quip or jab at Jiraiya's intelligence, no droll greeting or wickedly innocent request for Jiraiya to lug fifty or sixty huge, dusty books out of that anally ordered library he calls a house.

Nothing, because he’s drugged and recovering from a mission that almost ended in his death, and Jiraiya wasn’t there to save him. Wasn’t there because Jiraiya left him, and if he had stayed, if he hadn’t run off after a pretty girl maybe he’d have been there when Dan asked Orochimaru to take the mission, could have bullied his way onto the team and accompanied them and stopped this from happening.

He breathes in, breathes out, and heads for the chair that Tsunade abandoned, swearing to himself that this will never, ever happen again, regardless of what rules he has to break to see to it.

 

This is where it starts to change:

Sometimes, Orochimaru think that they should hate each other far more than they ever did, given their feelings for each other when they were genin. Because that was loathing, passionate in the way only childhood allows, with no fluttering hearts or duties or anything else to get in the way.

He thinks it as he sits beside Jiraiya's bed, when Jiraiya is confined to it two days after Hanzō, the three Ame orphans behind them. By all rights they should be heading back to Konoha, like Tsunade already has, but Jiraiya refuses to leave the children, and Orochimaru…

Orochimaru is a fool, and won't leave Jiraiya.

It’s next to impossible to hate someone who saves your life on a daily basis, after all. Next to impossible to hate someone who holds your heart so easily in the palm of their hand, but…maybe that’s all right too.

Hanzō has given the three of them, Team 7, a new name in return for their lives, and already people whisper it. Orochimaru hears them in the nearest village when he goes looking for supplies, hears them murmur the Legendary Sannin under their breath when they see his Konoha hitai-ate and recognize his face. It is a mixed blessing, this name, because it is a good name, but it is a reminder that Hanzō let them live. Let them, and little grates at Orochimaru like failure.

But. But it is a good name, because Hanzō let them live, and now they will have another chance to kill him, to survive and earn the name.

“Why stay?” Jiraiya asks him, when he slips back into the cottage they’ve rented, and it’s…strange. Almost domestic, if one ignores the blood and weapons and traumatized children, Jiraiya with broken ribs and bruises on his face. The Toad Sage keeps his voice low, because the children are sleeping fitfully, and Orochimaru casts a quick glance at them before he folds his legs and settles beside Jiraiya.

“Because you're a hopeless fool,” he says, though what he means is I am a hopeless fool, and the prospect of years away from my research, living in a dirty hovel with three brats I think would be far happier and better off dead, is nothing so long as you are here to both keep me sane and drive me to distraction. Haven’t you noticed yet, Jiraiya? Will you ever?

“Tsunade left,” Jiraiya points out, and Orochimaru rolls his eyes at the man, thumping him gently in the head with a roll of bandages.

“She’s cleverer than I am,” he answers dryly. “And she has Dan.” That is, perhaps, too close to what Orochimaru wants to say—the same way I have you, or you could have me if you looked, you brainless oaf—so he adds evenly, “Sit up. I need to change your bandages.”

Jiraiya whines and complains and sits up slowly, and Orochimaru rolls his eyes at him some more and suffers through it.

Oh, but the things he will do for his regrettably, irrevocably, fiercely human heart.

(“When people get hurt, they learn to hate. When people hurt others, they become hated and racked with guilt. But knowing that pain allows people to be kind. Pain allows people to grow, and how you grow is up to you,” Jiraiya tells the boy, Nagato, while Orochimaru hovers in the darkness.

It’s only when Jiraiya has retreated inside that Orochimaru emerges, comes to sit beside the boy on the steps. It’s raining, as it always seems to be, but Orochimaru tips his head back to look up at the grim-grey sky.

“You wanted to kill us,” the boy says to him. “Why would you stay with Sensei and train us?”

“My parents were killed when I was a child,” Orochimaru responds, though it’s not quite an answer. He hesitates for a long moment, aware of Jiraiya listening inside the house, and then says, “Sometimes…in the beginning I wished that someone would offer a mercy killing to me as well. Then our teacher pointed out that someday, everyone I had lost would be reincarnated somewhere, and I would be able to meet them. My goals…changed. I want to live long enough to see them again, and…perhaps you would like the same.”

There is no answer, but perhaps that’s answer enough. Orochimaru rises to his feet, shoving his dripping, sodden hair back behind his shoulders with a sigh. He’s rarely tempted to cut it, because it’s one of his few vanities, but Ame is very close to making him take Kusanagi to the length of it. He grimaces faintly, turning away, and pauses with his hand on the door.

“Jiraiya is a sentimental fool, and always has been,” he says, and almost smiles at the indignant huff he can hear from inside. “He seeks peace, and you seek to protect, and those are both good goals. When there is a true desire in your heart and that desire is strong…that is when you can find real strength, even if you never knew you had it. But this is a cruel world, and you know that better than most. Never let go of your instincts. Never surrender your suspicion. Protect, but be wary. Do not trust blindly, and it will keep you from having regrets.”

He has the door open and a foot across the threshold before Nagato speaks again.

“Do…you trust anyone, Orochimaru-san?”

Orochimaru meets Jiraiya's wide and startled eyes, where the white-haired man is lurking by the fire. “Yes,” he tells Nagato, and doesn’t let his gaze waver, wills Jiraiya to finally see what’s been hidden for so long. “I trust Tsunade. And I trust Jiraiya. With my life. But never blindly. He’s given me more than enough reason to trust him, and that’s why I do.”

Not with my heart, he thinks, turning away, and wonders when he became such a coward. Never with my heart, Jiraiya. Not until I am sure you'll see and not simply overlook.)

 

This is the catalyst:

They’ve been training Konan, Nagato, and Yahiko for a year and a half now, alone and cut off from Konoha except for monthly reports. Jiraiya is getting antsy, though he always tries to be patient with the three orphans. Really, they're good kids, and Jiraiya has even caught Orochimaru smiling at Konan sometimes, or Nagato. Yahiko gravitates towards the Toad Sage, seemingly uncertain about the Snake Sage, but Jiraiya has caught Nagato following his teammate like some kind of puppy, asking ninjutsu questions and faking wariness of the man until no one else is watching. Then he starts bringing Orochimaru food when the jounin is immersed in some rare text, or sitting next to him at diner, or any number of adorable little man-crush things.

If Orochimaru hadn’t left Uchiha Kagami behind a long time ago (and good riddance, really), Jiraiya would be tickled pink to inform the degenerate Uchiha bastard of his new rival.

But they're good kids, progressing quickly, and Nagato’s Rinnegan is something to behold. Maybe he is the one who can return the world to peace. Jiraiya doesn’t like to think he has his hopes set on it, because that’s usually just an invitation for disaster, but…he has faith. It’s a novel experience.

The sound of a door pulls Jiraiya from his thoughts, and he glances up to see Orochimaru stepping inside the house, unfastening his sodden cloak and dropping it disgustedly to the side. True to expectations, Nagato is a step behind him carrying a brace of rabbits, though he looks mostly unbothered by the rain. They both watch Orochimaru attempt to wring out his hair with clear amusement.

“You don’t like the wet, do you, Orochimaru-san?” Nagato asks, lips quirked in a rare half-smile.

Orochimaru makes a face that Jiraiya had really thought him too dignified for. “Not in the least,” he answers, voice nearly a growl. “I hate the cold, and this whole wretched country is conspiring to keep me damp and miserable.” With a huff, he strips off his outer kimono and lets that fall as well—and things are truly awful when Orochimaru the Neat Freak Snake Sage is consciously being untidy—then stalks past Jiraiya and heads for the bath.

With a roll of his eyes that he’s most definitely picked up from Jiraiya's teammate, Nagato picks up both cloak and kimono and tosses them over the drying line they haven’t ever bothered to take down.

“Don’t mind Orochi-teme,” Jiraiya advises, grinning widely as he watches the bathroom door slam shut. “He’s always been a princess.”

A muted snarl comes from behind the thin wood, and Jiraiya laughs.

“At least,” he hears Orochimaru hiss, “I've never been a pervert.”

Jiraiya yelps at that, dignity deeply wounded. “Hey! I'm not a pervert! I'm a SUPER—argh!” The jet of water that hits him in the face steals the rest of his sentence, and when he manages to push himself back semi-upright Orochimaru is standing in the doorway, arms crossed over his chest and expression arch.

“Come again, Jiraiya?” he mocks sweetly. “I'm afraid I missed that.”

Jiraiya growls as he staggers to his feet, shaking his hair out of his eyes. “Orochi-teme, what the hell! Take a damn joke!” Then, of course, because he has never, ever claimed to be the mature one on this team, he lunges for the other man, arms outstretched. Orochimaru evades him easily, steam whirling around his slender form as he darts back into the bathroom. Jiraiya follows him, nearly managing to snag a handful of that ridiculously long, thick hair as he goes, but the other man dodges at the last moment, dropping into a wary stance as Jiraiya regains his footing and stalks closer.

They're grinning, both of them, and Jiraiya belated realizes that he can't remember the last time he and Orochimaru sparred. Can't recall when they last let themselves go enough to have fun in such a simple way, and he laughs. Orochimaru chuckles, too, golden eyes bright with a mix of mischief and mirth that Jiraiya hasn’t seen in far too long. It’s worn at both of them, fighting the war and then being here in this country where Konoha nin committed so many atrocities, waged a war that the people of Ame had no way or reason to fight. Jiraiya has been atoning, and Orochimaru has been enduring, and Jiraiya has to wonder at what a good friend he has, to stay like this. To stay, period, when he knows very well how Orochimaru hates the rain and the cold and likes the warmth of the sun. How he dislikes children and glories in his research, which he’s so cut off from here.

There's a shift, a rush, and suddenly Jiraiya is flat on his back with a hundred and twenty-seven pounds of Snake Sage on top of him, straddling his stomach. Orochimaru's golden eyes are smug, the way they always are when he gets one over on Jiraiya, and his waist-length hair is a bit of a distraction, spilling over his shoulders as he pins Jiraiya's hands, slipping across Jiraiya’s skin in a way that he hasn’t felt in a year and change, stuck in this backwater with no women as he is. Orochimaru is definitely not a woman, as Jiraiya can clearly see, and yet—

And yet he’s beautiful, pale-skinned and lithe, with a sharp-boned, almost delicate face and all of that thick, silken hair, damp from the rain and the steam but still so soft. Jiraiya has seen him in battle, in sleep, in excitement, in humor, in boredom, in every other possible state over the years, and even if Orochimaru isn't quite playing with a full deck, even if he’s occasionally a little unhinged, well, aren’t all of them? And few manage to look as good as Orochimaru while doing it.

He swallows, and on instinct twists his hands, closing his fingers carefully and deliberately over Orochimaru's.

Orochimaru goes absolutely, deathly still, staring down at him with inhuman golden snake eyes, full of things Jiraiya can't even begin to name.

For an endless moment, the world holds its breath.

Then Orochimaru smiles at him, swift and wry and a little sad. He leans down, until all Jiraiya can see is gold eyes and black hair, and murmurs so lowly that it’s barely even a sound, “I am very, very selfish, Jiraiya. A truly avaricious man. If I have this, if I have you, I'm not going to let you go. So if this is a whim, or a bout of sexual frustration, remove your hands from me.”

It clicks then in a bare instant, why Orochimaru would go to such lengths for him, why he stayed when Tsunade never thought twice about leaving. Why he looks so grim sometimes, even on happy occasions, and why he was so silent and resigned that day Jiraiya left to chase after that girl whose face he can't even remember now.

How long? Jiraiya thinks, though he’s not really certain he wants to know. How many years have I managed to miss this completely?

It’s not a whim, not frustration as he looks up at Orochimaru, studies the planes of his face and the hidden wildness in his eyes. He remembers Uchiha Kagami and a handful of men since, all worthless fools in and out of Orochimaru's bed in a handful of days. Remembers Orochimaru still and pale in that hospital bed, after the mission where he should have died. Remembers a little boy, smaller even than Tsunade, staring up at him absolutely bewildered after he knocked a trio of bullies down.

Instead of letting go, Jiraiya tightens his grip, hooks a leg around Orochimaru's calf, and rolls them over. He’s bigger than Orochimaru and always has been, a good sixty pounds heavier and seven inches taller, and while Orochimaru's hardly slight he feels it in comparison when Jiraiya leans down, cups that thin face between large hands. The Snake Sage stares at him for a heartbeat, another, and then something kindles in his eyes. A light, a hope, a fierce and possessive kind of joy, and he slides and arm around the back of Jiraiya's neck and pulls his head down for a harsh kiss.

Jiraiya smiles against his lips, because even is this wasn’t planned, it’s definitely not a whim. No way in hell.

And if he’s just managed to completely complicate his life, well. Jiraiya's always been good at that, and somehow, Orochimaru's always managed to pull him out of the mess just in time.

 

This is the beginning:

Jiraiya is about three sizes bigger than anyone else in Konoha, broad and muscled and scarred from the war, with flyaway white hair and a maddening tendency to laugh when Orochimaru kisses him. He’s big all over, hands and fingers and arms and legs and everything in between, and Orochimaru would complain about big oafs and brute strength making up for brains, but—

But that would mean he’d have to stop kissing Jiraiya, and he doesn’t think he ever will.

They’ve retreated to the room they share, Jiraiya's bed, and Orochimaru almost can't believe it, that this is happening. But the evidence is there, proof in the scratch of Jiraiya's stubble and the kiss-marks on Orochimaru's throat, the stretch and burn of oiled fingers inside him and the muffled groan Jiraiya gives when Orochimaru pushes back against him. There's a hand in his hair, just tight enough, and Jiraiya's breath against his skin as he pulls back to look at Orochimaru, to stare with heat and hope and humor all tangled in his eyes.

“You know, Tsunade's gonna mock us mercilessly,” he says, and his voice is gratifyingly rough and breathless.

You,” Orochimaru corrects, feeling rather breathless himself, as well as impatient. “She’s going to mock you mercilessly. She already knew about me. And can we please not talk about Tsunade right now?”

Jiraiya just grins at him, leaning in for another kiss even as he presses forward, and Orochimaru groans long and low into the heated air between them as he slides so, so slowly home.

No words of love, nothing more than a hot breath against his lips and muffled cries in the warm darkness, but…

But enough. For now. Because snakes take their time to strike, can lie coiled in wait until the very last moment and then—

And then this will be another step to fall away behind them, another marker on the way to that bright future stretching out before them.

 

This is the end:

Two boys, so different, night and day and a thousand shades of grey between, caught in a three-man squad with a girl that by all rights, by all romance novel plots they should both love but who loves someone else entirely. Two boys with the world stretching out before their feet and growing large around them, two boys without no families but a future far brighter than most, bloodstained as it is.

Two men who have managed to walk side by side against all the odds, to stay and stand and face a world that crumbles and rebuilds itself and crumbles again. Two men, so different, but just enough the same, who together with a girl they both love as a sister have become legends in their war-torn and bloody world that nevertheless hides a human heart. Two men who have forged a future from a collection of ashes, from doubts and fears and petty arguments that try to wear away the stone beneath them but never quite manage it.

Together they have dreams. Together they have a village and a reason to fight and a reason to come back home alive. And that’s enough. That’s enough.

Some days, it manages to be everything.

 

(This is how Tsunade sees it:

They're her boys, her idiots, and they have been since the day teams were assigned.

She loves them, adores them, but—

But they're absolute morons about each other, and they always will be. And she’d never, ever want them to be anything else.)