Heyo.

Finally here with the second chapter of this. It's been... two weeks since I uploaded the first chapter? Longer? Not sure at this point. Either way, compared to updating Trip Down a Hill, it's been cake working on this story. Largely because without a fixed, weekly schedule, I can take this at my own pace.

Funnily enough, despite saying all that, I had this chapter done in around a week, but just didn't feel like editing and uploading it until now, so, eh, habits die hard, I suppose.

Alright, without further ado, here's chapter 2. (Hey, that rhymed!)


Chapter 2: Pragmatism


Orochimaru found a certain sort of freedom flowing through his body as he slithered through the shadows of the Leaf Village at night. Here, melting into the shadows, avoiding being seen by anyone or anything, his muscles poised to strike at the slightest opportunity, he was truly in his element as a Shinobi.

More than that, though, he couldn't deny the rush he felt as he stalked his potential prey.

It wasn't as if the Village was entirely dead this time at night. Far from it. The Leaf had a moderate nightlife, a few adult clubs were near full to bursting, whistles and cheers flooding out of them as their patrons took in the carnal pleasure. The markets, too, saw some semblance of a late rush, as those out and about doing this and that sought to indulge in cheap trinkets, or street food.

He avoided more popular streets, however, slinking around through backroads, around street lights, and around the occasional groups of a few people as he searched for a prime target.

He was looking for someone out on their lonesome, primarily. A singular target, preferably not a ninja. It wasn't as if he couldn't sneak up on a Chuunin, for example, but they might not be brought down by a single strike to the backs of their necks like a civilian would be and to be doing something as… frowned upon as he was, he didn't exactly want his victims calling attention to themselves.

And so it was that he caught sight of a thirty-something year old woman, walking alone on a side street leading into the more residential areas of the Leaf.

Immediately, his pupils narrowed into slits as he took in her figure.

She was no ninja, that much was certain. Her body was more plump than toned, and she had no weapons on her person. Even a Genin wouldn't be caught dead without a single Kunai about them, and so he found himself taking to the shadows behind her, waiting for a good opportunity to move in, and strike.

All he'd need was a single instant, a brief moment of inattentiveness, and she would never be seen again.

And yet, despite his mastery of the shadows, Orochimaru found his eyes widening as he was forced to duck into a nearby alleyway, for the woman he was tailing had turned around, seemingly sensing his presence.

There was a palpable moment of silence as the woman stopped, and, seemingly, studied her surroundings. He couldn't exactly see her, given there was a wall between her and him, but he could sense the elevation in her heart rate, could almost taste the fear coursing through her.

"Hello?" She called; her voice surprisingly confident for someone as frightened as she was. "Is somebody there?"

He pondered silently what the point of such a question would be. As if he were going to simply admit 'ah yes, he'd been following behind her this entire time, his mistake'.

Even still, after thirty seconds more spent waiting for her assailant to show themselves, his prey swallowed some spittle inside her mouth, turned around, and began walking at a far quicker pace. He allowed her to gain some ground on him before he melted into the earth beneath him, sticking to the shadows of the alleyway they inhabited as he edged his way closer.

Perhaps the woman's fear was merely getting the best of her, for, in the next moment, she began to run. Her shoes, entirely unmade for such a display, clacked on the stone alleyway loudly, and he clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth as he realized how much she was drawing attention to herself.

Not to mention, they were exiting out of the alleyway soon. He could see a few houses just a way's off.

If he was going to do this, he'd need to be quick about it.

He practically shot forward, emerging from out of the ground and reaching out a hand towards the woman…

Just as a voice called his name.

"Lord Orochimaru?"

Both he and the woman turned towards said voice, and he had to immediately wrack his brain.

Because… he knew the face in front of him.

Not particularly well, admittedly, but he'd definitely seen him at least once, perhaps even exchanged words…

Ah.

"Tondo Uzuki, correct?" He greeted simply enough, internally rifling through potential articles to excuse his appearance here, and, if he couldn't find something good enough, preparing to combat the man in front of him if necessary. "And what are you doing out here?"

Far from looking overly suspicious, as Orochimaru expected he would, Tondo instead gave a quiet laugh.

"Well, that," he gestured to a house around ten or so meters from them. "Is my house, and that," he pointed to the woman who Orochimaru had been tailing. "Is my wife."

He forced himself to show no reaction to that, even as Tondo looked around, before moving towards his wife almost protectively.

"So, uh… sir, if you don't mind me asking the same of you, what are you doing out here?"

Well, being honest certainly wasn't an option. He ran through that list of excuses he'd been working on, and, after a moment, had a realization.

Actually…

"I felt an unknown presence hanging about this woman." He spoke honestly. "Something, or someone, was following her. I wasn't up to anything in particular, and I wasn't about to simply let anything happen to an innocent woman, so I followed behind as well. I didn't reveal myself, since I assumed if said figure did appear, I'd be more than capable of protecting her, and subduing them."

Far from doubting his explanation, Tondo's wife let out a horrid breath.

"I knew it!" She shivered, running her hands up and down her arms. "I knew I felt something! So... someone was really following me?"

"I fear so." He confirmed.

Tondo, to his credit, immediately removed the Anbu Captain trenchcoat he was wearing, and wrapped it around his wife's shoulders. She seemed to appreciate the gesture, leaning her head on the man's shoulder, and into the crook of his neck. Tondo returned the gesture.

"Gods, I'd hoped not. I felt something similar, it's why I came out here in the first place, but…" He visibly swallowed, before turning towards his wife. "Sweetie, I told you not to take the alleyways home. With things as they are, it's dangerous to be out alone this late."

"I know, but–"

"Things as they are?" He interrupted, far too curious to let that go. "Is there a situation I've not been informed of?"

"Ah, yeah. Sorry, figured you wouldn't want any more work on your first real day on the job, so I hadn't had the time to bring it up yet, but one of the things the Anbu are currently investigating is a string of disappearances around the Leaf Village." He explained. "No less than ten people have gone missing in the last year alone."

Ah. So, he had been noticed.

"Does intelligence believe these to be isolated incidents?" He asked, trying to gleam as much information as they had on him as he could without seeming suspicious.

Tondo merely shook his head. "They've been sporadic enough for them to possibly be isolated, but we can't really determine–"

"Dear?"

Orochimaru held himself back from sighing as Tondo's wife gripped onto the man's arm and shot him a look that must've held some meaning to him, for he ceased speaking immediately thereafter.

"Right, thanks honey. Sorry, sir, but we shouldn't talk about this here. I wouldn't want to scare my wife, and, well," He gestured all around them. "Prying ears, no?"

He was annoyed by the fact that he couldn't exactly argue with the man's reasoning. It would make sense not to give away any information about an assailant to the assailant, and from Tondo's point of view, said assailant could still be around them, listening in.

It was just such a shame for Orochimaru that Tondo was so adept in his assessment.

Seeing as how he'd be getting nothing more out of this meeting, he decided to move on. If he was quick about it, he might be able to find another candidate and have them back in the lab by late evening, with enough time to get some preliminary measurements.

"Well, seeing as how you're present now, I see no reason to stick around." He remarked simply, turning around and immediately beginning to scan his surroundings. "It's been nice–"

"Ah, wait, sir!"

He turned around begrudgingly, regarding Tondo and his wife with a certain skepticism.

"Do you require something of me?"

"No, but, I'd like to thank you. You may've saved my wife's life, after all, so please, let us treat you to a meal at least." Tondo spoke, smiling his way. "It'd be our honor for looking after her like you did."

Orochimaru managed, barely, to hold himself back from audibly sighing.

"Tondo, it's Nine o'clock."

"Hah, well, since Akari works up at the hospital, and gets off so late, we usually eat dinner just as late." Tondo explained. "I tell you, I cook a mean steak, Akari can attest to that."

His wife giggled quietly as Orochimaru thought up an excuse to not have to do this. Luckily, it wasn't that difficult.

"As much as I'd like to, I've important duties to attend to." He shook his head. "Perhaps another time, but–"

"Ah, c'mon, you said you weren't up to anything earlier." Tondo smirked his way. "I get it, I get it, you don't exactly wanna' eat with some people you just met, but really, it's our treat, and we'd really appreciate it."

He stared unabashedly at the two, looking back and forth at the both of them, before he took a deep, calming breath.

He unfortunately had said that he wasn't busy, hadn't he, and that was why he had been able to follow Tondo's wife, apparently named Akari. Still, for some reason, Tondo was really pushing this. Even though Orochimaru had tried to 'politely' decline his invitation twice now. Something was up, and Orochimaru would've been remiss to ignore something that had his instincts even remotely uncomfortable.

And that meant…

"I…" He sighed wearily, already seeing his chances of gaining a replacement subject by the end of the evening dwindling into nothing.

"Suppose that would be acceptable."

Tondo barked out a victorious laugh, before waving him to follow behind him.

"Awesome! Come on in, I promise you won't regret it!"

Oh, he was fairly sure he would.

/-/

The Uzuki residence was about as boring as he'd been expecting.

Oh, he was fairly sure someone who was more of a people person might've called it 'homey' or 'quaint', but he'd never really been the type to think or to worry about such things. Instead, his mind was racing thinking of a different area of the Leaf where he could find a subject for testing later in the evening which would, hopefully, not result in him being sucked into a 'fun family dinner' he had no desire to attend.

At least said dinner was good. He'd be remiss to not at least admit that. He'd had food from all over the world, courtesy of being a high-ranking ninja assigned to all sorts of different tasks, but this meal was certainly in the top half of all of them, at the very least.

It wasn't particularly complicated. Simply a steak with some sort of sauce dribbled along the top. Still, 'simple' didn't at all mean 'bland' in this case. It was surprisingly refreshing to consume.

For a moment, he found himself distracted as he pondered something.

When was the last time I had an actual meal?

Thinking hard on that, Orochimaru could admit it had been… quite a while. He'd not had the chance to partake of anything but ration bars and food pills while he was away during the Third Shinobi World War, and since he'd gotten back, he'd been too busy in the lab, or signing papers while tied to his desk, to worry about having any actual food. He'd stocked up on quick, easy to prepare items like cup ramen.

…Which meant he hadn't eaten actual food in… nearly half a decade.

Almost humorously, He could actually remember when it had been he'd last partaken of good eatery. A going away party with Jiraiya and Tsunade. The three of them going to some barbecue joint in the Leaf to celebrate (or, more accurately, to complain about) being shipped off to war once more. It'd been… it'd been…

"You're scary, Mister…"

"Hey, Yugao, that's not very nice!"

The twin voices snapped him out of his reverie. He looked up at the other people whom he was sat with for the first time in at least ten minutes.

Both Akari and Tondo were sat at the table, obviously, but there was a third member of their family, the Uzuki's daughter, a young, violet-haired girl named Yugao.

"Yugao, you need to be more polite." Akari rebuked her daughter. "That's the Hokage you're talking to."

Yugao pouted rather heavily, grumbling under her breath that it "…Isn't my fault he looks creepy…"

Orochimaru smirked, even as both of her parents frowned in her direction.

Well, good to know at least one person here has some sense about them.

"Sorry about that, sir. My daughter can be a bit of a scamp."

"Hey!"

He shook his head, unable to hide the small smile blooming there.

"I take no offense."

"Ah, that's good." Tondo laughed awkwardly. "Didn't want my daughter's attitude to be the thing to ruin the evening."

He couldn't help but feel some small semblance of irony there, given that the thing that had really ruined his evening was Tondo showing up and catching him as he'd been about to gain a valuable test subject, but he felt saying that probably would've been frowned upon, so he held his tongue.

"Yugao," Akari spoke with a small smile on her face. "Mr. Orochimaru here kept mommy safe this evening, he walked her back home from work."

Suddenly, Yugao's eyes lit up, and she looked over to Orochimaru with a new sense of respect. "Really?"

No, actually, he'd been trying to kidnap her mother, a move that would've eventually resulted in her death, but given as how saying that would also be frowned upon…

"Indeed."

In but an instant, tiny little Yugao had sprung out of her seat, and wrapped her arms around his waist.

"Thank you, Mister!"

He really tried to resist squirming like an imbecile within the young girl's grip, but he couldn't recall the last time he'd been hugged, and frankly, he'd not been planning on starting up the counter again.

"C'mon Yugao," Tondo laughed at his pain. "I think Mr. Orochimaru's uncomfortable, you're squeezing too hard."

Yugao almost immediately loosened her grip, taking a step back and bowing apologetically. "Sorry, Mr. Hokage, sir."

"It is… fine." He managed to push out between his teeth.

"Sweetie," Akari rebuked her daughter, "You can't just go and hug everyone. Some people aren't good with physical affection."

"Huh? But mister Orochimaru didn't seem to mind that much!" Yugao declared proudly. "His face was all red, I think he liked it!"

"Pfft, Yugao!" Despite her attempt at superiority, Akari snickered under her breath. "Don't tease our guest!"

Tondo guffawed loudly, even as his daughter gave a nasally giggle at his expense.

Orochimaru briefly considered simply killing everyone in the room, which would be the simplest way to get rid of all those who'd witnessed such shame from him. But thinking of that had his gut squirming, much like it had been nearly a month ago, when he and Jiraiya had been arguing about Tsunade's return to the Leaf.

Why…

Instead of contemplating that any further, Orochimaru focused, instead, back on the conversation happening around the table, which had changed topics rather quickly towards some other equally asinine thing, and mentally groaned as he realized he was going to be here for a while longer.

/-/

A good hour and a half later, Orochimaru finally found himself at the door to the Uzuki's residence, ready to get back to what he'd been trying to accomplish with the evening.

"Once again, thank you for staying with us." Tondo spoke, and Orochimaru could hear the sounds of the man's wife cleaning up the table and washing the dishes in the background. "I know Akari and Yugao appreciated it, and I certainly did as well."

"Yes, well, despite your pushiness to invite me, I found the food to be rather delectable." He spoke evenly, placing his hand on the doorknob. "I suppose I shall see you again at some point during working hours."

He heard Tondo hum affirmatively behind him, though just as he opened the door, and stepped out into the cool night air, he found himself pausing within the door frame. He'd just had a potential realization, and Orochimaru had never been very good at having a hypothesis and not testing it.

"I don't think I even considered it earlier," He began, turning back around as his long, dark hair swayed with the wind, "But the reason you were so keen to invite me to dinner… was in case whoever was chasing after your wife came back, wasn't it?"

To his credit, Tondo looked embarrassed to be called out on it.

"Ah, well… I was kind of hoping you'd just think of me as incredibly hospitable."

For some reason, Orochimaru almost found himself smiling.

All this… affection wasn't to his speed. But using someone to one's own advantage… that he could respect.

"But yeah, you got it in one." His host admitted. "The Anbu has no idea how strong whoever this kidnapper, or kidnappers, might be, and frankly, if my wife has a target on her back…" The man swallowed, and Orochimaru could visibly see the man contemplating the possibilities of that. "Well, let's just say I wasn't planning on finding out they were stronger than me the hard way."

Orochimaru nodded. Hell, it was smart, given that technically, the man was right.

He was far stronger than him.

"And so, you invited the strongest ninja in the village to dinner." He half-grinned. "I must say, Tondo, that's a rather underhanded tactic from you there."

"Ah… sorry, sir."

"Do not be. You will find I am no stranger to such things, nor am I against them."

"Well… thanks, sir." Tondo rubbed the back of his neck, nodding his way in what seemed both apology and thanks. "Don't be a stranger, alright? We'd love to actually have you over for a more positive reason some time."

"Perhaps." He gave as his only answer. "Though I wouldn't count on it."

"Hah, understood, sir. I appreciate tonight. Have a good evening."

"Mm."

And with that, Tondo closed his door, and left Orochimaru outside, all alone.

/-/

As it turned out, tailing a drunk who was still downing sips of sake in between singsong laughs to himself about nothing was quite straightforward. At any time, Orochimaru could've jumped out, knocked him out, and had him back into the lab within minutes. Hell, he was fairly sure the man wouldn't have realized anything was wrong until the next day.

And yet, for some reason, he didn't.

Instead, he simply watched. Watched as the man stumbled his way through a back alleyway, taking no heed to the danger he was in, and slovenly made his way towards a house only a few minutes off from the Uzuki's residence.

He knocked on the door, hiccupping to himself, and was greeted by a woman in her forties as the door opened.

Almost immediately, he was stricken atop the head with a reed stick.

"Ow! Damnit, woman!"

"Huh!? 'Damnit woman'? Is that all you have to say! Out til' nearly one o'clock in the mornin' without a damn word to me and you' got the audacity to get upset!?"

"Ah… sorry. The guys and I just went out for a bite. Got kinda' carried away…"

"Honestly…"

A second later, the woman wrapped her arms around who was seemingly her husband.

"You' any idea how worried I was? I kept thinkin' something had happened!"

"S-Sorry…"

Orochimaru watched the caring display with a neutral expression, trying to ignore the way his gut squirmed. Eventually, having had enough, he turned around, and slinked back into the darkness, and into the night.

/-/

The steady drip-drop created by the endlessly leaky pipe just off of his 'laboratory' was a sound that normally helped to keep him focused, calm. Now, for some reason, Orochimaru felt like ripping the entire piping structure apart with his bare hands if it meant it would stop.

He took a deep breath, in some vain attempt to calm the wriggling mass within his breast.

His operating table was empty.

This was, objectively, a concern. If his operating table was empty, his research was halted, and if he wished to become immortal, wished to transcend death and become master of all known Jutsu, then that was not an option.

So why was he…

Drip…

He slammed his hands down on the table, denting the metal beneath him as he let out a shaky breath. The backs of his fists ached, the muscles and bones inside clearly at least bruised at the foolish display.

He did not particularly care.

Why had he returned empty handed?

A rhetorical question if ever there was one. He knew why. The horrid, squirming sensation within his chest. Gods he hated it. For the past month, all it'd been giving him were problems.

And yet…

"Hey, thanks man. For changing your tone. I know she appreciated just being allowed to chat with friends for a while."

Drip…

"Don't be a stranger, alright? We'd love to actually have you over for a more positive reason some time."

Drop…

He raked his nails through solid metal, ignoring the way they sheared through the material like knives through flesh.

Drip…

He placed both his hands underneath his operating table, and, with a putrid scream, uprooted the entire thing, and sent it flying into the back wall of the laboratory. It impacted against some of his older subjects hanging along it, knocking both itself and one or two of them to the floor in a heap.

He breathed uneasily as he looked at what he'd done, before forcing himself into a calmer state of mind. He pinched his nose annoyedly as he realized he'd only really created a mess he'd have to clean up later.

If he was going to do any more experiments with live subjects, then he'd need his table back in working…

Or… maybe…

Maybe he wouldn't need any more live subjects to begin with?

After all, collecting them might've been easy, but now that he was Hokage, he'd likely be tasked with worrying about the disappearances. Covering up after himself wouldn't have been difficult, of course, given he made sure not to leave any evidence, but even so, it would be far easier to clean up after his own messes if he wasn't making any in the first place.

And besides, there were certainly other ways he could continue his research. Animals that were close to humans in biology would do just fine, and they would be far, far easier to obtain. A trip down to the local butchery to fetch pigs before slaughter, or to one of the Leaf's pest centers to gather rats, would cover his bases on those grounds.

Yes… yes… The more he considered this plan, the more sense it made to him. Given this plan, he'd be able to let people forget about the kidnappings in the first place. That way, if he ever wished to collect more human evidence in the future, he could do so without immediately arousing suspicion.

Though, well, it wasn't like he'd need to. Surely, he'd gotten everything he really needed, wanted, even, out of human subjects. He had no need to kidnap anymore.

Yes. That was all this feeling was. All that squirming mass within his breast happened to be…

Pragmatism.

/-/

"Peace talks?"

The Hokage Council, Homura, Koharu, and Danzo, stood before him, there expressions as neutral as he'd ever seen. Orochimaru supposed that came with the territory, all three acting as shrewd politicians for decades, feigning care while mostly looking out only for their own self-interests.

He could respect that, given he was much the same.

"Yes, indeed. I must say, I do not begrudge you having to attend one of these, the Five Kage Summits were always some of my least favorite duties."

Ah, yes, and Orochimaru had almost forgotten about their newest… unofficial councilor as well.

"Hiruzen, if you have nothing to add," Danzo spoke to his oldest… friend? Rival? Orochimaru could never tell with those two. "Then it is preferred you stay quiet."

"Hah, I've more to add than you, old friend. I've actually attended quite a few of these."

A small tick along Danzo's forehead told Orochimaru that the reminder that he had never been Hokage himself was not a pleasing one, though admittedly the Shadow of the Leaf Village hid it well in his expression as he cleared his throat.

"Rather simply put, these will be the finishing touches on negotiations and reparations for the end of the Third Shinobi World War. I'm sure you can see how important that is, Orochimaru."

"I can. I simply do not much feel like making peace with the enemy."

"Today's enemy is tomorrow's friend, Orochimaru." Hiruzen added. "These peace talks could be the beginning of valued alliances for years to come."

"Yes," Danzo retorted, rolling his single exposed eye like he was being forced to listen to an infant's babbling. "Or, more accurately, they can be a good way for us to get a leg up on the other nations, so that the next time we find ourselves at war with them, we will have the upper hand."

"If you search only for war, Danzo, you will find only war."

"It is far better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war, Hiruzen."

"Enough, both of you." Orochimaru interrupted before the two could begin dueling one another through spoken word poetry alone. "When is the summit, what is expected of me, and when should I depart?"

Both Danzo and Hiruzen cleared their throats awkwardly, apparently realizing how childish they'd been, though it was ultimately Komaru that spoke.

"The summit is in three weeks' time, held within the Hidden Grass Village, which has volunteered to be a neutral ground between major villages in exchange for increased reparation funding. The journey from the Hidden Leaf to the Hidden Grass can be done in less than two days at your top speed, though if you wished to make a more comfortable journey, I would suggest leaving around two weeks from now, giving yourself a week for travel."

He nodded, already mentally comparing routes he could take. The Hidden Grass had been an occasional battleground in both the Second and Third Shinobi World War's, and Orochimaru had seen more than his fair share of it. He knew the major towns, roads, and Kusagakure itself rather well. He'd heard it'd taken quite the beating in the last year or so of the war, so it made sense they would wish for increased funding, even if it meant allowing all five major nations, including quite a few who'd been enemies mere months ago, into their walls.

"Also," This time, it was Homura who spoke. "It is a generally accepted custom that the Kage each bring along two Shinobi with them as bodyguards. Any less, and you will seem brash and overconfident. Any more, and you will seem incapable and weak."

Ah, yes, appearances. He supposed such things did matter now that he was the Hokage.

Still… Two shinobi, huh?

"Hah."

He glanced up at his former master, who was peering down at him with a knowing grin upon his lips.

"I imagine you are already fairly certain of who you'll be bringing?"

Not for the first time, he came to the conclusion that his former master was perhaps too adept at reading him.

/-/

About half a day into their week-long trip, after their group had gotten ready and comfortable with the journey, conversation was finally beginning to bubble up.

"The Hidden Grass, huh?" Jiraiya placed a hand on his chin, "Gotta' say, it's been a while since I've been there. Still… pretty sure last time I was, they had mixed baths…" He paused for a moment, before a lecherous grin took over his features. "Oh, this'll be a good trip."

Tsunade almost immediately slapped the man across the arm, and the sound of said blow echoed out into the forests around them. Jiraiya, to his credit, managed to avoid showing the pain he was obviously feeling, though Orochimaru couldn't help but agree with little Shizune's wince.

"…Ow." Jiraiya eventually pushed out between clenched teeth. "'Dya have to hit me that hard?"

"Yes." Tsunade remarked matter-of-factly. "My eventual goal is to instill a natural response within you, where whenever you think of something pervy, you remember what'll happen to you if you act on that thought, and as a result become a reformed member of society."

"That's–"

"If you have any complaints, I can always slap you again?"

"No, ma'am."

"Good."

"If we could all quit our bickering." Orochimaru sighed out, pinching his nose. "This is hardly the conduct expected of the Hokage's honor guard." He frowned, peering down at Tsunade's apprentice. "And remind me again why you've brought your pupil along? I do recall saying we'd be travelling as a group of three."

"Hey, you said you wanted me along, I said I was only going if I could bring Shizune, and so she's here." Tsunade shrugged without concern. "You have any complaints about that, make sure to file them up your own ass."

Jiraiya smirked at him as he rolled his eyes, ignoring the way Shizune glanced, mortified, between himself and Tsunade.

"Yes, yes. Well, if the other nations think of us as weaklings now, I just want you to know it's your fault."

"I'll accept those consequences."

"Right, I forgot you're barely a member of the Leaf Village these days anyways, naturally you wouldn't care."

His lips sparked the moment he closed them, almost as if his tongue were trying to reach out and steal the words out of the air, prevent them from being heard. Alas, instead, Jiraiya let out a quick breath of frustration, and Tsunade flinched for a moment.

"Well, good to see Orochimaru's back." The Slug Princess replied coldly. "I was worried someone had gone and stolen your body these last two months with how different you'd been."

He made an attempt to speak a moment later but ended up shutting his lips not too long after. Luckily for him, he was leading their little caravan, and so none of the others could see his face as he pondered current happenings.

Why? A part of him asked simply. Why bother pondering anything at all. There's nothing to ponder, nothing to think about.

That part of him had been almost all of him for a good decade or two now. He had always found himself as rather cold, distant, and emotionally closed off. But he'd never once considered those things weaknesses. Far from it, everyone else, so affected by their consciousnesses, their emotions… they were the weak ones.

He was their greater. The next step in their evolution they could never reach.

So…

Why?

Why did his stomach feel like a block of ice had been dropped inside of it, acid eating away at it and melting into nothing, yet cooling his insides, causing him to hesitate? Why was he seriously considering…?

"…I admit that I am stressed at the moment with the Five Kage Summit looming over me." He found the words pushing themselves out of his throat before the part of him that had once been all of him could protest. "I did not mean… that is to say, I did not consider my words carefully enough."

The sound of footsteps was the only thing that existed within that small path as they snaked through the Land of Fire. And yet, what felt like an eternity (and yet was likely only twenty or so seconds) later, a voice finally arose from behind him.

"Strange… that almost sounded like an…" Tsunade hesitated, before continuing. "I take it back, Orochimaru really was kidnapped. You're a stone spy, aren't you?"

And for some reason… for some reason, the tiniest of smiles stretched his lips thin.

"You've caught me. And here I thought my disguise was perfect."

His stomach, formally icy and cold, settled, and he breathed out what he'd been hoping was a silent sigh. Unfortunately for him, judging by the way Jiraiya wrapped his arm around his shoulders, and shot him a grateful smile, it had not gone unnoticed. He managed to dislodge himself from the man's grip, rolling his eyes as his compatriot laughed at his expense.

A sort of comfortable silence fell over them after that, and they settled into a relaxed pace as they continued to make their way towards the Village Hidden in the Grass.

/-/

"I would like to first thank each and every one of you for attending today, and for allowing our humble Kusagakure to play host to such an auspicious event." The spokesman of the Grass Village kneeled, showing the five of them, and their retainers, the respect they were due. "We will begin the Kage Summit once everyone has arrived and settled in. Until then, you may speak amongst yourselves."

Some others took that advice, chatting quietly among their retainers, though Orochimaru saw little reason to do something so meaningless. In his eyes, the Summit had already begun. If this were one of his covert operations, then he would use this time to do preliminary scouting.

Orochimaru himself was sat in the middle seat of a massive, half-moon shaped table that all of the Kage were arranged along. He gazed at the people sitting all around him, focusing, mainly, on those wearing the garb of the Kage, paying little attention to their retainers, except for one or two whom he recognized by face, or by reputation.

He focused, first, on the one's he knew by name. Immediately to his right, Ōnoki of the Stone had, somehow, in the few years since he'd last seen the man on the battlefield, grown even shorter. His pathetic frame, however, had always belied his fearsome power. Particle Style was a rather frightening ability, even to Orochimaru. The ability to simply erase whatever resided within a given space, well…

Orochimaru was fairly sure his methods of regeneration, his ability to birth a new body for himself from out of his stomach, likely wouldn't do much good for him if he were entirely atomized.

Still, even though the man possessed a frightening offense, he'd never had much in the way of defense. If Orochimaru needed to kill the man, he wouldn't have ever attempted a frontward assault. Something more subtle, a poison in the man's food, or on the blade of a senbon, would be his preferred weapons.

At the right end of the table was Rasa, the fairly newly appointed Fourth Kazekage. Ever since the Third Kazekage's disappearance, which Orochimaru himself had always assumed had something to do with the near parallel disappearance of Sasori of the Red Sand, he'd taken up the role of Kazekage. He seemed competent, if perhaps weaker than the average Kage.

In this case, Orochimaru was fairly sure that, even in a straightforward fight, he could eliminate Rasa if it came down to it. It would not be pretty, as much as he belittled the man's ability, his Gold Dust Manipulation was far from weak, but it was just about the only majorly threatening Jutsu in his arsenal. He could work around it.

On the left end of the table, leaning on one arm and looking entirely disinterested, was A, the Raikage of the Hidden Cloud. Brash, impulsive, but undeniably a threat, Orochimaru had met A both in battle and not most of all the others in the room. That particular piece of antiquity lent, mostly, to the fact that Ōnoki never chose to fight on the frontlines, and A did.

Still, what he'd learned from squaring off against the man the few times they'd met was that he was not to be underestimated. His speed outmatched any offensive threat Orochimaru could put up individually, and though he had little in the way of utility, his defense, thanks to his Lightning Style Armor, was nothing to scoff at either. He was a powerhouse, if not a particularly intelligent or flexible one.

Orochimaru's gaze fell, finally, to the one Shinobi Orochimaru pointedly did not recognize. Sat in the Mizukage's chair, his arms folded over his chest, and deep in what seemed almost like meditation, the young man who could not have been any older than twenty sat stilly.

It seemed he was not the only one curious about the man, for the Tsuchikage himself raised his voice to be heard above the idol chatter, cutting through it, paradoxically, like lightning.

"And where is the Third Mizukage? Last I'd heard, he was Kage of the Mist, not you… Child."

If who Orochimaru could only assume was the Fourth Mizukage was offended by the crotchety old man's insult, then he did not show it.

"My name is Yagura. You will address me as such. As for the Third Mizukage, he has been dethroned." Yagura spoke emotionlessly, his arms crossed over his chest, not even bothering to look up at them as he continued. "Under his rule, the Mist were unable to gain anything out of the war. I was chosen to be his successor because I was the strongest shinobi in the Village. Nothing more, nothing less."

Ōnoki sneered. "Hah, yes, that sounds very much like the Mist Village. Placing strength over actual capability."

At that comment, Yagura reached behind him for an odd, staff-like weapon that was leant against the side of his chair.

"If you would like a demonstration of just how capable I am," Yagura finally opened his eyes, staring right at the Tsuchikage. "I assure you that can be arranged."

"Gentleman, please." The Grass Spokesman attempted to quell the tempers of the two errant Kage. "Let us not be at each other's throats so early in this meeting. We've not even truly begun our proceedings. May we allow cooler heads to prevail?"

Ōnoki grumbled, even as Yagura merely set the staff back down where he had placed it before and went back to his meditations.

"Speaking of new appointments," A, the Raikage, chuckled mirthlessly. "To think we would have the honor of seeing all three of the Leaf's 'Sannin' in attendance. And one has even been named Hokage. I suppose that old bastard Hiruzen finally got tired of burning the candle at both ends?"

Of the three of them, Jiraiya very clearly took the Raikage's condescending words the hardest. He leaned forward, evidently about to give the man a piece of his mind, but Orochimaru held a hand out. A rather obvious way of cooling the man's head it may've been, but it worked.

Instead of flying off the handle, Jiraiya spoke icily, "Yeah, seemed like utterly annihilating you bastards in this war had the old man all tuckered out."

"Heh, cute." A didn't seem particularly bereaved by Jiraiya's admittedly weak jab. "Still, I'm shocked it's not that Yellow Flash guy, whatever his name is, sitting here. He was far more competent than any of you three, surely."

Orochimaru was able to keep a neutral expression firmly planted on his face, though once again, Jiraiya's more obvious emotions were his most glaring flaw here.

"I'm sure he would've loved to be here, but I'm afraid he has family matters to attend to."

Instantly, Orochimaru clicked his tongue, a piece of him that used to be all of him already regretting his decision to bring Jiraiya along.

"Hmph," A's smug expression practically oozed victory. "So, our reports were correct then, The Yellow Flash truly has settled down. An interesting piece of information you've confirmed for us today, Toad Sage. You have my thanks."

Jiraiya seemed to finally realize the error of his words, biting down on his lip as he took a step back from the table, and looked away.

"Shit…" He muttered under his breath.

Orochimaru hummed quietly to himself as the other Kage's turned their attention away from Jiraiya and Minato, and instead began arguing about some other topic.

He'd made a mistake earlier, he was realizing, in labeling this preamble a waste of time. Such bickering surely seemed meaningless on the surface, but Orochimaru could see the point to all of this initial posturing. Each of the other Kage's were taking potshots at one another's egos for the chance to try and get under the others skin, all in the hopes that it would give them an advantage in the negotiations that would soon follow. He could almost admire the tactic, were Ōnoki and his ilk not the very enemies he had been trying to undermine nearly every second of his existence as a Shinobi.

It wasn't like he would claim he hated them. Orochimaru was no child; hating something was a rather harsh emotion, especially one to espouse onto people he'd never truly interacted with, aside from occasional skirtings around one another on the battlefield, in his life. But they were his enemies all the same. To pretend otherwise was as equally childish as to hate them. Perhaps it was not fair, but the Shinobi world had never once claimed itself to be so.

His thoughts were interrupted as the Raikage once again rounded on the Leaf's representatives, this time, on Orochimaru's opposite side.

"And who's the little girl?" He asked, clearly amused by the way Shizune seemed to shrink in on herself while being addressed. "I suppose the ever-so-grand Hokage is so in need of good help he's recruiting children now?"

Ah, so Homura and Koharu weren't deceiving me with their talk of keeping appearances.

"She is my student." Tsunade placed a hand on Shizune's shoulder, steadying her apprentice before she could become any more flustered. "I have brought her along to observe, and to be trained. Nothing more."

"Hmph." A seemed almost bored to have nothing substantial to pick at there. A moment later, however, his eyes bored into Tsunade, and a tiny grin formed. "Ah, yes, The Slug Princess. I'm sure I'm not the only one surprised to see you here, hell, I wasn't even aware you still associated with the Leaf Village." He rubbed at his goatee, feigning deep thought. "What was the last thing I'd heard? Ah, yes, that you built up a rather frightening gambling debt, and were on the run from debt collector's?"

Tsunade grimaced as Shizune looked down and away, taking a step back. It would've been one thing to be called out about such a thing normally, but Tsunade was apparently even worse when it came to being called out in front of her student.

"Enough." Orochimaru commanded. "Your petulant attempts to rile up my retainers and I have been very quaint. Do you have any more, or are you ready to begin speaking to one another as adults do?"

A sneered, rolling his eyes annoyedly, but he turned back towards the head of the table, where the Spokesman from the grass sat waiting for them, all the same.

Orochimaru wasn't alone in smirking at the man's indignance.

"How fascinating." Ōnoki considered him with a visible interest. "Hiruzen was ever the peacekeeper. I must confess that it is almost relieving to have another who can use their words for their own gain among the Kage."

He held himself back from scoffing at the Tsuchikage's comments. As much as they were technically compliments, given who they were originating from, they might as well have been empty air.

"I must confess, Orochimaru. You disappoint me."

This time, he turned, eyebrows drawn downwards in both annoyance and confusion, towards where those words had originated from.

Yagura stared, seemingly bored, right at him.

"Oh?"

"I had heard before this meeting that among all those from the Leaf Village, there was none more alike to the denizens of the Mist Village than the Sannin Orochimaru. An eternally calm, ever-steady, emotionless tool, who accomplished whatever duty was set out for him. One who thought only of himself, and his standing. That was what was spoken of you."

Orochimaru prevented his face from showing the squirming of his own chest at that description. He refused to break eye-contact with Yagura, not just because he was fairly sure such a thing would be an even greater show of weakness to the young man, but because doing so would've forced him to see what Jiraiya and Tsunade's faces showed as well…

And frankly, he wanted very few things less than to know what they thought of what had just been said.

"And yet, to think, even the so-called 'Cold-Blooded Snake of the Leaf' cannot allow his friends to be insulted under his watch, can he?" Kagura stated, leaning on his elbow as he sat forward. "To see such weakness come from one touted as highly as you… it truly is disappointing."

Far from a witty retort, Orochimaru found he had nothing to say in response to the Fourth Mizukage's statement. He simply couldn't formulate thoughts in that moment. To have been so effortlessly seen through by the mere child sat beside him…

Once more, the Kage argued with one another, this time Rasa was the one in the firing line, something about the One-Tailed Beast that Orochimaru quickly zoned out of. Instead, his mind raced.

It's obvious. The Part of him that had once been 'all of him' droned inside his head. Even to someone who's only just encountered you for the first time, the conclusion is obvious.

We've grown weak.

He clenched his jaw together, his teeth rattling somewhat as his fingers laced together, trying to find something to do with themselves.

Someone unworthy of respect. Someone unworthy of the secrets of immortality we covet.

His eyes twitched; his nails dug into the skin between his fingers.

His hands shook.

This… this ends here. What had once been 'all of him' sounded final. We will not allow ourselves to slip further, we will not become something shameful. We are a shinobi. The only truly worthy shinobi in the world. We are Orochimaru, and we are–

A hand on his shoulder scattered his thoughts before the part of him that had once been 'all of him' could finish. He shifted his head partially to see it was, of all people, the Slug Princess who had snapped him out of his reverie.

"Steady yourself, 'Hokage'." The corners of Tsunade's lips rose ever so slightly. "You've got a whole summit to get through. Can't be falling apart at being called 'nice'."

And for some reason, that was the signal for his hands to stop shaking. His nails receded before they could pierce his skin.

Because… because she was right.

"…I suppose you're correct."

"Hah, I'm usually correct. You all could stand to listen to me a bit more."

He grinned amusedly as he shook his head at the woman's words, even as Jiraiya chuckled more openly. Shizune looked away in a rather embarrassed way, which told Orochimaru that if that particular piece of advice had been directed at anybody, it was probably her.

But, more than that…

Yes… yes, that's right, I'm…

The spokesman for the Hidden Grass cleared his throat, and evidently, the time had come for the 'meaningless' drabble to end.

"Very well. Then, if we are all ready…"

A shinobi? A truly worthy shinobi? No, I am more than that.

A chorus of nods at the man's words, from each of the five major points at the half-moon table.

He found himself smiling.

I am Orochimaru.

"Let us begin the Five Kage Summit."

And I am the Hokage.

End Chapter 2


Bwah-hah!

So, chapter 2 done, how'd ya like it? Hopefully a lot? That'd be good.

We get the beginnings of our core arc for the story in this chapter, and I'd imagine a good majority of you can already see where this is going. More on that... well, next chapter I guess.

If you're reading this in the future, and this whole story is done already, then cool! You get to find out now! If you're like me, reading (well, writing, but you get the point) this in the present, then it seems we're shit out of luck.

Anyways, Chapter 3 should be out within 2-3 weeks, give or take. Once I start writing I generally don't stop til' I'm done, so I'll try to start soonish.

Alright, see ya then!