Hello and welcome to the penultimate chapter of WIMTLF, starring Orochimaru! Who could've guessed!

Nothing to say really, for now, without further ado...


Chapter 9: Preparation


Orochimaru panted desperately as he was buffeted backwards, skidding along the dirt beneath him as he used his left hand to ground himself. Dirt and dust alike were kicked up in front of him as the man he was fighting struck the earth, cracking his neck in a rather showy fashion as he walked towards him casually.

Even if the man before him was lying about being Madara Uchiha (and Orochimaru had a feeling he was), one thing was for certain, he was no amateur.

His Taijutsu was crisp and held within it no room to punish. His Ninjutsu was varied enough to keep Orochimaru guessing, ranging from Fireball's to what seemed to be Wood Style of all things, if the way that the branches that impacted into the dirt and foliage around them exploded into smaller, almost tree-like arrangements when they struck.

The man before him, a wielder of the Sharingan, had not yet even been forced to use a Genjutsu, even if he was sure he possessed them.

The real kicker, however, was the intangibility.

As of yet, roughly five minutes into their fight, he'd been unable to identify any sort of rhyme or reason to it. The man phased through nearly every attack Orochimaru threw at him, and even the ones he dodged – which he'd intentionally made Orochimaru think were hits to the head, before baiting him into a particularly nasty trap where he'd allowed Orochimaru's foot to phase through his mask and stab up at him – he still wasn't able to follow-up on.

He was good. Better than good, even. As things were, even gimmicky as it was, his intangibility was a powerful enough force to contest even him.

No Jutsu was without weakness, however. That he'd learned himself when he'd nearly resurrected the First Hokage at full strength whilst experimenting with a piece of his corpse. Whether one needed to stop and aim when throwing a shuriken or throw out a longer string of hand signs for a more powerful Jutsu, there was a disadvantage to anything one did. Even this intangibility, as flawless as it seemed, had to have some manner of vulnerability.

Or, well, he'd at least have to hope it did. It not having one would bode rather poorly for him.

"I must admit, you disappoint me." Madara spoke calmly, even as a snake erupted from out of the ground beneath him, trying to bite into the bottom of the man's foot but instead flopping uselessly to the ground. His opponent smashed it below his foot a moment later. "I expected more from you, but you're rather out of practice, aren't you? I suppose a cushy job behind a desk for six or so months would put nearly anyone out of commission."

As much as he wanted to deny that; the man wasn't wrong. Orochimaru's skills had dulled somewhat over the past six or so months he'd been the Hokage. Signing papers and enjoying his new life with his friends hadn't exactly been training his Jutsu or keeping his muscles from atrophying, and a single mission out with Anko that had resulted in fighting some Earth Anbu wouldn't be enough to counteract that.

As it was now, he was the weakest he'd been for nearly a decade.

He barely kept himself from snarling angrily, even as he made the hand signs for yet another Jutsu and slammed his hands together, then down onto the ground.

"Earth Style: Collapsing Swamp!"

The forest floor beneath them seemed to melt away almost immediately, replaced in texture by that of a bog, causing Orochimaru himself to sink down to his ankles in sludge almost immediately. It was not a particularly grand feeling, but regardless, this would hopefully slow his opponent down.

"Oh? Using this to try and limit my movement?" Madara sounded almost disinterested. "I suppose you must think yourself rather clever."

He was already weaving the signs for another Jutsu, planning to cause the earth beneath to rumble, and let the man across from him either take to higher ground, or sink. Orochimaru himself could then sink into the ground below and gain the advantage.

Just before he could, however, the man across from him let out a haughty laugh, before he disappeared into the earth below, causing Orochimaru's eyes to widen.

He'd not thought that the intangibility might allow the man to completely ignore the ground itself, to allow him to maneuver beneath it. A slip up on his part that was almost assuredly going to cost him, because suddenly, it was Orochimaru whom this trap had been set for.

He had no choice but to melt into the earth himself, feeling more than seeing as he dipped beneath where the light shone.

The dirt and mud around him seemed almost to hum, as if a current were being passed into it. That would be the Jutsu he'd used above it, creating a swamp out of nothing. Even still, it meant he could not feel around for vibrations that Madara might cause.

Once more, he was at a disadvantage. And here he was supposed to be forcing the other man to play his game.

He sensed something coming a millisecond too slow to react, biting down on the pain that coursed through him as his entire body rocketed out of the earth, and was sent spiraling into the air. He landed in a heap some ways away, seething quietly as he reached down and ran his hand down his front.

He'd been wounded, and rather severely at that. A blade, likely a kunai, had ripped through his chest and down to his stomach. Honestly, he was lucky he hadn't been gutted on the spot, even if he would've simply retched out a new body from himself, said maneuver would've cost quite a chunk of his chakra.

And right now, as things were, he had a feeling he was going to need every last drop.

"You seem to think you're the only one who's ever made a combat pattern out of disappearing in the middle of battle." Madara mocked him as he spun a now bloodied kunai around on one finger languidly. "I must say, the Leaf's standards certainly have fallen if you're who they're accepting as their Hokage."

He could tell from a mile away that the man was attempting to goad him into action, and he was far above such idiotic taunts. Instead, he tried to stay as calm as possible, ignoring the way his entire front burned, and went through his options.

The man before him was strong, and he was weak. If he were in peak condition, this might not be a difficult fight. Or, perhaps, 'Madara', too, was holding back. It was entirely possible, nay, probable, that a man who intended to attack the Leaf Village (if what he'd said was true) would have to be more than strong enough to take on someone of his caliber.

So where did that leave him?

Loathe as he was to admit it, Orochimaru wasn't quite sure.

Madara didn't seem entirely keen on allowing him time to think, either. With a quiet sneer, he charged forward, his black cloak billowing behind him as he brought his left hand, the one not wielding the kunai, up, and pointed it at him.

A branch shot out of it, the same sort of Jutsu he'd been using all fight, and Orochimaru was forced to dodge it, lest he be skewered rather harshly. Still, forcing him to move was enough, and Madara did not waste it.

He shot two shuriken out from his sleeve, angling low, and shot the kunai out a moment later. Each raced towards him quickly, and he knew instinctively that he would not have enough time to avoid all three.

A simple choice, then, which would he rather hit him?

He chose the lower of the two shuriken, allowing it to impact into his left pectoral with a shuddering breath. He was able to dodge the kunai and the other shuriken, which whizzed by him.

He did not like, however, how the man across from him hummed with what seemed almost like victory.

Orochimaru realized why a second later, as he heard the kunai behind him explode in a puff of white smoke.

He had just enough time to turn towards it, to see the Shadow Clone angling down towards him with a wooden stake emerging from out of his arm, and to send a surge of chakra to his stomach, before the hand rocketed forward.

The sharpened rod cut through his flesh like a hot knife through butter, rending him asunder as it entered into his left cheek, and cut into his esophagus. It exited out of his back, severing a part of his spine, and Orochimaru's body, cut free from his brain, lurched forward, entirely inert, his face impacting into the dirt a moment later.

The man above him let out an almost disbelieving laugh.

"Really? Is that all?" Orochimaru's corpse was kicked once, then a second time, and, when he did not so much as flinch at either, Madara let out a sigh. "No matter, then. I don't think I'll be leaving the body here to be discovered, either way."

The signs for a simple Fire Style Jutsu were loosed, and flames blazed to life across the remains of Orochimaru a second later. In nary a few minutes, the remnants of Orochimaru had been turned to ash, and Madara seemed almost disappointed as he stamped down on the ashes.

"I expected some final trick or some such, but I suppose you really are dead, aren't you? Oh well."

Madara's presence began to fade as he launched himself into the nearby trees, growing further and further away.

A minute passed. Then another. An hour, then another.

A good four and a half hours later, when every trace that 'Madara Uchiha' had so much as existed in that spot, Orochimaru's arm shot out from the ground.

The rest of his body followed soon after, even as he let out a horrid, shuddering breath as he took in actual air.

That… that had been close.

It had only been quick thinking on Orochimaru's part that had gotten him out of that situation in one piece. The wherewithal to know that he was outmatched in a straight fight, and to disengage. He'd not known, however, the true capabilities of his assailant, and so he'd done the only thing he could.

Die.

Well, quite obviously not actually die, given him being alive, but pretend to do so in such a seamless manner that not even the real Madara Uchiha – and he still refused to give the man he'd fought that honor – would've been able to tell.

He'd fallen, firstly, on his face, allowing the body he'd been within for that moment to die entirely. Then, he'd completely smothered his chakra signature as he poured out of his own lips like a paste, soaking into the earth beneath and gradually reforming. It was a move that had cost him every bit of remaining chakra within him, an all or nothing gambit that, had he been discovered, could've very easily resulted in his demise.

Still, he'd been confident enough that it wouldn't come to that, largely because his opponent was a haughty, arrogant one. He'd taunted him the entire fight, and even if some of that was certainly to try and goad Orochimaru into a poor reaction, well, a good portion of it, he'd realized, was plain conceit.

His opponent had thought himself superior, and so Orochimaru had played into that entirely. He'd 'died', and Madara had taken the bait.

He'd even burnt the corpse he'd left behind, and likely done some rudimentary checking to make sure he was dead, not that Orochimaru had been able to feel it in the state he'd been in. Still, there was likely no one better on the planet than faking their own demise than Orochimaru was, and so Madara had fallen for his 'trap', if such could even be called that, and left.

So… what now?

Because it was all well and good that Orochimaru had escaped. But ultimately, if he were to look back on himself waking up this morning, inside a rather warm, poorly insulated room on the second floor of a small town's inn, he was in near an identical position to how he'd been then.

Except…

"For over fifty years I have bided my time. Now, I wish to strike. At the very heart of the Leaf Village."

His blood ran cold once more as he remembered his assailant's words. The callous, uncaring way they'd been spoken.

From anyone else, he might've thought them empty talk. After all, the Leaf Village was home to plenty of Ninja strong enough to handle Orochimaru, for instance, were he to try and assault it himself. Jiraiya, Tsunade, Minato and Hiruzen, just to name a few.

But… the name of Madara Uchiha had him hesitating.

Because someone who was claiming to be Madara, someone who had a grudge against the Leaf Village, someone who intended with every fiber of their being to burn it to the ground, would know that.

They would know it would not be so simple. That the Hidden Leaf was not so easy a target.

And yet if he intended to attack anyways…

An almost foreign feeling settled in amongst his stomach, and he had to remember back to when he'd been just a boy, just a young Genin sent on his first few missions, to place it.

It was fear.

Not for himself. No… no this was…

The part of him that had once been 'all of him' seemed to scoff, though it's influence had almost entirely waned. The remainder, that which had emerged from out of him, that had since become his very essence…

It was worried.

When he thought of the Leaf Village under attack… when he thought of it destroyed, as unlikely as that seemed, he found his breath quickening, his fists clenching, and his throat dry.

He shook his head a moment later, growling almost animalistically as he tried to resist the feelings welling within him.

They'd kicked him out. They were done with him. The Leaf Village was not his home any longer. He'd… he'd enjoyed it, near the end. He could no longer deny such things. If he'd had his way, he would've wanted to be the Hokage forever. But… but it was over now.

It was…

"Just… I appreciate you being kind to her. I think she needs this. Just a nice, relaxing day in the Leaf, y'know? Something to remind her that her times here weren't all bad."

"Yeah. I think… I've decided. I want to come back. It's been an awful long time since I've been able to feel any sort of peace in this place, and… finally, finally again… I do."

"I just want you to know that… even though some of the other ninja might call you 'creepy' or 'closed-off'… You'll always have allies among the Uzuki's. You're our Hokage, forevermore."

He found himself swallowing, trying to bring some moisture to the barren desert that was his throat. His fingers shook as the fists they'd been in before loosened and fell to the side.

He…

Gods he wanted to pull his own hair out.

It wasn't like they'd take him back! It wasn't like going to them and telling them that an attack had been declared on the Leaf by some mysterious masked man claiming to be Madara damned Uchiha of all people was going to be taken seriously! They'd throw him away, no, they'd try and arrest him, and they wouldn't be allowing his escape this time.

He swore as he slammed a hand into a nearby tree, then again as he felt pain radiate out from the now broken bone lining the edge of his right hand.

Somehow, though, that pain served to ground him as he cradled the damaged limb. He panted harshly, grinding his teeth together as he let his oh so crowned intellect whirl at a mile a minute.

He couldn't go to them. He couldn't let them know the attack was going to happen, because there wasn't an ounce of evidence it would aside from his word, which, currently, was worth less than nothing. The testimony of a traitor to the Village would be thrown away in a heartbeat.

What could he do, then? What could he possibly do about this?

If he knew more, he could try and act. If he'd been smarter when that damned bastard was talking to him, he would've been able to pry him for information by at least pretending to go along with the plan, but no. Orochimaru had been jumpy, far, far too jumpy. He'd sensed the man's threat against his village, and moved to act against it immediately, without even thinking of the consequences.

Gods, he really had gone soft. The him that had once been crowned one of the Legendary Sannin would've torn the Orochimaru of here and now apart in seconds.

Still, he had some information to work with.

"I am much the same. For over fifty years I have bided my time. Now, I wish to strike. At the very heart of the Leaf Village."

He put to work the oh so lauded intellect that he'd made his name with.

If 'Madara' had been planning this attack for fifty years, or hell, he doubted he had, so he'd say, simply, that he'd been planning the attack, then that meant he couldn't simply waltz into the Leaf whenever he wished. No… no, he was waiting for something. Some moment of weakness, of the lowering of the Village's guard.

He could, at the very least, bet it had not been him. Madara had not at all seemed terribly attached to the idea of having him as an ally at all, nor had he been disappointed to be denied. He'd simply sighed, and then gotten to work killing him.

That didn't speak of a man who'd lost his only opportunity at vengeance.

And that was another thing. This seemed personal.

If it were the real Madara Uchiha, that would make sense. He'd been killed, after all, trying to destroy the Village by the First Hokage. If he'd somehow survived, and now wished all this time later to finish the job, that would add up.

But the real Madara Uchiha would not have needed to wait. He'd heard the legends of his and the First Hokage's battle at the Valley of the End. Sure, he imagined some was embellishment, the telling of tall tales that always came with communicating myth, but the fact of the matter was, the maps made before the battle didn't have a valley on them.

That spoke of raw power. And a lot of it.

So, once more, he'd effectively determined, at least with his own anecdotal evidence, that the man who'd attacked him wasn't Madara Uchiha. That meant that the attack might not have been personal. It might've been planned, surely, but he could possess some other goal.

He ran through his brain, trying to parse out just what that could be.

The Leaf Village wasn't any weaker just because Orochimaru was gone. It was, technically, but by a half of a percentage point. Not enough to matter. Likewise, it wasn't that he'd been waiting, for example, for Hiruzen to give up the seat of Third Hokage. The man hadn't exactly been at his best in recent times. He hadn't been waiting for the last Shinobi World War to end, either. The Village would've been far more vulnerable than it was currently with half its Shinobi out, running missions.

He ran through faces, ran through names, just trying to come up with some small seed, some small kernel of an idea that he could build from.

Jiraiya, Tsunade, Hiruzen, Tondo, Akari, Yugao, Shikaku, Inoichi, Choza, Nara, Yamanaka, Akimichi, Inuzuka, Mina–

The tiniest of sparks flickered within the back of his skull as that name flashed through his head.

A single sentence, one which had been spoken almost exactly six and a half months ago now, was replayed inside his head as if from a tape.

"As I've already announced, my wife, Kushina, is pregnant."

"My wife, Kushina, is pregnant."

Kushina.

Pregnant.

Ice hit his veins a second later, and, without even meaning to, he let out a quiet. "Oh."

Because didn't that add up just a bit too well.

He knew enough about Jinchuuriki to know their weaknesses. During certain moments, the seals placed upon the Tailed Beasts inside of them were weakened. Pregnancy was one such case. That brought up a more important question, however.

When was Kushina due?

He could take a guess. Minato had figured it out likely a few weeks or so before he'd told the Daimyo and the other officials present, corroborated by Jiraiya saying that he'd known for a while already, and had already been named the child's godfather, and assuming that she was recently made pregnant at that time, and had only just begun to show signs, because he'd not been informed by the time he'd left the Village of any efforts to safeguard the woman during delivery, then…

Then currently, she was eight months pregnant, give or take a week or two in either direction.

That…

At best, he had roughly a month and a half.

At worst… he had two weeks.

Gods he shook at the thought. That potentially two weeks from now, the Leaf Village would come under attack by a man determined to spring free the Nine-Tails. He might even unleash it upon the Village itself.

And if he did…

Orochimaru's eyes hardened, even as he found himself reaching back, and cracking his neck with his unbroken hand.

He had no time. He had to train. He had to get his body back into the shape it had been in during the war.

He had to become stronger.

Because whether or not they wanted him… whether or not he should go, he was not going to allow Madara Uchiha to destroy the Leaf Village.

He was not going to let the man destroy his home.

/-/

A week flew by in no time at all, and luckily, Orochimaru could already feel his muscles hardening, his body reacclimating to the state he'd kept it in during the War.

The weather had begun to grow just the smallest bit colder, and while that might've bothered some, Orochimaru had grown used to the frankly hostile climates of both the Mist and the Earth during winter. Staking out alone in enemy territory, with nothing to cover him or keep him warm, potentially for days at a time, had a way of hardening his sense of temperature.

Even as he was training, however, he was moving closer and closer to the Leaf Village.

It was slow going, especially sticking to areas that were deliberately out of traditional pathways. He couldn't risk being spotted. If he were, that might divert attention away from the Leaf, which would lower the Villages' guard.

It could not afford that. Not with what might be coming.

He was close to the Village now, the journey he'd taken across nearly half of the Land of Fire doing well to get his muscles used to the strain once more. He'd picked a spot just outside of where the Leaf had set up their training grounds, which would keep him, hopefully, from running into anyone at all. He'd also set up some fairly makeshift traps, nothing more than noisemakers, but they would alert him if anyone broke his perimeter.

It likely wouldn't be enough to detect Madara, were the man to come here with his intangibility, but it would be enough to detect the average Jonin, not expecting anything at all, that he was really trying to hide from.

He'd sent a few scouting snakes to investigate for him first. As good as his theory was, he could still have been wrong. While snakes weren't exactly grand at giving detailed information, they could at least communicate whether or not they had sensed life, and in what numbers.

What they'd reported back was normal.

The Leaf Village still stood.

Which meant now came the time for a more detailed incursion.

And that would require him to enter it.

That would be a problem, however, since he was decently sure the barrier corps would have his chakra on their 'immediately notify the entire village if this person tries to enter' list. He could try and rush in and then hide, but he'd still be caught by the barrier. They'd still know he was there, and that would put the Village on high alert.

And pointedly, not on high alert for Madara.

So right now, more than anything, Orochimaru needed a hidden way into the Village.

Luckily, he knew just the pathway in.

/-/

The Leaf's Underground smelled no better than it had the last time he'd entered into it. Luckily, the entrances he'd used to use to go to and from the Village without being detected had still been unguarded, which meant that Tsunade nor Shizune had informed the guards of the entrance in.

Which was good, because had they, he'd have had to improvise something fierce.

He took the sewage filled corridors slowly, making sure the hood he'd drawn up around his head covered the majority of his face. It helped somewhat to have the ability to read chakras, even in a mediocre fashion, so that he'd largely know which corners were good to round, and which he needed to wait for someone to move away from.

He managed to get his way over to the entrance without being spotted, lent in large part to him coming in in the middle of the day. The Village itself would be bustling, but the Underground was practically empty before nightfall.

He sunk into the wall near the entrance and allowed his senses to acclimate to the feeling.

Being inside the wall didn't suddenly mean he could hear everything around him, in fact, the vibrations of sound were incredibly muted by travelling this way. He needed to be much, much closer to anything he wanted to listen in on if he wished to eavesdrop, which was perhaps the Jutsu's only real weakness.

That was fine, really. He knew where he needed to go.

One might've thought to spy on Minato and Kushina themselves, but on account of him never actually visiting the man, and also not feeling like checking every single home in the village to find them, that kind of kicked that idea.

He could, however, visit someone else.

He travelled along through narrow walls barely thin enough to move through, into and out of impromptu passageways like he was travelling through a maze, relying on his knowledge of the Leaf, something he'd picked up during his many long years in the Village, to guide him.

Finally, he arrived in a small apartment, one which he himself had helped to pick out only a few months ago, laughing and smiling with two of the three inside of it right now.

He heard a familiar set of voices, and even having known coming in that this would happen, his breath hitched.

"So, you've been chosen to help guard them?" Tsunade spoke, and judging by her footsteps, she was walking from the kitchen area into the main living room.

"I was, yeah." Jiraiya's voice this time, originating from one of the chairs set up around a table in the same area Tsunade was walking over into. "Kushina's due in two weeks, Minato says. On October 10th. Just in case, I'm supposed to be on call for pretty much that whole week, to be ready to rush to their sides whenever."

His eyes widened as he realized he'd gotten lucky. Obscenely so. In barely a minute, he'd managed to accomplish the entirety of his goal in sneaking into the Village.

"Oh? They've got you playing watchdog, then?"

"Yes, yes they do. It's a favor, even if I'm going to be having a few potentially sleepless nights because of it."

He heard the two exchange a laugh, even as another set of footprints walked by, likely, from the volume of the reverberations they caused, belonging to Shizune. The steps echoed for a bit, before he felt a door open and close.

She'd likely gone to the bathroom.

"That's good." Tsunade spoke, sighing wistfully. "I'm happy for them."

"Mhm."

Both were silent a moment later, and Orochimaru couldn't help but feel he should leave. He'd gotten what he needed. He'd gotten everything he needed.

He didn't move. Some part of him couldn't.

Leave. Just go. Don't–

"So… How's the search?"

"Same as last week. Nothing. No trace of him at all."

"Damnit…" Tsunade lightly hit the table they were resting in front of – and he knew it was lightly, because the table hadn't instantly shattered – as she continued speaking. "Orochimaru, you idiot… I just wish… I just wish he would've told us any of this. I…"

"I can sort of get why he didn't. Orochimaru was never… Never the most open. And even if he felt guilty about it… even if he wanted to be better, there were always going to be some people in the Village who weren't going to forgive him for what he'd done."

He felt some part of him being built up, and yet breaking simultaneously as he listened to the two talk about him.

There was silence for a moment, before Tsunade asked Jiraiya a question.

"Do you? Forgive him, I mean."

"…I don't know. I don't think. I just… I can't imagine killing people like that. For anything. Even as a shinobi, we're taught to kill our opponents as efficiently as possible, but… gods, this is all so damned complicated."

Another bout of silence, this time Jiraiya broke it.

"But… even still, I… once Kushina gives birth, and the Village can settle down again… I think I'm going to go looking for him."

Orochimaru bit down on his lower lip hard enough to draw blood.

"Oh? Even after everything he's done?

"Hah," Jiraiya let out a low chuckle. "I don't think I deserve to be hearing that coming from you of all people."

The two exchanged a laugh, and Orochimaru…

Gods he wanted to join them.

He wanted more than anything to emerge from out of the ground, to surprise them and say he wanted to be with them…

But he couldn't.

As much as he wanted to, if he were to appear now, then all of the information he'd just been given might prove worthless. Even if he told them he had evidence of an incoming attack, and the two of them believed him, which was hardly a confirmed thing, then… what? Did they buff up security? Did they send more guards? Did they have Kushina give birth outside the Village?

Madara's unique Jutsu, that ability to phase through matter itself, would allow him to circumvent any physical defense, and he seemed the type to not entirely care about the rank and file, either. A Kage-level Shinobi, or one who intended to kill one, wouldn't be stopped even by an honor guard. And sending Kushina outside the Village… He didn't think for a second that Madara would be fooled by so simple a trick.

His intangibility was good for combat, but it was practically perfect for infiltration. He didn't doubt the man had his own methods of getting in and acquiring information. Having Minato and Jiraiya nearby was about as good as he could hope for, honestly.

He'd just have to hope that when and if Madara attacked, the two would be enough to hold him there. To prevent him unsealing the Nine-Tails.

He couldn't know exactly when the attack would begin. Nor did he know where Kushina was being taken, even if he had his suspicions. There were only a few spots in the Leaf that would fulfill the qualifications, and as Hokage, he'd been briefed on all of them. Still, even if he wanted to stake out every single one and find which was the one they were using so he could guard it himself, more than anything, he couldn't be found. If he were, that would give Madara a perfect opportunity to sneak in while calls for his own arrest were running rampant.

No, as much as he wanted to play this proactively, he would likely have to wait for Madara to make the first move in this case.

He did, still, carry with him the element of surprise. Madara thought him dead, after all.

He wouldn't be expecting a blow from the back.

As the bathroom door opened, and Shizune's footsteps echoed once more, he decided to take that as his cue to disappear. He flowed like water through the earth, back into the bowels of the Village, back into the Underground, and back out into his hiding place beyond the training grounds.

He felt…

Horrible. He felt worse than he ever had.

He'd wanted, so badly, to explain himself. To be honest with his closest friends.

But what could he have said?

Honesty wouldn't have gotten them anywhere, and even if they'd agreed to protect him, to keep him out of the eyes of the Village…

No. Words would not free him from his sin. Not after everything he'd done.

Actions might not either.

But that was fine. He wasn't doing this to make them forgive him. That wasn't his purpose at all.

He continued to train, even into the wee hours of the morning, knowing he had but a nary few weeks until the presumed time of the attack.

Because his Village was under threat.

And he had to be strong enough to protect it.

/-/

The night of the ninth, Orochimaru had forced himself to sleep.

As much as he'd wanted to make his body move, to make himself exercise and practice until he couldn't so much as twitch, he knew he needed to rest.

The small aches and pains he'd built up by training, the tiny tears, and fractures across his body… he needed to allow them time to heal. And so, even though it was torture, he slept until noon the following day.

And now it was October 10th.

He'd have been awoken by the noise were there an attack, and as he took position atop one of the taller trees in the forests beyond the training grounds, he saw no smoke or other signs of distress coming from the Leaf.

So Kushina had, assumedly, not given birth during the wee hours of the morning. Now…

Now all he could do was get into the Village, get ready for action and…

And wait.

/-/

As he snuck his way into the Underground again, Orochimaru couldn't help the nerves that bit down at his heart. It felt like it was beating erratically, like his blood was flowing wrongly, even if he knew, scientifically, that it likely wasn't. Such things tended to be rather fatal, after all, and he was still standing.

There was some last-minute preparation that he needed to do. He'd left it until the final hour so that, in case he was wrong about the man he'd be procuring his selection from, he wouldn't have enough time to sell him out.

Hopefully, at least.

And so it was that he found himself in front of a shop he'd visited many a time in the past, staring down at the man below him with a small smile as it was met with abject shock.

"Orochimaru…" The poison-peddler muttered in his accented tone. "You're here?"

"I am. It's good to see you, Shido."

"I…" The man let out a breath, before answering him. "Likewise, I suppose. I had heard…"

"Yes." Lies wouldn't help him here. "I was… removed from my seat."

"Well… I've no real care for what you may've done." Orochimaru nodded, even if he wasn't exactly going to trust the man on his word entirely. "You're a customer, and a well-paying one. What brings you here?"

"I need to stock up. I need a wide range of poisons. Anti-personnel."

Shido hummed. "Lethal?"

He didn't hesitate for a second. "Yes."

Shido just hummed again, marking something down on a sheet, before he looked back up at him, his gaze sharp and focused.

"How much do you need?"

Orochimaru almost wanted to laugh.

"How much do you have?"

It turned out that Shido had quite a large variety, including quite a few Orochimaru hadn't known the man possessed, and as he listed off the numerous types, what they did, and how to apply them (even if Orochimaru knew almost every mix by name alone) Orochimaru eventually managed to fill out every last niche he may find himself needing, from paralytics to nerve agents to gases.

He was ready. Or, at least, as ready as he was going to get.

Still, before his legs could carry him away from the small poisoner's stall, he found his eyes, instead, drawn to the large vial sitting in front of Shido, it's dim golden liquid seeming almost oxymoronically to shine.

"Shido…" His voice sounded unsteady, even to him. "How much for your display piece?"

Shido looked down at it, almost shocked, before he sputtered out a noise that, to anyone else's hearing, might not have been recognized as the laugh it was.

"Hah… that old thing? Free. For your years of generous patronage."

His eyes widened, before he found a smile on his face, and he regarded the man he'd had only a tolerance for his entire life just a bit differently.

"I… appreciate it."

"Thanks? from you?" Shido looked up at him, then waved his hand, dismissing his emotions. "Do not bother, it was not like anyone else was going to buy it. Besides… well… from the look on your face…"

Orochimaru swallowed, even as the man before him nodded, and reached his hand, holding the thick vial of toxic liquid, out for him to take.

"I've a feeling you may need it."

End Chapter 9


Well that's chapter 9. It's mostly just prep for the final chapter next week, but I like it nonetheless.

Anyways, see you all next week(ish) for the finale!