/~/

The Academy had stopped serving lunch for a brief period about six months before he graduated. The students had complained, Naruto a vocal member of them, but Iruka and Mizuki had held firm that this was simply part of their training. Late one week, a jonin had been brought in, and Naruto had suddenly found himself isolated, bound, and shaking in a prison that he had no escape from.

He was starved, he was cold, and there was no way out.

Despite the haze that had settled over his mind, it hadn't been hard to identify the exercise as a test. "Captivity training," the Academy called it.

The man asked him questions about his classmates, his teachers, and even about Konoha; each more pointed than the last and each with a more pertinent threat attached. Naruto had held firm, both assured that this was merely a test of his mettle and that he had been in more uncomfortable situations before.

The jonin held him under his genjutsu for three hours that day, and it had lifted to reveal an empty classroom and Iruka sporting the biggest smile he had ever favored the blond with.

He had passed with flying colors.

It was piss-poor preparation for his situation now, he mused.

Every shinobi across the continent knew the rules of captivity:

A prisoner's first duty was to escape.

A prisoner could only repeat their name and rank.

A prisoner could say nothing about their mission, their comrades, or their village.

A prisoner's final duty was to die.

You would be tortured, you would be coerced. Your body would give out, followed soon after by your mind, the rules said.

The rules said nothing about being fed three times a day, being made comfortable in new clothes, and being given more scrolls to read than he knew what to do with.

Naruto leaned his head back against the wall with a dull thump that only momentarily blocked out the whirring of his mind. It hadn't taken long for the reality of his situation to be made apparent: he wasn't going anywhere. By his best estimate, he had been in captivity for a week, but that didn't account for the time lost after Kabuto – the fucking snake – had knocked him out outside of Konoha.

"They've abandoned you already, I assure you." Orochimaru's words laid heavy upon his mind, but whether they were true or not didn't really matter.

He thought of his mission to find Tsunade, how Jiraiya had told him of the futility of trying to track down his other wayward teammate in years past. The blond had little faith that anyone but a sannin had the ability to do it, and the task had already proven itself too difficult for his old sensei.

Which meant his only options were to escape on his own or, he grimaced at the thought, die.

A scroll detailing the finer points of shape manipulation dropped from his suddenly limp fingers to the table at which he sat with a soft thud, the dry material no longer keeping his fatalistic thoughts at bay. Shaking hands that he had gotten used to seeing the past few days caught his face as it fell toward the table. He exhaled heavily, fingers slowing working their way through his hair. No tears fell from his eyes; he had run out days ago after finally losing the battle against breaking down.

"Think on your choices."

"Like I've done anything but," he murmured into the table. He picked his head up with a sigh, hands pulling the skin of his face taught against this skull. He inhaled into the painful stretch, aching to release the palpable anxiety that had gripped him since the moment he had woken. Four days ago? he wondered.

It was his best estimate given the frequency of the food that appeared every few hours. Which still wasn't that helpful given he didn't know how long he'd been unconscious for before that.

His hackles rose at the thought of his kidnapper, and he released his head and rose suddenly. He felt his teeth grind against each other as he began to pace, mind settling on the one constant that had kept him going since he'd woken.

Fury.

At himself, at Sasuke, at Orochimaru, at Kabuto, at Akatsuki, at Konoha, at his father.

At a situation that, no matter how long and hard he thought on it, was unwinnable. No matter the outcome, he would lose. Whether it would be every shred of his dignity, pride, and self-respect, or his life.

Juxtaposed as they were, it shouldn't have been a hard choice. It wasn't a hard choice. He'd spent every waking moment of his life since the day Itachi had turned his world upside down fighting for his right to live against shadowy figures who wanted him dead. Giving up was as antithetical as breathing.

But so was giving in. His skin crawled at the mere thought of the snake sannin and his palpable pleasure at Naruto's situation. Submitting himself to whatever machinations the twisted man had planned for him would undoubtedly put him in Konoha's crosshairs and, fear for his life aside, he had come to the startling realization that he did not want that.

"I've had to cut a few of 'em down myself." Jiraiya's words from Shukuba Town echoed in his mind, goosebumps breaking out across his arms and legs at the thought of standing across from his former sensei as an enemy. He shook himself, dispelling the image, but his disquiet remained.

No good options, he mused, not for the first time. "What's more important, Naruto?" he asked himself, also not for the first time. "Konoha, or your life?" He shook his head, discarding the false equivalency a moment later. Fuck Konoha, he thought. "Your friends, or your life?" he amended quietly.

The blond thought of Ino, his heart aching. "They've abandoned you already, I assure you." Would you give up on me that quick, Ino? Would you, Kiba? he asked. Sudden as a whip, he threw an open palm at the stone wall in front of him. He grit his teeth at the ever familiar circle his thoughts were taking, breathing deeply for some semblance of focus.

The facts were simple: Orochimaru held all the cards. What's to stop him from turning me over to Akatsuki if I don't comply?

Naruto stopped his pacing, suddenly cold despite the comfortable temperature of his room. He'd been acting under the assumption that Orochimaru would hold him indefinitely. That he'd be forced to find a way to take his own life in order to escape. That he had time.

He hadn't stopped to consider what might happen if the snake decided to cut his losses and decide that training him wasn't worth the hassle; that giving him over to his former associates was an easier path.

"Which means I'm as good as dead anyway," he told the stale air. His legs gave out from under him, and he only just managed to land on the threadbare cot instead of falling all the way to the floor.

He's my best option, Naruto realized with a mounting dread that turned his insides to ice. My only option. Konoha wasn't coming over the nearest hill to break him out. With his chakra sealed, he was a lame duck waiting to be killed if he mounted any sort of escape. And there was no way to know when Orochimaru's patience would run out.

Why wouldn't he have used this already? he wondered. The reality was undeniable. Unarguable. As defiant as he was – as he wanted to be – a simple statement of the truth of his situation would've had him swearing his loyalty that first night.

Death wasn't an option. Not after all the work he'd done just to have the chance to exist in the wake of Itachi's fateful warning.

His thoughts came crashing to a halt as the door to his room slid open, nearly making him jump at the sudden noise. Sasuke ambled in, cocking his head to the side as his onyx eyes surveyed Naruto's room, and kicked the door shut without fanfare.

"Was wondering where you've been holed up, dobe."

Blue eyes drank in the sight of his best friend – the first person he'd seen besides Orochimaru that first day. He was much the same as ever despite his drastic change in clothing. A black bodysuit was in place of his normal blue shirt and white shorts, a length of purple rope tied around his waist holding up what looked to be a simple, white battle shirt.

"Sasuke," he breathed, and at the name all his fury at his situation came roaring back into him. His vision went red for a moment that had nothing to do with the Kyuubi, and the only thing that stopped him from leaping up to throttle the Uchiha was a single question burning through his subconscious. "Did you know?" he bit out, voice a dangerous whisper.

Sasuke quirked a brow, his familiar smirk nearly overriding Naruto's momentary self-control. "Did I know what?"

"Kabuto!" Naruto hissed through clenched teeth. His gripped the edge of the mattress til his knuckles went white, palpable rage the likes of which he'd only ever felt in the midst of combat coursing through him as surely as the blood in his veins. "Did. You. Know."

The Uchiha rolled his eyes, leaning against the door and crossing his arms. "What does it matter, dobe?"

Naruto blinked, the audacity of the question so casually tossed back at him leaving him lost for words. What does it matter? he heard his mind scream impotently. "It matters to me," he said, though he barely heard the words leave his mouth over the pounding of his heartbeat.

"Why?" Sasuke asked, sounding for all the world like the question was the stupidest thing he'd ever been asked. At Naruto's no-doubt murderous look, he sighed. "I didn't know he was there," he said. "Happy now?"

The blond exhaled a heavy breath he hadn't known he was holding. Gifted liar though Sasuke was, Naruto was confident he had known the Uchiha long enough to see through his deceptions. And given the manner which could only be described as uncaring, he wasn't sure whether or not his friend would even bother to lie to him about it in the first place.

"Why wouldn't it matter?" he asked, sagging backwards on his hands. "I'm not exactly here by choice, teme."

Sasuke ambled across the small room, more at ease to Naruto's eyes than he had been in months. "That's what I'm getting at," he said. "You're here now. How it happened doesn't matter."

Naruto opened his mouth to protest that how was extremely important but his friend's glare cut him off. "Do you know why I bothered trying to convince you to come here, dobe?" he asked, sarcasm biting in its sharpness. He rolled his eyes. "I already told you. We're the same."

Sasuke cocked his head to the side. "Me and you, we're the same. The same drive, the same goals. Itachi is mine, but that leaves you with all the rest." The Uchiha bared his teeth in something that couldn't be called a smile. "You'll need some help."

He remembered his friend's words from the night he had been kidnapped and couldn't help the semi-hysterical laugh that slipped through his lips as he dropped his head to his hands. "You crazy bastard…you actually think you're doing me a favor, don't you?" He peered through his fingers at Sasuke, now sitting at the table, a single eyebrow raised as if to say "Aren't I?" "He just wants to use me, Sasuke. I'm just another tool, a weapon against his enemies."

The Uchiha just smirked. "And he wants my body. So what?"

Naruto blinked at the phrase. "He wants what?"

Sasuke shrugged. "My body. The Sharingan. He can transfer his consciousness to another host. It's his version of immortality."

The blond reeled back. You can do that? he wondered in spite of himself, holding somewhere between awe and utter disgust. "He told you that?"

"Of course not. Kakashi did. Back when he did my seal." His friend pulled the collar of his bodysuit down, revealing the mark he had shown Naruto what felt like a lifetime ago. There was no longer a ring around it.

"And you're just…I dunno, ok with that?" Naruto all but yelled.

"Use your brain for once, dobe," Sasuke bit out. "Of course I'm not ok with it. But if being here gets me strong enough to kill him, then it doesn't really matter now does it?" he asked rhetorically.

Naruto blinked, his friend's thought process finally clicking into place. "You don't know how strong he is," he said softly.

"I've got three years to close that gap."

The blond didn't bother to ponder how Sasuke figured that particular amount of time. "He's S-ranked, teme! You can't close that kinda gap in three years!"

"And how, then, were you planning to go about fighting Akatsuki?" the Uchiha shot back, voice a cold whisper. "Going to hope they wait around long enough for you to get to their level?"

"'Course not," Naruto shot back.

"So now you have a teacher. Away from all of Konoha's uselessness too. Unless of course you think the Yamanaka and the mutt were actually helping you."

I already had a teacher, Naruto wanted to scream, but talking with Sasuke had managed to work him out of the hysteria he'd been adrift in, and he realized that he might as well have been arguing with a brick wall for all the good it was doing. "Why are you here, Sasuke?" he asked, suddenly exhausted. "Did he send you to convince me to give in?"

His friend scoffed. "Hardly. He wouldn't even tell me where you were." Naruto couldn't tell whether the Uchiha was being truthful or not, but found he didn't much care. "I've been training ever since I got here. And I'm getting stronger, Naruto. I can feel it already," Sasuke said, a gleam in his eyes. "I found you so you could stop wasting time and do the same."

Naruto sighed. "I already told you. He just wants to use me."

"So use him back!" Sasuke nearly yelled, causing the blond to jump in surprise. "You think I'm just going to sit back and let him take my body? My birthright?" The Uchiha was on his feet, fists balled. "I thought you knew me better than that, dobe," he said, voice cold as ice. "I thought you'd see this the way I do. Guess I was wrong." And Naruto could feel the palpable disappointment his friend practically radiated.

"And how do you see it, then?" he asked bitingly, holding Sasuke's gaze defiantly.

"As an opportunity," the Uchiha harangued. "He wants to train you. Use that the same way he wants to use you." The oh-so-familiar smirk returned. "Then, three years from now, you help me kill him. And we go from there."

Naruto averted his eyes, shaking his head. "It's not that simple."

"Isn't it?" Sasuke strode past him, blue eyes tracked his feet as they padded to the door and rose to see his friend poised to leave. "I have one goal. So do you. What else matters besides that?"

"You're here now. Might as well make the most of it," Sasuke told him, and he opened the door and stepped out, shutting it behind him with a thud.

/~/

His friend hadn't been gone a minute before Naruto had leapt from the bed. His pacing footsteps echoed in the silence Sasuke had left behind, the Uchiha's words blaring like a claxon in his head.

"'Make the most of it'," he huffed. Impotent fury gnawed at him, aching for release, but he had gotten used to the feeling and shoved it to the side. "'Cause pulling one over on a fucking sannin is so fucking easy, right bastard?"

A small part of him wondered why he hadn't bothered screaming as much in Sasuke's face, but the larger part of his mind quieted it. He had learned more about his friend in one conversation than he ever had in the four years before.

"He's insane."

Had Naruto's suspicions not already been aroused, and had he not know his friend as well as he did, he likely would've missed the gleam in the boy's eyes as he spoke. It was a gleam that the blond had long ago determined to be madness. It wasn't overt; it was subtle, hidden, yet very much there. It was the tiny spark of insanity that Naruto knew all truly powerful shinobi possessed. It was what drove them. It was what set them apart.

It was what gave them their edge.

Naruto shook himself, memories of a training session before the chunin exams scattering like paper in the wind. Sasuke being certifiable wasn't a new realization. The degree to which his friend was, however, felt like a bucket of ice being dumped over his head.

Sasuke, for all his genius, didn't even see the world in black and white. There was just Itachi.

"What else matters besides that?"

What the fuck did you do to him? the blond silently asked the man who had seemingly chosen him as an ally against his own patriarch. He discarded the train of thought a moment later. Focusing on Itachi's nebulous motivations could only tie his mind in more knots when he needed clarity.

That Sasuke considered him a kindred spirit was deeply unsettling. Clawing his way to competency and strength had been his singular focus ever since that night, but it had never driven him to pitting himself against odds that were utterly impossible.

But didn't it? another small part of his mind whispered.

"They will hunt you, Uzumaki Naruto."

His fight had always been just that: impossible. A desperate struggle for power enough to save his life, his only hope that Akatsuki would give him enough time to even make a fight of it. The utter hopelessness of his situation had been kept at bay by some childish thought that he had a chance. That Konoha and old man Sarutobi could protect him long enough to be able to protect himself. That, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, life would be fair to him just once.

Hope had come in Jiraiya, but his sensei wasn't here. For all the strength that had sent Itachi and his comrade running, he couldn't protect him from this.

A fist clenched hard enough to make his knuckles crack. He was on his own. Death wasn't an option.

He sighed explosively, feeling his insides curdle at the thought of submitting himself to Orochimaru's twisted machinations. It wasn't even that he had attacked Konoha and killed the Sandaime. It's the fucking principle. The very idea of giving in made his lips peel back in a snarl.

As it turned out, he realized distantly, giving up was nearly as hard to swallow as death. He remembered the rage fueled, frenetic struggle against Zabuza; the frantic, desperate race through River Country and against the clock. Even the Shukaku's endless power hadn't cowed him as he threw every shred of his ability against a foe he could never be ready for.

Time, he thought. The fog of rage left him a moment later and he sagged bonelessly. As much as his nature rebelled against the very idea of giving up, he had never had the time to process it before. His life had been on the line each and every time he had been pushed to the brink, and he had responded in kind. Without hesitation. Instinctually.

Being forced to, in effect, sit still with his life very much dangling by a thread was nearly making him vibrate out of his clothes. The sensation of ants crawling over his skin, slowly but surely devouring him whole, inch by inch caused a shiver. His heart beat staccato in his chest, the feeling just arrhythmic enough to draw attention to itself. He took a deep breath, followed by another, but couldn't shake the feeling.

Thinking was never my strong suit, he thought blackly. He grimaced in place of a dark smile. "Bastard prolly knows it too…"

Orochimaru's pale, grinning, smug face appeared in his mind's eye and set him to pacing once more. "So use him back!" "'Cause it's that simple, teme?" he growled. Just pull one over on a kage-level ninja. Yeah, I'll get riiiight on that…

Sasuke's hubris was astounding, but the thought of it brought him up short. Surely Orochimaru wasn't ignorant of the Uchiha's half-formed plan to eventually betray him – just as surely as Sasuke was aware that the snake sannin wasn't offering him power and skill for anything other than personal gain.

It was like shogi, only in real life and with stakes that Naruto wanted no part of. Everyone knew everyone else's goal. It was just a matter of who eventually came out ahead. Is this what war is like? he wondered absently.

"As you get older and get higher up in the ranks, Naruto, you'll be forced to take missions where you don't know the full scope of the situation. Are you going to decline these missions just because you're scared?" Asuma's words from months ago drifted through his mind.

He had always known his limits – even back in Wave Country he had known that pitting himself against stronger, more experienced shinobi was asking for death. "But what choice do I have?" he asked himself quietly. "You've gotta fight." 'Cause giving up means you die. One way or another, he thought, his earlier realization of Orochimaru's leverage over him looming large.

Why wouldn't he have used this already? he wondered again. Fingers pulled desperately at his hair, willing an answer from his beleaguered mind. "It makes no fucking sense…"

Parsing the motivations of the mad genius would've been a tall task on a good day. But what's one more impossibility? He cast himself down on the cot and placed his hands over his eyes, willing himself to remember every interaction he'd had with the snake sannin.

"I abhor waste. And your death would be a terrible waste indeed."

"Can't trust that," Naruto told himself. "He'd kill me in an instant if he thought I was a threat."

But I'm not, am I? the blond mused, lip curling. I'm nothing to him right now. Neither is Sasuke…Which was as good a reason as any for why his friend wasn't being violently put in his place. Orochimaru, content in his undeniable superiority, could indulge Sasuke in whatever delusional scheme the Uchiha had cooked up.

And Sasuke was betting on himself being strong enough in three years to turn the tables. Can you do the same? "Do I have a choice?"

"Nothing that you won't be willing to give, in time, Naruto-kun. Of that I can assure you. The more pressing question is what do you want from me?"

Naruto remembered their first conversation back during the chunin exams. He hadn't given the words any thought since; the sannin's poisonous arguments against Konoha having hit closer to home at the time. "'Willing to give'," he mouthed. His mind reached, grasping for a thread that was just beyond him, knowing that there was half a chance for him somewhere. There has to be!

"I knew that one day you would seek me out of your own accord once you had seen the truth of Konoha's deceptions…"

Blue eyes blinked at the throwaway comment from his first night. Willing to give. Of my own accord. "He doesn't just want a lackey," Naruto said. Orochimaru's arguments against Konoha, his revealing of Naruto's lineage, his insistence that he was the best chance against Akatsuki all came roaring back.

"I am not, however, averse to you being brought before me…sooner than expected."

Clarity slapped him across the face. "He wants me to be here by choice. He doesn't want to force me to work for him."

The overarching, unanswerable question of 'why' was hurled to the side. 'Why' didn't matter. All that mattered was the tiny, infinitesimal opportunity.

If I can convince him I'm willing to do what he wants – that I'm not being forced – I can win, he thought fiercely, not daring to vocalize it. All that leaves is holding a lie together against one of the smartest shinobi on the continent.

"Impossible," he told himself. But no more impossible than killing a bunch of S-ranked monsters.

He'd go down fighting, or not at all.

Memories of Danzo, the Sandaime, and covert missions managed left a sardonic smile on his face. "No pressure, Naruto," he whispered.

/~/

Orochimaru stood silently as the sounds of battle assaulted his ears, content, for the first time in a long time, with the state of things.

Yellow eyes glanced down at the simple, tightly bound book that rested in his hands. Thin lips peeled back in a toothy grin. How singular.

Contentment wasn't an emotion he often felt. It led to stagnation. And stagnation led to death. Failure.

He hadn't been content in his childhood, learning from his sensei. He hadn't been content as a teen, growing alongside his teammates. The wars had provided a semblance of satisfaction as he reached what most considered adulthood, if only because his opportunities to grow beyond the meager limitations of his home became plentiful. He had been satisfied in his time since his unceremonious defection for similar reasons, and his accomplishments toward immortality spoke for themselves.

But it didn't compare to the contentment he felt as he stood looking down into a room that could only be called cavernous, the likely key to his plans literally in the palm of his hand. Closer than ever before…

Sasuke roared his fury, Sharingan eyes blazing against a black background as the boy struggled to master the cursed seal's second level. He stumbled to a stop, the left, hand-like wing flashing forward reflexively to block a hail of kunai. He blurred toward his assailant, a contracted mercenary leftover from the invasion, but was denied as the man strafed away at the last moment. Sasuke growled, the tiled floor beneath his feet exploding into dust as he halted his momentum and tore after the man in an explosive shunshin.

Lightning blacker than night leapt to his palm with a cry of "Chidori!" and Orochimaru chuckled. The cursed seal's second level was nothing to be trifled with, both for any unfortunate victim and the user; a double edged sword that the Uchiha was already struggling to bend to his advantage.

His sense of self shields the worst of the aggression, he mused. Most test subjects lost themselves to a berserker's rage the moment the foreign chakra took hold, looking to tear the nearest person limb from limb with their bare hands. That Sasuke could bother to think tactically at all so soon after having the power unlocked boded well for the boy – it wouldn't do to have him killed before the three years were up. What a waste it would be, he thought with distaste before banishing the outcome from his mind.

He wasn't terribly surprised, however. The Sound Four had a modicum of mastery over their own seals, and each of them paled in comparison to Sasuke's talent threshold. He expected the young Uchiha may even surpass Kimimaro's skill with it someday.

But Sasuke was only a part of his unusually satisfied state of mind. He felt his grin return in spite of himself, a hint of the smugness he usually only bared for enemies slipping through despite his vaunted control.

Sasuke would take care of himself. The power of his eyes and the madness in his blood would see to that. He need only push the boy in the right direction, provide him with the tools to take the strides he so desired regardless of their cost, and the boy would be ripe for the taking in three years.

Meanwhile, he could focus on the real challenge. Invigorating. He could concentrate on slowly, subtly disabusing Naruto of the foolish notions Sarutobi and Konoha had drilled into his brain. It would have happened in time, regardless, but as he had told the boy in their first talk, he wasn't averse to having him here sooner than expected.

That the boy had landed in his lap in the wake of what had seemed an almost unmitigated failure was simply icing on the proverbial cake. Sarutobi's death had been a pyrrhic victory at best – the loss of his arms necessitating a body switch sooner than Sasuke could arrive – but Naruto's presence had made it all worthwhile.

That Konoha had basically gifted him on a silver platter was almost inconceivable. Their first conversation had gone far better than expected. He already doubted his home village, their abhorrent treatment of a being so far beyond their understanding having ingrained a distrust for all but a few of its citizens made Orochimaru's task that much simpler.

He had waited in that room for over an hour for the boy to wake, mind exhilarated at the challenge of breaking down the painfully naïve worldview Naruto had. What steps to take to open him up. How to balance on the knife edge of always challenging everything the boy thought he knew without having him close off completely.

Shattering barrier after barrier until all that was left was the truth that Orochimaru himself had realized: that Konoha was his enemy. Not only because they wanted him dead, but because the yokes and restraints placed by the village could only limit him. And those limitations in the name of order and servitude could not be abided.

From study, he knew Naruto had a strained relationship with the village he called home. He had set spies to watch him after their first, explosive encounter in River Country. The reports, however, paled in comparison to reality.

What few bonds Naruto did have – forged in blood or not – were relatively new; not even a year old. And they would be shattered irrevocably, the corner he had managed to back his old village into necessitating nothing less than declaring Naruto a nuke-nin.

Long fingers opened the bingo book resting in his hands and flipped through the pages languidly. Hand delivered by one of his agents from the nearest bounty station. His eyes briefly rested on his own face for a moment, memories of rage and panic going unacknowledged. Uchiha Itachi elicited a frown – failure – and was swiftly passed to reveal the straight face of his new jinchuuriki.

Uzumaki Naruto

Age: 13

Rank: Chunin

Classification: A-rank – kill on sight

Bounty: N/A

Orochimaru smiled lightly. You did your best, Jiraiya, he thought, his old teammate's influence clear in the lack of bounty, undoubtedly done to keep the higher profile hunters off Naruto's back.

Turning failure to success was something all shinobi aspired to, but rarely managed. Such a fickle concept, opportunity. His plans to obliterate his home could only barely be considered a success, Sarutobi's death the only true positive. Yet, Konoha was wounded, and they knew it well.

By holding tight to their grip as a world power, they would let their most promising young shinobi slip right through their fingers.

And he would have his willing lieutenant. His jinchuuriki to throw at those who opposed him. Theirs would be a partnership that would see their enemies crushed and broken before them.

Orochimaru bared his teeth in anticipation of the next, far greater challenge that would present itself upon Naruto's realization. The boy was no fan of his, and an apprentice that longed for his death was unacceptable. There were ways to ensure loyalty, of course, fuuinjutsu being the cleanest, a destruction of the subject's mind being the messiest, but he needed that loyalty freely given.

He had enough sycophants and mindless soldiers. They had their uses, but they were merely tools. No different than a kunai for all their effectiveness. Boring. A willing lieutenant and apprentice, however? Truly interesting. Holding dominion over someone had its pleasures, but there was far more to be gained by providing direction and analyzing the unpredictable results. Discovery and knowledge for its own sake was one of the few pleasures he allowed himself. It kept him innovating, which kept him young.

Innovation, whether in ninjutsu or otherwise, seemed more of a relic of the past with each passing day, the world and its inhabitants surrendering to apathy. He could not abide apathy. It led to stagnation. And stagnation led to death. Failure.

It would be difficult, of course, but those few things in life worth it rarely came easily. He had already begun to plant the seeds. Naruto would need a foil; an outlet for his fury. And as Orochimaru himself couldn't act as such – it set a dangerous, contentious precedent. Kabuto-kun will have to oblige.

It was fortunate, then, that his young medic had managed to worm his way in Naruto's head as a nemesis already. His condescending nature likely would have been enough to incite a strong dislike to begin with, but having killed Naruto's sensei and kidnapped him personally?

The medic would undoubtedly realize his master was playing him against his new apprentice eventually – too shrewd and well trained – but Kabuto's own self-assurance would work against him at the start – talented as he was, Naruto stood no chance against him now – and his fear of the boy would sustain the mutual antipathy.

It had been a startling realization, but one that had provided much insight into his most capable servant's mind. His drive as a medic and researcher was born mostly out of a desire to better understand the world around him so as to find his place in it. In his constant struggle for an identity, Kabuto kept his world very well ordered. Everything fit where it was supposed to.

Naruto didn't fit.

Jinchuuriki were, by their very nature, aberrations. They could do more, be more than even the most well trained shinobi by virtue of their tenants. They stood apart from the natural order because, as far as Orochimaru could tell, they stopped being fully human the moment their beast was sealed within them.

And where he saw only the nigh limitless potential, Kabuto saw only that which he could not explain. Yes, he thought. He will be perfect.

His mind was pulled back to the present as the cursed seal's chakra abruptly cut off, young Sasuke no longer able to sustain the elevated state. His assailant was bloody and beaten, but still alive, his ragged breathing audible from the corner.

The snake sannin turned away from the cavernous room as a medic rushed out to tend to the two assailants, and strode into the dimly lit corridor that led to one of his many laboratories.

His plans had come together beautifully. He'd had his moment of contentment.

Now there was work to be done.

/~/

Stillness was the enemy of resolve. He'd had six meals since the realization of his opportunity, and each one brought with it waves of anxiety that set his heart to racing. When will he come? echoed through his mind every time. And every time Orochimaru failed to appear, Naruto felt another sliver of doubt fracture his determination.

Does he know? He knew there had been surveillance in various places in Konoha. The idea that he was being watched had only occurred to him after he had resolved to exploit the snake sannin's possible weakness. It wasn't beyond the realm of possibility that his vocalized thoughts had tipped Orochimaru off.

And even if it hadn't, lying to one was palpably insane. It didn't even sound good on paper, let alone in practice. His precarious mind-state wasn't helped by the knowledge that every little bit of doubt would make his task that much harder.

As crazy as his wayward friend clearly was, Naruto couldn't help but wish for Sasuke's unshakable overconfidence. The Uchiha had yet to meet a foe he wasn't confident he could defeat. Lying required conviction, and Sasuke wasn't exactly lacking. He had been ready to fight his monstrous older brother without help, after all.

Me on the other hand…He ran the fingers on his right hand through his hair and pressed them to his forehead, trying to relieve the phantom pressure behind his forehead.

Each of the sannin had proven how far beyond him they were without a shadow of a doubt. S-ranked, he thought with dread, remembering the suffocating feeling of Orochimaru's chakra choking the life from him. His captor was dozens of years more experienced, the gulf between them a chasm he couldn't even begin to fathom crossing. Outsmarted. Outclassed. No other optionswhat the fuck do you think you're doing, Naruto?

The sound of the door sliding open snapped him from his circuitous reverie. He was so on edge that he nearly jumped, but managed to restrain himself by some force of will. Get it together! he commanded, taking a deep breath to steady himself against fatalistic thoughts that would see him dead.

He exhaled as Orochimaru stepped through the opening silently. The sannin stood silhouetted in the doorway for a moment that seemed to drag for minutes. Blue eyes found poisonous yellow and held their gaze steadily. Don't back down don't back down don't back down.

Orochimaru grinned, a tongue far longer than it should have been lolling languidly to the side of his mouth. Naruto felt himself lose the staring contest as he shivered at the sudden wrongness that broke over his head like an egg.

"Naruto-kun."

"Orochimaru," Naruto returned, somehow level, before the sannin could continue. It felt weird rolling off his tongue, and he realized he'd never addressed his captor by his name before.

The pale man only grinned wider. He stepped forward, the door closing at some unseen trigger behind him. "How are you finding your accommodations? Not too…confining, I hope."

His mind raced. He's baiting me, he knew as surely as he knew his own name. But why? "It's a prison cell," he said flatly.

"So you keep insisting. Have you been reading?" The sannin nodded almost casually at the fully stocked bookshelf. He strode over to the table, the candle's light flaring higher, and sat down in the same chair he'd occupied for their first conversation. A small, leather-bound book was deliberately placed on the table.

Naruto simply blinked at him, mind sprinting in time with his hammering heart. What's he playing at? he wondered frantically. Can he tell what I've read? Has he been watching me? What does he know?

A throaty chuckle shattered his train of thought. "You're so quiet today, my friend. You were much more loquacious when we last spoke. Is everything quite alright?"

His brain went momentarily blank. There was nothing but earnest concern on the sannin's face.

He can lie to my face and there's nothing I can do about it. Just like the rest of 'em, Naruto thought, cursing each of the sannin in turn. Roll with the bullshit, Naruto, he told himself. He was tying himself in knots trying to outthink a man who was considered a genius decades before he had even been born.

"Bit dry," he croaked, nodding deliberately at the scrolls stacked on the shelves.

"They are, aren't they? I can admit as much, though I wrote them myself," Orochimaru conceded, staring forlornly at the piles. "Which was your favorite?"

I know why you're fucking here you fucking snake just get the fuck on with it! Naruto screamed in his mind. He's really gonna make me bring it up, isn't he? There was no doubt in his mind that Orochimaru would be perfectly content to have a meaningless conversation and leave him to his business without a second thought. Impatience didn't seem like the man's style. He was too calculating. But that doesn't change the facts, he thought, remembering the cold realization he'd come to days before. He's got all the cards.

"Why me?" he whispered, suddenly weary, unsure of who he was asking.

Yellow eyes widened, in pleasure, rather than surprise Naruto observed as Orochimaru's lips peeled back into another grin. "We're very similar, you and I." His grin only widened as Naruto visibly recoiled. "Perhaps not so superficially, though I expect Konoha would have lauded your successes as they did mine were it not for your father's actions. Both of us orphans. Both of us recognized as exceptional by our sensei. Both of us shackled by the village that birthed us."

"I chose to become a shinobi," Naruto returned without thinking, echoing himself from the first night. "They never forced me to do anything."

"Do not be deliberately obtuse. It insults both of us," the sannin snapped, and Naruto withheld a wince. Orochimaru's face settled somewhere between irritation and exasperation. "Shall we ignore that you made this choice nearly seven years ago and could not have possibly understood what they were asking of you?" Orochimaru asked, the sharp edge of displeasure giving way to condescension.

Tsunade barked a laugh. "You have no idea what they make you give, kid. They'll ask for your life, and that's fine; that's what you sign up for when you graduate, even though you don't know it. His first conversation with Tsunade came back to him, his impression that the three sannin weren't terribly different from each other along with it.

"Do you truly believe that Konoha would have simply let you become anything other than a shinobi?" A smirk Naruto was learning to hate returned. "Your father's actions ensured you'd be nothing less. Had you decided to pursue life as anything else, you would have been…persuaded otherwise, I assure you."

The blond held back a grimace at being so thoroughly shot down. The idea of Konoha wasting his potential as a jinchuuriki was frankly unbelievable.

Focus, Naruto, he thought. Aren't you supposed to be convincing him you're ready? He managed a small nod, the acquiescence tasting like ash in his mouth regardless of its obvious truth. "I'm not stupid," he began haltingly, feeling very much like he was. Feeling very much like Orochimaru would see through his every word.

"Then prove it," the sannin said, somehow soothing and challenging all at once. Naruto would've marveled at the man's ability to wear a dozen different faces, each of them more convincing than the last, were his head not spinning. "You claim intelligence yet cling to notions that would see you chained more tightly than the beast within you."

"I've got no love for Konoha. The villagers," he spat, ignoring his midnight resolve to protect the village before Sasuke's appearance had landed him in this mess. "They hate me. Or they love me. Hypocrites can't make up their minds. I never fought for them. I don't care about them."

It was the truth and had been for a long time. Do four people really make that place worth it? he wondered. He banished the thought with effort, trying to focus on the here and now to save his head.

"You fight for the few, and because you've known nothing else." Naruto's head snapped up in alarm, mind racing. How!? Orochimaru only smiled, nothing but calm reassurance splayed across his face. "Another similarity, it would seem. Konoha only ever had three who I genuinely cared about. In the end, they needed to be left behind for me to accomplish my true goals."

Itachi's words from Shukuba Town floated through his mind like driftwood: "Cut yourself free of the shackles that bind you, Uzumaki Naruto, and become strong."

"Destroying Konoha?" he asked snidely, conflicting memories shoved to the side as he tried to organize his thoughts.

Yellow eyes rolled. "My true goals are far greater than that paltry village. The debt has been repaid. Though perhaps yours has not…"

Naruto felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. A momentary panic at facing his friends as an enemy seized him. "I don't have any…debt to repay," he said. "I told you, I don't care about them."

"Do you truly believe that? I wonder…" The sannin shifted his gaze to the book lying innocuously on the table next to him. "Have you thought on your choices, Naruto-kun?"

He'd done nothing but. No choice… "I don't wanna die," he said, every ounce of his willpower keeping his face straight against the storm raging inside of him. "Not for them. Not for anyone."

"And you won't." Naruto averted his gaze, balling his fists at his sides. The sannin quirked a brow as he spread his palms wide. "Salvation is within your grasp, my friend. And yet, something holds you back?" Orochimaru leaned forward, forearms resting on his legs in a decidedly eager posture that Naruto subconsciously leaned away from.

"Sentiment," he continued, distaste clear in his voice. "Are they truly worth so much to you?"

"No," Naruto said on reflex, eyes rising defiantly.

"Then what stops you?"

"You–" Kidnapped me! he almost burst out, but managed to bite his tongue in time. "You attacked my home," he snapped, real anger, both at himself and Orochimaru bleeding into his words.

"Sentiment indeed…" The sannin leaned back in his chair, silent for a beat, the only sound the rushing of blood in Naruto's ears. "I was led to believe that you were a fast learner," Orochimaru said. The blond felt himself tense at the low, suddenly dangerous tone. Yellow eyes glinted as the candle's light flared higher. The superior smirk had transformed into a flat line as Orochimaru's lips thinned in obvious displeasure. "Such thoughts will see you dead at the Akatsuki's feet, my friend."

Better dead at theirs than kneeling at yours, Naruto itched to say. He shook himself minutely. Do you even believe that? Stay focused, he told himself. "You and me aren't the same. I'm not like you."

The sannin leaned back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other, his fingers idly drumming atop the book that still rested on the table. "I know, as surely as anything, that you would have sought me out once Konoha's deceptions had been laid bare for you."

"I am not, however, averse to you being brought before me…sooner than expected."

"Tell me, what allegiance do you owe Konoha? A village that has lied to you, disdained your very existence from the day you were born?"

"What allegiance do I owe you?"

The sannin grinned, tongue slipping out once more to lick his lips. "You are quite good at deflecting, my friend. I can provide more for you than Konoha ever would have, in short. I wish to do so. Where they would only stunt you, I would see you flourish."

"But now that I've answered your question, you must answer mine," he prompted, gesturing openly, grin affixed.

Naruto held his silence, words from the chunin exams echoing in his mind. "…what allegiance does a man – a man who's talent, and genius, and innovation is ignored by the very village he had served faithfully – owe to a village that does not appreciate him? Tell me… For as much as the shinobi must sacrifice for his village, so too must the village recognize and reward the shinobi for his service; for his efforts to save the village from stagnation and decline. And when that does not happen, the sacred bond between shinobi and village is shattered, and the two must part."

He remembered his youth, surrounded by hostility. He remembered Asuma's death, the palpable scorn at having survived where a beloved jonin had fallen. He remembered the adulation in the wake of the invasion, unadulterated hypocrisy shining through.

He owed the Konoha nothing. His friends, however… Ino-chan, Jiraiya-sensei, Kiba…Asuma-sensei…I'm sorry.

"I don't owe them anything," Naruto said. It was easier to say than he had imagined, simply slipping from his lips.

They'd understand, a tiny voice whispered. They wouldn't want you to die.

Then why does it feel like giving up? a louder voice asked. He shunted it to the side with effort.

"You see the truth clearly," Orochimaru hissed, lips splitting wide. "You need only say the words, and everything you need to strike Akatsuki down will be yours."

Naruto inhaled deeply, sure that the treacherous sannin could hear the sound of his teeth grinding, the sound of his blood rushing in his ears and his heart beating out of his chest. Just do it! he screamed at himself.

"What stops you, Naruto-kun?" He was frozen as yellow eyes pinned him in place. "Clarity is a gift few receive…"

Sudden hissing snapped Naruto out of his reverie. He slid back on the bed as a snake as thick as his torso slithered from behind Orochimaru's back and across the floor toward him. He leaned back, eyes wide, as the purpled and yellow behemoth coiled on top of itself, rising slowly to his eye level. Its tongue slid slowly out of its mouth, the small leather book falling from it to rest, open, in Naruto's lap.

Uchiha Itachi's face stared up at him when he looked down. He reached out and picked the book up, ignoring the sudden smoke from Orochimaru's summon dispelling. He closed it, keeping one shaking finger bookmarking the page, and felt his breath hitch at the words on the cover.

Bingo Book – Konoha

Edition 37.4.6

He opened it again, his mind strangely clear. He flipped the page from Itachi's impassive face, knowing, somehow, exactly what he'd find on the next.

The sight of his own face stole his breath regardless. He coked his head to the side. Do I really look like that much of a kid? he wondered absently, the single, dispassionate thought slicing through the feeling of his chest constricting in a vice. "A-ranked," he heard himself say. The sound of his own voice rang like a claxon and reverberated painfully through his head.

"So use him back!"

Give him what he wants. And get what you need. It was a stupid, reckless, insane plan. But my life is insane, Naruto thought, hysterical laughter bubbling up so fast it brought tears to his eyes.

The bingo book was hurled against the far wall before he realized his body was acting. His chest heaved, the mysterious grip on it gone as he felt the welled up tears slide down his face, deep gasps wracking his body. He choked back a laugh that he knew would've become a sob the moment it left his mouth.

Naruto nearly jumped as a hand as cold as ice cupped his cheek.

He looked up through tears into poisonous yellow eyes, and saw underneath the underneath even as Orochimaru smiled down at him gently.

"…you finally see, Naruto-kun," he heard the sannin saying.

Clarity, he thought, mind curiously blank. I'll take that gift.

"My enemy," he said, deliberately not shrinking back even as his skin crawled under Orochimaru's fingers.

"Our common enemy."

Naruto finally pulled away, unable to bear the touch any longer, relieved that Orochimaru let him. "What do you want from me?" he asked, rising.

"Nothing you won't be willing to give." The tips of the fingers on the sannin's right hand glowed purple, and suddenly Naruto was on his knees, the wind gone from his lungs.

But even as he gasped desperately for breath, his left hand dropping to the stone to support him, he felt warmth spreading from his gut. Painful, glorious warmth that set his nerve endings aflame. A warmth he hadn't known he was missing until it came roaring back in a wave. Blue eyes fluttered shut at the momentary ecstasy of his chakra finally returning to him. He knew, without even needing to check, that the Kyuubi was there, its malevolent essence just beyond his awareness.

He lifted his head after basking in the feeling of his life force rushing through his coils, eyes gleaming. Orochimaru stared down at him, expectant. One chance, Naruto thought. His trump card was back – all it would take was a single moment of effort.

Where would you go? the same tiny voice from earlier asked, sounding disturbingly like Sasuke. Konoha was closed to him. And anywhere else would take time to reach, if he could reach it at all, leaving him vulnerable to whatever Akatsuki agents were undoubtedly looking for him.

What choice do you have?

"They will hunt you, Uzumaki Naruto."

The same one he had on the bridge against Zabuza. The same one he had in River Country. The same one he had against the Shukaku.

The same one he had the night a red eyed devil's words had turned his world upside down.

"They will hunt you. They will find you. And they will kill you."

Not without a god damn fight they won't. He hadn't been willing to go down without a fight when he was eight. Five years later, the situation hadn't changed.

Keep telling yourself that.

"Welcome home, Naruto-kun." Orochimaru paused, stepped back, and the blond withheld a shudder as his lips slowly peeled upwards. "Rest now. You will need your strength soon enough."

Naruto felt Orochimaru's gaze lingering on him as the sannin strode smoothly to the door. He stared resolutely at the wall, the discarded bingo book lying open on a random page against the wall.

He kept staring at it as he heard the door open. He kept staring at it as the candle flickered, the dim light barely enough for him to see the stone in front of him.

He kept staring at it as the door closed and his body sagged, nothing but the dying light of the candle to keep the darkness at bay.

/~/

To be continued.

/~/

Finally...Been a long ride since I first planned this fic out. Never imagined it'd be nearly as popular as it is. I was 17... The end was set in stone from the first word I typed, but the way I've gotten here has been flexible. I'm legitimately proud to have finished this - both because I like the story and because there were times when I never thought I'd write the end.

It goes without saying, but I really appreciate all of you who have read and hopefully enjoyed over the years. This fic wouldn't be what it is without all of you. As always, a major thanks to the DLP crew for their help in making Patriot's Dawn significantly better than it would've been otherwise.

For those wondering, there's a sequel in the works. This was always meant to be a two-part story. I'll likely be focusing on Hurricane Suite for a bit before I start really writing it, however. For any of you who haven't already checked it, I feel like the more recent updates are pretty fun.

I'll see y'all soon.