AN: My thanks and my apologies to my readers for your patience and my hiatus.

After months and months and months...RL and the plot bunnies have finally conceded and allowed me to update.


Once again he found himself facing the Memorial Stone, reading from memory a long list of names that had once been carved into now smooth obsidian. He felt the approaching chakra signal before he heard the soft, intentional shuffle of footsteps and spoke without turning.

"Yamanaka Arata, I presume."

"U-"

"I have no clan name, Yamanaka," Orochimaru hissed, whirling around to face the blond. "That died with my parents." 'The soft weaklings that they were...'

There was a slight pause as the older man regarded him. "Orochimaru then."

Excellent. Even now, the web was being woven between them. "The Hokage wishes you to evaluate my mental status."

"Yes. Is there somewhere else you'd like to go? This place is secluded, but not the most private," Arata said with a subtle tilt of his head to the surrounding trees.

Orochimaru knew the ANBU operative was watching, but made no sign of understanding the hint the man had given him. He'd shown far too many abnormalities already-sensing such a well hidden chakra signature as an ANBU's would definitely draw more attention than he wanted at this stage. "Is there somewhere else you'd recommend, Yamanaka-san?" He knew his sudden shift from openly hostile to near docile would throw the man off momentarily, and was rewarded by the outcome he'd predicted.

"...The Yamanaka have a set of offices we use near the Hokage tower, would that be amiable to you, Orochimaru?"

Oh yes, he was absolutely getting the upper hand in this game.

"Lead the way, Yamanaka-san. Before we both die of old age."

A slight stiffening of facial features was all that betrayed the mind-walker, Orochimaru only caught it because he'd been actively watching for it. He'd been confusing Arata with his body language and tone, tripping him up on a subconscious level, and the web now spun tighter and tighter...

His sensei had been a fool to send Yamanaka Arata.

Orochimaru had him hook, line, and sinker.


"Report."

A gentle curl of smoke twisted through the warm Kohonan air, sounds of chatter from the streets drifting in through the window. Yamanaka Arata stood to attention on the opposite side of Sarutobi's desk, half an hour after his appointment with the pale genin had concluded.

"Orochimaru is mentally and physically fit for duty, however during our conversation..." he trailed off for a moment. "It came to my attention that he views his parents as weak for the manner of their deaths."

Sarutobi took another draw of his pipe. "Explain."

"He believes them weak for dying of illness. He seems to think that the only worthy death is to die in defense of Konoha and has been attempting to distance himself from the so-called disgrace of his parents. When we...introduced...ourselves he demanded that his clan name not be used and shut down every time I tried to bring it up. I also learned that he's come to view expressing feelings and emotions as a potential weakness that could be exploited by enemies to harm Konoha...or his teammates while on a mission and so is doing his level best to eliminate any outward expression. However, he understands death far better than I would have expected, expressly told me that he would do everything in his power to be strong enough to protect the Leaf, and implied he would sacrifice himself before he would allow a teammate to die. He has a strong psych, I believe he just needs time to work his way through his more...confusing emotions, such as his overwhelming loyalty to his teammates. In time he should come to relax his mask a bit more around his teammates, once he believes them to be able to competently protect themselves. He's stable, maybe not stable in the way a genin would be, but he has the mindset of a chunin. I don't think you have anything to be concerned about in the long run. From what I've heard, Orochimaru has always had a more advanced mindset for his age."

"Yes, he has. Thank you, Arata-san."

Taking the nod as a sign of dismissal, the blond bowed and rapidly departed-for once using the office door rather than the window, as most jounin preferred. Sarutobi remained sitting there for a long time afterwards, deep in thought, until his pipe extinguished.


Orochimaru allowed his lips to curl in semblance of a smile as he strolled down the bustling streets of Konoha (still untouched by the Second, Third, and Fourth Shinobi Wars), pleased with his success at pulling the wool over the Yamanaka's eyes. It had taken so little to fool someone from a clan famed for their genius in mental arts. But the man had thought him a child, and Orochimaru was anything but a child. It would take even less work to fool his sensei-the old fool always had a blind spot when it came to him. Favoritism.

'Ah yes, not even Sarutobi Hiruzen was immune to that. He hardly let me be the first time my parents died, fussing like some dotty grandfather...looking back, it's disgraceful how often he neglected the other two. Tsunade was already spoiled by the Senju, and received some training from them, she didn't lack for confidence in her abilities. But Jiraiya...he was a disgrace to the shinobi name for much of our genin period continuing into chunin. Loud mouthed perverted fool. And yet...Jiraiya was the only one who never changed. Jiraiya...was the most honest person I knew.'

"Man, I can't believe I have to waste my money on these things." A familiar whining voice cut through his thoughts, leading Orochimaru to realize he'd wandered into the market district. His aforementioned teammate was grumbling to himself as he picked over eggplants. "Stupid sensei."

Orochimaru's eyes closed in pained exasperation.

"Baka. At least pick ones that aren't wilted."