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Constellations (You & Me)

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0. Prologue

 

Candlelight casts the room and its sole inhabitant in soft golden glow. The woman reading at a low table is dressed in an elaborate white kimono with red flower patterns on it. In the soft light her hair looks dark brown rather than ebony black and her pale skin is cast in gold. Warm brown eyes trail over the kanji and her expression is attentive. Now and again, a small smile graces her lips. 'Shallow nonsense literature', as her dear husband calls it, is her only vice. It's a slim paperback novel she bought in the supermarket on her last run. There is a dashing bare-chested samurai on the cover and he's holding an enraptured looking young woman in his arms. It's no literary masterpiece and it doesn't require much concentration to follow the simplistic plot. Perfect to unwind after a hectic day. Taking care of two small children when a third one is already on the way is no easy feat, after all.

Outside the cicadas are singing and the soft breeze blows the windchime she hung on the engawa. The soft patter of the rain is a constant background noise in Amegakure that none of its inhabitants pay attention to anymore. Some days it rains harder than others, but it never lets up. The young woman turns a page in her book and looks up when she hears the trademark footsteps of her husband thumping over the wooden engawa. He pushes the sliding door to the side harshly and she winces when it smacks against the frame. Water is running down his face and on his round glasses, dripping down his cheeks and into his goatee. On his face is a mighty scowl indeed and his brows are deeply furrowed.

"Pack your bags and get the children, Michiko," he orders in a dark voice.

The woman puts a protective hand over the prominent bulge in her stomach and mirrors his expression, growing tense all over.

"What are you saying, husband?" She asks in a rush. "Pack my bags?!"

"We're leaving," he declares and strides through the livingroom in his shoes, completely disregarding etiquette.

Her lips part in shock and she gets to her feet as quickly as she can. "What!? Why? What happened?"

Her stomach twists up in a knot and she makes a face. He pauses in the doorway to his study and turns to her with a dark look.

"The old crone wants our child," he says and nods at her stomach.

Michiko places both of her hands protectively over her stomach and frowns. "Why this one?!"

"It's her damn visions," he growls and waves his hands through the air. "This is the final straw. I'm no longer willing to obey her demands. That's why we're leaving."

"But.. Eiichiro.. Hanzo is going to kill us if we desert the village," she whispers in a rush and looks around as if the man himself is watching.

"Not even Hanzo would dare to lay a finger on a member of the Kusakawa clan," he retors darkly. "Which is why we can't waste a single minute. We have to leave immediately, before word reaches him that we no longer are."

"Huh?!" Her eyes widen in shock.

"She has excommunicated us. We're no longer part of the family, except by name. Go, go on and pack up. Get the boys. We have to go now!"

"Yes, yes of course," she rushes out, shakes her head and drops the book.

Michiko grits her teeth as she hurries into their bedroom, drags a suitcase out of the closet and starts methodically filling it. Her hands are shaking from adrenaline. She's not used to this kind of stress anymore. Despite her coming from one of the oldest local shinobi clans she never made it past Genin level. She just didn't have the ambition. After marrying a Kusakawa she didn't believe she'd ever need to worry about anything again. Excommunicated! She thinks and feels despair lurch up inside her. Michiko puts a hand on her stomach after she's zipped up her suitcase and bites the inside of her cheek. It's going to be a girl, she's sure of it. The baby kicks a lot less than her boys did, after all. Speaking of which, she goes to the children's room and softly, but firmly corrals them from their beds. Kenji and Akira stare at her with confusion and fear when she tells them that they have to leave. Their brown eyes widen when she actually goes to their wardrobe and takes out warm clothes for the journey. Eiichiro looks grim when they meet up in the livingroom. He's got a sturdy silver suitcase in his hands and a hood drawn over his head. Michiko swallows when she sees that he's no longer wearing his forehead protector.

"Ready?" He asks briskly.

"Yes."

"Father, what's going on?" Akira, the bolder one, speaks up.

"We're leaving," he grunts and turns around. "Be quiet."

The kids stiffen and bow their heads respectfully. Michiko puts on her big brown coat and draws a hood into her face as well. Later, when they're out of the village and far into the countryside, cooped up in a shabby little inn, Michiko dares to ask.

"Husband, what did you do? What did you say?" She asks hesitantly and watches his thoughtful face. "What did Kaede-sama say?"

"She's like a fat black spider that sits in the middle of a huge web," he says and furrows his brows. "Toying with the lives of those that are caught in it. My siblings and I were never more than tools to her."

Michiko nods diplomatically. She knows what that feels like. When he requested her hand for marriage her father had jumped with joy. Michiko had just been confused. She doesn't know why he chose her when all the daughters of bigger and wealthier clans had been after him as well and she's never felt the urge to ask. He draws his broad shoulders up and drops them again.

"I'm the oldest son. I should be the next clan leader, but she chose my younger brother over me! She always liked Akihira better. She hates that I chose to become a med nin rather than a banker. How dare I break the tradition of throat-cutting and charging interests." He growls and runs a hand through his short brown hair.

Michiko's face softens. She likes that about him. His dedication to his job. He only ever seems happy when he's wearing his long white coat.

"That was the first straw," he says darkly and stares out of the window. "Then the endless arguments about our marriage. God, Michiko, let me tell you: You're lucky you weren't there. It was one big fight from the minute I told her I intended to marry you to the ceremony."

She ducks her head quietly and remembers Kaede-sama's blank face during the whole ceremony. The cold grey eyes boring into the back of her skull. She knows the old lady doesn't approve of her. They've never exchanged more than a handful of words. Kaede-sama let her feel her disdain in the most subtly brutal ways possible whenever they met. It's gotten to the point when merely the idea of standing in the lady's presence makes sweat break out all over her body. She shudders to think what it must've been like for him, but Eiichiro is stronger than her. He's headstrong and brave.

"Today she called me into her office and told me she recieved a vision," he growls and narrows his eyes at the memory. "She then demanded to have our child to raise it as the next Night Eye."

Michiko glances up at him curiously. She's only heard vague stories about the Kusakawa clan's mysterious kekkai genkai. Kaede-sama is the only one who has it as far as she knows.

Eiichiro snorts angrily. "I bet it doesn't even exist and she's just playing us for fools. What kind of kekkai genkai skips a generation and only manifests in one person at a time? It has to be useless. She never told my brother and I about it. Now our child is supposed to have it? Based on what? Some nebulous vision. No, Michiko. I told her I wasn't going to put my child through the same hell I went through. I told her where she can shove her Night Eye!"

Michiko gasps softly and stares at him in shock. He grins at her with a rebellious glint in his eyes.

"You didn't," she murmurs in awe. "Eiichiro!"

"I sure did!" He replies before he sighs and his expression sobers. "I won't lie. It's going to be tough from now on. Cut off from the clan's resources, I mean."

"I understand," she says quickly.

"No, you don't," he says and gives her a patronizing look. "It's not just the money, but the protection we're missing. In the wake of the war every country is suffering. There's plenty of rogue clans and ninjas who'll happily take advantage of us."

Michiko swallows and nods as her eyes wander around their little room. She's never been so far away from home. Tension thrums through her veins. She hasn't been able to eat anything since they left with the way her stomach twists.

"What will we do?" She wonders in a small voice. "I can't.. I can't have my baby in the open!"

"I won't let that happen," he says and furrows his brows. "I've got friends in high places. We have to travel a bit further and then..."

"Where?"

"Konohagakure."

"What?!" Michiko stares at him in disbelief. The implications make her head spin. "You mean...?"

"Yes. The Land of Fire is strong. Some even say the strongest nation. We'll have better cards there than elsewhere. We'll go to Konohagakure. I'll offer them my services as a medical ninja.. and should they need it, my knowledge."

She sucks in a sharp breath. Surely that counts as betrayal? The Kusakawas aren't exactly a shinobi clan. Only few of their members serve as ninja. Most of them occupy high ranking positions within the bank, the police force and the courts. Kaede-sama herself is the CEO of the biggest and wealthiest bank in Amegakure. Several of her nephews are lawyers. One is the current Chief Comissioner. Others are managers and owners of local businesses. It's all interconnected in Amegakure, so to speak. He must have a lot to offer. Eiichiro smiles grimly.

"I want our children to grow up free from the old spider's influence," he says gravely. "It's high time we return to the ideals of our clan's founding father. And Kusakawa Ieyasu was first and foremost a shinobi!"

Michiko's brows twitch down briefly, but she swallows and nods. "So.."

"Yes. I want to establish our family as a legitimate ninja clan," he says and gives her a stern look over the rim of his round glasses.

Michiko lowers her eyes and nods again. She's never had the will to oppose him, knows how impossible it is with his stubbornness and temper. "If you say so, husband."

"Go to sleep. We start travelling at first light," he says and glances out of the window. "You'll need all your energy to make it to Konoha."

"Yes," she says and gets up obediently.

After all, she doesn't want her water to break on the road. That would be awful. If her husband says their lives will be better in Konoha, then it must be so.

Chapter Text

I.

 

Everything is fascinating to little Naomi, from the bugs in the grass to the interesting shapes of the clouds in the sky. Even at only two years old she's full of questions. It annoys her older brothers to the point of teasing her and telling her to go ask the cows, but she's never let their rejections bring her down. The cows just blink at her and chew their grass. She doesn't like the way their big dull eyes stare at her. They're boring and they don't answer. So she wanders around the vast garden behind their home and into the forest, even though her mother tells her not to. Everything is so interesting! She watches with big eyes as a butterfly gets caught in a spider's web and starts to struggle to break free. Naomi kneels down besides the bush, disregarding that it gets dirt on her kimono, and watches the spider hurry towards its prey. The leaves of the trees above rustle in the breeze and let through spots of sunlight that dance across the grass. She's momentarily distracted when a spot of warm light hits her face and blinks contently. Then she gasps and looks on as the spider grabs the butterfly and starts to move its legs, spinning a cocoon around its prey.

"Oo, wow," she mutters with huge grey eyes.

Eventually the butterfly is all wrapped up in a cocoon and the spider holds onto its prize. Naomi keeps watching, but nothing else happens. She pouts and gets up.

"Boring. Do something else!"

The spider doesn't listen. She blows up her cheeks and furrows her brows. Boring! She doesn't like it when nothing happens. Her restless mind is easily distracted, so she turns away and looks for something else to entertain her. It's bright beyond the edge of the woods. Naomi is getting a little cold in the shade below the trees. She doesn't like the cold, so she heads back to the meadow. The grass is growing high and tickles her legs as she runs through it, giggling loudly. Her older brothers are training in the backyard and she wisely doesn't disturb them lest they yell at her again. They're going to become shinobi, her father said. Kenji and Akira often train with him so they can enter the academy. She doesn't know what that means. Her mother is sitting on the engawa and watching them. Her belly is big and she said that she'll have another baby. At least her mother tries to answer all her questions, but she's not really good at explaining stuff. Father is rarely at home and when he is he mostly ignores her.

Naomi considers going to her, but then decides against it. Instead she goes around to the front of the house to watch the street. Their house is the second last in a street leading into the village. If she stands by the road she can watch people coming and going. People are interesting. They come in all sizes and shapes, they wear all sorts of things. Some of them even stop to answer her questions. It surprised her to learn that other people are nice to her. Naomi is standing by the road when she suddenly spots a person emerge from the house besides theirs. Her eyes widen immediately since she's never seen anybody come out of that house before. It's an adult with spiky brown hair. Younger than her dad. He's smiling. Besides him is a child who's just as small as her. Her eyes widen in delight. She's never met anybody as young as her. Maybe they can be friends! Naomi runs towards them. The young man looks surprised to see her and stops. The child besides him looks up. Naomi grins hugely and runs towards it. The girl, she thinks, has white skin and long black hair, longer than both of her brothers'. It's maybe as long as her own, tickling her shoulders.

"Hi!" Naomi yells excitedly.

She miscalculates, slips on something moist in the grass and bumps headfirst into the other kid. She lets out a startled noise as she falls back on her butt. The girl stares down at her blankly. She has beautiful golden eyes and slitted pupils. Naomi's eyes widen in delight at seeing something so curious. It reminds her of the snake she saw pictured in one of her father's books. A beaming smile breaks out on her face.

"Hello!" She says again. "My name is Naomi. Who are you?"

The girl blinks slowly. "I am Orochimaru," she replies.

Naomi's brows twitch. That voice...? "Are you a girl?" She asks.

"No," he replies.

"Okay! Let's be friends!" She says brightly.

Orochimaru blinks again. The young man above them laughs. Naomi cranes her neck up to look at him. He smiles down at her.

"Well well, that's a surprise. What do you say to that, Orochimaru?"

"Hm," the boy hums as he stares down at her unblinking.

Naomi giggles in surprise when the young man bends down and grabs her. He puts her back on her feet with a chuckle.

She turns her focus on the interesting boy again after that minor interruption and grins. "Well?" She demands.

"Okay," he says quietly.

Her heart soars in her chest. "Yay! My first friend!" She cheers and hugs him.

Orochimaru stills and doesn't hug her back, but she doesn't care. Today is the most awesome day ever! Naomi rubs her cheek against him and grins hugely.

"Naomi?" She hears her mother call. "Where are you?"

Unwillingly she releases the boy and glances back at the house. "Aw... I'm here!" She yells back.

Her mother walks around the engawa slowly. When she spots them she looks surprised. Then she actually hurries over. It's funny to see her waddle like that and Naomi giggles. She turns to look at Orochimaru, to see if he finds it as funny as her. The boy is just staring at her blankly and doesn't say a word.

"Oro-kun, look! She looks like a.. a pengwin!"

"Penguin," he corrects her.

"Yeah!"

"Oh, Hiruzen-san!" Her mother says, sounding slightly out of breath. "Has she been keeping you with her questions? I apologize. Naomi is a bit too curious for her own good."

"Not at all," he replies warmly. "It looks like she and Orochimaru-kun made friends."

"Huh?" Her mother glances between them in surprise. "Ah, the boy from next door."

"Yes. I look after him."

"Oh, I see. That's very good of you."

Naomi ignores the adults talking and grins at her friend. They are going to have so much fun!

Chapter Text

II.

 

Curious, she reaches out to touch. A white hand grabs her wrist and pushes it down.

"No, do not touch!" Orochimaru says sternly.

Naomi pouts at him, then at the beige snake sitting in the grass. It's got a fascinating pattern on its back, dark brown spots, and its scales shine in the sunlight. Do they feel warm or cold? The boy crouched besides her looks at it as well. The grass has grown taller in merely a month and there are all sorts of fascinating creatures hiding inbetween the green stems.

"It's cute though," she argues.

He doesn't reply. Last week she saw her brothers use a big frog for target practice. She felt sorry for the thing, but when they moved on to something else she went over and inspected its innards. They were red and gooey. She wonders if the snake looks the same inside. One of old Fumiko-san's cats was dead by the roadside this morning. Naomi felt conflicted about that. She likes cats. Still, in the end her curiosity won out and she had a look.

"Do you think it's red inside, too?" She wonders aloud.

Orochimaru glances at her. His golden eyes are impossible to read. They really do look like a snake's eyes, she thinks and grins at him.

"Most likely," he replies.

He always choses his words carefully and has such a formal way of talking. It's funny. Her brothers don't like him. They keep telling her not to play with him, but Naomi ignores them. They are mean and dumb, unlike him.

"Mou, I'm so curious," she drawls. "But it's so pretty. I wouldn't wanna hurt it."

"Me neither," he says and looks away.

"Did you know snakes can shed their skin?" She asks with big eyes. "I read it in papa's book."

"Yes."

Naomi pouts at him before the smile returns to her face. "You're so smart!"

It's impossible to surprise him with facts. Everything she reads in her father's big book he already seems to know. Her dad has taught her to read and she does so with passion. It makes her brothers jealous for some reason and she's secretly delighted by it. That's what they get for calling her dumb all the time!

"Do you think it's pwoisnus?" She wonders.

"Poisonous," he corrects her automatically. "Going by the color and pattern it's likely a common mamushi. And yes, it is poisonous. We should leave it be."

"Aw, okay. If you say so, Oro-kun," she says with a brilliant smile.

He gets up and tugs at her wrist until she follows. "Move slowly so we don't startle it into attacking."

"Okay," she hums as they retreat.

Once they've put several feet between them and the snake he releases her wrist. He gives her an intent look that makes her pay attention.

"Don't tell anybody about this," he says.

"Why?"

He sighs and it's funny, because only adults do that. Naomi tilts her head and giggles a little. He throws her a look.

"They won't allow you to play with me anymore."

"What!?" Her smile drops and makes way for an aghast expression. "Why?!"

"Adults are irrational sometimes," he says quietly.

"Ira- irratwona?" She scrunches her nose up and frowns. "What does that mean?"

"They'll blame me for it being there."

"But why?!" She demands and pouts at him.

They both stop on the trail to Naomi's home and face each other. He gives her one of his unreadable looks.

"Look at me," he says quietly.

Naomi glances between his eyes and frowns in confusion. "So?"

"People say I bring snakes into the village," he mutters quietly and looks down at the ground. "It's not true, but they say it anyway. If your parents hear we found a mamushi they'll blame me."

"That's stupid!" She exclaims angrily and takes his hand. "I won't say anything, promise!"

Orochimaru glances up at her and smiles slightly. Naomi beams at him and bounces on her feet. "Let's go watch the toads! I heard Kenji say that there's a lot of them at the pond!"

"Okay," he replies quietly.

Chapter Text

III.

 

"Do you want to become a shinobi?" She asks him one day.

"Yes," he replies.

They're reading a book together at his place. It's huge and has lots of animal pictures. There are a bunch of big words he helps her pronounce. Naomi blows up her cheeks and glances out of the window. She's almost jealous that he gets to have a whole house for himself. Sometimes she wishes she didn't have a family either. Especially when Kenji and Akira team up to bully her. Her mother is busy with the new baby all the time so she doesn't notice. Her father is rarely home anway. The only one she can vent to is Orochimaru, who always gets that look on his face when she complains about her siblings. Akira will enter the academy next month. Kenji next year. They're both really excited about it.

"Really?" She asks. "Why?"

"To learn more," he replies with a small smile. "Ninjas are specialists at gathering knowledge."

"Ohh!" She makes big eyes at him before her brows twitch down. "Then I bet Akira and Kenji will be bad at it. They're stupid meanies."

"Probably," he agrees with a grin.

Naomi giggles at him before she tugs at his sleeve. "Turn the page."

"Are you done reading already?"

"Yup," she says with a nod. "What's haem-mom.. sta.."

"Haemostasis," he says patiently. "When a wound stops bleeding."

"Oh," she hums and frowns at the page as she goes over the words.

She leans down to peer more closely at the kanji and bumps into his side. They're sitting side by side on the floor of his livingroom. It's nice and cool, a relief from the sweltering humid heat of summer. Suddenly she looks up with a hopeful smile.

"Hey Oro-kun, my birthday is soon."

"Ah?"

"Yeah! In three days!" She says.

"The seventh of July. That's easy to remember," he comments idly. "I assume you'll celebrate it."

"Yeah. Well. I dunno," she frowns. "We normally just eat cake."

"That's nice, isn't it?"

"Do you like cake?" She asks hopefully.

His face twists for a second. "I do not like cold food."

"Oh," she mumbles and looks down at the book. "So what food do you like?"

"Hm.. eggs," he says thoughtfully.

She waits, but nothing else comes forth. "Just eggs? Maybe I can ask mama to cook some eggs for you.. Will you come to my party?"

He stares at her in conflict and blinks slowly. "Will I be welcome there?"

Naomi hesitates. Something shutters behind his eyes and he looks away. It makes her feel immensely bad.

"S-sorry," she mumbles and feels the urge to cry. "M-maybe its.. They'd just be mean.. Sorry."

"Don't cry," she hears him say.

Naomi rubs her nose and blinks quickly. It wouldn't be fair to him. He shouldn't have to bear the brunt of her brother's wiles. It's okay if they bully her, but not him. Suddenly a pale hand appears in front of her face holding a cloth tissue. Naomi blinks and lowers her arm. She closes her eyes automatically when the tissue approaches and feels him dab at her eyes very gently. When the tissue withdraws she opens her eyes and beams at him.

"Thank you!"

Orochimaru just smiles.

Chapter Text

IV.

 

"Impressive," her father says.

Naomi beams hugely at him once he lowers the sheet of paper she'd handed him. It contains an essay on the anatomy of frogs. Orochimaru helped her with the kanji, but she did all the rest. Eiichiro runs a hand over his beard and regards her. Naomi feels like she's growing taller under his gaze, which so rarely focuses only on her. There's a certain interest in his dark brown eyes now.

"Did you come up with this yourself? I didn't realize you know so many kanji already."

"Yup! I read a lot of books and thought I'd compile my knowledge!" She says proudly.

He nods once, more to himself, and smiles very slightly. Naomi thinks she's going to faint. If Kenji was here he'd go green with envy, but he's at the academy now. After she turned four her mother began to teach her stuff, like how to arrange flowers. Boring stuff. She enjoys her father's lessons much more. He averts his gaze and stares down at the paper. That, too, is familiar. He never looks her in the eyes for long.

"Well then, it seems you're ready to learn more advanced subjects."

"Like what?"

"Math, biology," he says and waves a hand dismissively before he glances at her with a slight smile. "Grown up subjects."

"Oooh!" She says with wide excited eyes. "Yes please!"

He nods again and glances at his bookshelf, where his meticulous alphabetical order has been thrown into chaos on the lowest level. He smiles again. Naomi can't believe what she's seeing and hearing. He thinks she's smart enough for advanced lessons! Akira and Kenji were wrong! Once he dismisses her from his office she runs straight to Orochimaru to tell him the good news.

"Oro-kun! Oro-kun!" She yells at his house before she even reaches the front entrance.

The door slides open and he pokes his head out curiously. "What is it? Why are you yelling?"

Naomi grins at him and stumbles up the stairs. Once she's within reach she throws herself at him and hugs him tightly. He shifts back in surprise and lightly places a hand on her back.

"Papa said I'm ready for advanced lessons!" She tells him with a beaming smile once she draws back. "He was impressed with my essay!"

"That's good."

She nods eagerly. "Thank you so much for helping with my kanji reading!"

"No problem," he replies quietly and looks down.

"What's wrong?" She asks and tilts her head to the side.

He shakes his head once. "Nothing."

"Tell me?" She asks softly.

The corners of his mouth twitch down briefly as he turns away and goes into his kitchen. Naomi frowns as she trails behind him.

"No seriously, what's wrong?"

"It's nothing," he replies a bit more forcefully.

Naomi pouts at him. He sighs and turns away to grab her a glass of tap water. She bounces on her feet and looks around. The house is sadly barren of seasonal decorations, unlike her own home. Her mother busies herself constantly changing the decor. Just this morning she'd been arranging pumpkins and small bundles of dried flowers on the couch table. It's the middle of October and the temperatures are slowly but steadily falling. It's not yet his birthday, so she has no clue what he'd be sad about today. He hands her the glass and she happily takes a sip. Naomi stares at him curiously. He appears to be thinking about something, since his eyes look far away. She really really hates seeing him sad, so she puts her glass down on the counter and shuffles towards him. He blinks when she tugs on the sleeve of his white yukata.

"What's wrong?" She asks and peers into his eyes. "Tell me."

"I assume we won't be seeing each other very often anymore."

"Huh?" She frowns at him. "Why?"

"More advanced lessons mean more material to study and less time to play," he explains slowly. "And if it's your father, I'm sure he'll want you to study a lot."

"Oh!" Her eyes widen in surprise before she grins at him. "Don't worry, Oro-kun. I'll come see you as often as possible!"

He gives her a steady look that doesn't seem very convinced. Naomi huffs and holds up her right pinky.

"Pinky promise!" She says and wags her finger. "Come on!"

"Naomi," he mutters.

"Come oooon, Oro-kun!"

With a beleaguered look he lifts his pinky and hooks it with hers. Naomi beams at him and waves their linked fingers around.

"See? See? Don't be sad! I'll definitely come over often!" She sing songs.

He smiles very slighty and she feels actue relief. Orochimaru is her best friend in the whole world and if she has any say about it that'll never change. She lets go of his finger and grins hugely.

"Ne, ne, let's play catch now!" She says eagerly.

"I'd rather not."

"Hide and seek!"

"Fine."

"Can we play in here or do you wanna go out?"

"In here is fine."

"Yay! You go first!"

"Why me?"

"Cause I'm better at hiding!" She says and pokes her tongue out at him.

"No you're not!" He argues with a small frown.

"Am too!"

"Are not!"

"Count to ten!" She yells and runs away.

"Naomi!" He exclaims in exasperation, but starts counting loudly anyway.

She grins broadly and runs up the stairs. Once she's up there she looks around quickly and spots a window. With a delighted grin she rushes over and opens it. She's watched her brothers practice enough times to know about chakra control and listened once when her father explained the concept of using chakra to move in impossible ways. Like up and down trees. It can't be that complicated if even her dumb brothers can do it. Naomi climbs over the sill, careful to make as little noise as possible. She can feel her chakra network, of course. The life energy suffuses her entire being and she secretly tried to manipulate it before. Glancing down at the lawn so far below, she swallows and furrows her brows. She places her palm on the wall and focuses hard. A small blue glow lights up her skin.

"Alright," she whispers and shifts off the sill.

It's weird. Like she glued her hand to the wall. With her free hand she closes the window. Then she shifts and lets out a hiss when her body suddenly falls forward. Her hand is all that's holding her against the wall. Cold sweat breaks out on her neck. She stares at her palm and gulps when she realizes she starts to slide down. When her chakra suddenly disperses she lets out a small shriek and clenches her eyes shut. The drop isn't as long as expected. She lets out a gasp when her feet hit the ground. It doesn't hurt much.

"Whew," she breathes shakily and glances up at the window.

It could've ended pretty badly, but it didn't. Naomi grins and moves on. She still has to hide from Orochimaru! It won't count if he catches her outside and she doesn't want to let him win. She sneaks around the engawa and back inside. Footsteps on the ceiling tell her that he's upstairs. With a big grin she goes to the kitchen and opens the cabinet beneath the sink. It's a small space, but she fits inside. That'll teach him to underestimate her! Her plan works a little too well. Waiting to be found quickly gets boring. Naomi huffs against her knees, which she's drawn up to her chest. She hears him call her name and gnaws on her lower lip. Suddenly her brows furrow. His tone sounds a little frantic. She wonders why. It's just a game. Footsteps thunder downstairs.

"Naomi!" He shouts.

Naomi pouts and pushes the cabinet door open. Crawling out from beneath the sink she blinks when he suddenly skids to a stop and glares down at her.

"I win!" She announces triumphantly.

"What did you do?" He seethes and balls his fists at his sides. "The window was open! I thought.."

"Oh, you noticed?" She says in a small voice.

His eyes narrow. Naomi swallows nervously. She's never seen him get mad before. It's scary. He stalks up to her and she retreats against the wall, where he corners her.

"What did you do?" He demands again.

"I.. I.. um..," she stammers and looks up at him with wide eyes.

"Naomi! Dinner's ready!" Her mother's voice comes from outside.

She bites her lip and looks down. "I just wanted to.. I've been practicing chakra control. I climbed out and.."

"You climbed out of the window?!" He barks, which makes her flinch. "You idiot!"

A deep frown grows on her face. "I'm not an idiot!"

"Are too! Why else would you do something so stupid?!"

Naomi's eyes water at his words and she bites the inside of her cheek. "I'm not an idiot! You're the i-idiot!" She yells and pushes past him.

Her throat is burning and her breath hitches. Naomi is angry beyond words. Feeling deeply betrayed she runs out of his house. Never in a million years would she have thought that he'd ever say that to her. There are few things worse than people insulting her intellect. Hot tears trail down her face by the time she's back home and slams the door shut behind her.

"Naomi!" Her mother tuts and frowns at her.

When she sees the look on her face she pauses and raises her brows. Naomi stomps right past her and goes to her room. It's the first fight they've ever had. She absolutely hates it. It's way worse than when her brothers yell at her, because she actually cares about him. Naomi cries into her pillow. When she runs out of steam she lies there, frowns and stubbornly decides that she has nothing to apologize for. He acted like a jerk. He called her an idiot. It hurts.

Chapter Text

V.

 

Orochimaru doesn't apologize. After a week without seeing the pale boy, Naomi starts to worry. She gnaws on her lower lip a lot and considers caving in and going to apologize first, but pride won't let her. He's her best friend, though. Frankly, she doesn't know what to do. At least she has the comfort of spending more time with her father. He brings her new books full of big words and unfamiliar kanji. Naomi reads them over and over again until she can pronounce the words correctly. It would be easier if Orochimaru was there to help, but he's not, so. She pours all her energy and focus into reading and making lists. It's easier to remember stuff that way. Her dad teaches her many things. When she hesitantly mentions chakra he also explains that to her. He seems pleased that she's curious about shinobi skills and readily explains things to her, like the five basic natures. Since she senses that it's a subject he cares about she asks if there is anything else.

"There is also taijutsu, the art of physical combat, and genjutsu, the art of illusion," he says and lifts a brow. "Why? Do you want to become a ninja?"

Naomi swallows and remembers her friend's words. Her curiosity is boundless and that way she may be able to learn much more, so she says yes. Both of his bushy brows rise at that.

"Hm, I see," he says consideringly. "I won't stop you. Is there any discipline that interests you in particular?"

"W-well," she mumbles slowly. "You always talk about your job and I just thought how awesome it sounds.."

"You want to become a med nin?" He sounds pleasantly surprised.

Naomi smiles and nods shyly. He hums and looks her over.

"Well, you certainly don't lack the intellect," he says and she beams. "I suppose we'll have to work on your chakra control then."

"Oh! Oh! I've been practicing," she says excitedly and lifts her palm to show him.

A soft blue glow grows around her hand. Her father's eyes nearly bug out. "What?! How can this- Naomi! That's amazing!"

Her cheeks redden at the praise and she ducks her head. Her father gets up from his desk and goes to his bookshelf where he withdraws a thick tome from the highest shelf.

"Here," he says and lays it in front of her on the desk. "Read this. I'll explain the terms you don't understand."

"What is this?" She asks curiously.

"My very first medical textbook," he says with a small grin.

"Oooh!" Her eyes widen as she stares at the cover.

She only recognizes two of the kanji there. Still, she's insanely curious so she flips through the thin pages. They're fully of diagrams and symbols. A ton of pictures show detailed drawings of various body parts. She's immediately fascinated.

"You like it?"

"It's amazing! Thank you papa! I'll definitely read it all!" She grins and hugs the book to her chest.

"Ha, that's what I like to hear. Write down words you don't understand," he tells her with a small smile.

"I will!" She agrees and nods quickly.

This is the best! The book is way more interesting than the encyclopedia and the animal lexicon. It's also way heavier. She lugs it to her room and starts to read. It's very very complicated. There are so many unfamiliar symbols.. During the breaks when she goes to the bathroom or to eat she thinks of her friend and frowns unhappily. Three more days go by and the book doesn't lose its fascination, but it gets harder to ignore her heartache. Her progress is slow without his help. She still doesn't feel like she needs to say sorry, but if he won't.. Maybe climbing out of the window was a little stupid. Besides, she misses him too much to cling onto her pride. Eleven days after their fight she doesn't start studying the book first things first after she wakes up in the morning. Instead she puts on her shoes and goes out. There's a small group of older kids standing around something further down the street. Naomi pauses on the way to his house and stares at them. Curious, she goes over to the group.

"Ne, what are you looking at?" She demands and tries to push through the bigger kids.

"Oi!" One of them says and looks down at her.

"Watch it!"

"Hey!"

"Let me see!" She demands and tries to peer through their legs.

There is a lot of red. Something squishy, too. One of the kids, a girl, puts her hands on her shoulder with a serious expression.

"Don't look. This is too nasty for a kid like you."

"I'm not a baby!" She objects.

"Says the baby," one of the boys snorts and steps to the side. "Let her look, Shizune."

"H-hey.."

Naomi quickly steps in the space he vacated and looks. It's a mess. A headless animal lies in a puddle of blood with its guts spilling out of its belly. Naomi looks more closely and decides its a small dog. The cut looks weirdly clean, curving in a straight line from the throat down to the pelvic bone. Dimly she realizes that the older kids have stopped talking and are waiting for a reaction. She looks up with a neutral expression.

"Poor animal," she sighs. "Who'd do something like this?"

The older kids stare at her in surprise. A few of them look uncomfortable. One boy glances over to Orochimaru's house and her brows crash down into a frown.

"It was probably the weirdo," somebody mutters.

"Yeah."

"No way!" She says loudly, making them stare at her. "Oro-kun would never do that!"

"How do you know?"

"Yeah!"

"Are you friends with the creep or something?" One boy laughs.

"Yes!" She says boldly and puffs her chest out.

"Keh! You better watch out so you don't end like that dog, then!" He snorts and turns away.

Naomi frowns deeply as the kids start to mutter and walk away. None of them look at her again. She glances down at the dog. Orochimaru would never do that to her. Never. She's absolutely certain. The very idea is ridiculous. She shakes her head and walks over to his house.

"Oro-kun?" She calls uncertainly after knocking on his door. "It's me. Naomi."

"What do you want?"

She winces and looks down. "I wanna talk to you."

The door slides open and she looks up at him. His face is blank and unreadable as always. He doesn't move to let her in and she fidgets uncomfortably.

"I'm sorry," she says quietly. "Climbing out of that window was kinda dumb."

He doesn't respond and just keeps watching her carefully. Naomi worries her lower lip and glances to the side.

"I didn't.. mean it when I called you an idiot, either," she swallows and looks at him. "I was just angry."

He exhales softly. "I accept your apology," he mutters.

Naomi pouts at him. It doesn't have the desired effect so she widens her eyes, too. "Oro-kuuun," she whines.

His eyes dart towards hers and away again. "I should not have called you stupid."

"No," she mutters.

"You could have broken your neck if you fell!" He snaps suddenly and glares at her.

"But I didn't!" She shoots back just as fiercely.

"You-!"

He's horrible at apologies, she realizes. He was scared. She realizes that, too. Naomi grins broadly at his outraged expression, which smoothes a little at the sight.

"Ne, can I hug you?" She asks happily and bounces on her feet. "Hug and make up!"

"That's not how the saying goes," he murmurs faintly.

He doesn't look angry anymore, so she takes it as an invitation. Naomi lets out a cheer and throws herself at him. As soon as she's wrapped herself around him like a koala everything's alright again. Naomi grins happily and rubs her cheek against his chest. An entire two hands come to rest on her back, which she interprets as him being happy, too.

"I don't wanna fight with you ever again!" She sighs contently and draws back.

His hands fall away immediately and he nods once. Content with the world again, she beams and bounces on her feet.

"Dad gave me one of his medical books! It's totally awesome!" She rushes out excitedly.

"Ah?"

"It's full of strange kanji and diagrams!" She tells him excitedly. "Wanna come over and look at it?"

"Do you wish to become a medical ninja?" He asks curiously.

"Yep! It sounds so interesting!"

"I see. Then you can't be afraid of blood," he tells her sternly.

Naomi laughs at that and shakes her head. She grabs one of his hands, pauses briefly to peer at his face and tugs him towards the door.

"Come ooon!"

"Fine," he sighs reluctantly. "I'm coming."

Chapter Text

VI.

Her brothers laugh at her when she announces that she's going to become a ninja, too. They're not laughing anymore when the whole family goes to her academy entrance ceremony. As soon as the formal part is over Kenji and Akira dart away, eager to put distance between them and their loser sister. They find their groups of friends and stay there. Naomi's parents are eager to socialize with the other adults, particularly those of the old Konohan clans, leaving her alone. She doesn't mind. Excitement thrums along her veins as she darts between people and looks at the other kids that are going to be in her class. To her infinite delight she's going to be in the same class as Orochimaru. Speaking of which, the boy immediately seems to have dissapeared after the ceremony. It's not unusual, since he hates crowds. There was nobody watching him anyway and he's not really interested in making friends. He must have gone home to work on his experiments. Naomi shakes her head with a small smile and resolves to talk to him later. For now she wants to get to know her future friends. In the crowd she suddenly bumps into another girl, who drops a cup on the floor.

"Hey!" The girl snaps and looks up at her with a frown.

The girl has long honey blond hair and hazel eyes. She's really pretty. Naomi smiles apologetically and bends down to pick up the cup.

"I'm sorry. I should have watched where I was going," she says and winces.

"Yeah, you can dump that now. I'm not gonna drink from that," the girl sighs and puts her hands on her hips. "What's your name?"

"Kusakawa Naomi!" She says and wipes her hand on her kimono after dropping the cup. She sticks it out to the girl and gives her her best beaming grin.

"Hm. I'm Senju Tsunade."

"Nice to meet you!"

"Geez, are you always this exciteable?" Tsunade asks, but her amused expression belies her tone.

"Yuuup. We're gonna be classmates, after all! Hey, wanna be friends?"

"Huh. Sure. Why not," Tsunade says and eyes her curiously.

"Yeaaaah!" Naomi cheers loudly and throws her fists up in the air.

"Weird," Tsunade huffs, but she's starting to grin.

It makes her father happy that she's friends with Tsunade for some reason. He encourages her to spend as much time as possible with her new friend. Naomi is a little weirded out by that since he's never told her to spend time with Orochimaru before and he's her friend, too. She quickly realizes that he does it because the Senju clan is sort of a big deal. Konoha's first Hokage was a Senju and the current Hokage is from that clan as well. Tsunade tells her so with a sort of sad expression because the First was her granddad and he recently passed away. It sounds like she was really fond of him. Everybody likes Tsunade. Naomi watches curiously as people, even adults on the street, stop to greet and smile at her. Tsunade has lots of friends she introduces to Naomi. And Naomi? Is beyond excited to finally be recognized and liked by people. Even if it's just because of her connection to Tsunade. It feels amazing to be recognized in the street, to have people wave and smile at her. To have people approach her for a chat. Naomi's never had so many fascinating conversations before. By watching and emulating Tsunade she manages to approach others in a way that makes them stick around. Nobody calls her annoying anymore and she's thriving on the attention. They become nigh inseperatable.

"And then Tsunade went and told him where he can stick it!" Naomi laughs as she hangs upside down from the couch in Orochimaru's livingroom.

He hums noncomitally and pours a red liquid into a green vial. The chemistry set was a gift from Hiruzen-san for his birthday. At first he was disappointed that it doesn't contain real chemicals, but he claims it's good practice anyway. Practice for what, he doesn't say. He's wholly focused on what his hands are doing. Orochimaru doesn't make any friends in class. He keeps to himself and doesn't talk much. Naomi noticed that the other kids keep their distance with looks that range from awed to uncomfortable around him. Tsunade isn't afraid of him. Naomi introduced them and the slightly taller girl used the full force of her charisma to bully him into a conversation. Much to Naomi's amazement, it worked. She's happy her friends get along. Naomi averts her eyes and looks at the ceiling, rotating her feet in the air.

"Ne, papa said that there's been tensions between the villages. Do you think there will be war?"

"It can happen," he mutters distractedly.

Her brows furrow lightly. Lately, her dad has been staying longer at the med center. After he got promoted to chief physician. It cuts into their training time, which is annoying. Naomi lets out a sigh and rolls around. She gets up and joins Orochimaru at the low livingroom table, watching curiously as he holds a lighter under the vial.

"What are you doing?" She asks as she stares at the bottom of the vial, where the fire is touching the glass.

"Heating the solution," he mumbles.

"What solution?" She asks as she watches a few bubbles form at the bottom of the vial and leans into his space to have a closer look.

"Ah," he hisses suddenly and drops the lighter.

"Whoa!" Naomi yells and leans back.

Thankfully the flame dies as soon as he releases the lighter. Orochimaru frowns severely and blows on his fingers. She grabs the lighter and puts it on the table. Then she furrows her brows at him.

"What the hell, Oro-kun."

He throws her an annoyed look and puts the vial down into a small wooden holder. "You shouldn't have distracted me."

"What? Why is it my fault?" She demands.

His lips flatten and he gets up. Naomi doesn't follow him and stares at his back with furrowed brows as he goes into the kitchen. The sound of running water makes her roll her eyes. Lately he's been acting weird. She doesn't know what to make of it. Naomi pokes the vial gently and marvels at how warm the glass still feels. Then she sighs and rolls her eyes heavenward. What's so interesting about this? She doesn't get it. It's just a toy set. Why is he wasting his time with this? She thinks of her lessons with her father. Those are much more interesting. Naomi plucks at her fishnet leggings. Her mother bought them a size bigger so they'll last longer. Just like her olive dress. She's tied a black sash around her middle so it doesn't look so baggy anymore. Tsunade suggested it and her friend has really good taste in fashion. It's kind of getting boring to sit around and watch him fiddle with his vials. Her dad brought her new books and told her to write an essay about the function of the liver. She's got time until the day after tomorrow. The heat of summer is making her feel lazy so she hasn't even started yet. It's going to be more of a challenge than her homework for school. With a small huff she gets up and stretches.

"Are you okay?" She calls in direction of the kitchen.

"Yes," he replies neutrally as he emerges from the room.

He pauses and blinks at her. Naomi gives him a light apologetic smile. "Hey, thanks for letting me come over, but I have to go do my homework now. We have to arrange a bouquet for Hanami-sensei."

"I see. Good luck," he says lightly.

Naomi snorts and giggles a bit. "What's that supposed to mean, huh?"

"I heard that you're bad at kunochi classes."

A bead of sweat rolls down her neck. "W-well I just don't see why we have to take a class on how to arrange flowers!"

He smiles slightly and tilts his head to the side. Naomi lets out a big sigh and hangs her head.

"I'll have to ask mom for help," she mutters darkly. "It's so dumb!"

"Do your best anyway."

"Yes," she mutters and turns away. "See you in class."

Chapter Text

VII.

 

It can't be helped. The little red flowers she chose for her floral arrangement are wilting and hanging their heads. A few artfully twisted dried branches and ferns are part of it, too. She liked the minimalism of it, even though her mother tried to get her to add more flowers. It doesn't even get a second glance from Hanami-sensei, who spends a full five minutes praising Tsunade's colorful arrangement. Naomi pouts and stares jealously at Tsunade's huge shit eating grin and the admiring looks of her fellow kunochi. She glances to the side and sighs. If only she could join the boys instead. Whatever they're doing in the next classroom must be way more fun.

"Tsunaaaa," she whines once class is over. "Teach me your ways! Hanami-sensei totally hated it."

"Geez, if you have no sense for aesthetic I can't help you!" Tsunade huffs and smirks at her desolate expression.

"It's unfair how good you are at this!" She groans as they walk back to their classroom together.

Tsunade gives her a critical once over. It never fails to make her self-conscious. She looks down at her olive dress and tugs at the sleeves. Naomi's been growing and it barely goes to her knees anymore.

"Who bought this?" She demands in a businesses-like manner.

"My mom."

Tsunade gives her a look. "It shows."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You have to chose your own clothes or you'll never develop any fashion sense," she states matter of factly.

"Huh," she mutters as they head to their seats in the front row.

Tsunade and her sit side by side at the front. Most of the boys fought over seats at the very back of the classroom, but Orochimaru chose one by the window in the left corner of the front row, two seats away from her. Naomi glances at him and grins. The corners of his mouth twitch in acknowledgement.

"How did you become friends with him?" Tsunade mutters quietly besides her. "You're as different as day and night!"

"Not at all," Naomi replies easily.

"Huh?"

"He's really smart and good at science stuff. He helped me read kanji when we were smaller."

"That so," Tsunade says and raises her brows before she gives her a wry grin. "I guess you're a bit of a nerd, too."

Naomi shrugs and nods. "Yeah. I wanna be a med nin, after all."

"You, too?" Tsunade grins happily.

"Yeah! Dad is teaching me!" Naomi exclaims with wide eyes.

"I'm so jealous!" Tsunade complains. "Your dad is the chief of the med center! You'll be way ahead of me when we start training."

Naomi grins smugly at her friend. That's right. For once she'll be better at something than Tsunade. It feels unexpectedly good. Guiltily, she stuffs her jealousy down where it belongs. They're friends, after all. She's really looking forward to becoming a med nin with her.

"Hey, do you know when we can start training?"

"Hmm, there's no official rule," Tsunade says with a small frown. "I guess it depends on your aptitude. Most med nin I know started training somewhere around fourteen."

"Whaaat? Really? But that's seven more years!" Naomi protests and makes a face. "I can't wait that long!"

"Well no," Tsunade agrees easily. "If you and your dad are training already that means you'll be able to start earlier. If he puts in a good word for you, I mean."

"Huh?"

"It's all about connections," she says with an unusually wry expression. "His word will convince the higher ups."

"So what about you?"

"Me?" Tsunade smirks and brushes a strand of honey blond hair behind her ear. "What do you think? I'll start earlier, too!"

"Of course, your highness," Naomi laughs and rolls her eyes. "Nobody says no to Princess Tsuna!"

"Oi, stop it you peasant!" Tsunade laughs and pinches her side.

Naomi yelps and jumps in her seat. "Owww! No fair! Cut that out!"

"Ha!" Tsunade says with a glint in her eyes and tries to pinch her again.

Naomi shrieks and leans away from her. Once Tsunade gets going there's no stopping her. The taller girl can be quite vicious. She's unfairly strong, too. She manages to dodge her pinches and not fall out of her seat. Suddenly she gets her again and draws a high pitched "Ow!" out of her that makes several people laugh. Naomi blushes bright red and presses her lips together, because suddenly it's not funny anymore. This reminds her too much of her brothers.

"Tsunade. Stop."

Both of them look to the left in surprise. Orochimaru is sitting there with his body turned towards them, face resting on his left palm. Tsunade huffs loudly.

"We're just having a bit of fun, right?"

"R-right," Naomi mutters without looking at anybody.

Quite suddenly she wants to curl up and die. She hears people whisper behind her back and feels their looks keenly. Tsunade herself glances at her with a small worried frown. Their teacher thankfully choses that moment to arrive and the class grows quiet again. This is horribly embarrassing. Stuff like this can't happen again. After class, Tsunade pulls her to the side.

"What was that about?" She asks briskly.

"I'm sorry Tsuna," she winces.

"No, seriously."

"I guess.. the situation reminded me of the way my brothers used to tease me when I was little," Naomi mumbles and looks at the ground.

"They bullied you?" Tsunade stares at her in concern.

"Y-yeah. Now that they're Chunin it's better since they're away on missions a lot."

"I didn't know. I'm sorry," Tsunade says sincerely.

"Yeah don't wory about it."

"I won't do it again, okay?"

"No, it's fine. I overreacted-"

"Bullshit," Tsunade says flatly and puts an arm around her shoulders. "I'm sorry for not reading the mood. It's not your fault, okay?"

"Okay," Naomi says and grins hesitantly.

"Good. Now, do you wanna come over to my house and try on clothes? I'm gonna help you find your style."

"Yeah, okay!" She grins brightly.

"Alright! Race you!" Tsunade yells and starts running.

"Hey!" Naomi shouts and chases her.

Fashion, Naomi discovers once Tsunade shows her her closet, is amazing. She tries on so many outfits and loves each one more than the last. It's lucky that Tsunade and her are the same size. Some of her colorful tunics even have low collars that make her blush when she looks at herself in the mirror.

"Wow, you can see my collarbones," she mutters and tries to tug up her collar.

"Yeah, that's what adults call sexy," Tsunade reveals with a wink.

"H-huh?" Naomi stares at her, then her reflection. "What does that mean?"

"That it looks nice!" Tsunade crows triumphantly.

"Really? Why?"

"I dunno. It just does," she huffs. "I read the term in a magazine okay? It said that all women try to look sexy for their husbands and showed various sample outfits."

"Well my mom doesn't try that," Naomi objects thoughtfully. "She always wears plain dresses and an apron."

"So maybe she's an exception," Tsunade allows with a huff. "But my point still stands. Boys like it when you show a bit of skin."

Naomi blushes furiously and shakes her head. "I don't want that! I don't even like boys! They're gross!"

"What about Orochimaru!"

She shakes her head with a grimace. "That's different! We practically grew up together. He's like.. my brother."

"Geez Naomi, you're hopeless," Tsunade sighs. "Here, put this on."

She eyes the tunic. It's another one with a low collar. Well, if it'll make Tsunade happy... She has to know. After all, everybody likes her. Even Orochimaru, and doesn't that make her feel weird for some reason. Naomi always thought she was the only one he liked. Pushing the thought from her mind she takes the tunic and puts it on. Tsunade lets out a pleased noise and makes her turn from side to side.

"Yes, that looks good! Black makes your eyes stand out more," Tsunade says with an approving tone.

Naomi eyes the tunic. It's a wrap tunic like the one Tsunade wears, but it has a white trim. She's right, her eyes do look brighter in this color.

"Can I.. um, can I borrow it?" She asks shyly.

"Sure," Tsunade grins and slaps her shoulder. "Finally you're getting it!"

"Whatever," she mumbles and rubs her smarting shoulder.

Chapter Text

VIII.

 

Gradually she begins to spend more time with Tsunade than Orochimaru. He's often busy with his experiments and while he doesn't outright ask her to stay home she can still tell that he would prefer peace and quiet. Naomi hates feeling like a burden, like she's only an annoying distraction, so she doesn't go over as much anymore. At first it bothers her a lot, but they still see each other at school so it's kinda alright. Besides, Naomi has her pride. If he doesn't want her company she won't force it on him.

Her dad helps her practice taijutsu now since it's her weakest subject. They practice in the backyard. First and foremost katas, but sometimes combat and bukijutsu, too. Her aim is terrible so that's what they focus on. Her dad gets her a set of eight shuriken and four kunai for her birthday. She picks a tree for target practice and works hard to improve. One afternoon when several of her shuriken have gone flying into the woods after she missed, Naomi groans loudly at the sky and goes searching for them. It's hard to spot the small black stars in the underbush. They're high quality stuff that won't break or grow dull even after days of practice, so she can't lose even a single one. Naomi wanders into the familiar woods behind the house and pushes bushes and vines aside. She dimly realizes that she's wandering into Orochimaru's backyard, but doesn't care. There's no fence seperating the properties anyway. Just to make sure she's really looking everywhere she checks the trees as well. A gruesome sight greets her when she rounds a big oak. There's a squirrel nailed to the tree with a kunai. It's obviously dead. At first she winces, thinking she did that, but then she realizes it's on the back of the tree.

"Poor thing," she mutters and glances away.

A metallic glint catches her eye and she quickly bends down, brushing a few fern leaves away. One of her shuriken is almost buried in the soft forest floor. When a shadow falls over her she looks up. Orochimaru's standing in front of her, staring down at her with an impassive expression. Something about the sight of him cast in shadow with only spots of light dancing across his long black hair makes her freeze. She didn't hear him coming. At all.

"What are you doing?" He asks calmly.

"I was.. practicing. Throwing stars," she says and glances at their backyard. "My aim's not the best."

Naomi glances up at his expressionless face and considers apologizing for coming over without asking. It feels weird. Everything's weird between them. With a start she realizes that she hasn't seen him outside school for over a week. Orochimaru glances quickly into the forest behind her and then meets her eyes again. He seems weirdly tense for some reason. A cold shiver runs down her spine and that's when she decides she's had enough. She deftly grabs the shuriken and puts it in her pouch before she stands up and grins at him. It's only a little forced.

"Sorry about that. I'll throw in the other direction from now on," she tells him casually.

He just nods and doesn't move otherwise. Weird, she thinks. Naomi shrugs and glances at her own backyard again. Where it's sunny and warm. She feels horrible for really really wanting to get away from here.

It's just Orochimaru, she reminds herself firmly. You've known him for most of your life.

She wants to talk to him, make friendly conversation like they used to do. And yet she can't help but instinctively feel like he's not in the mood for it. Naomi doesn't want to linger where she's not welcome, so she sighs and rubs the back of her neck.

"I'll go then. Sorry again," she mutters and starts to walk away without waiting for a response.

There is none anyway. From then on she makes sure to throw at an angle that will send stray weapons flying to the other side of the forest. It makes her sad and pisses her off in equal measure that she can't talk to her best friend anymore. It should be like riding a bike, something you never unlearn, but it's really not.

Chapter Text

IX.

 

On the 27th of November she has a serious fight with wrapping paper that lasts for a whole hour. This has to be perfect! She won't accept anything less for Orochimaru's birthday present! She's been gathering the materials for it all year. It's her masterpiece, really. Even Hanami-sensei would be proud of her. Naomi hates being bad at things, so she practiced flower arrangement until Tsunade approved. The crown made from dried flowers and leaves is beautiful, in her opinion. It bears eight dried roses, one for each year of his life. She swallows and stares down at the box she packed it in. Hopefully this will work. It's supposed to be an olive branch after the way they've been growing apart. Every time they hang out is unbearably awkward. Orochimaru seems withdrawn somehow. He now ignores her in class, too. His grades are impeccable. He's on top of the leaderboard in every subject. Naomi lets out a huff and goes over to his house, hiding the box behind her back. She waits a while after knocking before she hears footsteps approach.

"Hi!" She beams when he opens the door.

"Hello."

"Happy birthday!" She says and shoves the box at him with a broad grin.

He blinks down at it and takes it from her. "Thank you," he says hesitantly.

"Aren't you going to let me in?" She says with a teasing smile.

Orochimaru's eyes lift from the box to meet hers. Distantly she notices that she's grown a little taller than him. Instead of replying he comes outside. Naomi blinks in confusion as he steps right past her onto the engawa. He closes his front door and goes to sit down in the shade. Naomi swallows and slowly goes to sit down besides him. He's focusing on carefully unwrapping his present. It's admirable how he manages to not tear the wrapping paper with how much adhesive tape she used. When he lifts the lid off the box she holds her breath.

"A flower crown?" He asks as he lifts it out to inspect.

"Dried flowers," she mutters. "So it'll last longer."

"That's practical."

She smiles lightly and watches him carefully inspect the crown. She dried each leaf herself between the pages of the thick books she finished reading. Tsunade told her which plants retain the most color once dried. She also interspersed the space between the roses with little dried berries and ferns for added texture and color. Naomi bites her lower lip and hopes he likes it. She can't read his expression at all.

"Well? Put it on!" She demands with a laugh.

The corners of his mouth curl up and he obediently puts the flower crown on his head. It doesn't sit quite right, so Naomi reaches out to adjust it. She leans back and stares critically before she leans in again and shifts it around so it's symmetrical. Four on the left, four on the right.

"Aa, perfect," she says contently.

"How does it look?" He asks.

Naomi smiles brightly. "Cute!"

Orochimaru glances down with a small smile. The colors suit him perfectly. The deep red of the roses, vibrant even when dried, in combination with the green leaves look good with his white skin. Naomi crosses her arms and grins smugly.

"Now you're the flower king!" She says teasingly.

"If you say so," he replies. "Thank you. I can tell that a lot of care went into the making."

Naomi blushes lightly at being figured out so easily and rubs the back of her neck. She glances away, towards the street. They've built a new street further away to allow for more traffic, so this dirt road sees less travellers. Many new houses are being built all over the village, higher than the rest. Slowly but surely the landscape is changing. A lot of meadows and trees have disappeared in favor of new houses and roads. Konoha is recovering from the war, her father said. She doesn't really care about politics, but it's constantly on the news. The economy is gaining traction again. Konoha is recovering slightly faster than its surrounding countries, which isn't good, according to her dad. It makes the other nations jealous.

Naomi sighs and dares to lean lightly against his side. Orochimaru doesn't move. She wants to know how his experiments are progressing and what he thinks about their teachers. A thousand questions are on her mind, but somehow she feels strangely tongue tied. A strange warm glow spreads through her chest.

"Thank you for being my friend," she murmurs and keeps her eyes on the empty road. "I really mean it."

"I'm glad, too," he responds just as quietly.

Naomi grins, feeling hope surge inside her. Maybe- no they can definitely fix this.

Chapter Text

X.

 

Their friendship takes another hit on the day she catches him dumping a mangled body in the forest behind his house.

It's bitterly cold, the middle of winter, and Naomi runs out the house when she realizes it starts to snow for the first time this season. She grins hugely behind her big scarf and spreads her arms, watching as thick snowflakes cling to her coat as she spins around in circles. She catches movement at the corners of her eye and stops. Naomi squints through the heavy snow. Her arms drop to her sides and her body goes cold. There's a trail of blood in the thin layer of snow on the grass, going straight from his backdoor across the lawn. Her eyes follow the trail to the trees, where she sees movement from a figure. When the figure turns around her suspicions become terrible truth. It's Orochimaru. He's got something in his hands. A cat or a small dog, she can't tell. It's legs are oddly twisted. Pale pink guts are hanging out of it. Naomi's stomach lurches at the sight and she feels sick.

Her hopes of reconciliation were dashed when Orochimaru and she had another fight about something stupid she can't even remember anymore. They haven't spoken in two months now. Dead animals have been appearing occasionally around the street, but not only there. To see the rumors confirmed, that it was him, fills her with cold dread and burning disappointment. She knows she's been seen when he stops moving abruptly. Gold eyes stare at her through the gloom beneath the trees. It sends a shiver down her spine and makes her heart start pounding. Her head goes strangely blank. Naomi spins around on her heel and runs back inside the house. She slams the door shut and locks it for good measure. For some reason she can't stop shivering, not even when she's curled up beneath the covers on her bed. Naomi's eyes start to burn. How could he?!

Tsunade and her swap seats at school. Nothing else changes. She doesn't tell her friend about her discovery out of a deep seated sense of loyalty to Orochimaru that she can't seem to shake. If their friendship has cooled down before, it's now officially put on ice. Seeing carcasses isn't what makes her gut lurch, it's knowing that Orochimaru killed them. Some of them were mutilated pretty badly, beyond what one might do out of scientific curiosity. If it was just that she'd understand, probably. Not like this. This is pure sadism.

"Ne, Naomi. I've talked to my mom and dad. They'll let me apply for medical training soon," Tsunade tells her with a huge smile.

"Really? Already?" Naomi's nose scrunches up.

"Yup. I convinced them and they agreed that I have the talent."

"Whoaaa."

"What about you?"

She thinks about all her recent lessons and rubs her nose thoughtfully. "Maybe papa will let me apply, too."

"You should talk to him," Tsunade says with a nod. "We'll train together!"

"Yeah, that would be nice."

The blonde's eyebrows furrow and she points at her. "What's with you today? Where's your spirit?!"

Naomi groans and buries her face in her crossed arms. She feels hot and her bones ache. A cool hand touches her forehead and she hears Tsunade tutter.

"Nana, you've got a fever! You should go home."

"N-no way. I'm fine," she protests feebly.

Thankfully Imura-sensei choses that moment to arrive. Calculus is a little difficult to follow as she feels progressively sicker. It's as if somebody is siphoning all her strenght and concentration. She's never missed a day at school and she doesn't plan to. This year she's going to turn ten and her dad promised he'd start training her in medical jutsu then since she already has really good chakra control. He took her to the med center once and it was one of the best days of her life. She's deeply afraid of disappointing him so she doesn't even consider going home now. Naomi grits her teeth and focuses. She won't let some stupid sickness get the best of her!

At leats until lunch break. They go outside to eat and Naomi can't stop shivering, even though it's not that cold today. Her face is burning up and her head feels like it's packed in cotton. She's not hungry, but forces herself to eat an onigiri anyway. Tsunade is carrying on a conversation she's not listening to. She just nods and hums from time to time. When the bell rings and the blond girl gets up she follows slowly and feels a little sick. Halfway across the schoolyard she suddenly feels the blood rush from her face. Everything goes kind of hazy and starts to spin.

"Nana!" She hears Tsunade yell and feels her grab onto her coat. "Dammit!"

The world fades away for a moment, or so it feels, until everything goes into focus again. She's staring at the ground. Gravel is digging into her knees and her leggings are getting moist from kneeling on the ground.

"Nana!" Tsunade snaps suddenly.

She looks up and sees her friend crouched in front of her with a worried frown. "Tsuna?"

"You blacked out for a second! Go home already, damn you! You're sick and should be resting!" The blonde half-shouts.

"N-no, I'll be okay," Naomi objects weakly.

Her stomach is roiling and her throat is clogged. She can't let her flawless record get tainted! Tsunade's frown turns into a scowl as she stands up suddenly.

"You're being an idiot!" She hears her yell. "Dammit! I'm telling Inoue-sensei!"

"Tsuna, no!" She croaks desperately. "I can't misss school!"

They're attracting a crowd, but Naomi doesn't care. She tries to stand up, but her limbs feel like jelly and she ends up sort of wobbling in place.

"Help me up!" She hisses furiously and blushes with embarrassment.

Tsunade crosses her arms with a deep frown. "Naomi you can't even stand up! You need to go home!"

This is the worst. This is the worst. Being surrounded by a ring of curious onlookers while she can't even get up-! They don't understand. Tsunade is being mean. Frustrated tears well up in her eyes.

"I can't-" she grits out and cuts herself off before she does something embarrassing like cry.

"Move."

People protest and suddenly there's movement behind the ring of people. Some of the kids look back and hastily step aside to let through the last person she expected to come to her aid. Orochimaru doesn't even look at the people who quickly step away from him. His golden eyes are fixed on her. Tsunade's arms and frown drop in surprise.

"Orochimaru?"

He simply crouches down besides her and puts her arm over his shoulders. Naomi's mouth drops open in shock.

"Come on," he says calmly.

With his help she manages to stand up. Naomi swallows hard and stares at the ground when he helps her walk through the crowd. Suddenly running footsteps catch up to them and Tsunade appears at her other side. She wordlessly slings an arm around her middle.

"You idiot," she scolds her. "Why are you so stubborn?!"

"I can't miss school," Naomi insists weakly. "Dad will get mad at me. He's really.. strict."

"It's not your fault if you get sick," she objects and turns to her with a frown.

"You don't get it! The only thing that matters to him is if I have a flawless record!" Naomi grits out.

She hates having to explain herself, even if it's to her friend. Tsunade doesn't know her dad. The way he demands perfection from all his children. How the only one who seems to be excempt from this is her younger sister, who can seemingly do as she pleases. How bitter it is that he spoils the little princess rotten, but admonishes her if she spells a single medical term wrong. Orochimaru is a silent support on her left side. She swallows and glances at him from the corner of her eyes. He keeps looking at the way ahead with an impassive expression. The way back to the classroom, she notices with delight.

"Thank you, Oro-kun," she says quietly and gives him a small, uncertain smile.

He only stares down at her blankly after dumping her on her chair and walks away. Tsunade sits down besides her, obscuring her view on him, and tsk's loudly.

"What's with him?" She comments lightly before giving her a slightly downtrodden look. "Sorry for earlier, Nana. I didn't mean to.. I guess I was just worried. And a little annoyed at your stubbonness. I still don't think it's a good idea for you to stick around, but if you insist."

"I have to," Naomi rasps and sniffles once.

"Fine, then I'll keep watch over you," Tsunade says decisively. "Drink something!"

"Okay...," Naomi sighs and tries to glance past her.

Orochimaru is back to ignoring her apparently. Tsunade rolls her eyes and pushes a water bottle at her.

Chapter Text

XI.

 

When she hits the ground there's a strange ringing in her ears and her eye hurts so bad it feels like it's about to burst. Naomi feels numb all over, can't really believe what just happened.

"Don't fucking touch her!" Akira yells from above her prone body.

"Hey! Hey, bro, stop it! Cut it out man. Jeez, fucking look at her. Bro." Kenji groans.

She gingerly feels her eye, winces when the skin around it starts to swell. It feels so tender. Even the slightest touch hurts. Naomi pushes up into a sitting position and grimaces at the sting of the scrape at her elbow. Akira is glaring down at her, held back by Kenji who keeps talking at him.

"Calm the fuck down, bro," he snaps and yanks him backwards. "If dad sees this-!"

"It was a training accident," Akira snarls at her, brown eyes drilling into her. "Understand?!"

Naomi stares at him, speechless. His eyes narrow dangerously. Akira's joined ANBU already, at only fourteen. On the day of his promotion their father threw him a party. He's strong.

"Do you fucking understand?!" He growls.

"Yes," she replies quietly. "An accident."

Yukiko sneers at her, standing slightly behind their oldest brother with a mean glint in her brown eyes. Naomi grits her teeth and gets up. Kenji tugs him back some more with a frown.

"Bro. Leave her be, c'mon, bro."

"Fuck," Akira hisses and abruptly turns away. "It's the damn eyes. They're like hers."

"I know, bro," Kenji says quietly as they walk away.

Yukiko smirks at her behind their brothers' backs before she trails after them. Naomi furrows her brows and looks at nothing as she wipes at her mouth with the back of her hand. This is new. They've never hit her in the face before. Only places where nobody will see. She goes to inspect herself in the bathroom mirror. Her right eye is swelling shut and the skin around it is growing purple. She can't go to school like this. Naomi swallows hard and thinks. Tomorrow is Monday. Her dad recently recieved a call to the hospital because there is an emergency. There's no way she'll be able to fix this by herself. It's too obvious to hide with makeup. She can't be seen like this. Naomi goes to the kitchen to grab an ice pack. Her mother is there, sitting at the table and reading a book. She looks up when Naomi enters the room and stares blankly. The girl averts her eyes and grits her teeth as she heads to the fridge. She's learned the hard way not to expect sympathy from her family members.

"What happened?"

"An accident," Naomi spits bitterly as she roots around the freezer compartment.

"I'm sorry," her mother says softly and there's an odd little tremble in her voice.

Naomi glances at her briefly. She's staring down at her trashy romance novel. Suddenly, unbidden, she feels a surge of rage.

"Where was your sorriness all these years?" She asks quietly with a voice full of venom.

Her mother's lips press into a flat line. Naomi snorts and turns back to the fridge. They've never had much to say to each other. Finally she digs out an ice pack from beneath a bag of frozen spinach. Naomi wraps a towel around it and presses it to her eye. She hears the rustle of paper from the table as her mother turns a page.

"I'm sorry," she says a bit more firmly, but still quiet. "They take after their father."

Her stomach drops and she turns to stare at her mother. The woman, always quiet and unobtrusive, keeps reading.

"What?"

"You all have his temper," her mother says and glances at her briefly with her dull brown eyes. "I thought it best to let you sort things out among yourselves."

Self-preservation, Naomi realizes with a start. Her mother is utterly focused on self-preservation. That weak, stupid, useless woman! Naomi thinks, enraged. She's talking as if she isn't even part of this family! As if none of this concerns her.

"Yeah?" She snaps. "Thanks a lot, mom."

The woman flinches slightly and closes her book. She casts her a fleeting look and sighs. Her shoulders drop and suddenly, all at once she looks at least ten years older.

"What would you have me do?" She says in a defeated tone.

Naomi grinds her teeth and looks away. "Dad can heal this."

"He'll stay overnight at the hospital. There's a complicated case. A young girl, badly injured from what I heard."

Naomi's heart drops. She vaguely knew this day might come sooner or later, but it still fucking sucks.

"I can't go to school like this," she mutters darkly.

"No. I'll call your teacher."

Naomi nods stiffly and presses the icepack closer to her eye. People would ask questions she doesn't feel like answering. The fires of rage are still igniting her veins, refusing to die down. How dare he! Is all she can think. It feels like the years of abuse have culminated in this. It was never okay before, but she'd arranged herself with the knowledge that her brothers just hate her and adore their baby sister. Now, though. Now the three of them have forged a pact against her. They're using Yukiko to bait her so they have an excuse to push her around. And she's so very good at it. Vain, spoiled rotten and arrogant beyond belief, she manages to push her buttons easily. It was just a light shove against her shoulder. Just a little push. It's unfortunate that Akira and Kenji both came back from long missions at the same time. Naomi is mad at herself for not realizing that they'd use their breaks to go back to playing their favorite game. As she glares at her reflection in her mirror, surrounded by the gloom of her own room after she drew the shutters down, Naomi feels as if she's so very close to her breaking point. Eleven years are a long time, after all.

At half past ten in the morning the phone rings. Naomi just happens to be in the area and goes to pick it up.

"Hello?"

"Naomi, where are you?" Tsunade asks in a concerened voice.

"Home."

"What? Why?! What happened?"

She glances out of the window, where her siblings are playing in the backyard. They look like they're having fun. She won't be able to train there for a while yet.

"Don't worry. I'm just waiting for dad to fix it," she mutters.

"Fix what?"

"I sprained my ankle during training," she lies through gritted teeth.

"Ohh, I see. That sucks," Tsunade says, full of sympathy. "It's so boring without you!"

"I'll be back tomorrow," she promises quietly. "Tell the others not to worry."

By 'the others' she means Orochimaru. Tsunade hopefully understands what she's not saying. They talk about everything except her friendship with the pale boy. Somehow the subject is too diffcult, too private. The blonde girl huffs into the speaker.

"Fine. I'll bring over your homework later."

A stab of unease goes through her. "Okay."

"See you!"

"Yeah," Naomi winces and hangs up.

Then she goes to inspect her eye. Thanks to the icepack the swelling has gone down a lot, but the bruise is still an angry purple. Her father hasn't come home yet. Anxiety runs along her veins and she prays he'll get here before Tsunade does. Just in case she takes her mother's makeup from her cosmetics coffer and rubs a bit over her eye. It hurts and doesn't help a lot. The purple shines through. Once more her thoughts turn to vengeance. Akira is sixteen, Kenji fourteen. They're older, stronger and much better at taijutsu than her. She has no chance against the both of them. Maybe if she traps one of them in a genjutsu and lures the other away.. Naomi shakes her head. She has to bide her time. An opportunity will come. Bitterness and hatred have been festering inside her like a disease for years now. They may be related by blood, but they've never been a family.

Naomi waits until five, when she knows school ends. Her father doesn't come home. She gnaws on her lower lip and hides in her room, hoping that her mother will answer the door. The bell rings and she flinches at the shrill sound. When she strains her ears she can hear voices talking downstairs. After a minute the door closes again. She exhales in relief and leans back in her desk chair. The desk itself is laden with medical books. She read all of them. They're just laying around for reference. Naomi has the theory down, all she needs is practice. That she can only get at the med center. Her father takes her there on the weekends so she can watch him practice. It's fascinating, excatly what she wants to do later on. Now her dream is in danger. Her father expects perfection. Her staying home today will surely displease him. Another thought hits her. What if he doesn't think a black eye is an excuse to stay home? Dread begins to pool in her stomach.

Suddenly there is a peculiar noise at her window. Naomi's brows twitch and she gets up slowly. The shutters are drawn in front of it to keep the heat out. She hesitantly reaches for the drawstring and pulls them up halfway. And promptly almost drops them again, but when her eyes meet golden ones she knows it's too late. Frozen with her hand on the string she watches his eyes slide down and slightly to the left. Naomi puts on a blank look as she slides her window open. For some reason her heart rate picks up speed.

"What are you doing here, Oro-kun?" She asks calmly.

His eyes focus back on hers and he wordlessly begins to climb inside. Naomi is momentarily startled and steps to the side. Hot air and the scent of mowed grass follow him in. She grits her teeth and closes the window before she faces him. It's so weird. They haven't met up like this for almost half a year now.

"Why are you here?"

"I brought your homework," he replies calmly. "Tsunade said you sprained your ankle. Your mother said you're sick."

She carefully doesn't react to the obvious contradiction in their claims and curses herself for the slip up. Her gaze drops to the floor.

"Thank you for bringing it over," she says tonelessly.

A cool hand touches the right side of her face and it sends her heart racing. Naomi's eyes widen slightly and she looks up at him, since he's now a little taller.

"Oro-kun?"

His eyes are on the bruise. It makes her throat grow tight. The tip of his thumb brushes over the skin beneath her eye so lightly it doesn't even hurt.

"Who did that to you?" He asks quietly.

"It's nothing," she rushes out. "Don't worry-"

The look he gives her then cuts her voice off. There's such rage in his eyes that it makes her freeze on the spot. It's not aimed at her, she realizes after a second and starts to relax. A very slight wobbly smile grows on her face.

"Akira," she whispers hotly. "He punched me."

"I see," he says and drops his hand.

It lets her breathe more easily. She hugs herself and looks away. She can't bear the scrutiny. He always could read her like an open book. Suddenly she feels like a horrible friend for trying to lie to him.

"Don't worry about it," she mutters. "I'll.. It doesn't matter."

"It matters," he disagrees in a light tone. "It matters a lot."

Naomi glances at him uncertainly. His face is as calm and impassive as ever, but his eyes.. She only catches a glimpse of something dark and terrible before they shutter and cut away. Naomi's smile grows a little warmer.

"Thank you," she murmurs, unsure why she says it, but feels the need to do so anyway.

He nods once and opens the window. She watches him climb out and disappear quietly. For a moment she pauses, breathes the warm summer air, and thinks of nothing. Then she shuts the windows and draws the shutters down again.

Her father comes home around nine. He's surprised to hear that she stayed home. The thunderstorm she expected never comes. He takes a critical look at her eye, uses a cotton pad to wipe away the makeup, and makes green healing chakra appear around his hand. It feels warm and prickles a little when he heals the bruise. Naomi keeps her head bowed and stares at the ground as she kneels before him, waiting for the verdict.

"A little bruise is no reason to stay home," he says sternly. "That is vain, Naomi. Don't do it again."

She nods dutifully and feels the hatred rise up in her throat like bile.

"If you have the time to get into fights then you clearly aren't busy enough. I will take you to the med center after school tomorrow. You'll get a chance to practice what we studied."

"Really?" She looks up excitedly and stares at his grim expression.

"The girl didn't make it. You'll get a chance to study the body under my supervision."

A real human corpse! Naomi swallows dryly and nods jerkily. Her father regards her for a moment.

"It's a grim sight. The kid's around your age. Are you sure you can handle it?"

"Y-yes!" She replies quickly. "I've seen sketches and drawings of bodies before."

"The real deal is always different," he replies. "Since she died in the aftermath of a violent attack there must be an autopsy. I'll talk with my collegues to see if you can watch. It's a prime opportunity to study the human body."

Naomi's lips part slightly and her face flushes with excitement at the prospect. He thinks she can handle it! This is the best!

"I expect you to write down everything you discover, just like before," he says sternly. "I will be reading your report and grading the quality of your writing."

"Yes, sir!"

Chapter Text

XII.

 

Naomi feels nothing as her father draws back the white cloth that covers the girl's body. Her eyes slowly take in everything. It's nothing like she expected, Naomi thinks faintly as she stares at the pale yellow skin of the corpse. Under the harsh white light she can see every dark purple bruise. She sees the incisions made during the operation when the med nin desperately tried to save her life. There are incisions that can't have been made during the operation. They're small dark red cuts that haven't been sewn up, about one centimeter each. Along the soft skin of the underside of the arms in a strange and gruesom line. As if somebody tried to make her suffer as much as possible. A huge Y shaped scar bisects her torso before it brances out over her ribcage. There are purple spots at her back where the blood has sunk down after circulation stopped, just like in the textbooks. She's aware that they're watching, her father and Shoda-san, the pathologist. She can't show weakness in front of them. This is a golden opportunity. A small white cloth is covering the girl's face. She has black hair. There are dark finger shaped bruises on her neck.

"She's been choked," she notes neutrally.

"Yes."

"Those cuts," she says and gestures at the holes in her arms. "They're not very deep and were likely only inflicted to cause pain to the victim."

"Correct."

Naomi's grey eyes sweep across the body. A thin, dainty looking girl. What's been done to her is really horrible, but she views it from an objective angle.

"Some finger- and toenails are missing as well. The victim has been tortured extensively."

"Naomi, are you alright?" Her father asks briskly.

She nods once and reigns in her nausea at the idea of pulled fingernails. It makes her want to cringe.

"Likely the work of a sadist," she says flatly. "Or somebody with a strong personal grudge."

"Yes," the pathologist says with a grim smile. "Somebody really had it out for the poor thing. It's hard to believe any of our own are capable of this."

"Where was she found?"

"Outskirts of the forest," he responds. "An ANBU squad found her on their way home from a mission. It's a real Yamada Hanako, this one. No family, no friends. Nobody's seen her around before."

"Huh? She's not from the village?"

"No, we checked. She might be from one of the surrounding settlements. The police is on the case," the pathologist says.

"What's the meaning of this?" Naomi mumbles thoughtfully.

"Don't think about it too hard, focus on what matters," her father says.

She nods once. Right. The body. It's weird to think it used to be a human somehow. With this many injuries it almost looks like a slab of meat. She regards the bruises along the torso and on her thighs.

"It's hard to say what caused her death like this. How did she die?"

"I'd show you, but..."

He glances at her father, who furrows his brows. "We're not opening her again."

Naomi's brows crash into a frown as she glances between the men. "You already did the autopsy!"

"Sorry kid, we can't wait for spectators," he shrugs.

"There is always next time," her father says unapologetically.

"Yes. Of course," she mutters.

The big white coat she had to put on is way too large. Its trim is dragging on the floor, which can't be hygienic. She has to use her gloved hands several times to lift it as she moves so she doesn't trip. The white surgical mask is too big as well. She huffs and lifts her frock as she walks around the head of the gurney. By chance she glances down at the girl's covered face and notices the state of disarray her hair is in. It's a tangled mess. Naomi pauses to inspect it. Not only tangled, but kind of wet looking. She stands up and goes to the other side of the table.

"Did she drown?" She asks casually.

"Huh!? How did you-!" The pathologist exclaims in surprise.

"It's her hair," she says smugly.

"Aaah, you got it right, kid. A keen observational sense is a pathologist's sharpest tool," he laughs.

Her father looks pleased, too. He nods at her when he catches her looking.

"That's right. She was found still warm, floating face down in a pond naked. The ANBU tried resusciating her. They drew the water out of her lungs beforeheand. She had a weak pulse again when they arrived. Water wasn't deep enough for her to have drowned naturally. Somebody helped her along. Likely the same person who captured and tortured her. I say captured because of this," he says and casually grabs the girl's wrist. "Watch this. Sings of being tied up. See those red gashes? I found rope fibres in the skin."

Naomi nods and watches closely. There's a question that she wants to ask, but is strangely embarrassed to do so.

"Those bruises on her thighs...," she starts hesitantly.

"Oh, yeah. I know what you're thinking and no, this poor girl died a virgin. I checked, the hymen is intact," he states matter of factly.

Naomi blushes and nods unwillingly. Her stomach has started churning and it isn't stopping. Maybe this is all a bit too much. She glances across the room, at the door that leads out of the pathology.

"Alright. I think we've seen enough. Thank you again, Shoda-san."

The pathologist nods with a smile, going by the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. "Always a pleasure to explain things to curious youngsters. Though this one is really quite young."

"I can handle myself," Naomi speaks up and hopes it won't get her admonished.

She's just really keen to leave all of a sudden, staring at the door while her stomach churns. A hand on her shoulder makes her look up at her father. He nods at the door.

"Come on. You've held up admirably. I've had medical students fainting as soon as they saw their first corpse."

"O-okay," she says with a grin.

Naomi lifts the hem of her frock and starts walking. When she's about to round the head of the gurney again something catches and sends her off balance. She throws her hands out to grab a hold of something automatically as she stumbles. To her horror, one of her hands smacks against the head of the corpse and wipes the cloth off her face. She grabs a hold of the edge of the table and stands up abruptly. She's standing on the edge of her frock and makes it pull uncomfortably at her neck, but none of this registers. The girl's head is turned slightly to the side, one eyelid halfway open. It's enough to see that she has grey eyes. Naomi feels suddenly violently ill.

"Naomi!" Her father exclaims in alarm when she stumbles away from the table and presses a hand to her mouth.

"Sink's that way!" Shoda-san says and points besides the door.

She struggles to walk and half-stumbles to the sink, where she rips off the mask and promptly empties her stomach. Her father sighs in disapproval. The girl's image is burned into her memory. She looks like her. Her heart is pounding and her head spinning. What does it mean? Does it mean anything? Or is this a coincidence?! Naomi spits into the sink and gasps harshly. Please. Please let it be a coincidence, she thinks with dull horror.

Chapter Text

XIII.

 

Almost every day she accompanies her father to the med center. He lets her watch him analyze slides beneath a microscope and file reports on his findings. Being a med nin means doing a lot of paperwork, he says. It's a real letdown that even though Tsunade is studying there, too, the two of them don't get to meet very often. She only hears everyone gushing about her friend's talent. Even her father comments on her prowress one day. It only spurs her to work harder, to study more and to gain better chakra control. These days she manages to summon the green glow of healing chakra around her palms.

Orochimaru's twelfth birthday is approaching. They haven't spoken in two months, since the incident. That exchange aside, they haven't hung out in ten. Since that day in winter. When he carried a mutilated animal into the thick of the forest. It's a dull ache she's gotten used to.

Akira and Kenji haven't been home together since then. It seems they've both gone over to ignoring her. Yukiko keeps making snide remarks. Without her big brothers there to back her up she doesn't dare to do anything else. It gets easier and easier to ignore her. She's just like an annoying mosquito, flying around and trying to bother her. Once the boys are out of the way she'll get hers.

Naomi's daydreams are dark. They're not something to be shared with anybody, not even Tsunade. Speaking of which, she's happy to share her knowledge. The blonde is totally carefree and even praises her on her progress. They compare their abilities, summoning healing chakra and seeing who can focus longer. Tsunade always wins. She's a natural.

On the eve of the twenty sixth of October she lies in her bed and wonders if she should get Orochimaru a present. She keeps trying to mend the rift between them, but it seems impossibly wide. He ignores her whenever they run into each other. They don't hang out. It feels like he doesn't care anymore. He's got his teammates, after all. From what she hears they're considered the most promising team of them all. Tsunade is in his team. She doesn't know who to be jealous of more. There's also Jiraiya. Naomi makes a face. He's a real pervert who always leers at girls. That's an interesting combination for sure.

After graduating from the academy the distance between them has grown even more. Both of her own teammates don't even know that she used to be friends with him. Tsuki is an auburn haired girl with uptight behavior and a permanent scowl on her face. She's insanely good with weapons and really fast. Then there's a boy named Kiyoshi with pale blond hair and light pink eyes. He's pretty laidback and always smiling. His speciality is genjutsu. Neither of them are from shinobi clans. Her father expressed his disapproval at the fact. Naomi notices that he's starting to change, becoming more short tempered. After Yukiko they didn't have any more children. He talks a lot about clan related stuff. From what she gathers out of his long monologues about the value of bloodlines is that Akira has a girlfriend who's of the Inuzuka clan. Kenji is after an Uchiha girl who keeps giving him the cold shoulder. It's hilarious, but her dad is really excited about it. He keeps saying how powerful the Uchiha are and what a great boost to their reputation it would be.

Naomi doesn't care about romance. She prefers focusing on her studies and getting better than Tsunade. Even if it means that their close friendship turns into an one-sided rivalry. She doesn't go over to the Senjus' place often. It's a mansion. Tsunade has a little brother named Nawaki who's five years younger than them. It's strange to see them interact. There's no hostility at all. They love each other a lot. It makes her feel weird, to say the least. She doesn't know what it's like to love someone. Whenever she sees Tsunade laugh and talk to her younger brother she feels a strangely choking sensation, like the air is being pressed out of her lungs.

There is no time to dwell on those things. Rumors about rising conflicts between the nations abound. Everyone seems kind of tense these days. Her teammates say that there's going to be war, but she doesn't really believe them. The more time they spend together the closer they grow. It's nice to have two people to rely on, who are firmly on her side. It's also nice to know that Tsunade doesn't have to be there anymore for her to make friends. She can do that perfectly on her own, thank you.

Her teammates are impressed to learn that she's becoming a med nin. The admiration and pleasant surprise in Tsuki's case is a great ego boost. Kiyoshi grins and says how much safer he feels going on missions with them now. It makes her utterly determined not to let them down. Even if it means putting herself in the way of danger.

"Ow," says Kiyoshi after taking a kunai to the thigh.

Naomi grinds her teeth and ducks behind an overturned table. They were just supposed to escort a diamond trader from Tenko village at the northern border of the Land of Fire to the Ro-Fa diamond field in the south. A simple C-Rank mission. Granted, the longest one either of them have ever been on with an estimated travel time of a month, but still. What neither of them expected was a bar brawl in a small town consisiting of rogue shinobi who banded together. It was their dumbass sensei who started it, to make things worse. Eshoka-sensei has a worse temper than a cat with its tail on fire. She has no clue where Tsuki or him are at. Naomi shifts away from the table when the tip of a kunai penetrates the wood.

"Can't you make them stop?" She grits out.

"My genjutsu only works on one person at a time," Kiyoshi says with a wince. "Please work your magic, Naomi-sama."

"Drop it," she grumbles and focuses hard before she yanks the knife out.

She immediately puts her palm over the cut and channels her chakra into the wound. It's pretty deep and probably requires stitches, but that's not a luxury they have at the moment. Naomi removes her palm and inspects the wound, satisfied to see that the wound edges are starting to heal. It's still a hole, though. Time to use the technique she learned most recently.

"Chakra Threads: Stitching Technique," she mutters and makes the serpent handsign.

Glowing green threads wind through his skin and pull the wound together. Sweat starts to break out on her forehead. It takes a lot out of her. Kiyoshi watches in amazement as the hole in his leg mends.

"Oh, you're pretty good," he says with a teasing grin.

"Thanks," she rasps and wipes at the sweat on her forehead.

She takes a peek beyond the edge of the table to where the brawl is still in full swing. Those village idiots don't seem to care who's friend and who's enemy, they're just happy to brawl. Behind a pair of fighting men she spots something lying on the floor. Her eyes widen when she realizes it's Tsuki's auburn hair she sees.

"Shit! Tsuki's down," she hisses frantically. "Cover me! I have to heal her."

"I'll try my best," he says with a small frown.

Naomi grits her teeth and ducks before she runs out of their cover. Eshoka-sensei is fighting five guys at once in the middle of the bar. The diamond trader is crouched behind the bar. Naomi crouch-runs past him to her fallen comrade. She's still breathing at last. Naomi quickly checks her over. It looks like she only sustained a hit to the back of the head that knocked her out. In the thick of the brawl she can't find the focus for a deeper analysis to check for brain damages. They have to get out of here. Naomi pushes the hair aside to get to the bleeding wound. Suddenly a man drops down besides her.

"Eshoka-sensei!" She yells loudly and furrows her brows. "Let's go!"

Naomi glares at the wound and forces herself to relax. Green chakra flows from her hands and into the cut. It's a real egg. Tsuki's definitely gonna feel this for a while. Healing two wounds in a row is draining. She's dimly aware that in her tension she's pouring too much chakra into the cuts instead of managing her reserves well, but she can't care about this now. Actual combat is different from textbook situations. They have to get going. Kiyoshi appears at her side with a worried look.

"Sensei's taking on too many of those guys. Sucks that they're all shinobi," he grunts.

"Help me drag her out," Naomi grits out and glances at the door.

He takes one of Tsuki's arms, Naomi the other. "What about the trader?"

"Eshoka-sensei's got this," she huffs.

They move in unison. It takes forever to dodge flying weapons and fists. At one point she kicks a man in the face. When they finally make it out, all the lights in the village houses are on. Naomi gulps hard.

"Do you think they'll chase us out?" Kiyoshi asks idly.

"Probably. Fuck," she curses quietly. "What a mess."

By unspoken agreement they drag Tsuki into a shady narrow alley and start sneaking out. There are a lot of running footsteps. Abandoning a comrade is vile, she thinks with a deep frown. Eshoka-sensei should be able to handle himself, though. He's a jonin. They make it past the village border and find a small bridge under which they hide. Tsuki's still out. Her face is very pale. Naomi checks her pupils. They react to light exposure at least, which means she probably doesn't have brain damage. Kiyoshi sighs with relief at the good news.

"What do we do now? Eshoka-sensei has the map and compass."

"We wait," she huffs. "He should be able to track us."

It takes a long time. When the sun starts to rise she's almost ready to call it a lost cause, but Eshoka-sensei arrives at last, grinning hugely with one of his front teeth missing and his arm slung over the disgruntled trader's shoulders.

"I should sue all of Konoha!" He snaps. "This is an outrage!"

"You got them good, old man," Eshoka-sensei laughs and winks at them. "This guy here has a mean right hook!"

A bead of sweat runs down their necks. "E-Eshoka-sensei..," Kiyoshi sighs deeply.

"You!" Naomi hisses and narrows her eyes at him.

"A-aa, Naomi-chan, don't be mad! We're all fine!"

"Do you call that fine?!" She yells and points at Tsuki.

"Well, for a bunch of Genin you handled yourselves well," he shrugs.

The trader makes a disgusted noise and drops his arm. Eshoka-sensei grins like a fox and stands up straight all of a sudden.

"Congrats, you passed the test," he says all business-like.

"W-what test?"

He rolls his shoulders with a smirk. "The test of teamwork. Nicely done, you two."

"This was a test?" The trader demands loudly.

"Are you kidding me," Naomi deadpans.

"Nope. I had to see whether you're capable of teamwork. It looks like you're ready to be real Genin."

"What about Tsuki?" Kiyoshi asks with big eyes.

"She only went down because she turned away from a guy she was fighting in order to block a kunai flying at Naomi while she was healing you, so I guess she passes, too."

Naomi pinches the bridge of her nose and vows revenge against him.

"So are you kids ready to move on? If we make good time we'll be able to stop by Yakekoge city on the way back. They have some really great onsen."

"How did you become a teacher?" She wonders darkly.

"Because of my incredible charm, obviously," he deadpans and claps his hands. "Come on. No dawdling. I've got a bunch of lovely ladies waiting for me in Yakekoge."

She drags a hand down her face and goes over to Tsuki. A few slaps to the face serve to wake her up. She blinks at Naomi with a betrayed look.

"Why?" She croaks.

"Do you fancy going to an onsen?" Naomi drawls sarcastically.

"What?" Tsuki blinks and looks around with a scowl.

"Come on, get up," Eshoka-sensei says. "We're just waiting on you."

"I hate all of you. So much," Tsuki grunts as she stands up.

Naomi couldn't agree more. They get moving again and Eshoka-sensei withdraws his front tooth from his pocket, much to her horror and disgust.

"Can you put it back in?" He asks her hopefully.

"That's not how it works!" She cries and hides behind Kiyoshi when he holds it out to her.

"Why not? You're supposed to be some genius healer! Should I ask Princess Tsunade to do it instead?"

Naomi glowers at him. "Why don't you take that tooth and shove it up your ass?"

Eshoka-sensei laughs loudly. The trader first gives him a dismayed look, then her. Suddenly he simply plops the tooth back in his mouth with a huge shit eating grin. Naomi's eyes bug out when it just stays in place.

"Yeah don't worry about it, I lost that tooth years ago. This is a porcellain replacement."

"I hate you so much."

Eshoka-sensei rubs his carefully cultivated three day stubble and smirks at her. That asshole is full of surprises. What kind of madman instigates a bar brawl to test his students?! Naomi swallows with dread when she thinks about her future under his tutelage.

Chapter Text

XIV.

 

When Naomi and her team return to Konohagakure she returns to an empty house. Her heart starts thumping in her throat as she walks through the eerily silent house and drops her duffel bag in her room. She takes the quickest shower of her life and gets into fresh clothes before she jogs out and looks up and down the street. Nobody's there, so she heads into the village. The only place she can imagine her parents being is the Hokage building. It's connected to the academy. She heads there and looks around with a worried frown.

"Excuse me?" She asks at the front desk. "Is Kusakawa Eiichiro here?"

"Huh? Let me check," the secretary says and flips through a clipboard. "No, sorry."

"Okay," she says dubiously and takes the rooftop highway to the med center next.

The sterile white hallways are familiar now and nobody pays her any attention as she walks in. Nobody responds when she knocks on her father's office door.

"The hell," she murmurs and looks around.

A young nurse comes out of an adjoining room and pauses when she spots her. "Oh! Kusakawa-chan!"

"Suzumi-san, have you seen my father?"

Suzumi-san pales a little and nods solemnly. Naomi swallows and walks up to her.

"What's wrong?" She asks steadily. "What's going on."

"I'm sorry!" The nurse bursts out. "I'm not authorized- I mean. They.. they're in the morgue."

Naomi's eyes widen. "W-what?"

"Alive!" The nurse hurries to say and blushes. "I mean.. You should probably go there."

"Sure," Naomi says and leaves her standing there.

If her footsteps thunder down the halls nobody mentions it. None of the nurses and med nin who pass her try to stop her, which is alarming in of itself. The morgue is in the basement of the med center. It's right next to the pathology section. She almost runs into Shoda-san, whose beard pokes out from under his surgical mask that he never seems to go without. He squeezes her shoulder with a sympathetic look.

"Sorry, kiddo."

"What's going on?!"

"You don't know?"

"No, I just came back from a mission."

"Aah. It's a damn shame."

"What is?"

"Well, I'm probably not the right one to tell you this, but.." She stares at him, waiting. Shoda-san clears his throat. "It's your older brother Akira. He lost his life on a recent mission. Your parents are saying their goodbyes as we speak."

Naomi stares at the metal double doors that lead into the morgue. Through the small glass windows she sees the fridge, as they call the compartments where bodies are stored until cremation. The cold lights in the hallway cast the whole place in a sort of greenish glow as it's reflected by the green tiles of the floor. She nods once, twice and feels nothing. She takes a step towards the door, then another. When she pushes it open the tension falls off her shoulders. Her parents are standing with their backs towards her in front of a gurney. When she enters, they both turn to look at her. Her mother's face is very pale. Her father looks sort of grey in the cold white light. It's true. Akira is lying on the table with his eyes closed, face slack.

Naomi ignores them as she goes to take a closer look. A white sheet covers all of his body except his face, so she can't really tell what killed him. It doesn't matter. She feels a phantom itch in her right eye as she stares down at his face. Tears well up in her eyes. She doesn't fight them. When she blinks they trail down her cheeks. A fleeting touch at her right wrist makes her glance at her mother. None of them say anything. Naomi looks back down at her dead brother and feels absolutely nothing. Well, that's not true. She feels a sort of abstract relief. It grows stronger the longer she stands there. Naomi swallows and nods once. Then she turns around and leaves the morgue without waiting for her parents.

Hysterical laughter is bubbling up in her throat by the time she's halfway across the village. She doesn't pause until she reaches her destination and knocks loudly against the door. Weirdly enough, the slight smarting of her knuckles is the first thing she feels since coming home. The door cracks open ever so slightly and a gold eye glances at her. Then he opens it a bit wider. Naomi stares dumbly at her childhood friend. A whirlwind of emotions rushes through her and she can't settle on a single one. Naomi takes a step towards him. Orochimaru watches her attentively with a blank, calm expression. A huge, beaming smile breaks out on her face. He tilts his head back in surprise. She takes another step and before she knows it she's throwing herself at him, wrapping her arms around his middle and pressing her face into the white cloth of his yukata. She closes her eyes, breathing unsteadily. Can't stop smiling. A hand comes to rest lightly on her back.

"You-!" She gasps out, but her throat gets clogged instantly.

"Hm?" He hums low in his throat and she feels the vibration against her face.

Silent laughter shakes her shoulders. She draws back abruptly and beams at him. His brows twitch at the sight and he glances between her eyes.

"Akira's dead," she manages to get out.

"Is that so," he replies smoothly.

"Got killed on a mission."

"I see."

Naomi's lips twitch. In this closeness her body comes alive. She can feel – everything. Relief. Almost hysterical amusement. Vindictive satisfaction. Layers upon layers of old hurt are breaking up and washing out of her like a dirty crust from a piece of cloth. She can't- can't even formulate her happiness. Orochimaru doesn't look very surprised. They won't find any evidence, she's sure. Her fists ball in the cloth of his loose white yukata. Naomi can't stop smiling so hard it makes her cheeks hurt.

"Thank you," she says empathetically.

"What for?" He asks and raises a delicate brow.

Naomi laughs, bright and bubbly, before she buries her face against his chest again. Of course. Of course. A second hand comes to rest lightly on the middle of her back. Slowly, ever so slowly, the hysteric tension begins to seep out of her. Ah, yes. This is it. She has almost forgotten about this. Hugging Orochimaru makes her feel alright. Has, ever since she can remember. It should feel awkward now, but it doesn't. Somehow she can't imagine that it ever will. Naomi's eyes blink open when she feels hot breath fan against the side of her head, between her hair and on her ear. She hears him inhale deeply. Maybe he's missed her, too.

When she pulls back reluctantly his hands immediately drop to his sides and he looks as calm and composed as ever. Naomi shakes her head once and laughs quietly.

"He can't hurt me anymore," she chuckles nonsensically.

"No," Orochimaru replies evenly.

She inhales and feels bone-deep contentment. "Today is a good day," she decides.

Orochimaru inclines his head with a tiny smile, watching her. She grins back. The deed is done.

Chapter Text

XV.

 

Kenji suspects her. She can read it in his eyes whenever he looks at her. Ever since Akira's death he hasn't attempted to bully her again. Neither has Yukiko, though she still makes snide remarks and rude comments from time to time. Naomi doesn't care. She goes on missions with her team and grows closer to the people who matter. Her mood is fantastic. Tsunade notices what's up and it weirds her out ever so slightly.

"Didn't you just lose a brother? Why are you always smiling?" She demands after cornering her one weekend when they both happen to be free.

"Aw Tsuna, I'm just happy about the weather," she lies and winks at her. "It's summer! It's warm! I'm gonna turn thirteen in six weeks!"

"What is wrong with you?" Tsunade drawls and glances between her eyes. "Seriously."

Naomi giggles and flicks her in the forehead. Retaliation comes immediately. Tsunade grabs her and starts tickling her mercilessly. It's freaking impossible to wind out of her freakishly strong grip.

"Nooo! Stop iiiit! Tsunaaaa!" Naomi yells inbetween shrieks of laughter.

"That's what you get! That's what you freaking get!" Tsunade yells back with a fat grin on her face.

Other people in the arcade throw them strange looks. Naomi doesn't care. For the first time in what feels like forever she gets to have fun with one of her closest friends again. After deciding to go play a few games and feed Tsunade's gambling habit they're planning to grab dinner together and have a sleepover. The sky outside is turning red and purple, the air is warm. Naomi is loving every second of this. When her friend finally relents she's totally out of breath and beaming hugely. They grin at each other. Naomi straightens and glances at the blinking slot machines.

"Do you wanna go for another round?"

"Nah, I'm all out of coins," Tsunade says with a wince.

Naomi snorts. Her bad luck is notorious. "Fine. Dinner, then. Where to, o captain?"

"Shut up. I feel like pizza," Tsunade replies easily.

"Right-o. Let's a go!"

"You're so weird sometimes," the blond complains as she trails after her through the crowd of young adults and teens.

Naomi just grins. When they're finally out of the large arcade she inhales deeply and enjoys the smell of the air and the sound of the cicadas in the trees. Everything's better today, somehow. She's always loved summer. Tsunade and her link arms as they trail along the street, dressed in their casual clothes for once. She casts a critical look at the blonde's chest.

"Your collars get lower and lower," she says and raises a brow. "Who are you trying to impress?"

"Nobody!" Tsunade snaps, but a blush erupts in her cheeks.

"Ooooh?" She wheedles and slides up close. "Who is the lucky guy, huuuh?"

"Shut up! There's nobody!" The blonde hisses furiously.

Naomi chuckles. Tsunade's chest is totally flat. She heard Jiraiya teasing her about it once and promptly get punched into orbit. By comparison, Naomi is noticeably bigger. It makes her feel smug. People refer to Tsunade first and foremost when they talk about genius medical nin. Amongst her talented teammates she truly shines in her discipline. The three of them are already decidedly the most famous team. Terms like 'geniuses' and 'brilliant' get thrown around a lot, even though all of them have been Genin for barely a year now. It's only a matter of time until they take the Chunin exams. It hurts her pride to always get mentioned second, but she's starting to get used to it. She focuses more on the theoretical study of medical jutsu than her friend, who is a gifted practitioner. She bites the inside of her cheek and glances away.

"How is Orochimaru?" She asks casually.

"Huh? Oh, good I guess," she replies and gives her a curious look. "Are you guys no longer talking?"

"Not really," she shrugs easily and smiles. "I guess we grew apart."

"Yeah, that happens sometimes," Tsunade says sympathetically. "He's brilliant at everything. It drives Jiraiya nuts. You should see them go, it's funny as hell."

"Heh, I believe you."

She nods at the most low price pizza place in town with a grin. It's popular among students and a real hotspot as soon as the sun goes down. Which it has by then.

"I can't really tell you more. He's quiet. Jiraiya can get him to open up sometimes, though."

"I see," Naomi says and pushes the bead curtain aside as they walk in.

"So what about you, huh?"

"What about me?" She asks as they squeeze together at a tiny table.

"Do you have somebody you like?" Tsunade asks with a mean grin that tells her this is payback.

"Nope."

"Really? So what's with the outfit?"

Naomi glances down at herself. She's wearing a purple crop top that shows her navel over a fishnet shirt and a black skirt that cuts off above her knees. Then she raises her brows haughtily at her friend.

"It's hot today. Usually I wrap my stomach."

"Uh sure," she smirks.

"Tsuna," she whines and punches her in the arm. "I swear to god."

"You started it!" Tsunade snipes back.

A harried looking waiter comes over already flipping through a small notepad and smiles fleetingly at them.

"What'll it be?"

"Two large salami," Tsunade says promptly.

Naomi closes her mouth with a sigh. The waiter nods and hurries off. The blond grins and pokes her tongue out.

"You know me so well," she sighs with a grin.

"Course I do."

"I bet I can finish my pizza faster than you!"

"No, don't," Tsunade whines. "This is my last pocket money!"

"Pocket money? But you go on missions!"

"My mom saves my earnings for me," Tsunade says with a wince. "She says I'll gamble it all away otherwise."

"What a smart woman," Naomi says with a nod.

"Traitor," she huffs in reply.

Naomi grins and watches the crowd. Some faces are familiar. When they're recognized people wave and smile. Most of them do. Naomi feels like they're the queens of the world and grins brightly. A few people come over to make smalltalk. They only get some space when their food arrives.

"Mmh, oh god," Naomi groans with a full mouth. "Nothin' better than a greasy pizza!"

"Ew," Tsunade huffs. "But yeah, you're right."

"Watch this!" Naomi grins and puts two slices together before she tries to cram them both into her mouth.

"Nana, no! You're gonna choke!" Tsunade protests, but she's still laughing her head off at the way her cheeks bulge out.

She doesn't listen of course and tries to chew open mouthed with limited success. Tsunade is absolutely cackling when she leans her head back and tries to employ gravity to help her get the massive ball of dry dough and scalding tomato sauce down her gullet.

"Hahahaha oh my god this is the funniest shit ever!"

"Mphfphf!"

Suddenly Tsunade's laughter stops, which prompts Naomi to incline her head and give her a curious look. The blonde's cheeks are ever so slightly flushed. She's looking at something.. Naomi chews and swallows before she turns her head to look as well. There's a boy who looks to be a little older than them sitting two tables away. A weird stab goes through her. He's handsome. With long light blue hair and eyes, an even face and a straight aristocratic nose. Plus, a killer smile. He has honest to god dimples, for crying out loud. Her eyes trail lower, to wide shoulders and lean but defined muscles visible through his plain black shirt when he leans forward to talk to his friends. Naomi quickly averts her eyes and takes a sip of her cold water. There's a weird fluttery feeling in her stomach all of a sudden. She can't get his image out of her head, going over each detail. Tsunade is still staring with a kind of dumbstuck look on her face. She kicks her leg beneath the table.

"Tsuna," she mutters when the other girl throws her a glare. "You're way too obvious."

"Sh-shut up," she hisses.

"You know that guy?" Naomi tries to keep her voice light and unaffected.

"That's Kato Dan," she mutters quietly and glances over again. "He's a Chunin. I think he's a year older than us."

"Oh, so he's good," Naomi mutters.

"Yeah."

She swallows. Doesn't like the look on Tsunade's face. Naomi glances over at him again. Something his friends say makes him laugh, revealing two rows of pearly white teeth. When he leans his head back and reveals his throat she feels a swooping sensation in her stomach. She wants to say: He's cute. The smitten look on Tsunade's face makes her swallow the words. He is. Her second best friend seems to agree. It's not fair. It's so not fair. Naomi stares down at her pizza and picks up another slice, even though she's not hungry anymore. Why does everything have to be a contest between them? She takes a bite and looks over again. Her heart jumps when he suddenly looks right at her. His expression is curious. Then his gaze slides to the side, where Tsunade is. It only lasts a second, then he's talking to his friends again. Naomi can't deny the way her heart is thumping. He looked at her first! When she chances a glance at Tsunade the blonde meets her eyes. She can't do this and quickly looks down at her plate.

"Oh man, I'm full," she says loudly.

"Yeah. Me too."

"Let's pay and go?"

"Yeah."

Tsunade has apparently caught herself and signals the waiter. With a small shake of her head she digs out her wallet and pays for both of them.

"You don't have to!" Tsunade protests with a small blush.

"Shove it," Naomi says and rolls her eyes.

After they pay and the waiter leaves she chances another look at Dan, who suddenly grins right at her. It's like a suckerpunch to the gut. Naomi quickly looks away and feels her hands start to tremble. Her heart is beating way too fast. It's too hot and crowded in here. She grabs Tsunade's arm and they start to push their way through the crowd. Once they're outside she inhales deeply and feels the tremor in her limbs start to recede. Such a disarming smile. Such ... everything. Everything about him has her weak. She can't even pick her favorite feature. Tsunade doesn't seem to be faring any better. Naomi swallows and looks down. They wander through the streets making light conversation, but the longer they avoid the most obvious subject the worse she feels.

"So Dan, huh?" Tsunade finally asks and slants her a look.

Naomi sighs and lets her shoulders drop. "Yeah."

"He's cute."

Naomi clenches her teeth and nods curtly. "Yup."

"Look-"

"Let's not-"

They both stop and turn to face each other. Tsunade is frowning lightly and Naomi feels like shit. Suddenly the blond sticks out her hand. She glances at it.

"I don't want this to stand between us," she says firmly. "So. Fair game?"

Naomi swallows and nods before she shakes her hand. "Fair game."

"Good," Tsunade sighs in relief and eyes her.

"Look, Tsuna. I'm sorry. It's just.."

"He's cute," Tsunade repeats and shrugs. "I know. Maybe nothing will come off of it. Don't worry."

"If you say so. I mean, you saw him first," Naomi says hesitantly.

"Yes. That doesn't have to mean anything."

"You're my best friend," Naomi says and swallows hard, because it's true nowadays.

"And you mine. That's why I said fair game. No boy should come between us."

"No."

"Okay. So that's that. Now, do you wanna watch a movie?"

Naomi nods with relief and follows her inside. Leave it to Tsunade to keep a level head in these situations. Naomi knows that it's not the first crush the blonde has ever had. It is for her. If it can be classified a crush already after seeing him just once, Naomi thinks miserably. The force of her reactions was unexpected. She can't stop thinking about Dan. His smile, especially, makes her knees weak. It's a small comfort to know she's not the only one feeling that way.

On a Wednesday she's walking home after a trip to the supermarket with two heavy bags in her hands, since her mom got sick and couldn't go herself. Yukiko is at the academy, though even if she wasn't she wouldn't have gone. It's noon and the sun is burning down on her. Naomi is sweating like a mule and curses up a storm when she steps into a particularly sharp pebble. She puts the bags down and jumps on one foot with a pained expression. A chuckle comes from behind her and she spins around with a scowl on her face. It drops instantly when she spots Dan standing there in full shinobi gear.

"Oh!" She exclaims softly. "Um."

"Hello there," he says with an amused grin. "I recognize you."

"Oh? I mean, you do?" She squeaks.

"Yeah, we saw each other at the pizza place," he nods and comes closer.

Naomi blushes furiously and puts her foot down. It stings a little, but it's bearable. Why can't the earth open up and swallow her?! Way to go, she thinks in horror. He glances at the bulging shopping bags.

"Need help with those?"

"Oh, no! It's fine! You must have better things to do!" She rushes out.

"Actually I just came home from a mission. My aunt and uncle live in this street."

"Oh," she mutters and blushes faintly.

"How about we each carry one? It's easier that way."

"Really, you don't have to do this," she mutters awkwardly.

"It's fine," he says and laughs a little. "Really."

"Uh, okay."

A thousand butterflies are frantically trying to escape her stomach's confines. Or so it feels. Naomi is suddenly hyper aware of her own breathing. She must look like a mess with hairs sticking out from the bun on top of her head and clinging to her sweaty neck. Dan bends down and picks up one of the bags with ease. She gets the other. Naomi is painfully aware of the way her heart is thumping, nervous and excited at the same time. It's a shame that they're not that far from her home. It's only five houses down the street.

"So.. How was your mission?" She asks lightly and tightens her grip on the bag as they walk side by side.

"It went well. My buddy Isoku and I were sent out to settle a conflict between two farmers. It wasn't that far outside Konoha."

"What was it about?" She asks and glances at him from the side.

"One of them claimed that the other's dog took down one of his chickens," he says in an overly exasperated tone. "It was supposedly the third time this year."

"I see. What did you do?"

"Investigated the two farms. It turns out a big fox tunneled under the chicken coop and the farmer mistook the footprints."

"Really?" She laughs loudly.

Dan grins at her. It's the best, most wonderful grin ever. Can smiles cause heart attacks? She tends to go with yes. Naomi can't think straight anymore. When her foot catches on a small pebble she focuses on walking, trying not to look like a dumbass in front of him.

"So I heard you're well on the way to becoming a med nin," he says suddenly.

Naomi's mouth goes dry. He's curious about her?! He asked somebody about her?! Her cheeks heat up and she nods.

"Um, yeah. Tsunade and I are almost finished with our training. That is.. the friend who was at the restaurant with me. You saw her."

"Ah, so that's her name. Wow, that's really impressive."

Naomi loses the fight with her blush and feels her cheeks go up in flame. "T-thanks."

Only one more house then she's home. Dan grins easily. Her heart is thundering in her chest and she prays frantically that nobody sees them together. Her mom might not be so bad, but her dad would disapprove and Yukiko would be awful. She stops in front of the gravel path that leads up to her house and faces him shyly.

"U-um," she stammers and looks down. "I can take it from here. Thank you, Dan-kun."

"Not a problem," he says and smiles. "I'm glad I could help you, Naomi-chan."

The way he says her name sounds like music to her ears. Their arms brush when he hands her the other bag and Naomi forgets to breathe.

"See you!" He says with a smile and waves before he heads to the last house in the street.

Even though the plastic carrying straps of her bags dig into her fingers she keeps standing there, staring after him in a daze. Did this really just happen? Her face is still burning hotly. Tsunade would be so jealous if she knew! She's smiling like an idiot. A dumb, lovestruck idiot. Dan goes into the house where she knows a lovely older couple lives and disappears. A deep shuddering sigh escapes her.

"Oh my goooooood," she squeals under her breath.

There's a skip in her step as she hurriedly lugs the bags inside her home. The huge grin remains glued on her face as she puts everything away. Her mother is reading at the kitchen table, coughing occasionally. She's very pale and has dark bags under her eyes. Ever since Akira she's become a lot more quiet and withdrawn. Naomi doesn't pay her any mind. She's vibrating with excitement as she rushes into the bathroom and fixes her appearance. On second thought she applies a bit of mascara. Then she lurks at the window facing the street to watch the house of Dan's relatives. After roughly half an hour, during which she sighs dreamily every other minute, he emerges. Sensing her chance, Naomi grabs the bag of trash sitting at her feet and goes outside as well, acting surprised when she spots him. He looks up with a smile and waves.

"Hi again," she says in what she hopes is a cool suave tone.

"Indeed, what a coincidence," he replies easily.

"I was just taking out the trash," she says casually. "But I hope you had a nice time. I didn't realize the Katos were related to you."

"Yeah, uncle Taro is dad's brother. I visit them sometimes, though not as often as I'd like since I'm always busy."

"You're a Chunin, right?"

"That's right. Took the exam last year. I was one of five students that passed."

"Ooh, that's so impressive," she sighs and smiles at him.

"You think?" He asks with a mischievous grin.

Naomi swallows and nods quickly, feeling her cheeks burn again. Dan laughs his low pleasant laugh and glances down the street.

"Well I better go. I promised my dad I'd help him chop firewood."

"I see. It was nice talking to you, Dan-kun," she chirps.

"Yeah. I hope I'll see you around," he agrees and nods at her.

Naomi watches him go and sighs happily.

"Best. Day. Ever," she mumbles under her breath. "Tsunade is going to hate me."

Chapter Text

XVI.

 

Tsunade doesn't hate her. In fact, she seems happier than ever. It makes Naomi suspicious, but she forces herself not to ask what's up. Somehow she's got a feeling she won't like the answer. There's hardly time to think about it anyway. Her team gets sent on mission after mission. Eshoka-sensei claims that unrest between the villages is on the rise. They get a chance to see first hand what that means on a harmless escort quest. Their group, which is supposed to escort a trading caravan through a small piece of territory that belongs to the land of Earth, get cornered by shinobi from Iwagakure. Eshoka-sensei tries to negotiate with them, to argue that they're not here to cause trouble, but it falls on deaf ears. The Iwa nin don't want to talk. They're looking for trouble.

It's disturbing to see shinobi from another village. Even more disturbing is the fact that they want to attack them, even though Naomi's team are Genin and the Iwa nin all grown adults. They're strong. Even their sensei can't handle all six of them by himself. The caravan gets totally destroyed and the trader it belongs to ends up dead. Eshoka-sensei obtains a cut across his nose, Kiyoshi gets his left femur broken and Tsuki sustains several big bruises. Naomi herself used a trick her father taught her, replicating her weapons in the form of shadow clones, and takes out one of the Iwa nin. Four others wind up dead and the last one retreats. When the smoke clears she immediately begins to assess the damages. Kiyoshi groans in pain and his injury is the worst. They're miles out in the open, far from any settlements. Femur breaks are hella tricky. In the worst case scenario it can cause death. Normally she wouldn't touch it without the guidance of a more experienced med nin. There's no one else out here, in the barren strip of land between Earth and Fire country. Naomi grits her teeth and goes to work.

It takes an hour until she's satisfied with the result. Her chakra reserves are near depleted and she feels close to passing out, but Kiyoshi is able to stand again without pain. That's all that matters. Tsuki hits her when she approaches the auburn haired girl.

"No, don't you dare. We need to get a move on so you can't pass out on us," she snaps.

"Sorry," Naomi mumbles.

"They're going to want revenge for that," Eshoka-sensei adds from his watchpost atop a dead tree. "We should leave immediately."

"Sorry for keeping you," Kiyoshi says with a grimace and dusts himself off. "Ready for action."

They move out of the small dried up pond they hid in and make haste towards the distant forest of Fire country. All of them are quite rattled by the previous events, she can tell. The way those Iwa nin behaved was downright hostile, even though their countries have a treaty. The implications are staggering.

"Why did they attack us?" Kiyoshi asks plaintatively. "We're not at war."

"Considering everything, I guess Iwagakure wants to change that," Eshoka-sensei says grimly. "And not only them."

"There will be war," Tsuki grunts.

"What makes you so sure?" Kiyoshi chirps.

"The news, idiot. I keep up with them. All the other nations are preparing for war, though the officials keep talking about peace. My dad's weapon shop has never ran better."

"Wah, sounds scary," he replies lightly.

"Everything alright, Naomi? You've been quiet."

Naomi opens her eyes with a dark look. "We're being followed."

Both of her teammate's eyes widen. "What?"

"Keep heading for the treeline. Once we're over the border they'll stop. Hopefully," Eshoka-sensei says.

It's not that much further. They're keeping their pace and formation perfectly. A kunai narrowly misses her head, sending her heart racing. Those damn assholes aren't messing around. Going by the sound of their footsteps, they're catching up. They have to slow them down somehow.

"Tsuki do you have spikes?"

"Course I do," she replies and withdraws a scroll from the holster slung around her middle.

"Keep running," Eshoka-sensei snaps. "Don't slow down."

"We have to jump in unison," Naomi hisses out through gritted teeth.

All of this running is taking its toll on her. The frontline isn't where she's meant to be. At least they're almost back home. Tsuki is frowning severely and makes a series of handsigns. Their eyes meet for a second.

"Give us the signal."

"One. Two. Three. Jump!"

All four of them jump at the same time as Tsuki throws out her scroll and summons a line of ground spikes below them. From the pained and surprised shouts of the ninja behind them, they weren't so lucky. None of them pause to look back. They slow down under the cover of the forest's edge and glance back at the small group of Iwa nin in the distance. They've slowed down and seem to be conferring amongst each other.

"They will," Tsuki states confidently with an almost eager glint in her eyes and her hand on the scroll holster around her waist.

"They won't," Kiyoshi replies with crosses arms and a small frown.

Naomi is just trying to catch her breath and fight the burn of chakra exhaustion along her veins. Her hands are shaking and her legs feel stiff. This is bad. At least they made it back. This is the first mission they failed and it leaves a bitter taste at the back of her mouth. Father will be displeased.

"Ohh boy, I was right!"

"Dammit!"

"Alright squad, there's seven of them now. We retreat."

"What? Why?"

"Cause our support is about to crumble."

Naomi stares at the ground and grits her teeth. Nothing burns more than failure. She's not foolish enough to protest, though. They lose the Iwa nin in the thick of the forest, since it's unfamiliar territory to them. The fact that they dared to follow them here in the first place is politically relevant.

"Goddamn, there will be so much paperwork," Eshoka-sensei groans.

"Ugh," Naomi says quietly and drops mid run.

"Naomi!"

"Naomi-sama!"

She dimly registers the branches hitting her in the face as she falls through foliage. Her body has reached its limit. It's an interesting experience, she thinks distantly. What's not so nice is hitting the ground full speed. At least she feels numb all over. Her team lands around her moments later.

"Damn! What a drop!"

"Shut up Kiyoshi! We have to get her to the med center."

"Looks like her arm's broken," Eshoka-sensei notes with a whistle. "Shit."

Naomi is picked up none too gently, which jostles said broken arm. It's her left, at least. The ulna, near the elbow joint. It must have been a long harsh drop. Naomi closes her eyes. At least her skull's not broken, even though everything spins. Maybe a concussion. Then she blacks out.

It's weird to be the one waking up inside the med center for once. Normally she's the one standing by the bed. Though actually dealing with patients who are awake is not really her forte. She lets out a small noise and moves her head. It feels much better already. What's way worse than her injuries is the knowledge that they are her own fault. She was the one who tried to push through chakra exhaustion. Her dad will know. He'll be disappointed. There's a glass of water on her bedside table. She drinks it slowly. A single bed room? What a privilege. A while later a nurse comes in to check up on her. She agrees to inform her parents that she's awake so she can be released as soon as possible. Both her arm and head don't hurt anymore. Before her parents arrive, Tsunade does.

"Ah, finally awake, are you?" She says dryly.

"Tsuna!"

"Dammit, you gave me a scare! I was terrified half to death when they came to get me!" Tsunade snaps.

"What? You healed me?!" Naomi's eyes widen.

"Yeah."

She exhales noisily. It shouldn't be surprising. After all, med nin can't be expected to operate on close relatives since it might compromise them emotionally. If somebody else is available, that is. She just thought her dad would be above that. Apparently not. Huh.

"They came to get you? From where?"

"We were training with Hiruzen-sensei," she explains. "He's teaching us summoning jutsu."

"Wow," Naomi says with a wince. "So, Tsuna. Can I go now? I'm fine."

"Yeah," she replies absently. "You know, thinking about it, Orochimaru looked kind of weird when the runner came. I've never seen him mess up before."

"Oh."

The look Tsunade gives her makes her vaguely uncomfortable. It's kind of judgemental. She hasn't spoken to her childhood friend in months. With Dan occupying her thoughts she hasn't thought about him in a long while either. Thankfully her dad arrives at that moment. He looks at her with a serious expression and nods politely at Tsunade.

"Thank you, Senju-chan. Very good work."

"Thank you, Kusakawa-sensei," Tsunade replies politely and bows before she leaves the room.

Naomi lowers her gaze to the white bedsheet and tenses. Suddenly the bed dips when her father sits down on the left side. She blinks and looks up at him. He looks old and exhausted.

"Thank god," he mutters quietly with palpable relief coloring the words. "Thank god you're alright, Naomi."

She swallows hard and clenches her hands in the fabric. This is weird and uncomfortable. He's never shown her that much emotion before.

"We were so worried. Losing one child was terrible enough."

"I'm sorry!" She bursts out. "This is my own fault! I shouldn't have tried to push through my chakra exhaustion!"

"That is true," he replies slowly. "I would have expected you to know your limits. That being said... We all make mistakes sometimes. I am truly just glad that you're still alive. Don't scare me like that again."

Naomi nods quietly and glances at him from under her lashes. "Sorry, papa."

"Good," he says and pats her leg through the cover before he gets up. "Get dressed. You're free to go home."

Naomi nods and hurries to obey once he's gone. This is all a horribly embarrassing mess. Gossip travels fast in Konoha. What if Dan hears she messed up?! She'll never live this down. At that moment it's her only concern.

Chapter Text

XVII.

 

"I'm going on a date with Dan."

Naomi stops twisting the phone cord between her fingers and stares blankly at the wall. "What?"

"You heard me," Tsunade says, but it sounds hesitant.

It feels like her chest is caving in on itself. "Congrats."

"Nana.."

Her lower lip starts to tremble and her eyes fill with tears.

"Gotta go," she grinds out and hangs up without waiting for a response.

It's rude, but she doesn't care. She sobs and slaps a hand in front of her mouth. Why? When did this happen?! God, she hates herself. Princess Tsunade always wins when it matters. She should have known. Silent tears trail down her cheeks as she stomps into her room and throws herself on the bed. Naomi is absolutely sure that she's never felt more miserable in her life. This came totally out of the blue. Tsunade never said anything! She could've warned her! Instead she just hit her with the fact that she won the battle for Dan's affections. Was it even a competition? She wonders miserably as she smothers her cries in her pillow.

It feels like a fissure opened up inside her chest. Self-loathing and pain are pouring out and muddiying the waters. It's worse than being hit, it's worse than being neglected, it's way worse than the time her own father forgot her birthday. She can't help but hate Tsunade for this. Every time the blonde trumped her before she managed to swallow her envy, but not this time. It's killing her. It hurts so badly. Naomi smothers an agonized scream in her pillow and pounds her fists on the mattress. How could she do this to her?! Aren't they friends?! It's just another rejection and she's choking on it. There's a soft knock on her window. Naomi lifts her head and stares blearily at the translucent white curtains. She sniffs and gets up.

"What do you want?" She grinds out when she sees Orochimaru outside.

He stares at her impassively and right now it just pisses her off. Naomi harshly rubs an arm across her eyes and furrows her brows.

"Let me in," he mouths through the glass.

She's tempted to draw the curtains shut and ignore them, but reigns in her temper. For whatever reason he chose the worst possible moment to come visit. Naomi flips the window open and steps away, rubbing at her eyes and goes to hunt for a tissue. She hears him climb inside. He doesn't say anything and it pisses her off.

"What do you want?!" She barks and blows her nose.

"I had a feeling you were crying alone," he says softly.

A tremble runs through her body and her shoulders start to shake. Misery is threatening to overwhelm her. Without turning back to face him she presses the tissue to her face.

"Why? Why am I always everybody's second choice?" She sobs.

Orochimaru slowly walks around her. She blinks at him through her tears. His expression is unreadable as he stares at her.

"Not to me."

The breath catches in her throat when he uses his right hand to tilt her head up. With his left he withdraws a cloth tissue from his pocket and dabs gingerly at the tear trails on her face.

"Don't cry," he mumbles softly.

It reminds her of when they were kids. A surge of something, affection she thinks, rises up inside her. Naomi blinks quickly. Her wet eyelashes send another pair of tears down her cheeks, which he promptly wipes away. Naomi lets out a strangled noise and surges forward, wrapping herself tightly around him and burying her face against his shoulder. He's noticeably taller than her now that they're both approaching fourteen. It makes her feel better and worse. Better, because Orochimaru's always had this effect on her. Worse, because she realizes what a shit friend she's been to him.

"I'm sorry," she mutters.

"For what?"

"For being a horrible friend. I'm sorry."

Two hands touch her back. As long as she can remember his touch has always been light and gentle. Now she feels his hands press down just a little. Pushing closer, she thinks. It's weird and new. A small sob shakes her frame.

"I should have.. should've.."

"It doesn't matter," he tells her calmly.

"But..."

"Do you know why?" He asks and he must've turned his head to the side because his mouth is suddenly close to her ear.

"N.. no?"

"It's because you and I are connected by the red string of fate. Nothing can seperate that."

"O-Oro-kun..?" She mumbles uncertainly.

He sounds strange. She can't put her finger on what it is. It's... weird. Red string of fate? Where did he get that idea? It almost sounds like he thinks their destinies are intertwined or something equally dramatic and serious. Truth to be told she hasn't able to follow his thought processes in a long while now. His mind tends to wander down strange and winding paths; frequently dark ones as she well knows.

"I won't let anything seperate us," he whispers in her ear.

His hands flex on her back. It sends a cold shiver down her spine. How can this be? How can she feel both safe and trapped in his arms? Naomi swallows and tries to sort through her feelings. Orochimaru is different somehow. Still familiar, but also not. He sounds so confident. Like he fully believes what he's saying. It puts her at ease and makes her uneasy at the same time. Conflicting emotions where he is concerned are nothing new, but they've never been so at odds with each other before.

"What red string?" She asks quietly as she takes a step back. "What's that?"

He smiles and hooks his left pinky with her right one. Naomi's eyes widen a little. She remembers that gesture! And the promise she broke. Her gaze lowers to the floor.

"Sorry," she mumbles. "I said-"

"Naomi," he says softly.

She looks up at him from under her lashes. Orochimaru is smiling. Genuinely. She blinks and takes in the rare sight.

"Even though I.. Oro-kun..," she mumbles and tries to formulate her confusing thoughts.

His pinky tightens around hers. Even though she's still miserable and disappointed it makes her feel better. Without him her life would be so much worse. A small smile grows on her face. Something in his gaze softens.

"Yes. Smile for me," he murmurs. "You are my sun."

"H-huh?" Something catches her her throat.

She has to swallow dryly and glances between his eyes. His sun? Where did that come from? He's talking in riddles again. Naomi huffs and smiles a little wider.

"You're so weird," she tells him fondly.

He inclines his head with a little grin and doesn't object. The ache inside her chest has been soothed, so it doesn't feel like she's breaking apart anymore. Naomi glances away and releases his finger.

"Oh man. This sucks. I really liked him a lot," she mutters with a frown. "But I guess.. Tsunade won.."

"It would seem so," he answers smoothly.

She runs a hand through her hair and sighs deeply before she throws him a fleeting look. "Ne, Oro-kun. What about you?"

"What about me?" He asks and raises a brow.

She shrugs and tosses her crumpled moist tissue into the trash. "Is there a girl you like? Or a boy," she adds as an afterthought.

He pauses on his way to the window and stares at her. It looks a little incredulous. Naomi blushes faintly and shrugs defensively.

"Just asking. You don't have to tell me."

"Tch," he huffs quietly and proceeds to climb outside. "You idiot."

"Hey!" She frowns at him as she goes over to close her window to keep the heat out.

"You should listen better when people talk to you," he tells her quietly.

Naomi opens her mouth in protest, but then he's gone as suddenly as he came.

Chapter Text

XVIII.

 

It takes her exactly one month of heartache and awkwardness to get over it. She doesn't talk to Tsunade at all. On one hand it sucks, on the other she suddenly has a lot more time to devote to her studies. And Naomi studies a lot. Her medical training is about to come to an end and her father demands that she write a final thesis in order to prove to the Konohan officials that his training is very much up to par with their own. A hundred pages at least, he'd said. Tsunade tells her that her own teacher only asked for sixty after they reconcile.

"Maybe it's his way of pushing you to do your best," she shrugs.

"Maybe," Naomi replies dubiously before she returns to inspecting the blonde's closet. "What are you gonna wear to the graduation ceremony?"

"Standard ninja garb," she replies immediately and raises a neatly plucked brow. "It's what we wear for the bar crawl afterwards that counts."

"Huh?!"

"You don't know? Dan told me that it's a tradition for freshly graduated Chunin to go drinking together. Those bar crawls are legendary. They're the reason why the elders are discussing raising the legal drinking age," Tsunade snickers.

"Whaaat?" Naomi stares at her in surprise. "I bet I won't be allowed to go then."

"You're fourteen and a Chunin. Who's going to tell you to do anything?"

"But..," she mumbles and thinks of her parents.

Tsunade sighs and gives her a knowing smile. "I know what you're gonna say. And no, that's no reason to miss this one time event. Just.. I dunno. Tell them Orochimaru is coming with and that he'll keep an eye on you."

"Orochimaru?" Naomi laughs at her. "Come on, Tsuna."

"What?"

"He's not going to come."

"Well, ask him to," she says with a shrewd look. "If you ask he'll come."

Naomi glances to the side and puckers her lips. "He hates crowds and noisy people. Besides, my parents don't exactly like him."

"Oh, they don't?" Tsunade hums and frowns thoughtfully. "But do they at least think he's responsible?"

Naomi rubs her chin and thinks. In all actuality it's her mother who dislikes him, for whatever reason. She never said anything, but her looks spoke volumes. Good thing she's sick and bedridden at the moment. Her dad on the other hand doesn't really know him since he's home so rarely, but he once expressed his respect for his reputation as a genius shinobi. So if she asks him..

"Maybe," she hums.

 

"You want to what?" Her father asks and raises his bushy brows.

Naomi swallows her nervousness and inclines her head. "Go celebrate my graduation with my fellow Chunin."

"In a bar. Alcohol is poison, Naomi. It'll kill your brain cells."

"Good thing I have enough to spare," she mumbles lightly.

He sighs deeply in response. "I don't think that's wise. You're still growing. Fourteen is no age to go carousing in dubious establishments."

"What if Orochimaru chaperones me to make sure I don't drink too much?" She offers.

"Hm? Orochimaru?" Her glances at her over the rim of his round glasses. "Your friend from next door?"

"Yeah. Since he graduated as well and with the best score..."

"I heard about that," her father replies slowly and leans back in his chair with a considering expression. "He's being hailed as a genius. Truth to be told, I didn't think he had it in him at first. He's clanless, isn't he?"

"What does it matter?" She asks rebelliously.

His brows furrow and she quickly lowers her head. "I'm just saying how surprising it is that a virtual nobody with no kekkai genkai managed to score a better result than everyone else. Konoha is home to some extremely strong shinobi clans, after all. It's a testament to his ability. I heard Sarutobi-sama mention how fond he is of the boy once, which is another credit to his name since Sarutobi-sama is the most likely next Hokage candidate."

"Yes, Oro-kun is really smart and responsible," Naomi says proudly. "We've been friends forever, he'll know when to stop me."

"Hmm, I see. In that case..."

Naomi grits her teeth to keep down a squeal of happiness and grins broadly instead as she bows and hurries from his office. Best. Day. Ever! First her dad sings Orochimaru praises, which he never does for anybody! Then he lets her go party with her friends! The only thing that's missing is a proper party outfit now, but thankfully she has Tsunade for that. They already said they wanted to match their appreanches.

 

"No, lower."

"Like this?" Naomi asks and re-fastens the clamp in her hair.

Tsunade eyes the back of her head. Naomi watches her critical expression in the mirror. They stand side by side. The blond turns her head this way and that, staring at Naomi's and finally nods.

"Good. Now your collar.."

"Tsuna!"

"What?!"

"I don't know about this," Naomi mutters with a blush when the blonde hooks a finger in the collar of her already low cut wrap tunic and tugs it down further.

"Oh come on," Tsunade sighs. "At least one of us has something to show off. You should be proud of your boobs!"

"Why?" Naomi grimaces when she sees the tops of her breasts peek out at the top of her newly lowered collar.

Tsunade eyes them with obvious envy. Her chest hasn't really grown a lot yet. The raven haired girl lets out an outraged squeak when she suddenly grabs one of hers and weighs it in her hand.

"Tsunaaaa!"

"It's a C cup, isn't it?" The blonde states flatly.

"How did you-?!"

"I blame Jiraiya's influence," Tsunade huffs and crosses her arms. "He never shuts up about boobs."

"Is that why he has a black eye?"

"Yes," she replies flatly.

Naomi grins as she adjusts her wrap tunic. It's a dark purple color with black ginko leaf print at the trims. It shows off her shoulders and has a plunging neckline with the way they decided to wrap it. Tsunade's is dark blue with white ginko leaf print, but the exact same model. They've both picked short black skirts to go with it as well as the exact same model of heeled sandals.

"Now that's what I call a party outfit!" Tsunade says proudly as she looks them both over and links arms with Naomi. "Ready?"

Naomi turns her head to the side to inspect her looks. Her own hair is slightly straighter than Tsunade's so she has less volume now that it's pinned up just like hers. The ends hang lower than her friend's, but it still looks good. She nods with satisfaction.

"Yup. Hey, does Dan ever complain about...," Naomi says and points at her chest with a smug grin.

"What?" Tsunade's eyes narrow.

"Just saying," she retorts and pokes her tongue out.

"No, that's pretty much just Jiraiya," she sighs and rolls her eyes.

"Good thing he's not your boyfriend."

"Yeah," Tsunade says, but it sounds a little weird.

Naomi shrugs it off. They're here to get in a partying mood. And she has every reason to feel elated. After all, Orochimaru actually agreed to come with her. It didn't take much begging at all. She just had to widen her eyes and ask really nicely. He didn't really seem happy about it, but he agreed. Asides from her own wants she thinks it'll be good for him to be among other people. He should be the star of the evening after his stellar exam results, she thinks. Tsunade's entire team passed with flying colors. Naomi came fourth and it annoys her a bit that freaking Jiraiya somehow managed to be better, even if only by one point. There's no way he's actually smart, so he must have pulled something pretty special in the physical part of the exam. It's a comforting thought, if nothing else. Her own teammates also passed, which makes her happy. They'll meet up at the first bar, the Golden Toad.

"So are we gonna dance?" She asks all of a sudden.

"You bet we are!"

"Uh.. How?"

"What do you mean, how? You've never danced before?" Tsunade gives her a look.

"Not really."

"Actually? Well, just swing your hips like this," Tsunade says and demonstrates a gyrating movement.

Naomi nods thoughtfully. "That's it?"

"That's gonna be enough to get attention," she smirks. "It's easy. Just follow the beat of the music. With an outfit like that, nothing is gonna look weird."

"If you say so."

"Don't worry so much, Nana. Once you've got a few drinks in you you'll loosen up. Are we ready to go now?"

"We are," Naomi says with a laugh.

"Come on, then! I've got a bet to win!" Tsunade crows and starts draggin her to the door.

"What bet? Oi, Tsuna! What bet?!"

"Shh. Just move your feet!"

Naomi rolls her eyes and follows her outside. Tsunade's really gotten more livvely ever since she and Dan got together. It still smarts a bit, but she thinks she's mostly over it now. Having her best girl back is certainly a relief. She missed her company something fierce. Her heart starts beating a little faster in excitement when they arrive in front of the already pretty crowded bar. They can hear the dull thumping of a bass from the music inside. Kiyoshi and Tsuki both grin and wave when they spot her. Naomi grins back brightly. Jiraiya is talking at some girl, who looks away with an annoyed expression and tosses her hair over her shoulder, hitting him in the face with it. Orochimaru leans against the wall with his arms crossed. Today he's wearing a black tunic with a white trim that has tomoe printed on it. She grins at him, too. He simply inclines his head in acknowledgement.

"Hi guys!" Tsunade says loudly and looks around for Dan.

"Oh wow!" Jiraiya says and wolf whistles at them both. "The evening just got better!"

"Shut up! Where's Dan?"

"Already inside.

"Naomi-sama, you look radiant as always!" Kiyoshi says with a big grin.

"Why thanks," she replies dryly.

Tsuki rolls her eyes. "I need a drink if I'm supposed to hang with you losers all evening."

"That can be arranged," Tsunade says with a smirk. "Let's go inside."

She tugs Naomi along in her eagerness to find her boyfriend. Since their arms are still linked and there's actually no way to escape her hold she simply laughs and waves at Orochimaru.

"Oro-kun, hi! Come on in!" She calls in passing.

He doesn't reply, but follows them anyway. Naomi knows her teammates are sort of scared of him, so they keep a respectful distance as they filter inside. The pounding music makes conversation impossible. It's hot and crowded as they push further inside the bar in the middle of the room. They order their drinks and Naomi tries not to wince at the burn of alcohol down her throat. It's true, after a while of shouting at her teammates over the music she does begin to feel a little lighter. Orochimaru and Jiraiya managed to obtain seats at the bar counter and seem to be talking to each other. Naomi looks away with a small pout. She's definitely not used to being ignored by him and feels a little silly for being dismayed. She tugs at Tsunade's arm to get her to stop mashing faces with her boyfriend and nods at the dancefloor. The blond nods enthusiastically. This is her chance to shine, she thinks with a grin. It's dark, save for spotlights that are reflected by a disco ball on the ceiling. The two of them move to a free place on the dancefloor and grin at each other.

"Just relax and move," Tsunade yells at her before she starts to sway to the beat of the pounding, thumping music.

Naomi smirks to herself and follows her example. It feels a little awkward to dance as sensually as her friend, so she turns her back on the bar. That way she doesn't have to look at her teammates, who only know her as the nerdy med nin. What they don't know is that Naomi has discovered that she likes short skirts and sexy outfits. She likes being looked at. It must be Tsunade's influence, she thinks with a grin. Naomi puts her arms up and sways her hips to the beat. It only takes a short time until she forgets who's watching. Moving along to the music starts coming naturally and she takes a sip of her cocktail. Tsunade laughs and nods at her. It's hot inside the bar and even hotter inbetween all those dancing bodies. Naomi starts to sweat after a while, but it barely registers. This is the best. She's pretty sure she's never had so much fun. Tsunade keeps glancing behind her and grinning. The blonde is probably trying to be subtle, but she's the least subtle person on earth. Curious, Naomi starts to shift around, but Tsunade suddenly puts her hands on her hips and shakes her head with a highly amused expression.

"What?!" She yells.

"Don't!" Tsunade yells back with a broad grin.

"Why?!"

It prompts her friend's eyes to lower to her cleavage. Naomi blinks in surprise. "Not sweaty enough!"

"What?!" Naomi yells with a confused frown.

"Come on!" Tsunade shouts and lifts her arms. "Move more!"

Naomi shakes her head with a bemused grin and does as she says. It only makes her sweat more and after a while she makes a face once she realizes that sweat has broken out on her back and face. Naomi fans herself and lowers her arms again. She takes another sip of her drink, which she somehow managed not to spill yet.

"Can I turn?" She yells

"What?"

"Can I turn around?!"

"Yeah!" Tsunade says with a gleam in her hazel eyes.

While she doesn't remember exactly why she wanted to turn around in the first place, she does so anyway. A startled laugh leaves her when Tsunade deftly puts her hands on her hips again. They sway in unison and Naomi can't stop giggling. Everything is sort of hazy and warm. She doesn't even mind catching sight of familiar faces anymore. Her teammates are talking to each other, Jiraiyais resting his head on his arms on the bar behind several empty glasses and Orochimaru is just staring unabashedly. There's a glass in front of him containing some brown liquid, but it looks untouched. Naomi grins when their eyes meet. He blinks slowly. Somehow she feels embarrassed to dance now when he's looking. His face is oddly blank and he doesn't avert his gaze even once. It makes her feel a little warmer. She fancies she can almost feel that heavy gaze like a physical touch. Some guy bumps into her on the dancefloor and momentarily obscurs her vision.

"Sorry 'bout that!" He shouts with a huge grin and moves on.

It doesn't matter. She remembers having a drink and lifts her glass to drain it. Her head feels like it's packed in cotton. Bone deep contentment settles in her. She doesn't know how long they've been in here, thinks about the meaning of the word 'Bar Crawl' and that they don't get it. The crowd fades into one amorphous sea of bodies winding around her. All that seems to be real is Orochimaru's unusual eyes fixed unerringly on her.

"I'm tired!" She slurs loudly and shoots a glance over her shoulder.

"What?"

"Tired!" She tries a bit more loudly.

"Are you serious right now! Nana! We haven't even started!"

"Still! Gonna go to Oro-kun!"

"Yeah, do that!" Tsunade suddenly laughs in her ear and gives her a small push.

Naomi stumbles over her own feet and mutters a curse. Her body is strangely uncooperative. Everything is sort of blurry, but she still manages to find her best friend in the whole world. He watches her approach without batting an eyelash. A giggle bubbles up inside her when she misjudges the distance between them and accidentally walks into his side. He's warm and her nose might be in his cheek suddenly.

"Oro-kun, I'm dizzy. Take me home," she slurs against his jaw.

He doesn't answer. In fact, he doesn't even breathe. A slight tremor runs through his body before a hand comes to rest very lightly on the small of her back.

"Of course," he replies and it sounds unusually raspy.

Naomi wobbles on her feet when he suddenly gets up. If it wasn't for his steadying hand she might've fallen over. She leans against his left side and closes her eyes against the way the world spins. It's alright, though. Oro-kun leads her out of the bar and the fresh air is a relief. Her feet feel so heavy and they have to stop several times when they just refuse to work. To prevent her from falling his hand shifts onto her left hip and holds on tightly. Weirdly enough, she likes it. It feels.. comforting. They walk through an alley and she has to stop and breathe for a few seconds. A third pair of footsteps approaches them slowly.

"Hey mate, mind stepping away from there?" Somebody asks casually. "Just for a few minutes."

He shifts a little, doesn't let go. Tired beyond belief, she rests her head against his shoulder and closes her eyes.

"Go prey on some other girl. This one is mine."

"Hey, listen. I saw her first, okay?"

"You dispute my claim?" Orochimaru asks in a pleasant tone.

She doesn't know what happens next, has trouble following their conversation. Did he say? What was it he said? Does it matter? Oro-kun is warm and comfortable. He smells kind of nice. As long as he keeps holding her everything is alright.

"W-whoa.. what the... Alright! Alright! I don't want no trouble, okay? Look, I'm gonna back off and pretend this never happened!" The other guy sounds like he's this close to shitting himself.

She blinks slowly and tilts her head up, but Orochimaru isn't doing anything but looking at the other guy. Huh?

"What's going on?" She mutters.

He smiles down at her. "Nothing. Let's go."

"Ugh, I can't walk," she complains and nearly falls over. "Everything's so... ugh."

He shifts his grip so he's holding her more securely and it's so nice to have his arm around her back. Why is it so nice?

"Come on. Walk."

"Unnngh," she groans and takes a few steps.

"Keep going, my sun. It's not much further," he says gently.

"Didya know?" She slurs and rubs her nose against his shoulder. "The moon don't shine. It reflects."

"Yes," he says in an amused tone.

Naomi has to focus very hard on what her feet are doing for a few beats. "Why am I the sun? You.. you shine way more."

"It's your smile," he tells her quietly. "It is warmer and brighter than the sun."

"Awww. That's so nice," she says, feeling honestly touched.

"That is why you're my sun. Your absence leaves me in darkness."

"Oh," she mumbles faintly.

That's so nice! He's saying such nice things to her. It sounds like he means it, too! She smiles against his shoulder. Before she knows it he's fiddling with a pair of keys, from the sounds of it. Then he takes her inside. She blinks and looks around in the darkness.

"'s dark."

"Yes. Just a second," he says.

Suddenly the light flicks on. It's blurry, but she thinks the house is unfamiliar. Naomi can feel that she's close to passing out. He more or less drags her down a hallway and into a room. It smells unfamiliar. Not much later she slides into a bed. Almost as soon as she lies down her eyes close.

"Thanks," she mutters.

"Sleep, my sun."

"Mm."

On the next morning she wakes up feeling very groggy, but otherwise okay. Strange. She could've sworn she only had one drink. Then it hits her that this bedroom is unfamiliar. She freezes and looks around with wide eyes. Naomi gets up, still in yesterday's clothes that smell like sweat and cold smoke. Orochimaru is in the kitchen eating a bowl of rice with raw egg on top. He looks up when she enters.

"Morning," she grunts and heads for the sink.

"Good morning. Did you sleep well?"

"Mh," she hums and grabs a glass from a cabinet.

Even after all this time she still remembers where he keeps them. Naomi drinks a glass of water and tries to recall last evening. She turns around and leans against the counter.

"It's weird. I could've sworn I only had one drink," she mumbles.

"Some guy must have slipped something into it," he says.

"But why?" She asks with a frown.

"To make you soft and unresisting," he says lightly.

"Ah," she murmurs and looks down, feeling a shiver run down her back. "Good thing you were there."

"Yes."

Naomi gives him a small smile. " Thank you. You always look out for me, Oro-kun."

Something in his eyes softens and he gets up slowly. Naomi watches him take his empty bowl to the sink and rinse it with water. He's a full head taller now. His hands are oddly fascinating to her. They look so strong and elegant at the same time. Something occurs to her then in the soft light of early morning.

"That girl," she says slowly, keeps her eyes on his hands as they dry the bowl. "That girl they found four years ago. The one who looked like.. me."

He puts the bowl away without looking at her. Naomi feels cold, even while standing the the sunlight. She remembers what he said to her last night. Wets her lips and exhales.

"When we were ten. I think those six months were the longest time we weren't talking."

"Yes," he replies neutrally.

It's weird, because his kitchen is brighter than theirs. It's facing south and gets a lot of sunlight. She starts to warm slowly. Her expression softens when he looks at her with that blank look he always wears when he wants to hide his thoughts. Something warm engulfs her chest and chokes her throat. She shifts closer to him and even closer when he doesn't back away. She reaches out slowly, half afraid that he might run away, half afraid of the way her heart is hammering, and lightly touches the side of his face before she loses her nerve and drops her hand.

"Why?" She asks hesitantly.

"I could never hurt you, my sun," he says quietly and fixes her with an intent look that wills her to believe him.

Her lips part in shock and confusion. Is he..

"I missed you," he confesses freely.

Naomi swallows. "And?"

"I felt deserted," he says with a hint of bitterness before he turns to look out of the window. "It was as if all the light and laughter had left my life."

Her lower jaw trembles ever so slightly. It sounds as if Orochimaru's feelings run deep. Despite the danger she has to push on.

"Did you kill her?"

When he rounds on her suddenly she gasps, because it looks like he's trying to strangle her with his gaze.

"I could never handle my feelings very well," he says silkily.

It confirms her suspicion that that's why he always keeps such a blank face. He can't regulate his emotions. It's either too much or nothing. She'd like to point out that this can be learned with practice, but keeps her mouth shut. A slight humorless smile plays around his lips.

"Eventually the pressure got too much. It hurt. I was angry," he says.

"I'm sorry," she murmurs and sighs. "I saw you. You had a.. I didn't understand. It frightened me."

"And yet you kept my secret," he says with a slight smile. "Why?"

"Because I.. Because you're...," Naomi rubs a hand over her eyes. "I wanted to understand why you did that. I still do."

"Curiosity, for the most part," he says with a small shrug.

"The mutilation?"

"Release," he replies easily.

"Ah." For some reason her throat goes dry. "The girl? Was that.. release?"

"No. No, that was.. Something else."

"What?"

Orochimaru grins at her. Naomi meets his gaze with a light confused frown. The wounds on the corpse were severe. What could possibly have driven him to do that?

"I told her to say 'I'm sorry, let's be friends again', but she just kept screaming. So I made her sing instead."

"Sing," she says tonelessly.

"Yes," he murmurs and takes a step towards her. "It was just a scapegoat, Naomi. A body double I could take my frustation out on."

"That's not very comforting," she replies and frowns at him. "Thinking about it, every time we didn't speak for whatever reason, more dead animals appeared around the neighbourhood. I didn't connect the dots."

"But you do now?"

"Oro-kun.. That's not good," she murmurs and looks up at him with worry. "What if somebody notices? You could get in trouble."

"Is that your only concern?" He asks softly and touches her cheek.

It is so gentle. How could these gentle hands cause such horror? As always, he's full of contradictions. More importantly, why is his touch making her nervous now? It never did before. As far as she can remember, he's always touched her like this. So why does it feel so new? Or no, not new. Different. It makes her feel different. It makes her wish he pulled her in and- Naomi looks away. It's confusing. This is Orochimaru, after all. She's known him forever. Why would anything change now?!

"Your skin is so soft," he whispers.

Naomi swallows and feels a shiver run down her arms. Her heart is thumping. His thumb brushes over her cheekbone before his hand drops back to his side. Orochimaru turns away.

"There's really no comparison," he mutters.

Naomi glances down and feels thoroughly weird. Is this right? Should she be feeling this way? After all they're.. Naomi tries to swallow past the knot in her throat. It's like a bunch of words and half-formed ideas are stuck in there. Most of all, however, she doesn't want to lose the comfort of her closest friend. The one and only one. It's suddenly imperative to get close.

"Oro-kun," she croaks.

"Hm?" He hums and turns around.

Naomi presses her teeth together and goes. He lets out a surprised huff when she walks towards him and wraps herself around him as tightly as she can. Perhaps she can press her confusing thoughs and feelings into his skin that way. Naomi buries her face in his chest and immediately feels comforted. This time, however, he hugs her back just as tightly. She sucks in a surprised breath when she feels his chin come to rest ontop of her head and instantly likes it.

"Oro-kun, I...," she grits out and clenches her hands in the fabric of his tunic.

"What is it, my sun?"

"You're my most precious person."

"And you mine," he replies easily.

Naomi squeezes her eyes shut and feels her heart thump painfully. Why do his words evoke such longing inside her? The hands on her back are pulling her closer. Naomi knows that her father will disapprove of her sleeping over here. He might even be worried. Right then she doesn't care. Leaving is the last thing on her mind right now. She closes her eyes and turns her head to the side to listen. His heart is beating fast, too.

"Oro-kun," she whispers.

"Yes?"

Naomi hesitates. There is almost no way she's wrong about this, but.. What if.. She exhales shakily.

"I'm sorry for every time I hurt you," she murmurs. "Thank you for not giving up on me."

Instead of just holding her his arms wrap around her back, completing the hug. It warms her to the core.

"I couldn't," he replies calmly. "Your absence would cast me into eternal darkness. My heart would wither and die without my sun."

"Oro-kun, do you.."

"Yes."

Naomi gasps softly and feels something warm and bright blossom inside her chest.

Chapter Text

XIX.

By the end of June she's finished her medical thesis. Her father is mighty pleased by her one hundred and six pages long masterpiece. Yukiko goes green with envy at the praise she recieves. It's obvious that she is neither as strong as her brothers, nor as smart as Naomi. She's simply average. Being the spoiled brat that she is, it only feeds into her viciousness. She feels wronged by no longer being the center of attention.

One day Naomi comes home from a mission only to discover that somebody went through all her notes. They're thrown in chaos, entire stacks pushed to the floor and trampled on. Several important ones are missing. It's been a while since she was that angry at anybody. Yukiko denies it, of course, and loudly accuses her of being a liar and an attention whore. In those terms. A week later she passes by their father's office and catches a conversation by chance.

"Impressive work, Yukiko. You came up with all of this yourself? I thought you had no interest in medicine."

"I changed my mind, daddy. Do you like my paper?"

"Yes. The effects of narcotics on the human memory. There are several smaller wrong conclusions, but the overlying theory is brilliant."

Naomi freezes with wide eyes. What?! That's one of her theories, not Yukiko's! She didn't- How dare she! And their father is buying it! Brilliant! He has never called any of her theories brilliant before, but now that Yukiko is selling it to him it suddenly is?!

"Perhaps we can still enter you in this year's medical student program. I'll have to talk to my collegues. If I show them your thesis they will be convinced that you have what it takes."

"That would be great, daddy!" Yukiko chirps in a sickeningly sweet voice.

Naomi can't move. She's frozen and trembling with rage. That stupid fucking-

"Oh, are you eavesdropping?" Yukiko asks condescendingly when she comes out of the office, followed by their dad.

He looks mighty proud indeed. Yukiko has always been his favorite child. Naomi swallows convulsively. She's absolutely speechless. Their father raises a brow at her.

"What are you standing around here for?" He asks. "Don't you have a project to be working on?"

"Yes, I do," she replies tonelessly and goes straight to her room.

Naomi sits down at her desk and stares at her trembling hands. A black fire is burning brightly in her chest as all the insults her sister has ever thrown at her bubble up in her memory. Influenced by their brothers, she's never shown her anything but vicious disdain. All the times she needled her with rude comments and criticisms of her appearance and her choice of friends. The mockery and disgust she displayed whenever Orochimaru was mentioned in her presence. Naomi thought she'd grown immune to it, that the thick shell of apathy was enough. It isn't. She hasn't. Not anymore. That fucking hellspawn has stepped the line when she stole her work -work she spent months researching- and tried to sell it as her own. That lazy, ungrateful-

"Fucking whore," she rasps hoarsely and balls her fists.

Enough is enough. Slowly her right hand reaches into her pocket. Where she always carries a scalpel. She presses the pad of her thumb into the blade and breathes deeply. Enough. Enough. Enough. Enough. Enough. Enough. Enough. E-

It doesn't take much effort to lure her into the forest. There's a guy she fancies and Naomi steals his phone, writers her a message and that's all it takes. Just goes to show how dumb she is. The sun is sinking. A few spots of orange sky are visible through the canopy, which casts the narrow trail in gloom. There is a big tree the locals know as Kissing Tree. It's a mighty oak in whose bark young couples have carved their initials for generations. Yukiko stands there with a flushed face, fidgeting and fixing her hair as she looks around. Naomi watches her from the shadow of another tree. Slowly the sky grows darker. She steps out of the shadows and walks towards her slowly. Yukiko turns around and her face falls when she spots her.

"Ugh! Go away! I'm waiting for somebody!" She yells.

"Mh," Naomi hums and tilts her head to the side. "That so. Shouldn't you be doing your homework if you want to become a med nin? They require high scores in all subjects to let you enter the program."

"Shut up, who cares. Or are you mad I stole your paper?" Yukiko grins.

"You admit it?" Naomi raises a brow as she comes to a stop in front of her with her hands in the pockets of her long white lab coat. "Just like that?"

"Do you have proof? Nah. Cause I was thorough," Yukiko laughs in her face. "Now go away, loser. I don't wanna waste my time on you."

Naomi's pulse picks up speed. The fucking audacity. She barks out a humorless laugh. "You think you got what it takes? You think you're clever? Haha. What are you gonna do if somebody asks you to explain the details of MY thesis?"

"Who cares," Yukiko replies with a mean grin. "Don't worry about it, loser. I'll figure something out. Daddy is eating out of my palm, he'll believe anything I tell him."

The worst thing is that she's right. Naomi licks the inside of her teeth and furrows her brows. "You know, I never got why you hate me. Is it because of them?"

"Are you blind or just genuinely dumb?" Yukiko shoots back. "It's so easy to hate you because you're a self-absorbed cunt with no social skills. There's nothing genuine about the way you interact with people, like you're just pretending to care. You know, Akira always said that you're not one of us, because neither of our parents have grey eyes. So what are you?! Adopted? A changeling? I bet you're actually a dumpster baby they picked up out of pity!"

Naomi licks her lips. Her childhood is burning up in black fire. There's nothing the flames don't touch. She hears screaming, perhaps her own, as her older brothers hit and kick her even when she's down on the ground. Never in the face. Never where it could be seen.

"Is that true?" She asks quietly. "Is that what they said?"

"Oh yeah. They said a whole lot more. They said you're cursed by the crone to ruin our family. That's what you're doing! I bet you killed Akira!" Yukiko screams all of a sudden. "Admit it already! You killed him! You fucking waste of space!"

She does that sometimes. Yell at her in an effort to startle and scare her into dropping things or jumping. The shrill grating noise adds to the infernal cacophony in her head.

"Ugly," she whispers. "You're so ugly."

"What?! What the fuck did you just say to me? You're the ugly one! Fucking whore! Crawl back into the dumpster you came out of already!"

Yukiko is like a younger mirror image of their mother, except fatter and with their father's square jaw. She has long dark brown hair in a braid and beady brown eyes that glare at her with pure hatred. Naomi withdraws her scalpel. With a slight touch it stays suspended in the air, connected to her fingertips by a chakra thread. Naomi makes a handsign and suddenly she's surrounded by a glinting halo of scalpels. Yukiko's eyes widen comically and she takes a step back. Finally the black fire creeps into her field of vision, giving her a tunnel gaze and ice cold focus.

Naomi stares at her work in a daze. Yukiko's head has been turned into a pincushion. Scalpels are stuck in it from every angle. It swings slowly from side to side, hung up on a branch by her braid. She looks down at her bloody hands. She'd like to claim she blacked out, but she clearly remembers chasing her down and stabbing her until she stopped struggling, then slicing off her head. Everything after is kind of blurry, though. She was full of rage, so maybe she did go a bit overboard. The body lies in a ditch by the wayside. Naomi's hands are bloody, and so are the sleeves of her coat. She stares at the bright red blood and feels something. Just a tiny bit of contentment. Finally. Finally. She's happy with her work.

There is a rustle in the underbrush between the trees. She glances over curiously. Orochimaru steps out of the shadows. His golden eyes calmly take in the head hanging from a branch of the Kissing Tree and Naomi's bloody hands. For once their roles are reversed. Her face is utterly impassive while he's smirking. She inhales and lowers her hands, wiping them on her coat as best as she can. Naomi looks away with a bored look. Her eyes land on the headless body a few feet away. She should hide that probably.

"My my," he says silkily.

"Please don't tell anybody about this," she asks politely.

"Heh."

Naomi glances at him. His eyes are gleaming. When their eyes meet he licks his lips. With vague interest she notices that his tongue is weirdly long. It goes past his chin before it retreats back in his mouth. Huh. Suddenly he holds out his hand towards her. Naomi glances at it. He makes a beckoning motion. Curious, she goes to him. What's with this odd behavior? He's acting as if the sight of blood excites him. This might be interesting. When she's within reach he suddenly grabs her. Naomi lets out a surprised noise when he pulls her into an almost crushing hug. Her eyes fly open in shock.

"Oro-kun? Orochimaru?" She asks in confusion.

His hands are grabbing onto her back. Grabbing! His mouth is above her ear. She feels his hot breath against it and shudders.

"You've kept my secrets, so I'll keep yours," he whispers into her ear, sounding kind of breathless.

Naomi swallows hard and feels the hairs at the back of her neck rise. This situation overwhelms her. She has no clue how to react. It's kind of scary to see a previously unknown side of him. And he doesn't let go. Even when the hug goes on for an awkwardly long time. He just keeps breathing into her ear like a weirdo.

"Naomi," he whispers suddenly. "I can smell blood on you."

"Y-yeah," she stammers and stares at the trees behind him.

Then he lets out a rumbling growl right into her ear. Her eyes fly open in shock and she glances at the side of his head. A shiver runs down the entire lenght of her spine. What is this? What's happening? Why.. why does she like it? Whatever it is.

"Oro-kun?" She whispers with a slight tremble in her voice.

"Naomi.. I want to.."

"What?" She asks hesitantly.

In response his grip on her tightens and he lets out a shuddering breath against the shell of her ear. Her heart jumps in her chest. Suddenly she's hyperaware of the way they're pressed flush together. Strange. The hard planes of his lean muscles, his body heat. Somehow it's never occurred to her that he's a boy. He was always just Orochimaru. And he's stronger than her. Or maybe the sound of his unsteady breathing is just making her weak. Naomi's head is spinning. Somewhere at the back of her head she has an inkling that she might want to, too. Whatever it is. It startles her and makes her stiffen.

"I have to.. I should," she stammers. "The. Uh, the body. Oro-kun, release me."

"No," he growls suddenly.

"Huh?" She blinks and feels her heart jump as she shoots a look at the side of his skull.

"I'm not going to let go anymore."

Her lower lip trembles in shock and confusion. "But.. The body. I have to get rid of it... Ah!"

A hot tongue trails the shell of her ear. It startles a gasp out of her and sends her heart racing. Naomi swallows hard and closes her eyes. He does it again and she feels like she's going to overheat. A thousand little jolts run along her nerves.

"O-Oro-kun," she pants softly.

She has no clue where to go from here. She needs to do something about the scene behind her. But... Orochimaru is making her feel weird. In a good kind of way. She'd also like to explore this new territory.

"I-if you keep making me.. I need to..Please," she gasps when she feels teeth worrying the oversensitive skin of her earlobe. "Please.. ah.. please.."

"Whatever you want you'll get," he murmurs hotly.

Her hands clench in the fabric of his tunic. "I h-have to.. to get rid of.."

"Yes, yes. The body," he sighs. "You should've said something sooner."

"W-what?" Her brain feels like mush.

"I would've helped."

"O-oh..."

"After all.. I've killed for you before," he whispers.

A swooping sensation goes through her stomach and makes her knees feel weak. At this rate she won't be much help to anybody soon. She exhales shakily and closes her eyes, relaxing against him.

"O-Oro-kun.. Do you.."

"Hmm?"

She swallows hard and tries to contain her shivering. He's always been there right from the start. Watching, waiting. For her to realize.. 'Listen to what I'm saying', he'd told her and she did. And the answer is so obvious. He's right. She's an idiot. She turns her face to the side until his dark hair tickles her nose.

"You're my moon," she mutters into his hair.

Orochimaru stills and draws back. She smiles lightly when their eyes meet. Her lips part in surprise when his slitted pupils suddenly go wide until they're huge and round. She glances between them in utter fascination. This never happened before. She's both, startled and pleased to learn something new about him. He licks his lips again and this time the sight of his long pink tongue makes a fissure of heat go through her.

"I want to, too," she whispers. "But.. Not right now."

"Yes," he hisses triumphantly.

Naomi quirks a smile at him. Slowly, unwillingly, he starts to release her. Naomi wobbles on her feet and fans her burning face. Whatever just happened was good. It's almost completely dark in the forest now. He closes his eyes for a few moments and when he opens them again his pupils are slits. He bites his thumb and draws a stripe down his right palm before he slams it on the ground.

"Summoning Jutsu!" He says.

Manda appears in a cloud of smoke. He's grown much bigger. Naomi wagers he could swallow her whole now. She knows Orochimaru's summoning contract pretty well, has seen him before when their teams were practicing in the same field. Manda is a beautiful purple snake with small horns and black markings much like Orochimaru's around his eyes. Once he lifts his head he lets out a hiss.

"Why do you summon me? I'll eat you!" He threatens Orochimaru.

"Fortunately I've summoned you precisely to eat," he replies smoothly and points at the decapitated body.

"Ah?"

"Wow, Manda, you're such a big boy now!" Naomi gushes excitedly.

Manda turns his head and blinks at her. His tongue flicks out briefly. "Ah, human. I remember you."

"Ooooh!" She says when he slithers closer. "Hello there, handsome boy!"

Manda hisses contently when she rubs his head and closes his eyes for a moment. Naomi grins hugely at the display. It turned out that he enjoys having his head rubbed. Orochimaru lets out a huff and crosses his arms.

"Manda," he says with disapproval.

"Sssilence!" Manda snaps. "In return for this great head rub I will not eat you. Be grateful, brat."

Naomi giggles a bit and runs her hands over his warm scales, scritching lightly at the sides of his head where she suspects his ears to be. Manda's tongue flicks out again and his eyes open.

"That is sssufficient, human," he says in a pleased tone and lifts his head. "Now I ssshall eat."

The huge purple snake slithers towards the decapitated body and opens his jaws wide. Naomi averts her eyes and stares at Orochimaru instead. Her first, best childhood friend. The boy who was always there when she needed him and asked for nothing in return. Who killed her tormentor for her. He meets her gaze steadily with a small smile. Naomi can't help it, she goes to him and takes his hand. Orochimaru links their fingers, which makes bone deep contentment spread through her. When Manda returns he's a lot fatter around the middle. Naomi glances at the head dangling from the tree. She wants to leave it there.

"How do I make this look like it has nothing to do with me?" She asks plaintatively.

"Hm, it's obvious that somebody hated her a lot," he replies easily and withdraws a strange looking knife from inside his tunic. "Thankfully I have this. I saved it from a previous mission."

"A knife?"

"This rather distinctive, impractical knife is the type preferred by Muramasa Fumihiko, a missing nin from Sunagakure. He also happens to be a deranged serial killer who preys on little girls."

"Ah."

"If you would dispell your shadow clones.."

She does. The head is littered with several little cuts now. It looked better with the knives. Orochimaru grabs the tip between his fingers before he hurls it at the head, where it sticks. Naomi smiles up at him.

"Ahh, you're so clever."

Orochimaru smiles down at her and squeezes her hand. Manda lets out a warning hiss.

"Unsummon me already!"

He obliges. Now it's just the two of them... Naomi glances down at her bloody sleeves. She actually likes the lab coat.

"How do I clean this?" She mumbles. "Bleach?"

"Soak it in cold water first," he says casually.

"Oh, okay."

"You can do it at my house," he says with a smile and chuckles when she blushes. "It won't be found there."

"R-right."

Chapter Text

XX.

 

They haven't gone to watch the stars together in years. It's a nice summer night in mid July and Naomi can't contain her excitement. They sit side by side in their spot, which is in a small clearing between the trees behind their houses. The sky is clear, huge and endless. Naomi hugs her knees to her chest and stares in awe at the millions upon millions of bright stars. It's humbling to realize how small they are, that their lives are just specks of dust in the grand scheme of things.

"It's beautiful," she murmurs reverently.

"Yes."

Naomi turns to look at him. He's not watching the stars, he's staring at her. She blushes and glances to the side. Orochimaru shifts closer, which makes her heartbeat pick up speed. A slightly cool hand touches the side of her face. He's got a hungry look in his eyes that sends a fissure of heat down her spine. She looks up from under her lashes with a small smile and lets him tilt her chin up. It feels like this moment has been such a long time coming now. The way he looks at her is making her heart ache. It's familiar. He's been looking at her like that forever. Only difference is that now she knows what it means. That heavy, unflinching stare that seems to try to drill into her soul.

Slowly, ever so slowly she leans forward. Orochimaru isn't moving. Naomi thinks she gets it. He's been reaching for her all this time. Now it's her turn. Her heart is pounding in her chest as she leans forward on her hands and into his space. When their faces are only a hand apart she holds her breath and glances between his eyes. The corners of her mouth lift. There's no doubt that this is a good idea in her mind. Naomi closes her eyes and kisses him. Her heart jumps in her chest. His lips are soft and warm. It's amazing, so much better than anything she imagined. The response comes instantly. When their noses bump she tilts her head to the side and somehow it's better. It's the best thing in the goddamn world. Hazily she thinks she could keep kissing him forever, but alas her lungs have other ideas.

Naomi pulls back to breathe and opens her eyes in time to see him lean forward, chasing her lips. His hands then wrap around her upper arms. They stare at each other with pounding hearts and out of breath for all the right reasons. Her eyes widen slightly when he pulls her against him and kisses her again. A small noise escapes her when his teeth pull on her lower lip and one of his sharp fangs nicks the sensitive skin. Tasting blood makes her shudder and melt against him, who then promptly wraps his arms around her back. Naomi can't think, she can only feel awed delight at how insanely good this is. He turns the kiss increasingly aggressive, tugging insistently on her lips with his teeth. When she's sure they have to be all bruised and puffy she opens her mouth to tell him to stop, but it only makes him plunge his tongue inside. She sucks in a sharp breath of surprise through her nose when their tongues meet. Holy shit, she thinks faintly and shivers.

Slowly, carefully, he lowers her back onto the grass. Somehow she manages to free her arms and wraps them around his neck. Both of them have really long hair, which tugs unpleasantly and catches, but Naomi doesn't care. There's a black curtain around them that only lets in a few strips of moonlight. Her chest feels like it's filled with lava. Maybe it should feel weird or nasty when she feels a bit of spittle escape from the corner of her mouth, but it only serves to make her feel more heated. When she's close to passing out he finally pulls back ever so slightly, just enough to breathe, and licks his lips. The distance between their mouths is so minimal that his oddly long and powerful tongue catches her chin in the motion, making her giggle.

"Hah.. ha.. Oro..kun..," she breathes and stares at him with a huge grin and burning cheeks.

He's crushing her with the weight of his body, but Naomi doesn't mind. Orochimaru looks wrecked. She swallows and takes in his flushed face and blown pupils. His eyes look kind of starry, like he's not wholly there. Naomi spreads her legs to accomodate him better and blinks when she feels something hard press against her belly. Her lips part in surprise. His absent expression softens when he blinks and puts their foreheads together. Naomi closes her eyes and inhales deeply, breathing him in.

"Naomi," he says hoarsely.

"What is it?"

He shifts and then presses a finger onto her sensitive lips. It hurts a little, but it's a kind of good pain.

"Do not.. If..," he rasps and clears his throat. "You will not leave me. Should you try, I will kill you and then myself."

Her brows twitch. "Well obviously not. Not willingly, at least," she mutters against his finger.

"Not good enough," he murmurs. "Try again."

Naomi opens her eyes and gives him an exasperated look. "Oro-kuuuun. Why are you thinking about that stuff now?!"

"Because.. I..," his brows furrow and he blinks at her.

She glances between his eyes and feels something inside her soften. He seems, for a lack of a better word, scared. It seems his first reaction to this kind of bliss is being terrified of losing it again.

"No. Never," she says softly and tightens her arms around his neck. "I want to.. To be with you forever. My life would suck without you."

Orochimaru removes his finger and seals their lips together again. Slower and deeper than before. It makes her feel like her insides are melting. She's never felt so alive and connected to another human being before. Memories of the past flicker through her mind. Every time he made her feel better, or comforted, or acknowledged her. It was always him. Naomi's eyes start to burn at the way she's overflowing with love and happiness. The air is warm, cicadas are singing and the moonlight is so bright she can see everything perfectly clear through the gaps in his hair.

"I wish this moment could last forever," she whispers when they part again.

"I love you," he croaks out.

Naomi stares into his eyes and feels her pulse in her face, somehow. "I love you, too," she murmurs unsteadily. "Oh kami, I.. I love you so much. O-Oro-kun.."

He lets out a breathy laugh and lowers his head until their foreheads are touching again. It's like overflowing, she thinks as she stares at his smiling, happy face. Overflowing with love. It's oozing out of every pore. She closes her eyes and just listens. To her own heartbeat, to the cicadas in the trees, to Orochimaru's breathing. It tickles when he starts peppering her face with quick kisses. Naomi giggles and blinks at him. He looks so happy, happier than she's ever seen him before.

"Ne.. Oro-kun. When did you realize you loved me?" She asks quietly as she buries her fingers in his silky hair.

"When you first bumped into me," he mutters in return.

"Really?"

Golden eyes open slowly, though only a slim ring remains of the pretty color. "Or perhaps when you looked up and smiled at me."

"Oh?"

"It felt as if a ray of sunlight shone directly into my heart," he murmurs against her lips.

"Nngh, Oro-kun!" Naomi blinks rapidly against the way her eyes tear up. "That's so.. so cute! I can't.."

"Whether it was as a friend or something else, I just wanted to be near you."

"Yes! Yeah, exactly," she says with a nod. "That's how I felt, too. Every time we fought or didn't speak was really awful."

"Yes," he replies quietly. "It was."

"It was worse for you, wasn't it?" She murmurs unhappily and strokes the side of his jaw. "I'm sorry."

"I forgive you," he replies placidly and leans in for another lingering, warm kiss.

"Can you get off me? It's hard to breathe," she says quietly.

"Of course."

He grabs her and rolls over, reversing their positions. She chuckles a bit at how unwilling he is to be apart from her. It's exactly the same for her. Naomi leans down on her elbows and kisses him softly while his hands rest on the small of her back. Maybe it's silly, but she thinks she hears her heart say "Love, love, love" with every beat.

"Hey Oro-kun?"

"Hmm?"

"Do you have a last name?"

"Of course. Everyone does. Why?"

A shiver runs down her spine when his fingers creep under her shirt and run up her back. "B-because.. uh.."

"What are you thinking about, hm?" He murmurs with a sly grin.

"Nn.. will it sound cute with mine?"

"Naturally."

"Nn..."

She lets out a shuddering breath at the way he strokes his fingertips along her spine, sending waves of tingles up and down her body. It's kind of hard to focus. Naomi lets her head drop forward and shudders.

"Naomi. My dear, sweet Naomi."

"O-Oro-kun..," she mutters and kisses the corner of his mouth. "Orochimaru. I love you."

He regards her with a calm smile and half-lidded eyes. Naomi shifts a little and blushes when she becomes aware of the hardness pushing against her belly again.

"Um. S-sorry. Did that hurt?"

"No."

"Oh," she mumbles and does it again out of curiosity.

In response she feels his fingers spasm against her back. Naomi peers at his face and very deliberately grinds down against it. A small flicker of something goes through his eyes and his brows twitch.

"Don't," he says quietly.

"Why not? Does it feel bad?"

"Quite the opposite," he replies with a slight growl to his voice. "Now stop that."

A mischievous grin grows on her face. His eyes narrow slightly in response and he slides his hands lower until he's grabbing the underside of her ass.

"Oh!" She exhales when he pulls her down, flush against the hot hardness tenting his pants.

Orochimaru licks his lips with a hungry look. She feels it twitch against her and swallows nervously.

"I-is that.. Uh, do you...." Naomi blushes and hides her burning face against his neck.

"I want to sleep with you."

"O-oh."

"Not here. Not now. It needs to be perfect," he murmurs with a crooked smile and heat burning in his eyes.

"Ah.. Yeah..."

The breath hitches in her throat when he squeezes her buttocks before his hands travel back up. A whole array of new and exciting emotions is flowing through her now. It's hard to think, so instead she watches him.

"Since when?"

He raises a brow and looks past her with a vaguely amused expression. "Remember that day our teams met by chance at an onsen?"

"Yeah I think that was a year ago, wasn't it?"

"Yes. Jiraiya found a hole in the fence," he says wryly.

"Of course he did," she sighs and grins at him.

"He asked if I wanted a peek and I said no. Then he said that it looked like you were about to get up and attempted to guess your chest size."

"He did?!" She furrows her brows. "Ugh."

"I then did take his spot at the hole in the fence."

Naomi blinks at him. "You.. did?"

His eyes narrow slightly. "I had no intention of looking. I merely didn't want him to see."

Naomi waits a few beats and raises a brow. Suddenly both of his hands slide under her shirt and up her back, pushing it up in their wake. Orochimaru licks his lips and pushes down on her upper back. The corners of her mouth quirk up and she rubs her nose against his.

"Thank you for defending my honor."

"I looked. As soon as you got up."

"Oh?" She murmurs against his lips.

"When you rose from the steaming water with deliciously glistening skin, I saw your chest and your..," he trails off, closes his eyes for a second and licks his lips.

Naomi bites the inside of her cheek and feels a little shaken at his reverent tone. Both of his hands start creeping below the clasp of her bra by incriments, which makes her heart jump and face flush.

"And then I knew what wanting is," he finishes.

"Oh."

"Jiraiya made fun of me. I'd never been aroused before."

"I'm.. sorry?"

He quirks a grin at her and withdraws his fingers from below her bra. Naomi grins back hesitantly. Both of his flat hands run up and down her back, further rucking up her shirt. With her heart pounding hard against her ribs she leans down and gently nips at his earlobe, careful not to tug at his tomoe earrings.

"I feel weird," she murmurs into his ear. "In a good way."

"Good," he rasps. "Now get off me."

Both of her brows rise and she leans back to look at him. He's still grinning, but it looks mildly uncomfortable. Feeling kind of woozy she sits back on her knees bracketing his hips and inhales the cool night air greedily. Then she tugs her shirt back down and casts him a fleeting look. Orochimaru covers his eyes with his hand for a moment. He's still hard and she wonders if it isn't getting painful. Theoretically she knows how the male genitalia functions. It's another thing to be faced with the proof that he wants her. He removes his hand and leans up on his elbows.

"You should probably take care of that," she murmurs and glances down shyly.

"Probably," he echoes.

"I feel kind of bad. It's my fault."

He shrugs and looks away. "It's a normal reaction to having you ontop of me."

Naomi leans forward on her hands and turns to whisper in his ear. "How about I help you?"

"N..Naomi..?" His voice wavers when she gingerly cups him through his pants. "What are you.."

"Hm," she hums as she feels him up.

"D-don't-!"

It twitches in her hand. Naomi bites her lip and runs her fingers along his shaft. His pants are definitely in the way. The way he breathes so noisily all of a sudden is probably a good sign. It feels good to have that kind of power over him, she thinks fondly. It's beautiful how he reacts to every little touch of hers. Orochimaru is so tense she can see the tremors running through his body. It feels like he's growing stiffer from her ministrations. She feels smug and a little proud of it. As she's always been a bit of a daredevil she grins and keeps eye contact as she lets her fingers dip below the waistband of his pants. It's an awkward angle to be doing this from, so she shifts to lie on his right side and lets her right hand creep below his pants.

"Is this okay?" She asks softly when he seems to tense even more.

Her hand's just resting over his hot, hard member. He lets out a shuddering breath and turns his head towards her. His lips are slightly parted and he looks absolutely stunned.

"Yes," he breathes.

"Okay," she says, feeling slightly nervous all of a sudden.

To cover it up she kisses him at the same time as she starts to slide her hand along his penis. There's a sticky liquid pearling at the tip, which makes it slightly easier to slide her hand up and down. It's kind of amazing that he's not moving at all, not even his lips. He's just breathing really fast and staring at her with those huge pupils that swallow the gold of his irises. Naomi is proud to say that she's a good multitasker and licks his lips while she keeps working him.

"Mhh, Oro-kun," she murmurs hotly. "Are you close?"

"Nngh," he grunts through gritted teeth.

She glances down his body and brushes the pad of her thumb over the leaking tip. Making him feel good is making her feel good, too. Orochimaru is shaking. She leans in and kisses him again before she tugs at his lower lip with her teeth, just like he did before. His eyelids start to flutter and he's letting out small desperate noises that make excitement spark inside her.

"Come on, Oro-kun," she murmurs against his mouth. "It's okay."

"Na..omi..," he gasps as if he's been suckerpunched.

A hot liquid suddenly starts to coat and dribble over her hand. He pants and relaxes, dropping back down on the grass. Naomi withdraws her hand from inside his pants and eyes the glassy liquid dripping down her fingers. It's sticky and smells weird.

"Hm," she hums and licks it. "Uh.."

It's bitter. She makes a face and wipes her hand on the grass as best as she can. Orochimaru lies there with his eyes closed and a blissed out look. A small, soft smile grows on her lips and she lies down on her side and watches him.

"Are you okay?"

"Mh."

Her smile widens a little at the content tone of his voice. It's getting a little cooler, but she doesn't mind next to him, since he gives off so much body heat. He's so strange. Always so calm and collected with a clear plan of action. So brilliant. The smartest guy she knows. Such a lonely boy. She remembers the day they first met. There had been a strange darkness in his eyes. A sort of distant, remote look, as if he was just a spectator watching an experiment unfold. If she hadn't met him then, she's pretty sure she would've ended up giving up on trying to connect to people. She tries imagening it sometimes. It's always such a bleak vision. Naomi leans down and kisses him on the cheek, which prompts one eye to open and look at her.

"I love you," she says with a content smile. "You make everything better."

He lifts his right arm and pushes on her back until she lies down besides him. She rests her head on his chest and listens to his fast heartbeat.

"You are the only one I love."

Naomi wets her lips and furrows her brows. It makes her happy to hear that, of course. On the other hand, she worries about him. He shouldn't just focus on her.

"What about your team?" She murmurs.

"We are comrades."

"What about Hiruzen-sensei?"

"He is my teacher."

"You feel nothing for them?"

A cool finger touches the underside of her chin, prompting her to lift her head. Orochimaru's eyes are positively glowing with warmth. She sighs happily when he kisses her.

"Do not doubt for a single second that I would trade them all for you."

"Oro-kun.."

"I would kill anyone who got in our way. I would burn this world to the ground before I let anyone take you."

"I won't leave you," she says empathetically. "Nothing short of death will seperate us."

His eyes narrow in determination and a small wicked grin grows on his face. "Not even that."

"Huh?"

"Don't worry about it. I won't let you die in the first place."

"That's a relief," she says with a small laugh.

The nightsky is clear and full of stars, the cold doesn't touch them and Orochimaru kisses her until her lips feel raw. Naomi could spend all her nights like this. Forever.

Fate has other ideas. A week after that night, when she and her dad are watching tv in the livingroom, an emergency broadcast interrupts the regular program. The daimyo of fire country appears sitting on a desk in front of large windows with a piece of paper in front of him. With a severe look over the rims of his halfmoon glasses he proclaims that the second shinobi world war has started. It feels like a stone drops in her stomach. Naomi goes cold and numb as she listens to the reports of the first border skirmishes happening that very moment. It's actually happening. It's really happening. War.

"I can't believe this," she says in a shaking voice. "This can't be happening."

"It can," her father replies tiredly. "It's been a long time coming now."

He looks tired and not at all surprised. She only shoots him a brief glance before her eyes are drawn back to the tv. No way. No fucking way. Being a med nin, she knows instantly that she's going to be on the frontlines with her team or maybe others on a regular basis. It's hard not to feel like doom is coming for Orochimaru and her. Very hard. She goes over later that day, still feeling numb inside, and starts to tremble as soon as their eyes lock. Without saying a word they both lie down on his couch and just hold each other.

Chapter Text

XXI.

 

The war drags on. After half a year Naomi has seen more death and bloodshed than any sixteen year old should. She can count the amount of times she's been allowed home leave on one hand. Two days maximum, she's been told. It's the same for Tsunade. They see each other only twice. Med nin of their skill are a highly coveted resource. What little childhood innocent she had left is gone. The most frustrating thing is that she can't save everyone. Sometimes there's simply too much damage. Missing limbs, organs compromised beyond repair, skin burnt so severely that a kunai to the heart is the only relief she can give. Naomi learns how to make choices and how to prioritize. She has several close calls with death herself and those piss her off. It's either because her team is distracted and somebody tries to pull a sneaky one on her, or because they lose their nerve and break formation when faced with overwhelming odds.

After a while the shock and horror wear off. Instead she decides to see it as a learning opportunity. She spends every free minute developing techniques. After all, death is merely a technical challenge. Pulling people away from its doorstep becomes a sport and Naomi hates losing. She keeps some of the more reckless things she's theorizing under wraps. Everyone is tense and jumpy all the time. The higher ups have no patience for soldiers who step out of line. All they're supposed to do is function. She hears reports of heavy casualties on all sides. They can't be everywhere at once. At night she thinks about Orochimaru. They took a picture together one day and it's her most prized posession. She's seen him twice in six months and all they did was lie in bed, wrapped around each other and grateful to be alive. That the other is still alive. Naomi is not sure she could go on after losing him.

It's very rare to see her former teammates after they graduated the Chunin exams. Team Eshoka has been officially dissolved, but Naomi is still relieved every time she hears that Tsuki and Kiyoshi are still alive. Other teams from their year aren't so lucky. It's ghastly to hear how many familiar names wind up dead. Every time she feels the smallest smidgen of regret. If only she'd been there. Maybe Umi, Atsushi, Tako, Indira, Hitoshi.... might still be alive. It can't be helped. Pondering the what if's is useless. What matters is being alive. What matters is Orochimaru being alive. As long as she has that she can bear it.

"New mission," an unfamiliar Jonin says after she's opened the front door.

"Already?" She mutters under her breath and accepts the scroll he hands her.

One day. She's been home one day. Naomi closes the door after him and turns around, fiddling with the seal. Orochimaru comes out of his livingroom and wraps an arm around her back.

"Already?" He echoes her dismay.

Naomi sighs and unrolls the missive. Meet in the mission dispatch center in an hour sharp, leave with a team of four on a sabotage mission to the north western border. Estimated mission time: three days. She rolls it up and tosses it on the table. She looks up at him and sees him look just as unhappy as she feels.

"At least it's just for three days."

If nothing goes bad, neither of them say. It's an unspoken rule that you don't mention that possibility. Orochimaru's eyes are dark and he presses his lips into a flat line. It's no secret that out of the two of them she's more likely to die. Naomi puts her hands on the sides of his face and draws his head down to kiss him.

"I will to come back," she says slowly.

"Naomi."

She closes her eyes and inhales deeply. Her pulls her against his chest in a crushing hug. Grinding her teeth she tries to focus.

"This war can't last forever."

"No."

He hates seeing her off. It always makes him tight lipped and tense. Vice versa is not much better.

"I love you," she says as she pulls back and looks up at him.

He puts their foreheads together, or tries to as both of them wear forehead protectors. These days he's gotten really good at masking his thoughts. She can't read what he's thinking in his eyes, but she has a good idea of it anyway.

"And I you," he replies quietly.

They kiss each other softly, but it's not enough. It's never enough. Naomi would like to be even closer, but she has to pack her stuff and get going. She keeps telling herself there's always next time, but she can't quite shake the fear nagging at the back of her brain.

"Alright, here's the deal. You five are going to head to the Yashimura bridge between our country and the Land of Rain. We want that bridge gone. It's the only bridge spanning a chasm for five miles around, which naturally would slow down these damn Ame nin. Those sneaky bastards took out two squads with their guerilla tactics. Though the Land of Rain may be relatively small, Amegakure is home to several high profile assassins. We don't need them picking our guys off from the shadows while Iwa nin flank our sides. You'll be provided with explosives by the quartermaster."

"Understood," the squad leader says.

The four guys she's supposed to assist haven't introduced themselves, but that's normal. No time to waste on formalities. They'll exchange names on the way and that'll be it. She's gotten used to it. They salute sharply to their commander and head out. Naomi studies them quietly. They're all relatively young, perhaps in their early twenties. She'd prefer if at least one older guy was with them. Hopefully they won't crack under pressure. Naomi casts a glance in the vague direction of her home as they run across the rooftop highway. Orochimaru was the only one she told her goodbyes. Her mother is constantly absent and bedridden, fading more and more every day for no good reason other than heartache at losing two children. Her father is working day and night at the med center, patching up those shinobi that come back more dead than alive from all across the country. He's too valuable to send to the front. Too old perhaps as well. They enter the forest and start jumping from tree to tree in silence. It's apparent that they're all nervous. Not a good sign. Naomi grits her teeth with a grim expression and prepares for a long, bloody mission.

Hajima is their explosives guy. He just got married and has a pregnant wife at home. Naturally that means that he's the most nervous of the team. Eiji the leader has been a Chunin for six years now. Aizawa and Ken are cousins. They're both quiet guys. They make good way to the Land of Rain and get there earlier than expected, which is a pleasant surprise. The concrete bridge they're supposed to detonate is rather narrow and looks pretty old. Naomi glances down the chasm. It's not that deep, perhaps fifteen feet at maximum. Thankfully the area's deserted when they get there in the gloom of dusk. Aizawa takes up post on the end in the Land of Rain, Ken takes up watch at the end in the Land of Fire. The rest of them are with Hajima as he plants the explosives on and below the bridge. Nobody's talking as they keep an eye out for enemy shinobi.

"Fucking hurry up," Eiji mutters under his breath.

Hajima's face scrunches up as he fiddles with the dynamite packs. He doesn't reply. Naomi notices the way his hands are shaking. Something moves in the corner of her eyes. Aizawa sits down on the ground.

"The fuck is he doing!" She hisses. "This isn't a camping trip!"

"What?" Eiji furrows his brows as he follows her gaze. "What the hell. Aizawa!"

He doesn't respond and keeps sitting there. An ominous feeling grows inside her. "Not good."

"No. Fuck. Hurry the hell up, Hajima!"

"Yeah!" He snaps in response and glares up at him. "Can you do it faster?"

"Dammit," Eiji curses and keeps his gaze on the end of the bridge.

She feels them before she picks up on the figures moving towards them. Naomi tenses and takes a defensive posture.

"Shit."

"Goddamit!" Eiji curses and draws his shortsword.

They're dressed in camouflage outfits with lots of black and grey mixed in. All of them wear some sort of strange masks with mouthpieces. The whole five of them. Damn. Hajima fumbles his cord and drops a dynamite pack. Eiji lets out a growl of frustration.

"Ken! Get over here!" He yells as he and Naomi take up defensive positions in front of Hajima.

"Where's Aizawa?" He asks as soon as he arrives.

"Over there. Fucking focus right now, okay?" Eiji snaps.

"Fuck!" Ken growls and draws his weapon.

"I need to set a charge below the bridge. Keep them off of me," Hajima says tensely and stands up.

"Do it."

The ensuing battle is bloody. Naomi has no choice but to fight since they're outnumbered. The Ame nin are ridiculously slippery. She manages to slow one down enough for Eiji to finish him off. In the scuffle she loses track of Hajima and hopes he's fucking hurrying setting the final charge. She fights a guy twice her weight and manages, by chance alone, to toss him off the bridge. Ken lets out a pained groan and goes down. Stabbed clean through the thigh.

"Shit dammit," she grunts and dives behind Eiji, who's doing an admirable job of keeping the remaining three guys off of them.

She goes to work immediately and starts to heal the gushing wound, while Ken groans in pain and throws his head from side to side.

"Hajima? Are you done?" She yells over the chaos. "Hajima?!"

There's no audible answer. Fuck. By some sort of divine miracle Eiji manages to finish off two more dudes before he crumples. The remaining Ame nin stands there with blood dripping from his sword. The breath hitches in her throat when she glances over and sees Eiji's empty eyes. He's been stabbed clean through the heart. No way to salvage that. Fuck. Ken's bleeding too much. Looks like they got his artery. She'd have to keep focusing harder and longer to repair that, but now that she's the only one left in fighting form with an enemy in front of her, she can't. The Ame nin runs towards her and she stops the healing chakra flow, digs into her pocket and throws a scalpel at him, which he parries. Naomi grits her teeth and makes the handsigns to summon shadow clones of it when there's a deafening boom as the explosives go off.

The white hot blast wave blows her off the bridge. Dust and rubble are all around her as she falls. When she lands on her back there's a sickening crack. Large blocks of concrete pelt her everywhere as the bridge collapses. It's a miracle she survived that. Operating on autopilot her brain begins to analyze the damages. She can't hear anything on her left ear. There's no feeling in her legs. She can move her left arm, but there's no feeling in the skin. Naomi stares up at the sky in mute horror, unable to comprehend what just happened.

Three figures clad in black bodysuits climb down the ledge. They're all wearing strange masks that cover their faces. They gather around her and stare down at her. Naomi blinks.

"Still alive."

"I see. Prepare the blade, Number Two."

Number Two suddenly has a sword wrapped in cloth and begins to unwrap it. The blade is long and straight, the handle brown leather wrapped with a gold string. A necklace of small orange beads is wrapped around the place where steel meets the handle. It clacks when Number Two hands the sword over.

"Wait," Naomi manages to grit out.

"Forgive us, Kusakawa-sama. This is nothing personal," says the masked nin who recieved the sword.

Her eyes widen when he grips it with two hands, raises it up with the blade pointing down at her.

"No," she croaks.

He thrusts down and the blade slides through her skull like a knife through butter. Right between the eyes. Naomi's counsciousness flickers out.

"The deed is done," Number One says solemnly and withdraws the blade from the girl's head.

He hands the sword over to Number Two, who wipes it clean before he wraps it up again with great care.

"This one is remarkably resistant," says Number Three.

"May she serve the clan well," Number One replies. "Now we must move before we are seen."

"Too late," Number Two says, looking up at something.

On the Land of Fire's side of the chasm, an old man wearing a straw hat is staring down at them curiously. Number Three starts to move.

"This can work in our favor. Place him under Genjutsu, Three. Tell him to say we killed her just in case the Konohan dogs come looking."

"Yes," Three says and runs up the ledge.

The farmer beats a hasty retreat from the edge, but Three gets to him before he can run. One and Two look down at the girl.

"When, do you think?"

"Soon enough," One replies and picks her up, slinging her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. "Let's move."

"Yes."

The two of them run up the opposite cliff and retreat into the thick, dark forests of the Land of Rain where the only sound is the water drops hitting the leaves and the distant calls of night birds. Three rejoins them soon enough.

Chapter Text

XXII.

 

Naomi wakes up in a room full of people. The air is cool and smells of rain, which she can also hear pitter pattering on the roof. A strange sweet scent lingers in it as well, noticeable but not quite cloying. Her left eye hurts like crazy, worse than the time she got pinkeye as a child. There's something wrong, she can tell immediately. Her vision in that eye seems to be much sharper and when she sits up she can see the chakra networks of the people sitting there. She's been lying on a rough mat flanked by two pots containing incense sticks. At the other end of the long room sits an old grey haired woman atop an elevated podium on a large pillow. Naomi squints her left eye shut and stares.

Twelve people sit on their knees in two rows facing each other, thereby forming a sort of narrow alley leading to the old woman. They all wear loose white yukata or kimonos. The old woman's presence makes them fade into the background. Her one visible sharp grey eye is almost unbearably intense, while the left one is hidden below a black eyepatch. She's got her hair pulled up into a strict bun and the severe frown lines on her face seem deep as craters in the candlelight given off by two huge wax candles on each side of the podium. She's wearing loose red pants and a white wrap tunic. Both of her wrinkly hands are resting on a gnarled walking cane in front of her.

There's something she's supposed to do in a situation like this. Naomi glances down at her left wrist. There's a small tattoo depicting a line across her wrist with two dots above and below the line. It is a seal tattoo given to her by her father on the day she graduated from the Academy. He said it was a Kusakawa traditional symbol and explained its meaning. A Kusakawa would rather die before they betray the village. It is her holy duty to activate the seal before her captors can interrogate her. Her heart is hammering against her ribs and she bites down on the corner of her lower lip, drawing blood.

"What are you going to do?" The old woman asks.

Her voice is dry as dust and cold like snow. Naomi's eyes flick towards her. That unyielding, merciless eye seems to drill into her very soul. Death before betrayal. Only.. She thinks of Orochimaru. He'd never forgive her. Naomi swallows dryly. She wants to see him again. He's all that matters. Screw the village. Adrenaline shoots into her system. Thirteen people in total. Six of which are not trained for combat. She can take them. She has to if she wants to get out of here alive. Seeing the love of her life again is all that matters. Naomi jumps to her feet, makes a handsign in the same motion and grabs the two shadow clone scalpels that appear from thin air with both hands. She narrows her eyes and gets into position.

The old crone laughs, an unpleasant barking sound. Some of the twelve people look a little uncomfortable and shift on their knees, but they keep their heads bowed. Screw them, then. They're not going to stop her. Naomi eyes the paper walls of the traditional room and inches to the right.

"Ah, I bet Eiichiro would be disappointed."

Naomi stops and gives her an uncertain look. The crone grins sharply.

"What did he tell you, girl? To kill yourself upon capture? So why are you ready to fight?"

Her brows twitch in shock and confusion, but she doesn't lower her weapons. "How do you know my father?"

"Because he's my son," she replies with a huff.

Naomi's jaw drops. "What?!"

"I'm not surprised he never told you. He always was a weakling," she snorts derisively.

What? How is this possible? "You gotta be kidding me."

"I see you're not defending him, so you know it's true. He's weak and blinded by all his romantic fucking bullshit ideals."

"What?" She says again in utter disbelief. "Does that.. does that mean you're my.. grandma?!"

"My contacts claim that you are smart," she says with a dismayed look. "So close your fucking mouth, girl."

Her jaw snaps shut at the harsh reprimand. Contacts? "What the fuck? What contacts? In Konoha?!"

"I have contacts all over the world, so yes," the old lady says condescendingly. "I've had you watched, girl. After all you're going to be my successor."

Naomi blinks, feeling absolutely stunned. "What?"

"Can you say anything other than "What" like some sort of gibbering fucking idiot?" The crone barks, making her flinch.

Naomi's eyes narrow. "Excuse me, but what the fuck kind of drugs are you on, old hag?!"

"That's more like it," the old woman says with a mean little grin. "Aren't you curious about what all this is about?"

"I bet you're gonna tell me anyway."

"Correct. You're in the central shrine of the Kusakawa clan compound. We're old, we're rich and we run things in this town. Get in our way and there's no place on this motherfucking earth where we won't find you."

"Sounds bad."

"Oh believe me, we are. You ever seen that fucking wet sock Hanzo? Without our money he isn't worth shit."

"H-Hanzo the Salamander?!"

"Correct," she says with a wolfish grin. "All the strings connect to us. There's not a single richer clan on the goddamn planet. You know why?"

"Why?"

"It's all in here," she says and points to her eyepatch. "The Night Eye. Our curse and blessing."

"It's a kekkai genkai," she concludes.

"A dojutsu, but not one of the three big ones. It stems from a different source. That doesn't make it any less powerful."

"What can it do?"

"Whatever you want it to. Now put your knives away and let's talk. You're not going anywhere."

"You think so?" She growls, angry at being talked down to.

"The Eye has already awakened in you. One of the drawbacks is that you can't leave Amegakure or you'll die."

"No way. That can't be true!" Naomi stammers with wide eyes.

"If you leave the city limits the Eye will drain your chakra to sustain itself until there's nothing left and then you're gone."

"What kind of horseshit is that! This is the stupidest fucking lie I've ever been told! I'm getting out of here."

"I wouldn't recommend it. When a Night Eye dies they die. They can't be brought back. Whether through jutsu or reincarnation. You'll simply be gone."

Naomi stops right in front of the rice paper sliding door with her hand on the handle. No. No way. She never wanted this. Her gut lurches at the thought of never seeing Orochimaru again. There has to be a way around this! She glances at the crone and narrows her eyes.

"Fine. Let's talk."

"I knew you'd see reason," the old hag huffs and gets up.

She's maybe about half her size, so absolutely tiny. Her presence makes her look like a giant, though. She walks through the row of people and joins her at the door.

"Open it."

Naomi slides the door open. Immediately a cold breeze blows into her face and the sound of rain is overwhelmingly loud. It's pouring outside. Beyond the roofed engawa she can see a large compound of dark grey buildings with small, brightly lit windows. There are raised stepping boards above the muddy wet ground. Dark clouds cast the entire place in perpetual gloom, only interspersed by large oil lamps.

"This is where you belong," the hag says and slowly makes her way down the engawa.

Naomi follows her, overwhelmed by the sight of a completely unfamiliar climate.

"I prefer sunny weather," she replies stubbornly.

"Though shit," the old hag snorts. "Better get comfortable with rain, cause it always rains here."

"That's depressing. Is that why you're so mean?"

"No, it's because I'm surrounded by fucking morons all day long."

"Tough," Naomi growls.

The old hag laughs again and shoots her a look. "I like you. The only worthwhile thing my idiot son has ever done was create you."

"Why do you hate my father so much?" Naomi asks, feeling mildly defensive and crosses her arms.

"He's a fool. The Amegakure central bank has been in our hand since the village was founded. By our ancestor! He thought it distasteful to become the next CEO," she sneers. "Said he's rather do something worthwhile, like saving people's lives. Bah. Ever since he was little he's had his head full of ideals. He always romanticised the shinobi lifestyle."

Naomi thinks back to all the times her father said they were a shinobi clan, that they should establish themselves amongst the Konohan clans.

"He never mentioned you."

"No. Because I told him that we're not that. We are bankers, lawyers, loan sharks, politicians and diplomats. If some meathead wants to become a ninja so badly they can, but not if they're main family," she says and points her thumb at herself. "From my line. He's never made a single choice that made sense. Like marrying that woman from a dying, dirt poor clan."

"My mother? She's from a shinobi clan?!" Naomi gapes at her back.

"It fit right into his little fantasy that he built for himself. That woman is as dumb as a box of bricks and has the spirit of a dead horse. You should have seen her quiver when I looked at her. Worthless. I told him not to do it, but he wanted to connect himself to that family of 'noble shinobi'. Nevermind the fact that they were dying out because they're idiot cannon fodder with little skill. The only reason they survived to this day is because they bred like rabbits."

Naomi swallows hard and ducks her head at this barrage of scorn. No wonder her father never mentioned that old hag with a single breath. She's fucking mean.

"Okay so you hate my dad. What does that have to do with me?"

"I recieved a vision, because that is one of the gifts of the Night Eye. In this vision I saw that you were destined to be the Ninth Night Eye and my successor as leader of the clan."

"Okay."

"I told Eiichiro as much and asked him to hand you over so I could train you properly," she replies and shoots her a dismayed look. "Unfortunately he chose that day to finally grow a pair and, in a startlingly infantile act of teenage rebellion, he took his family and fled. To Konoha of all places. If he'd truly wanted to hide he should've chosen bumfuck nowhere in one of the smaller countries, but I imagine he wanted to mingle with actual ninja clans."

"I'm not surprised he left," Naomi retorts dryly.

"Hn," she snorts with amusement. "Did he ever look you in the eye, girl?"

Naomi blinks. "Huh?"

"For longer than a few seconds, I mean."

She bites the inside of her cheek and glances away. The hag nods her head.

"Did he beat you?"

She sucks in a sharp breath and tenses. This is not good. "No. He didn't."

"But those two meathead boys of his did," the hag states confidently and nods again.

"How did you.."

"Because they're idiots, just like him," she cuts in. "Fodder. Weaklings with the nasty temper so prevalent in the males of their mother's clan."

"Is it?" Naomi asks in a small voice.

"So what else? Were you isolated within your family? Made to feel dumb?"

Naomi looks at the ground and nods mutely. Those horrible years of her childhood flash by her inner eye. If it wasn't for Orochimaru...

"They said it was my eyes," she whispers. "I'm the only one.. with.."

"Eyes like mine, obviously," the hag says quietly.

She nods again. Feels strangely desolate now that the one good thing she's ever had is out of reach. Suddenly a horrible thought hits her. He'll know! He'll wonder where she is and then he'll hear...

"I remember having a sword stabbed through my skull!" She says and looks up with wide eyes.

It's going to fuck him up. Acute fear and worry begin to gnaw at her insides with acid teeth. He'll do something stupid! She can't stay here, she has to let him know she's alive before he-

"Hm? Why are you getting twitchy?" The hag eyes her curiously.

"I can't stay here," Naomi rushes out tensely. "There's.. I have to let him know I'm alive! I can't stay..."

"You can't leave either," the hag says. "Slow down."

She buries her face in her hand and trembles. "I have a boyfriend. He'll.. If he hears what happened he'll.. Can't I send a message to him?! I have to tell him I'm alive."

"Send a message? To a country we're at war with? That'd be a terrible waste of a courier," the hag replies. "He'll either be killed or thrown into prison. You wouldn't get an answer back either way."

"It's not about getting an answer! He just has to know I'm alive or he'll kill himself!" Naomi yells.

"Ohhh," the hag drawls and raises a brow. "That serious, huh?"

"Yes!" She yells in despair.

"It's a shame, but that is the destiny of a Night Eye. To be tested over and over, to live a life full of misery and sacrifices, all in the name of being hammered into a tougher kind of steel. For only the strong deserve to bear this gift."

"I never asked for this! I can't.. I can't go on if he dies," Naomi says weakly and stares at her in despair.

"You will, don't worry. The Night Eye won't let you die," the hag says and turns away. "Not until you've made a grandchild to pass the torch on to."

"Don't you understand what it means to love someone?!" She yells furiously at her back.

"I do. Now shut up, people are sleeping."

"You-!"

The old hag whips around surprisingly fast and in the space of a blink she suddenly has the tip of her walking cane pointed between her eyes. Naomi freezes and her eyes widen in surprise.

"I will not tolerate disrespect," she says flatly. "From no one, family or not. If you think I'm too old to rip your head off and shit down your neck you got another thing coming."

Naomi swallows hard. She doesn't doubt it. The hag nods and removes her walking cane. The spot where she'd been pressing it smarts. Naomi rubs her forehead and frowns unhappily. There's no way she can let this happen.

"Tell me about this Night Eye."

"It's a long story. Are you sure you have the time?" She drawls sarcastically.

"Please," Naomi says through gritted teeth.

She has to figure out how to get out of here and quickly, after all.

"Follow me."

They walk around the shrine to another set of elevated walking plants with a roof over them that lead into a cave in the cliff behind the shrine. Naomi has to watch her feet so as to not misstep and end up falling off. The inside of the cave smells dank. It's dark, but once they walk inside electrical torches on the walls start to light up one by one. At the very back of the cave is a large black cat statue. It looks crude and ancient. There's a mysterious power radiating from it. They walk in front of it and look up. The sitting cat looks rather regal and its left eye is missing. There's just an empty socket in its place. An unpleasant shiver goes down her spine.

"What is this?" She asks quietly.

"Izanami," the old hag murmurs reverently. "An ancient forgotten goddess. It is here where our clan's ancestor, Kusakawa Ieyasu, recieved the Night Eye."

"Please explain."

"Ieyasu was a warlord hundreds of years ago. He lived and breathed war. Fighting was his greatest joy. He was a man of great stamina and intellect and it was said he could go on fighting for three days straight if he had to. In his little free time he was a gambler and hustler," she says with a small laugh. "He decided to wrest this land from the Land of Fire's control and claim it for himself. One day he was mortally wounded in battle with a powerful enemy from the Land of Fire. Cursing his luck he retreated and sought shelter in this very cave, where he found this statue. Even back then no one knew Izanami anymore and the shrine laid abandoned. He rested his back against the feet of the statue and tried to patch himself up, but eventually realized that he was dying. Upon realizing it, he began to loudly lament that he could not go on fighting. He regretted it from the bottom of his heart in utmost sincerety. That was when Izanami spoke to him. She offered to save his life if he swore that he would build a shrine in her honor and that he and all his descendants become her loyal worshippers."

Naomi eyes the statue. There's something unsettling about it. She feels like she's being watched.

"As Ieyasu was by his very nature a gambler, he somehow tricked the goddess into giving him her left eye instead of the rock he was told to put there. Izanami was not to be fooled, however. She placed a curse on him that bound him to the land which he coveted so. As he was now unable to leave the Land of Rain, as he called his new home, he instead set to founding a clan and building a village of equally warlike individuals. That was what eventually became Amegakure. They successfully fought off any invaders and permanently solidified their hold on this land."

"I see," Naomi mutters and stares at the statue. "That's an interesting story. Do you think it's true?"

"What I think doesn't matter. The fact is this, that the Night Eye is the gift that keeps on giving."

"Huh?"

"Hnn. Dealing with you youngsters is so tiresome," she grumbles. "It is said that it seeks out those that are worthy. In practice it means that it skips a generation. Each new Night Eye adds something to its abilities. Ieyasu was a gambler. He added to it that Nigh Eyes are more lucky than the average person. The Second Night eye, Goro, was a tough son of a bitch, so he added to it extraordinary stamina. The Third, Fuuka, was a woman of extraordinary willpower. She wanted to test its limits and refused to marry. According to our history tablets she lived for three hundred years before she passed it on. Her addition was the ability to gather large quantities of chakra and store them. Yada yada yada. To make it short, we are lucky, tough, able to store chakra, able to see chakra networks, to impose our will upon weak minds, to catch glimpses of the future, strong and have a good nose for deals. Those are the gifts. You're going to add one of your own eventually."

"That's a lot to take in," Naomi frowns and pinches the bridge of her nose. "Anything else?"

"The Night Eye refuses to die," she says and suddenly flips her eyepatch up.

Her left eye is wholly black, like the space between the stars. No pupils, no scleras, nothing. Naomi tenses in surprise. There are five small white dots arranged in a circle where her pupil would normally be.

"What the.."

"You start off with nine white dots, representing a cat's nine lives. Each time you die, one spot disappears. You don't really die, by the way. It brings you back from death's doorstep."

"What happens when you reach zero?"

"I don't know. No Night Eye has ever been that pathetic," the old woman grunts. "As you can see, I made four unpopular choices in my life."

Naomi can't tell whether she's kidding or not, so she remains quiet.

"You're going to remain young and fertile until your children have a child that is a viable Night Eye."

"What happens if that child dies?"

"Well, I'd assume that you become young again."

Naomi narrows her eyes. "Don't try anything funny, old hag."

"Idiot. That's a sacrilege. A Night Eye is chosen by Izanami. When we die, our souls go to her. That's why we cannot be brought back. Her domain is outside the natural cycle. I can only imagine the tortures she would bestow upon me if I killed you and I don't intend to spend eternity in total anguish."

"Good to know," Naomi mutters.

Her mind is running a mile an hour, trying to parse all this information. Something occurs to her. "Why was I stabbed, by what I assume were your guys, by the way?"

"When a Night Eye candidate dies for the first time, it awakens. Unfortunately neither the explosion nor the fall killed you, so one of my special operatives I had watching the whole thing used Ieyasu's blade. Any old kunai would've done, but it's become somewhat of a tradition to awake Night Eye with it," the hag shrugs and grins wolfishly. "We put a lot of effort into extracting you from Konoha. You were supposed to die one way or another."

"Damn, that's ruthless," Naomi mutters before she looks at her with a pleading expression. "Is there really no way to leave this place?!"

"Hmm," the hag hums thoughtfully. "It is written that old Fuuka managed to leave this country for almost a year."

"How?!"

"By saving up chakra to feed the Night Eye outside of the Land of Rain."

"How much?"

"She lived for three hundred years, girl."

"I have to know!"

"About ten years of saving for one day outside the border."

"Fuck!" Naomi exclaims in despair. "I don't have that kind of time!"

"Tough. By now that lover of yours must have heard the news. He's probably already dead."

"No. I refuse to believe that!"

"You said that he'd kill himself. Is he really that pathetic? You should've chosen a more resilient partner."

"He's not pathetic," she growls and glares her down.

The old hag shrugs slowly with a sardonic grin. Naomi snorts angrily and glares at the statue instead. Fucking old curse bullshit! Her heart aches for Orochimaru. He's going to suffer horribly. Naomi prays with all her heart that he won't kill himself, though.

"He's smart," she says slowly. "Terrifyingly so. And sly. And stubborn. He won't believe I'm dead until he sees my corpse."

"Hm hm," the old hag nods.

"No corpse, no death," she murmurs. "Maybe he won't...."

"Yes, yes, try to rationalize it," the old woman sighs deeply. "You've got a lot more training ahead and we're going to start immediately. I don't have that much time left."

"Huh?" Naomi blinks at her.

The old woman points at her left eye. "I hear Izanami calling me. Before I go, you have to learn all you can if you're going to run this nest of vipers."

Naomi gulps and nods hesitantly. "I really don't have a choice, do I?"

"I hate rhetorical questions," the old woman says as she walks past her out of the cave.

Naomi has a very unpleasant feeling about all of this. She's trapped here with a family she didn't know about, with an old hag of a grandmother, with no way to contact Orochimaru until the war is over. She's going to test if she really can't pass across the border as soon as the hag's back is turned, of course. Naomi just has a really bad feeling that she's not bullshitting her. Please Oro-kun, she thinks desperately as they walk back into the house, please just hold on!

Chapter Text

XXIII.

 

Naomi gets along with her extended family much better than she ever did with her immediate one. It only takes five deaths (none of her own) until they unanimously accept her as the new Night Eye and head of the clan. After the old hag finally kicks the bucket Naomi admits to herself that maybe, just maybe, she was a little fond of her in an abstract way. Despite the gruelling brutal training regimen she put her under, despite her horrid temper and the shouting matches, the old lady proved to be a better guardian than her parents ever were. She gets cremated and her ashes put in a very elaborately painted dark grey urn and Naomi has the honor of carrying her into the ancestor crypt, which is a tiny little undergound room where the urns of all previous Night Eyes rest. She stands there once she finishes the recital and regards the eight grey urns standing on pedestals in front of her.

"Our honored ancestors," uncle Akihiro says reverently.

He's a tall man in his fifties and shares some similiarities with her father, but only outwardly. Naomi nods gravely, which creates a tinkling sound above both of her ears. For the occasion she dressed in a formal outfit with the clan colors. A white kimono with big red sakura print covering it, wooden sandals and meticulously done face paint. Her hair has been done up by one of her cousins who knows more about hairstyling than her and decorated with two golden hair needles stuck in. Those hair needles were a gift from the old hag for surviving a year under her training. There are thin threads attached to the ends of the needles laden with small golden pearls that hang from them. The symbolism is pretty clear: it's supposed to look like golden rain in honor of Amegakure. The gold is just what her clan adds to the village. It's subtle bragging, really. Naomi stares at the urns before she nods once and turns around.

"I don't intend for this collection to grow."

"How do you mean?"

"Just as I said it," she replies pleasantly and starts walking back up the creaking wooden stairs.

There have been hesitant suggestions, mainly from her aunts, about which local sons might make for suitable husbands. Naomi ignored them all. If she can't have Orochimaru she will have none. Akihiro follows her quietly. He's always absent minded, but polite on the fleeting occasions when they meet. Mainly because she decided that she doesn't want anything to do with the family business and leaves him to run things in her stead. While she may formally be the CEO of the Bank of Amegakure, he's the director in charge of it all. She always signs the forms he sends to her for approval, so he has no cause to try and assassinate her. It's a mutually beneficial arrangement, since she now has time to devote herself to her studies. At heart she remains a med nin and a scientist. It's not rare for her to spend entire weeks cooped up in her study, poring over some technique.

It's hard not to lose track of time sometimes. The Kusakawa compound lies in a rather secluded spot of the village, so they rarely notice that there is a war going on at all. The war drags on. It's been a year since it began. A year since she last saw him. The Night Eye has an entire section of the compound for herself, so she can wander through her own house without meeting anybody. They offered her servants, which she declined. She can damn well still dress herself. Whenever she's in danger of feeling lonely she goes into her study and reads. Hanzo the Salamander sends letters sometimes, always requesting for more money to pay his mercenaries. Amegakure isn't big enough to have a meaningful fighting force so he's hired outsiders. Missing Nin, as some of her relatives say with disadain. Akihiro is less than thrilled with the requests since he keeps saying that if Hanzo dies the money dies with him, but they always comply anyway.

Naomi came up with a plan a week after she started to train under the old hag. She's going to store all her chakra until she can finally step foot outside the border. One time she tried they had to drag her unconscious body back inside. She did the calculations and it seems the hag was right, unfortunately. Given her average chakra output over one day, she'll have to save for ten years if she wants to leave the land of Rain for one day. Which is not even enough time to make it back to Konoha. The future then looks very grim. She tries not to think about Orochimaru at all. It hurts too much.

The Second Shinobi World War lasts four years and twelve days. Once the five daimyos finally declare peace she immediately hires a messenger to deliver a letter to Konoha addressed to Orochimaru. Naomi waits anxiously for his return, but he comes home empty handed.

"Tell me everything!" She says imperiously.

"I was apprehended at the gates and thrown into prison," the courier says uneasily. "They thought I was a spy. They left me there for days until I was granted a hearing with a high ranking officer. He scoffed at me when I said I merely wanted to deliver a letter. At least they didn't torture me... W-well anyway, he asked who it was for and I replied, "Orochimaru, sir." When his face darkened I seriously thought they'd throw me back into the dungeons!"

"Go on," she says impatiently.

"He said.. He told me that Orochimaru went rogue, my lady. They did not know where he went."

"He what?!" She shouts and gets up from her large sitting pillow.

"I-I'm sorry!" The courier winces and bows a little lower.

"He became a missing nin?" She mutters in disbelief. "Why..?! Oh no.."

"May I go now?"

"Yes, of course. You've been through enough," she says and waves dismissively.

Well. That is shit news. If Orochimaru went rogue there's no telling where he might be. There is no... Naomi swallows hard and feels as if a stone dropped in her stomach. There's no telling where he went. Whether he's still alive. No way to contact him. Naomi rubs at her eyes. Maybe he'll find her, she thinks wildly. Maybe he'll figure it out!

She waits a day. A week. One, then two months. He doesn't find her. Not after one year, not after five. Orochimaru remains gone and Naomi hates it. Hates not knowing whether he's dead or alive. Wavers between hope and resignation. On days when she feels optimistic she hopes he moved on. That he got over her, found somebody to settle down with and leads a happy life somewhere far away. Deep down she knows that that's generally not what being a rogue ninja entails. Her heart's not really into the idea, either. She sincerely doubts that she'll ever be able to forget him. Maybe her aunts sense it, since they stop trying to find her a husband.

Life goes on. When Akihiro turns sixty he passes his positions on to his eldest son Kyo, who's forty two. They throw him a big party and Naomi obediently presides over the festivities. At times like these she marvels at how large her clan is. There's over a hundred more or less familiar people. Time stands still for her, but not for the aunts and uncles whose hair goes grey, for the young nephews and nices that grow up and create families of their own. They treat her with respect and awe, but she can sense that they're also alienated by the fact that she never looks a day older than twenty.

Ten years pass. Then twenty. Nothing changes. Naomi is credited as the source of several new healing techniques (in Amegakure) and her articles in scientific journals always gather large interest. At the behest of her publisher she uses a pseudonym. "Okawa Kaori" recieves whole sacks of letters from all over the continent. She becomes a teacher at the new medical center. It's not enough of a challenge, so she has a laboratory built beneath her house where she can do her research in peace. Research that becomes increasingly risky to practice openly in the med center. Hanzo is paranoid to the extreme and he has spies everywhere. She doesn't want to give him a reason to raid her lab. That would be very bad for her clan's reputation.

One morning Naomi wakes up and realizes that she's spent thirty years in the Land of Rain. Three decades. She gets up slowly, washes her face and gets dressed. Today she's feeling oddly sentimental. She brews a cup of tea and goes to sit on the engawa outside to enjoy the fact that it's only drizzling lightly today. The sky is a brighter grey than usual. This side of her house is facing the ever gloomy thick forests that surround Amegakure. She likes the peace and quiet. It lets her relax enough for her mind to wander undistracted.

Naomi wonders distantly if her parents are still alive. If Kenji is. She hasn't forgiven them, but she doesn't actively hate them either. She's fifty years old and time has mended some of her old wounds. How odd. Naomi takes a sip of green tea and wonders about the meaning of numbers. Applying a logical system to inherently flawed and chaotic beings like humans is inevitably doomed to be imprecise and inadequate. She doesn't allow herself to think about Orochimaru very often anymore. The life of a rogue ninja is hard. They're on their own out there. She doesn't believe for a single second that he's dead. If he had died she would've felt it in her heart for sure. After all they're connected by the red string of fate. For all that it's worth, she thinks miserably.

Once her cup is empty she sets it down besides her and considers all the chores that need doing. They don't call her a genius for nothing. Of course she's devoted most of her time and energy to find a way to circumvent the rules. And she did, twenty years ago. It's a simple technique that allows her to absorb another person's chakra and add it to her own. At first she used it on Hanzo's prisoners of war under the guise of volunteering to treat them when they developed rain cough in the constant moisture of Amegakure's dungeons. Once Pain deposed of Hanzo and took over she did the same to their prisoners. Eventually she got the hang of it to the point where her victims no longer died. It may be selfish, but Naomi desperately wants to leave this place. After she heard that Tsunade was annointed as the fifth Hokage, this desperation only grew. She'd never be able to forgive herself if she didn't see her once best friend again before she dies. Naomi realized that nobody gets to tell her what to do anymore so she sent her a letter. The response was immediate and enthusiastic. They've agreed to let her teach a seminar at Konoha's medical center over the weekend. Three days. Naomi theorizes that she could stay for six with the additional chakra she absorbed, but she doesn't want to push her luck.

Kyo and his family, including the elderly Akihiro, see her off when she's getting ready to leave. They're worried, but also curious. Naomi shares the sentiment. Her heart is beating fast when she steps across the border of the Land of Rain. Her shoulders sag in relief when she doesn't immediately drop dead. Behind her she can hear a disappointed sigh that makes her grin sharply. They may be family, but they're still vipers. The drain on her chakra reserves is noticeable, but not as severe as she feared. She doesn't waste a single second and starts running. It's funny when she realizes that she's a bit out of shape. Halfway to Konoha she begins to feel tired and out of breath, but she pushes on anyway and doesn't even think of slowing down her breakneck pace. That's how she makes in under a day.

The guards are slightly dubious and wary of her, since she doesn't wear a forehead protector. They let her pass anyway. Naomi's had plenty of practice in projecting an aura of superiority and authority. Inside the village she stops in her tracks and marvels at how much it's grown. The buildings are reaching for the sky, there are now six faces hewn into the cliff with a seventh in the works and what was once a small village has expanded into a sprawling town. Numerous construction sites tell a story of rapid expansion. It's a completely different place. People walk the streets with happy, carefree faces as if the wars never happened. If she recalls correctly, the fourth one lasted for only half a week. She intends to question Tsunade about that curiosity. Her first instinct is to go to the med center, but then she has a different inkling and goes to the Hokage building they added to the old academy.

"Can I help you?" The receptionist asks politely.

"Is Lady Tsunade in?" Naomi asks imperiously.

"Oh, um, let me just check..," the receptionist blinks and goes through a list. "Yes. Unfortunately she's probably still in a meeting with the council and the Hokage."

"Great," says Naomi and walks back outside.

First things first she goes and buys a room in the nearest hotel, then she gets out of her travel clothes and into her usual finery. Which is a white kimono that goes down to her knees, with a loose top that reveals her shoulders and big sleeves. Along the hems is a red flower print. In the absence of a handy cousin she simply puts her hair up in a bun and lets a few strands frame the sides of her face. She regards her hairpins, considers whether they'll be too much and then sticks them in anyway. The journey tired her out, but she can't rest without seeing Tsunade first. This is exhilarating. She hasn't seen the sun in ages, hasn't basked in its warm light in so long she almost forgot what it feels like. So she takes a pill from her case, swallows it dry and goes back to the Hokage building. The secretary shoots her a look that tells her that the meeting isn't over yet, but screw it. Naomi marches right past her and further into the building. When she hears heated voices arguing behind a door and opens it a crack she's pleased to discover that the Night Eye works even outside the border. Tsunade is in there along with two old farts, a grey haired guy and a blond young man. Naomi throws the door open. It's telling about the state of affairs that no one jumps to their feet.

"TSUNAAAAAA!" She yells at full volume and rushes towards the blonde.

"Nana!?" She gasps in surprise and stands up quickly.

A beaming smile breaks out on her face when she throws herself at the blond and hugs her for dear life. Her eyes start to burn immediately.

"Tsuna, oh my god," she gasps and draws back to stare at her.

"I don't believe it," Tsunade mutters in shock as she looks her over. "How..?!"

"I'm so happy!" Naomi exclaims and beams at her. "You haven't aged a day, Tsuna!"

"Neither have you," Tsunade replies in disbelief.

"Ahem," says the grey haired guy with a wary look. "We're kind of in the middle of something."

"Nevermind that!" Tsunade replies resolutely. "This is the guest I was telling you about. Meet Lady Naomi of Amegakure."

"Pleased to meet you. My name is Kusakawa Naomi. I'm a former classmate of Tsunade's," she says and bows before the others.

"Huh? But you said she's from Amegakure," the blond kid says with guileless blue eyes.

"It's complicated," Naomi replies mildly. "Suffice to say I was born and raised here, but now I'm the head of the Kusakawa clan."

Tsunade stiffens in surprise and stares at her. The elders frown in unison while the grey haired guy looks interested.

"Kusakawa?" One of the elders says. "We know that name. It's most... surprising to see you here."

"We were told many things about that family."

"Most of them undoubtedly true," Naomi replies dryly.

"Let's postpone the meeting," Tsunade states in a tone that brooks no argument. "Naomi is my guest over the weekend."

"Yeah, why not," the gray haired guy agrees easily.

Meanwhile the blond man quickly gets to his feet and gives her a curious look. "I'm Uzumaki Naruto. I'm the seventh Hokage."

"Whaaaat?! The seventh already?!" Naomi gives Tsunade a wide eyed look. "What happened?"

"Let's talk more in private," Tsunade sighs and pulls at her shoulder.

"It's been nice to meet you, Hokage-sama," she says politely and bows before the blonde guy. "I'm glad to be back here for sure!"

"That's good to hear," he says and smiles amiably. "I'm glad to have a guest from another hidden village!"

"Yeah, hopefully we can build something from this," Naomi says with a grin. "Why don't we have a chat in private sometime?"

She watches his eyes light up in interes. "Sure, why not?"

"Hokage-sama, a word," one of the elders says sternly.

"Sure," he sighs and turns around.

 

"They're going to tell him all sorts of ghost stories, aren't they?" Naomi says once they're in the privacy of Tsunade's flat.

"Definitely," Tsunade snorts. "I'm so glad I don't have to deal with their bullshit anymore."

"Speaking of which. Why'd you resign?"

Tsunade looks out of the window. "Becoming Hokage has always been Naruto's dream ever since he was little. After the war everybody knew it was only a matter of time."

"Huh?"

"How much have you heard?"

"Enough to paint a very confusing picture."

"Retelling everything would take a while; time you probably don't have, as you've alluded. You said you found your clan in the Land of Rain? Can you elaborate on that?"

"Right," Naomi replies slowly. "Do you have any sake? I can't do this sober."

"Of course I do," Tsunade snorts and goes to a cabinet.

Naomi tells her as much as she can without giving away clan secrets. Neither does she reveal her chakra absorbing activities. Tsunade's always been a stickler for the rules she made up and enforced. The blonde's eyes grow wider and wider as she tells her about the Night Eye.

"So you're saying... you're saying you're frozen in time until you make babies?!" She bursts out and laughs in disbelief. "That's crazy!"

"Yeah!" Naomi nods seriously.

"Incredible," she snorts and shakes her head. "We all thought you were dead! Meanwhile you've been in Amegakure all along!"

"Yeah," Naomi mutters.

"Why didn't you write?!"

She looks away, out of the window at the now dark village. "I tried. I had no idea you were still in Konoha. Orochimaru.. he certainly wasn't."

Something dark passes over the blonde's features and she slowly takes a sip of sake. "No. No, he wasn't."

Naomi gives her a pleading look. "Do you know where he is now?"

"No," she sighs and shakes her head. "Not long after the war was over he deserted the village. And us.. It'd turned out he did some really bad things in his search for knowledge. Very bad. Sarutobi-sama personally went to apprehend him, but he escaped. Although he did appear again now and then. From what I know he has several bases all over the world. He founded his own hidden village, if you can believe it."

"He did?" Naomi murmurs.

"Yes. The Sound. He's also gathered a large following. He attacked Konoha before the war for unknown reasons and almost crippled it. He killed Sarutobi-sama in the attack. That's why they turned to me to become their next Hokage after Jiraiya turned them down."

"They asked him?!" Naomi makes a face before her expression grows serious. "He killed Sarutobi-sama? Even though they were close.."

"Yes, well. A lot of things happened. He has done some unforgiveable things that normally would have landed him in prison for life, but Naruto pardoned him. After all, he helped us greatly during the war. Some say it was thanks to him that we won. What I know for sure is that he saved my life."

"Oro-kun," she mutters softly. "Oh Tsuna. I wish.."

"I get it," Tsunade replies gruffly.

"Thirty years went by and I never stopped thinking about him."

"I'm not surprised you were like that at the end. Jiraiya and I saw it coming. We made a bet on when you'd finally get together. He won."

Naomi chuckles at the mention of her notoriously bad luck. Tsunade smiles a bit before her face grows distant.

"He didn't believe the scouts that reported your squad's deaths. He went looking for you against Sarutobi-sama's orders. I don't know what he found, but he'd changed when he came back. The light in his eyes had gone out."

Naomi swallows hard and looks down at the floorboards. Missing him is an old ache that flares up at her words. She can't deal with this now.

"Tell me about the war," she says instead.

Tsunade nods and looks a little relieved to change the subject. In the end they spend the entire night talking about the past. It shocks her to hear that Dan and Nawaki died. It is no surprise that Tsunade never married, then. A lot of the things she hears sound too crazy to be true. A clan from outer space? The ten tails? The sage of Six Paths? Naruto being some sort of chosen one? He didn't look like anything special at first glance. On Saturday morning she feels exhausted enough to take two pills and gathers her notes. They did hire her as a lecturer, after all. Konoha's new med center is impressive, all clean modern chic. They have a large lecture hall and she takes up position behind a pedestal. Most of the kids look older than she was when she started studying medical jutsu. Naomi doesn't mind their curious stares.

"Hello everybody, my name is Kusakawa Naomi. I hail from the Land of Rain. You may have heard of it. If you haven't, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that I grew up here and began to study medical jutsu at the tender age of ten under Kusakawa Eichiiro, one of the greatest med nin this land has ever seen."

Nobody reacts to the name. It surprises her, to say the least. Does no one remember her father? Naomi coughs and continues the lecture she spent weeks preparing. She thinks it's child friendly material since those are the first subjects she learned when she was a child herself, but half the class seems lost about ninety minutes in. There is a boy that stands out, however. He has pale skin, bright blue hair and golden eyes. He doesn't take his eyes off her as she speaks and listens attentively, occasionally taking notes. After two full hours she decides it's time for a break. Most of these kids obviously don't have her kind of focus and passion when it comes to studying. It's sobering.

"Kusakawa-sensei."

Naomi stops digging through her bag for her lunch and blinks at the strange boy. He's smiling patiently as he waits besides her podium.

"Hi there. Who are you?"

"I am Mitsuki," he replies. "This has been a fascinating lecture. Your teaching style is certainly very different from what I'm used to. You mentioned several very sophisticated subjects."

"Thanks for the praise Mitsuki-kun, but that wasn't really the goal," she says with a wince and smiles. "It's just the stuff I studied as a child. I thought it's easy to understand."

"Fascinating," he replies and tilts his head to the side.

Those movements seem oddly familiar somehow. So do the eyes and skin. It couldn't be, she thinks and averts her eyes. Coincidence.

"I have several questions."

"Of course you do. Shoot."

"Pardon?"

"Ask," she says with a grin and finally fishes out her apple.

He glances down at the notepad he's holding. It's covered in bullet points. Next to each other in two rows. Naomi raises a brow. Mitsuki clears his throat and begins his interrogation. At first she's amused, the intrigued. She very quickly learns several things about him. This is a very intelligent young boy. He's had no trouble whatsoever following her. He shows interest in the practical application of her theories. He has a very mechanical mind that works in numbers and systems, much like her own. The more questions he asks the more she likes this kid. He does it in such a pure and genuine manner that she can't find it in her to send him on his way, so her apple remains untouched in her hand until break is over. When the bell rings he glances between the apple and her with an apologetic expression.

"I'm sorry, Kusakawa-sensei. You didn't get to eat your apple."

"Nevermind," she replies with a grin. "I'm used to running on fumes. If you have any more questions you can come to me after class. Another hour and we're done for today."

"Thank you very much!" He says and actually bows.

Naomi chuckles before she returns her attention back to the class. "I hope you're all refreshed and ready to pay some more attention! Cause I'm giving you homework!"

The statement is followed by numerous groans. Naomi smirks sharply and taps her podium. "What? Did you think I was going to make this easy?"

Mitsuki waits for her after the lecture and accompanies her on the way back to her hotel room. In the one hour of her talk he's managed to come up with dozens of other questions. Naomi doesn't mind. In fact she's happy to tell him everything he wants to know. His hunger for knowledge rivals her own and it's simply nice to be able to talk at lenght about a subject she's passionate about with somebody who can follow what she's saying. When the front door comes up she stops and smiles warmly down at him.

"Well, it's been an immense pleasure talking to you, Mitsuki-kun. I hope you attend tomorrow's lecture as well. I'll cover different subjects you might be interested in."

"I will," he replies pleasantly. "Would you mind if I mention you to my parent? They're a scientist of great knowledge and renown as well."

"Really? No, go ahead," she says and raises her brows in interest. "Who's this parent of yours? Do I know them?"

Mitsuki hesitates briefly and the shadow of doubt flickers through his eyes before it's gone again.

"It's Orochimaru. You might have heard of them."

Naomi freezes. Her heart stops beating for a second before it goes into overdrive.

"Really," she says tonelessly.

Mitsuki tilts his head to the side again. "You know them?"

"I.. I did. Back in the day," she mutters and swallows hard. "If you mention me to.. them.."

"Yes?"

"Please tell them that the sun is alive and well after years of being obscured by rainclouds. That it's waiting eagerly for them in Konoha."

"Of course," he replies, but stares at her curiously.

Naomi nods curtly. "See you tomorrow."

Without waiting for an answer she strides into the hotel lobby. Once she's back in her room she crawls into bed and allows herself to finally shake apart. She's so fucking glad he moved on. She's so happy he has such a good son. Tears well up in her eyes and run down her cheeks. So glad.

Fifteen hours later she wakes up with a headache and a parched throat. Just in time for her lecture, too. She gets dressed in a hurry and gulps down some tap water before heading out. Since hers is a voluntary lecture she notices that there's only half as many kids as yesterday. It's sobering to see what normal people are like. Regardless, she keep going at the same pace, only in a different set of subjects. Somebody dares to ask a mildly controversial question and she can see several pairs of eyes widen in surprise when she answers the most likely joking question in earnest. It makes the kids shift uneasily.

"Of course you can do a blood transfusion in the field, you just need to pay extra attention to hygiene. Oh, and you need a compatible donor."

"Oh. I see. Thanks, Kusakawa-sensei."

Naomi grins and continues. Those innocent kids. They're so young. Many of them might not even have seen war firsthand. They don't know how good they have it. It's hard not to feel out of touch sometimes. By the end of the lecture Mitsuki approaches her again with his notepad in hand.

"Kusakawa-sensei, I have so many questions."

"Sure. I'll answer them to the best of my ability," she replies with a smile. "Let's go for a walk."

"Gladly. I have to make it quick, though. My parent is coming over for my parent-teacher conference."

"Oh. Is he."

Mitsuki tilts his head to the side. Naomi realizes her blunder and looks away. Just when did Orochimaru become a "they" anyway? There are so many things she doesn't know. It makes her sad.

"Did you know each other well?"

"Yes," she sighs. "But do go on and ask your questions."

"Of course," he says, but the curiosity doesn't leave his face.

Mitsuki is a brilliant kid. He got everything she said and really thought about it, too. She enjoys answering his rapid fire questions and tries to compile her knowledge into dense little packages. When they reach the Hokage building he stops and blinks up at the big red dome.

"Why are we here?"

"Because I'm going to meet another friend," Naomi laughs. "Sorry for leading you astray, Mitsuki-kun."

"It's fine," he says thoughtfully. "I'll find my own way home."

Naomi grins brightly down at him and spontaneously decides to ruffle his hair. The boy blinks and looks up at her in mild surprise.

"It's been fun talking to you. I'm sure you've got a bright future ahead of you, Mitsuki-kun. I'll return home tomorrow, but you can write me if you have more questions."

"Oh, you're leaving?" He sounds disappointed. "Writing letters is rather old fashioned. There are computers now."

"Oh?" She raises a brow.

"It's quicker to communicate that way."

"I see. I see. I'll have to look into getting one, then."

He smiles and inclines his head. "Thank you for answering my questions, Kusakawa-sensei. Attending your lectures has been an enlightening experience. I only wish other teachers would tend to the neeeds of the more intelligent students as well."

"Aw, you flatter me. You're a good kid," she grins.

He tears off a page of his notepad and writes something down. It's a strange mix of kanji, numbers and symbols. Naomi studies it curiously when he hands it to her.

"That is my electronic address."

"Ah?"

"If you write to me I can see yours. Then we'll be able to communicate."

"I don't have one of these.."

"It's fine. Setting one up is easy enough."

"Um, if you say so," she replies and stares at the symbols in utter mystification.

"Perhaps a younger relative can aid you."

"Yeah... Maybe my cousin's grandchildren can handle this for me," she mumbles.

"Pardon me, but you do not look that old."

"Heh. Thanks, you charmer," she grins and pinches his cheek.

Mitsuki's eyes widen in surprise. He puts a hand over his cheek and stares at her in confusion. Naomi chuckles and waves at him.

"I'll see what I can do about this electronic stuff. Bye bye, Mitsuki-kun."

"Goodbye."

Naomi wanders through the Hokage building and tries to quiet her racing thoughts. He's coming. The knowledge alone makes her heart pound in anticipation. She doesn't doubt that he'll want to see her. Just seeing him will be enough to quiet her longing. Even if he moved on. It doesn't matter. All that matters is his happiness. Naomi feels her chest constrict and doubles her efforts to find Tsunade. She needs her friend right now to distract her before she can break apart. When she comes across an office guarded by two masked Anbu, she thinks she's right.

"Can I?" She asks them haughtily and nods at the door. "Kusakawa Naomi."

One of them nods. It's enough confirmation, so she knocks before she goes inside. Tsunade is sitting at a desk with her back to a set of large, floor lenght windows with a spectacular view over the city.

"Hey Tsuna," she greets her softly.

Tsunade looks up. Her eyes scan her face and she steeples her finger in front of her face.

"Well?" Is all she asks.

"He's coming," Naomi replies calmly and goes to sit down on the desk, halfway turned towards her friend.

"Is he? How'd you contact him?"

"He has a son," Naomi says with an absent, fond smile.

"Ah, Mitsuki-kun," Tsunade says and briefly shakes her head. "Who would've thought that the only Sannin to create offspring would be Orochimaru?"

"Why's that so strange?" She tilts her head to the side.

"Of course you'd ask that," the blonde chuckles. "Did you ever realize that you were the only one who looked at him like he wasn't a ticking time bomb?"

"What?!" Her brows furrow. "No.."

"Maybe we made him into a self-fulfilling prophecy," Tsunade mutters and looks down.

"Did he cause you a lot of grief?" Naomi asks softly.

"He left," the blonde replies bitterly. "He betrayed his team and his entire village. Sarutobi-sama never got over it."

"I'm sorry," she murmurs and looks out of the window at the blinding sun, the azure sky.

"What are you apologizing for?"

Naomi bites her tongue. Perhaps it wasn't entirely her fault, but.. "I never wanted this. I never wanted him to hurt. It must've been awful."

"You know, I think it was. When I thought I'd lost you, too, it was really fucking horrible," Tsunade replies quietly. "I suffered for months. He never let it show, always wearing that blank look on his face, but I knew he was hurting far more than me. We barely ever saw him anymore. He was always cooped up inside his house and whever one of us asked how he was holding up he always just said fine. Maybe we should've tried harder to get through to him. After he left, the investigators searched through his entire house. The shit they uncovered there.. Thinking of it still makes my skin crawl."

Naomi thinks of mutilated animals and a dead grey eyed girl. A shiver runs down her spine. He never was very good at handling his emotions.

"Ah, well, let's talk of brighter things," she says with an awkward smile. "So this Naruto kid really is the new Hokage?"

"Yes, indeed," Tsunade replies dryly.

"I never thought you'd give up this position so easily," Naomi says teasingly. "It had to pay well. How are you feeding your gambling habit now?"

"Hey! I'll have you know that I win sometimes, too!" Tsunade objects.

"Oh yeah, and then you spend it all on booze," she snorts.

"Ohh you!" Tsunade growls and tries to pinch her, but Naomi shifts away and halfway off the desk to evade her.

She really hasn't changed, Naomi thinks happily. Not that much. When the blonde's huge boobs accidentally knock a pen holder off her desk she snorts and throws her head back in laughter.

"Wahaha! Oh my god, your melons.. I don't know how you did it, but... Ahaha!"

"Hey.. They're not too big, are they?" Tsunade mutters as she bends down to pick up the scattered pens.

Naomi can't help but laugh hysterically when Tsunade sits up and reaches over to put the pen hold her back, but then knocks something else off her desk. Back in the day she used to have a totally flat chest. It's hilarious that she now has huge knockers. Naomi secretly suspects that she did something to make them grow after Jiraiya's constant teasing. Tsunade's blushing faintly and grumbling to herself while she tries to reign in her hysterics. It's been a while since she last laughed so hard. Naomi wipes a tear away and beams at her.

"Oh Tsuna, you're the best," she giggles.

There are faint voices in the hallway and then the door opens. Tsunade huffs and crosses her arms in front of her chest. Just looking at it makes her giggle again.

"-remember to disguise yourself," Naruto says casually.

"Hahaha, oh god," Naomi laughs again and lifts a hand in front of her mouth.

Tsunade's quiet and looking past her. The sudden silence makes Naomi's laughter die down. Curious, she turns to follow her gaze.

"Oro-kun," she breathes.

It's really him. He's here. Naomi's heart stops beating when their eyes meet. He... hasn't changed at all. Everything besides the two of them fades away as she stares at him. Naomi slips off the desk and stands up to face him. It's really.. She swallows hard and takes a few hesitant steps towards him. He's wearing a white long sleeved tunic and bright blue pants. His hair is in a loose ponitail. His face is absolutely blank, but his eyes.. She doesn't know what she's seeing since there are so many emotions flickering through them at a rapid pace. This is unreal. After thirty years they're finally face to face again. Her longing breaks it way through her chest and makes her eyes water with its intensity. She walks towards him as if in a daze and finally looks up when they're barely two feet apart. Hesitantly she lifts a trembling hand and reaches for his face. Half of her is scared that this is an illusion, the other half worries that he might not welcome her touch anymore.

"Oro-kun," she breathes and feels gooseflesh break out all over her skin.

He's not saying anything, not moving at all. She swallows hard and gingerly touches the side of his face. The skin is warm. So this is real? Is it really..

"My moon," she whispers shakily and smiles.

Out of the corner of her eyes she sees him lift both hands to cup her face. The burning ache inside her intensifies and so does the need to cry with joy. He lowers his head wordlessly and puts their foreheads together. Naomi closes her eyes and feels tears run down her cheeks. This is real This is real. Oh god. She inhales deeply, breathing in his familiar smell that wakes so many old memories. It's changed a little, she thinks, but not enough to be unrecognizable. Wet droplet hit her cheeks and she feels her throat constrict as she instantly realizes they're not her own tears. That really gets her waterworks going. She blinks through her blurry vision and chokes out a sob.

"Out," she hears Tsunade say sternly.

"This is my office, you can't just-," Naruto objects.

"I said out," Tsunade growls as she walks past them.

"Urk! Yeah, yeah, let go of me!"

The door closes behind them and then it's just the two of them in the warm, bright office. Naomi doesn't have the words to describe how happy she is or how much she's missed him.

"My sun.. my heart.."

Naomi shivers and beams, wondering silently when his voice became so hoarse and gravelly. It's at odds with his soft, almost androgynous appearance. What matters most is that she still has a place in his heart.

"I'm so... happy..," she manages to croak past the knot in her throat. "Oro-kun you.. you have a.. wonderful son.. I'm so happy that you're.. you moved on. Who.. who's the lucky girl? Do I know her?"

"My sun," he says softly and looks her in the eyes, which is utterly disarming from this close. "I could not 'move on' any more than the moon could leave the sun's orbit. You cannot possibly believe that."

"I.. hoped," she murmurs softly. "I would not begrudge you for it. All I wanted was for you to be happy without me, someday."

"But that's impossible," he whispers.

"I tried writing you a letter, but the messenger said you became a missing nin," she says hoarsely. "If I'd know where you are.. I couldn't leave Amegakure.. But.. Nnngh..."

He draws back and lowers one of his hands. Naomi bites down hard on her lower lip and tries to stop sobbing with each breath. Suddenly there's a white cloth tissue in his hand and he dabs at her eyes. It only makes her cry harder when she recognizes the familiar gesture. Naomi lets out a small cry and buries her face in his chest, sobbing freely and clinging onto his tunic too tightly. Orochimaru simply wraps his arms around her and kisses the top of her head. This is too much. At this rate she's going to pass out from the onslaught of emotions. Her body starts to shake when she feels him start stroking her back.

"My sun.. my love.. Oh how I missed you," he mutters into her hair.

"I love you," she chokes out. "Oro-kun.. I.. love you.. so m-much."

His grip on her back tightens. "Today we become one again. My beloved sun.."

Naomi can't speak, so she nods wordlessly. There's a festival in her heart and chaos in her mind. Three days, she realizes with a start. She's been away for three days. The strain on her chakra reserves is noticeable. It makes her grit her teeth and cling onto him more tightly.

"O..ro.. kun..," she grits out. "Where.. where do you live?"

"I have many lairs," he replies quietly. "Why?"

"I'm... I'll have to return to Amegakure shortly. Can't leave for long.. Please, come visit me soon."

"What are you saying?" He asks and stares at her in concern.

"I'm bound to the Land of Rain," she says unhappily. "I saved my chakra for the past three decades just to be able to leave for a few days. I'll have to return tomorrow or risk dying."

"What?" He says in alarm. "Why?"

Naomi inhales through her nose, closes her eyes to gather her focus and tells him everything. There's nothing she hides from him. Orochimaru deserves nothing but the full ugly truth.

"So if you.. If you want to build a base in our country, I'm sure I could convince the elders to give you a building permit," she closes with a small hesitant smile.

And if they refuse she'll drain the bastards' chakra dry and leave their corpses to the forest wolves. Orochimaru's brows are furrowed slightly as he visibly thinks about what she said. Naomi exhales and rests her head against his chest. My god, she thinks in amazement. It's really him.

"I'll go with you," he finally says in a decisive tone.

"You.. you will?" She gives him a startled look.

One of his hands creeps up to the back of her neck and he leans down again. Her eyes widen in amazement when he kisses her, just like that. Naomi closes her eyes when she feels a fresh wave of tears coming. Her mind is screaming "Yes! Yes! Yes!" over and over. It's so good. So familiar. She winds her arms around his neck and feels a little silly for being surprised at the fact that he wants to follow her.

"My home is yours," she says when they part. "Just.. what about your village? Your followers?"

"Forget them," he replies easily.

"Oro-kun..," she murmurs and sighs. "I understand. Truth to be told, I want you by my side. Always have, always will."

"Then I'll make the arrangements."

"Yes," she says and smiles.

"Come with me," he says softly.

Naomi leans against his side as they walk out of the office while he keeps his arm around her middle. It's not difficult to match her pace to his. She doesn't care about the looks they get when they walk down the street like that. What surprises her is to find that they're walking to an appartment complex. He leads her up some stairs and to a particular door, where he knocks. Much to her delight, it's Mitsuki who opens. The boy is visibly stunned to see them together. Naomi grins and wraps an arm around Orochimaru's middle as well.

"Hello Mitsuki-kun," she says warmly.

"Kusakawa-sensei? Orochimaru?" He looks between them in utter astonishment. "What's the meaning of this?"

"I need to use your computer," Orochimaru says calmly. "Let us in."

"Why- I.. yes of course," he says and steps aside with an incredulous look.

"You have a nice flat, Mitsuki-kun," she says in passing.

"Thanks."

Orochimaru pulls her unerringly into what looks like a livingroom with a machine and a small screen. She eyes it while Orochimaru sits down in front of it. He glances at her and she smiles warmly as she goes to his side, even more when his left arm wraps around her hips.

"So this is a computer," she mutters in fascination.

"They don't have those in Amegakure?" He asks with mild amusement as he types at blinding speed and with one hand.

She watches his fingers dance over the keys with mute awe. "Not in our clan's compound, I think. Hm, but maybe some of the kids have one? I'll have to ask."

"What kids?" He asks neutrally, but she can feel a slight tension in his arm.

"My cousin's grandchildren," she replies dryly. "It turns out I have a rather large family."

"Do they treat you better?" He asks quietly without taking his eyes off the screen.

"Yes," she murmurs. "They wouldn't dare to try me. Actually, I think they sort of like me even. Mostly because I don't get involved in their affairs and let them govern themselves."

"I see."

"The only things I missed were you and the sun."

"Not your parents?"

"Hm.. no.. not really," she mutters slowly. "Huh. I wonder what became of them."

"Your mother died of heartbreak around two years after you.. were gone. Your father buried himself in his work. Your remaining brother became an alcoholic. His all over unpleasantness prevented him from ever getting married."

"I'm not surprised," she snorts. "Oh, father must have been so disappointed. He so wished for us to become a ninja clan."

"He told me not to bother looking for you. He said that you were dead. Even if you'd been captured alive, because the "Kusakawa are oathbound to kill themselves before they spill Konohan secrets to the enemy"."

Naomi winces in sympathy at his utterly acidic tone and places an arm around his shoulders. "Yes, that's the lie he fed me. I almost did it, too, but then I thought of you. I wanted to see you again. To that end I was ready to fight my way out of there. At least until my grandmother told me the truth."

"I didn't believe him. However, there was a farmer who'd seen you get killed. He.. had no reason to lie to me."

"Oro-kun, I'm here," she says softly, bends down and kisses him.

The tremor in his body subsides. "It was like a solar eclipse that just didn't pass. A shadow that blotted the sun out of the sky. Everything went dark. My heart withered and died. It calcified into a black lump of coal."

"You see the value of metaphors now?" She asks softly and kisses him again. "Your heart's not dead."

"No," he murmurs against her mouth. "No. She's not."

Naomi smiles against his lips. There is an aching softness in her that fills every nook and cranny of her body. He draws back, wets his lips and quickly resumes typing at a rapid pace. She's content to lean against his side and watch him work. From what she can tell, he's sending messages to his underlings. Orochimaru stops typing and does something to make the screen go black. Then he stands up and pulls her against his body. Naomi smiles up at him and his eyes soften in response.

"I'm ready to depart now, my love."

"Okay," she murmurs happily.

Mitsuki politely clears his throat and glances between them in disbelief. "Excuse me..."

"Oh, Mitsuki-kun," she mumbles and blushes at being caught.

"What is the meaning of this?" He asks curiously and stares at his parent. "What is your relationship?"

"She is my sun," Orochimaru states calmly and tightens his arms around her.

Mitsuki's eyes widen as he stares at her. Naomi grins proudly and rests the side of her head against his chest.

"I see!" He exclaims and sounds like he means it.

Of course he does. He's a very smart boy.

"Mitsuki-kun, I think we'll hear from each other quite a bit," she says warmly. "Even if I don't get one of these computing machines."

"A computer," he corrects her automatically.

Naomi starts to chuckle. A gentle touch at the side of her jaw makes her look up. Orochimaru's smiling contently.

"I see you two get along already. That's good," he says quietly.

"Mh hm," she hums and regards him fondly.

He lowers his head and Naomi closes her eyes when he kisses her softly. Oh, but she missed this so much. The casual intimacy, the affection, the soft kisses. Mitsuki is watching them with a fascinated look when she opens her eyes again. Naomi coughs and blushes in embarrassment.

"Um. Avert your innocent eyes, kid!" She says and makes a shooing motion at him.

"Why?" He asks rebelliously.

"Um..."

"I think it's time to leave," Orochimaru says in amusement. "Thank you for letting me use your computer, Mitsuki."

"It's fine."

In all honesty she thinks the kid's glad to see them go. Tsunade gives her a half-knowing, half fond look when she says she's ready to leave. She and Orochimaru stare at each other like they're silently communicating. Going by the way the blond's eyes narrow and brows twitch, she's wordlessly threatening him. Orochimaru just looks relaxed and vaguely amused. He hasn't taken his hand off her since they met. Naomi has a hard time caring about anything when she's floating on cloud nine like this.

"Write to me," Tsunade says in a resigned tone when she finally looks at her.

"Of course! Perhaps I can even use the computer to message you!" Naomi says merrily. "Once I learn how it works."

Tsunade snorts and laughs in her face. "Yeah, you do that."

"Don't worry. I'll teach you," Orochimaru says patiently.

"Aw, thank you," she replies and beams up at him.

"Get out of here, you lovebirds."

"See you, Tsuna."

"Farewell."

In retrospect she can barely remember the journey back to Amegakure since she was so focused on him all the time. Her clan is quickly on high alert as soon as word spreads that she's back and almost all of them come to greet her. Orochimaru doesn't falter under the multitude of curious stares directed at him.

"So who's this then?" Elderly Akihiro asks while leaning heavily on his walking cane.

"This is Orochimaru," she says with a radiant grin. "He's my moon."

"What?" Akihiro frowns in confusion and looks between them.

Orochimaru grins and wraps his arm around her middle. Naomi's smile grows and she leans against his side. Akihiro's eyes widen while the others stare in stunned silence.

"I see," he says after a lenghty pause. "Well then. It's about time you found someone."

"Aw uncle, don't be like that," she replies jovially.

"After you turned down two dozen prime candidates from the upper echelon of our country I'd begun to think you were planning to outlive Fuuka!"

"Oh, but I am," she retorts. "I told you, didn't I?"

"Pah," he huffs with a small grin.

Naomi grins back and that's that. Kyo comes forward to make a bit of smalltalk and she absently notices the grey that's beginning to creep into his black hair at the temples. He and Orochimaru shake hands and it's probably, hopefully a good sign. It takes entirely too long to deal with the whole crowd until they're satisfied and when they finally manage to break away and flee to her house she's almost more exhausted than after staying up for two days.

"Geeeeez," she drawls and stretches her arms over her head once they're inside. "That was tedious."

"Are they always so enthusiastic?"

"Mh, I think they're happy to have me back. Moderately. I'm pretty sure that some of them hoped I wouldn't return."

"Who?" He asks calmly, but his eyes narrow.

"Easy, my love," she says and puts a hand on his chest. "Being a scheming bastard runs in the family. They won't try to kill me unless I make an unpopular decision. And unlike grandma I'm not really invested in the family business."

"Who?" He asks insistently even as he wraps his arms around her, pulling her close. "I need to know."

"I'll write you a list," she replies wryly. "Once I've showered and had a nap."

"Good."

"Don't do anything rash. At least not without proof," she murmurs when he bends down to kiss her.

"I won't leave you with people who plot behind your back," he mutters with a strange light dancing in his eyes.

"Calm down, my love. I've been staying here for thirty years. Besides, I'm not so easy to kill."

"Give me a list," he insists.

"Oro-kun," she mutters and furrows her brows. "What are you going to do with it? Some of those guys are crucial to running our businesses. Sure, they'd like to have totally free reign instead of being forced to send me stuff for approval, but I haven't given them any reason to-"

"Naomi. I have a limit," he says quietly while looking deep into her eyes. "There's only so much I can take."

"Darling..."

"I need to know you're safe. I cannot do this again, I-"

"Shh, let's take a bath together."

To calm him down, since he seems to be completely on edge at the mere thought of there being any danger to her whatsoever. She gets it. She does. Naomi leads him to her bathroom and starts drawing them a bath. Then she begins the slow and painful process of undoing her bun and untangeling her hair.

"Ow, dammit," she grunts when her fingers get stuck in another knot.

"Let me help."

"Oh?"

He picks up a brush and begins to work methodically through the knots. Naomi smiles fondly at him through the mirror. It's nice and peaceful. Once the tub is full she starts to undo her obi.

"What are you waiting for?" She asks with a grin as she folds the cloth and sets it down on a dresser. "Come on."

It's weird to see him hesitate before he beings to undress. Almost reluctantly. He doesn't have anything to hide. Naomi busies herself getting out of her kimono and puts it on the dresser, along with her underwear. Belatedly it occurs to her that they've never seen each other fully naked. He's just so perfect. Her smile widens the more of his clothes join hers on the dresser. He's keeping his eyes on his hands, methodically removing piece by piece with a weirdly resigned look. Once he's naked the first thing she notices, the most glaring deviation from the norm, is the fact that he has no penis. There is, however, a strange patch of skin at the bottom of the v of his hips. It looks softer and more delicate than the surrounding skin.

"Huh," she says curiously.

"Your bathwater is getting cold."

"Oh, yeah," she says and glances at the tub. "You go on ahead."

Once he's seated she gets in as well and promptly relaxes back against his chest with a content sigh.

"Ahh, this is the best."

Orochimaru's arms snake around her middle and hold on tight. She tilts her head back and sees him looking down at her. Naomi smiles at him. The warm water is doing wonders. After a few beats she starts feeling pleasantly loose and soothed. Orochimaru seems to relax as well. She closes her eyes and basks in the feeling of skin on skin. How surreal. A week ago this would've been too painful to even think about.

"I love you," she says quietly. "God, I sound like a broken record."

"That is not something I'll ever tire of hearing."

His fingers start to play with her hair. A pleasant drowsiness begins to take a hold of her. Naomi has never felt so safe before. It's no wonder that he'd be terrified of losing this again. She understands that perfectly. It's not any different for her.

"I don't ever want to lose you again," she murmurs as she watches the steam rise from the tub.

"My sun.. we should become one."

"Yes," she replies and smiles with closed eyes.

In response she feels his lips against the side of her head. "It's fortunate that I held onto the rings I bought when I was sixteen, then. I'll ask properly later."

"Okay."

"You're tired. You should go to sleep."

"Nooo, I don't wanna get up. It's so nice and warm.."

He does something or another, Naomi doesn't really have the focus to care. All she knows that between one moment and the next she's being carried with a towel wrapped around her. Truly magical. Her eyelids flutter when she hits the mattress and feels him shift under the covers besides her. Warm limbs tangle with hers and hot breath hits the side of her head. That is all she needs to know she's safe. Orochimaru is here to stay. The future no longer looks grim. There might just be something to that red string of fate.

Chapter Text

INTRODUCING: KUSAKAWA NAOMI

 

  

 

Absolute MAD LASS. Certified SNAKEFUCKER!                               Gets excited at the sight of blood. CREEPY! 

 

Age: 21

Birthday: 7th of July

Sign: Cancer

Birthplace: Konoha (in this AU, in all other fics Amegakure)

Clan: Kusakawa

Special Skill: Genius level intelligence, med nin, technique inventor

Pro: Saved lots of people with her medical expertise, invented several modern techniques to increase chances for successful operations.

Contra: Vain, selfish, unintentionally cruel, research methods are pretty fucking questionable, semi-unhinged mad scientist, doesn't value people who aren't better than her at something, sociopathic tendencies.

Likes: Snakes, revealing clothes, steak, Orochimaru, studying until her eyes burn, sunny weather.

Dislikes: Too much rain, most people, insults to her intelligence, natto. 

Favorite Color: Red.

Favorite Season: Summer.

Favorite Food: STEAK, eggs with plain rice as well.

 

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Playlist to go with this fic:

 

1.) Chase Holfelder - Every Breath You Take (Cover)

2.) Thoushaltnot - Inside of You, In Spite of You

3.) lemniscata - sh♡w me l♡ve 

4.) Radiohead - Creep

5.) AND ONE - Get You Closer

6.) She Wants Revenge - Tear You Apart 

7.) Cradle of Filth - Nymphetamine Fix

8.) HIM - Right Here In My Arms