I returned to Sound with foreboding knots in my stomach. I'd left a den of mad scientists and killers alone with a mad scientist and killer in charge. There was a solid chance I would come back to find they'd wiped out all the civilians near by, a civil war, a pile of flaming wreckage, or all three. Making this entire trip rather useless.
I was hoping for only minor cosmetic damage and less than five deaths.
I was an optimist like that.
"These are your guys?" Zabuza asked as we drew close, sensing my ninja patrols around the area.
Sound was more a series of hideouts than any sort of central base, and as such didn't really have posted guards at the entrance, just patrols that went through the area on a regular basis.
"Yes. Just a bit further and we'll be at the entrance. I'll see to it that a medic looks after you and you are given a room to recover."
The missing nin gave a grunt of acknowledgement.
"Will Haku be sharing a room with you?" I asked.
"Yes."/"No" The two voices said at once, with Haku turning to look at his master in shock.
"You need to operate more independently, and you staying in my room isn't going to do much."
Translation, he knew that I could kill him at my leisure and wanted to use the opportunity to teach Haku self sufficiency in case I decided to off him.
Aw, he really did care.
"I'll set up two rooms for you and Haku can come stand outside your door against your wishes on his own time." I said with a wave of dismissal.
Haku gave a squawking sound but didn't give any denial; either because I was right or he was worried I'd kill him.
Speaking of people that were worried I'd kill them, I had arrived back at base and everything wasn't on fire! As I walked down the stairs into the base there were no new marks on the wall and only one suspicious stain on the ground, so that was good!
In moments, a haggard looking Kabuto and an ecstatic Nagisa approached, the two walking briskly before coming to a stop before me and bowed on one knee.
"Orochitama-sama! There is much to report!" Nagisa said, the older man practically vibrating.
"Orochitama-sama. It is so good to see you return." Kabuto said with so much emotion it actually made me feel a bit bad. Probably what he was going for.
I straightened up. Might as well get the big stuff out of the way.
"What are the losses since I've been gone? Report." I ordered.
"We lost three labs to a cave in during an experiment on soundwaves. The cafeteria had a fire due to a genetics experiment. One scientist tried to take one of the children for an experiment, only to be handled by Gurren. Two soldiers came to blows over what shade of blue was being used in the halls which resulted in heavy cosmetic damage. Overall we had six deaths and three people were left with permanent scarring." Kabuto reported.
Not as good as I hoped but better than I feared!
"The mission? How has the acquisition of all of Gato's property gone?" I asked.
"Surprisingly well." Kabuto said with a shrug. "Only two reported kills, none of which were ours, and almost all his assets were seized. There are a few ships out at sea that we are tracking so we can acquire them, but the bulk of everything has been taken into custody. A list of all the goods is still being compiled, but there is a list in your office of everything we've taken account for so far."
Right. I still needed to get all that settled, plus I needed to figure out who I was going to assign to negotiate contracts with all of Gato's old clients, who was going to set up infrastructure for the business, and who I could get to recruit some of his old employees to work for me. I might outsource that to non ninjas though. I'd have to work on that later.
"So no trouble with other ninja?" I asked while Nagisa started wiggle in place, apparently having trouble waiting to give his report.
"We had two teams run into Kumo nin and one team that encountered some Iwa nin. All teams were able to get away with all their objectives."
Good. Sound was still a small village. The big ones didn't consider them worth chasing down. That would probably change in the coming months, but it would serve us well for the moment.
Nagisa cleared his throat to draw attention to himself. Something the old Orochimaru would have killed him for.
"Ara ara. You look to be ready to burst, this must be good. Go ahead Nagisa. Report."
"We've made so much progress!" The man blurted out, "We have more than a dozen projects that have taken huge leaps forward and due to your new rules on shared knowledge, we've combined several studies to make whole new things we hardly expected!"
"But my rules on human testing are still being upheld?" I asked, suddenly very worried.
"That's just the thing! The desire for human testing has made so many of the scientists take meticulous notes and verify results with their peers that we have reached a new height of cooperation and understanding! Just as you planned, the human testing incentive has done wonders!"
Of course they think I'm dangling human test subjects like a I would use treats to train a dog. I resolved to focus on the positive though.
"That's wonderful! What sort of breakthroughs?"
"So far we've found a seal that can produce a wide area low level genjutsu. We've developed a technique that uses sound resonance from multiple locations to make an object break apart. We've also discovered a light that seems to both help plants grow but also makes organic matter and certain colors stand out in stark contrast to their surrounds!"
Did my ninja's just make a black light?
"We also figured out how to make a bacteria that causes a person to hallucinate!"
Just when I was starting to feel proud of them.
"Wonderful work Nagisa-kun. If there is still more please compile a list and send them to my office. In the meantime, my guest needs some medical attention." I said as I gesture towards Zabuza. "Please guide him to a medic and then set up for him and his apprentice to have their own rooms."
"Yes ma'am! I'll swing by later to go over more of the nuanced discoveries as well!" The man said excitedly before turning to walk away, leaving Zabuza and Haku to stand there awkwardly for a moment before realizing that they were meant to follow the man.
I shook my head. Nagisa had more passion than sense.
"What of the other projects I gave you?" I asked Kabuto while beckoning him to follow me as I began to walk to my personal lab.
"We have continued the search for Tsunade, she remains ahead of our scouts, but they are catching up. Kimimaro isn't responding to any treatment, the best I've gotten is slowing the progression of his disease." Kabuto stated.
I had figured as much. I would likely need to call on my old teammate to get the bone user fixed up.
"Keep trying treatment, but report immediately once Tsunade is found."
"Yes ma'am." He replied dutifully.
"What of the other project?"
"The Edo Tensei? I have the room prepared and I've been adjusting it as you requested-"
"No, not that the other thing. The hobbies." I said dismissively as we rounded a corner.
Kabuto hesitated only a moment, though it was telling for the spy. He was measuring me, trying to gauge my reasonings and wondering why I put so much importance on assigning him his given task.
"There was some confusion on what exactly constitutes a hobby in the beginning, and the science staff largely find the order to be a bother, but many of the combat staff have seemed to take to the idea with surprising gusto. There is now a craft night, music night, and drama night on a weekly basis." The man admitted.
"Excellent! I will have to go to the next ones of each! I'm quite excited to see what they've done!"
It would be nice to see something besides weapons and death come out of my village.
"So, Kabuto-kun, how was the experience? I know I asked much of you in this, but how are you holding up?" I asked.
The sound of our footsteps echoed in the hall for a few moments. Kabuto was hesitating.
"Never ask me to do that again." The man finally stated with steel in his words.
"I promise to not assign you to be in charge of the entire base again." I promised. If Kabuto responded to such a position with so much emotion? Next time he'd probably defect, if he hadn't already.
"And how many different organizations did you leak information to?" I asked in the same tone I asked about how he handled the stress of the job.
Kabuto froze in place.
"Oh come now Kabuto. I know you are a spy for Danzo, and I saw Sasori's fingerprints on you. You aren't in trouble. I just want to know what I'm dealing with." I said as I continued walking down the hall, not even turning to look at my subordinate.
In several moments Kabuto finally started walking after me as well.
"I have only sent word that you seem to be changing goals to long term ones and have ceased most active operations. I hadn't had time to report about Wave and I felt that your recent...lifestyle changes were something better explained in person."
I hummed in agreement. I could see the reluctance of putting all my Tama-ness in a report. Assuming that was actually true. Regardless, I'd earn the spy's loyalty soon.
Finally, we arrived at our destination. I walked in to see Tayuya standing in the middle of a sealing array where she was placing a solid kick into the side of a tied up and gagged Gato.
"Tayuya!" I barked, causing the girl to jump in surprise. I'd never raised my voice like that to her before. "That's no way to treat a prisoner."
The young woman shot me a disbelieving look. "This fucker? The one who killed all those civilians, tried to betray the ninja he hired, and who was just promising me the god damn moon for me to let him go?"
"Yes." I respond simply, pain making it's way into my voice. The former business tycoon looked up to me with a weary hope. A hope I crushed with my next words. "Since what I'm about to do to him will be much much worse."
Tayuya gave an evil smile. "Sure thing Boss Lady. Take all the fun."
I closed my eyes and took a breath.
"Tayuya-chan. Please leave." I stated.
"Aw come on! I wanted to watch." The girl complained and I felt a weight settle on my shoulders and my chest tightened.
I pushed the feeling away as best I could.
"Go Tayuya-chan. This isn't entertainment."
My body guard gave a derisive snort but she followed my orders. I turned to address my captive. My soon to be victim who looked at me as if I was the Shinigami himself.
"Kabuto. Check the seal work please." I ordered, barely noticing Kabtuo's acknowledgement. "Gato, I would like to start with apologizing in advance. What I'm about to do is quite possibly one of the worst things a human can possibly do."
I wasn't sure why I was explaining myself to the man, but I had to continue. A part of me wanted something from this. I wasn't sure if it was forgiveness, understanding, or just me justifying myself, but I wanted the man to know.
"You are about to be the fuel used to bring someone back to life through a process known as the Edo Tensei. The process uses your soul as fuel." Gato's eyes widened before he began to thrash in his bindings, doing everything he could to escape. I walked to my cabinet and began to load a sedative into a syringe.
"It won't destroy your soul, it will mangle it. Tear it to shreds. Bits will be gone. Your soul will be an abomination for hundreds of years. It might recover eventually but I frankly don't understand enough about souls to make that promise." I said as I began to approach the man on the ground. "It's why I didn't take any of your men for this. Why I don't just revive an army to serve me. I am only willing to do this because you are such a miserable man you regard goodness and kindness as nothing more than weakness. I watched you for days trying to find any redeeming features, to find some reason to not do this to you, and you gave me none."
Gato had started sobbing into his gag and at some point he'd wet himself. I looked at him with pity before injecting him with the sedative.
"I just hope that somehow you become a better person in your next life."
Then the man passed out.
I took a shaky breath before standing.
"Orochitama-sama. It's ready." Kabuto spoke up.
"Alright. Lets do this then." I said before backing out of the array. In moments one soul left the mortal coil and another returned.
I just had to convince myself it was worth it.
Sarutobi Hiruzen was tired. Nowadays, that seemed to be the all he felt anymore. He was old, he had plenty of regrets, but he still had a job to do, and until someone came along he was SURE would do a better job, he wouldn't be stepping down any time soon. Then, he had received a report about his treacherous old student possibly killing one of his favorite citizens.
He'd had a rough couple of days.
"Hokage-sama." One of his personal ANBU said as they appeared before him. The monkey masked ninja gave a bow and Sarutobi resisted rolling his eyes. Such formality wasn't necessary from his own son, but Tadaomi was always a stickler about protocol in uniform.
Hiruzen had hoped that having Konohamaru would have helped the man relax a little, but it seems even that rambunctious child didn't manage to get the man to embrace the necessities of relaxing on the rules.
"Report." Hiruzen ordered.
"A patrol spotted Team 7 and Ino-Shika-Cho returning. They are being routed to you to give a report immediately. All members appear to have only mild injuries."
A heavy weight lifted off his chest. It was always good to find a team returned healthy, but some of them were more special than others.
"Thank you Monkey. I appreciate you telling me so promptly." Hiruzen said, positive his son had rushed to tell him. Tadaomi knew how much he had been fretting over the fate of Team 7.
Hopefully Orochimaru didn't do anything too terrible to them.
The familiar feeling of bitter regret gripped him again. He ignored it. It was a time to be happy. There would need to be debriefings done, but at the end of the day they arrived back home alive and whole, and that was always worthy of joy.
Hiruzen reached for his pipe and some of his nicer tobbaco. The kind that grew in the far reaches of the Land of Water. It was prohibitively expensive, but a ninja needed a few vices to stay sane.
He packed his pipe and lit the mixture. In moments the smoke filled his lungs and he hummed at the rich flavor before exhaling. Enjoying the quite contentment for a moment. The quiet wouldn't last, Naruto was heading in after all.
Hiruzen had three blessed minutes of contentment before a knock came at the door. One of his ANBU on guard flashed a few hand signs at him confirming who was on the other side.
"Enter Shikaku." Hiruzen stated.
In moments his jounin commander walked through the door and Hiruzen found himself wondering how the Nara managed to look even more done with everyone's bullshit than normal.
"You entered before everyone else." Hiruzen noted. "What did you need to report?"
"I wanted to inform you that Inoichi is taking Haruno Sakura to the hospital for a burn injury, and thus won't be here for the report." Hiruzen's brow furrowed. A burn injury on a young kunoichi? That often ended badly. "I also wanted you to know that I already debriefed them. All their stories match up for consistency."
Now why would the Nara feel it necessary to tell him the story was consistent? The man had never felt the need to do such a thing before.
"Don't give me any preconceptions." Hiruzen ordered, "I want to hear for myself without your opinions coloring my own."
"I wouldn't dream of it Hokage-sama." Shikaku said with a smile that spoke of mischief.
That was odd enough that Hiruzen checked the man for illusions. Nara Shikaku and mischief didn't go together, and yet, apparently in this moment, they did. Hiruzen wasn't sure if that was reliving or worrying.
"Hey! Old Man!" Naruto yelled, ignoring all protocol and barged into the room and beamed with all the energy in the world. "We're back! And we kicked ass!"
A smile spread across Hiruzen's face. Naruto was a regular ball of sunshine when he wasn't being a prank obsessed brat. Kakashi walked in moments later, face buried in Icha Icha Tactics, and finally Uchiha Sasuke walked in and bowed. At least one of the three obeyed protocol.
"Team 7 reporting mission success Hokage-sama." Kakashi stated mildly before flipping a page. "We request an immediate debriefing."
That was to be expected, but old instincts were starting to warn the Third to be cautious.
"Welcome back, I'm glad to see you all returned safely." Hiruzen took another puff from his pipe. "By all means. I understand things went poorly. Tell me what happened Kakashi."
"Actually," The Copy Nin said as he snapped his book shut. "I was thinking that Naruto should start it. It's good practice for him."
Alarm bells went off in his head. Not the ones from war and a life on the battlefield, but the ones he got from teaching three brats that attracted trouble like garbage attracted flies. He should say no, but he couldn't really think of a reason to justify saying so. Plus he was morbidly curious.
"Alright then, Naruto. Please, give me your report."
"So it all started because Tazuna lied." Naruto began his tale. More than a decade of dealing with the blond was the only thing that let him follow what the boy was saying. He still chose to focus on strange things and gloss over other very important ones, but the boy did manage to communicate the basic ideas of the beginnings of their mission. A lying client, a high powered jounin showing up to kill them, and a decision to continue the mission despite it being a poor tactical choice.
So far everything wasn't too strange.
"Then Kakashi was all like, ugh, chakra exhaustion! And we carried him to Tazuna's house where he slept for like a whole day. Then just as he woke up Tsunami told us about food being handed out in town, and then Orochi Lady showed up."
Hiruzen was busy trying to figure out who Tsunami was when the sentence filtered through.
"She brought fancy beef and-"
"I'm sorry." Hiruzen interrupted. "Who showed up?"
"Orochi Lady." Naruto repeated, though this time more slowly. "Geez Old Man, don't even know you're student's name? I guess that does happen to old people."
Hiruzen blinked. Blinked again. Then asked a question. "Did you mean Orochimaru?"
"Nah, she said her name was Orochitama."
Orochimaru often took meticulous care of his hair but could hardly be mistaken for a woman, even by Naruto of all people.
"Kakashi called her that too though, so maybe you both forgot? Well, maybe she changed her name or something." Naruto continued.
Hiruzen had so many questions, he wasn't sure where to start. Since he didn't say anything, Naruto just kept going.
"Anyways," Naruto said loudly, as if irritated that he had been interrupted, "Orochi Lady was really nice and pretty and she brought us lots of expensive food because she was trying to get Gato to go cry to his ninja mommies. Oh, I guess she was also trying to sleep with Tsunami, because she likes girls and boys. Anyways-"
Orochimaru? Pretty? Nice? In possession of a sex drive?
No, this was clearly not his student.
"Kakashi." Hiruzen stated, cutting Naruto off. "Why does Naruto think my student is a woman named Orochitama?"
"Rude." Naruto muttered.
"Because it's probably true." Kakashi replied blithely, "She didn't hide her chakra, it feels the same. She had the snake summon and Kusanagi too."
What? No. That...no. That made no sense. What's the goal here? That would be too much effort to pretend to be a gender swap of Orochimaru that acts nothing like Orochimaru.
"So the person was wearing an illusion?" Hiruzen guessed.
"Nope. Sharingan showed no illusion. She also could be touched with no inconsistencies." Kakashi stated.
Did Kakashi just imply he'd groped Orochi- whoever this was?
"She also knew my last interaction with Orochimaru. She looked very similar to him too, minus certain changes, obviously." Kakashi continued.
Changes? Kakashi had hardly ever met Orochimaru, so he might have missed some inconsistencies. He felt like he was grasping at straws, but clearly something here wasn't adding up.
"What did this Orochitama look like?" He asked.
"Oh! I got this one!" Naruto piped up before putting his hands in a seal and announcing "Henge!"
A poof of smoke later and suddenly Hiruzen beheld...well he wasn't sure. It did remind him of his old student. Straight black hair, pale white skin, yellow snake eyes, purple eye markings. However this was unquestionably a woman. The sort of woman Jiraiya wrote about. She filled out a purple and black sundress in the curves the Toad Sage wrote entire novels about. Her face held a delighted mischief that spoke of knowing a secret that no one else had caught on to yet.
"Ara ara, sensei. You keep looking at me like that I'll blush." The figure tutted.
Hiruzen felt himself recoil in...he really wasn't sure what the emotion was but he damn sure didn't like it.
There was a click and a flash. Kakashi had just taken a picture. The man had apparently come prepared for that moment.
Were they playing a prank on him?
"Naruto. I don't appreciate you turning this into a prank by exaggerating proportions and having them act like...that." Hiruzen stated.
"Actually. He was spot on." Kakashi spoke up.
"Yep. Right attitude too." Sasuke said with a nod.
Naruto changed back to normal. "Right?! I nailed that ara ara perfect."
Hiruzen could only watch the three in mute shock.
"What was...why? What did he, uh, she?" Hiruzen wasn't sure what to go with. "They. What did they want?"
"Oh, well she wanted to help us! Oh, and she wanted to take Zabuza back with her." Naruto sated sure of himself.
"And to steal all Gato's money." Sasuke added.
"Oh right. That too." Naruto nodded.
Hiruzen looked to Kakashi for answers.
"I'm really not sure. I have suspicions, but this isn't the environment for some of them." Meaning Kakashi didn't want to say it in front of the genin. "She did, however, pass on high class important intel important to Konoha as a whole and me specifically. I think she might be asking for help, or at least neutrality."
Hope began to blossom in his chest, and Hiruzen wanted desperately to quash it. He'd long ago learned that hope for Orochimaru just served to hurt him. But like so many times before, he could snuff out the emotion. Instead, he shoved it deep into the back of his mind. He couldn't act on it. As much as he wanted Orochimaru's redemption, he needed to think logically.
Why would Orochimaru do something like this? To exploit a weakness. Well, a flirty attractive woman did give the possibility to capitalize on many weaknesses, particularly for-
Hiruzen looked Kakashi up and down and narrowed his eyes.
"Kakashi. Did you-" Hiruzen began.
"No! I did not fuck Orochimaru!" Kakashi said in exasperation.
The Third sat back in his chair. He didn't think so, but...well he'd seen her. Still, even with nothing happening beauty could be a deadly weapon. It could distract, confuse, and cloud one's thoughts. All tools helpful for ninja.
He just thought that Orochimaru would never learn to use this particular tool. Still, there was a solid chance that there was something here, buried under everything else that Orochimaru didn't want them seeing. Something he didn't want them to notice.
Something like his weakness; Orochimaru always hated asking for help. It might be that he finally realized how lost he was and-
Hiruzen halted that line of thought. He couldn't afford to think that way. How many times did it take him touching the fire before his heart learned that it burns?
"Shikaku. Get them set up. Full debrief. Go over everything with a fine tooth comb. Then do it again. I want all the eyes you can get on this." Hiruzen ordered.
"Yes sir." Shikaku stated before turning to usher Team 7 out.
"Wait, Old Man, I didn't get to tell you about her steamy girl fight!" Naruto yelled as he left.
Hiruzen waited for them to leave before slamming his head into the desk, as he chastised himself. He did NOT want to ask for details about that last sentence.
It would be in the reports that he'd read later though, so-
He shook his head. Best not to focus on that. He had work to do, and maybe the other members of his team would have more insight into this. Jiraiya had been chasing down leads about Orochimaru for decades. He might be able to shed some light on the situation.
Hiruzen began to write a letter, explaining everything he found out.
He threw it in the trash and instead wrote an order for Jiraiya's immediate recall back to the village with top priority. This wasn't the kind of thing one just put in a letter and have the other person believe.
Besides, it could be that all of Team 7 and an entire village of people were crazy. It was a long shot but it almost made more sense than what he was dealing with.
There was a knock at the door and the man known as the God of Shinobi gave a weary sigh. A glance at the door guard told him what he needed to know.
"Enter." He stated.
The door opened and his old rival walked in the door. Danzo stood in front of his desk and did not bow his head.
"I heard you have news on Orochimaru."
Hiruzen smiled the same smile he had been given by Shikaku earlier. He now understood what caused it. Schadenfreude.
"Excellent Danzo. Let me tell you a story." Hiruzen began.
I looked to the coffin I had just summoned and the lid fell away. Kabuto gasped behind me. I hadn't told him who I was summoning.
"Mother." Kabuto muttered, entranced.
Yakushi Nono was not a very pretty woman. Most people would call her plain looking, she had a wide face, too small a nose and crows feat next to her eyes. She was not a particularly powerful ninja and she wasn't very well known.
The woman's eyes snapped open and she looked directly at me.
"Orochimaru!" She growled.
"Ara Ara, I go by Orochitama these days!" I said waving a hand dismissively. "My appearance looks quite different than you expected after all."
The woman squinted hard at me and I suddenly remembered that she needed to wear glasses.
Kabuto had grown very still behind me and stood unmoving, giving a quiet whisper, "Why did you summon her?"
Nono's head snapped to look at him, here eyes still squinting, trying to see. "Who was that?"
"That was your son, Kabuto." I answered, making the woman recoil in shock. "But that's not why I summoned you. There was something else I needed to know. Something that I'm hoping that you, Shimura Danzo's doctor and former genin, will be able to tell me."
"I won't betray Konoha." The woman said immediately, more reflex than any real thought.
"I don't want you to." I informed backing away and giving the woman more room, trying to make her feel less threatened. "I just want to know if you can confirm a suspicion of mine. Something that makes all the pieces of a puzzle line up for me."
"And what is that?" The woman asked hesitantly.
"Did Danzo arrange your death because you found out that he used Uchiha Shisui's eye to get away with arranging the Uchiha Massacre?"
The woman's eyes widened and she gasped "How did you know that?"
A smile split my face. Got him.
"Thank you, Nono-san. Please, talk with your son. I have plans to make."
I turned and left the room. I had what I needed. Confirmation. I didn't want to bet all my plans on the information without knowing it was true. Danzo had used a genjutsu on the Hokage to get his way. Done it who knew how many times. It's why he showed no fear in crossing lines that would have gotten others executed.
Now that I knew...well Danzo wasn't going to manage to stick around for much longer.
In the mean time, it was music night! I was really looking forward to seeing what all my ninjas managed to put together!
I walked off into the base humming lightly with a spring in my step.