Summary: Summer's end.
Orochimaru kills his way across Snow. He’s been sent after a faction of slave traders/A-rank missing-nin – thirty-two targets in total – and they’re scattered all across the country after one of their operations was interrupted by Yuki-nin. No one in Yukigakure was able to catch or kill the missing-nin before they escaped however so the job was forwarded to Konoha.
It’s harder to track people in a perpetual year-round winter, especially rogue ninja who are used to shaking off tails, not to mention already paranoid because Yukigakure has been sending shinobi after them for months, but Orochimaru’s had worse targets under even worse conditions. He hunts down and poisons seventeen men in the first month, quick and clean, taking their heads and burning their bodies before moving on.
The second month is worse because word has spread that someone has succeeded in wiping out just over half of their motley group. Orochimaru is methodical though, and he’s got time. He tracks down three more missing-nin right before a blizzard sweeps in; then he throws a henge over himself and takes shelter at an upscale lodge. He has standards that don’t include freezing to death in a hundred below, and the only good thing about the Land of Snow is their advanced level of technology, which means furnaces and luxurious rooms built to accommodate even the richest of daimyos. Orochimaru isn’t a daimyo but he is rich. You don’t get to be his age and his level of shinobi and not have the funds to back it up. Well, unless you’re Tsunade.
And while he’s holed up, he also makes a few discreet enquiries about the whereabouts of Uchiha Itachi. Rumours of Konoha’s most prominent traitor is still more or less going strong, but no one’s actually seen him out and about.
That’s okay; Orochimaru can be patient. He’ll track down Itachi sooner or later.
Other than that, he kills six slave traders in total, leaving him with nine more to go as August comes to an end.
September doesn't bring much change in the weather. At least not positive change; if anything, it just gets colder. Orochimaru splits his attention between keeping his ear to the ground for rumours of the missing-nin still at large and cursing Sensei to the pits of hell for assigning him this mission in the first place.
Even worse, the nine remaining missing-nin are apparently smarter than the rest, or they've at least learned from their dead colleagues’ mistakes – all the others were alone and hiding out in towns when Orochimaru caught up with them, so these missing-nin have decided to meet up in groups of twos and threes, and then take a hike up a mountain and squat in any number of those tiny communities tucked behind outcrops to avoid discovery and subsequent death.
Orochimaru is going to kill them all slowly and painfully just because they've made his life a hundred times more difficult than it needs to be. That, and the fact that now there’s no way he’s going to make it back in time for Naruto’s birthday this year. He’ll be lucky if he makes it back in time for Anko’s.
But it’s his job, and he’s never been one to complain, so he heads up the mountain after his targets. He’s only ever failed five missions in his entire life, and two of those were when he was a Genin and one of those was entirely Jiraiya’s fault anyway; he’s not about to add to that tally over a measly mid-level S-rank.
It takes him exactly forty-four days of surviving in extreme conditions and nearly braining himself when he and two of his targets take a tumble off a cliff that results in three broken ribs to find and kill the remaining nine. The last three – two men and a woman all in chakra armour – are the sturdiest of the lot-
“You're not even a Yuki-nin!” One of the missing-nin shrills, hastily picking herself up off the floor as Orochimaru flashes behind another and drags Kusanagi across the man’s throat. “Y- You're Konoha’s Snake Sannin!”
-but not exactly the brightest. They can take a beating though, and they're fast, good at evasion; Orochimaru will give them that. Still...
“You made me waste a month and a half on this mountain,” Orochimaru remarks in a pleasant tone of voice as he squares off against the two still standing. The one on the ground is still gurgling weakly through a partially slit throat. “I promised myself I would give you all a slow painful death in return.”
Terror spasms across both missing-nin’s face, if only because they know they can’t win here, not against one of the world’s best shinobi, and the one not exactly known for his mercy to boot. Still, ninja aren’t in the habit of going down without a fight.
In the end, the other male dies convulsing from an excruciatingly slow-working poison that doesn't let him die until it finishes melting down his bones on the inside. The kunoichi gets personally bisected by Orochimaru himself after she actually manages to injure him by cutting into his thigh with a kunai. A slightly quicker death than the others as congratulations. The first man that Orochimaru took down dies after the woman but long before the second man who tried to run.
All three die in agony, as promised.
So sue him. It’s been a difficult forty-four days, and Orochimaru loathes the cold. He needs to take his ire out on someone.
But now, with his mission accomplished at last, and his slightly heightened healing factor already working on his wounds, Orochimaru can finally go home.
“Alright, pair up!” Iruka-sensei instructs. “Remember, this project is worth twenty percent of your overall grade this semester, and you and your partner will both get the same mark, so pick someone you can at least get along with.”
Naruto mentally goes through his entire list of classmates in seconds, discarding three-quarters of them within half that time. He has no friends in this class, or this village for that matter, but there are a few students whom Naruto has noted to hold no animosity towards him.
Nara Shikamaru and Akimichi Chouji are okay, he’s even talked to them a couple times during lunch or after school, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that they would be partnering up with each other, so they're out.
Uchiha Sasuke – while not having a problem with him per se, mostly because Naruto is supposedly average – is still pretty emo after the whole Massacre thing. Naruto doesn't begrudge him for feeling upset over that incident but the other boy has also become irritatingly conceited, acting like he’s god’s gift to humanity, which is only encouraged by how the villagers pamper him and praise him, and an official gaggle of fangirls have formed in his honour over the summer. Naruto is so not working with that.
Then there’s Hyuuga Hinata whom he’s never actually spoken to. The few times he’s tried – picking up a pencil she dropped, holding a door open for her with a ‘good morning’, even apologizing that one time he accidentally bumped into her – all resulted in the girl turning bright red in an astounding two seconds, and either stammering something incomprehensible or fainting clean away. Naruto has no idea why – he’s fairly certain it isn’t because she’s scared of him, but still, he can’t really partner up with someone like that if he wants a person who will work efficiently with him on the project so that they’ll both deserve the good mark.
That leaves Aburame Shino, a loner just like Naruto whom nobody really speaks to either because the way he talks is a bit odd, or because his clan’s signature kikaichuu ensure that most kids give him a wide berth. Or both. Naruto doesn't have any problems with bugs though, and while they've never spoken either, Shino hasn't shown any particular hostility towards him – or any other emotion for that matter – and Naruto knows that his marks are mid-class too but he pays attention and seems to work hard; that’s good enough for Naruto.
So without further ado because someone else might want to partner up with Shino too, Naruto hauls ass across the classroom even as the other students converge on each other and squabble over who gets to work with who (or, for the girls, who gets to work with Sasuke). He makes a beeline for the Aburame heir who hasn't gotten up from his seat yet, still reading the worksheet that Iruka-sensei handed out earlier. The boy is probably waiting for the more gung-ho students to finish pairing up, and then Iruka-sensei would pair off those who haven't found a partner.
Naruto stops a polite foot away from Shino’s desk, waiting patiently until the boy glances up. Then he offers a bright smile. “Hi, I'm Uzumaki Naruto. Do you want to work on this project together?”
He can’t tell what’s going on behind Shino’s sunglasses but the visible parts of his face show a touch of surprise.
“I would not mind,” Shino agrees after a few stilted seconds. “Why? Because while your grades suggest an average student at best, you have a habit of answering exactly fifty percent of any questions asked in class every week, and the marks you get have kept you in eighth or ninth place in the overall class rankings since last March.” He pauses, and on anyone else, it would have been an embarrassed silence before he tacks on like he thinks that maybe he should have led with that, “I am Aburame Shino. I will pull my own weight for the project.”
Naruto just grins. “Yeah, I know, I’ve seen your grades too.” He drops into the spare seat next to Shino. “So, what should we do for this topic?”
They both turn to look at the single line of writing at the top of the worksheet.
‘What is teamwork?’
Orochimaru keeps his verbal report to the Hokage as short and succinct as always. Sensei is borderline glaring at him from the moment he lands on the windowsill to the moment he leaves.
Ah, Naruto must have given him hell all through the summer. Good boy.
“Orochimaru,” Sarutobi-sensei calls out just as Orochimaru is about to Shunshin away. He stops but doesn't look back.
“He’s just a child,” Sensei says, and it sounds like the warning it is.
I am not the one who forgot that and threw him to the dogs, Orochimaru thinks back scathingly, because yes, Orochimaru took Naruto in when he was five, gave him a home and all the things a child could want, and raised him – is still raising him – to the very best of his ability, but those first five years are never going to go away, those first five years took a piece of Naruto’s innocence – Naruto’s happiness – from the boy, and even now, no matter how much he no longer cares about the insults and the hatred and the fear, it’s still not an environment in which anyone should live in, much less one in which a child has to grow up in.
Orochimaru would know; he has the experience to back it up, and look how he turned out.
But he doesn't say any of this to Sensei, and when nothing more comes, Orochimaru takes off out the window without a word.
As he leaps over the rooftops, it occurs to him that school is about to let out. He considers it for a second before smirking and changing his destination. There is no longer any need to hide, and Orochimaru has no intentions of concealing the fact that Uzumaki Naruto is now under the Snake Sannin’s protection. People will talk, there will be more uneasy looks, but those are common enough already. At least this way, people will think twice before attempting anything harmful on their scapegoat.
Besides, Naruto has always wanted someone to pick him up from school, and it’s been three and a half months since they've seen each other. This will be a nice surprise.
Naruto knows that clans are iffy about who they let into their compound so he understands when Shino doesn't bring up that suggestion while the two of them are comparing schedules for when they can meet up outside of class to work on their project.
Naruto can’t bring Shino back to his home either; the seals won’t let him in, and Naruto doesn't trust Shino anywhere near enough to give him free access even if he could anyway.
However, “I have an apartment,” Naruto proposes just as the bell rings, recalling how Maru-ji once told him back when he first moved in with the Sannin that an extra residence wouldn’t hurt anyone, and it may come in handy one day for something other than just fooling the Hokage. “We could work there.”
He’ll have to remember to stock up the fridge though. It’s empty right now. The entire place is empty actually.
Shino inclines his head as they walk out of the building together. “That is acceptable. Tomorrow after school?”
Naruto nods in agreement. “Sounds good. We can-”
He freezes mid-step when his gaze lands on the gates, only now registering the unnaturally muted murmurs buzzing around him (Anko-nee would kill him for being so oblivious). Shino has stopped as well, and Naruto can feel the boy’s quizzical gaze on him, but his entire focus has zeroed in on the black-haired figure leaning nonchalantly against one side of the front entrance.
His entire face splits into a grin, and he takes off at a sprint even as he hollers for the entire courtyard to hear, “MARU-JI! MARU-JI, YOU'RE HOME!!”
He slams full tilt into the Snake Sannin who’s still in his mission gear and smells faintly of blood and ice and sweat, but Naruto cannot freakin’ care less as a hand drops on his head in an achingly familiar gesture. Maru-ji’s gone on months-long missions before but this latest one was the first after the Hokage found out about their living arrangements, as well as his discovery of being the Jinchuuriki. With ANBU practically camping in the trees just outside his home, and even a few Jounin – including Hatake, and Naruto’s kept his promise; just the other day, he and Anko pranked him so that the man left a trail of glittery footprints everywhere he went – following him without even trying to be subtle about it during the handfuls of times he’s been in town or made his way to and from school, things were getting a bit stressful.
“What does that demon think he’s doing touching a Sannin?”
Naruto stiffens and almost jerks back, but then the hand in his hair slips behind his neck in Maru-ji’s signature gesture of affection because the Sannin apparently never learned how to initiate hugs, and when Naruto peers upward, he finds Maru-ji’s frigid golden stare pinning a civilian woman in place, her kid standing beside her.
“Is there a problem?” Maru-ji enquires in a frosty tone of voice that makes the civilian falter and shrink back.
“I- I- No, Orochimaru-sama, but that’s-”
“Kindly mind your own business then,” Maru-ji shuts her down with efficient ease, and the woman hastily nods and retreats, grabbing her kid and booking it out of the Academy. When Maru-ji surveys the rest of the courtyard, everyone staring at them with their eyes bulging out of their sockets swiftly avert their gazes.
Naruto beams. Maybe a part of him was somewhat anxious about what would happen once Maru-ji got home.
He finally pulls back, only to slip his hand into Maru-ji’s. “I'm so glad you're home! And almost half a month early too! How was your mission? Were you hurt?” His grin turns mischievous. “Did you meet any polar bears?”
He gets cuffed over the head for that one but he can’t stop guffawing at the long-suffering look on Maru-ji’s face. The polar bear story is never going to get old.
“A success, nothing that won’t heal within a few days, and no, fortunately for the polar bear population,” Maru-ji answers in succession, and then adds, “You’re such a brat. I’ve suddenly forgotten all the reasons I rushed my mission as much as possible.”
Naruto snickers, a warm glow blooming in his chest upon hearing that last bit. He pulls up short when he catches sight of Shino still standing off to the side where Naruto ditched him, and he almost slaps himself for being so rude to his classmate.
“Crap, uh, Shino!” Naruto calls out, glancing up at Maru-ji who is already schooling his expression into something still distantly polite but less unapproachable than before when he was facing down the judgmental crowd.
“Sorry for just leaving you there,” Naruto apologizes sheepishly as he tugs Maru-ji over to join the Aburame heir. “This is my uncle. He’s been on a mission for the last several months, and he just got back. Maru-ji, this is Aburame Shino. We’re working on a project together.”
Shino isn’t dumb, he knows who he’s meeting, clan kids probably have parents who make them memorize all the important people in the village so that they don’t accidentally offend them, and the deer-in-the-headlights look would probably be pretty blatant on Shino right now if it weren’t for the high collar and sunglasses. As it is, the boy quickly sketches a respectful greeting in the form of a textbook bow.
“Orochimaru-sama,” He intones in a murmur before straightening up again.
“Hm,” Maru-ji catalogues him with a languid up-down sweep of his eyes. Naruto kinda hopes he approves because even after only just a day of conversing with Shino, Naruto’s found that the Aburame heir really isn’t that bad to hang out with. They even ate lunch together today.
“You're Shibi’s boy?” It’s barely a question but Shino nods anyway.
“Your father’s a decent shinobi,” Maru-ji remarks in an offhand tone but his gaze doesn't waver from Shino’s face, as if the Sannin can see straight through the boy’s sunglasses. “Perhaps you might surpass him one day.”
He doesn't wait for a response, already turning away in a clear dismissal as he focuses on Naruto again.
“Since you're with a friend, I’ll head home first.” A half-smile tips up one corner of Maru-ji’s mouth. “You and Anko can tell me about your summer over supper.”
Naruto nods eagerly. “Right, see you at home, Maru-ji!”
Maru-ji leaves in a blur of black and forest green, and Naruto can’t wait until he learns the Shunshin himself. It’s so much cooler than walking everywhere.
“You two do not look alike,” Shino comments once the Sannin is good and gone. Naruto can practically see the HINT HINT neon sign.
“We’re not related by blood,” Naruto clarifies. “But I got into some trouble when I was younger and Maru-ji helped me out. He keeps an eye on me nowadays when he’s not busy, just to make sure I'm alright.”
There, that doesn't give too much away.
“And, uh, Maru-ji’s a tough guy to impress,” Naruto adds. “So about what he said to you... I don’t know, just don’t take it to heart if you feel insulted.”
Shino cocks his head in a puzzled sort of way. “I am not insulted. Why? Because that was clearly encouragement from Orochimaru-sama.”
Naruto blinks. “...Huh. Not many people realize that. They sort of get... unnerved when Maru-ji looks at them for too long, and he has this way of talking that just automatically makes most people think he’s insulting them, even when he’s complimenting them. Not that he compliments a lot of people, or even talks to a lot of people for that matter, but the point stands.”
Shino raises his eyebrows.
Naruto shrugs. “Yeah, human beings can be stupid, but what can ya do? Anyway, my apartment, straight after school tomorrow?”