Orochimaru gets what he wants, and gives someone else what he wants in return. Veers from canon around episode 110; gen, rating for violence.
Farewell, remorse: all good to me is lost;
Evil, be thou my good.
The sky is dark when he finally finds the road again, rain pouring down around him. Anyone else would have trouble seeing in such heavy rainfall, but he doesn't- well, other than when his sodden hair falls into his face and he has to brush it away. He doesn't mind that so much, though, because that's something new- leaving his forehead bare of bandages and forehead protector for once, letting his hair fall around his face and into his eyes. It's ironic that the skies open like that the very day he leaves Sound.
A month ago, he would have assumed it was fate, that the rain was there to slow him down and allow him to be captured. A year ago he would have even believed the assumption. Now, though, he wonders if the very weather isn't obeying Orochimaru's every whim now, and if the storm is from his outrage. Even if he's not the next body for Orochimaru, he's still a powerful ninja- only Kabuto, Sasuke, and Orochimaru himself can match him- and in possession of a powerful bloodline limit, a technique that Orochimaru can't learn.
Techniques he can't learn, can never learn no matter how many stolen years he devotes to their study, irritate Orochimaru. That's why he chose Uchiha Sasuke as his new body, after all, for the Sharingan technique (and that makes him wonder, what would happen if Orochimaru had happened across him and not Sasuke, because his bloodline limit is even more powerful, if there would be a curse seal on his neck now and Sasuke would be the one running away). And if he can't learn a technique, having its user slip through his fingers is the worst thing that can happen.
Even away from the Hidden Village of Sound and without the cursed seal that gave the head family power of life and death over him, he has no illusions of safety. He's a missing-nin now, and more importantly a missing-nin with the most jealously guarded bloodline limit in Fire Country. His clan will demand his death, not realizing he's been unsealed, and Orochimaru could want any number of things. He could press him back into service, kill him, or worst of all burn the seal back into him. Other hidden villages will accept him where other missing-nins would be turned away- if only so they can kill him and take the secrets of his bloodline from his corpse. And now that he's been unsealed, they could.
No, Hyuuga Neji knows that he is in far more danger than an ordinary missing-nin. Konoha isn't likely to chase him, even at the demands of the Hyuuga clan, because they have an Orochimaru with all of his old capabilities again- and those of Uchiha Sasuke as well- but most missing-nins aren't sought by other hidden villages so they can be taken apart and studied, either.
He wonders if he's the first member of the branch family to break away, to have his seal removed, to threaten the secrecy of the Byakugan technique.
"You- Neji, they'll kill you," Hinata said quietly, reaching out to take his arm in a too-gentle hand. "Please, don't do this."
"They won't kill me unless you tell them where I'm going. For all the attention the head family pays to the branch, I could be on a mission." Neji pulled away, but he did turn around to look at her. "Do you want it on your conscience, Lady Hinata, that you killed your own cousin?"
"They'll know you went!" Hinata continued, finally meeting his eyes. "They watch you more than they do the rest of the branch family because you're so strong, you're the genius of the whole clan. My father will know-"
"Then lie to them."
Hinata had listened to him. Hinata always listened to everyone, because she didn't like confrontations. How many times had he overheard whispered conversations among the rest of Hyuuga, lamenting the fact that Hinata's father had been the elder of the two brothers? That the two brothers had been equal in power, but that their children were not?
Hinata must have lied for him, because he'd made it to Sound without the seal activating itself. He doesn't know if it was made weaker by distance, or if they'd told Hinata to kill him and she hadn't had the gall. And there is no way they would send someone after him if they can't use the seal from a distance, because there was no one in Konoha to spare. All throughout his time in Sound, no one ever came for him- or for Sasuke, for that matter.
The rain shows no sign of letting up, and the road is deserted. Very few people would risk traveling on the road, but the rain will wash away his trail, and traveling in the rain will give him a significant advantage: he suffers from almost no visibility loss. Almost no one else can claim that advantage in rain this heavy, except perhaps Hyuuga Hiashi himself. And even if Konoha could spare someone to chase him, so long after his disappearance, it wouldn't be the head of the Hyuuga family.
And even if Hiashi does come, Neji can beat him now. There's no sword hanging over his head to be dropped with one gesture from Hiashi or his daughters, and that means the fight would depend on ability. That means Neji can win.
He's kept his Leaf forehead protector all this time, planning to replace the Sound emblem when he got away. But when the time came and he took off the Sound emblem, he found he couldn't bring himself to restore the Leaf. Konoha's emblem had only ever served to hide his curse from the rest of the village, and there was no curse there to hide anymore.
He throws both forehead protectors to the ground and walks on.
For spirits when they please
Can either sex assume, or both.
Orochimaru is in a foul mood, despite the successful transfer to Uchiha Sasuke's body. He's young again, beautiful and strong and in possession of the second most fearsome bloodline limit in Fire Country. Second most fearsome, because he couldn't do anything except possess a body he'd already marked a seal on with his arms made useless by that son of a bitch Sarutobi. The Hyuuga boy had wandered right to them with Sasuke, and Orochimaru couldn't even change his plan now that a better vessel had come along.
At first, Orochimaru agreed to remove the seal because he had a vague notion of keeping him in reserve, in case something happened to him while he inhabited the Uchiha boy's body. Besides that, breaking one of Konoha's oldest and dearest traditions, the division of the Hyuuga clan, amused him then and still does now. And in return the Hyuuga boy had sworn his loyalty and replaced the Leaf symbol on his forehead with that of Sound.
"Are we going after the boy, Lord Orochimaru?" Kabuto asks him, treading carefully. He knows when his master is in a dangerous mood, even when expression and body language are warped to fit in a new body. Uchiha Sasuke was smaller than Orochimaru's old body, and all of his old mannerisms seem overdone in the new frame.
"Of course not, you idiot," Orochimaru snaps in the voice not his own, though for the moment his words mirror things Sasuke did say in life. That moment leaves as soon as he continues, though, and Orochimaru is once more distinguishable from Sasuke. "We can't see through this rain and fog, and he can. He's probably halfway to Wind Country by now."
"The Kazekage will extradite him, of course." Kabuto says with quiet confidence, light glinting from his glasses and for a moment hiding his eyes.
"Why are you stupider than usual today?" Orochimaru asks harshly, and this doesn't faze Kabuto. He's used to this, to death threats, to every form of ranting and raving an impotent Orochimaru could devise while his arms lay sealed. "I unsealed the boy. He's worth more to the Kazekage as he is than anything Konoha would give in return for him. The Kazekage- or any other leader- will either keep him there, or kill him and study his bloodline limit. And he's a clever boy, unlike you. He knows what they'll do if they catch him."
"Then what do you propose we do, Lord Orochimaru?" A fine edge of irritation, the most Kabuto will ever show around his master, threads its way through his voice. "Let him slip away from us?"
"If nothing else, we've denied Konoha the strongest inheritor of the byakugan. He would have been a force to rival you within a year, and one to rival myself inside of five. Without the guidance he would have recieved there, he'll never reach that potential. He'll be a missing-nin, and a second-rate one." Orochimaru looks down at his new hands and thinks vaguely that they're very plain. It's been years since he's looked down and seen unlacquered nails. "Because even though I'm sure the Hyuuga will call for blood, Konoha doesn't have enough manpower to make him a ranked criminal. And if they do, they won't this time tomorrow."
"Should I ready the Sound squads, then, Lord Orochimaru?" Kabuto asks unnecessarily. He knows what his master will have him do.
"Yes, Kabuto. Do that." Orochimaru is still examining his hands in fascination, because he hasn't had hands in so very long.
He'll have to lacquer his nails, if only to see the look on Uchiha Itachi's face when he adds up the small details and realize his brother isn't his killer.
The infernal serpent; he it was whose guile,
Stirr'd up with envy and revenge, deceived
The mother of mankind.
Orochimaru doesn't accompany Kabuto and the Sound ninjas to their destination in Konoha. He might have, had Jiraiya and Tsunade not both come out of retirement, but they had and he wasn't confident he could best the two shinobi called his equals. He's heard that Uchiha Itachi and his second turned and ran when Jiraiya confronted them, and that hardens his resolve even further. He will not fight Jiraiya or Tsunade, because a snake values its own skin until the time comes to shed it.
Besides, he has a man he hates more than he could ever hate his two former comrades. He can't risk his life fighting friends turned enemies before he kills the man he's resented for so long.
Itachi hears him coming, of course. He's with that Hidden Mist monster, Kisame, as always. Orochimaru has never seen him outside the company of his loyal second.
"Kisame, leave us." Itachi waves his second away, and Kisame shoulders the Samehada and leaves without protest. He's seen Itachi fight his brother before, and knows that it will be an easy victory. Kisame thinks Orochimaru is Sasuke, and lets his guard down.
Itachi thinks Orochimaru is Sasuke, but for him that means not letting his guard down. It's so beautiful that Orochimaru would weep, except that he doesn't think he can anymore.
"Uchiha Itachi." Orochimaru smiles at him, and immediately Itachi's guard isn't just in place, it's actively up. He knows something is off. He's spent a long time gauging Sasuke's reactions, and this isn't one of them. "It's been a long time."
"Orochimaru." Itachi catches the serpentine nuance to the voice, or he recognizes the way his opponent is dressed, or perhaps he simply has an odd flash of insight. They say that children, animals, and the insane sometimes have those. "That's the last body I would expect you to lay claim to."
"I'm surprised that you care." Orochimaru twirls a kunai between his fingers, metal clicking against the hard black sheen of his nails.
"You should have stayed out of Uchiha affairs, Orochimaru." Itachi advances on him, eyes bleeding to red. "And now you're in a body I can defeat."
"You don't seem to realize that I still have everything I used to." Orochimaru's smile only fades when he opens his mouth and the snake bearing his sword fills his throat out of nowhere.
After it's all over, Orochimaru wonders if he could learn the chakra-stealing technique of the Samehada. He decides that it can't hurt to find out, and so he wipes Kusanagi on the bloodstained Akatsuki cloak and heads back to find Hoshigaki Kisame.
And when night
Darkens the streets, then wander forth the sons
Of Belial, flown with insolence and wine.
When they find the bodies of the S-ranked criminals Uchiha Itachi and Hoshikage Kisame, the team from Konoha begins to doubt that Orochimaru's plan went as expected. After all, why would Orochimaru want Itachi dead?
"If we're lucky," Shikamaru says slowly, as if the words themselves are too much trouble, "He changed his plan and took over Neji instead. Then Hanabi can just use her seal and everything will be done."
Hyuuga Hanabi merely nods. She's on the team, a genin to their chuunin, because her older sister isn't trusted with this job. Hinata is too soft. She won't kill with the seal, and she's lied for Neji before. The Hyuuga succesor is as close to disgrace as someone of her standing can be.
Tenten doesn't even acknowledge that Shikamaru spoke. She was chosen as the third team member because she knows Neji and his style of combat better than anyone else outside the Hyuuga clan, but she seems reluctant now to carry out the mission. She doesn't say it, because she knows her duty.
"Are either of you going to say anything?" Shikamaru finally asks in irritation, scrubbing a hand through his ponytail. "Women are so useless sometimes."
"I'll make sure to let Temari know that, the next time she's in from Sand." Tenten stands up suddenly. "There's an easy way to settle at least a little of this. Hanabi, use your byakugan and tell us if their chakra systems were damaged before they died."
"You can leave Temari out of this," Shikamaru mutters, and then turns to Hanabi. "Do that. If the tenketsu are blocked, then we know Orochimaru is in Neiji's body, or Neji himself did this. Not that either one's likely."
The sudden swelling of veins over and around Hanabi's eyes makes Shikamaru feel almost ill, but Tenten seems unfazed. She was on Neji's team before this, after all, so she must be used to it by now.
"These bodies are almost too badly mangled to tell, but their tenketsu seem to have been open when they died. This was not the work of a Hyuuga- or at least, not a Hyuuga as powerful as Neji." The veins recede with a slither Shikamaru swears is audible after Hanabi speaks.
"So we have to assume it was Sasuke." Tenten wanders away from them, towards the road, her eyes on something the other two haven't spotted. "Because it wasn't Neji, and Orochimaru has no motive. And it's not really likely that bandits or missing-nin could waylay a pair of ranked criminals."
When she reaches the side of the road, Tenten finds what she'd seen gleaming: a pair of forehead protectors. One bears the leaf of Konoha, while the other is from Sound.
"They look like they've been there for days, so whomever dropped them probably isn't the killer," Hanabi obseves when she and Shikamaru reach Tenten. Shikamaru pokes at the mismatched forehead protectors disinterestedly. "Who would have both of these, and a reason, to throw both of them away?"
"Neji, if he got to Orochimaru with Sasuke," Tenten points out. "Sasuke, Kabuto, even Orochimaru himself. Pick one."
Shikamaru already has one picked out by the time they begin walking again, but explaining it to the others would be too much trouble.
So he with difficulty and labor hard
Mov'd on, with difficulty and labor be.
Their paths cross the next day, purely by chance.
"You're not crawling back to Konoha after breaking our deal?" Orochimaru asks, still more a grotesque parody of Uchiha Sasuke than he is himself.
"Why, to be killed or sealed again?" Neji speaks as if Orochimaru is stupid and won't understand him. Orochimaru hates being insulted. Neji knows it, and that's why he uses such a voice.
"I'd think that the upstanding people of Konoha would love a heartwrenching story of how you barely escaped from the S-rank criminal." Orochimaru knows the softheartedness of Konoha well, because it's the reason he is alive and in the body he has now. He supposes that things are stricter, less forgiving and soft, under Tsunade than they were under Sarutobi.
"If I were Uchiha Sasuke, they would." Neji informed him coldly, eyes paler and more brutal under his newly-bared brow than they'd been before. "I don't want to fight you, and I don't want anything more to do with Konoha." He walks past Orochimaru without looking back.
Orochimaru reaches for a weapon before he realizes that Neji hasn't looked back because he doesn't need to.
"If you think you can surprise me that way, your mind was sealed along with your arms." Neji calls back, no trace of taunting in his voice. He walks on.
Orochimaru turns around slowly. He vaguely recognizes one of the Konoha ninjas, the boy who's been leading almost every squad sent after Sasuke since the beginning- Shikamaru- but he doesn't know the other two. They're both women- well, one a young woman and one no more than a little girl. The little girl is a Hyuuga, and she's sighted Neji. She forms a seal with her hands that Orochimaru's never seen before in his studies.
"Are you not doing it right, Hanabi?" Shikamaru asks in frustration, and at the mention of her name Neji stops. He turns around slowly to face them, and what little color is in Hanabi's already-pale face slips away at the sight of his face.
"Shikamaru. Tenten. Lady Hanabi." He nods to the first two as an acknowledgement, but only looks at Hanabi.
"The seal...." Hanabi trails off before she can finish the thought, sounding for a moment more like her sister than herself.
"None of you have any power over me anymore, Lady Hanabi." Neji's voice is soft, so that they can barely hear him where they stand. "You, of all people, should understand this, since they're going to seal you when your sister-"
"Shut up!" Hanabi orders him, as if she expects him to have to listen. "How did you get rid of it? No one can remove that seal!"
"I took it off for him." Orochimaru smiles again, and it unnerves the Konoha shinobi. They're not used to seeing Sasuke smile. "Unfortunately, now he doesn't want to fulfill his end of the bargain and work for me."
"You're nothing but a traitor, shirking your duties because you don't like them- you think you're better than the rest of the Branch family, but you're not-" Hanabi is cut off abruptly when Neji closes the gap between them with incredible speed, right past Orochimaru, and slaps her across the face.
"We'll see what you say when your own sister carves that seal into your forehead and makes you a branch Hyuuga." Neji tells her coldly. "Aren't I better than the rest of the Branch family? I'm your first cousin, not some distant clan member that's hardly blood related. Had you and Lady Hinata not been born, I would be the successor to the clan. Some members of the Branch family are less suited to servitude than others, Lady Hanabi. We'll see which you are when that time comes- or rather, you will, since I don't plan to be in Konoha to see it."
And with that, Neji turns around again and walks back the way he was going.
"Did he hit any tenketsu with that?" Shikamaru asks Hanabi sharply.
"No." Hanabi shakes her head. Most Hyuuga would add that he didn't have his byakugan activated, but she knows that he's probably memorized the locations of the more vital tenktesu. After all, she has. "He came close, though."
"Missed?" Shikamaru asks.
"A warning." Tenten interrupts them both. "Neji doesn't miss unless he means to, Shikamaru."
Orochimaru decides that it's time to strike, to eliminate these children, only to find that he can't. He's been immobilized.
"You let your guard down, Orochimaru." Shikamaru has him bound to his shadow, and backs him away from the road. "Hanabi. I'll move with him, but I won't actually have my tenketsu sealed, so don't stop no matter what you see. Tenten, you go after Neji. He'll listen to you."
Fate shall yield
To fickle Chance, and Chaos judge the strife.
"Tenten." Neji stops for her. "I'm surprised they sent you."
"Well, they thought they should send someone from our team, that would know your combat patterns, and Gai and Lee both agreed that I knew more about you because we practiced together so often." Tenten sounds less than thrilled at having been chosen for the task. "I didn't want to come."
"I know. But you had no choice." Neji looks up at the sky, rather than at her. "If destiny doesn't choose our lives for us, then other people will."
"I'm not going to take you back. Or kill you." Tenten's mouth is a firm line, no twitch or frown betraying her resolve. "Shikamaru knows it. And he knows you know it. That's why he sent me ahead while they deal with Sasuke."
"He's Orochimaru now. Uchiha Sasuke is dead." Neji finally looks down- though not all the way down, because she's still taller than he is- and meets her eyes.
"I know. Shikamaru figured it out." Tenten nods. "He killed Uchiha Itachi, but we can't figure out why."
"Orochimaru and Itachi had something between them in the past. I don't know what it was, but Orochimaru raved about killing Itachi every time I saw him. He's not the most stable of people." Neji states this as fact, not opinion. "Every time he wasn't calling Kabuto a fool or complaining that he couldn't possess me because he couldn't form a seal, that is."
On impulse, Tenten moves forward and hugs him. Neji doesn't push her back, because he can see well enough that she doesn't intend to attack him. He spent years training with Tenten and her weapons, and he knows what it looks like when she conceals one.
"Go. Shikamaru knows I'm letting you leave, and Hanabi... well, she's going to be raving about you not having your seal anymore, so I don't know how seriously anyone is going to be taking her anyway." Tenten doesn't speak sentimentally, and there are no hidden depths to her voice. She's merely giving a friend- a teammate, a member of her squad- the chance to escape with his life.
"...thank you, Tenten." Neji turns away from her and walks on, down the road that leads toward Wind Country.
Tenten turns the opposite way, away from her old teammate, and heads back to where her current teammates will need her help.
Stood up, the strongest and the fiercest spirit
That fought in heaven, now fiercer by despair.
author's notes: That was extremely pretentious and I should never do it again. All the italicized quotes are from John Milton's /Paradise Lost/.