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Hiding in the Leaves

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001. sasuke: commencement


On commencement day, Sasuke is not alone. This in itself is unusual, making the day feel even stranger. After today, he will never again visit the Ninja Academy, except maybe to bring his own children there one day, or much sooner than that, to pick up a distant cousin after school as a favor to an uncle or a grandma.

It'll be weird, but Sasuke hopes it'll be the good kind of weird. He doesn't know yet which team he'll be assigned to or with whom—Iruka-sensei says they'll get their assignments when they get their commencement scrolls—but he's ready to move forward, to learn new things that will help him get stronger. He won't get there as fast as aniki did, maybe, but that's okay. By now he knows this as fact, and it doesn't stop him from working hard, very hard, so that he, too, can bring honor to his clan and his village.

His excitement mixes with his anxiety and leaves him jittering as he waits by the genkan. When chichiue steps out, Sasuke forces himself into an obedient stillness.

Chichiue seems distracted today. Sasuke chews on his lip and hopes that the ceremony doesn't take too long, so that he doesn't keep chichiue from more important clan things at the shrine. If he had a choice about the matter, he would have told chichiue that he could go alone. But he knows that going alone would set a bad image for the clan to the rest of the village, showing as if their family isn't united as a single entity, and Sasuke does not want to be responsible for something so shameful as that. No; he'll just have to hope and pray to the spirit of the Sage that the ceremony is quick.

Once outside, he walks behind chichiue, following at a quiet, respectful distance. Many people pass them by and greet chichiue with deferential bows, some even exchanging words with him. Sasuke waves at Teyaki-jii and Uruchi-baa, who wave back and congratulate him. There's technically enough time to stop for some senbei but he doesn't want to ask chichiue to stop; he resolves to stop by later by himself.

Past the eaves of the Uchiha gates, chichiue's easy composure tightens up into guard. Sasuke unintentionally stiffens up as well. Plenty of people in the village still greet them, some even bowing to chichiue, but not as much. Everyone looks, though. Maybe because chichiue is wearing one of his ceremonial coats today, the black one with the Uchiha mon embroidered large on the back and red waves running along the hem. Sasuke wonders if one day maybe he'll be worthy enough to wear something like that too.

At the Academy, they are welcomed at the gates and given their seat appointments. A jōnin greets chichiue before they can find their spots, someone who looks like a Nara, with a high spiky ponytail like Shikamaru's. Sasuke hangs back and lets them have their conversation because it's the polite thing to do.

"I heard your son's graduating at the top of the class this year," the jōnin is telling chichiue, making Sasuke bite his lip. "Congratulations. As expected, I suppose."

"We expect nothing less," chichiue agrees quietly. But Sasuke isn't appeased. He knows that graduating with the highest grades is not much, not when compared to aniki. Aniki graduated Academy at six, and Sasuke's eleven, almost twelve now. He's behind. He's always been behind.

The Nara jōnin turns to him and smiles kindly, "Well done, Sasuke-kun," to which Sasuke responds with a flustered, "Thank you very much.” He bows.

Soon, the crowd begins to come together as a neat congregation. They are mostly shinobi, accustomed to obedience and discipline, so the ceremony proceeds smoothly. The Sandaime stands at the front with the Academy instructors today, in full robes and the wide-brimmed hat, his presence officiating the beginning careers of a full batch of new genin. Sasuke knows even without being told that his batch is highly anticipated for the fact that almost all of Konoha's old Clans have children in his year. Two of them will soon become Sasuke's new teammates. He bites down an eager grin; he can't wait.

One by one, the children are called by name to come forward with their parents to receive their commencement scroll. In it is designated their team assignments as new genin. Those graduating with ordinary scores go first, twenty-seven of them. Some have parents who are shinobi and others are born to civilians. When Uzumaki Naruto stumbles laughingly towards the front, he does so alone, but his grin is so wide and bright that it makes Sasuke want to grin too. He's not the only orphan; many children live at the orphanage too, one of Konoha's busiest blocks, full of children of different ages always playing on the streets. Teyaki-jii had explained to Sasuke that the orphans are the village's responsibility because their parents either died in combat as shinobi or were casualties of past wars. Sasuke wonders if Naruto's parents were shinobi too.

Next are those graduating with high honors, Hyuuga Neji and Nara Shikamaru. Neji walks forward accompanied by a stern-looking, tall Hyuuga with very long hair much like Neji's and wearing a robe much like chichiue's, except with the Hyuuga mon embroidered on the back.

Then it's Shikamaru's turn, who trudges forward with a lazy slouch and the Nara jōnin from earlier at his side. So that's his father, Sasuke realizes, fighting back the urge to snicker when Shikamaru's ponytail gets squashed under his father's large hand. Shikamaru tries to lazily bat it away to no avail, making the Hokage chuckle around his old wooden pipe. As with each student, the Hokage says something Sasuke can't quite hear from where he sits, but it's his turn next so he figures he'll find out soon enough.

"And lastly, with the highest honor of his class, Uchiha Sasuke," Iruka-sensei announces with a smile.

Sasuke stands and leads this time, chichiue following close behind him. He receives the commencement scroll with a bow—don't tear it open yet, don't tear it open—and goes before the Hokage to receive his blessing.

"Ah, Sasuke-kun," the Hokage smiles down upon him, "well done."

Gazing up at him this close, Sasuke can see the crinkles around the Hokage's eyes, the sagging skin and the crooked teeth and the greying hair. Sandaime is old. Apart from Oboro-obaa-sama who presides at the shrine, Sasuke doesn't know anyone who looks quite so old. He wonders how many years the Hokage has been alive. It's rare, he knows, for shinobi to survive so long. At once, Sasuke is struck with the realization that he is standing before someone who is really, truly strong.

"I know you'll become a great shinobi one day. Work hard and never doubt that this village is very proud of you."

Sasuke's throat closes up. He swallows down the tears that want to come, clutching his commencement scroll to his chest and stepping back to give the Hokage a deep bow. He keeps his head down when he walks back to his seat, barely noting the Hokage exchange a nod with chichiue. Is it too much of him to want to hear those words from his parents even just once? How is it fair that the one and only time he hears them are from the lips of an old man who barely even knows him? Sasuke's sure the Hokage says that to every graduating child, which is what burns. Once, just once, it would be nice to have that sort of acknowledgment just for himself.

Except it won't do to be greedy, Sasuke reminds himself, you only get hurt when you ask for too much.

By the time he sits back down, he has managed to school his face back to normal. Chichiue looks eager to leave. The ceremony should be concluding soon. Sasuke holds his scroll in his lap with tight fingers, wishing that he had told chichiue not to come after all.

After the ceremonies conclude, chichiue leaves him at the Academy gates. As soon as he's alone, Sasuke rips the commencement scroll open, eager to see which team he will be in and with whom. At the end of it, after the Head Instructor's signature and the Hokage's official seal, it says:

Team Seven
Uchiha Sasuke, Nara Shikamaru, Uzumaki Naruto
— Assemble at Academy rooftop at 1400. —

"Huh," he mumbles, rolling the scroll back up and checking the cant of his shadow on the ground. Just after 1300. Plenty of time, but it won't hurt to be early, and he already has his bento with him. So he heads for the rooftop and finds with great satisfaction that there is no one else there.

He had prepared his bento this morning with all of his favorite things and eagerly unwraps it in front of him. Five onigiri, one or two to save for later if he gets hungry again, with tuna and tomatoes inside; omelets too, with katsuobushi on top; sliced strawberries and two oranges. It's a lot of food but he's gotten used to bringing plenty just in case training goes past dinnertime.

He's about to have his first bite when the door slams open and Naruto announces, "I'm here!"

Sasuke blinks at him. "Okay?"

"Oh! Hi! You're here too!"

"Um, well, the scroll said to come." Sasuke puts his onigiri down before he drops it. He's never sure what to say in this kind of situation. In fact, Sasuke's never sure what to say in any kind of situation that involves other people who are not his clan. He's never talked with them much, his classmates, preferring to keep to himself because, to be honest, all the other children intimidate him. They're so loud and, and, and carefree. If Sasuke acted like that at home, he'd be in so much trouble.

But obviously, Naruto doesn't have the same concern. "Yeah, yeah, I saw that too! The scroll is soooo cooool, 'ttebayo, it has Hokage-jiji's seal thingy on it and stuff, didja see? Huh? Huh? Didja see, didja see?"

"Yeah," Sasuke blinks again, blindsided by Naruto's sheer Naruto, "I saw."

"So I guess we're teammates now! Thass cool, 'ttebayo! We'll be the greatest team ever!" Sasuke doesn't know about that; he's pretty sure aniki's team is pretty strong... "I guess you were thinking the same as me, I didn't wanna be late, 'ttebayo, but I didn't get to grab lunch like you did! Wish I thought o' that!"

"I brought this from home..." Sasuke shrugs. He picks one onigiri up and offers it, remembering Uruchi-baa telling him that it's polite to share and being polite makes the Sage happy. "D'you want one? I got plenty."

Naruto's eyes grow wide, and somehow, Sasuke has managed to briefly silence him. After a moment's deliberation, Naruto asks him, "You don' mind? You’re giving it to me?"

Why would I mind? Sasuke wonders. "No? I mean, it's okay if you don't want some. I put tuna and tomatoes inside and then lots of katsuobushi on top, I guess it's a bit salty?"
But Naruto swipes the offered onigiri from his hand and plops to sit on the floor beside him, taking a large bite. "Mmmhh, 'is goo'!"

Sasuke smiles. "Right? Here, you can have a tomato and an orange too, I got plenty."

Naruto says something in response to that, but Sasuke can't quite make it out through the mouthful of food the boy has in his mouth. He just smiles in response and works on his own onigiri, figuring that Naruto will tell him later when they're done eating.

They're quiet for a while, except for Naruto's noises of appreciation. Between the two of them, they finish the whole bento. There's none left for later, but that's alright; Sasuke can stop at Teyaki-jii's and get some senbei like he had planned, and then eat dinner at home. Maybe aniki will even visit, Sasuke smiles to himself, because he can always hope.

After they're done, Sasuke wraps up the bento and tucks it back into his pack. They wash their hands at the bathroom downstairs and come back to sit under the sun, warmer than it should be in the spring but much appreciated nonetheless.

"Na, na, Sasuke, who d'you think our sensei's gonna be?" Naruto asks him, legs swinging along with the swaying of the trees below. They are both sitting on the edge of the building, facing out with their legs dangling seven stories above ground.

"Dunno," Sasuke shrugs. "Shikamaru probably knows. He knows more shinobi from the village than I do."

Naruto laughs, loud and bright. "Shikamaru knows everything, 'ttebayo!"

It's true. Shikamaru never wants to get up from his seat and takes lots of long naps or stares out at the clouds whenever they're in class, but he somehow knows everything there is to know about anything he’s asked whenever the teacher calls on him.

"That's 'cause he's a Nara," Sasuke points out. "They're very smart. Aniki told me that once."
"You have an aniki? Cool! Is he shinobi too?" Naruto asks.

Sasuke suppresses a proud grin, but ends up wearing a flushed smile nonetheless. "Yeah, he's super strong and everyone calls him a genius. Maybe one day I can be strong like him too."

"Nah," Naruto contradicts, instead saying, "you can be stronger than him one day! 'Cause that's what I wanna be, 'ttebayo, one day I'll be stronger than Hokage-jiji and become Hokage myself! That's my goal!"

Sasuke looks at him—Naruto, who is clumsy and loud and kinda short, who only barely manages to pass their exams, who always comes to school with a smile even though Sasuke knows he's got no one waiting for him at home—and can't help but be impressed. The Sandaime Hokage is their longest-serving Hokage, someone old and wizened and experienced, with many battles survived and many enemies conquered. He thinks of the lines on the Hokage's face and suddenly feels dwarfed by the size of Naruto's goal.

"Wow," he blinks. "That's… wow. But that's gonna take you a long time, and you'll be old by then, 'cause the Hokage's old. Like, really old. Did you see how old he looked?"

Naruto sticks his nose in the air, as if the words are a personal affront to him instead of the Sandaime. "Hey, but he's still super strong! I bet he's stronger than your aniki, hah!"

"Well, yeah," Sasuke snorts. "He's the Hokage. He's the strongest shinobi in the village."

"Now that you talk about it, I wonder how long he trained and trained to become Hokage," Naruto wonders. "'Cause you're right, he's like really old and stuff."

"That's what I said..."

"Na, na, wouldn't it be super duper cool if the Hokage was our sensei? We'd be super strong in the future!"

"Well, I think he's too busy to teach little shinobi like us," Sasuke says, but then admits, "It'd be awesome, though. Maybe if we're lucky we'll get a jōnin who was taught by the Hokage."

"Or a jōnin who was taught by a jōnin who was taught by the Hokage," Naruto grins, "'cause jiji's wrinkly an' old."

They snicker over their lame, silly joke and continue swinging their legs with the swaying trees. They can see all of Konoha from here, bustling streets sprawling out until the faraway peripheral walls and the lush green forests beyond. The Academy is innermost and set against the walls of the Hokage mountain, adjacent to the Hokage Tower itself, both structures protected in case of an attack. Behind them, the mountain is covered with more forest almost entirely restricted from civilians because within are secret training grounds, bunkers, and facilities meant for Konoha's active shinobi. Sasuke knows from aniki that behind the cliff face hide underground bases too, where many different types of shinobi operate in secret.

If Sasuke squints hard enough, he can make out the sparkling waters of the Naka river and behind it the dense woods surrounding the Naka shrine. The river marks the edge of the Uchiha clan compound and is an area Sasuke knows like the back of his hand. Chichiue's probably back there now, doing important things with the clan elders. Sasuke doesn't really know what they do, but they always seem so soberly occupied. He's never gathered the courage or had the reason to ask.

"Na, na, Sasuke, don'cha come from like a big clan? Whatsit like being in a big clan?" Naruto asks, quieter this time and maybe a little shyer. It's as though he could tell what Sasuke was thinking.

Sasuke settles for a shrug. "I don't really know how to explain, I mean, what do you wanna know?"

"Like, how many people are in your clan?" Naruto leans more towards him, eager. "D'you have lotsa cousins and stuff?"

"Well, everyone's kind of a cousin one way or another," Sasuke points out, "and there's a hundred and eighty six Uchihas by last year's count. We count every year, but it doesn't change every year. No one's had a baby for two years now, I think."

Naruto's eyes grow wide again in that comical way of his. "A hundred and eighty six! Thass a lot, 'ttebayo!"

Sasuke puffs up a little bit, even though he has nothing to do with how many of them there are. "We're the biggest clan in Konoha, the Uchiha."

"But, but, how d'you keep it all straight? There's no way I can remember a hundred and eighty six cousins!"

Sasuke shrugs again. "They make us memorize the family tree when we're really young. I mean, I know everyone, but I don't really know everyone. Only the people I talk to a lot, like Teyaki-jii and Uruchi-baa, and, and, uh, Haruka-san from the weapons shop and, and I guess Oboro-obaa-sama from the shrine?”

Twisting his fingers together, Sasuke suddenly realizes how few of his clansmen he does know. Nobody gives him much notice in the first place. He doesn't talk to people much. In fact, he realizes that this is the most he's talked to a single person in one go in, well, ever.

"Man, that's nice," Naruto sighs, looking out with squinted eyes over Konoha. "You got lots of family around you all the time. I don't got any family left, not that I know of. I mean, jiji checks up on me once in a while, but like you said, he's busy an' stuff."

"Jiji?" Sasuke echoes in surprise. "You mean Hokage-sama? He checks up on you personally?"

"Yeah! Since I was young an' stuff," Naruto shrugs. "He was my legal guardian until now, I guess, because now I'm considered an adult as a genin."

"Wow, so you know him well," Sasuke wonders. Suddenly it makes sense why Naruto would want to be like the Hokage one day. He's the strongest person Naruto knows.

"I wouldn't say I know him well," Naruto tilts his head, "just that I see him sometimes, ya kno'? Like once a month. He musta known my parents before they died."

"Probably, I mean, why else would he be your legal guardian?" Sasuke points out. "You see him once a month. I see him maybe once a year. That's real cool, Naruto."

"Heheh, ya think so?" Naruto grins, rubbing the back of his head. "I mean, I don't have a clan like you, but I guess it's cool to have jiji as a guardian too!"

"No, I mean, yes, I mean, he checks on you," Sasuke flounders momentarily. "That's nice, having someone checking on you."

Naruto tilts his head. "No one checks on you?"

"I-I mean," Sasuke flounders again, "otou-sama's very busy as Clan Head and jōnin, and, well, okaa-san's now a tokujo again, so she's really busy too, and aniki is also a jōnin, he takes a lot of missions outside of the village because they know he's strong..."

Naruto frowns. "But, like, there's a hundred and eighty six of you."

Sasuke has nothing to say to that.

Naruto claps him on the shoulder. "Never mind!" he declares, bright and loud, making Sasuke look back up at him. "We're a team now! We'll train with each other and become stronger and we'll have a jōnin sensei to check on us now!"

Sasuke nods, Naruto grins, and just like that, all is well again. The shadows of the trees are a bit longer now; it shouldn't be long before their jōnin sensei arrives. As they settle in to wait, Sasuke wonders why he never stayed to talk with his classmates before, because talking with Naruto has been the most fun he's had since aniki left the house.

Before long, Shikamaru arrives, having waited until the last possible minute, because Shikamaru is never late but is also never early, even for class. "Yo," he greets, closing the door behind him and loping over to where they are sat. He's the tallest of them, with long, lanky limbs and a pale complexion that tells Sasuke how much time he spends indoors, reading or possibly playing shogi with his Dad like Sasuke's heard Iruka-sensei mention one time.

"Shikamaru! Wassup!" Naruto almost yells.

"'chiwa," Sasuke greets with a nod.

Shikamaru swings his legs over the edge too and sits on Naruto's other side. "What've you two been up to?"

"We ate lunch and talked about a buncha stuff!" Naruto declares for all the world to hear. "Sasuke shared some of his lunch with me! Didja eat lunch already?"

Shikamaru hums. "Okaa-san made some pickled radish and grilled fish. Oyaji would have eaten all of it if I didn't head home with him, otherwise I would've waited up here with you."

Sasuke snorts; Naruto snickers. "Liar," Naruto accuses playfully. "You've never been early to anything in your life!"

"Yeah, but unlike you, I've never been late," Shikamaru shrugs, "so it evens out."

Naruto sticks out his tongue in retaliation; Sasuke snickers.

They're quiet again for a few minutes, and then Sasuke notices movement in the corner of his eye. He turns and shortly spots another trio heading towards the big tree at the edge of the Academy grounds, the one that has three wooden swings and ledges nailed to the trunk for the kids to use as handholds. "Look, it's another team."

"Whozzit, whozzit?" Naruto squints, leaning into Sasuke's space and almost tipping them both over. Sasuke holds on to the back of the ledge with one hand and grabs Naruto's shoulder with the other.

"It's Yamanaka, and, and the girl with the pink hair, and the girl with the buns in her hair, whatsername," Sasuke says.

"Wow," Naruto says, "your eyes are so sharp!"

"Wow," Shikamaru remarks, "your memory is atrocious."

"My memory is fine, thanks, I just reserve it for important things," Sasuke scowls.

"Uh, people's names are important?"

"No, jutsus are important," Sasuke counters, (“Yeah, yeah!” Naruto supports) tugging Naruto back before they both really tip over. Not that they would get hurt if they fell a meager seven stories, but what if their jōnin sensei showed up while they were making their way back up? Then it would look like they're late, and wouldn't that be a terrible first impression.

"Na, na, d'you guys know who's in what team?" Naruto asks, winging back to an upright sitting position after Sasuke tugs for the fourth time.

"Well, obviously Ino, Sakura, and Tenten are in one team," Shikamaru pointedly names, "and I heard from oyaji that Chouji is with Lee and Neji. So that means Kiba, Shino, and Hinata are in another team."

“Ah, that makes sense, her hair is pink,” says Sasuke.

“Really,” Shikamaru drawls.

"Don't your family usually go with the Akimichis and the Yamanakas?" Sasuke frowns. "But they broke you guys up this year. I thought for sure you would be with, uhh, the Akimichi and, uhh, the Yamanaka."

"I thought I’d be with Chouji and Ino too, but I guess they decided against it. But, well, at least you remember clans."

"Na, na, who’s they?" Naruto asks. “You said they broke you up this year!”

"Hokage and top jōnin who are qualified to take genin, plus the Intelligence CO and the Logistics CO. Every year they have this meeting where they line up all the genin who passed the final exams and decide how to shuffle 'em into teams, match 'em with a sensei, that sort of thing. Sounds super troublesome."

Naruto snorts. "Everything's troublesome to you."

"’Cause everything is," Shikamaru agrees. "Hey, bright side of it is you're not stuck with Neji, Sasuke. I was for sure they'd put you two together with maybe Hinata."

Sasuke grimaces at the thought of having to be in a team with not one, but two Hyuugas. He would be outnumbered, and by the by, he's never taken well to Neji. Or rather, Neji's never taken well to him. Sasuke doesn't know why. He doesn't remember ever doing anything bad to Neji—he's barely had any interaction with Neji as it is. Plus, he would have to watch everything he says and does in that team, because he wouldn't want to be the cause of a disagreement between their clans. He does not want chichiue to be angry with him for any reason.

"Thank the Sage that didn't happen," Sasuke mutters darkly.

"Na, na, Shikamaru, who's our jōnin sensei?"

Shikamaru blinks. "How would I know?"

"But you know everything!"

"How do you figure that?"

"Well, you have an answer for everything Iruka-sensei asks," Naruto points out, "and you always have something to say whenever Ino tries to be smart and stuff."

"That's just to make a point because she's annoying. I don't know everything."

"Fine, but you know lots of things!" Naruto declares, throwing his arms out to signify a wide breadth of knowledge. He almost hits Sasuke in the face. He does hit Shikamaru on the forehead.

"Ow, you shit, that hurt."

"I'm a shit, you're a shit!" Naruto retorts.

"D minus for creativity."

"You're not a teacher, you can't grade me!" Naruto sticks out his tongue again, every bit an eleven-year-old brat.

Before Shikamaru can retort, a puff of smoke behind them alerts them of the arrival of their jōnin sensei. They all whirl around to stand at attention, hopping off the ledge with Naruto falling over on his face in haste. Sasuke straightens his shirt and folds his hands behind his back as Naruto gets back up and fixes his hitae-ate back on his forehead. Even Shikamaru's slouch is less pronounced.

"Team Seven, I presume."

"Hai!" Naruto responds. Sasuke and Shikamaru nod nervously.

Their sensei is very tall, with a fall of long black hair and very pale skin. His full-length yukata is of a very deep indigo color that looks almost black; the golden obi is narrow and low-set but looks thick with an arsenal worthy of a jōnin. Underneath the yukata, a full black outfit, pants longer than regulation and black sandals secured to both legs with bandages, surely to hide more weapons. But most striking to Sasuke is their sensei’s eyes: golden and piercing, as if seeing right through to their quivering little genin souls.

"Sit," he says.

They sit.

Their sensei fluidly sits down as well, cross-legged and casual as you please, leaning an elbow on a knee as he regards them. After a stretch of silence: "Name, age, height and weight, best subject, worst subject, best weapon, worst weapon, what you want to achieve in six months, one year, and three years. You first."

Shikamaru blinks but doesn't miss a beat. "Nara Shikamaru; age eleven, 152cm, 39kg; best subject is tactics, worst at taijutsu; I prefer shuriken and senbon; I don't care much for kunai; I would like to be meeting your expectations at six months, promote to chuunin in one year, and maybe jōnin in three years if you let me live that long."

The corner of their nameless sensei’s eyes crinkle ever-so-slightly—surely a good sign.

"Ahh, um, er, um," Naruto flounders, "U-Uzumaki Naruto! A-age eleven, 145cm, 34kg I think, uhh, best subject is ninjutsu? In practice, at least? Worst subject is, uhh, ninjutsu? When they test us on paper, I mean. I guess best weapons are bombs and tags 'cause they're fun. Worst weapon, katana, I'm not a samurai, 'ttebayo! An', an', I wanna be the Hokage in the future, 'ttebayo! So I'll do whatever it takes to get there!"

That doesn't really answer all of their sensei's questions, Sasuke thinks, but sensei seems satisfied enough, humming before he turns to Sasuke.

"Uchiha Sasuke, age eleven, 149cm, 38kg. Best at either ninjutsu or taijutsu, worst at, uhh, I don't know."

"For an Uchiha, you suck at genjutsu," Shikamaru points out.

Sasuke scowls. "I guess. I'm best at handling shorter blades like the ninjatō but I've been practicing with the katana. I don't like weapons with chains. I'd like to learn 150 jutsus by six months and promote to chuunin in one year, but I'm not sure what after that since I don't know yet what I'll be good at."

Their nameless sensei nods again, watching them with a contemplative mien. After a moment of silence, he finally speaks. "Very well. I am Orochimaru.” Shikamaru's eyes widen. "I see at least one of you has heard of me. Officially, I am a jōnin, but I have served Konoha for a very long time and in many capacities. In my years of experience, I have developed numerous specialities; suffice it to say that I am more than capable of leveling a battlefield should I be so inclined, and therefore more than qualified to handle you. The Hokage has been… thoughtful enough to consider my rendered services in the past years and opted to give me a ‘lighter’ load for a change. Since none of us are in any position to argue with the old man, here we are."

They remain silent, not knowing what to say. Naruto gulps, eyes still squinted the way they do when he's thinking really hard.

“I don’t precisely relish the thought of babysitting three genin, but I have a reputation to uphold, so we will do this properly. In a year, the next round of Chuunin Exams will be held in Konoha; I want all of you to pass, therefore relieving me of my duty. That means I will run this team the same way I have run my squadrons in the past: without cutting corners, without excuses, and without mercy. There will be no laziness, no dilly-dallying, no arguments, no complaining. If it is too hard for you, you can quit. If it is too painful, you can quit. If you are too tired, you can quit. Hard and painful and tiring define our job; you need to be able to thrive despite that."

All three of them nod. There's no other appropriate response but a nod.

"Did you bring your full arsenal?"

All three of them nod again. Sasuke darts a look at his teammates, impressed. He only brought his set today because it made him feel like a real shinobi; maybe Naruto and Shikamaru actually thought about it.

"Well," their sensei says, "let's see what you've got."

They promptly unload enough weapons and gadgets to populate a small weapons stand. Shikamaru has a truly impressive number of shuriken, some kunai, coils of thin wire, and a long, thick length of shinobi-grade black rope wrapped underneath his belt. Naruto has a mixture of the same, explosive tags, an assortment of seal tags, a bough of senbon, a knife, and some flash bombs. Sasuke has two full packs of kunai, a dagger hidden in each leg, a full pack of shuriken, different lengths of senbon, and a ninjatō strapped to his back. Naruto appears to have the least amount of blades and his weapons look old, but he has more variety than Sasuke and Shikamaru put together. I guess if you've got no money, you've gotta get creative, Sasuke thinks to himself.

Orochimaru-sensei looks over their weapons, one long finger pushing some of them aside to make space for others. He hums, tapping one of Naruto's tags. "You made these yourself?"

"Yah!" Naruto grins, crossing his arms behind his head. "I stayed over and learned from the books in the Archives! Took a while but that's okay!"

Sasuke looks over Naruto with approval, impressed by his teammate's dedication. Orochimaru-sensei then taps his ninjatō, calling his attention, and then pokes the black rope Shikamaru pulled out as well. Sasuke can't really tell very well yet, but Orochimaru-sensei looks like he's thinking.

"A good team," sensei tells them, "is a balanced team, where the members' skills are not all the same, but instead complement each other. In more ideal situations, as you will find when you promote to chuunin, teams are put together by Logistics according to the mission they will be assigned and the skills of each member therein. However, as a genin unit, we do not have this luxury. You are still underdeveloped shinobi; we do not yet know how you will operate, what you will be good at, and if you will have a specialty. We try to shuffle you around as best as we can based on your performance in the Academy, but those test scores and structured sparring sessions can only tell us so much.

"I will see how you work with each other later, but as of now, we are at a good start." He points to Shikamaru: "Long-distance fighter." He points to Naruto: "Mid-range fighter." He points to Sasuke: "Short-range fighter.” He claps, snapping them at once into attention. "Gather your things. We're relocating to Ground 5."

Hastily, they stuff their weapons back into the appropriate places. Sasuke almost forgets to grab his pack. Once they are all standing, Orochimaru-sensei calls their attention again.

"Here is your first lesson. Remember when you were taught how to channel your chakra into your hands when you were forming hand seals?" They all nod, Naruto squinting again. "Concentrate a small amount of chakra to your feet. When you've got that down, jump and follow me."

Orochimaru-sensei leaps from the rooftop to a nearby tree branch, seemingly effortless as he stops and watches them try. Sasuke smirks. He can do this.

In one try, he leaps over, followed quickly by Shikamaru who lands a little off-balance but manages to catch himself. Naruto takes an extra moment, but with a squinty-eyed burst of determination, launches himself in the air, cracking concrete beneath his feet as a result.

"Whoops," he laughs, landing beside Sasuke and nearly toppling them both over. "That was fun!"

"Good," Orochimaru-sensei nods. "Now follow me.”

With uncertain feet, they follow, leaping away towards and above Hokage mountain, where Ground 5 sits at the edge of Konoha’s lush forests. Concentrating, Sasuke clutches the hilt of his ninjatō and keeps his eyes trained on his sensei’s back, unwilling to be left behind.

This is it, he thinks to himself. Today, I am shinobi.

first draft: 2018.05.11
last edited: 2021.12.17