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Hiding in the Leaves

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001. sasuke: commencement

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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.



tbc
first draft: 2018.05.11
last edited: 2021.12.17



Chapter Text

002. orochimaru: chance

.

They are small.

They are smaller than he thought they would be, standing before him like so. Two dark heads and one bright one, young faces upturned to look at him, eager little children awaiting his next word—they are so small, he could break them with nary an effort. Were they all so small? He can scarcely remember being this young; it’s been so long since Team Hiruzen that the memory is but a dream now. Tsunade is long gone and Jiraiya is out there wandering the nomad’s path—but once upon a time…

Orochimaru sighs at himself. He had known that this would happen; he had expected it. And yet he had agreed to take them. A genin unit, of all things, and at this point in his career.

The old man is pleased with himself, of course. Who better to handle Konoha’s jinchuuriki than the second strongest, most accomplished shinobi in the whole village? Who better than one-third of a legend? Or, as it’s being whispered in some circles, let a fellow monster handle the other monster—though gazing upon Namikaze’s little brat now, it’s hard to think of him as a monster. He’s a child, nothing more and nothing less.

Ground 5 is sufficiently deserted at this time of day, as he had intended for their activity. He waits for the three of them to settle before him; they totter about, clumsy on their feet like newborn fawns, grabbing at each other to steady themselves on the landing. Namikaze’s brat seems to have already formed an attachment to the little Uchiha, how curious. He had wondered, when he first heard of the assignments, who among the three would form the first dynamic. Strange that the Uchiha should attach first; most of them tend to work best alone.

“Alright,” he says softly, catching their full attention with one word. Good. He does not want to be yelling at little children for the rest of the year. After all, he is not their parent and they are no longer children. “Here we shall have our first exercise. This is designed to give me an immediate overview of your capacities. It is an assessment, that is all; I do not expect you to succeed. You will fail. But I still want you to try your very, very best.”

It is also a measurement of their tenacity. Being ordered to a futile endeavor is a common predicament to any shinobi.

“What are we doing?” Namikaze’s brat asks.

“Using any and every means at your disposal, you will attempt to touch me,” Orochimaru tells them. “You may come at me all at once; you may use any of your weapons; you may use any jutsu. I encourage you to use your jutsu. Show me what you already know.”

They stare at him in varying degrees of disbelief. And then, as if on cue, the three of them exchange considering looks, before the little Uchiha leaps back a couple feet. Nara follows suit. Namikaze’s brat stays put, scratching his head.

“Sooo,” Uzumaki Naruto says, “we just gotta touch you and that’s it?”

Orochimaru nods.

The boy reaches forward with a hand.

Incredulous, Orochimaru almost forgets to avoid him, but steps back at the last minute, such that the boy ends up grasping at thin air.

“Oi, Naruto!” Nara Shikamaru barks. “That’s not gonna work! Of course he’s gonna avoid you if you try to just—are you dumb or what?”

But Naruto takes another step forward to grab at him, and then another, and then another, which Orochimaru matches step for step as he retreats away from the boy’s clumsy grasping. He’s so amused with Naruto that he almost misses how the little Uchiha edges into his blind spot before lunging at him from behind and beside; deftly, he sidesteps such that the two of them stumble into each other. Naruto loses his balance and tips forward; the little Uchiha uses him as a springboard and leaps forward again, hands outstretched for Orochimaru.

Shikamaru comes in from the side; Orochimaru sidesteps them both again, and from there it escalates as Sasuke throws the first kunai. Attempting to herd him a certain direction, it seems. Transparent, but logical. Shikamaru’s rope lashes out; Orochimaru ducks underneath it. Naruto lunges for his legs, still with grasping hands; Orochimaru steps on his back and kicks him face-first into the dirt.

“Oomf,” Naruto says.

“Does it count if we hit you with a weapon?” Sasuke asks.

“No; you must touch me or land a blow with your limbs.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think so either,” Shikamaru remarks, calm as you please even as he pulls back his rope and lashes it out again. Naruto throws in some explosive tags, though none of them stick. Sasuke braves the fray and ducks back in, perhaps instinctively knowing his strength as he begins to attempt to land a blow.

An Uchiha through and through, this boy. Orochimaru is pleased even as he is made to dodge a rapid flurry of jabs and kicks. Sasuke is certainly well above average in taijutsu, an adaptable fighter with a very flexible form. Not perfect, not yet—but Orochimaru knows raw talent when he sees it. He begins to alter the way he dodges in order to cue Sasuke towards basic progressions beyond the textbook forms. A point to work on, he notes, even as a slew of colorful explosions separate them.

It’s Naruto who breaks out the first jutsu. Between one moment and the next, there are twenty-or-so bunshins all clamoring for a piece of Orochimaru—no, not just ordinary bunshins. These are kage bunshins. He leaps up, above and away from them, impressed.

“How the fuck do you know that?” Shikamaru grunts, palms slamming down for a Dōton that fractures the earth beneath Orochimaru’s feet.

Orochimaru sprints away from the fissures as they open, but nobody has a chance to respond to Shikamaru when a bright hot bloom of fire presses down from above them. Sasuke blows a strong, fulminant Katon at him, herding Orochimaru back towards where the kage bunshin can swarm him.

Naruto makes him work as hard as Sasuke did, dodging around two dozen bunshins who are all baying for one hit. Very well, he thinks, pulling out a kunai, let us up the difficulty.

He steps forward, foot cracking earth, slashing wide, arms outstretched. The force of his swing sends a shockwave arching outwards as he eliminates seven kage bunshins with one blow. All three of them, his little genin, leap away and stand at a distance, wary once more, weighing their options.

Orochimaru smirks. “I am, of course, allowed to retaliate.”

“Damn,” Sasuke mutters.

“Question: does it count if we hit you but you block it?” Shikamaru asks, as always thinking fast.

“No; it must be a clean blow or an unhindered touch.”

“Second question: do we have a time limit?”

“You have all afternoon, if you like.”

“Right,” Shikamaru nods, easing his stance. “You two, c’mere for a bit.”

Shikamaru retreats towards the edge of the trees, far enough away that they won’t be overheard. Sasuke follows, taking Naruto along. Orochimaru watches them bend their little heads together with growing satisfaction. They are learning—and quickly.

He settles to wait.




At the end of the day, of course, they fail. Orochimaru stands over the three of them, on the ground in various poses of defeat and panting for dear breath. He is amused despite himself. They did try their best, just as he bid. One day, their best will be quite terrifying: he can already see it. But today, it’s not yet enough.

“I commend you for lasting as long as you did,” Orochimaru tells them, “though I am sure you can tell by now how much there is you still need to learn.”

Shikamaru grumbles something inarticulate.

“We shall meet at seven sharp tomorrow, on the banks of the Naka river where it bends around a willow tree near the East Gates. Bring enough food for the whole day; you will not be going home until late. Eat plenty tonight and rest. Be sure to take a hot bath to loosen your muscles and prevent injury.”

“Do we bring our full arsenal again tomorrow, sensei?” Naruto asks.

“A shinobi always brings his full arsenal wherever he goes, Naruto. If the shinobi wants to stay alive for long, that is.”

“Yes, sensei, sorry, sensei,” Naruto mumbles, chastised.

“Well done, the three of you,” Orochimaru bids them. “Seven sharp tomorrow.” After a chorus of affirmatives, he disappears from their sight in a whirl of leaves, concealing himself not far away in the heavy branches of a tall tree. As soon as they are convinced he is gone, all three of them collapse on their backs with universal groans.

“We didn’t even touch his clothes,” Sasuke sighs mournfully after some silence.

“We weren’t going to anyway,” Shikamaru points out, “at least not today. That was Orochimaru, you know.”

“I don’t,” Naruto quips. “Who’s he supposed to be?”

“I was hoping you didn’t really sleep through History, but I see I’m mistaken,” says Shikamaru, tone dry as bone. “He’s one of the Legendary Sannin. Hora, the Hokage was his jōnin sensei when they were genin.”

Sasuke's eyes go wide. “No way.”

“Yes way,” Shikamaru sighs. “Did you just realize that?”

Sasuke looks away. “I’m not good at names."

You're not good at people, Orochimaru surmises with amusement, noting that the little Uchiha's responses tend to be calculated and therefore delayed. Perhaps not enough social stimulation within the confines of that clan.

But Naruto is now grasping said Uchiha by the shoulders, the two of them pressed almost nose to nose. "Sasukeeee! It came true! Hokage-jiji is our jōnin sensei's jōnin sensei! Isn't that so cooooool!"

Orochimaru sets a mental reminder to do something about this child's volume. At this rate, it'll get him killed, or worse, captured.

"O-Oh, you're right," Sasuke responds, seemingly unfazed by the other boy yelling in his face. Orochimaru watches as Naruto's excitement spreads from one to three, sinking even into Shikaku's lackadaisical son if the bright sheen in those black eyes is to be believed. It seems that Namikaze's brat will become the team's heart.

"Well, I don't know 'bout the two of you, but I'ma go home. I'm hungry and I wanna take a bath," Shikamaru declares, tottering as he gets to his feet.

"Can you make it home?" Sasuke snorts.

"I'll crawl if I have to," the other boy grumbles, swaying in his steps. "Mom's making tonjiru tonight."

"Aw, man, that's nice," Naruto flops back on the ground, arms star-fished about his head. "I'm just gonna have ramen tonight."

"Why do I have a feeling that one of these days we really will crawl home?" Shikamaru mutters as he leaves the training grounds, one hand scratching at the back of his neck. The challenge will be to encourage this one to give his all, Orochimaru knows. A Nara will always be a Nara, no matter where they are put.

Left to their own devices, Naruto and Sasuke hang around for a while, sitting together in silence. Naruto appears to be watching the orange skies; Sasuke is arranging his senbon into a neat bough.

"Doncha have to go home soon?" Naruto asks after a while, looking over to where the little Uchiha is hunched over an arsenal of blades.

"Not really," Sasuke shrugs, "hahaue is on an away mission and chichiue never gets back before late."

"What about your aniki?"

"Aniki doesn't live at home anymore. He has his own place now." A wistful note lingers around those words; ah, yes, this is the Uchiha genius' little brother. The 'ordinary' one.

"Well, that sucks," Naruto sighs. "You'd be all alone for dinner."

Orochimaru watches them hover around each other for a moment until Sasuke gathers enough courage to say the words.

"D'you wanna come with me? I know how to make food, you can eat at our house..." he trails into silence, losing steam halfway through. "...or not, if you have somewhere else to be, I mean, you don't have to."

But Naruto is already sitting upright, bright blue eyes once again alight with excitement. "Really?! You wouldn't—I mean, is it okay for me to—I mean—"

Sasuke ducks his head but smiles, a small and almost invisible lift of his lips from this distance. The two boys pack up quickly after that, tucking their weapons away and jostling each other as they head towards the Uchiha compound. Orochimaru watches them until they are no more, sinking into the lengthening shadows as the sun finally sets over the horizon.

Certainly it makes sense, the lonely orphan and the inconsequential second son finding common ground. Orochimaru could taste their loneliness, their quiet desperation, from the moment he met them. It might not, however, sit well with the Uchiha clan that one of their own, never mind how ordinary, is gamboling about with the Kyuubi's host. Well, they can’t do much about it now; the boys are a team.

He rises from his perch and gathers his chakra around him, disappearing once again in a flurry of leaves. The boys have given him much to consider tonight, and he intends to be prepared for them in the morning.




tbc
first draft: 2018.05.11
last edited: 2021.12.16




NOTES & TRANSLATIONS

(1) I tried to minimize the amount of Japanese terms within the narrative, but sometimes the Japanese word just sounds better than the English translation. For whatever inconvenience that causes you, I do apologize. Look on the bright side: you’re learning another language! (I think that for most of you, this will be a non-issue; ask questions if anything doesn’t make sense.)

(2) I forgot to include this in the last chapter. Sasuke uses a ninjatō, which is a short straight sword sometimes referred to as ninjaken or shinobigatana. In popular media, it is often portrayed as a preferred weapon of ninjutsu users, but there is no actual historical evidence of this weapon ever existing before the 20th century.

Later on, he will move on to a katana, which is the conventional curved blade used by samurai as you see portrayed in most media. Apart from lengthening his reach, they will make for more efficient weapons; the curved blade cuts cleaner and stronger than a straight blade.

They will also learn to use different types of kunai, which are the short hand-held blades canon show them wielding.

Chapter Text

003. naruto: hunger

.

Naruto doesn't understand much about the village politics, or how the shinobi actually work, or what it means to be part of a noble clan, but he does understand people. People are easy after you've lived among them for a while, and Naruto has. He might not look like he pays attention, but he sees a lot. He must if he wants to survive by himself.

Sasuke's clan lives in a section of the village that looks different from the rest. Naruto has never been here before. The orphanage is on the other end of town, and he has never had cause to go this far towards the edge of the forest surrounding Konoha. Besides, if he had tried to come here by himself, he would have just gotten kicked out. He knows how this works; he’s never welcome into the nicer places.

They have to cross a wide red bridge over a sparkling river that separates the Uchiha compound from the rest of Konoha. There are sentries at the mouth of the road and a wooden fence stretching around the perimeter, going as far as the eye can see, disappearing in the distance as the river bends. Naruto tips his head back to look up at the tall red gate sporting what must be the Uchiha symbol and some words which are too old and too small to read.

"Na, Sasuke, what's that say?"

Sasuke looks up as they pass underneath the gate. "Oh, the letters on the torii? I don't know, actually. I'd have to ask Oboro-obaa-sama. She's the priestess at the shrine."

"What's a torii?" Naruto asks.

"It's what we call our gate. They say it's like an entrance to a different realm, like we're leaving the outside world and going into a more sacred place. It's very old. Oboro-obaa-sama says it's been standing there since the founding of Konoha."

"Cool," Naruto croons, "so like you guys live in a special place!"

Sasuke puffs up a little bit, smiling. "The clan compound is built on sacred ground. We were one of the founders of Konoha, after all.”

But Naruto can tell that the people who live here aren’t happy. There is discontent in the way they move, resentment in the slope of their shoulders. Hatred in the depths of their eyes, for once not directed at Naruto himself, but at something else, something beyond what Naruto can see. Perhaps directed at something that can’t be seen.

He doesn’t ask. Sasuke probably doesn’t know. Or Sasuke knows, but doesn’t realize it, and as selfish as it seems, Naruto doesn’t want to upset his friend. Sasuke is his first friend, after all.

Can he call Sasuke a friend now? Is that okay?

Sasuke’s family’s house is off the main road and near the river, probably close enough to see the water from the second floor or the roof. It’s old and traditional but nice, clean, quiet inside. Everything unlike where Naruto lives, his little rented room with the creaky door and thin walls and loud civilian neighbors, but not the nice kind of civilians like Haruno Sakura’s family. All of a sudden, Naruto feels self-conscious, gingerly shucking his sandals off at the door and checking if his feet are passably clean, at least enough to not leave marks on the polished wooden floors.

“There’s no one home so we can probably eat in the kitchen,” Sasuke is saying, “what do you like for dinner? I can make lotsa different stuff. I think we still have chicken. We can make karaage!”

Sasuke sounds proud of himself; Naruto can’t help but be proud of him too.

“Ok, ok, you tell me what to do!” Naruto follows his new friend past the spotless sitting room and the cold dining room, past the dark hallway and into the quiet kitchen. Sasuke flicks the light on, drops his pack on the floor, puts the dirty bento boxes into the sink. Water starts flowing to loosen the sticky pieces of rice from the containers. Naruto crouches next to Sasuke as they stick their heads into the fridge.

“Hmm, chicken and salad and rice?”

It’s more than Naruto would have made for himself. He’s never seen so much food inside a fridge! “Sounds great!”

Sasuke takes the chicken out and puts it in the microwave to thaw; Naruto helps with washing the vegetables, fresh and green like the best produce he sees at the market everyday but can never buy. They would never sell this to him. The meat, too, is high-quality; Naruto can’t remember the last time he had chicken. (Iruka-sensei always bought him ramen with pork, after all.)

“Won’t your parents mind that I’m eating here too?” Naruto asks quietly. “I mean, I mean, I don’t wanna get you in trouble.”

“Um, they don’t really, um, mind,” Sasuke shrugs, jostling Naruto at the sink. He washes his hands, paler and with longer fingers than Naruto’s own, but obviously knowledgeable around this kitchen. “They’re gone a lot. I kinda cook for myself for the most part. Also I do the shopping. Well, I get help from the oba-san at the market, but I go by myself.”

What Naruto hears is that Sasuke’s parents don’t mind him. Otherwise, there would be a mom in this kitchen, getting dinner ready for Sasuke before he even comes home. Just like Shikamaru’s mom, who might have probably been a ninja before but sounds like she quit being one, or Chouji’s mom, who always has a great big hug and a great big dinner for Chouji to brag about the next day at school. His bragging always made Naruto so hungry; just the thought of so much food makes Naruto dizzy!

“Should we make that much?” Naruto asks, watching Sasuke prepare the panko for breading the chicken. Not that he minds the food, but that’s a lot.

“We’re also making some for our bento tomorrow, silly,” Sasuke snorts, making Naruto beat the eggs with the chopsticks while he pats the thawed chicken dry. “Sensei said to bring food ‘cause we’re gonna be out all day. I don’t plan on being hungry.”

“Obviously,” Naruto says flatly, looking down at the food they’re preparing.

“Na, what’s your favorite food?”

“Ramen!”

“Eh? Why?”

“Whaddya mean, why? Ramen’s great! You can put all sorts of things in it and it makes you all warm and it’s delicious!” When Sasuke remains unconvinced, Naruto scowls at him. “Why, what’s your favorite food?”

“Nnnn, tomato,” Sasuke says, dropping a piece of chicken into the beaten eggs. “Dango. Senbei. Tea.”

“You’re like an old man.”

“Shut up, dobe.”

“Teme, who ya callin’ dobe!”

“Who else is here?”

Naruto jabs a chopstick at him, which Sasuke dodges with a snicker. A string of egg goop lands on Sasuke’s hair; Sasuke flicks panko at his face instead. They try to get each other back the entire time they fry the chicken and cook the rice and mix the salad; it’s easily the best night in Naruto’s short life, and when they finally sit down together with more food at the table than Naruto’s ever seen, it’s also the best dinner he’s ever had—and he hasn’t even tasted the food.




He learns that Sasuke really does love tomatoes (three of them quickly disappear from the table within less than fifteen minutes) and that he can use chopsticks with both hands.

“Ambidextrous,” Sasuke teaches him the term and how to write the kanji for it, “because it’s good for handling weapons, aniki said. I taught myself.”

Naruto is left-handed only because that’s just how he learned, but maybe he can teach himself too.

“Na, what kinda ninja is your aniki?”

“The best! He’s a jōnin,” Sasuke proudly responds, “which is the top rank and it means he does lots of top-level missions. He’s really strong! All of them are jōnin, actually, hahaue and chichiue and aniki.”

“I thought you said your mom was a to-toku—"

“Tokujō! It means special jōnin. She has, uh—she does special missions that needs her expertise.”

“Wow, how long do you think we gotta train before we get as strong as them?”

Sasuke gets this look on his face, all scrunched-up and constipated. Naruto doesn’t like it; it reeks of doubt and disappointment.

“We’re nowhere near that kind of thing, dobe, we’ve got lots of work to do.”

“Well, we’ll get there one day, ‘ttebayo! I mean, you’re already plenty good! That thing you did earlier with sensei, the fire thing, that was badass!

A flush blooms across Sasuke’s cheeks, making him look younger than he is. “You think so? Well, I did work hard on that. It’s like—it’s a technique the Uchihas are supposed to be really good at. We’re naturally good at Katon—fire techniques, boke—and it’s something we’re supposed to be able to do, otherwise we’re not really—we’re not considered Uchiha ninjas if we can’t.”

Sasuke trails off towards the end, returning to his bowl of rice and shoving a whole chicken piece into his mouth. Naruto thinks that the fire thing from earlier was pretty cool and all, but maybe it wasn’t good enough for Sasuke’s clan.

“That’s cool,” Naruto decides to say, “that you have techniques your family passes down. I wish I had something like that!”

“Don’t you?” Sasuke asks, and then catches himself with wide eyes, “I-I mean, I know you live at the o-orphanage and stuff, but your parents must have been ninja. Surely, I mean, at the Archives, they should have something about—about them?”

Naruto… Naruto never thought about that. Nobody has ever…

“Oh,” is all he can say, “I’ve never looked before.”

“Well, uh, one of these days you should,” Sasuke nods, looking down at his rice bowl again. “Maybe you’ll find something good. I’m sure they were ninja. You’re too strong for them not to be.”

“You think I’m strong?”

“I mean, you have to be,” Sasuke shrugs, “to live all alone.”

 

Sasuke understands, Naruto realizes all at once, looking across this table, around this quiet house, along this quiet street, inside this perfect compound. Sasuke has a family which is a part of this huge clan inside this massive village, but he’s all alone. And somehow that’s worse, Naruto thinks, than actually being alone, because he knows it would hurt worse if his own family ignored him. That’s what’s happening inside this house. Sasuke’s own family ignores him, because he’s just Sasuke.

Naruto has never met this aniki, but it doesn’t matter what sort of amazing super ninja he is; that doesn’t make Sasuke any less strong. Naruto has eyes; Naruto saw Sasuke fight. Sasuke is strong too.

It doesn’t matter, Naruto tells himself. We’ll just have to show them.

He helps wash the dishes and clean up the kitchen and pack the bento boxes. There are two sets now sitting in the fridge; “I’ll bring yours tomorrow, so you don’t have to carry it all the way home,” Sasuke assures him, “and if we’re nice, maybe Shikamaru will share his lunch with us.”

“Haha, we can always bully him into it!”

“We shouldn’t bully him, he’s our teammate. We should be nice.”

Should,” Naruto points out, “doesn’t mean will.”

“If and when Shikamaru turns his brain towards making your life hell, I’m not helping you.”

“I thought we were teammates!”

But Sasuke only shoves at his shoulder, making Naruto stumble on his way out of the door. Suddenly, the best day of Naruto’s life is almost over; it’s time to go home.

“Jaa, mata ashita,” Sasuke bids, quieter all of a sudden. Naruto looks back at his new friend and can somehow tell that neither of them quite believe how much has happened in one day.

Naruto grins, cheeks hurting with the weight of his newfound joy. “Ashita! Ja ne, Sasuke!” Turning to leave is harder than it ought to be, but he sprints away from the house, through the empty main street, past the torii and the bridge, across to the other side of the village. It’s okay, he tells himself, we have tomorrow.




tbc
first draft: 2018.05.11
last edited: 2021.12.16

Chapter Text

004. shikamaru: think


The sun isn’t even up yet when Shikamaru has to wake. He smacks his alarm into silence and rolls out of bed, already hating his life from the moment he opens his eyes. Six o’clock. Why even.

Downstairs, his folks are awake, but that’s only because they’re shinobi and therefore unable to sleep longer than five or six hours a stretch. His old man says even that much feels like an indulgence. Shikamaru does not want to be like them when he grows up, but he knows he will be; look at him now, awake at six in the morning, dressed and ready to be slaughtered on Ground 5 with his teammates who are probably going to be more trouble than they’re worth…

Speaking of said teammates.

“Otou-san,” Shikamaru asks at the breakfast table, “isn’t Kage Bunshin an advanced technique?”

“Maa, if you’re trying, the main obstacle will be chakra exhaustion,” Shikaku tells him while stirring goopy egg into delicious white rice. “The technique splits your chakra into half each time, so if you tried for four bunshins—”

“Your chakra would be quartered.”

“Sou. Not many who can do four or more even in Konoha, though I’d say most jōnin are capable of at least one. Dead useful, though. Each bunshin retains a connection with you but is capable of independent thought and action; moreover, neither the Sharingan nor the Byakugan can distinguish between original and clone, unless the user has high mastery over their doujutsu. Well, the only person I’ve heard of who could see through it was Uchiha Madara, and he’s long dead.”

Several points to consider there… Shikamaru quietly puts more pickles on his rice and takes a sip of his miso soup.

“How’s your team so far?” Shikaku asks him, exchanging a brief look with his mother, who looks similarly amused. She’s already heard some from him last night, but otou-san came home late and Shikamaru was too tired to wait up.

“Sensei is… strong,” Shikamaru frowns down at his food. “Really strong.”

“Well, it is Orochimaru-sama,” Shikaku chuckles.

“Sasuke isn’t bad,” Shikamaru continues, “but Naruto can be loud. And a bit simple. But not completely stupid; just simple.”

“Been a while since the last Team 7, hasn’t it,” his mother remarks, placing a glass of milk by his elbow and pinning him down with a Look. Shikamaru grimaces but takes the damn thing. Yoshino turns to Shikaku and continues, “Hatake’s team was the last one, and that’s more than a decade ago now.”

“Before that was Jiraiya-san’s brats, and before that, Orochimaru-sama’s own team,” Shikaku muses, “though that was before our time. They’re legends now.”

At this, Shikamaru looks up and has to ask, “Where are his teammates?”

Shikaku snorts. “If only I knew. Well, Jiraiya-sama’s out there somewhere but he does come back every now and then with a load of good information. Tsunade-hime, though… who knows. She left a long time ago.”

A heavy sort of silence descends between his parents, both of whom appear to know about some drama that has long since passed into memory. Shikamaru doesn’t ask; he knows he won’t get a straight answer. He’ll have better luck waiting on clues from his own sensei.

“Gochisousama,” he puts down his polished bowl of rice, “okaa-san, can I have extra rice in my bento? I have a feeling I’ll need it today.”

Yoshino prepares it while Shikaku tidies the table and Shikamaru washes the dishes. “Who’s Hatake?” he asks, rinsing out a teacup with care. This one’s broken before and has golden lines tracing the old cracks. Kintsugi. No need to let it go to waste, after all.

“Don’t we have a lot of questions today,” his father chuckles. “Hatake Kakashi. Last of his clan. Jōnin. One of our strongest.”

“Stronger than Asuma-san?”

“Definitely.”

“Stronger than you?”

“No match there.”

“Stronger than Orochimaru-sensei?”

“No,” Shikaku laughs, “though that’d be one hell of a fight.” A large hand lands on his head, squashing his hair and tipping him sideways; Shikamaru snarls but his own hands are too soapy to bat his father away. “Son, understand this. You,” Shikaku tells him with a hard shake, “have been handed the opportunity of a lifetime. Orochimaru-sama has never held a genin team before and will likely never take one again. The only shinobi in this whole village strong enough to have a good chance at taking him down one-on-one is none other than the Hokage; that’s how strong your sensei is. There aren’t many nin who have flee-on-sight flags on the Bingo Book anymore, you know. He’s in line to be the next Hokage; not much competition in the way either. So make sure you pay attention.”

“I am,” Shikamaru grumbles, “paying attention. Why do you think I’m asking so many questions.”

“The Hokage handpicked the teams for this year,” Shikaku continues, wiping the table with a clean rag, “and I was surprised as anyone when they didn’t put you with Chouji and Ino. But then again, it’s not every year that a legend takes a genin team, so who am I to question the old man? If he thinks you’ll do well in Orochimaru-sama’s hands, I’m not one to complain.”

Shikamaru looks down again, watching the soapy water swirl down the drain. His own father sounds wistful and more than a little jealous of him; he, on the other hand, doesn’t yet know how to feel, because as judgmental as he is, it’s too early to make any judgments. Bits of rice are stuck in the strainer again, despite his best efforts. He’ll have to tap it all out.

“…mendokuse.”




His two teammates are already waiting when he gets to the banks of the river. Naruto is a bright splotch of orange against the green grass and Sasuke sits next to him, their heads bent together in collusion. It could be worse, Shikamaru tells himself, I could be stuck with Ino.

If he were more concerned about that sort of thing, he’d maybe feel more jealous about how the two seem to have latched on to each other already. As it is, he’s too busy thinking of all the other strange things he’s been noticing to really care. Besides, Naruto and Sasuke both look like a lot of work, emotionally and otherwise; Shikamaru’s got no energy for all that. They can stay with each other. That’s fine.

“Shikamaruuuu!” Naruto spots him first, arm all but detaching from his shoulder with his enthusiastic wave. “Over heeeere!”

“Yeah, like I couldn’t see you,” he mutters under his breath, hopping down the slope to stand next to them at the riverbank. Such a waste of energy, Naruto is. Must be nice to have the luxury of so much energy. “Yo.”

“Na, na, Shikamaru, na, whatcha think we’ll learn today?” Naruto positively gleams up at him, vibrating with enough energy to power the village. “Ya think we’ll learn some cool jutsus? Maybe we’ll spar with sensei again?”

“Dunno,” Shikamaru shrugs, because if he says otherwise, there’ll be more questions. But probably not, he thinks. Today will likely be basics.

Sasuke seems to be thinking along the same lines and opens his mouth to explain this to Naruto instead. Excellent. He will let Sasuke do the explaining to Naruto from now on.

Orochimaru-sensei arrives in short order, which is why Shikamaru didn’t bother sitting down. The three of them snap to attention.

“Good morning,” sensei says, voice soft and sibilant. Shikamaru has to wonder if sensei ever yells. Probably a good idea never to find out. “Are you prepared to go? Good. Follow me.”

They are not, in fact, being slaughtered at Ground 5 today; their blood is being offered to the forest spirits instead. (Shikamaru only wishes he was joking.) Orochimaru-sensei brings them to a patch of wood just a few hundred meters away from the inner walls of Konoha, at the very edge of the village’s protected sanctum. Shikamaru can spot the tops of the walls peeking above the trees from here. They must be close to the Uchiha compound.

“The training grounds are usually booked out in the early hours. We will meet here everyday instead. I trust you can find your way tomorrow.” Sensei puts down his pack underneath a tree; they follow suit. Shikamaru notes the overlarge bento stack Sasuke has packed for the day; how does one person eat so much?

“We will begin today with something you must learn to incorporate into your everyday routine. Spread out.”

They step back and sideways, giving each other space even as they keep their sensei front and center.

“A shinobi must master three aspects of themselves in order to grow. Care to guess?”

“Chakra,” Sasuke quips immediately, a fitting response for an Uchiha.

“Mind,” Shikamaru follows, because he’s a Nara and it makes sense.

“Um, body?” Naruto goes last, tilting his head even as he squints at their sensei. Shikamaru is surprised. Maybe Naruto does think.

Orochimaru-sensei is quiet for a moment but there is a low gleam of surprised pleasure in those golden eyes: Shikamaru is beginning to learn to read him a little.

“Very good. Everyday, our training will comprise of exercises geared towards honing one or two of those at the same time, until you achieve enough skill such that we are able to do all at once. We shall begin with chakra and the body.”

Sensei assumes a relaxed standing pose that the three of them copy on cue. He says, “Human chakra flows around the body through tenketsu of which there are eight large gates. You learned about this in the Academy, but you were never truly taught how to feel chakra, how to manipulate its gateways and regulate its flow. Today, you will begin exercising your tenketsu—your chakra’s gateways—and you will see how it can make a huge difference in every technique. Close your eyes and imagine a ball of energy in the very center of your body,” Shikamaru closes his eyes, “glowing brighter with each inhale and dimmer with each exhale. Keep it there. Fix it in your mind’s eye. Remember this image.”

Sensei pauses for a moment, allowing them space to breathe. Shikamaru can feel the tension fall from his own shoulders with each breath.

“Now,” sensei continues, tone lower and quieter than before, “imagine rivers of light flowing outwards from the core. A river for each of your arms, a river for each of your legs. Feel the flow of energy from your belly into your lungs, from your lungs into your limbs, from your arms and legs to the very tips of your fingers and toes. It is warm and sweet, like honey on your tongue, like fresh water on your skin.”

Shikamaru feels really warm now, like he’s been left out in a patch of sunlight for a little too long. He wants to nap.

“Let the warmth seep into your flesh. Visualize it spreading over every inch of your skin from the inside out. Let it fill you up, from the top of your head to the very bottom of your feet, until there is nothing left but that warm light. And then, when you are completely full, let it slowly flow out. It should coat you, surround you; it should feel like you are submerged in a warm bath. Open your eyes now. Can you feel it?”

“Yes,” Shikamaru breathes, slow and even as he reluctantly opens his eyes. Sensei looks blurry before him, like he’s seeing through fog or water. He feels slow but paradoxically energized, something warm humming underneath his skin.

“This is your chakra,” Orochimaru-sensei tells them, “this is what it feels like. Your tenketsu are open right now, roughly halfway, allowing a healthy outflow of your energy. Remember this feeling. You will do this every morning when you wake and every night before you sleep. After some time, controlling your tenketsu will become second nature, which is what you need to be able to regulate the flow of your chakra.”

Something tickles at Shikamaru’s brain. “Isn’t it dangerous to keep our tenketsu open like this for a long time?”

“Very good, Shikamaru. It is, if you’re not careful. Right now, you are letting it flow out of your body freely. You can easily drive yourself to chakra exhaustion if you leave it as it is for a few hours. Fortunately, this is not the human body’s natural state; if you let go of this conscious release, your tenketsu will return to neutral, the floodgates of your chakra shutting down once more. It will not close completely, no; it will let through just enough chakra to sustain your body’s basic daily needs. About 5-10% open for most people.”

“But they didn’t teach us this at the Academy,” Sasuke frowns beside Shikamaru, “so have we been doing jutsus with our tenketsu mostly shut?”

“Yes,” Orochimaru-sensei nods, looking down at Sasuke with a pleased lightness around his mouth. Shikamaru notes down that this is how sensei smiles. “Academy students are not considered proficient enough to be taught tenketsu manipulation; it can be harmful if they lose control and release too much chakra. Our reserves grow along with us as we age; the younger the children are, the smaller reserve they have. They cannot afford to leak chakra for even an hour.”

“So, so, when I do Kage Bunshin from now on, do I keep my tenketsu open like this?” Naruto asks, blue eyes wide and sparkling in a state of wonder.

“You will learn how to gauge how much chakra you need to feed into a technique. For now, yes, you will perform your jutsu in this state, with your tenketsu about a fourth to halfway open. It will make your jutsus far more powerful, but it will also exhaust you. You must grow accustomed to this. Over time, you will build reserve as you continue to use and deplete your chakra everyday.”

Deplete? Shikamaru dreads. Everyday?

“Eventually, you will learn to adjust how open or shut you want your tenketsu to be during a fight or for a particular jutsu.”

“But wait,” Shikamaru blinks, juggling three different questions in his head before picking the most urgent one, “are you saying that shinobi regularly fight while leaking chakra like this?”

Sensei looks down at him, amused. “Not all shinobi are capable of this, child, and many manage to make it to chuunin without ever properly learning tenketsu control. It is, however, basic; you must learn it now or you will have to relearn chakra theory all over again when you try to make for jōnin.”

Shikamaru makes a face at that, truly a horrendous prospect for the amount of wasted effort it would be. Besides, who has time to relearn anything?

“Now, pay attention,” sensei says, and that is all the warning they get before a gust of white hot energy pushes at them with intent to harm. Shikamaru stumbles back a step; Sasuke has jumped back five feet away.

“W-w-w-what was that,” Naruto babbles, flat on his ass gaping up at their sensei.

“That,” sensei tells them with a mild smile, “is how enemy nin will come at you. When your tenketsu are open, you are far more sensitive to the fluctuations of chakra around you. It is good for detecting enemies, but—”

“Enemies can detect you too,” Sasuke finishes without relaxing his battle stance.

“Correct. This is why you must learn to shut your tenketsu to avoid detection but simultaneously keep your senses attuned in order to detect others.”

Naruto has the squinty-eyed look again, so Sasuke simplifies it. “You gotta hide from the enemy but still be able to see them, is what he means.”

“Oh!”

“Alright,” sensei straightens once more, beckoning them closer. “Now we will lower your tenketsu release to a more sustainable rate and you will see how this is useful. Stand at ease once again, yes, relax—at this moment, your chakra is flowing outwards from your body, like wisps of smoke evaporating into the sky. Can you see it? Close your eyes if you have to; you are seeing with your mind, not your eyes. Imagine: the wisps of smoke are pulling back into your body, folding over your limbs and sinking into your bones. But do not let it disappear back into the river. Keep the warmth there, just there, humming underneath your skin. Think of it like a very thin layer of silk, a piece of clothing you are now wearing. It should be light but solid all throughout your body, covering every inch of you and sparing none.”

Now it feels like Shikamaru has skin-tight leather over his skin, keeping him even warmer than before. He feels less dizzy, though, and more alert. No fog over his eyes this time.

“Your chakra is now engaged with your body. In this state, your tenketsu are about 25% open. Remember this feeling. You will spend most of today like this, you will train most of the week like this, so it shouldn’t be too difficult.”

Sensei then leads them through a series of active stretches, most of them full body but some targeting specific muscle groups, while they maintain tenketsu at 25%. It makes a huge difference: his muscles respond faster and his transitions are more fluid. He can feel every blade of grass under his leg, the faint give of the earth beneath his palm, that breath of a breeze on the back of his neck, and the heat of Sasuke’s body flanking him from the left.

“Finally,” sensei tells them when they are standing at attention once more, “your tenketsu and the chakra that it regulates are beholden to your body. Therefore, you must take care of it. As shinobi, we are subject to constant stress and physical exhaustion; you must take note of this and consciously make up for what you lose. Sleep at regular intervals, or as regularly as you can when in the village. Eat, and eat well; do not skip meals, do not binge on junk food. Drink plenty of water. Stretch like we just did, every morning and every night. Practice releasing your tenketsu, also every morning and every night. Trust me when I say you will regret neglecting yourself when your body decides to make its complaints known in the middle of a mission. Moreover, I have no interest in coddling you during training; if you are falling behind, the rest of us will not wait for you. Am I understood?”

“Hai, sensei,” all three of them answer with varying levels of intimidation. Naruto in particular looks terrified at the prospect of being left behind.

“Good. Now we will move on to our next agenda.”




This was only his third round, but Shikamaru feels like they’ve been going all day. He has to brace his elbow against a knee, crouching over to catch his breath. Sweat drips down the side of his face to his chin. The sun is higher in the sky now. Even his best tactics don’t work on sensei; he has no choice but to keep up a vain struggle. Maybe that’s the objective: persistence in the face of failure?

Sasuke is performing the best among the three of them, perhaps a combination of natural talent and years of focused practice. Shikamaru watches him flow from kata to kata, a moving textbook example of perfect form, a taijutsu specialist in the making. Sasuke’s hits land with satisfying impacts, and though they obviously do nothing to hurt sensei, the sheer perfection of each executed move is infuriatingly beautiful nonetheless. If it’s one thing Shikamaru can do, it’s to acknowledge fellow genius when he sees it. (Doesn’t mean he has to be happy about it, though.)

“Better,” Orochimaru-sensei directs the boy, “but you are still far too predictable. Take those textbook patterns out of your head and move with your instinct. If you think you won’t land the hit, then don’t make it.” Sensei slams a palm on Sasuke’s shoulder, catapulting him halfway across the clearing. Sasuke flips in midair to kill his own momentum, landing with enviable catlike grace; nevertheless, Shikamaru has to wince in sympathy, because he knows how that palm strike hurts like a bitch. Sensei straightens and beckons Sasuke once again with a crook of a finger, “Come, little one. You have six more minutes.”

One-on-one with their sensei, rotating turns, ten minutes each, strictly taijutsu only: do any of the other teams get tortured like this? And sensei has made certain that they are keeping their tenketsu open at 25% as well. To acclimate them, Shikamaru understands; logically, it makes sense. But logic, he now learns, is not so convincing a motivator when one can hardly stand.

What’s worse, sensei hasn’t told them when they will stop. They have been going for an hour and a half, at least. Hard to believe that it isn’t even lunchtime; Shikamaru hasn’t worked so hard in his entire life. Nothing has ever been worth this much work. Nothing has ever required this much work. Shikamaru is coming to seriously reconsider his life choices: maybe he shouldn’t be a shinobi after all. Maybe he’s not fit for this sort of life. Maybe he should—

He ducks and rolls away, narrowly missing bodily collision with a flying Sasuke. …maybe he should not let his attention wander around here. Carelessness is fatal.

Soon, Sasuke’s ten minutes conclude. Naruto doesn’t even wait for him to step away before hurtling toward sensei, a flurry of limbs backed with strength and spontaneity where it lacks Sasuke’s polished finesse. It’s as though Naruto doesn’t believe in transitions; that, or he doesn’t even know what a transition is, which wouldn’t surprise Shikamaru at this point. That boy has curious knowledge gaps that beg explanation.

Moreover, what’s with the endless energy? Shikamaru gets tired watching him zoom around. It’s Naruto’s third round now but he moves as though they’ve just begun, packing kicks that resound solidly against sensei’s blocks. How are they able to land hits like that when Shikamaru felt like he was just glancing blows on sensei’s arms?

It’s not normal. These two are not normal.

Watching the two of them fight sensei, Shikamaru gradually comes to realize what sort of team they will become. It’s only the second day and yet he can already tell. They are already walking ahead of him, their backs slowly advancing into the distance. Naruto was terrified, but he had no reason to be; it’s Shikamaru who is already being left behind.

These two, under sensei’s tutelage, will become fearsome shinobi in the future; it makes no difference what kind of shinobi, because this much natural combat aptitude will find them on the battlefield one way or another, rank and titles notwithstanding. But Shikamaru, who is physically the weakest; Shikamaru, who is likely also the slowest; Shikamaru, whose chakra reserves are nothing next to these tireless fucking monsters—Shikamaru will have fulfill a different sort of role. Shikamaru will have to be what they cannot be—because when they are moving so fast, it becomes difficult for them to think too widely; they can only look toward their goal and aim for it with a single-minded zeal. But that very zeal that narrows their field of vision affords Shikamaru the luxury of a vast overlook; they will buy him time, they will give him space, and in turn, he will be the brain.

I am a Nara, Shikamaru grimly tells himself, I do not fight with my body. Thinking is what I do. So he sits and trains his eyes on the skirmish before him, watching closely for sensei’s moves. So think, Shikamaru: how can prey outwit a superior predator? Think, Shikamaru. Think.




tbc
first draft: 2017.06.12
last edited: 2021.12.16




NOTES & TRANSLATIONS

(1) The tenketsu release exercise is borrowed from Hunter x Hunter. Those who know of it will spot the similarity to nen, which is something I didn’t have to create; the creators of Naruto & Hunter x Hunter admit to it themselves. They’re very good friends, did you know? They would sit together & brainstorm about their respective works, which is why we see so many parallels between their worlds. I think it’s wonderful.

(2) Orochimaru would make a badass yoga teacher. I’d bend myself into knots for a yoga teacher like that.

Chapter Text

005. sasuke: believe

.

Sasuke has never been so sore in his entire life. His ribs are bruised from the multiple times he was thrown clear across the wood with a single strike; his hands are shaking from the pain of the punches he threw. His legs feel like they have been splintered into pieces, but he had to keep kicking, didn’t he, and let’s not even start about his back…

He feels good, though. Really, really good. His head is clear and his vision crystal-sharp; his senses are so finely tuned on the edge that he can hear Shikamaru’s clothes rustling with each breath. (Shikamaru is over there, sitting twenty meters away.) He doesn’t know what to call this, or if there is even a name for it, but he wants to stay like this forever, where he knows he is pushing the limits of his capacities. Sensei is showing him how to fight better, how to get stronger, and it feels good.

“That will be all for taijutsu today,” sensei declares after the conclusion of Naruto’s fourth round. Sasuke’s face falls in dismay; Naruto whines. “We have plenty of other things to be learning, little ones, despair not.”

I guess, Sasuke sighs, trudging over to sit under the tree where they dropped their packs earlier. Shikamaru sits next to him, for all intents and purposes a boneless slump; Naruto is digging into their packs for water. I wonder what’s next. What time is it now? How long did we do that for? I didn’t even realize I was thirsty.

“Na, na, sensei, will we be doing that everyday?” Naruto asks after wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “That was so much fun!”

“Fun, he says,” Shikamaru groans on Sasuke’s other side, “Speak for yourself, I can’t feel my legs.” Sasuke grunts in agreement.

“Quit whinin’, Shikamaruuuu, we’re only gonna get better!”

“Naruto is right,” sensei nods, now sitting before them looking as though he barely broke a sweat. “You will build physical tolerance, spatial awareness, battle reflexes, and stamina. Doing it daily is the only way; to achieve mastery, the long path is the only path.”

“So every morning, stretch and do the tenketsu exercises, then we start with taijutsu,” Naruto nods. “What’s next?”

“Next,” sensei pulls out a scroll, “we will learn about chakra.”

With a flick of his wrist, sensei unfurls the scroll, encouraging the three of them to come closer. Oh, Sasuke is familiar with this. Nevertheless, he leans forward and makes himself comfortable, eager to absorb everything sensei is willing to give them.

"Human chakra can be channeled and used two different ways. You should have learned this at the Academy," sensei leads, pausing to allow them to answer.

Shikamaru nods, "Nature transformation—"

"—and shape transformation," Sasuke finishes. Naruto is scratching his head.

"Explain them to me," sensei demands, "so that I can gauge how well you understand this concept."

Sasuke and Shikamaru look at each other; Sasuke shrugs and lets him go first. (His clan raised him to be polite.) "Nature transformation," Shikamaru says, "changes the type of your chakra into the different element releases. Shape transformation just changes the actual, well, shape of it."

Orochimaru-sensei tilts his head in somewhat of a nod, not disagreeing but still not satisfied. "Sasuke?"

"He's technically right," Sasuke slowly thinks it over, "but not all the way. It doesn't have to be just elemental releases; it can also be for yin and yang release techniques. Like genjutsu. Nature transformation changes the properties of your chakra; shape transformation just changes how it moves and how it's shaped." He looks up and catches Naruto's squinty-eyed look of confusion, so he backtracks and says, "Remember the fire technique I did yesterday?" Naruto nods. "So taking that, for example: it's called Katon: Gokakyu no Jutsu. I use nature transformation to change my chakra into fire, and then I use shape transformation to shape my chakra into a large ball. And then I blow the fireball at the enemy."

"Ooooohhh," Naruto nods heartily, "well, why didn't you just say so!"

"But he did," Shikamaru deadpans.

"I didn't get it!"

"Obviously."

"An illustrative example, Sasuke. As I expected, you have a more intuitive understanding of the concept given how you've already mastered an elemental release technique."

Sasuke flushes under his sensei's golden regard, pride suffusing him from head to toe. "I had to, I mean, I, it was expected of me."

"Nevertheless, well done.” Sasuke shivers. “Among the numerous benefits of being part of a clan is the advanced instruction you receive in certain aspects of training, compared to your peers who are from civilian families, or, like Naruto, do not have any remaining family to guide them. As such, I expect the both of you," sensei flicks a look from Shikamaru to Sasuke, "to help your teammate when and where you can. A shinobi who abandons his allies will find himself abandoned in return."

They are quiet for a moment, Naruto shrinking under the attention, until Sasuke reaches over and thumps him on the shoulder. "Don't worry, we'll catch you up."

"Tte iu ka," Shikamaru frowns, "I don't understand how you don't get chakra transformations when you can do Kage Bunshin. That's pretty damn advanced. How do you even know it?"

"Oh! Uhh..." Naruto scratches the back of his head, suddenly sporting an odd look of mingled pride and guilt. "I, um," he looks at their sensei and quails, "I might've maybe snuck a look into a sealed scroll that had some kinjutsu...?" Sasuke blinks. "Cuz I, uh, snuck into the Hokage Residence and, uh, stole it."

"You what."

"I put it back!!" Naruto panics, arms windmilling in an attempt to dispel their horrified regard. Or at least Sasuke and Shikamaru are horrified; Orochimaru-sensei just looks very amused. "I promise, sensei, I put it back, it was all a biiiig misunderstanding, you can ask jiji, I promise—"

"I am aware of the circumstances, Naruto, you may calm down." Sensei actually chuckles.

Naruto heaves a great sigh of relief before reaching out to shake Shikamaru. "Oi, Shikamaru, don't die!"

Shikamaru is either having an aneurysm rupture or a really bad case of gas. "I," he soberly, painfully says, "am not sure where to even begin."

Well, if he won't ask the questions, then Sasuke will. "Na, was it hard sneaking into the Hokage Residence? How did you get in? I'm surprised the Hokage didn't catch you!"

"Of course I waited for a night that jiji wasn't there! But hey, hey, it wasn't that hard to get in, 'ttebayo, there weren't a lot of guards!"

"The ANBU would have been with the Hokage, of course," Sasuke nods.

But Shikamaru is pinching the bridge of his nose and looking far older than all of his 11 years on earth. "But how did you even—you couldn't even understand what Sasuke was saying about chakra transformations, how are you—and besides, the—and—you—"

Oh no, Sasuke thinks, Shikamaru is running out of words.

"I believe," sensei interjects, "that Naruto learns instinctively and kinesthetically, by working his way through problems with his hands in real time, because it is the only way he knows how. Unlike you and Sasuke, he was never taught how to sit down, categorize information, synthesize, visualize, and then practice. He does it out of order, or sometimes all at once, like how young children learn how to walk and talk at the same time."

"Kage Bunshin, though?" Shikamaru says, pained, "That's not exactly child's play."

Sensei flicks him a look sideways. "You'll catch up."

Shikamaru slumps in defeat. “Ouch, sensei.”

"Your skin is not that thin. Now, shall we return to our lesson?" Orochimaru-sensei waits for them to reorient before he continues, "Very well. So we understand the difference between nature and shape transformations. Naruto, are you with us?"

"Sorta, I kinda get it."

"I will make it even simpler for you," sensei tells him, holding out an empty palm in front of them. A small round mass of light gathers atop it, blazing into fire before their very eyes. "My native chakra transformed into fire: nature transformation." With a flex of his fingers, sensei shapes the fire into a long pillar, and then a thin whip, and then a blade. "Changing the chakra's physical form: shape transformation."

Naruto's eyes come alive with the light of full comprehension; he is with them at last. Sensei closes his palm and the fire disappears without a trace.

"Most jutsu require a degree of both transformations; some only require one. Unfortunately, most shinobi neglect to train for them. But no team of mine will be remiss in their basics; you will master both transformations over the next twelve weeks in order to be ready for jutsu training." Sensei turns to Sasuke, who straightens under the direct regard. "150 jutsus by six months, did you say?" Sasuke gulps but nods. "Worry not, little one. We'll get you there."

Sensei once again pulls their attention back to the unfurled scroll in his lap. A familiar diagram is depicted where Sasuke can see: each of the five elemental releases positioned in relation to each other. Every Academy student is taught this diagram, but somehow, Sasuke knows that sensei will teach them more.

"Every shinobi has an elemental affinity," Orochimaru-sensei tells them, long fingers hovering over the diagram. "You are born with it; one could even say that it reflects your soul. Techniques that are rooted in your affinity will naturally come to you; likewise, techniques that are rooted in the element that you are most incompatible with will be extremely difficult to master.

"Jōnin are usually capable of mastering two elements: their own affinity and another one in triangular relation. For example, if your affinity is Fire, you might be able to master Earth or Lightning techniques with relative ease. Water will be most difficult; Wind will also be a challenge." Sensei taps the elements on the diagram, pointing out that after Fire comes Wind, and after Wind comes Lightning. Behind Fire is Water; across from fire, Earth.

"Does that mean that Lightning would be easier than Wind for a Fire person?" Naruto asks, squinting at the scroll.

"Precisely that; very good, Naruto. The elements go clockwise. You are not, by any means, limited to the affinity you are born with; you can try any jutsu you like. It is simply more efficient to begin your repertoire with techniques that will not try to fight you as you learn it."

"Question," Shikamaru raises a hand, "how do we find out our affinity?"

"We will get there shortly."

"Great, second question: how come we don't get taught this at the Academy?"

"What do you get taught in the Academy?" Orochimaru-sensei shoots back, playful but also not.

"Oh, Shikamaru wouldn't know," Naruto laughs, "he was asleep most of the time!"

"Oi."

Sasuke sniggers with Naruto. It's true: Shikamaru slept most of their Academy years away. And yet he graduated near the top of his class with the barest of efforts, a true and shining example of energy conservation. In Sasuke's book, that demands admiration.

Sensei pulls out four pieces of square paper from his sleeve, handing each of them one. Sasuke inspects it, finding no distinguishing characteristics about the item except perhaps that their sensei gave it to them.

"We will now see what your affinities are," he tells them, "and I will have a chance to confirm my suppositions."

"You could already tell what our affinities were?" Naruto bounces, eager and bright.

"Some theories say that they are reflected in the user's personality. I have observed you enough to have my own thoughts about the matter, but we shall see if I am correct. Take hold of your paper like so—you will let your chakra flow over it. I will demonstrate and then you will try." A rush of heat from sensei's direction, rippling across Sasuke's skin, and between sensei's fingers, the square of paper is suddenly sopping wet. "Water."

"Ooooh," Naruto croons, holding his own sheet between two hands. With steel-eyed concentration, he pushes chakra through his fingers—the heat of it is almost scalding—Naruto's paper splits into two. "Oh no."

Sensei chuckles, unperturbed. "Wind, of course. As is expected. Shikamaru?"

Shikamaru's chakra is less of a scorch than Naruto's, more of a dry, temperate heat. The paper pinched between Shikamaru's fingers crumbles into dust. "Earth?" Shikamaru asks; sensei nods. "Did that fit your predictions?"

"Your father's affinity is Earth," sensei points out with what Sasuke thinks he can call a smile. "Lastly, Sasuke."

"It's probably Fire," Sasuke murmurs, pushing his chakra through his fingers. But instead of catching fire, the paper in his hand wrinkles instead. "...uh, that's not Fire."

"Lightning," sensei sounds delighted, eyes widening just a hair to highlight his surprise. "You defy my expectations, little one. Uchihas typically fall under Fire."

"That's..." Sasuke stares down at the paper in his hand and remembers two summers ago, when he was struggling to master what was supposed to be a straightforward Fire technique for an Uchiha. "That's why Gokakyu was so hard for me to master, wasn't it?" He looks up at Orochimaru-sensei, who meets him with warm, golden eyes. "It took me forever. I thought I was just a failure, that I had no talent at all. It was so hard breathing chakra into fire; I felt like my lungs were going to explode."

Sensei hums, placing a hand on his head. Sasuke starts at the unexpected, unfamiliar weight. "Mastering Lightning will be much easier and more rewarding. You may still choose to master Fire as your secondary affinity, if you so wish; Earth is your other immediate option, but you are, after all, still an Uchiha. Moreover," sensei hooks a finger under his jaw to tip his chin up, "you, little one, are not a failure. None of you are failures. Otherwise, I would not be here teaching you; I do not waste my time. You have talent and potential waiting to be tapped, and it will be my privilege to polish you until you shine brighter than any of your peers. I never want to hear those words from any of your lips again, understood? Banish it from your vocabulary. I do not tolerate failure; therefore, you will not fail."

"Hai, sensei," Sasuke dips his head, clutching at the paper in vindication. It's expedient that he chooses to keep his head down in a show of obedience, because it serves to hide the tears that brim at his eyes, as well as the vicious smile that stretches wide from cheek to cheek.

I'm not a failure, he tells himself, I will not fail.

And for the first time in his life, he dares to believe.




tbc
first draft: 2018.05.19
last edited: 2021.12.16




Chapter Text

006. orochimaru: expectations

Over lunch he observes them with interest, dynamics still shifting within the hazy, ill-defined limits of this new team. Do they know, little as they are, the weight of the legacy they carry? Konoha’s Team Seven, the next generation. Likely they do not, but inevitably they will, and Orochimaru has no doubt it’ll be the little Nara who figures it out first. Shikaku has done well training his son.

“I had dinner at Sasuke’s house last night and he cooked this for us and I helped!” Naruto proudly relays, brandishing chopsticks over six bento tiers of karaage, rice, pickles, mixed greens, and fresh tomatoes.

“I feel poor,” Shikamaru sighs over his own modestly sized lunch, eggs and grilled fish, rice and steamed vegetables. “Wait, you two made all that food?”

“Uh-huh!” Manners, Orochimaru makes note. Naruto needs manners.

“But by yourself?”

“Uh-huh!”

“…your mom doesn’t cook?” Shikamaru then asks Sasuke, cautiously so as not to offend.

“Um, no, she’s back to active duty now and chichiue is busy too,” Sasuke shrugs, demolishing the tomatoes while glowing with an odd mix of embarrassment and pride. An independent child, then, a good trait to have for a shinobi, although it makes for a poor home life. Uchiha Fugaku’s wife Mikoto is a tokujo, if Orochimaru recalls the ranks correctly, and she has one of the clan’s best eyes for seals detection and deconstruction. Of course she would return to active duty now that her children are grown; she would consider it her duty to represent her clan.

“Great,” Shikamaru brightens, “we have someone who can cook. That means you have cooking duties when we’re on the field.”

“Hey, that’s not fair to Sasuke!” Naruto frowns.

“Well, I can’t cook. Can you? Without poisoning us, I mean.”

Sasuke snickers and the passing tension is diffused. Although physically weaker and slower than the other two children, Shikamaru is proving to be the most quick-witted and perceptive, perhaps even consciously moderating their interactions to ease his teammates into a working camaraderie, a structured team with shared duties. It would be in his best interest to do so until he can physically catch up.

It is interesting to also note that Namikaze’s son does not seem to possess the same effortless genius for which Namikaze himself was renowned. Naruto is by no means an imbecile, despite appearances, and boasts a level of natural intuition most shinobi take years to acquire. But there are inconsistencies and knowledge gaps, or a certain slowness when approaching particular concepts: perhaps a failure of the village’s lacking education system. It wouldn’t be the first time.

And little Sasuke, mastering an elemental technique from a category other than his own affinity! Uchihas do tend to defy expectations. Orochimaru is already having to rework his, and it’s only their first day.

He reconvenes them after the food has all disappeared. (They have much growing left to do, after all.) Something physically restful for now, to let the sustenance settle into their stomachs, but still stimulating enough that they don’t fall asleep: Orochimaru has just the thing.

“What are we doing next, sensei?” Naruto asks at once, eyes bright and eager. “Cool jutsu? More sparring? A mission?”

“We will not do missions for another week or two yet, little one. We are continuing our chakra lesson into the practical application. You recall that I told you about your tenketsu—chakra gateways, so to speak. You will now practice funneling chakra into specific tenketsu, meaning specific body parts. Control is key. Like so.”

He holds out an arm to Naruto’s chest, palm out, and slowly focuses an outflow of chakra into the hand. Naruto gasps. “It’s hot!”

“Chakra often manifests as heat. You can feel me building chakra into my palm. But feel this,” Orochimaru touches Naruto’s cheek with his other hand, no chakra flow, “see the difference?”

Naruto nods, squinting. “Not hot.”

“Channeling chakra into specific body parts can strengthen your physical blows and reinforce your limbs against impact and damage. It can mean the difference between walking away from a battle versus being carried away with broken bones. A good shinobi can manipulate chakra distribution throughout the body during battle in order to prevent injuries and defend himself. A great shinobi can feel and judge how much chakra their opponent has in a fist or a kick, and match that amount blow for blow.” Orochimaru slides his gaze over to Sasuke and adds, “A Sharingan wielder should, in theory, be able to see his opponent’s chakra, watch how it is molded, and thus be forewarned of incoming attacks during the battle.”

Shikamaru looks at him with wide, despairing eyes. “You don’t mean to make us use this in sparring time too?”

“Not yet,” Orochimaru smiles, dark and pleased. Shikamaru groans. “This is basic and necessary. Get good enough at this and you can fell opponents with only taijutsu. Master this, and you will be able to create and modify ninjutsu at will. Eventually, you should be able to physically extend your chakra beyond your body—” he holds out a glowing sphere of his own chakra in his palm, “—change its shape—” the ball becomes a rod, then a saucer, then a blade, “—and then change its nature, all at will.” The blade ripples into a watery form before bursting into flames.

“Cooooool,” Naruto croons, “ok, ok, tell me what to do, sensei!”

Orochimaru guides them into a sitting position where they can touch his arm or leg with both hands. “I will be able to tell if you are succeeding. At this time, practicing on your own may be unreliable so it is best for us to do this together. Focus, breathe like you are releasing your tenketsu again, and when you can feel your chakra warming you, imagine the warmth pooling and concentrating in your left hand. Gently. Slowly. Breathe with it. Let it flow.”

Almost immediately, Sasuke’s hand on Orochimaru’s right arm begins to warm. Unsurprising, given the boy’s mastery of a Katon.

“When you have pooled as much as you are able to in your right hand, slowly shift that concentration to your left. Count slowly, shift back and forth every fifteen seconds if you can.”

Shikamaru’s chakra is a hesitant flicker, a tempered dry heat modulating from one hand to the other. If only the boy worked his chakra with as much confidence as he did with his mind. Ah, well, further points for improvement.

Naruto, however, is struggling. “Am I doing it?” he asks, eyes screwed shut and forehead scrunched.

“No, Naruto, you are not.”

Naruto’s face falls, although he keeps trying. After another few minutes, Orochimaru decides to tell him, “Sometimes, in extenuating circumstances, achieving chakra control like this requires more work. Any standing alteration to the body’s natural chakra coils can make precision channeling a challenge. Seals, injured tenketsu, and such.”

It takes a moment before Naruto comprehends his meaning. “Oh,” the boy quietly murmurs, one hand coming to curl around his stomach. The boy only recently found out, from what Orochimaru is told; a cruel hand to deal an innocent child who had to live under such conditions for the first ten years of his life. But the Council had refused to listen to reason.

Orochimaru meets the boy’s blue eyes and encourages, “It is not, however, an impossible task. If you manage to circumvent it, your control will be all the better for it, and your achievement will be greater. It will just require more time, more work. Do you understand, Naruto?”

“H-Hai, sensei! Ganbarimasu!”

“You’ll get it, Naruto,” Sasuke follows through, “it took me a long time too when aniki first taught me! Just keep practicing!”

But Shikamaru’s eyes are sharp and narrowed, flicking between Naruto and Orochimaru in suspicion. Amused, Orochimaru gifts the boy an oblique smile, having already said as much as he is allowed to say. Shikamaru will indeed figure it out first, and Orochimaru will encourage it; he might not be sanctioned to tell them, but nothing precludes them from figuring things out for themselves.

Naruto keeps trying, taking tips from Sasuke with thoughtful nods. By the end of the half-hour, he manages at last, channeling a blast of chakra that scorches against Orochimaru’s skin. Seeing the sudden redness blooming on the skin under his hand, Naruto blanches and gasps, “So-so-sorry, sensei! I-I couldn’t—I didn’t—”

“It’s quite alright, Naruto.” Orochimaru examines his limb with a narrow look of pleasure. He lays his opposite hand on the patch of skin that looks badly sunburnt and heals it in seconds. The children watch with wide, amazed eyes.

“You are an Uzumaki, descended from a long line of seals masters and gifted with large stores of natural chakra. Control will not be easy precisely because you have so much of it that when you channel it, it all wants to come out at once. Sasuke, as an Uchiha, also has large natural reserves, but he began training before you and is thus more acclimated to channeling it. I suspect that this is also why it is easier for you to use kage bunshin instead of ordinary bunshin, because kage bunshin requires a larger sourceflow of chakra to keep it stable. Do not look at it as an impediment; you will be glad to have so much chakra at your disposal in battle. Simply practice, like Sasuke has done. It will come in time.”

Naruto’s eyes are large and somewhat tearful; of course no one has acknowledged the boy’s latent gifts before this. Not for the first time, Orochimaru dismays his own sensei’s lack of tact with children, a fault in full display in this instance as it was when Hiruzen fell out of favor with his own son. Their Hokage should not be allowed to handle anyone below the age of ten.

“Questions,” Shikamaru sticks a hand in the air. Orochimaru tilts his head in anticipation. “First off: I don’t know an Uzumaki clan.”

“They are from Uzushio, long lost to a devastating attack from Kirigakure. Survivors of the attack are scattered across the Continent now, mostly civilians, largely in Fire Country. We were their allies, but we were too late to help them, or so I am told. I was on another mission when this happened many years ago. Naruto’s mother was one of the few surviving shinobi of that village; her name was Uzumaki Kushina.”

Naruto gapes at him, perhaps never even knowing his own mother’s name. What cruelty this village is capable of, Orochimaru sighs. The little Nara, however, mulls this in silence. Orochimaru will give him a day or two; the boy will have it all figured out by then.

“That just left me with more questions,” the boy grumbles.

“So find the answers,” Orochimaru responds.

“Ugh, fine. I will. Second question: these two are obviously gonna be monsters when they grow up, but I’m a normal ordinary human being. What can I do to shore up my chakra reserves?”

“You are hardly ordinary, child, you are a Nara. A few generations ago, your line married a Senju too, you know this, and the Senju are renowned for their vitality and strength. Train and give it time. The more you exercise your chakra coils, the more they will produce.” Shikamaru simply hasn’t given much time towards chakra training in the first place, preferring to hone his mind as Naras do.

The boy makes another moue of distaste; he will grow up to be quite a grouch, Orochimaru can tell. “Right, long path is the only path and all that. Great. Third question then: when do we learn that?” the boy points at Orochimaru’s healed arm.

“It depends on your progress, but not for a while yet, little one. We have miles to go before you can heal.”

“Don’t you have to go through medic nin training at the hospital before you can do that?” Sasuke frowns.

“Most medics do, yes. Some apprentice directly to an experienced healer. There is nothing to stop you from trying on your own, but it is a complicated art, requiring much time and high levels of chakra control. And somehow, I doubt that you would take to it,” he eyes Sasuke up and down, “warrior-born as you are.”

“But, but, with the Sharingan thingy, Uchihas would make really good healers, wouldn’t they?” Naruto asks.

“Oboro-obaa-san is a healer,” Sasuke nods, “and Tsubasa-oba and Hideki-oji too.”

Uchihas rarely go to the hospital and are only seen thereabouts when their injuries are life-threatening; no surprise that they have their own healers within the Compound. Considering the village’s political landscape over the last decade, Orochimaru cannot blame them for their secrecy.

“Now, that is enough rest after lunch, I think. Up you get. This is an extension of what we just learned about chakra, the first true practical application of your basics.”

The tree above them is too short and has too many potential handholds for the task to be a challenge, so Orochimaru leads them on a short walk to the village’s perimeter walls. They are patrolled, yes, but not as heavily as the mythical forest beyond. Still, there will be enough passing traffic to make for spectators as his little genin struggle. Fast progress necessitates proper motivation, and in Orochimaru’s book, embarrassment counts.

They stop before the wall but Orochimaru keeps walking, hands tucked into his haori sleeves as he plants a foot on the concrete. And another, and another. Calmly, he scales the length of the structure, walking until he reaches the very top. Below him are three wide-eyed children; he makes sure they see him leave three scrolls adhered to the wall before he releases the chakra securing his feet and falls, landing soundlessly before them. The wall is a good thirty meters in height, smooth and without any branches or handholds for them to cheat with.

“Chakra to your feet to help you adhere to the concrete. Control is key. Too little and you lose grip; too much and you either push away or crack the wall. There are scrolls at the top for each of you, containing the first jutsu I want you to learn. Not a basic one either, none of the trifle you learn at the Academy, but a proper battle-ready jutsu, mid-range in difficulty. That is your reward. You have the rest of the afternoon: begin.”

The three of them look at each other and then back up at the wall. Naruto’s usual enthusiasm seems tempered after overdoing it and injuring his sensei, but Sasuke grimly faces the challenge. The little Uchiha takes a breath and sprints a few feet up the wall with sheer momentum. Gravity eventually takes over, though, and he falls, flipping backwards to scratch a mark at his highest point with a kunai before landing deftly on his feet. Like a cat, Orochimaru chuckles, adaptable form.

“No, no, that won’t work,” Shikamaru is muttering to himself as he watches Naruto attempt the same. A competition picks up, Sasuke and Naruto running faster to try and outdo each other’s best height. All the while, Shikamaru watches them, observing and synthesizing, learning from their mistakes.

After about fifteen minutes, the little Nara steps up to the wall and plants a foot on its surface with caution. He shifts his weight and takes another step, and another, and another, chakra flickering nervously around his feet. About six steps up, at the height of an adult’s head, his control breaks and he falls, catching himself on a knee. “Damn. This is harder than I thought.”

“Whaaaat! How, how, how didja do that! Tell me!”

“Oh,” Sasuke frowns at his own feet, “so we shouldn’t run.”

Orochimaru picks a nearby tree to sit in and wait. He watches them try to figure it out themselves, offering no advice, simply his silence. Problem-solving is also a skill that needs to be honed in these young minds.

Sasuke makes it to ten steps before falling. Naruto falters at five. Shikamaru leans in to give him pointers, and then they try again.

Patrol curiously approach, two chuunin and a jōnin, before relaxing when they see a jōnin-sensei watching the kids. After twenty minutes, two more chūnin come by and pick out a spot from where they can watch. They stay. So far the children do not seem to pay them any mind, although Sasuke and Shikamaru have certainly noted the audience.

“It’s not about putting it all in your legs,” Sasuke scratches the back of his neck, “but more like—more like—like spreading it thin on the soles of your feet. Like paint. Or, or sticky rice. A thin layer of it.”

“But how much is too much?” Naruto whines, “cuz when I try to push my chakra out, it all wants to come out at once!”

“Practice, says sensei,” Shikamaru sighs. “Cool jutsu.” He points to the scrolls waiting above them.

Their audience grows. A familiar flicker of chakra appears at Orochimaru’s shoulder, carrying the distinctive scent of tree sap and young wood and the cold, mysterious air of Hashirama’s deepest, oldest forests. It brings a smile to his face: Tenzo is one of his crowning achievements.

“Tachibana mentioned you had your kids up to something,” the shadow beside him says. “Having a good time, it seems.” Naruto and Sasuke laugh at Shikamaru, who falls over on his ass.

“They have much to learn,” Orochimaru obliquely remarks. “Did Anko fix the mess she made in the kitchen like I told her to?”

Being the younger brother, Tenzo blanches at the mention of Anko’s misdeeds. “I know nothing, otou-sama.”

“Hm, of course you don’t.”

Speak of the little devil, Anko appears, roughly breaking her shunshin on the tree branch upon which Orochimaru sits. “Look at them! They’re so cute! Vertical walk already? On day one!”

Onee-san,” Tenzo groans in a mixture of shame and disappointment. So he does know something after all.

“Is that—” Anko squints at Naruto “—they let you have him?”

“Far be it for me to question the old man,” Orochimaru snorts, “he is the Hokage, after all. His word is law.”

“And an Uchiha!” she gasps, which earns a curious look from Sasuke and Shikamaru both. She turns to ask, “Are they testing you or something?”

“Asuma-senpai has a Hyuuga,” Tenzo tells her, “I think that’s just how it turned out this year. I saw his team at Ground Nine.”

“Asuma has a tracker team,” Orochimaru elaborates, “and Gai has an assault team, a Hyuuga there too. Yuuhi Kurenai was given a team of three girls.”

“Ack,” Tenzo winces. Considering his primary exposure to women is Anko, his reaction is reasonable.

Shikamaru makes it halfway up the wall this time, earning a quiet whistle from Anko who has now taken a spectator seat. “At least they learn fast. I was feeling sorry for them when I heard you were taking a team. You wouldn’t be able to tolerate slow learners so I hoped you would get the smart ones.”

“A Nara, an Uchiha, and Uzumaki Naruto. Hardly slow,” Tenzo snorts, before he stiffens and flicks a glance past the wall. Faint flickers of well-suppressed chakra pause in the trees for a moment, before moving on. Tenzo sighs in dismay. “I thought he was told to not take missions.”

“Hatake?” Anko snorts. “Boring patrol rota doesn’t count as a mission to that asshole. He fuck himself up again?”

“Quite. Burned through his right arm’s chakra coils and now has to regenerate them for a week. As always, the man has a death wish. Otou-sama, onee-san, please excuse me. I must at least scold him for disobeying his doctor’s orders, and his minder for letting him out, and the missions desk for letting him patrol. Have a good evening.”

Tenzo disappears in a flutter of leaves, haring after the faint chakra signatures now receding in the distance. Probably took off after hearing him. Anko cackles.

One must now wonder what Hatake must think, seeing his beloved late mentor’s son a student of Orochimaru. He is, after all, Konoha’s Snake Sage, equal parts revered and reviled. But perhaps Hatake doesn’t mind at all, considering how little involvement he seems to have with Naruto’s life.

The Hokage’s edict still stands to this day, a choke order on any and all details about Konoha’s jinchuuriki in an effort to protect Naruto from the hateful response the beast engendered directly after the attack. (Naruto’s identity should never have been revealed in the first place; as usual, Konoha likes to create its own problems.) How often, then, has Hatake visited with his sensei’s son? Has he visited at all? From what Orochimaru can glean, Naruto has not had much in the way of adult guidance or acknowledgement in his short life, so they likely have not met. Yet. Can’t place blame on Hatake; he too was but a child when Namikaze died. Hardly in any shape to be remotely responsible for a newborn, much less one who is the Kyuubi’s host.

But Jiraiya is an adult, Orochimaru’s brain whispers, traitorous and sibilant. Absent as usual, nowhere to be found when it counts. They may say what they want about Orochimaru’s morally reprehensible experiments, his overall dislike for people, his ruthlessness in and out of the battlefield, but never once has he abandoned children who are dependent upon him. He raised Tenzo against what better judgment would dictate and sheltered Anko for as long as she needed it. Even Kabuto, who hardly needs him anymore, but was once his student all the same. They decry the failures of the system, Tsunade and Jiraiya both, but they do nothing to better it. They denounce the walls that keep the village’s clans apart but they don’t open the doors. They walk away when they should have stayed. Useless.

Naruto yells out; Orochimaru sees him almost fall but cling to the wall, both hands flat on its surface as he crouches against it like a four-legged spider. Underneath him, the concrete has cracked and splintered, raining crumbled pieces down to the ground. The shock of his chakra is a starburst in the cool air.

“Oh! Hey! I’m not falling!” he grins at his friends, who both looked at him in surprise. Shikamaru showcases impressive focus, maintaining his feet on the wall despite the ruckus. Sasuke already fell. “Sensei, sorry!” Naruto waves from his perch, “I didn’t mean to, but I broke the wall!”

Ah, but why open doors at all? This one will break them down. Orochimaru tells him, “It will be repaired, Naruto. Carry on. You have a ways to go.”

They should get it by nightfall, Orochimaru thinks, because even Naruto is now halfway, and we will be on schedule to move on to water walking next week. He needs to book Ground Four for the ponds, or they will be stuck learning on the Naka river itself. While that would be comedic, it would also only serve to frustrate the boys. A coursing river is a merciless teacher when learning to walk.

 

Eventually Anko leaves, having had her fill of the comedy. Orochimaru reconvenes them as the sun sets to the west, noting that all three have at least made it past halfway. More than satisfactory progress for three eleven-year-olds. He guides them through their stretches and tenketsu exercises once more, after which they are more bleary-eyed and tired than they were at the beginning.

“Today’s training concludes now. It is six in the evening and you have just enough time to wash up and eat dinner before bed. No, Naruto, you may not return here to continue training—you also need to let your body rest, give it time to grow. Otherwise you will never grow taller than you are.” Naruto’s face freezes in horror. “If you try to come back here, I will know, and I will not be pleased. The night is for resting. The wall will still be here tomorrow.”

The three of them nod, Naruto sheepishly hanging his head.

“Seven sharp tomorrow morning, at the clearing where we sparred. Don’t be late.”

After a second’s hesitation, Sasuke bends into a proper ninety-degree bow. “Thank you very much, sensei!”

Naruto flounders in his haste to follow, Shikamaru bowing but only with a lazy drawl of, “Thanks, sensei.”

Pleased, Orochimaru has to smile. “You are welcome, little ones. We will make shinobi out of you yet.” He vanishes, leaving behind windswept leaves and a trio of exhausted children. All in a day’s work.




tbc
first draft: 2018.08.31
last edited: 2021.12.16




Chapter Text

007. shikamaru: whirlpools

At the end of their first full day, Shikamaru has to drag himself home. He gets to the gates and about keels over, his left leg cramping with how much he has pushed his body in one day. His father finds him there later, sprawled insensate on the genkan, where he sat to stretch his hamstrings and apparently fell asleep.

“Well, now,” Shikaku laughs at him, “it’s only the first day!”

Shikamaru doesn’t even have enough energy to respond with anything beyond a grunt.

He should be ashamed but his exhaustion is beyond shame. He lets his old man hoist him up like a child to guide him into the house, passing the kitchen where his mother is starting on dinner. Shikamaru blinks asleep again in between the hallway and the bath, where his father sits him, fully clothed, on a stool.

“Wake up and wash,” Shikaku prods him, nearby removing his own clothes. “The water’s nice and hot; we can soak for a while. It’ll be good for your body. I’ll watch you so you don’t drown.”

Somehow, Shikamaru manages to undress and bathe. Washing away the sweat and dust feels refreshing, but whenever he closes his eyes, everything they did during the day flashes across his mind. It’s distracting. His mind is integrating new information, he knows this, but it’s exhausting and frankly he doesn’t want to think about much of anything right now.

“Come on, up you get,” Shikaku levers him back to his feet. The two of them walk together to the edge of their large onsen.

Shikamaru hisses in pleasure when they step in; the hot water is divine. Thank the Sage for clan perks such as these. What would he do without their onsen? It’s one thing to have a tub, but their clan compound has this onsen, which is as large as a pool, able to accommodate the whole family if need be, and always heated to just the right temperature. He knows he won’t live through the next year of his miserable genin life if not for the onsen.

“So what did you do today?” Shikaku asks him, arms spread out and head tipped back on the stone edge of the pool.

“Tenketsu exercises,” Shikamaru dully enumerates, “and then four rounds of one-on-one taijutsu. And then chakra affinities. And then chakra modulation. And then vertical walking on the perimeter walls.” By the end of his list, his father is laughing again. “It’s not funny.”

“It is!” his good-for-nothing father cackles, “I’ve got to find some time to watch your training. I’m sure Orochimaru-sama will indulge my presence. That’s insane. He’s making you do that much in the first week? Legendary, indeed!” Shikaku continues laughing, prompting Shikamaru to turn around and face away.

“You can laugh all you want but you’ll be less one heir after a few more weeks of this torture,” Shikamaru grumbles, chin resting on the stone edge. The movement makes his flank muscles protest. His left shoulder blade will have a nasty bruise tomorrow, he can just feel the way it’s knotted tight.

“Ah, come now, you’re not that easy,” Shikaku dismisses. “You’re a Nara, after all. You wouldn’t be my heir if you die!”

“Ha bloody ha, no shit,” Shikamaru concedes, not having any energy to argue further. He also had some questions he needed to ask his father, but the water feels to good, and his vision is going hazy. He can’t quite remember them right now, or why they were so important. Maybe later. Tomorrow, if he wakes up at all. He feels like sleeping for an eternity right now.

How long they spend in the bath, Shikamaru can only hazard a guess. Shikaku pulls him out of the water before he gets overheated and wraps him in a yukata proudly embroidered with the symbol of their clan. They eat dinner as a family, Shimizu-obaa also present, but he doesn’t recall much of it; all he knows is that he ate and then he went to sleep.




His alarm blares at six o’clock in the fucking morning; Shikamaru protests with a groan. A minute more and his hand slams down to silence the nuisance, blankets slipping down from his shoulders as he sits halfway up. The sun threatens on the horizon outside his bedroom window; he thinks, fuck my miserable life.

He staggers to his feet, takes a piss, washes specific body parts, and brushes his teeth. Somehow, he makes it into his clothes despite his bodyaches and assorted bruises. He packs his arsenal, taking a few extra shuriken from his stock, and then ties his hair up into the usual style. Downstairs, his father and mother are already sitting, Yoshino reading the paper and Shikaku inspecting a shougi board in midgame.

Shikamaru moves a piece from the shougi board as he passes by. His father makes a soft sound of assent, responding with a silver general. His mother slides food in front of him, having risen from her paper. Breakfast disappears from in front of him in a matter of fifteen minutes; most important meal of the day, after all.

“Drink this,” Yoshino puts a teacup next to his elbow, fragrant with pungent herbs and a strong whiff of cured mushrooms.

Shikamaru grimaces. “Do I wanna know?”

“Anti-inflammatory, for your muscles. Vitamins and electrolytes to give your body endurance. Diuretics to help you eliminate lactic acid. I hope I don’t have to remind you to drink water.”

Because she says that, Shikamaru makes a point to take a large water jug with him, but not before moving another piece on the shougi board. Shikaku only snorts, waving him away.

“Go, go, don’t be late,” he says, “and straight to the onsen with you when you get home later. It’s only day two, after all, you’ve got to keep your body strong.”

“I know that,” Shikamaru scowls, stomping out of the house. The sun is just now rising; under its golden rays, the village slowly comes to life. He can see the expanse of it from here, his house set on higher ground near the Hokage Monument. Around him, the Nara compound remains peaceful and still.

Day two, he thinks in wonder, sprinting lightly through the empty street, has it only been that long? It feels like we started so long ago.

But Shikamaru also understands that his warping perception of time is a sign that he is learning a lot; his brain is not accustomed to it yet, this fact that one can learn so much in such a short period of time.

When he arrives, his teammates are already there. They immediately proceed to their morning stretches and tenketsu exercises without waiting for Orochimaru-sensei, although sensei does arrive on time. Shikamaru didn’t do his tenketsu exercises last night, as exhausted as he was; he bites his lip and hopes sensei can’t tell. (Sensei can totally tell.) Annoyingly, Naruto and Sasuke seem to have both done their assignments and are present today with even stronger determination and a fanatic gleam in their eyes. Their chakra cores blaze with latent power next to Shikamaru, who may be inexperienced but isn’t blind. I am in a team of monsters, Shikamaru realises once again, to which his traitorous brain responds, what shall we do about that?

During taijutsu, he lands better hits than he did yesterday; they are still blocked but sound more solid nonetheless. Sensei throws him bodily sideways and says, “Good effort, little one, but put your back into it. When you make a hit, you need to mean it.”

Sweat drenches Shikamaru’s shirt until it gets so sticky that he just takes the damned thing off. Half-naked and heedless, he charges at sensei, mind narrowing along the lines of possible attacks. Gradually, ever so slowly, his body begins to react before his brain can think. There is a pattern to the dance, he realises, and sensei is trying to teach him as the experienced dancing partner.

“That’s it, Shikamaru. Trust your instinct. Your mind may be stronger, but your instinct will always be sharper,” sensei lands a palm strike on his left flank, applying just enough force that Shikamaru rotates in the air to land in a crouch. That palm strike was meant to show him how he should have dodged instead. He has been getting them to the left side more often; maybe he’s favouring moves that sensei thinks are unwise?

Onwards they continue. It is a testament to how much sensei is exhausting them that Shikamaru doesn’t think to ask questions until they are well into their lunchtime. Curious yet disinhibited by fatigue, he asks, “Sensei, why did you agree to take genin this year? I’ve heard from oyaji that you’re one of the strongest in the village; surely you’ve got better things to do with your time.”

“Oy, Shikamaru!” Naruto yelps, alarmed. “Whatcha askin’ that for?!”

Sasuke follows that with a perfectly Uchiha scowl. “Have you never been taught not to question the value of a gift? Don’t be rude.”

Sensei chuckles, “The Hokage asked nicely, that is all. I am not one to refuse the old man his wishes; it only gets more troublesome if I try. With age, Sarutobi-sensei has only grown more annoying.”

Shikamaru swallows his rice, unsure of how to respond to their sensei disparaging the Hokage so casually. Sasuke similarly looks lost. Naruto, however, shines in excitement.

“Ooh, that’s right, that’s right, Hokage-jiji was your jōnin-sensei when you were a kid! Was he a tough sensei, sensei? Was he mean to you guys? Did he punish you a lot?”

Orochimaru slyly leans towards Naruto. “We called him oni-sensei,” he tells them, “for he wouldn’t let us eat lunch if we didn’t perform well enough with our jutsu. One time he bound my teammate to a tree and forbade him from eating for having performed the worst during a spar. He also made my other teammate cut her long hair and keep it short until she could do battle without her hair being a liability. That was a very good lesson, though; long hair can be the death of an inexperienced shinobi.”

Naruto gapes while Shikamaru thanks the Heavenly Goddess for their sensei’s more reasonable nature. He wasn’t raised in the more religious traditions the Uchiha clan avidly follows, but he can appreciate the auguries of fortune just the same.

“It was a very long time ago, however, and we are more civilized now,” Orochimaru returns to his food, expertly picking out translucent bones from a grilled milkfish with his chopsticks. “At least, Konoha likes to think so.”

Something to unpack there, yet again.

“Na, sensei, where are your teammates?” Naruto asks curiously, “Are they still alive?”

Oh, so he does understand that this is not a game, Shikamaru thinks unbidden—but of course Naruto understands life and death. Living alone like that, Naruto understands it better than Shikamaru himself does. Shaking his head, he stuffs his mouth with half a boiled egg; it wouldn’t do to sound stupid, he has a reputation to uphold.

“Yes, they are,” says sensei, “although they are not in Konoha at this time.”

“Where’d they go?”

“One of them travels far and often to gather information he brings to us every now and then. The other one is taking some time off.”

“Aww, so you don’t see them often, sensei?”

“Not anymore, no.”

Sasuke nudges Naruto, giving him a look. Naruto squints at him; Shikamaru sighs.

Sensei is amused. “I do not mind, Sasuke, you need not chide Naruto for asking.”

“Ahehehe, sorry, sensei,” Naruto rubs the back of his neck.

“In life, you will find that we must all walk our own paths, and those paths might sometimes run alongside each other or otherwise diverge. This is merely the truth, but you need not worry, little ones. You have time to grow alongside each other yet, and I suspect that you will remain each other’s close companions for many years beyond our time together in this team. You simply cannot avoid it; the legacy of your bloodlines will push you together.”

“Great, so I’m stuck with the two of you,” Shikamaru scowls. “Sensei, you still haven’t answered my question from yesterday. What can I do to catch up to these two?”

“There are methods,” Orochimaru smiles indulgently at him, golden eyes glittering, “which we may discuss at a later time if you show the need for them. But your teammates are not that far ahead of you, Shikamaru; you are simply seeing a difference of aptitudes. Strength lies not in your skills or your tools but in how you use them—all of them.”

Sensei leaves him to stew on that as they pack up their lunches and refill their water jugs at the nearby stream. Sensei likes for them to stew on things. Shikamaru doesn’t know yet whether he likes that or not.

Once they have eaten, sensei sits them down again and talks some more about chakra theory. Shikamaru gratefully takes advantage of the break, laying down and stretching out to remedy his aching limbs. Sensei doesn’t scold him for it, so soon Naruto and Sasuke follow suit.

“When you use chakra, you are essentially expending life force. A jutsu uses this life force to shape the environment around us, whether by manipulating nature, creating matter, transporting matter, or shaping chakra into seals that hold it into place outside of a human body. Lower, Sasuke,” sensei reaches over to push on Sasuke’s back, forcing him into a deeper stretch. “Give me your left arm.”

Orochimaru maneuvers the arm to expose muscles hiding under the shoulder blade, and then finds pressure points with firm fingers; Sasuke grunts.

“This is why I will ask you to trust me when I direct your learning when it comes to ninjutsu,” sensei continues, reaching over to straighten Naruto’s hip alignment as well. “I will tell you what to learn and when, so that you are making a progression instead of jumping from one jutsu to another and exhausting yourself. Life force, or chakra, takes time to regenerate, and a shinobi who wastes it is a shinobi who dies on the field. You must be wise stewards of your energy and time. Do you understand?”

The three of them chorus their agreements, Shikamaru transitioning into a leg stretch that opens his hip flexors. Having watched Sasuke move in a spar, he knows that he needs to work on his flexibility and range of motion. Sasuke can pull off some truly impressive contortionist moves; Shikamaru needs to keep up.

Sensei’s tone changes as he assists Naruto into a stretching position that targets the back muscles; they are now being told a story instead of being taught a lesson.

“Most popular methods of learning chakra control do not agree or even discuss the origins of our understanding of chakra, but that is because chakra itself is so poorly understood. People content themselves into simply learning how to manipulate chakra instead of spending time learning what it really is. You must not allow yourself to fall into the same complacence; it will be the ruin of your potential. You can become a good, strong shinobi through the simple way, it is true, but the truly great shinobi are made through hardship and blood.

“Chakra, life force, is inherent within all of us when we are born, but we are not the only ones who have life. Plants and animals too are alive. Yes, Naruto, they too have chakra, although duller, dimmer, unsharpened by higher human consciousness. When you learn to move in the darkness by feeling for your environment, you are feeling the chakra from your surroundings; it is a skill that can be learned.”

“But even dead things can have chakra, can’t they?” Sasuke suddenly interrupts, looking up with bright, interested eyes. “At the Naka Shrine, there are old Uchiha relics—from before we were part of Konoha—and Oboro-obaa-sama says they have chakra too, the chakra of their makers.”

Sensei nods, pleased. “Your lady priestess is correct. Shinobi and highly trained artisans can impart chakra into inanimate objects, sometimes even unintentionally through the strength of their emotion, conviction, or desperation. Meanwhile, seals and Summons contracts are examples of when this process is done deliberately and with intent.”

Naruto twitches and fidgets, perhaps reaching the end of his short attention span. Sasuke, however, looks engrossed. Shikamaru wonders what sort of relics the Uchiha hoard in that shrine. Probably something doujutsu-related, since they’re obsessed with their own eyes.

Sensei continues, “Humans are unique in that we are able to wield chakra in its various types and forms. But beyond humans, there are entities that are legendary and rare, entities made entirely of chakra, primordial creatures that have been in existence since the dawn of time. Perhaps one day, if I am very fortunate, I will meet one and have the chance to observe it, speak with it, and see if it will be able to answer my questions about the origins of chakra and life.”

Sensei is a philosopher, Shikamaru realizes then. Sensei is the type of person who will never be satisfied with simple answers or quick solutions.

Knowing this is somehow comforting and warm; Shikamaru feels his respect for sensei rise yet another notch. Simultaneously he also feels proud to be sensei’s student, however novel this team happened to be.

After they finish stretching, sensei gives them each a new scroll to unfurl, which are divided into sections inside. Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Wind, Lightning, Yin, and Yang—the seven primary types of chakra releases, within which all ninjutsu operate. With narrowed eyes, Shikamaru looks up at sensei.

“Does this mean what I think it means?”

“Tell me what you think and I shall tell you if you are correct.”

“You want us to keep track of each technique we learn,” Shikamaru points to the sections on the scroll, “and write them down under each section they fall under.”

“Furthermore,” sensei nods, “I want you to rate your own competency with each technique. You will begin learning them one or perhaps two at a time, writing their names down and beside it you will put one to five dots. Each technique you begin with will be one dot. If you can execute it in training, a second dot. If you are able to use it effectively in battle, three dots. If you have mastered it, four dots. If you created the technique or are able to modify and adapt a previously mastered technique, five dots. Your ideal goal is three to four for each technique, but I will happily accept fives.”

Shikamaru blinks down at the scroll. “That’s actually really smart.”

“How many are we s’posed to learn?” Naruto squints.

“At least fifty within a year, and some of them are fairly simple techniques,” sensei tells them, “but I rather suspect you will not be satisfied with that. A jōnin has hundreds of jutsu within their arsenal, and although he may not have mastered all of them, he will demonstrate mastery over a certain specialty or skillset. At the very least, he must be able to execute jutsu from two to three elemental masteries with battle-ready proficiency.”

“And like you said yesterday, we would be starting with our affinities and working our way outwards?” Sasuke taps Lightning, looking up at sensei with a peculiar gleam in his eye. It might just be Shikamaru dreaming, but Sasuke’s irises are lighter today, less black, or perhaps a brown-black tinged with faint dark red.

“Correct. You may begin writing down techniques you already know.” They are handed pencils, which Shikamaru takes with a frown.

Under Yin, he writes three things: Kawarimi, Kagemane, and Kageshibari. Nara clan techniques are largely Yin, after all. Under Earth, he writes Iwa no Wareme, which he can do on a small scale, and Doukutsu, something he is trying to master. (1) Beside him, Sasuke jots down a neat list of Fire techniques: Gōkakyū, Dai Endan, Ryuuka, Gōryūka. A classic Uchiha pyromaniac, this one.

(2)

“Um, um, sensei,” Naruto fidgets, “what section does Kage Bunshin go?”

“Bunshin techniques as a rule fall under Yin, Naruto. It is, after all, the creation of form from nothingness. Spiritual energy, instead of life force energy.” At Naruto’s puzzled expression, Orochimaru amends, “These are things that may not yet make sense to you now, but you will learn it. For now, it is well enough that you perform it. Sometimes doing comes before understanding.”

When they are done writing down their few techniques, Naruto scratches the back of his neck. “I only have three.”

“But can you use them well?” sensei reaches over, putting a hand on top of Naruto’s head. “Quality over quantity, little one. We will work on it. Now,” he motions to the unfurled scrolls, “these are designed to give you a good overview of how diverse your arsenal is becoming over time. You can use it simply as a visual aid, or you can use it as a guide to help you tailor your combat profile towards a specific build.”

“What’s a build?” asks Naruto.

“How you build your expertise,” Orochimaru explains. “For example, Sasuke’s father, Uchiha Fugaku, is one of Konoha’s foremost Fire specialists. I would wager he knows more than a hundred different Fire techniques, which for one category is quite a lot. At his level of fire mastery, individual technique begins to matter less than control over the element itself. He wields fire so well that he can create and modify jutsu at will. When he was young, he started training with a specific focus towards Fire Release, perhaps throwing in a few Wind and Yin releases in his arsenal for good measure. In essence, he built himself towards a specialty by spending time training specific items instead of trying everything at once. It is more practical and achievable to start narrow and broaden your arsenal over time.”

“Whoa, Sasuke, your dad’s badass!”

Sasuke shrugs, unsurprised. “Chichiue is the Clan Head. The clansmen say that aniki is better than him, though, I don’t know.”

“Your brother has a larger chakra core and finer control, it is true. He also wields fire with very high affinity, but he seems to prefer Yin jutsu. However, he is yet young and has a long way to go before he can surpass your father’s breadth of experience,” Orochimaru idly remarks. At Sasuke’s surprised look, he adds, “I have worked with him twice in the past: once on a mission, and another time simply out of circumstance.”

Sasuke then folds inward, a phenomenon Shikamaru watches with wonder. He does not see it often; Sasuke is Clan-born like himself and therefore holds his shoulders with a certain pride.

“What did I say yesterday, little Uchiha? Chin up.

And then Sasuke straightens once again, flushing under their sensei’s regard. An Uchiha with confidence issues. Color me surprised. Shikamaru never noticed that in the Academy, but perhaps he just wasn’t paying enough attention, and Sasuke was always one of the quiet ones. Quiet, it seems, for a reason. I wonder just how great of a shinobi his brother is.

“So, so, sensei, how do I do my build?” Naruto about bounces in place, blue eyes shining up at Orochimaru. “I dunno what I’m doing but you do! Tell me, tell me!”

“First things first,” Orochimaru points towards the direction of the perimeter walls. “Master your basics.”

Shikamaru sighs. Back to the drudgery, then.




At the end of the day, Shikamaru is perhaps a touch more optimistic about himself. He is the first one to reach the top of the wall, wobbling dangerously even as he crouches to reach for the scroll. He manages to grab it just before he falls, flipping in midair to land on his feet.

“Aaahh!” Naruto screams in frustration, startling birds from a nearby tree. “Howwww!”

He and Sasuke are struggling, although Shikamaru doesn’t know why—they seem to have the concept down but are failing with the execution.

Sensei is beside Shikamaru in a blink, putting a hand on top of his head. “Well done, little one.” Shikamaru suppresses a shiver of pleasure as sensei’s eyes look down at him with warmth.

“Can I open it now?”

“No,” sensei takes the scroll from him, stepping away to leap up the wall. “You will not open the scroll until you are able to walk up with the same ease you do on the ground.” Sensei replaces the scroll where it was at the top, hopping down to stand behind him and point a hand up. “Again, Shikamaru.”

Damn it, Shikamaru scowls, and yet when he goes to the wall to start over for the nth time, the warmth of sensei’s approval stays with him and steadies his feet such that the chakra doesn’t flicker as much as it did before.

“Sensei, what are we doing wrong?” Sasuke asks, frustrated, his tone inches away from a whine.

“Nothing, little one; you are simply not accustomed to this manner of channeling and maintaining your chakra. You and Naruto have very large cores, so it will take time and repetition. Shikamaru is more accustomed to channeling chakra this way because of his training as a Nara; their clan techniques rely on their excellent instinct for stealth and finesse. Essentially, he has more control than either of you.”

That’s not what Sasuke wants to hear, of course. Nothing lights a fire under an Uchiha’s ass like competition does, this Shikamaru quickly learns; Sasuke gets back up and tries again with renewed vigor. The three of them stagger like drunken monkeys up the wall, Shikamaru the most sober out of the three and Naruto the most drunk. “Idiot, don’t windmill your arms like that, you’ll fall out of balance,” Shikamaru scolds—slooow and steady, he tells himself as well, pacing his steps with careful precision.

“If you are able to achieve this by the end of the week, we move on to something more exciting next week,” Orochimaru appears atop the wall again, sitting on the edge all casual as you please. “Water walking builds upon this skill, after all.”

Water walking?” Naruto shouts, and then promptly falls. “Oof.”

“Focus, Naruto. You can’t lose control every time you get distracted.” Naruto tries again; sensei continues to talk. “As you progress under my watch, I will give you jutsu that I think will benefit your growth and augment your fighting style. The three of you are very distinct and I already have my own ideas, but as you grow, you will begin to form your own. You must tell me how you feel you are progressing and what you wish to achieve. If you start thinking about a build or a specialization, you must let me know. Only then can I help you achieve it.”

Sasuke and Shikamaru both fall one after the other, passing Naruto on the way down. Listening to sensei talk and focusing on chakra control is not easy.

“I do not want to contradict your vision for yourself, so we must communicate,” sensei continues. “Communication is a vital skill for shinobi, one that is undervalued and overlooked; poor communication has sparked wars in the past.”

Yeah, Shikamaru thinks, poor communication in the form of political insults, for example. Exhibit number one: Hyuuga.

“Therefore, at the end of every week, we will sit down, reflect, criticize, and plan. It is my goal to mold you into leaders, and I achieve my goals.”

“I—will—become—the Hokage!” Naruto shouts again, wobbling, reaching, fingertips finally grazing the scroll. But then he falls. “Aaaaahh!!”

Shikamaru is close enough to the top that he hears sensei say, “Well, it would only be a continuation of a legacy if you did, wouldn’t it?” He gives sensei a sharp look, which sensei returns with a cryptic smile.

“Sensei, you don’t like giving answers away, do you?”

“Everything worth knowing are things that cannot be taught, Shikamaru, and I have found that answers are only ever satisfying when I figure them out myself.”

“But you keep dropping clues everywhere,” Shikamaru frowns now, standing still (which is easier than walking vertically), “so that means you must want us to find the answers you won’t give us. Is it a test?”

“No,” sensei says, “only that there are things I think you need to know but I am not allowed to tell you.”

Shikamaru parses that for a moment. Sasuke is debating something with Naruto below them. “Not allowed as in you want to train us to think, or not allowed as in you might get in trouble if you tell?”

“I will get in trouble if I tell,” Orochimaru chuckles, “but nobody can do anything if you three figure it out on your own.”

So something top-down, Shikamaru realizes, something from the Hokage himself? Something about Naruto… something about all three of us, now that we’re a team.

“Is my dad allowed to answer me if I ask about it?”

“No.”

“Why is asking forbidden?”

“Why, indeed.”

Frustrated, Shikamaru scratches his head, ponytail going askew. A village of shinobi is a village built on secrets, yes, but Shikamaru has never been directly concerned with one before and it’s more irritating than he thought. But I’m a Nara; I should know things.

“Shikamaruuuu!” Naruto calls for him at the base of the wall. “Come tell Sasuke I’m right and he’s wrong!”

With a sigh, Shikamaru releases the chakra around his feet and drops to the ground. If he isn’t too exhausted tonight, he might start asking questions again. Hopefully his folks will indulge him.

Or maybe I’ll just go to the Archives, he thinks, watching Naruto mime whatever he was trying to say at the same time he was saying it. But what are the chances of finding anything there if it’s from top-down? If it’s coming from the Hokage, they’d be thorough about making sure nothing leaks about it, whatever it is. But then again, if it’s coming from the Hokage, then it’s probably being kept quiet for a good reason. But then why would sensei keep hinting at it?

“Shikamaru sa,” Naruto flatly says, arms crossed, “you’re not even listening to us, are you?”

“No, because you’re both wrong. Listen, just think of sticky rice, alright? Sticky rice on your feet like glue. Thin but sticky layer. Too much and you’ll just stick; too little and you’ll just fall.”

Muttering quietly to himself, Sasuke plants a foot on the wall once again, hauling himself up one wavering step at a time.

“Yeah, like that, slow and steady,” Shikamaru nods, wondering if Naruto knew anything about this at all. Naruto knew something, but Shikamaru isn’t sure what and how much. Ugh, this is gonna bug me until I figure it out.

“How are we s’posed to fight while doing this if we have to be slow and steady?” Sasuke grumbles from seven paces above him.

“Practice,” Shikamaru sighs, dismayed at the answer himself. “Mendokuse.”




Naruto whines about wanting to continue training while Sasuke packs up, but he pays them no attention. His brain is too busy whirling with ever-growing questions and sensei is no help at all. Shikamaru does hate it when his questions are only answered with more questions!

“You can come over again, if you like,” Sasuke offers Naruto, “for dinner and stuff. Uh, Shikamaru too. If you want.”

Carefully, Shikamaru considers how to refuse without sounding antisocial. “Maybe next time. I told my parents I’d be home tonight. Thanks, though.” He picks up his pack and starts walking away before they can ask too many troublesome questions. “See you tomorrow.”

“See ya, Shikamaru!”

“Bye.”

True to his original plan, he goes straight to the heart of Konoha, towards the Village Archives which stood near the Academy. The streetlamps flicker on shortly before sunset, just as he walks back into the town proper. He slips into the evening bustle of market street, spotting Ino helping at their flower shop and Chouji through Yakiniku-Q’s window. His would-be teammates if the Hokage hadn’t chosen to break the longstanding tradition of Ino-Shika-Cho—see, that’s another thing. Why separate them? Why end a working tradition? Why fix something that isn’t even broken?

Unless it isn’t to fix something broken, Shikamaru frowns, but to prevent something from breaking.

Team Seven, from a political standpoint, doesn’t make sense. The Nara clan is in no conflict with the Uchihas, so it would have been more applicable to put the Uchiha with a Hyuuga to perhaps help soothe those tense relations. Furthermore, Naruto is not among the highest performing of their class—dead last, actually—so why put him with the two highest performers? A particularly mean-spirited way of encouraging his development by exposure? Really, Neji would have been a better fit for a third team member, if they wanted to keep Sasuke and Shikamaru together. Then they would be a politically valuable team, although it would be an even bigger pain to deal with being trapped between an Uchiha and Hyuuga.

And then there is the issue of their jōnin sensei. From what Shikamaru has seen and heard (from his own father, no less), Orochimaru-sensei is incredibly strong, incredibly smart, and second only to the Hokage himself. Considering how old the Hokage is now, it isn’t out of the question for Orochimaru-sensei to win in battle either. What a colossal waste of such a skillset, then, putting Orochimaru-sensei in charge of three kids for at least a whole year!

Shikamaru isn’t complaining, to be clear; he just isn’t capable of letting it rest when it doesn’t make sense. So he’s going to the Archives to ask the books, because no one is giving him any answers and sensei told him in no uncertain terms to find the answers himself. Fine. Very well. He may get into trouble for this, or at the very least walk away empty-handed, but at least he will have tried, and maybe that’ll be enough to satisfy the nagging unease in his gut.

At the doors of the Archive, which are guarded 24/7, he is checked and cleared and directed to the front desk. It isn’t his first time here—he’s a bit of a fixture, although not as much as Haruno—so he wordlessly logs his name in the book and shows his hitae-ate to the clerk. They hand him a card to allow him access to Level 1 files—that’s right, I’m shinobi now, I can look beyond General Access. Excellent.

He weaves through the hallways and in between the shelves to the section containing Fire Country’s history, unsure that Uzushiogakure (were they even a Hidden Village?) was even in Fire but having nowhere else to look. After squinting at the large, heavily detailed map on the wall, he finds it: southeast on the coast, facing Water Country and easily accessible from where Kirigakure is thought to be. No wonder they fell so fast.

Eventually, he finds a binder with information about Uzushio. It’s old and releases an impressive plume of dust when he cracks it open; no one has touched the binder in some time. Sneezing quietly, he stretches out on the floor and begins to read.

Uzushio is a small province on the seaside border of Fire Country, comprising of a group of islands surrounded by tidal seas that produce strong riptides and whirlpools. These restless waters provide a natural border around the islands that keep enemies out but also isolate the villagers inside. Owing to their isolation, Uzushio’s shinobi have developed unique techniques that cannot be found elsewhere, foremost among them techniques that harness water and wind.

Present tense, Shikamaru notes. This binder has not been updated about Uzushio’s fall.

From the founding of the small country, Uzushio has been ruled by the Uzumaki clan, a long line of seals masters and fierce warriors gifted with great vitality and strength. Amongst Fire Country’s many shinobi clans, they have garnered admiration and respect, especially from the Senju clan, who have long been their allies. When Konohagakure was formed as the first shinobi village of its kind, Uzushio’s people came to pledge their alliance. As a proof of their goodwill and honour, the Uzumaki clan’s leader, Uzumaki Minoru, gave his daughter, Uzumaki Mito, in marriage to Konohagakure’s Shodaime Hokage and leader of his clan, Senju Hashirama. Thus Uzushiogakure became one of Konoha’s strongest allies in its earliest days as the first hidden village of its kind. The Shodaime Hokage gave special dispensation to Uzushio to maintain its own hidden village, Uzushiogakure, within Fire Country, although its leader will never be recognized as a Kage.

Of course not, Shikamaru snorts. That was a power move; they could not allow anyone else to eclipse the Shodaime’s rule. Why are we not taught this in Academy? Where is Naruto’s family?

He reads on, forehead creasing deeper and deeper the more pages he flips through, until all he has left are very serious questions that beg good answers in order for him not to lose faith. Are they lying to us? Why do they not tell us our own history? I don’t understand.

When his left leg begins cramping, a reminder of how hard he has worked today, Shikamaru closes the binder and lies down on the floor. His brain is going a hundred miles a minute. To put his thoughts in order, he takes a moment to do some floor stretches, grimacing against the pull of his exhausted muscles. He’ll have to leave the binder here, but he can always come back tomorrow.

I need to bring them here, he realizes then. Naruto has no clue. Why has he not been told?

If this information is available to him here, in the public Archives, then surely more people know. Their parents must know. But no one has told Naruto.

It could of course concern some classified information beyond what the binders have here. That makes for one good explanation. Something must have happened—something when they were still children, or even before they were born—something that prevents people from talking about Uzushio, the Uzumaki clan, and Naruto himself. As the heir to such a storied line—and he would be the heir, wouldn’t he? Shikamaru knows of no other Uzumaki in Konoha—he must have at least a little inheritance, something to tide him over until he can provide for himself, something so that he doesn’t have to live in the poorest district of Konoha, where children aren’t safe.

Shikamaru isn’t blind; he has seen how the villagers treat Naruto. It’s strange, the way they look at him with hatred, the way they spit in his direction. What makes them hate a child like that? The villagers aren’t fundamentally unkind—at least Shikamaru likes to think so—and Naruto hasn’t been alive long enough to have any sort of terrible track record beyond childish pranks and overall rowdiness. Naruto is loud, yes, a little stupid, but at the end of the day he’s just a kid.

Shikamaru rubs the side of his head. Agh, this is making no sense. It’s time to go home. I’m tired.

He returns the binder where he found it and leaves the Archives, walking the rest of the way home while mired in a whirlpool of thoughts.

It’s like I’ve been handed a puzzle, he thinks, but it’s missing the most important pieces. There is something we’re not being told.

But he is a Nara. He doesn’t need to be told. He’ll figure it out. He’ll keep asking the questions until the answers reveal themselves.




tbc
first draft: 2018.12.18
last edited: 2021.12.16




NOTES & REFERENCES

(1) Kawarimi no Jutsu 変わり身の術 is the Body Replacement Technique. Kagemane 影真似 is the Nara clan's signature Shadow Mimic Technique. Kageshibari 影縛り is Shadow Bind, another Nara clan signature. Iwa no Wareme 岩の割れ目 is the Rock Fissure Technique. Dōkutsu 洞窟 means Cave and does literally that.

(2) Gōkakyū 豪火球 is the Great Fire Breath Technique, a rite of passage for Uchiha children. Dai-Endan 豪火球 means Giant Fireballs and is also a rite of passage jutsu for Uchiha children. Ryūka & Gōryūka 豪龍火 respectively mean Dragon Fire & Great Dragon Fire Technique.

Chapter Text

008. naruto: doubt

.

On the third day, Naruto and Sasuke both manage to reach the scroll. They’re still unsteady, but they make it, and sensei seems pleased, which is what really matters. Naruto happily surrenders his scroll for sensei to reattach to the wall and drops to the bottom to start again, steadier this time and more confident, because he can do this, he can do it.

It feels good to be able to do things. It feels so good when sensei smiles at them in approval, silent and small like a snake; it’s a smile nonetheless, and the validation is sweet like warm honey on Naruto’s tongue.

He’s gonna make sensei so proud.

Shikamaru’s got the technique down by the end of the day, of course, casually sauntering to the top of the wall with his hands in his pockets. Sasuke doesn’t like being beat, it’s obvious; Naruto snickers. I wonder if all Uchihas are sore losers.

“We’ll still move on to water walking next week, right?” Sasuke asks with a scowl thrown towards Shikamaru’s general direction. “Even if we’re not as steady as Shikamaru?”

“You’ve reached the top of the wall several times now without falling, so yes, we will move on to water-walking,” sensei confirms. “However, we will not do this activity tomorrow.”

All three of them turn to sensei in surprise. Tomorrow is a Saturday—but of course even Saturdays are workdays for shinobi like them, and training doesn’t stop on the weekend. Before he can think to complain, Naruto reminds himself: the long way is the only way.

“We will convene at the same place and the same time tomorrow morning, but I have something different in store for you. Be prepared to work just as hard.”

“Will we also train on Sunday, sensei?” Sasuke asks.

“No,” sensei tells them, “Sunday is your day to rest. And I do mean rest, little ones; I will know if you attempt to train outside of the time I have allotted for you.”

They chorus their obedience, Naruto hanging his head in disappointment. He wants to do extra work to catch up to his teammates, but how is he going to do that when sensei forbids it? What if he gets left behind?

Doubts plague him throughout the rest of the afternoon and into the evening as they finish up their stretches and tenketsu exercises. Sensei dismisses them once again, today seeming faster than yesterday by just a smidge, and before he knows it, the sun begins to set on the horizon. Will Sasuke invite him over again? …is it okay for him to keep coming every night?

“Listen,” Shikamaru says suddenly, voice sharp and alert, “what are your plans tonight?”

Sasuke and Naruto give each other a look and exchange a shrug. “Eating dinner?” Sasuke says. “Why, what’s yours?”

“I’ve got something to show you,” Shikamaru grimly tells them, “well, more for Naruto, but you might as well come too, Sasuke. If you’ve got time, that is.”

Again, Sasuke and Naruto exchange a look. “What’sit about?” Naruto squints. Shikamaru’s usually above normal socialization; Naruto knows Shikamaru thinks they’re all too slow. This is odd.

“Remember what sensei was saying yesterday?”

Naruto keeps squinting, “Sensei said a lotta things…”

“About your clan, you dolt,” Shikamaru snaps, seemingly unable to help himself. Naruto blinks. “I looked into it last night, alright? I found some shit, it doesn’t make sense.”

Language,” Sasuke scolds, looking left and right as if to check if sensei is still around.

Shikamaru flaps an impatient arm. “Don’t you think it’s weird? Sasuke, you’re clan-born, you get it. It’s weird. How come we’ve never heard of an Uzumaki clan? Even if there’s only a few of them left, if they were an ally of Konoha, they should be recognized and represented in the Council. I don’t even recall my parents talking about an Uzumaki clan, and they gossip like fishwives about classified shit in front of me all the time. Have you ever heard of an Uzumaki clan?”

“No,” Sasuke frowns, “but I’m a second son, my clan doesn’t talk to me much.”

“Your clan still has to educate you,” Shikamaru flatly points out. “Second son or not, you’re an Uchiha.”

“Clan-born?” Naruto blinks at them. “I don’t get it. What’s going on?”

“I’m telling you that I found some basic information about people who might have once been your family,” Shikamaru explains with a momentous sigh, “and I need you to come with me so I can show you what I mean.”

“Okay, well, why didn’t you say so!” Naruto exclaims. Shikamaru does love making things complicated.

“For fuck’s sake,” Shikamaru grumbles, leading the way back towards the village with stomping steps. “I’m stuck with idiots.”

“Hey,” Sasuke scolds again, “language!”

Naruto follows after his teammates, arms crossed behind his head. Maybe they could all have dinner together? That would be cool! He had felt bad the past few days that he and Sasuke were spending time together without Shikamaru there to complete the team. It hadn’t felt right.

But this is better. Jogging a few steps to catch up, Naruto walks in between his two new friends with a grin; they’re a team now! It feels good having a team. It feels good having friends.




Shikamaru takes them to the Archives, where they navigate through dusty shelves towards a section that Shikamaru obviously knows. Reaching for a binder kept up on a high shelf, Shikamaru then points them to the floor, where they settle in a circular huddle.

“Look at this,” his teammate points out—Uzumaki Clan, it reads, atop which swirled a large red spiral. “Your clan’s mon—your symbol.”

Naruto’s breath catches.

It sinks in now, what Shikamaru is trying to say. A clan—a clan! Like Sasuke’s and Shikamaru’s clans! They have a symbol, they have a story, they have—but am I the only one left in Konoha?

Sasuke quietly reads the narrative while Naruto remains transfixed by the spiral. “It says… it says that the First Hokage’s wife was an Uzumaki! We don’t get taught this in Academy!”

Shikamaru makes a triumphant noise. “Exactly! Why not?

“I don’t know,” Sasuke uncertainly says, “that makes no sense at all.”

“Okay, obviously this binder only has basic information about the Uzumaki Clan—generic things even village children can be taught, since it’s available for public access. But they didn’t teach this to us, and it looks to me like this binder hasn’t been updated in a long time. Years. Probably as many years as we’ve been alive. It still writes in present tense, see that? When this was written, Uzushio was still standing!” Shikamaru stabs a finger into the middle of the spiral, which still holds Naruto’s attention. “That means they intentionally left this information out from our education for some reason. Even Naruto doesn’t know anything about his clan, do you, Naruto?”

“No,” Naruto answers weakly, “I only know my parents are probably shinobi since Jiji sometimes checks on me.”

Shikamaru starts. “I’m sorry, what?”

“My parents are probably shinob—”

No, not that, you said who checks on you?”

Sasuke shoots a sideways look at Shikamaru. “The Hokage. He calls the Hokage Jiji.”

“You what. He what.

“They’ve been lying to me,” Naruto mutters, curling into himself and clutching his stomach where the seal burns ever-bright. “They’ve been hiding things.”

It’s coming together all of a sudden, pieces falling into place. If he once had a clan—if his clan was full of strong shinobi—if the First Hokage’s wife was an Uzumaki—is that why the Kyuubi is sealed inside him? Is that why he was chosen? Because he was the last Uzumaki in Konoha? Did his bloodline have some sort of special ability, like the Uchihas and the Hyuugas, that made him the best possible choice for a host?

Did his parents even have a choice?

“Given we’re all the same age,” Shikamaru points out, “your parents probably died towards the end of the Third War. Sensei seems to know your mother, at least, so we know she was definitely shinobi. We’ll see about your father. It’s just interesting to me because have you noticed? Sensei has been giving us clues all this while—”

“Been too busy trying not to fall off the wall, so no, I haven’t,” Sasuke bitterly mutters.

“—shut up, Sasuke, you’ve noticed too,” Shikamaru scolds this time. “Sensei keeps leaving hints everywhere—why would he even tell us about the Uzumaki clan in the first place? But then when I asked him straight up—”

“You asked him straight up?” Sasuke echoes, aghast.

“—yes, and he said he wasn’t allowed to tell us, but there was nothing stopping us from figuring it out ourselves.”

“Figuring what out?” says Sasuke.

Exactly!

The seal, Naruto thinks dully, the host that holds the beast. The secret.

What else is Jiji not telling me?

Naruto doesn’t want to cast doubt upon the only figure in his childhood who ever showed him care and kindness—Jiji was there even before Iruka-sensei was. Once upon a time, Jiji’s visits were the only thing that he looked forward to every couple of weeks. It was Jiji who left groceries on his doorstep and made sure there was money in his froggy wallet enough for food and rent; it was Jiji who told him, face to face, what it was that slept in the darkness in the back of his head.

He should give Jiji the benefit, he should. Maybe he’ll go talk to the old man in person and just ask the honest questions. Maybe Jiji will answer.

“Oi, Naruto,” Sasuke’s hand landed on his shoulder, making him jump. “You ok?”

“Fine,” Naruto sniffles, “m’fine.”

Sasuke softens, withdrawing his hand but leaning sideways to bump shoulders with him. “Hey, it’s ok, we’ll figure it out, yeah? We’ll ask sensei about your clan some more’n Shikamaru can ask around too.”

“What, you’re not gonna ask around?” Shikamaru raises an eyebrow at Sasuke.

“Well, if I see my parents,” Sasuke shrugs, “but I think hahaue’s gonna be out for another few days and chichiue’s always busy.”

Naruto feels a pang of sadness in his chest once again, not for himself but for Sasuke this time, because it’s worse to have parents who don’t care. And yet… would I want my parents alive if they didn’t care about me?

Just then, a near-simultaneous chorus of growls erupt from their stomachs. Shikamaru sags with a huff as Sasuke flushes in embarrassment.

“Starving, to be honest,” Sasuke rubs the back of his neck.

“Well, come on, then,” Shikamaru says, “put the binder back and let’s go to my house for dinner, it’s closest.” When Naruto doesn’t uncurl from his spot on the floor, Shikamaru hooks a hand under his arm and yanks, hard. “Come on. No moping! I can’t handle moping, it’s too troublesome. Whatever it is, we’ll fix the issue, just give it time.”

“Yeah,” Sasuke smiles, taking Naruto’s other arm and yanking all the same, “you may be the last Uzumaki, but you’re not alone anymore.”

Ah, Naruto realizes then, this is what love must feel like.

He scrubs his face with both hands while Sasuke puts the binder back up. Shikamaru stretches into a spine-cracking backbend and then they start walking, shoulders bumping into each other as they jostle through the bookshelves and past the doors. Despite himself and all his doubts, Naruto wants to laugh; it’ll be alright, he can tell. Come rain or shine, they’ll be just fine. I’ll be alright, as long as I can keep this. Whatever it was that happened to my family, my clan, I’ll be alright. I’ll be fine.




Shikamaru’s house sits inside clan grounds just like Sasuke’s, except the Nara clan decks itself in earthen colours that are calming to the eyes. They also don’t scatter their mon everywhere like the Uchihas do; it must be a clan thing. Naruto idly wonders how that Uzumaki spiral would look embroidered on one of his shirts.

They walk into the genkan of a grand house made of warm wood, roof tiles painted a muted green. The Nara mon hangs on a banner at the front doors. Shikamaru toes his sandals off and yells, “I’m home,” into the hallway, earning a muffled response from somewhere within.

“Spare slippers over there. My mom’s here, probably my dad, maybe my aunt.”

“Man, you’ve got a huge house, like Sasuke does!” Naruto gapes, marveling at the excess of empty space.

“It’s the main house,” Shikamaru shrugs. “My dad’s Clan Head.”

“Hey,” Sasuke nudges Naruto, “since you’re the last Uzumaki in Konoha, does that make you Clan Head, d’you think? That’d be kinda cool.”

“Ya think?” Naruto rubs the back of his head, grinning.

They turn the corner into a dining area and come face to face with Shikamaru’s very surprised parents. Naruto straightens into a rod; beside him, he feels Sasuke do the same.

“I brought my teammates,” Shikamaru declares without preamble, “okaa-san, do you have enough rice?”

“…let me make more right now,” the brown-haired lady blinks at them, before turning raised eyebrows at her husband. “Why don’t you set the table for your friends?”

“Ojamashimasu,” Sasuke bows, ever-polite, Naruto quick to follow. “Thank you for having us over for dinner.”

“Welcome, welcome,” Shikamaru’s dad coughs, shutting the book he was reading and putting it aside. “Certainly a surprise, but a nice one. Don’t think Shikamaru’s ever brought friends home for dinner.”

“Eh, Ino and Chouji have been here before,” Shikamaru grouches, heading for the cupboards where the china are kept. Naruto, in his insecurity, follows after Shikamaru to help. Sasuke hovers near the table.

“Ino and Chouji were here because I invited their parents over and they came with,” Shikamaru’s dad snorts. “I don’t think that counts.” Shikamaru only grunts in response, oddly willing to acquiesce his loss. Shikamaru’s dad then turns to address the two of them directly. “Sasuke-kun and Naruto-kun, right? Congratulations on graduating and being placed in what sounds like a very promising team. I’m just sorry you have to put up with this little miser over here.”

A giggle escapes Naruto despite his best attempt to stifle it.

“Quit,” Shikamaru grunts.

“Your own dad calls you a miser, Shikamaru,” Naruto snickers, now with Sasuke joining in.

“Because he’s a right grouch, isn’t he?” grins Shikamaru’s dad, reclining against his chair with welcoming ease. “Ah, I have to wash the dishes today, mendokuse. Ah, sensei made us train hard all day, mendokuse. Every single thing—”

“Shut up, baka oyaji,” Shikamaru snarls as Naruto erupts in bright laughter. “I don’t sound like that!”

“You do,” Sasuke & Shikamaru’s mom then say together, which makes Naruto laugh harder.

“It’s your father’s side of the family,” she adds, ladling rice into the bowls with equanimity. “Insufferable grouches, the lot of you.”

“Hey!” Shikamaru’s dad splutters, crossing his arms. “I don’t grouch at you!”

“And you better not start if you know what’s good for you,” she warns, tone still pleasant and light. Turning to the guests, she asks, “Are you allergic to anything, children? There are peanuts in this curry and I would like to avoid an airway emergency on your first visit to our home.”

“No, ma’am,” Sasuke sits next to Shikamaru, posture proper and chopsticks correct.

“Uhh, I don’t think so!” Naruto grins, a bit sheepish as he accepts a steaming bowl of rice. He’s unused to being served like this; Shikamaru’s parents are so nice. He had almost forgotten that adults apart from Iruka-sensei and Jiji could be this nice!

But he’s been lying to me, Naruto thinks, unbidden. All of them have been lying to me.

Naruto shoves a ball of rice into his mouth before he says anything stupid. The curry is delicious, at least; it distracts him from the ball of resentment growing in his chest.

Why did I have to spend all this time in the orphanage if I had a clan? Why did no one put me up in a nicer house? Why is everyone so mad at me about the beast? It’s not my fault, I didn’t choose to be the host!

A sliver of hot, dark chakra stirs in the far back of his head, a large, looming shape that he can vaguely see in his mind’s eye. He tries not to think about it, but the image only gets clearer the more he tries to look away.

“…and then we were doing vertical walk again until dismissal,” Shikamaru is telling his parents. “Sensei says we meet again tomorrow but for something else. He didn’t tell us what.”

“Well, whatever it is, just do your best,” Shikamaru’s dad steals a few pieces of tempura vegetables from the communal plate. “Your sensei is one of our best; make the most of your time with him and it’ll pay off.”

“Yeah, we know. Which brings me to a question,” Shikamaru snags pickles from the table, “did you know Naruto’s parents? Because sensei was talking about jutsu and clans and he mentioned the Uzumaki clan. Except I’ve never heard of them and neither has Sasuke. But Naruto’s parents must have been your age or thereabouts, so did you know them?”

Oh my god, Shikamaru! Naruto is horrified. Beside him, Sasuke has frozen in surprise, eyes as wide as saucers and chopsticks hovering in the air.

Shikamaru’s parents are both wide-eyed likewise, exchanging a look of… apprehension? Shikamaru’s dad clears his throat. “Brat. Your sensei put you up to this?”

“Please,” Shikamaru blinks, tone flat, with an air of annoyed displeasure. “I don’t need to be told to ask questions. You raised me better than that.”

Shikamaru’s dad barks a short laugh, putting down his bowl and chopsticks before rubbing his chin and crossing his arms. “Well, let’s see. How do I answer this.” He darts a glance at Naruto and Sasuke, who are both unsure of what to do. “And of course you brought your friends here to ask about it, you cunning little shit.”

Shikamaru shrugs, a small, self-satisfied smile curling his lips into a bow. Like a cat, Naruto thinks, a fat one that just ate a rat. Do they talk like this to each other all the time? Naruto wonders, because he knows if Sasuke tried this sort of thing with his own parents, there would be serious trouble.

“Figured it’d be harder for you to lie if you were looking right at Naruto. Either way, I was gonna bring them around. We were at the Archives and our house is the closest. So,” Shikamaru prods, “you did know them?”

“Yeees, I did know them,” his dad slowly agrees, rubbing the side of his face all the while. Naruto notes that Shikamaru’s mom shoots a warning look across the table.

“But you’re not allowed to tell us, or talk about it?” Shikamaru clarifies.

“…yes.”

“…you can talk about them but there are certain things you can’t say?”

“Yes.”

“Like their names?”

“Uzumaki Kushina,” Shikamaru’s dad says.

“Naruto’s mother, yes, sensei said so,” Shikamaru nods in satisfaction.

“Brat!”

“And his dad?”

Shikamaru’s dad gets a look of distinct discomfort that makes Naruto feel sick. What if they get mad too and kick him out, or forbid Shikamaru to hang out, or worse, complain to Jiji? So he reaches an arm out to Shikamaru and says, “Aahh, i-it’s fine, Shikamaru, they obviously can’t tell us and uhh—”

“It is not fine,” Shikamaru sharply scolds, “you should at least know your parents’ name. I don’t care what sort of classified information they’re trying to protect but that’s no excuse for a clan-born child to not know about his own legacy!”

“I think they really want to tell us but they can’t,” Sasuke calmly points out, putting his own bowl down politely. “And I mean, they really can’t. All of them. The adults.”

He and Shikamaru share a long, even look that Naruto can’t even begin to parse.

“A-Anyway! I don’t, uhh, wanna get anyone in trouble so,” Naruto scratches his head and jiggles his leg under the table, “let’s, uh, let me talk to Jiji and see if maybe he can tell me?”

Shikamaru ignores him and levels his own parents with a Look. “It’s wrong. Whatever it is, hiding this from Naruto is wrong.

Shikamaru’s dad sighs, sagging against the table. “I agree, son. I agree.”

“It’s okay,” Sasuke begins, and—

“It’s not okay,” Shikamaru says, but—

“No, really, it’s okay,” Sasuke calmly cuts him again, leveling the two of them with a sharp smile, “because they don’t need to tell us. We’ll figure it out ourselves. Any secret worth this much effort must be something worth a lot to the village. Adults can’t keep their mouths shut that long unless telling will hurt them. But the bigger the secret is, the more weight it has on everyone it involves. Oboro-obaa-sama says so. So it works out for us because it’ll be more obvious. No secret stays secret forever. We’ll figure it out soon. And when it’s our turn, we can do better than hide things from kids.”

Shikamaru only blinks in the face of Sasuke’s sudden assurance. “You sound far too comfortable with this.”

“It’s not the first time adults have kept secrets from me,” Sasuke shrugs, “adults lie all the time. It’s a thing they do. As if we can’t tell. Fine. We’ll figure it out on our own. The more we push, the more they’ll lie; it’s better to just let it go.”

A pang of sadness hits Naruto in the chest. Sasuke’s family doesn’t only ignore him; they lie to him too. What sort of family is that?

But Shikamaru’s parents are lying to him too, aren’t they? Is it just something grown-ups do? Or is it something a shinobi does?

Shikamaru turns back to his parent with a displeased frown. “Did you know Naruto’s parents well?”

His dad sighs. “Well enough.”

“And is it part of this gag order that we couldn’t provide shelter for Naruto, a clan-born heir, as an allied clan? Because if you knew them well enough—maa, it’s not like we don’t have space in the house.”

“Shikamaru!” Naruto whispers in mortification. “Stop!”

“Yes,” Shikamaru’s dad says then, calling Naruto’s attention, “it actually is.”

“And that’s why none of the clans have offered him shelter.”

“Yes.”

“So instead of it being widespread neglect on part of all the clans and those who knew Naruto’s parents, it’s more like village-sanctioned abandonment.”

Shikamaru’s dad groans and tips his head backwards in a picture of defeat. Shikamaru’s mom only sips her tea and says, “Wisdom from the mouth of babes, no?”

Naruto looks down at his half-eaten bowl of rice. It’s delicious but suddenly his appetite is gone. I didn’t ask for it, he thinks, I didn’t want it, I didn’t. He puts another bite of rice in his mouth and chews; food shouldn’t be wasted. Who knows when he’ll eat next? It’s the weekend and Sasuke’s parents might come home. Besides, it’s not like Sasuke’s obligated to feed him all the time. What if he eats so much food that Sasuke doesn’t want to be his friend anymore?

I didn’t ask to be poor, he takes another bite, and I didn’t ask to be alone.

“Hora, stop it,” Sasuke jabs Shikamaru with his chopsticks then, manners be damned. “You’re upsetting Naruto! Naruto, don’t worry, we’ll figure it out.”

“Un,” Naruto nods, putting another bite in his mouth. Better not to say anything more. Might say something stupid. Sasuke’s such a good friend. Sasuke’s family also sucks.

Shikamaru sighs loudly, picking his bowl back up. “Fine, we’ll leave it for next time. Don’t think you’re off the hook, oyaji. I’m disappointed in you.”

Shikamaru’s also a good friend. It’s a strange feeling, having someone be angry on his behalf. Naruto doesn’t yet know if he likes it. He almost feels bad inconveniencing them like this.

They finish dinner in stilted silence and help with tidying under Shikamaru’s mom’s directions. Shikamaru keeps grumbling the entire time. Once they are finished, Naruto and Sasuke take their leave, bowing at the doors and thanking Shikamaru’s parents for their hospitality.

“A-And I’m sorry for all the, uh, questions,” Naruto shuffles his feet, unable to look back up at Shikamaru’s dad. “I’m, I didn’t mean to, I’ll um, just go now.”

“No, in fact,” Shikamaru’s dad sounds grave and tired, “I should be the one apologizing. Pardon us old fools, Naruto-kun. Oftentimes we think we know best, but actually we’re just making it up as we go.”

Naruto still can’t look up, but nods nonetheless. It’ll be a while before he can visit Shikamaru’s house again.

“For what it’s worth,” Shikamaru’s dad adds, “I think you’ll walk away stronger from it all. And maybe when we’re old and it’s your time to lead, you’ll make better decisions than we did.”

Naruto flounders for something appropriate to say. “W-Well,” he tries to smile, “I’ll have Sasuke and Shikamaru, so, um, uh, thank you! For, uh, letting Shikamaru be friends with me and such.”

He makes the mistake of looking up then and sees a heartbroken look steal over Shikamaru’s dad’s face. Shit.

“Um, ok, we’ll be going now, thank you bye!” Naruto drags Sasuke away, sprinting from the house through the lamp-lit streets. They make it until the market street before Sasuke tugs on his arm and forces him to stop.

He can’t meet Sasuke’s eyes—what if Sasuke doesn’t want to be his friend anymore once they figure it all out? What if Shikamaru ends up hating him too? They all do, all the villagers, they think he’s a monster and—

Sasuke’s arms suddenly come around him, elbows pulling in tight. “It’s okay,” Sasuke says next to his ear, in a voice low enough that it’s just the two of them for a moment. “I’m here now. We’re in this together. I’m not going anywhere. It’ll be okay.”

Sasuke is warm. And, and he smells good, like fragrant smoke and fresh-cut grass, even after a whole day of working hard. Is this what it feels like to matter?

Naruto hugs Sasuke back, and it takes a while for them to let go.




tbc
first draft: 2019.07.18
last edited: 2021.12.16



Chapter Text

009. sasuke: trust

.

On Saturday morning, Sasuke wakes with the sun. It slants into his bedroom, the morning sunlight, casting everything around him in a warm golden glow. Like Naruto’s hair, Sasuke thinks unbidden, bright and yellow. He gets up.

His body is sore in ways he hadn’t even known possible. Growth, he knows. Slow, but steady, never mind how much it hurts.

He got home late last night and, after that conversation with Shikamaru’s parents, he hadn’t any energy left to prepare a bento for himself and Naruto today. He makes do with fruits, salad, tofu, and some natto instead. While shoving the third tomato into his mouth, he thinks of what Naruto might like and packs some canned tuna too. Naruto ate like he didn’t know when he would eat next. Sasuke isn’t blind; he knows that Naruto doesn’t have the luxury of nutritious food, especially meat.

It’s okay, he tells himself, calming the roil of indignation and sadness that wells up within his chest. It’s okay. We’ll figure it out ourselves. It’s okay.

It was like this too when aniki left. It isn’t the first time he’s had to handle emotions this strong. He breathes and counts and focuses on tasks instead. It works, for the most part.

As he leaves the Uchiha compound, which is only just now waking up, he idly wonders if sensei too agreed to the gag order that prevents Shikamaru’s father from telling them about Naruto’s family. Sensei is an adult, and must of course keep his secrets, but so far sensei has been unfailingly honest and kind to them, so perhaps Sasuke should give him the benefit of the doubt. Not all adults are the same, he has learned from the past. Some of them try. Some of them mean well. It just doesn’t always work out.

That’s what aniki said, Sasuke recalls. They meant well, the clan. It just didn’t work out the way everyone thought it would. And so aniki had to leave. It was better for everyone if he left. Including me.

After all these years, Sasuke still can’t quite bring himself to believe that, though. After all, it was still an adult making the decisions. What if Sasuke wanted to have a choice? What if his choice was to keep his aniki?

But nobody cares about his choice. Sasuke grimly reminds himself of the reality that to them, he is just another kid.

Nobody cares about what we think. If we want our choices to matter, we have to grow up and get stronger, strong enough that we can push our own choices and make our own path.

He’ll tell Naruto that today. Naruto will understand.




Naruto is already there when Sasuke gets to their meeting spot, although he looks distracted and a little downtrodden today. Small wonder after that dinner last night. Sasuke appreciates the thought behind it, but really, what was Shikamaru thinking?

“G’morning,” Sasuke greets, nudging Naruto with a shoulder and sitting down. “I brought us food and stuff.”

Naruto looks up with a smile, an honest one that lights up his eyes and makes Sasuke wonder how anyone could ever be mean to him. Naruto’s just a kid. “Ya didn’t have to!”

“Well, the tofu will go bad if it isn’t eaten in the next two days, and the fruit was just sitting there. Also, we can go to Teyaki-jii’s place later and get some senbei. He likes me so he’ll give us some for free.”

Naruto looks away at that, towards the distance where the river bends out of their sight. “Won’t they mind? You being with me, I mean. Your clan.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Sasuke snorts, “they don’t mind me, remember? I’m just me. Not a big deal.”

“You’re a big deal to me,” Naruto shoots back, quietly.

Sasuke doesn’t know what to say in response, so he just pulls out two oranges from his bag and hands Naruto one.

They enjoy their breakfast that way until it’s time to get up and stretch. The grass is soft beneath them, still fragrant with the heat of yesterday’s sun. Opening his tenketsu gets easier every day, but Sasuke still struggles with modulation; shifting the focus from one body part to another makes the entirety of his chakra want to burst out of his skin.

Beside him, Naruto is a stripe of white-hot energy, chakra pulsating with each slow breath. Sasuke can somehow tell that Naruto isn’t quite there yet with tenketsu release; his chakra feels uneven and stilted, lopsided somehow. It has a strange quality to it, Naruto’s core. It’s different. Sasuke can tell.

“Admirable initiative, little ones,” says a voice next to them; they both fall out of their meditative trance into awareness. “You might, however, spare some attention to your surroundings when you do train. It wouldn’t be very good form if an enemy caught you unawares because you were too focused on your own chakra that you didn’t detect theirs.”

“H-Hai,” Naruto stammers, flustered. Sasuke flushes in shame.

“Shikamaru’s not here yet,” Sasuke says instead, straightening a nonexistent wrinkle in his shirt.

“Here!” Shikamaru calls out, coming down the riverside path towards them in a jog.

A jog? Sasuke blinks. Shikamaru?

“I’m very sorry, sensei,” Shikamaru huffs as he stops next to them, “I didn’t mean to be late. I just had an argument with my parents. I’m not talking to them right now.”

Next to Sasuke, Naruto winces; sensei frowns down at Shikamaru’s words. “And what was this argument about that it has brought you to such resorts?”

“Naruto,” Shikamaru straight up says, “and the gag order that seems to have turned everyone into stupid liars.”

“Shikamaru!” Sasuke hisses, because has he no tact?

But sensei hears this and smiles. “You asked Shikaku?”

“Of course I asked my dad, I ask him everything! You obviously want us to figure it out, so I went to my best source of information. He’s being oblique about it, though, and I’m fucking pissed at him for being a tease. Either tell me or just shut up and walk away!”

“Oi, don’t speak in front of sensei like that!” Sasuke scolds, swatting Shikamaru with an arm.

“Quit scolding me, you’re missing the point,” Shikamaru snarks back.

“G-Guys,” Naruto reaches for Sasuke’s shoulder, pulling him back before he swats Shikamaru again. “No fighting. I don’t want you to fight.”

“I will fight if I have to, this is ridiculous,” Shikamaru scowls, “I was not raised to let questions lie.

“I’m not saying you shouldn’t fight for your answers, I’m just saying watch your language in front of sensei!” Sasuke pushes. They don’t need any reason for sensei to quit on them, which can happen and has happened in the past. It’s important for them to figure out this thing with Naruto, yes, but it’s also vital that they don’t lose their sensei. Where else would they get someone near as powerful or wise?

Shikamaru opens his mouth to argue, but a sudden clap! startles all three of them, calling their attention at once.

“Now, little ones, I do believe that is quite enough. Sasuke, it is well, I do not care for linguistic propriety and I know that Shikamaru’s ire is not directed at me. Sit down. Shikamaru, your candor and persistence are admirable, but circumstance is something you must also consider. Breathe and do your stretches for a moment. Naruto, come here,” sensei reaches out an arm, beckoning Naruto closer. He puts a hand on Naruto’s head, and then his shoulder, saying, “Sometimes, you will fight with your teammates because you will have opinions that differ from theirs. What matters is whether your goal is aligned with each other. In this case, Sasuke and Shikamaru are aligned, but are looking towards different directions. This is healthy conflict. Do you understand?”

“Sort of,” Naruto mumbles, foot scuffing the grass.

“Do you know what their common goal is? No?” sensei hums then, patting Naruto’s hair with what could be a smile. “Your wellbeing is their common goal. They are both concerned about you. This is why they are fighting. It is a worthy reason to fight. After all, a shinobi who abandons his allies—”

“—will find himself abandoned in return,” Naruto finishes, a small, shy smile now playing at his lips. His eyes are still uncertain, though. “I jus’ don’t wanna make trouble for anyone, sensei. I feel bad that Shikamaru’s fighting with his parents over me.”

“That’s my choice, boke,” Shikamaru snarls from where he is upside-down in a half-fold stretch. “I can be mad at my parents if I want to. That’s a thing you can do with parents. You do it a lot, actually. Na, Sasuke?”

“Yeah,” Sasuke nods, “I’m still mad at my parents for something that happened ages ago.”

“Oh,” Naruto says, looking down at his feet. “I didn’t know.”

“There are many things you do not know,” Orochimaru-sensei straightens, tucking his arms into the sleeves of his kimono and looking down upon them with gravity. “There are many things you will have to continue not knowing. A village of shinobi is a village built upon secrets; it is the very definition of our lives. If you wish to know more, Shikamaru, then indeed you will have to fight. The knowledge you gain might be a burden you did not ask for and, after coming to know it, a burden you won’t be able to relinquish anymore. It will be yours to carry for the rest of your life. You become party to the secret. Knowledge is power, but it is also responsibility. Be prepared for what you ask.

“Sometimes knowledge is a curse, and it is better not to know. But more often, I have found that knowledge is a gift,” sensei says, meeting Sasuke and Naruto’s eyes, “because if I am to suffer, and especially suffer alone, then it is better to understand why I am suffering, instead of wallow in the pain without understanding its purpose. That is simply pain, not growth. Remember this.”

“Yes, sensei,” all three of them respond, with Naruto adding, “Sorry, sensei,” at the end.

“There is nothing to forgive,” and indeed, sensei seems pleased today. He looks over them with warm golden eyes, gold like molten sunlight condensed into two drops of amber. Sasuke wonders what has put sensei in such a good mood. “Shall we proceed with our training, then? The day must not be wasted.”

They get up and follow. What else is there to do?




Sensei leads them away from the forest today, instead heading towards the village, where the streets are still empty but the stores are beginning to open. Before the markets, they veer to the east, where most of the clans have their compounds secured away from the civilians settled into the residential district. Past the Hyuuga clan’s gates, below the vast Nara grounds, and around the Inuzuka compound they go; it is the farthest east Sasuke has ever been in the village, given that his clan compound is to the far south tucked against the village’s inner walls.

At last they approach an old house, tucked into the woods at some distance from the nearest neighbors. A garden greets them in riotous bloom, the air dense with the fragrance of mint, rosemary, dandelion, and nightshade. There are plants too whose names Sasuke doesn’t know, vines crawling up trellises and hanging pots spilling over with colorful flowers. Sensei stops them at the gate.

“This is my house,” he tells them, “built on ancestral ground. I am the only one left of my clan, although we were a small one to begin with. If in the future you require me and would like to come inside, stand beyond the gates and flare your chakra to alert me. If you try to pass the gates without permission, you will not be walking out.”

They watch with wide eyes as sensei’s hands flash through a quick succession of seals. Sasuke feels chakra ripple over his skin for a moment, and then sensei is leading them inside.

Indoors, the house is warm and dark, everything looking spotless and in order. Sasuke copies Naruto and checks his feet for dirt; Shikamaru says, “Ojamashimasu.”

Sensei parks them in a spacious room with cushions on the tatami floor and a low table on one end. Light spills into the space when sensei slides the shoji doors open; immediately, their eyes are drawn to the art.

The scroll is massive, spread open and taking up the whole of the north-facing wall. Upon it, a master has painted what must be a scene from another world: a full moon glowing bright, the silhouette of a large mythic tree, and underneath it stands a figure, a man, with his hands locked in seals and eyes closed in contemplation. The painting is so fine that Sasuke is afraid of even breathing near it. He knows how priceless it must be.

“Wow,” Naruto breathes, wide-eyed in wonder. “What is that, sensei?”

“That is the God Tree,” sensei tells them, “and the Sage of the Six Paths in meditation. My grandmother’s masterpiece. Do sit.”

They sit, Shikamaru grabbing hold of the back of Naruto’s shirt to prevent him from leaning too close to the painting. Sasuke pans his eyes beyond the shoji doors to what must be an inner garden, the sitting room overlooking a section that contains a bamboo fountain clacking away over a little pond.

“We are doing something different today, hence our new location. Nothing quite as physical as we’ve been doing all week, but these skills are just as vital to your arsenal.” Sensei retrieves a few scrolls from the drawers against the other wall and hands two to Naruto. “You, child, will work on your seals. You have already shown aptitude and interest in them; we shall build on what you have begun.”

Naruto begins to unroll one of his scrolls; Sasuke manages a glimpse of large swirling seals before a book is thrust in front of him. He reads the title and frowns at sensei. “Genjutsu?”

“If it is truly your weakest point, then it is where we must begin. It will be frustrating in the beginning, but ultimately worth the effort. We will start small,” sensei pushes a small vase at him, “for example, casting a genjutsu on this vase to change its color from white to red. With illusions, the tell is often in the details; as such, the best illusions have such flawless detailing that it can fool even the caster.”

“And if you master this now,” Shikamaru points out with a smirk, “your genjutsu will be unstoppable once you get your Sharingan.”

“Precisely,” sensei agrees, making Sasuke feel better about having to practice something he isn’t the best at. “This is a safe space, Sasuke. You are allowed to make mistakes here.”

“Yes, sensei,” he nods, accepting the book with equal parts determination and gratitude. “I’ll do my best.”

Orochimaru nods and turns to Shikamaru at last. “Little Nara, you play shougi with your father?”

Shikamaru perks up. “Yes, sensei.”

“Shikaku is an astute strategist and indeed one of Konoha’s best minds. I enjoy challenging him and sometimes lose, which is always paradoxically satisfying,” sensei pulls out a notebook and a pencil. “The Nara clan has traditionally provided Konoha’s Hokages with their best strategists and advisors. I surmise that you will inevitably follow your father’s footsteps when you are older, simply because of where your aptitudes lie. I’m sure you have already thought of this.”

Shikamaru nods. “Sasuke and Naruto are both of a type that’s useful on the battlefield. Chuunin specialty teams, and then jōnin on higher ranked missions, maybe ANBU. I could do the same, but I wouldn’t be as efficient. I’ll need to do chuunin for experience anyway, but as soon as I make jōnin, it’d be wise for me to specialize.”

Sensei nods along, pleased. Sasuke wonders at how Shikamaru can even think so far ahead. Sasuke can only plan as far as three or four weeks tops.

“This is an activity that will hone your strategic instinct,” sensei then gives Shikamaru the notebook. “There are scenarios written inside, each with its own conditions and goals, one scenario on every page. You will read through each one and give me at least three or four plans of action, as if you were the leader of a team making calls on the field. The notebook is yours; you may write on it. I do not need to see your notes, only to hear your thoughts. We will talk through them after you have had time to think and consider.”

“Oh,” Shikamaru blinks, eyebrows raised as he flips the notebook open. “Okay.”

Sasuke looks down at his own book and can’t help but wonder if the other teams get this sort of targeted training regimen. He doubts it. We’re so lucky to have sensei. So, so lucky. Maybe—maybe it is possible to catch up to aniki if I work hard enough and do what sensei tells me to?

Sensei claps his hands together. “We shall start with two hours of independent work and then take a break. I will be right here to answer any of your questions and guide you through your practice. There will be grilled chicken and sweet potatoes for lunch. Begin.”

So Sasuke begins, opening his inch-thick book to the first page with optimistic determination. Growth is at hand; there’s no time to waste.




Indeed they have grilled chicken, vegetables, miso soup, and sweet potatoes for lunch, but they are far more distracted (and frankly upset) about something entirely unrelated.

“You’re telling me,” Shikamaru says to Naruto, “that you went all this time without knowing how to read kanji?”

Naruto flushes an even deeper red, stammering, “I-I can read some! You make it sound worse than it is!”

It only took half of the morning for them to realize that there was something odd about how Naruto struggled with the scrolls he was given. Sensei was the one who at last identified the problem, noting that Naruto was only understanding concepts written in simpler kanji or hiragana.

Sasuke thinks about it for a moment and then says to Shikamaru, “It kind of makes sense, though, why he’s dead last in our class. If he couldn’t read much of what we were learning, I mean.”

“I had no one to teach me an’ stuff,” Naruto fidgets, picking at his vegetables. “The tutor at the orphanage didn’t like me, and, and I didn’t want to ask Iruka-sensei for any more than I already did! He already taught me so much! I just, um, learned as much as I could from the books!”

Shikamaru makes a rough noise in his throat, looking as much in pain as Sasuke feels right now for Naruto. He never thought of it himself, but he and Shikamaru grew up privileged enough to have tutors within their clan for basic reading and writing prior to their enrollment at the Academy. Naruto didn’t have that. Naruto barely had enough to eat; how would he afford that?

And the people at the orphanage didn’t like him, Sasuke notes darkly, a fat load of good they are.

“All the more impressive that you learned how to create your own seal tags from books at the Archives,” sensei commends Naruto as he brings them more chicken on a serving plate. “It must have taken a lot of time.”

Naruto bites his lip and nods. “The lady at the Archives was nice, she let me stay as long as I wanted.”

Did you go there to learn seal tags, or did you learn seal tags because you went there to hide? Sasuke catches the thought and at once his chest burns, white hot and tight, as if he’s gathering chakra in his lungs to breathe into a ball of fire.

Sensei makes a soft noise Sasuke can’t parse. Naruto’s shoulders have hunched up around his ears, defensive and ashamed even though none of it is his fault. Thankfully, sensei remedies that shame; sensei strokes a hand over Naruto’s hair and rests a palm on the back of his neck.

“I’m proud of you,” sensei tells him quietly. “Most adults are incapable of such effort and determination. I approve of your initiative. Now I am asking you to take that effort further into the next step. We’ll catch you up. You’ll learn how to read, and one day, you will be the writer instead. I simply need you to do one thing, Naruto.”

Naruto looks up. “What’s that?”

“Never give up,” sensei looks over all of them then, meeting their eyes over the table. “I don’t invest in quitters.”

“Even strategic quitters?” Shikamaru tries, which makes sensei smile.

“Every strategic retreat is part of a strategic advance.”

Shikamaru huffs in response, returning to his bowl of miso soup. Sasuke turns to Naruto, nudging their shoulders together and willing that bright smile back onto his friend’s face. “I’ll help you,” Sasuke tells him, “we’ll practice words every day.”

“We need to get you a vocabulary notebook or something like,” adds Shikamaru, “and we need to test you to motivate you. Monthly?”

“Monthly is good,” sensei agrees. “Eat your vegetables, please. Sasuke, drink more water.”

Sasuke obediently drinks the whole cup, eyeing Naruto who is flushed and embarrassed and maybe just a little bit happy. He thinks of the pile of notebooks he has never used at home, pencils too and all sorts of school supplies every Uchiha child gets provided. He resolves to bring them for Naruto. Maybe tomorrow, since it’s an off day, and they can get started on a few words.

Shikamaru then resumes griping about something else (vegetables), perhaps noting that Naruto is getting fidgety and any more attention at this time would make him uncomfortable. It’s weird how Shikamaru sometimes chooses to exercise his tact and sometimes not. Shikamaru must be such a pain for his parents to handle.

When they finish eating, they help sensei take the dirty dishes to the kitchen, where they are put into the sink to be washed. Sensei executes a flawless bunshin to do the washing and ushers them back into the living room to resume working, but not before a quick bathroom break. While they are taking turns with the guest bathroom, they hear the front door open, followed by a man announcing his presence.

“Okaeri, Tenzo,” sensei warmly responds just as a tall shinobi in a jōnin vest rounds the corner.

“Ah,” the man called Tenzo smiles, “no rest for the kids, then.”

“They have plenty to learn,” sensei says, ushering Sasuke back into the living room with a hand on the back of his neck. “Little ones, this is Tenzo. He is one of my children.”

Naruto gapes up at sensei, and then up at Tenzo. Sasuke bows and murmurs a greeting. Shikamaru blinks at sensei and blurts out, “You have kids?”

“Three, in fact, although none of them strictly biological,” Orochimaru-sensei tells them with equanimity. “Tenzo is the youngest. One might say he is no longer a child, however.”

Tenzo, who is tall and tan and powerfully built, rubs the back of his neck in what Sasuke reads as embarrassment. “I haven’t been a child for a long time, otou-san.”

“And yet I still have to remind you and your sister to clean up after yourselves,” sensei says, making Tenzo wince. Nevertheless, sensei tells him, “There is food in the kitchen. I will be in the sitting room with these ones.”

“Hai, otou-sama,” Tenzo sheepishly dips his head, passing them by. “Have fun, kids.”

The three of them stare after Tenzo, who seems to shrink under sensei’s regard even though they are about the same height. Sasuke wonders how old sensei actually is. The Hokage is old, and if sensei was the Hokage’s student, then—

“Wow,” Naruto gapes, “sensei, you’re old. Ow!” he yelps after Sasuke smacks the back of his head.

“Rude,” Shikamaru scowls. “You don’t tell adults they’re old even if they are, they get offended!”

“Just for that, Naruto, I shall quiz you on your seals,” sensei smiles, gathering them back into the living room. Naruto reacts with a loud whine, which is summarily ignored. “Sit, little ones. Our work has only begun.”

Sasuke returns to his book of genjutsu and Shikamaru to his notebook of strategies while sensei bends over a scroll with Naruto. They spend the rest of the afternoon like that, in companionable silence interrupted only by the undercurrent of sensei’s low voice reading out the harder parts of the sealing scroll to a squinting Naruto. Sasuke doesn’t need the Sharingan to see how Naruto looks up at their sensei with complete adoration, and no wonder he does!

It must be like rediscovering the world all over again, Sasuke thinks with a mixture of sadness and joy, learning at last how to read.




Sensei releases them a little earlier than usual that evening, but for the first time, Naruto refuses Sasuke’s standing offer for dinner. “I’ve been at your house every night this week, Sasuke, but I gotta go home tonight and do some laundry! I have no more clean clothes,” Naruto ends in a whisper, fidgeting where he stands.

Sasuke doesn’t get what’s embarrassing about that but nods anyway. “Okay. Um. We don’t have training tomorrow but um. Do you wanna meet up at lunchtime anyway? We can go to the Archives and start on your kanji notebook.”

Naruto answers with a bright, “Yeah!” and a blinding grin.

They part ways, Shikamaru gone first and Sasuke leaving last; his sandals have a broken strap.

“Oh well,” Sasuke sighs, resolving to go to the gear store in the compound first thing tomorrow morning.

“Buy the reinforced leather ones that strap up above your ankles,” sensei advises from behind him, hands folded in the long sleeves of his beautiful kimono. “They usually come in black. They will serve you for longer and will withstand the wear of your taijutsu. If your compound store does not have them in sizes as small as yours, go to the store in the village, the one with blue and white banners near the Yamanaka’s flower shop.”

“Thank you, sensei,” Sasuke bows as he makes a mental note. He starts when sensei’s hand comes down on his shoulder; when he looks up, sensei is smiling at him.

“You’ve done very well supporting Naruto. I commend you for your dedication,” sensei tells him. “Soon, he will need your trust more than ever. When that time comes, I need you to have courage and give him that trust, Sasuke. Do you understand?”

Sasuke bites his lip. How to answer this? “I-I’m not the bravest person, sensei, I’m afraid a lot, but—I’ll try my best.” Ugh, that sounded weak!

But sensei smiles, so he must have said the right thing. And then sensei pats his cheek, like Oboro-obaa-sama sometimes does at the shrine. “Courage is not the absence of fear, little one, but conviction in the face of it. Remember that.”

“Y-Yes, sensei.”

“Very good,” Orochimaru nods, hand retreating back into his kimono sleeve. “Run along now, before it gets too late. And if you should need anything, Sasuke, you are welcome to this house.”

“Thank you, sensei!” Sasuke bows again, a deep one this time, and then turns and runs towards the direction of the Uchiha compound. His heart pounds against his ribcage the whole way home, not for any physical reason but the simple fact of sensei’s approval.

If approval from sensei feels like this, how much better will it feel to be acknowledged at last by his parents, his brother, his clansmen? Acknowledged as a shinobi of his own, a contributing member of the clan, a person of his own right.

One day, Sasuke vows to himself, pushing his legs to run even faster, ambition buoyed by sensei’s vision for him. One day, they’ll look at me too, and see me for me.




“But not today, huh,” Sasuke sighs, looking down at the shoes which weren’t there this morning when he left. His parents are home, both of them; he didn’t even know they were coming home today. He wasn’t told. Well, what’s new? “I’m home,” he calls out, putting his sandals aside and dusting his feet off before entering the house.

His parents are in the sitting room, the one near the back overlooking the garden and the river beyond. He kneels to open the doors and bows when he enters.

“Ah, Sasuke,” his mother says, “there’s food in the kitchen if you’re hungry, help yourself.”

“Yes, thank you, okaa-san,” he turns to his father but doesn’t dare look up to meet eyes. “Otou-san, good evening.”

“Mm,” is his father’s only response; they both look tired, expressions pinched and mouths tight. Maybe he walked into a conversation not meant for his ears.

“Excuse me, please; I’ll be in the kitchen,” Sasuke hurriedly ducks out after showing his face, closing the door behind him and then darting into the relative safety of the kitchen. Rice, fish, and eggplant. He makes a bowl for himself, dices some tomatoes for relish, and quickly eats the food while sitting on the kitchen floor. From here, he can hear them talking, but their voices are indistinct enough that he can’t tell what they’re talking about. He wonders if it’s about aniki.

Okaa-san’s arm was wrapped in bandages so it must not have been a smooth mission. Otou-san doesn’t like it that okaa-san is the one who goes out of the village on missions, Sasuke knows. They could also be arguing about that. There are so many things they could be arguing about, Sasuke can guess all night.

He finishes wolfing down his dinner and washes the single dish he used. Afterwards, he tiptoes past the sitting room and retreats to the relative safety of his bedroom. He doesn’t really need to bathe tonight, since he already washed in the morning and they didn’t do anything strenuous during the day. (He’d rather not run into his parents in the bath when they’re in this mood.)

He’s pulling out his futon and blankets when he sees the unused notebooks he has piled on the lowest level of his bookshelf. The ones for Naruto; he needs them more than I do.

He takes one and pets the cover, thinking again of how embarrassed Naruto had looked when they figured out at he couldn’t read very well. The hot lump begins to rise in his chest again. He bolts up and stuffs the notebooks into his pack, slinging it over his shoulder as he darts down the stairs.

“Otou-san, okaa-san, I’m sorry, I left something behind and have to get it back,” he calls down the hallway, already putting on his sandals. “I’ll be going!”

There’s no response, although they surely heard him. Whereas it would usually sadden him, he pays that no mind tonight, instead consumed with thoughts of Naruto and how he wants his friend to never have to feel like that ever again. Running out of the house, he shakes off the despair of his own familial situation and reminds himself that it could always be worse, it could be much worse.

Naruto has it worse, he thinks, the least I can do is stop moping about myself and help him instead. Otherwise, what kind of friend am I?

Past the torii, past the watchful Uchiha sentries, past the bridge and through the darkened village streets, past the market winding down, past the business district, Sasuke runs. He only vaguely knows the directions towards the orphanages, but Naruto shouldn’t be too hard to find. He’ll ask around. There shouldn’t be a whole lot of loud, blond, blue-eyed genin staying in the orphanage district anyway. He turns down a darkened street after the market and slows down, looking carefully around.

The settlement buildings here are taller than most of the town, built to accommodate as much people in as little space as possible. Sasuke heard from somewhere that the rent is cheaper here because of the small spaces. Makes sense; Naruto wouldn’t be able to afford anything bigger yet. They haven’t even started taking missions yet.

On the streets, there are still children playing despite the falling dark. They all pause and stare at him as he passes by; he must look very different from them. The buildings all look alike, however, and he’s almost worked up the courage to ask one of the kids where he can find Naruto, when he hears a familiar voice yell out.

There he is, Sasuke smiles, jogging up the rest of the distance to an alley up ahead and then turning the corner. The smile falls off his face.

“Hey! Hey, put that down, hey, that’s mine!”

Naruto is tackling an adult civilian, an older man with a round belly and a mean set of eyes, for ownership of a box of things. The man tosses the box over Naruto’s head; Naruto only just manages a quick Kage Bunshin to catch the box before it tipped over and its contents spilled on the street.

“I paid you rent last week!” Naruto yells, looking half in tears. “You can’t just throw me out with no warning!”

“We got no place for monsters like you here,” the man spits. “Why don’t you go to that monster sensei of yours?”

Naruto snarls in anger; Sasuke snarls with him, lip curling back from his teeth. “Take that back! Sensei’s not a monster!”

The man picks up something from behind—a cast-iron pot—and throws it at Naruto’s direction. Naruto of course dodges but cries out all the same. “That’s my pot, you asshole!” The man makes to throw more things at Naruto—all of his belongings in ratty boxes and trash bags, it looks like—but Sasuke has seen enough.

“Hey!” he yells, darting in and giving the man a sound kick to the shin. “Leave Naruto alone!”

There is a rule they are taught in the Academy, a rule that all Konoha shinobi must obey: they are expressly forbidden from turning their jutsu against civilians of Konoha. They exist to protect the civilians to the best of their ability; the civilians are helpless otherwise. Iruka-sensei had called it the burden of their privilege and said that one day, they would understand.

Well, today’s not that day.

The man howls in pain, crumpling halfway down if he hadn’t braced himself against the wall. Sasuke only held his chakra back from that kick. The man, who must be Naruto’s erstwhile landlord, gropes for an object nearby to throw and finds a potted plant which he raises above his head.

Sasuke stands in front of Naruto and snarls, “Go ahead, civilian. Throw that at me. If you hit me and hurt me, you’ll hear from my clan.” Sasuke pulls at his shirt to emphasize the mon embroidered upon it in red and white. “I’ll even let you hit me, go on.”

The man heaves panting breaths, lowering the potted plant a fraction, wariness now overtaking the hatred in those mean eyes.

“Just because he can’t use what he knows to defend himself against you, you do this to him? Shame on you,” Sasuke spits on the ground in front of the man and then turns around. “Naruto, come on, let’s go.”

“Sasuke—”

“You’re not staying here, come on, let’s go!” Sasuke picks up a box and two trash bags, hauling them over his shoulder. “Can you make some bunshin to help carry your stuff?”

Naruto blinks at him, wide-eyed, for a moment, and then makes the seals for the bunshin. They quietly obey and follow after Sasuke, who pelts out of the orphanage district in a dead run.

Where can we go? Where can Naruto stay? He can’t stay at our house, I don’t even know how to begin explaining all of this to my parents, and besides, they probably know what Shikamaru’s parents know about Naruto, whatever secret it is, and they’ll say no to him staying over. Where else? Where can we—

Sasuke sees the road they took earlier that day and stops, the road that leads up to sensei’s house. The bunshin bump into his back; at the same time, Shikamaru, who seemed to have been hanging out at Yakiniku-Q’s storefront, calls out towards them.

“Oi! What are you guys doing?!”

Sasuke meets Shikamaru’s eyes, willing him to understand. And maybe he does, because he stiffens up from his slouch all at once, making to stand up.

“Sasuke? Oi!”

Sasuke ignores him—which is guaranteed to make Shikamaru follow—and turns back to Naruto. “Come on, this way.”

“Wait, where—”

“Where else,” Sasuke says, sprinting once again towards the house he left only two hours ago. “Sensei will know what to do. Sensei always knows what to do.”




tbc
first draft: 2019.06.03
last edited: 2021.12.16




Chapter Text

010. orochimaru: revelations

.

He feels the commotion before he hears it. They at least remember his warning and stop at the gates, Sasuke flaring his chakra bright in some form of distress. Naruto is with him, along with chakra echoes telltale of multiple kage bunshin. Shikamaru’s quieter signature is following, some distance behind.

Orochimaru closes the book he is reading and puts it away. It has only been two and a half hours since the boys left from here. Rising to his feet, he holds a hand up to Tenzo, who had stepped out of the shadowed hallway in askance.

“I instructed them to come here should they have need of me,” Orochimaru explains, turning on the lights. “I apologize for the disturbance; you may return to your rest.”

“It’s no bother, otou-sama,” Tenzo tips his head down, “What could it be?”

“We shall see.”

Tenzo melts back into the shadows; the children don’t trust him yet as they barely know him. Orochimaru goes to the front doors and momentarily drops the ward seals as he beckons them inside.

“Children,” he asks, “what brings you back so soon? The night is deep.”

They approach, picking their steps carefully through the front garden, until the sliver of light from inside falls upon their little faces. Sasuke is furious. Naruto, distressed.

Sasuke bows deep and low. “Excuse our interruption, sensei. But I didn’t know where else to go.”

Orochimaru looks to Naruto for further clues, but the boy can’t seem to meet his eyes. He then notes that the bunshin, who are all scuffing the earth with their feet, seem to be carrying boxes and bags laden with stuff. Shikamaru slows to a jog and then a brisk walk, coming to a stop behind them.

What the fuck is happening? Why were you running through market street in the middle of the night? I thought you guys went home! What’s all this—stuff?” Shikamaru blurts out, agog at the bunshin now shying away from him.

“It’s all Naruto’s things,” Sasuke says, tone flat, eyes hard and staring straight ahead. “His landlord was a—was an asshole, and—and threw him out with all of his stuff. Without warning or explanation. Even though he paid rent last week.”

Shikamaru inhales. “What.

“And you know this because…?” Orochimaru prompts.

“I was coming over to give him a notebook for his kanji and stuff,” Sasuke looks down again, anger giving an inch to sadness. “Good thing I did. If I didn’t, what woulda happened to Naruto?”

“I-I-It’s fine!” Naruto argues, flustered, “I coulda taken care of it! I can take care of myself! It’s happened before, it’s fine!”

No, it’s not!” Shikamaru hotly explodes, righteous fury taking over his confusion. “How many times do we have to tell you—”

“Shikamaru,” Orochimaru cuts in before things can escalate, “cease.”

Shikamaru shuts his mouth, teeth clicking with the force of it. His anger has sparked Sasuke back into a quiet fury; Naruto looks to be on the verge of frustrated, humiliated tears.

What a mess you have made, Sarutobi-sensei. And as per usual, Orochimaru thinks, I am here to help clean it up.

“Come inside, little ones. This will be a long discussion.” He opens the door wider and allows them to step inside one at a time, their little feet shucking off sandals and padding down the hall towards the sitting room. “Naruto, put your things down here for now. Shikamaru,” the little Nara looks up, “shall I send a bunshin to your parents so that they might know where you are?”

“Uh, yes, please,” Shikamaru rubs his jaw, “I did just kinda run off. I was at Ino’s place with Chouji and Kiba, otou-san was at Yakiniku-Q next door with their parents.”

Orochimaru executes a bunshin with a twist of his fingers. “Sasuke?”

“It’s okay, sensei, I spoke to my parents before I left the house,” Sasuke shakes his head. “Besides, okaa-sama just returned from a mission, I’m sure she’s exhausted. I don’t want to wake them up.”

His bunshin disappears in a flurry of leaves; the children troop into the sitting room in single file. The three of them settle there, a tense parody of how they were this morning; Orochimaru wonders, for a moment, if this is the last he’ll see of Team Seven before it breaks.

Ah, but they’re stronger than that, he thinks, watching Sasuke nudge Naruto with an elbow. Tenzo emerges from the kitchen, murmuring that he brewed some tea.

“Thank you, Tenzo, this will do quite well.” He takes the tray into the sitting room, sets it down, and instructs Sasuke to close the door. Just as he does, Tenzo walks past the room with an obscure smile.

“Now,” Orochimaru calls their attention even as he pours tea, “Naruto, why don’t you start from the beginning?”




It’s a short story but with a long background, one which these children don’t even know about, much less understand. Orochimaru must breathe and sip his tea and curb the venomous coil of his anger lest it give the impression that he is angry at the children. No. The children have done nothing but try to live, as all children do. It is the adults—as always and ever, the adults—who make the living more painful.

The anger he takes and puts away in a corner of his mind to preserve, to crystallize. It will sharpen and grow into a weapon; this is how some of the most formidable weapons of the mind are made. The pity, he suffocates; there is no space for that. Naruto does not need pity. It is the sadness that he lets out, because he has no use for it beyond this moment and it is most appropriate for the children to see.

“It is a cruel thing they have done to you,” Orochimaru says softly, “treating you all your life like so. And furthermore, without reason or provocation; you are just a child.”

“I know their reason,” Naruto sniffs, clutching his midsection, “I know why they call me monster. But they had no right to call you monster! I tried to make him take it back, sensei, I did. You’ve been the best sensei ever and he had no right!”

Monster, they used to call him too, before he silenced them with fear and awe, before he became a legend. Monster, snakeling, freak.

“Perhaps your landlord is old enough to remember the time before I was who I am today,” Orochimaru chooses to confess. “I wasn’t always your sensei, a highly ranked jōnin, a valued shinobi of Konoha; once upon a time, this village would have been glad to be rid of me, to erase my existence, to distance themselves from my reputation. Be assured that he did not call me a monster because of you, Naruto; he called me a monster because of me. He likely knows of me and what I’m capable of. It is of no consequence to me; do not distress yourself over it.”

Naruto deflates, looking down at his knees. Orochimaru wets his throat with tea. Shikamaru sighs. “I still don’t understand why they treat him like that, sensei. Why would they call him a monster? He’s just a kid. I don’t get it.”

“S’because of the beast, isn’t it,” Naruto sniffs, still not looking up. “They all know about the beast sealed inside me.”

“The what now?”

Naruto squirms, surely digging the skin of his ankles into the grooves of the tatami mat beneath him. “T-The beast—the Kyuubi—it—they sealed it inside me when I was a baby. Jiji told me an’ said that my parents had died during the attack, ya kno’. Almost twelve years ago.”

A flash of cold pleasure sears across Orochimaru’s chest: here they are at last. Sasuke gapes at Naruto in surprise even as Shikamaru reels from the information.

“They sealed the beast in you?” Sasuke gasps. “Inside you? Can they even do that?”

“Certainly, and there is a story behind it,” Orochimaru affirms.

“You’ll tell us the story,” Shikamaru then demands, eyes dark and thunderous, implications blooming into comprehension within those depths. A Nara through and through, this child. “I refuse to leave until you tell us the story, sensei—the full story, please, because I fucking hate not knowing.”

Orochimaru graces the boy with a smile, before turning back to Naruto. “How much did Sarutobi-sensei tell you, Naruto?”

Pale-faced and out of sorts, Naruto trembles with uncertainty. “I-I—am I allowed to tell you, sensei?”

“I know more than you do, I think; I simply wish to know where to start.”

The boy shifts left and right on his haunches, fingers twisted together into knots, eyes cast down. “I know my parents were strong shinobi. A-And they knew about the sealing. I know the seal keeps the village safe from the beast. I also know a lotta people died when it went crazy. Thass why they all hate me,” Naruto sniffs then, “e-even though I didn’t ask for it, I didn’t.”

“Of course you didn’t,” Shikamaru spits in anger, “you were just a baby.”

Naruto flinches bodily at his tone, so Orochimaru shoots a quelling glance at Shikamaru. It won’t do to spook Naruto here, not now. Shikamaru releases a long hiss and leans back to brace his hands on the floor behind him, looking away.

It gives Orochimaru a moment to consider the lay of the situation. How to handle this? He takes a sip of his tea.

“Do you remember when I spoke to you about the nature of chakra?” he decides to begin, settling in for the long narrative because it saves time and the children’s trust. “I told you about rare, legendary creatures, primordial beings made of pure chakra and nothing else.”

Shikamaru’s eyes snap forward; a crease appears across Sasuke’s forehead.

“Kyuubi no Youko is one such entity, an ancient creature of immense power and chakra density, truly a god walking upon the earth—or at least it must have been, once upon a time. Long ago, it roamed these lands freely, and its siblings too, for there are nine of them.”

Nine?” Shikamaru says, voice pitching high into an almost-yelp.

“Ichibi, with one tail, is considered the weakest of them, and even then still devastating in might,” Orochimaru continues. “The current theory is that each tail represents increased chakra density. By this theory, Kyuubi would be the strongest and most formidable. You can imagine the damage such a creature would have wreaked.”

Naruto shudders, curling into himself. “I didn’t even know.”

“And therein is the village’s cruelty, because every bearer of the Kyuubi before you at least knew why they were different.”

All the children look up at him in surprise. “Every bearer?” Naruto repeats, confused.

“A long time ago, when this village was only a pipe dream to its founders, a warrior by the name of Uchiha Madara learned how to master the Kyuubi with the use of his eyes,” Orochimaru tells them. “He was known to have wielded the most powerful incarnation of the Sharingan, which when unleashed to its full potential was capable of subduing, indeed ensnaring, a chakra beast.”

Shikamaru and Naruto are now looking at Sasuke who chews on the inside of his cheek before adding, “Madara-sama is not spoken of very often within the clan. He was a traitor to Konoha and so we are taught about him as a warning. But I know—” his voice drops low to almost a whisper, “—I know Oboro-obaa-sama is a direct descendant of his line. She’s Izuna-sama’s grandchild. Izuna-sama is Madara-sama’s younger brother. So that makes me Madara-sama’s great-great-grandnephew.”

Aaah, Orochimaru smiles in the quiet safety of his own head, what fine gifts I have been given. Madara’s line continues. Tonight he has learned something new.

“Do you know why your great-great-granduncle is considered a traitor to Konoha?” Orochimaru asks. Of course they know; every child in Konoha is taught this history. A skewed version of it, a story missing its pieces—but that is the only way Konoha knows to tell a story.

Shikamaru answers for Sasuke. “He fought the Shodaime Hokage at the Valley of the End and the Shodaime was forced to kill him. They used to be rivals prior to the Summit of the Clans. Otou-san says it was a private disagreement that started the whole fight.”

“It was a disagreement about power, as all such things that break great friendships are,” Orochimaru tells them. “Madara led the Uchiha clan to glory; they were nigh unstoppable prior to the founding. In truth, they did not need Konoha as much as the smaller clans did—the Nara clan and my clan, for example, were very small and easily overwhelmed by the Sarutobi clan or the Hyuuga clan. The Uchiha clan, however, numbered in the hundreds and could have built a village of their own.

“But Madara struck up an odd friendship with the Shodaime and agreed to at least attempt Konoha—a village of shinobi for shinobi, the first of its kind. A place for us to be. A home.” Orochimaru shrugs. “It was an audacious idea; it still is. Everyday that Konoha continues to stand is another day that blood is spilled to water the earth from whence its roots grow. Hashirama did his best to work with all the clans fairly and with equanimity; his brother, however, remained distant from the other clans, suspicious.

“The Nidaime, Senju Tobirama, held a particular dislike for the Uchiha clan. One cannot fault the man; they fought a bitter war against each other for generations, after all. Unnerved by the power Madara held (for the Uchiha was, and still is, the most numerous of all the clans in Konoha), Tobirama did everything in his power to corral, limit, and contain the Uchiha within the village. Politically at first, and then economically. By the end of his lifetime, the segregation was physical: the Uchiha lived within their own compound, removed from the pulse of village life. Tobirama could not remove them out of respect for his own brother, but he could neutralize them. Within the village, he built walls.”

Orochimaru pauses and considers his empty teacup. Is he telling them too much?

“I admire the Nidaime for his cunning. It is sound strategy, what he did.”

“Divide and conquer,” Shikamaru mutters, “classic move.”

“Precisely,” Orochimaru agrees, “and although unfair, it brought the desired effect. The clans remained within the village but they remained apart. This was the most advantageous position for the Senju; in such a way, they could maintain hold of the power.”

“So that’s why Madara-sama fought with the Shodaime?” Sasuke asks, confused. “But I thought it was the Nidaime who did all these things to the Uchiha.”

Orochimaru nods. “Madara was one of your best and brightest; he saw what was coming even before the Nidaime began his machinations. He tried to convince your clansmen to leave Konoha, but by then, several years into the making of the village, most of them had settled into more comfortable lives and started families. I do not know what transpired between him and his family, but he was broken by what he thought of as betrayal from his own blood. The clan that he had worked so hard to protect now denying him, shunning his advice, decrying his leadership. So he left and conspired to destroy what he had worked so hard to build—this village, this home, an illusion he believed would weaken and ultimately destroy his bloodline.”

Death is better by your own blood,” Sasuke whispers then, eyes distant as he remembers words taught to him perhaps in infancy. “That’s what Oboro-obaa-sama always says.”

“An exceedingly wise woman,” Orochimaru agrees, “for your clan has plenty of enemies.” A natural pause falls over them, during which he turns his teacup round and round. Mistakes repeated over and over, the vagaries of history. “Madara knew Hashirama was his match in every aspect of combat and so he unleashed his best and most destructive weapon. How easy would it be to flatten a newborn village under the claws of the legendary Kyuubi? It must have taken a lot out of him to control the beast, but control he did, and their battle was a bitter one. As you know, they carved great canyons open into what we now know as the Valley of the End. Ultimately, Hashirama won, but at a bitter price; he was forced to kill his friend. Madara’s death made the problem of the Kyuubi a pressing one.”

“How to control the beast,” Shikamaru surmises.

“How indeed,” Orochimaru says. “But Hashirama was not without his tricks. His specialty release, the Mokuton, was capable of temporarily subduing a chakra beast even as strong as the Kyuubi. Mokuton fed on chakra, you see, and the stronger the beast was, the stronger its bindings became. So he subdued the beast and hid Madara’s body, before going to consult his wife. Her name was Mito, and she was a daughter of the Uzumaki clan.”

“Seal masters and specialists,” Sasuke breathes.

“Yes,” Orochimaru smiles, pleased. “She was that, and more. Using her aptitudes, she took stock of the situation and at once understood that no inanimate object would be able to weather the strain of containing the Kyuubi. There is only one thing in this world that is dynamic and resilient enough to bear the burden of such a seal and survive: a soul.”

Shikamaru’s eyes are wide open in shock. “They needed a human host. She became the human host. Shodaime sealed the Kyuubi into his own wife.”

Orochimaru smiles. “You see, Uzumaki clansmen are gifted with naturally large chakra reserves that are incredibly elastic and adaptable to strain. This gave them longevity and what I like to call an enhanced healing factor. Most of them were also chakra sensors, naturally attuned and sensitive to the nature of chakra around them. She was the perfect candidate; she would be able to self-diagnose any cracks in the seal, monitor the beast’s continued dormancy, and sustain a normal life despite the burden she carried. And she was always near at hand, in case Hashirama needed to intervene. It was a most elegant solution. She hosted the Kyuubi until her death.”

Naruto has curled his arms around his midsection, perhaps clutching at where the seal is placed. Orochimaru wonders if the child has begun to feel the beast yet, or if it remains dormant behind its prison.

“And then?” Shikamaru prompts, leaning forward, now fully invested in the story. “She died, so someone else had to take over, surely.”

“There was one Uzumaki child who showed aptitude,” Orochimaru says, “and her name was Kushina.”

Naruto gasps. “My mom was a host?”

“Until her death,” Orochimaru nods, “when she gave birth to you and the Kyuubi escaped from the seal.”

Naruto pales; Sasuke gasps.

“I am not privileged to know much about its specifics, but if my understanding of the underlying concept is correct, childbirth will naturally weaken the seal. It could have been an accident; the Kyuubi is not easy to contain.”

Shikamaru’s eyes narrow, agile mind picking through his words with a skill that grows ever sharper. “You mean to say it wasn’t an accident.”

“I was out of the village during the night of the Kyuubi’s rampage,” Orochimaru confesses. Of course I was; whoever orchestrated the thing would have waited until the village was at its weakest. A rat from inside. “As such, I cannot tell you for certain. It is the quiet consensus, however, that someone intentionally sabotaged the seal at the moment when it was at its weakest. Namikaze was not a fool; he would have known about the risk and taken appropriate measures to protect his wife and child. That the Kyuubi still escaped tells me that something went very wrong that night.”

“Nami… kaze?” Naruto mouths.

“Ah,” Orochimaru’s lips twist at the irony of it all. Here sits the son of the man who stole the title of Hokage away from his very hands. “Namikaze Minato.”

Shikamaru’s eyes widen once again. “No.

“The Yondaime Hokage, widely hailed as a genius and indeed far ahead of his time, although his reign was short-lived. Namikaze Minato is your father, Naruto.”

Naruto’s jaw falls open in shock. Sasuke laughs, faint and incredulous. “No shit.

He allows them to parse this information for a moment, standing with the teacups (one empty and three untouched) to take them to the kitchen. The tea is now cold and no good. Again, Orochimaru wonders if he is telling them too much; knowledge is a weapon, and he might be arming these children with implements they do not yet know how to wield.

Ah, but won’t it then be my privilege to teach them how to wield their new weapons? He thinks to himself how Shikamaru would use this as leverage against his own parents, how Naruto could turn this knowledge into confidence and strength of mind. Even Sasuke might derive inspiration from the ultimately doomed but nevertheless remarkable determination of his great-great-granduncle.

Only minutes later, when he returns to the sitting room, he looks upon their shocked, ponderous, bewildered faces and settles with his decision. He would much rather tell them and let them decide, than decide for them and make the wrong decision. After all, one derives the most growth from one’s own mistakes.

“Sensei,” Naruto asks cautiously, “d-did Jiji seal the Kyuubi into me because my m-mom was dead and I was the only choice?”

“No,” Orochimaru looks him in the eyes and says, “your father, Namikaze, sealed the Kyuubi into you with help from your weakened mother. They both died in the process.”

It is then that Naruto’s face seizes in a mixture of confusion and grief, fat tears finally rolling free and cascading down his cheeks. Orochimaru traces the faint lines etched across his cheeks, the ones that look like they could be whiskers instead of birthmarks. Unbidden, he reaches out and swipes away the child’s tears.

“I did not know your parents very well, but I knew them enough to know that they loved you and wished that they had another choice,” Orochimaru says. “If I were in their position, however, I would do the same thing. Do you know why?”

Sniffling and sobbing, Naruto shakes his head. “Why? I didn’t ask for it! I don’t want it! Why?!”

“Because I would only entrust such a terrible burden and a great gift to my own blood.”

Naruto looks up at him through a well of tears, likely unable to parse the meaning behind his words. Truly, the child is far too young and unprepared for this. He should not have been left alone. His training should have begun far, far earlier.

“The Kyuubi is a burden you have borne all these years without knowing, and it is heavy, yes,” Orochimaru wipes the other side of Naruto’s face with his thumb, “but the Kyuubi is also a gift. Have you already forgotten the story, little one? Once upon a time, it roamed across these lands unconquered, a force without reckoning. Once upon a time, an Uchiha came along and commanded it, after which a Senju followed and subdued it. They both knew its worth; perhaps not wholly, but they had an idea. They understood that the Kyuubi is a gift,” he repeats, “and your parents left the Kyuubi to you because they are certain you’ll know better than to use it as a weapon.”

Blinking, Naruto sniffs, “A weapon? People still wanna use the Kyuubi as a weapon? Haven’t they learned?”

“Oh, child,” Orochimaru chuckles, “you will find that some people will never learn.”

Another pause falls over them like a heavy blanket, weighted with all the questions left unasked. Naruto sniffs and hiccups a few more times, scrubbing at his face with his shirtsleeves. It takes a moment but Sasuke eventually gathers enough momentum to speak his mind.

“Sensei,” the little Uchiha beseeches, “can Naruto stay here for a while?” It is perhaps a trick of the lamplight, but Sasuke’s eyes are red-tinged when he turns them upon Orochimaru, wide and doe-like. “Only, that is, um, I’d have him over at my house but I don’t really know how my clan will take it, all things considered…? I don’t have any authority to make that sort of decision, you see, and um, I don’t want Naruto to go back out there. To the orphanages. He doesn’t belong there.”

“If not, he can stay at ours,” Shikamaru declares with a petulant scowl, “and I don’t give a shit what oyaji says, I’ma bully the entire clan into it, watch me.”

“I-It’s fine, guys, really, I can—I can take care of myself!” Naruto insists, alarm rising once again.

“It’s not an issue of whether you can or cannot!” Sasuke hotly snaps, shutting Naruto up. “It’s an issue of whether you should—and you shouldn’t have to! You’re hosting the Kyuubi for Konoha, your parents died to protect the village, your father was Hokage—and they have nerve to call you a monster?! They’re the monsters!”

Aha, Orochimaru thinks, here is the infamous Uchiha temper. Sasuke’s volume climbs until he is all but yelling into Naruto’s face.

“How could they?!” Sasuke explodes, “How could they let that happen?! It’s not fair! You should at least be taken care of! You should have at least had enough to eat! You shouldn’t have to be kicked out of your own house! None of them would even have their houses if it weren’t for you!

Orochimaru reaches out to soothe Sasuke before things escalate any further and damaging words are spoken. He strokes a hand down the back of Sasuke’s head and neck, petting through the shudder that rolls over Sasuke’s back. The boy leans back a tad, releasing a wordless, frustrated snarl.

“Hush, little one. That is enough. Breathe.”

Sasuke drops his face in his hands and begins breathing, clockwork even as the rhythm of a bamboo fountain. He is aware of the riptides of his own emotions, then.

Naruto has gone back to twisting his hands into knots. He looks like he wants to reach out to Sasuke but is preventing himself from doing so.

“Remember what I said earlier today, Naruto? Sasuke is concerned for your well-being, that is all. Shikamaru too.”

Shikamaru nods, meeting Naruto’s gaze evenly. With his answers in hand, Shikamaru has regained equilibrium. “We’re your friends. We’re angry for you, and that’s our right. That’s what friends do.”

Sasuke’s hand darts out to grab onto Naruto’s wrist, although the little Uchiha continues breathing. Naruto looks on the verge of a fresh well of tears.

Orochimaru claps, snapping them all into attention. “I should think that’s enough for the night. It has been a long discussion with many heavy revelations. All of you need to rest.” He rises, beckoning them up. “Come along. You will stay here for the night; it is too late for you to run home. You can keep Naruto company in his new room.”

Naruto ducks his head low. “I-Is it okay for me to stay here, sensei?”

“I expect you to stay here unless you have a solid reason to go elsewhere otherwise,” Orochimaru counters, putting a hand on the back of the child’s neck to drive him forward. “All’s well, we may devote extra time to your reading lessons this way.”

It wouldn’t be the first time he teaches a child how to read; it is also far from the first time he’ll be responsible for a child the village does not want.

With a passing thought, he wonders at the turn of fate and thinks of what Namikaze might have said about the lay of the situation—Orochimaru responsible for his son, instead of Jiraiya as everyone might have predicted. But it’s only a passing thought.




In the dark of the morning, just before the sun breaks over the horizon, Orochimaru slips out from between two long shadows and approaches the old man.

“Orochimaru-kun,” Sarutobi rumbles, hands wrapped around a steaming cup of morning tea. “Good morning, good morning.” He sits at the engawa as he does every morning, awaiting the sun to admire the sky’s hues.

“Likewise, sensei, although I must apologize for the interruption.” He stops a few paces away, admiring the manicured gardens which are a product of Biwako’s more discerning aesthetic eye. “I thought you ought to know.”

“Know what, pray tell? Are your genin giving you that much grief already? Surely not,” Sarutobi chuckles, turning towards him this time, eyes still sharp despite the stooping stature of his age.

Orochimaru must then smile, because indeed his genin are giving him grief, although not in the way Sarutobi expects. “They know. You told Naruto, and Naruto spoke of it to his friends.”

The smile falls from Sarutobi’s face.

“He was expelled last night from his flat at the settlements; by chance, Sasuke found him and brought him to me. A discussion was necessary; Shikamaru has been asking questions since the beginning of the week. Naruto is staying at my house now. He will be well protected.”

A momentous sigh escapes Sarutobi’s chest; the old man sags against the wooden beam he was leaning against. “Can his friends keep a secret?”

“I think that the secret will be out sooner than you think, therefore I question the very point,” Orochimaru tilts his head. “Nevertheless, I have spoken to them. They understand the gravity of the situation.”

Sarutobi smiles, wry. “There’s a reason I gave them to you, Orochimaru-kun.”

“And I’m getting rather tired of cleaning up the messes, sensei. I’m too old for this.”

“On the contrary,” Sarutobi puts down his teacup to reach for his pipe, “I think that your experience gives you unprecedented perspective with which to handle them. If I’d given them to a younger jōnin sensei—Kakashi, perhaps Gai, or even my own son Asuma—such a conflagration would not have been handled so smoothly and with such finesse.”

Clicking his tongue, Orochimaru turns to leave. “Spare me the flattery. I only came to inform you so that I cannot be accused of poaching. Do see to it that no ANBU comes to my house unannounced to disturb the peace. They will be considered trespassers; I will retaliate.”

Sarutobi only hums; Orochimaru wraps himself in chakra and vanishes in a whirlwind of leaves. He reappears beyond the Sarutobi residence grounds and takes the long way home, walking through the silent streets in order to gather his thoughts.

So much to consider, so many contingencies to plan… this new ground shifts far and fast. Orochimaru braces himself, thinks, and adapts.




tbc
first draft: 2019.07.30
last edited: 2021.12.16




Chapter Text

011. shikamaru: distrust

.

In the morning, when he wakes, Shikamaru remains as still as stone. Next to him, Naruto and Sasuke are still asleep, lying on their sides and curled towards each other like halves of a set of parentheses. This is the first night they have all slept next to each other, the first night of many nights they will be together. This is his team now. These are his comrades.

The cold light of dawn makes it easier to parse through his anger and indignation. Like most Nara, Shikamaru is not given to extremes of emotion and undue outbursts like the ones he has had to weather the past few days; this is all new territory to him and he is only now learning how to handle it.

It isn’t so bad when the mistakes are logical, or a product of happenstance, Shikamaru thinks, but intentional stupidity is difficult to stomach. And intentional stupidity is the only name fit for this mess.

Naruto’s circumstances could have been handled so much better; even he, barely twelve years of age, can think of a number of contingencies far better than leaving the Yondaime’s only child at the orphanage unsupervised. They could have given him to a capable guardian, for example, or the Hokage himself could have taken him in. If it was the issue of Naruto’s awareness, fine, keep the secret until he’s old enough, but at least make sure he’s fed and safe.

Moreover, which idiot thought it wise to alienate the child hosting the Kyuubi that once almost destroyed Konoha? If one covets the Kyuubi with awe, it’s tantamount to throwing away the most powerful possible weapon. If one fears the Kyuubi as a high risk, then isn’t it better to keep the host close to monitor the seal’s integrity?

With determination, Shikamaru softens his jaw, closes his eyes, and breathes. Lets the emotions settle and harden. What’s done is done now; what’s left is to fix what can be fixed.

Quietly, he rises and slips out from the room, a ten-tatami mat room with more than enough space to move around for one boy. This is probably bigger than the entirety of Naruto’s old apartment, come to think. The hallway is still and empty outside; Shikamaru notes where they were yesterday and heads for the opposite direction. Sensei’s house is unexpectedly large. At the end of the hallway is a staircase and a right turn through which he finds the bathroom. Inside is a large wooden tub, three washing stalls, and two doors each hiding a toilet. There are also sinks set against the far wall, with steam-shrouded mirrors and cabinets like a vanity. Less impressive than the Nara Main House, but this will no doubt be pure luxury for Naruto.

He takes care of his business and crosses paths with the man called Tenzo while washing his hands.

“Ah, good morning,” the jōnin greets him, face bending into a curious, blank smile. “I hope you slept well.”

“Yes, thank you,” Shikamaru nods, bending down to wash his face as well. The water feels good. He can go home and spend as long as he wants in the onsen today; it’s a Sunday, after all.

Tenzo tends to his own business, washing and wiping next to Shikamaru in silence. Shikamaru wonders about sensei’s two other children, older than Tenzo, who at his stature already looks plenty old. Sensei also mentioned that none of his children are biologically his own, so where are Tenzo’s parents?

Dead, probably, like Naruto’s parents, he thinks darkly. Shinobi too, more than likely, unless Tenzo is like Haruno or Tenten, first-generation shinobi from civilian backgrounds and families.

“Breakfast will be ready shortly, if you want to wake your teammates,” Tenzo tells him on their way out. “Ah, or you could all sleep in, if you don’t have training today.”

“Sensei said not to skip meals,” Shikamaru responds, already heading back. “I’ll go wake them.”

He gets to Naruto’s new room and finds Naruto already awake, wide-eyed and looking around with what looks like disbelief.

“Morning,” Shikamaru says, leaving the shoji open behind him. “Bathroom’s down the hall and to the right. Tenzo-san says breakfast will be ready soon.”

Naruto nods, still speechless as he gets up, rubs his face, and turns to— “Oh, right,” Naruto mutters, “I don’t need to do that anymore.”

“Do what?” Shikamaru frowns.

“Always had to pour out the bucket in the corner when I woke up at the old place,” Naruto says. “Had to leave a bucket there because the pipes dripped from the unit above.”

Shikamaru presses his lips together and carefully says nothing. Instead, he kneels to tidy his own borrowed futon, folding it to put away. That, and the sound of Naruto closing the shoji behind him, wakes Sasuke at last.

Sasuke turns over and blinks against the sunlight streaming in through the window, momentarily disoriented. He sits up and yawns, watching Shikamaru fold Naruto’s futon as well. “Wh’time is it?”

“Too fucking early.” Shikamaru finds it hard to believe that he’s even awake and functioning at this hour. Ah, but his body has risen with the sun for seven days now; it has found a rhythm. It’s not one that Shikamaru likes.

Sasuke rolls out of the futon with a grunt and begins tidying it. His hair sticks up in unruly black tufts; his cheek is red from the imprint of the pillowcase. Shikamaru pauses.

“Hey.”

Sasuke looks up.

“Good job bringing Naruto here,” and because it needs to be said, Shikamaru continues, “You’ve been a really good friend to him.”

Flushing, Sasuke looks down. “You too. Good job on finding all that information.”

“Not enough.”

“Enough to start asking questions,” Sasuke counters, putting his pillow on top of the neat folded square. “You’re good at that. Asking questions.”

“I’m a Nara,” Shikamaru says. “It’s in my blood.”

“And I’m an Uchiha,” Sasuke frowns, gears turning in his head. “Is that why they put sensei with us, d’you think?”

“Probably,” Shikamaru shrugs, “although I doubt that’s all of it.”

Sasuke sighs. “Clan politics.”

“Hate it.”

“Gotta learn it.”

“Can’t avoid it.” This time, Shikamaru sighs. “I mean, it’s sound logic. If sensei is among our strongest, next to none other than the Hokage himself, then he’s the perfect fit to handle Naruto if anything were to happen.”

“With the seal,” Sasuke nods along, “or if someone targets Naruto to, I dunno, get revenge or whatever stupid other thing they might target him for.”

“To extract the Kyuubi,” Shikamaru points out, making Sasuke look up.

“You think they can do that?”

“If you can put it in, then you can take it out, right?”

After a moment of silence, Sasuke smooths his hand over the pillow he used last night. “And if they get the Kyuubi out successfully, they could use it as a weapon… but they’d have to be able to control it first, wouldn’t they?”

“Maybe that’s why the Council distrusts your clan so much,” Shikamaru points out, pieces of the political landscape shifting in his head. “Maybe that’s why you’ve been segregated.”

Sasuke meets his eyes then, sober and contemplative. Shikamaru then gets the impression that Sasuke knows more than he lets on about the Uchiha’s situation.

“Adults distrust everything around them,” Sasuke muses as he stands. “Makes me wonder if we’ll distrust everything too as we grow up.”

I’m already starting to distrust everything I’m told. But saying it speaks doubt into reality, and Shikamaru knows better than that. For now, he keeps his distrust to himself.

Naruto returns just as Sasuke leaves, pointing out where to find the bathroom. Shikamaru stands too, straightening his shirt as best he can. “Come on, let’s go help with breakfast. I think Tenzo-san is making it by himself.”

He heads towards the sitting room and the kitchen, Naruto following quietly at his heels.




Shikamaru and Sasuke leave sensei’s house after breakfast and walk together until they have to part ways near the Nara grounds. Sasuke is quiet the whole way; likewise, Shikamaru is deep in thought. No one seems to be around when gets home, so Shikamaru goes to their ancestral wood to work off the restless energy.

Here, where the trees are lush and old, planted when the Shodaime was still alive, Shikamaru grew up reading books and hiding from his mother and running around in the rain. The deer watched over him; they still do today, as he strips off his shirt, kicks aside his sandals, and goes barefoot in the grass.

First, to breathe. This is always where he begins, centering his thoughts in the way Shimizu-oba taught him to when he was old enough to understand. He packs away important considerations in compartments for later perusal; anything ultimately unimportant in the greater scheme of things, he discards.

Like his indignation on behalf of Naruto.

The disappointment in his own parents.

The anger towards the civilians who call Naruto monster.

The things he holds on to are few but heavy: gratitude, for sensei’s honesty and Sasuke’s intervention. Determination to help Naruto grow. Distrust, because he will never again take things at face value like he did all these years, seeing the village’s mistreatment of Naruto and doing nothing about it.

Some people would excuse him because of his youth. Shikamaru was not raised to believe that youth was ever a worthy excuse.

When all these things are packed away and his perception regains its crystal clarity, Shikamaru begins modulating his chakra as his body flows through katas. His mind remains blissfully empty; his chakra core vigorously engaged. That is how his father finds him later, sweat-soaked and bone-tired, but at last there is a calm resolution settled within his chest.

“Ara ma,” Shikaku chuckles, leaning against a tree and watching him stretch out his tired muscles. “My son, doing extra training? Never would I have thought.”

Shikamaru shrugs. “I’ve got sensei to impress and teammates to protect.”

It must be close to lunchtime, so Shikamaru stoops to gather his shirt and sandals. They fall into step with each other, father and son, descending towards the clan houses in silence. Once indoors, he wipes his feet and goes to wash, lest his mother hide him for bringing dirt and grass to the dining room. He smells nikujaga down the hallway and hurries; nikujaga is his favorite dish.

Okaa-san must be trying to cheer me up, Shikamaru muses as he washes the sweat off his body. The last two days have been most unusual for them as a family; he has always been a mild-mannered, quiet child. He’s never questioned his parents like he did two nights ago.

True enough, nikujaga is laid out at the table when he gets there, and there’s even garlic rice, his other favorite dish. Shikamaru sits down, suddenly starving.

“There you are. Everything alright with your sensei?” Yoshino asks, eyeing him over as if to ascertain the entire team’s wellness through Shikamaru’s state alone. “You ran off last night and your sensei’s bunshin came to tell us you were staying the night at his place.”

“Naruto got kicked out of his apartment,” Shikamaru says in between large mouthfuls of rice. “We had to stage an intervention.”

Shikaku rubs the back of his neck. “Ahh, so that’s what’s got the old man in twists today.”

Shikamaru snorts, unimpressed. “Bit late.”

“Kicked out?” Yoshino straightens and puts down her chopsticks. “Why ever for? And where is he staying now?

“Sensei’s got him, it’s good,” Shikamaru snags a few more pieces of meat. His mom’s nikujaga is the best.

“Well, then, Hokage-sama has no reason for concern,” Shikaku decides, although he exchanges a pregnant look with his wife.

Shikamaru knows that look. Politics, no doubt. Perhaps there are clans who won’t be pleased that Orochimaru-sensei is now responsible for the Kyuubi’s host. Well, then, they shouldn’t have put Naruto with their sensei in the first place!

“Na, were you the Yondaime’s advisor too?” Shikamaru asks, meeting his father eye to eye. Don’t lie to me, he begs, instead, trust me.

Shikaku swallows his food and takes a drink of water. “Your sensei told you then?”

“Everything,” Shikamaru nods. “Naruto knew. About, you know.”

“Yeah, the old man did say something about having had a talk with the kid a few weeks ago,” Shikaku sighs, rubbing his jaw again, telltale of his discomfort. He doesn’t lie or obscure this time, though. Perhaps Shikamaru’s outbursts have jolted him out of whatever complacency he’d settled into all these years. Shikaku admits, “I did advise the Yondaime for the brief time he was in office. Minato was very astute. A genius, really. Most of the time, he needed only confirmation from me, not advice.”

Shikamaru polishes off the rest of his rice and waits until his mother has served him a second helping before asking the next question. “Do you know who would have kept Naruto’s parents’ things? Anything, really, even little things. Hokage-sama, maybe?”

“Maybe,” Shikaku tilts his head in consideration. “Or Minato’s sensei, probably. Why, is Naruto asking for them?”

“No; I bet he doesn’t even realize he can ask. Only,” Shikamaru frowns down at his rice bowl, “Naruto doesn’t even know what his parents look like.”

Yoshino puts down her bowl in silence.

“I mean, heirlooms would be nice if they had any, but I was wondering if anybody kept any pictures. It’s not fair, you know,” Shikamaru looks up at them then, “I’m here with both of you and a whole clan, you take care of me, I know where I come from… and then there’s Naruto, the child of a Hokage, but nobody watching over him until last week, and only learning his own father’s name yesterday.”

Shikamaru stirs the pot of nikujaga and ladles some more on top of his rice. Right now, Naruto should be at sensei’s house, eating a good meal under a warm roof. Hopefully they won’t slack; Naruto needs to do some reading this afternoon. After all, they’ll be learning water-walking likely all week.

“No, it’s not fair at all. I’ll ask around,” Shikaku clears his throat, reaching for the serving ladle after Shikamaru’s done. “Surely someone’s kept photos. If not, the Hokage will have something.”

They finish the rest of lunch in thoughtful silence, Shikamaru polishing off the last bit of the meat. Yoshino excuses him from dishes today, so he goes to sit on the engawa with his father. He fetches the shogi board while Shikaku lays down the cushions and pours himself some tea. While preparing the pieces, Shikaku stops him with a hand.

Specifically, Shikaku smooths a hand over Shikamaru’s head in a way that he hasn’t done since his son was a little boy, easy to please and willing to accept open affection. Then father smiles at son, small and sad but a smile nonetheless. That is an expression Shikamaru has never seen, even as a little boy.

“You might be disappointed in me, son, but I want you to know that I’m proud of you.”

Something seizes in Shikamaru’s throat; the weight of his father’s hand is far lighter than the weight of the apology it conveys. He tips his head down, closes his eyes, and knows that his father loves him. Even if he must grow up and learn distrust everything around him in order to survive, he can at least trust this.

This, he then realizes in a flash of terrible insight, this is what Naruto does not have. A love that he can trust. What a terrifying world it would be without this. Shikamaru shudders at the thought.

“I understand,” he then tells his father, and when he makes the first move on the shogi board, Shikaku doesn’t need to hear the forgiveness in it to understand likewise.




tbc
first draft: 2019.08.01
last edited: 2021.12.16




Chapter Text

012. naruto: assurance

.

When he had asked sensei last night how much he would have to pay for rent, sensei had gotten mad. Sensei didn’t do anything to him, not even a single word in anger, but the anger was there and Naruto could tell. Maybe it wasn’t directed at him, but Naruto still feels bad for disappointing sensei like that. He just, he doesn’t know how this works.

So he does what he can. He stays quiet. He tries to use the bath last and cleans up after himself. He keeps his room tidy. He puts away his things in the closet and throws away old ratty stuff that shouldn’t be in a house this nice. (His old cast iron pot, his threadbare rugs, his only blanket which will soon be too small for him anyway.) If he gets kicked out of here too and he needs those things again, well, hopefully by then he’ll be doing missions and have some money to buy new ones.

Monday morning, he wakes up early to help with breakfast and finds Tenzo-san making eggs.

“Oh, um, good morning,” Naruto greets, shuffling side to side. “Can I help with anything, please?”

Tenzo looks over at him and nods. “Good morning. Will you slice those carrots, please?”

“Yes, okay!” Naruto hops up on a stool, washes his hands, and then washes the carrots before peeling them. Nice carrots, these. Fresh and very orange, the good kind that would have been too expensive for him to buy.

He then realizes that he won’t have to worry about food anymore and has to pause.

“You alright? Did you cut yourself?” Tenzo asks when he notices that Naruto has stopped.

“Uh, no! No, I’m fine, fine, thanks, ahehehe,” Naruto resumes peeling the carrots. Best carrots ever. This would be the best meal ever, except that title’s already taken: the first meal Sasuke shared with him, last week on the Academy’s rooftop, was and will always be the best meal of his life. Tuna onigiri and tomatoes and an orange, on the day he became a ninja and found his first friend.

Sensei glides into the kitchen while Tenzo is making the omelet. Naruto chirps a bright, “Good morning, sensei!” while scooping healthy helpings of rice into a bento. One for him, one for sensei, one for Tenzo-san. Tomorrow, maybe there’ll be enough to make an extra to share with Sasuke and Shikamaru; it’ll be nice to make Sasuke food in return for all the times Sasuke made food for him.

“Good morning, Naruto,” sensei responds, looking over the food with a critical eye. “I don’t need quite as much rice in mine, child. I don’t have your metabolism.”

“Oh, oops, sorry, sensei, hehehe,” Naruto moves some of the rice from sensei’s bento to his own.

“Patrol today, Tenzo?”

“If I can’t convince my captain to rest, then I must at least accompany him to ensure he doesn’t f—mess himself up again,” Tenzo-san says, catching himself with a glance at Naruto.

You can cuss if you want, Naruto wants to say, except he knows better than to butt into an adult conversation. He wonders who Tenzo-san’s captain is.

Sensei knows who it is; sensei chuckles as he pours tea and sits down. The tea this morning is different from the one sensei drank last night; Naruto is learning that sensei loves tea. There are at least ten stoppered glass jars in one of the cupboards containing tea leaves of different types and blends. Tenzo-san only touches two of them; sensei drinks the rest.

They sit down and eat their humble but delicious breakfast, sensei murmuring thanks, which Naruto echoes. The tofu is firm and delicious. The omelet is perfectly done. The heat of the rice almost makes him cry.

“Bring a change of clothes today, Naruto.”

“Mm? Mm!” Naruto nods, keeping his full mouth closed.

“Oh, dear,” Tenzo-san chuckles, “water-walking already?”

“That is the plan,” sensei confirms.

“The river?”

“Ground Four, alas,” sensei smiles obliquely, “until Thursday, perhaps, if they continue to outperform my expectations.”

Tenzo-san raises both his eyebrows and turns to Naruto. “I hope you can swim.”

“I can!” Naruto nods again, carefully taking another slice of tofu from the communal plate.

“Take two, Naruto.”

“A-ah, one’s enough, sensei!”

“Take the other one, you need it to grow,” sensei insists, pinning him down with a Look. Naruto ducks his head and takes the second slice. “In this house, you will eat until you are satisfied.”

Sensei doesn’t look away until Naruto puts the tofu in his mouth, which is sort of awkward but also sort of nice. He copies Tenzo-san and dips the second slice in soy sauce and mirin which makes a wonderful thing even better! Sensei then returns to the earlier conversation, asking Tenzo something about patrol rotations that Naruto doesn’t care much about in the face of food.

This might even be better than ramen with Iruka-sensei, he thinks—and on that note, he makes a mental reminder to see Iruka-sensei sometime this week. He might try to find me at the old place and get worried. Naruto pauses. Or would he know? Because I’m sure they talk about me.

Dwelling on that makes his mood darken, so he chooses not to. Instead, he polishes off the last bit of his rice and gathers his dishes to help clean up. Sensei shoos him away from the dishwashing so that he has time to pack his extra clothes, and before long, they’re off to the meadow where they usually meet, presumably heading to Ground Four after they meet with Shikamaru and Sasuke.

Naruto quietly says, “Ittekimasu,” into the genkan of sensei’s house, biting his lip to push down the grin that wants to take over his face. He’s never had reason to say that before; no one was ever waiting for him at home.

But now it’s different.

With a bounce in his step, Naruto trots up to sensei, who glides on slowly to check if he’s catching up, and then shortly leaps up into the trees to pick up the pace. Breathing in the air of a new beginning, Naruto pours chakra into his feet and follows.




When they make it to Ground Four, Sasuke and Shikamaru now in tow, they are met with the placid surface of a miniature lake. Or is it a large pond? Naruto scratches his head as he puts down his pack. Sensei gathers them around with a clap and sweeps those sharp golden eyes over their little faces, looking for something Naruto can’t even hope to understand.

“Are we ready to begin anew, little ones? Have we recovered from the weekend’s excitement?”

A chorus of yeses erupt from the children.

“Very good,” sensei straightens, turning around to walk towards the pond. “Today we learn an essential skill—an extension of what you have learned to do on the perimeter walls last week.”

Naruto watches in awe as sensei keeps walking past the edge and into the water—no, he’s walking on the water and not sinking! How is that the same as walking up a wall? The wall is solid! Water is water!

“He’s not even making ripples on the surface,” Shikamaru mutters from his right. “Talk about control.”

Sasuke nods from his left, watching sensei’s feet intently. “I wonder if you have to extend your chakra down to the lakebed like stilts?”

“No, because how would that work on really deep water, like the sea? No way you can extend your chakra that far and not die,” Shikamaru reasons. “It has to be like—like a spider does on the water, you know.” He makes a spread-finger motion with his hands. “They use their legs, distribute their body weight, and use the surface tension.”

“Don’t know about you, but I only got two legs,” Sasuke mutters, looking down at them.

“That’s not what I—you know what, why do I even bother?” Shikamaru gripes, which then makes Naruto grin.

“Because you’re smart and you like reminding us of it?” he says, making Sasuke snicker.

Sensei then returns, inquiring as to the source of their entertainment.

“Spiders, sensei,” Sasuke responds with an earnest expression, “except I only have two legs and I think Shikamaru is too ambitious.”

“It is indeed a little like the spiders do, but not quite. Come, why don’t you try it for yourselves?” their amused sensei stepped aside, clearing their way to the lip of the lake. “Chakra to your feet, like you did for the walls, except wider and flatter—less robust, more tensile.”

Sasuke is the first to try, lip caught between his teeth as he steps a chakra-coated foot into the water. It doesn’t sink. He tries another step, holding his body weight over the water for some time, but lifting off the for the third step proves problematic and he sinks—new sandals and all.

He blows out a breath. “This is hard.”

Naruto wonders then if he can run across before sinking. Backing up a few steps, he charges chakra to his feet and runs into the water at speed.

“O-Oi, Naruto!” Sasuke startles; Shikamaru smacks a palm to his own face.

Naruto speeds across the water with a grin, holding his weight—he’s holding his weight—and he’s—

“Ahhh-grrrg!”

Underwater, the world is in shades of blue and green, even the bright sunlight which spears through the surface in shafts thick and narrow. It doesn’t take long for Naruto’s feet to touch the lakebed. The water here is shallow—probably on purpose to prevent them from a premature death. There are no fish, though. Just moss and weeds.

He kicks hard against the bottom and pushes for the surface, parting the water with a stroke of his arms. As soon as he gasps a mouthful of air, he shouts, “I’m alive!”

How you are is the question,” comes the droll response from an unimpressed Shikamaru.

“Hey, you’re standing on the water!” Naruto crows. Shikamaru’s awesome after all!

“Yes, because I’m smart and I try to stand first before walking or, like some idiots do, running.”

“You know you sound like an old man, right,” Sasuke quips, wobbling next to him with arms akimbo. His new sandals are already splash-wet.

Naruto swims back towards them and hauls himself on top of a large rock protruding near the edge of the water. From there, he tries again, this time mimicking his teammates and just focusing on standing. It’s both harder and easier than it looks.

“It feels really awkward when I try to lift one foot to step forward,” Sasuke says. “It’s like—like trying to balance on sand.”

Shikamaru tries it, wobbles, and puts his foot back down. “Yeah no.”

“The water takes your weight however you choose to distribute it,” sensei tells them then, “and your chakra allows you to distribute it over a larger surface area than the soles of your tiny feet. Think of a lotus leaf and how it floats above the water when spread flat; think of how it supports the weight of a frog despite being thin and flimsy. When you lift one foot to step forward, adjust the outflow of chakra on the back foot. Spread it wider.”

Oooh,” Shikamaru blinks, immediately getting it.

“I didn’t get that, please explain!” Naruto raises an arm, which cartwheels as he almost loses his balance.

Must I do everything around here?” Shikamaru then gripes, sighing before he settles to translate. “Alright, listen and listen closely, because I am only explaining this in your terms once, okay?”

Naruto nods twice, stepping back onto the rock before he can sink into the water again. Sasuke is getting steadier on the water already; man, Naruto’s teammates are hella smart!

“So imagine having large plates under your feet—large like boats,” Shikamaru makes an expanding motion with his spread hands. “You wear those boats like shoes and they let you walk on the water, yeah? The boats are your chakra. You gotta extend them out from your feet, the opposite of what we did on the wall, which was keeping them around the soles of your feet only so you can stick to it like a spider.”

“These exercises should be called spider walking,” Sasuke takes a successful step forward, but then sinks on the second one. “Ugh. I hate wet sandals.”

(1)

“You can take them off if you like,” sensei suggests. “You don’t need them for this. Set them here and they’ll dry in the sun.”

Because no one likes wet sandals, they all do as sensei suggests. The morning passes as they work and Naruto doesn’t even notice. When lunchtime rolls around, sensei calls them to rest under the shade of a large tree, where they spread their bento boxes out to share. Naruto eyes the bento he made for sensei with pride. If he can’t pay rent, then he’ll just have to find other ways to show sensei how much it means that sensei is giving him a home.

Sasuke digs in his pack for a moment and then makes a triumphant noise. “Here!” he shoves a notebook and a case of pencils at Naruto, who blinks in surprise. “I forgot to give them to you on Saturday. Your kanji notebook!”

“Ah, about that,” Shikamaru says, “we need to make your testing schedule and set a goal. Like how many characters do you wanna learn in a month? I dunno, how many is too many, sensei?”

Sensei responds to the question but Naruto is too distracted by the notebook he clutches with two hands. The grin on his face is so wide it hurts.

Seriously, he thinks as he hugs the notebook to himself, this is the best. Team. Ever.

All in all, it is one of the finest days in Naruto’s short life.




tbc
first draft: 2019.08.01
last edited: 2021.12.16




(1) Water walking is historically an ability that ninja were trained in. They used devices called mizugumo (水蜘蛛, lit. 'water spider' - adapted directly from the name of Japanese water spiders) that allowed them to suspend their weight over water like spiders! The descriptions are not clear, but there seems to be some agreement that looked like harnessed shoes.

Chapter Text

013. sasuke: awake

.

Water walking is more difficult on running water. Sasuke discovers this the hard way and laments the lack of a pond inside the Uchiha compound. It has been two days since they began water walking training and although they have all progressed, the progress is slow. Water walking is far harder than vertical walking and sensei’s additional exercises don’t make it any easier.

Yesterday, for example, they returned to their usual morning rounds of taijutsu one-on-one with sensei, followed shortly by rounds of sparring with weapons. They didn’t do water walking until after lunch and chakra transformation practice; by then, they were universally exhausted and all but flailing as they tried to balance on the pond’s placid surface.

Today, they did the same, but instead of three whole hours getting drenched every time they fell into the pond, sensei broke up the afternoon water walking block into half-hour increments with fifteen minutes of high-intensity endurance exercises. Sasuke’s quadriceps had burned holding his knees above the earth as he bear-crawled sideways on his hands and toes. There were also sit-up-to-squat-jumps and push-ups with a log on their back, plus pull-ups done dangling from rough tree branches that had shredded the skin of his palms. By the time they finished, they were all ready to crawl home.

“You will thank me for this later,” sensei had smilingly imparted, hands tucked neatly into his kimono as always, not a single drop of water or speck of dust on his person. “You are building strength and endurance that will one day save your life.”

That’s what he said, Sasuke grumbles now, sitting wet and colder by the minute on the banks of the Naka river. Shoulda stayed in the house.

But his parents are home and for some reason it’s more awkward than usual, his father and mother barely able to meet each other’s eyes. Mother seems angry and father is upset; Sasuke does not want to be caught between them.

So he had snuck out of the house through the back window and made his way to the river, where he resolved to spend time training—only to find out that a coursing river is a merciless teacher.

Peeling off his wet shirt and wringing it as dry as he can get it, Sasuke sighs. For a moment, he envies Naruto, who must now be washing dishes after dinner at sensei’s house. Naruto has a home now, just like Sasuke—except what good is having a home if I can’t be comfortable in it?

It was a little better when aniki was at home, but if Sasuke’s being honest with himself, it was always awkward. Their parents married first out of duty and last out of love. Mother, being the last of the Clan Head’s line, had to pick the strongest of the Uchiha in order to birth even stronger children. Her elder brothers died leaving no issue, which was how aniki became heir.

Sasuke, of course, is the spare, which is just a fact of life. He wouldn’t mind it so much if aniki had stayed. He wouldn’t mind if his parents noticed him at least once in a while. He doesn’t want to be noticed all the time, but it’s also not nice being practically invisible.

Speaking of invisible, Sasuke wonders, mother and father must have known Naruto’s parents, right? Naruto’s dad was the Fourth Hokage, so surely… I mean, if father knows Shikaku-san…

But the Uchiha clan was in no position to offer shelter to the Kyuubi’s host, especially not back then, before aniki left, before the clan’s fraught relationship with the village calmed down a bit.

I wish I could ask them about Naruto’s parents so I could tell Naruto something, but I can’t even ask them about aniki. Will he ever come home? Will I ever be told what happened? Is he still the heir?

Cold, wet clothes be damned, Sasuke lays out on a flat rock near the river’s edge and watches the stars glitter across the night sky. He can identify most of the constellations now, having studied aniki’s books diligently so that he’ll never get lost in the wilderness. Pinching the brightest ones between his thumb and pointer finger, Sasuke plays pretend, dropping them in his mouth like candy and then breathing out their life in the form of white fire.

I wonder what stars taste like. I wonder if they’re any brighter from the moon. I wonder if there’s really a hare on the moon making sake. That’s so silly; why would you go all the way to the moon to make sake?

It was aniki who read him that story. The book had a scary-looking hare on the cover, or maybe it was lonely-looking, he can’t remember. Sasuke falls asleep like this, in the breath between one fantastical thought and the next.




“Wake up, child,” a soft, familiar voice beckons him, “open your eyes.”

Sasuke inhales, startles, and sits up.

“O-Oboro-obaa-sama!” he yelps, momentarily disoriented but not far enough gone to forget his manners. He clambers off the flat rock he had used as a bed and drops to one knee, pressing his forehead against the back of his grandmother’s hand. “G-Good day to you, obaa-sama.”

Her hand, as it always does, accepts his respect and then strokes through the thick mass of his hair, pushing aside his fringes so that she might take his chin and look into his face, his eyes. She is old, perhaps older than the Hokage, her hands gnarled with work and time. Even today, she is still beautiful, the lines around her eyes and the sunspots on her cheeks telling stories of a life well-lived. Although her back now stoops and her hair grows white, her eyes remain bright and lively, blazing with intelligence and a wisdom the entire clan reveres. It occurs to Sasuke that Oboro-obaa-sama looks much like his own mother.

“What are you doing sleeping out here, Sasuke? And with wet clothes, no less,” she looks around, inspecting the rock he had been using as a bed and the shirt haphazardly drying on the edge of it.

“I-I was practicing water walking, obaa-sama,” Sasuke stands, fidgeting. “Our sensei started us on it this week.”

“Is that so,” obaa-sama turns back to look upon him again, her dark eyes as unfathomable as they always are, but kind. “And how do you fare, walking on water?”

Sasuke’s mouth twists sideways as he flicks a dark look at his wet shirt. “…not very well.”

“A river is not a kind teacher, as I am sure you have learned,” she beckons him to sit in front of her as she sits on the edge of the flat rock. Eagerly, Sasuke complies, smiling at the way she threads her fingers into his hair, pulls the knots free, and smooths the strands down. Obaa-sama has always liked braiding his hair different ways, even when he was a little boy. The many afternoons he spent sitting with her while she wove braids and stories for him are among Sasuke’s fondest, most precious memories.

“I’m not very good at control, sensei says,” Sasuke plays with a small rock he finds next to his knee. “Water walking is so basic but I’m spend so much time trying to learn it.” He sighs. “I mean, I know I’m not a genius.”

“Thinking of your brother again,” obaa-sama clicks her tongue, “comparing yourself against his shadow.”

“S’a long shadow.”

“It’s only a shadow,” she tells him. “And I seem to remember a time when Itachi too attempted to learn water walking on this very river.”

“But he learned sooner and faster than I did.”

“We all begin from knowing nothing, Sasuke. As we learn, we grow. It is not how soon or how fast we learn that matters in the end; it is that we learned, and we grew.

Sasuke remains quiet then, because what can he say against that? Instead, he picks at the rock with a fingernail, wondering if obaa-sama also braided aniki’s hair like this when he was little.

“You do not understand me yet,” obaa-sama continues, softly now as she tugs his hair into shape. “You will one day. You are so consumed trying to catch up to your brother, trying to be as strong, trying not to be swallowed by that long shadow. I don’t blame you; it must be terrifying. Are you afraid, Sasuke?”

Afraid of being left behind. Afraid of disappointing the clan. Afraid of not being enough. Afraid of failure.

“Yes, obaa-sama.”

“Good.”

She turns him around with soft hands on his shoulders and seizes his chin with firm fingers. What she sees in Sasuke’s eyes makes her smile.

“Keep that fear close to your heart. Fear acts as the stone that sharpens the blade of your soul; conviction strengthens it. If you are no longer afraid of anything, the blade dulls and you lose momentum.”

Blinking, Sasuke nods. He tucks her words away with the rest of them, all precious memories, pearls of wisdom he does not yet know how to use but will one day be thankful for.

“Have your eyes been itching?” she suddenly asks, tilting his face to the rising light.

“Huh? Um, a little? It was dusty yesterday on the training ground,” Sasuke shrugs.

Obaa-sama strokes a thumb beneath his eye and across his cheekbone. “And what do you do everyday for training? You have not visited with me since you graduated,” she clicks her tongue again; Sasuke ducks his head and flushes.

“Um, lots of things,” he says, enumerating then their daily routine. Sparring, taijutsu, water walking, chakra transformation. “And then sensei gave us a scroll with the technique he wants us to learn first, we’re opening it today!”

Obaa-sama looks pleased. “Your sensei gives you a well-rounded base. One can expect no less from Chiyo-dono’s grandson. Does he show you how to open and close your tenketsu at will?”

“Oh, yes, we do chakra modulation too! Everyday,” Sasuke grins, demonstrating what little he can do by shifting the mass of his chakra from his right to his left arm. “It’s still a little hard but I’m starting to get it.”

“Very good. More than anything else, mastering this,” obaa-sama takes both of his little hands in her gnarled, calloused ones, “will give you strength beyond reckoning. Do you know that the more you exercise your tenketsu, the more chakra they produce, and the more durable they become? Resistant to strain and damage, your chakra coils will be able to hold larger surges of chakra for more powerful techniques. It is, in fact, a common mistake of most Uchiha, neglecting this part of their training because it takes time. After all, the Sharingan is dependent upon robust chakra coils and supple tenketsu under fine control.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Not many do. Despite my urging, it is now the clansmen’s preference to train the children in the ways of the village Academy, instead of training them in the fundamentals as the old clans used to do. As a result, the children activate their Sharingan before time—before they have built the chakra coils to support the strain—and ultimately it is unable to evolve to higher forms because the chakra coils lose their flexibility with time and stagnate as we age. The children are not given a chance to grow into their eyes. Do you understand my meaning, Sasuke?”

Sasuke blinks as her thumb once again strokes under his left eye.

Your brother was not given a chance to grow into his eyes,” obaa-sama tells him with a smile, “but you are. This is your chance. Allow yourself time to grow. Bask in the long shadows, do not fear them. They will be your safe space where you can be yourself and make mistakes. They will hide you until you are ready to step out into the light.”

As if summoned by her words, light breaks at last over the eastern horizon, heralding the arrival of a new day. Together, the two of them turn towards the east, Sasuke shielding his eyes as he turns his face towards his grandmother’s knee.

She lays a gentle hand on the crown of his head and says, “Here comes the sun.”




Shortly thereafter, Sasuke has to hightail it to the house, change, pack a bento, and run if he wants to make it to Ground Four on time. He barely does, bowing in apology to sensei once he arrives.

“You are on time, Sasuke, it is well. Put your pack aside and let us begin warming up.”

“Hey, hey, Sasuke, I like your hair thingie!” Naruto grins; Sasuke consciously brings a hand to touch the two braids obaa-sama had made on either side of his head, drawn together and then braided into a larger knot at the back.

“It’s called a braid,” Shikamaru drolly responds, “not a thingie.

“Ah, obaa-sama did it for me,” Sasuke smiles back, joining them in a ready stance for warm up. Before they can commence, however, sensei stops him with a hand on his shoulder.

“It will come loose during the activities of your day,” sensei points out, turning him around while procuring a single ribbon from the fold of his obi. “You must tie it like so if you wish for it to stay.”

That takes a minute, during which Sasuke does single-leg quad stretches. Naruto bends side to side with a grin, and likewise Shikamaru bends forward with straight parted legs to touch the ground with his elbows and forearms.

“Did you write in his kanji book?” Sasuke asks Shikamaru once sensei releases him to continue stretching.

“Yeah, it’s kinda hard ‘cause I don’t know what he already knows,” Shikamaru grumbles, sounding pinched as he folds sideways to stretch the lateral muscles of the back.

“We should test him on a Saturday,” Sasuke points out during a dynamic chest stretch, “because we’ll be at sensei’s house all day anyway.”

“Good idea.”

“The two of you are just coming up with ways to torture me,” Naruto pouts in that squinty-eyed manner of his. “Don’t think I can’t hear you from over here!”

Sasuke shares a snicker with Shikamaru, who looks distinctly unremorseful. “It’s payback for all of my brain cells that die with every day I spend with the two of you.”

“Yeah—hey!” Sasuke scowls. “I’m smart!”

“Ish,” Shikamaru adds with a shrug. And then he dodges a well-aimed kick.

“Now, now,” sensei chuckles, redirecting their attention, “plenty of time for sparring later. First, we must wake our tenketsu.”

On cue, the three of them fall into a neutral stance around sensei, eyes closing as they begin to breathe. Sasuke marshals his focus and remembers obaa-sama’s words from the morning—the more I exercise my tenketsu, the more chakra they produce, and the more durable they become. He inhales, reaches in, and flicks his tenketsu open.

At once, the familiar warmth surges over his skin from within, like a banked fire blazing to life. It is stronger today, stronger everyday, and Sasuke revels in that strength.

“Breathe,” sensei’s voice cuts through the haze, “and allow your chakra to pulse outwards. Can you feel each other?”

Yes, Sasuke thinks: there to his left is the calm ripple of Shikamaru’s smooth chakra, and to his right the miniature whirlwind of Naruto’s restless one.

As they move through the modulation exercises, Sasuke pictures in his mind’s eye the Eight Gates and the coils spiraling out beyond them; he pictures reaching for them with his fingertips and coaxing them open, one by one.

Wake up, he whispers to them, and grow.

If obaa-sama is right, and by Sasuke’s reckoning she has always been right, then this is his chance to make something out of nothing.

And I might only get this one chance, so wake up.




tbc
first draft: 2019.10.09
last edited: 2021.12.16




Chapter Text

014. orochimaru: progression

.

 

They have been looking forward to opening their jutsu scrolls all week, so it stands to reason that Naruto rips the seal when he says the word. Inwardly, Orochimaru sighs, watching as the three of them unfurl his selection with much excitement and a note of apprehension.

Good, he thinks, they should be wary. Complacence means death.

Some jōnin would argue that he is being too harsh on his children; those jōnin are not legends.

“Earth Chains,” Shikamaru reads out. “Huh. What did you get?”

“Lightning Palm,” Sasuke blinks in surprise. “It’ll be the first elemental jutsu I learn that’s not Fire!”

“I got Wind, er, Wind… Blades! I think,” Naruto bounces around his teammates, brandishing the scroll before pausing to squint at the kanji.

“All of them are in our affinities,” Shikamaru notes, looking up at him with a wordless question.

“Indeed they are,” Orochimaru confirms, pleased with Shikamaru’s quick comprehension. “It is meant to ease you into the rhythm of learning jutsu. Although you already know a few, you have not been coached through the process of properly learning one. Yes, there is a method, a way to efficiently concentrate your efforts so as not to waste time.”

“I mean, there has to be,” Sasuke frowns, “otherwise there’s no way we can learn a hundred jutsu in a year.”

“Naruto,” Orochimaru beckons the child closer, “when you use Kage Bunshin, have you noticed that you receive your clones’ memories when you dispel them?”

“Um,” Naruto squints, “yeah, now that you point it out…”

Oh my god,” Shikamaru exclaims, eyes suddenly as wide as saucers. “That is the ultimate cheat!”

Such a perceptive child Shikaku has raised. Orochimaru has to smile. Shikamaru animatedly explains to the other two how Kage Bunshin can act as a shortcut for learning, although of course only Naruto would be able to put it to effective use between the three of them. Perhaps Sasuke might be able to afford splitting his chakra into half, but at this point, it will only serve to dramatically shorten the boy’s stamina. Counterintuitive, and therefore unacceptable.

Naruto swings to face him after Shikamaru’s explanation, eyes shining in perfect reflection a summer sky. “Sensei, can I do that? Will it really work?!”

“It will, Naruto, for you,” Orochimaru nods. “You have the requisite chakra stores to be able to pull out—let’s see, perhaps we shall start with four bunshin—without succumbing to chakra exhaustion at the end of the day. For the other two,” he levels Shikamaru and an envious-looking Sasuke with a stern gaze, “there will be the traditional path.”

“Eeeh,” Sasuke whines.

Orochimaru clicks his tongue. “You could try using a bunshin, Sasuke, but I wager you wouldn’t last an hour.”

“And I’d probably last fifteen minutes,” Shikamaru sighs in dismay.

“Think of it as a handicap,” Orochimaru raises a single finger in the air, “so that you may start on even ground with Naruto for once. He is always behind the two of you because of his, ah… circumstances hindering his learning in the past. This will help you learn together, as a team, instead of attempting to one-up each other all the time. Unless of course you simply want to leave Naruto behind.”

Naruto rubs the back of his neck, but Sasuke flushes in what could be shame as he looks down. Shikamaru blows a raspberry. “Fine, handicap. Alright. So what’s the traditional path?”

Orochimaru takes Sasuke’s scroll, spreading it out with a snap of his wrist. He allows it to flutter open on the ground and kneels next to it. “First, you will learn the hand seals. My aim is to train you well enough that you will eventually have no need of seals for your favored jutsus, but for now, you will learn them and learn them well.”

Sasuke is bent over his scroll, already muttering to himself while switching through the progression of his jutsu’s seals.

“That’s right, Sasuke, memorize them,” Orochimaru nods. “Snake, dragon, ram. Should be quite simple.”

“And fast,” Sasuke murmurs, eyes darting across the scroll. “It’s meant to be fast.”

“Correct. This technique harnesses your element, Lightning, in a very elementary manner. It focuses a charge on your palms, released upon contact with your target. It seems simple, but powered up and used strategically, it can be deadly. Think about landing a hit on your opponent’s left flank—right over where the ribs curve around the heart, a muscle that you can shock into stillness with enough energy.”

Determination sharpens in Sasuke’s eyes. Lightning Palm is indeed a perfect beginner’s introduction for him, given his penchant for close-range combat and taijutsu. Given time and enough practice, Sasuke will be able to channel basic Lightning techniques like these without seals, making him downright lethal in the nanoseconds that decide such rapid-fire battles.

Orochimaru turns to Shikamaru, who is also moving through the seals written out on his scroll. “These three techniques I’ve given you are actually quite alike each other. Can you tell me how, Shikamaru?”

A furrow appears between Shikamaru’s eyebrows as his eyes flick side to side to inspect his teammates’ scrolls. “Huh? But they’re completely different elements… wait.” The boy murmurs to himself for a moment longer, and then looks up in dawning realization. “Shape transformation!”

Orochimaru smiles. “Very good, little one. They are all single-step shape transformation techniques. You need not transform the nature of your chakra because the jutsu is in your affinity; you need only transform the shape of it. Each jutsu teaches you how it feels to shape your element into a weapon: a shock blast, a chain, a blade. From there, it should be simple to wield, just like any physical weapon. Does that make sense?”

“Ooooohhh,” Naruto blinks, wide-eyed in wonder. “Sensei, you’re so smart.”

“Thank you, Naruto. Have you memorized your seals yet?”

“Uhh, bird-snake-dragon! Woops, not that kinda dragon, hehe,” Naruto fumbles with the last seal, stretching his fingers to find the right positioning.

Orochimaru reaches over to correct him, undoing the messy knot the boy has made with his fingers before guiding it into a better form. Naruto follows, clumsily but with great eagerness. “Slowly, little one. There is no need for haste here. You have time.”

What small hands they are, Orochimaru thinks, unbidden, as he presses Naruto’s thumbs together to finish a dragon. What potential they hold. He doesn’t even know. Naruto’s darker skin stands in stark contrast against his own pale fingers, his cold palms which engulf the entirety of Naruto’s little fists. The best weapons are children, he then muses darkly, precisely because they know not the havoc they wreak. In their innocent little hands, there is no hesitation. They do what they are told to do.

A sudden burst of chakra sparkles from his left, followed by a gasp and then a grumble. Orochimaru turns to find that Sasuke has produced the first crackle of lightning in one palm.

“Already?!” Shikamaru grouses, yanking his own scroll closer to his knees. “Slow down, damnit!”

Sasuke grins in triumph and repeats the short crackle of energy for Naruto, who falls over himself cheering. Orochimaru inhales.

How dangerously talented you are, little one. And how blind your clan has become—Sharingan-wielders though they are—to overlook you for your brother.

He watches over them in relative silence and sees results in but half an hour. Although Naruto had to split himself into four bunshin in order to achieve the first burst of sharp-edged wind, their progress is astronomical in speed. Orochimaru fully acknowledges then that he is likely looking upon the legends of Konoha’s next generation—that is, if they survive to live that long.

Ah, but he isn’t one for failure, and he certainly does not abandon his children to their fate like Jiraiya did to those orphans in Amegakure. To leave after giving them that much hope—unconscionable. No—these little ones are part of his clutch now, and he will see them grow strong. He will be there to witness them emerge from the chrysalis. Into them he will pour time and dedication, and they will become, in time, his best weapons.

Shikamaru proudly presents to him an earthen chain sprouting from the ground. “Look, sensei! Well, it’s a little short, but.”

Kindly forgetting to mention that most genin take upwards of a week to learn this technique, Orochimaru smiles. “We all start somewhere, Shikamaru. Carry on.”

I must at least bring you tea in gratitude for these gifts you have given me. You did always like me best, didn’t you, Sarutobi-sensei?




By the end of the fourth day, they are unsteadily making their way across the pond without getting wet. They are becoming comfortable with their weaponry, modulating their chakra with more finesse, and sparring with more economy of movement. Naruto is able to hurl two or three wind blades as far as thirty meters; Shikamaru is commanding supple earthen chains as large as tree trunks. Sasuke has gone beyond them both and mastered his jutsu to the extent of effectively applying it during a spar.

Blocking a milieu of measured jabs and scissor kicks, Orochimaru considers the little Uchiha’s unnatural learning curve. Certainly he and Tsunade learned techniques with the same speed, both of them also born of clans with long histories and heavy legacies. Jiraiya took some time, much like Naruto, but found creative ways to go around about the business of learning. But little Sasuke learns like a sponge, as if all he needs is to see the technique once, and then—

Is this the infamous Sharingan sense?
Orochimaru wonders, fascinated. It is preposterous to assume as most people do that the Uchiha are simply capable of copying any technique because they have seen it. Those who have a deeper understanding of ninjutsu and chakra agree that the Uchiha are born with biological adaptations that allow them to ‘catch up to their eyes,’ so to speak—an instinct some call the Sharingan sense.

Enhanced flexibility, lightning-quick reflexes, adaptable forms and resilient bodies; a natural, effortless feel for chakra that becomes evident even before the Sharingan manifests; a keen memory. All essential building blocks an Uchiha must hone in order to maximize the Sharingan—but not all Uchihas pay attention.

Like most clans, Orochimaru thinks, like my clan, the Uchiha used to be much stronger. Perhaps it is also another one of Tobirama’s ploys, universalizing the mode of education for Konoha’s children. We took away the boon of the old ways, the ways of our ancestors.

Sasuke certainly has all of the above. Perhaps it is indeed that elusive Sharingan sense: the boy is a descendant of Uchiha Madara’s bloodline, after all. Orochimaru throws him bodily across the pond and watches him land on the water without sinking.

“Well done, Sasuke.”

“Huh—oh!” Sasuke exclaims, realizing at once that he has managed to stand on the surface—before he sinks.

“Well,” Orochimaru chuckles, “perhaps that was premature, but nevertheless, well done.”

He allows the children an extra hour to practice their individual techniques that evening before herding them all home. Naruto and Sasuke both put up token complaints, but Shikamaru shuts them up with well-placed (if exhausted) smacks. They separate paths near the market street, Orochimaru watching as the children wave goodbye to each other, before leading Naruto home.

“Man,” Naruto sighs, grin fixed on his face and arms folded behind his head, “Sasuke’s badass. Like, he just gets it, ya kno’? Sensei, d’you think I’ll ever learn as fast as Sasuke?”

“You might,” Orochimaru considers, “if you work hard enough. But it doesn’t matter so much how fast you learn, little one, just as long as you do learn.”

“I’m trying, I promise!” Naruto flails, “I’m doing my bestest!”

Orochimaru puts a hand on his head to calm his energy down a notch. “I know you are. And that is more than good enough.”

The boy settles in step next to him; they walk the rest of the way to the house in silence. In the kitchen, Tenzo is preparing dinner for them, something the young man likes to do for the household whenever he is not on a mission. Orochimaru knows it relaxes Tenzo, the rhythmic, automatic motions of chopping and stirring and washing. Shinobi must find their relief where they can.

“Hiya, Tenzo-nii-san! Can I do anything to help?” Naruto bounces up to the table, peering at the vegetables lined up as if to march.

“How about you leave this to me and enjoy a bath?” Tenzo suggests, because Naruto is filthy from training all day and will track mud around the kitchen if not discouraged.

“Okay, well, if you say so…”

Naruto then proceeds towards the bathrooms, humming the whole way. Orochimaru considers what Tenzo is preparing, remembers Sarutobi-sensei, and decides to spend the evening with his tea leaves. “I shall be in the garden, Tenzo.”

“Yes, otou-sama.”

The jasmine is coming along nicely this season. He kneels to examine the roots of an adjacent tea tree and closes his eyes the savor the petrichor. The leaves will be ready in two, perhaps three weeks. The first flush always carries the most potent mouthfeel, in his experience, and he thinks that Sarutobi-sensei will appreciate its vigor.

He must know that the time is not long. He must know that the pieces on the board are moving. Among the various reasons Sarutobi-sensei gave him the gift of this team, there is one that is most convincing. Soon, tides will turn and war will threaten upon the horizon once again. Sarutobi-sensei fades with each day, growing older and weaker as his body succumbs at last to the wear of decades of life as a shinobi. Namikaze was supposed to have been a beacon, the next generation’s bright hope, but his reign was cut short, and despite his own feelings about the man, Orochimaru acknowledges this as a tragedy. Namikaze was gifted and powerful, a genius in his own way; he would have done Konoha a lot of good.

But he passed on and now the village is left with few options.

Hatake is one, Orochimaru considers, but he is still too young. Too reckless, even by ANBU standards. He needs to be tempered, either by time, or by another’s hand.

Jiraiya and Tsunade are beyond the village, which then leaves Sarutobi-sensei with me, he thinks, and he doesn’t yet know how to feel about that.

Although Orochimaru has done all he can to redeem his reputation in the eyes of Konoha’s Council, they still have their reservations. Part of it, he knows, is because he is too powerful; they are not capable of stopping him, and they know it.

But the other part, well.

The other part is ideological. They are afraid of Orochimaru’s vision. It is a different kind of Konoha he wants to build, a Konoha that is removed from the construct Senju Tobirama saw fit to leave behind. It is a Konoha that does not broadcast itself as the all-powerful moral arbiter of every argument between every country in the Continent. It is a Konoha that does not lord its own achievements and the talents of its own clans over the lesser circumstances of other villages. It is a Konoha that remains powerful even as it hides in the leaves.

Like a coiled snake, poised to strike.

Orochimaru knows his vision is not popular.

“Sensei, whatcha doin’?” Naruto asks, appearing at his elbow from inside the house.

“Visiting with my tea trees,” Orochimaru tells the child. He reaches for the nearest one and strokes a leaf. “They are almost ready for harvest.”

“You really like tea, huh,” Naruto squints, squatting on his haunches with his chin on his knees. “You have, like, a bazillion jars in the cupboard of different tea leaves and stuff.”

“Every blend has its purpose,” Orochimaru smiles, “some purely for aesthetic while others are medicinal. I should have you drink a cup of the mushroom and goji blend, in fact; it’ll help with the soreness you feel after a day’s work.”

“Kay,” the child acquiesces easily, rocking back and forth. In the half-dark, it takes him a moment to notice the snake sidling up to Orochimaru’s arm. Naruto gasps. “Sensei!”

Orochimaru slants a smile down to where his fingers are curled into the soft soil. “Hush, little one. This is Sayuri, one of my summons.” He allows her to wind up his arm until enough of her body is off the ground. Then he lifts her to show Naruto how her underbelly shimmers red like banked coal embers against her pitch-black body. “She is a red-bellied black viper. Quite venomous, although she is shy. She can fell a horse in under ten seconds.”

“U-Um,” Naruto stutters, “o-okay.”

“Are you afraid of her?”

“Uhhh, a little? Should I not be?”

“No, you are right to be afraid,” Orochimaru smiles, lowering Sayuri back down to the earth and allowing her to slink away. “Be mindful when you walk in these gardens. Plenty of my snakes live and sleep here.”

“Oh, er, um,” Naruto scratches the back of his neck, “I didn’t know I was allowed into the gardens by myself, ahehehe.”

“So long as you don’t trample over the plants.”

Naruto nods then and squirms, obviously itching to say something but struggling to find the words. But Orochimaru is patient; he can wait. He settles on the warm earth and observes the boy, with his wide blue eyes and damp blond hair. Certainly he is Namikaze’s son: the likeness is difficult to deny. Orochimaru sees Uzumaki Kushina there too, in the height of Naruto’s cheekbones and the angle of his eyes.

Didn’t Namikaze apologize to him all those years ago? It was after the inauguration ceremony and before Orochimaru left for a long mission. He was trying to distance himself from Sarutobi-sensei’s decision; that a child was deemed worthier of the title Hokage was an insult he took deeply and with much bitterness. But Namikaze himself had found him before he left the village. Namikaze had apologized.

“It should have been you, Orochimaru-sama,” the man had said, “I know that much. It’s just politics.”

I am aware, he had responded.

“I hope and pray for your safe return,” the man had said, “We need you here, Orochimaru-sama. You are among the best of us.”

I am aware, he had responded again. And then, for reasons unknown, he had added, Congratulations are in order, I suppose. Your wife is expecting.

“Ah, yes,” Namikaze had flushed and rubbed the back of his neck much the same way Naruto does today, “although it’s still too early to announce it.”

She is strong. The child will survive. The question is, Orochimaru had asked, are you prepared, Namikaze?

Namikaze had smiled then, chasing shadows away with the bright magnitude of his assurance. “I’ll try my best to be, Orochimaru-sama, but I know that if my hands are not enough, you’ll be around to mitigate the situation.”

Orochimaru wonders if clairvoyance was also among Namikaze’s talents too.

Light floods across the garden in the shape of a long square, Tenzo silhouetted against the doorway. “Otou-sama, Naruto-kun, dinner is ready.”

Startled from his reverie, Naruto shoots to his feet, question for his sensei forgotten. Whatever it was, Orochimaru has no doubt it will come up again. He stands too, dusting the earth from his hands and clothes.

Back then, Namikaze was attempting to ensure his continued loyalty to Konoha, because Konoha could not afford him as an enemy, not so soon after the end of the Third War. Today, Sarutobi-sensei is attempting to the same, tying him down with duties and obligations such that his loyalty will be secure, because Konoha still cannot afford him as an enemy, even after years of relative peace and recovery.

This team is a test—the very best kind of test—given that they know how difficult of a position they have placed him in, responsible as he is for Shikaku’s son and Fugaku’s son and Minato’s son. This is a test to see if he can handle the scrutiny, if he can weather the pressure, if he can fight his own temptations and remain loyal to Konoha’s ideal.

And they are testing him because soon they will need him to be in the position they denied him all those years ago, the position that should have been his in the first place.

A new age soon dawns… and it demands a new leader.




The boy approaches him cautiously on Friday morning. Orochimaru had of course noticed him working up the courage to ask, but had done nothing to encourage it except wait. Initiative is best taught through experience, after all.

“Sensei, can I, um,” the boy fidgets, sidling up to Orochimaru before they leave the house.

“Use your words, Naruto.”

“Right, um. C-Can I have dinner with Iruka-sensei tonight, please?” Naruto looks up at him and is already expecting to be denied. Nevertheless, the boy continues, “I-It’s just, I haven’t seen him since-since—well, since graduating, a-and he might be worried, so, I just, I didn’t wanna be rude and not show up to dinner without a-asking, ya kno’…”

“How considerate of you. Of course you may have dinner with your teacher. Is he usually available on Friday evenings?”

“Um, after classes let out at the Academy. Can I really go?”

“I don’t see why not,” Orochimaru tells him. “You are not a prisoner in this house. You may come and go as you please. This is your home now.”

Naruto freezes at an inhale and blinks rapidly up at him. “O-Okay.”

Orochimaru resumes down the hallway and pauses to strap his sandals at the genkan. “If her mission has gone according to plan, Anko will return home tonight. It might be best that you don’t meet her before she has had dinner. She can be an acquired taste and never makes a fair first impression on an empty stomach. But once she has had something to eat, she can be kind enough to pass for a sister if she likes you.”

“O-Okay,” Naruto stutters behind him again.

Orochimaru waits for the child to strap his sandals on, standing just beyond the doorway where the sun spills in warm pools of light through the trees shading his yard. It catches him by surprise, the sensation of strong but little arms wrapping around his waist.

“Arigato, sensei,” Naruto says, words muffled through the layers of his kimono. “I promise one day I’ll pay you back.”

I know what you’re doing, Sarutobi-sensei, and yet as he thinks this, Orochimaru cannot help but stroke a gentle hand through the soft tufts of Naruto’s golden hair.

“I do not require payment, little one.”

Naruto rears back, hands still fisted tight in the silk of Orochimaru’s kimono. “But I gotta give something back! I can’t keep taking and taking, it’s not right!”

It is then that he graces the boy with a small, secret smile. “Is that so? Very well, then. I will ask of you one thing, and one thing only.”

“Anything!” Naruto avows.

“All I want from you, little one, is your loyalty.”

Naruto blinks, and then nods, and then smiles. “Of course, sensei. I’ll follow you wherever you go.”

Orochimaru smoothes a hand across Naruto’s brow like a benediction and thinks triumphantly, Checkmate, Sarutobi-sensei.




tbc
first draft: 2019.10.09
last edited: 2021.12.16




Chapter Text

015. naruto: encounters

.

On Friday, Naruto successfully hurls two large wind blades at sensei during their spar. He crows in success even as he flips over in midair, killing his own momentum and landing spider-like against a tree. At some distance away, he hears Sasuke’s surprise.

“You did it!” Sasuke yells, erupting from his seat on a boulder at the edge of the clearing. “I knew you could do it!”

Of course sensei dodges both blades, which is fine, because sensei is hella strong like that. But! He just pulled off his first elemental technique in a spar!

“Well done, little one,” sensei praises, a smile lifting the edges of his golden eyes. The recognition is like a bolt of pure light fed straight into Naruto’s starved little heart. “Not so hard when you’re in the heat of battle, is it? Almost as if it’s second nature. Thoughtless, instinctive, like using a limb.”

Naruto nods, hopping forward to stand in front of sensei again.

“Remember that feeling,” sensei lays a hand palm up between them, summoning a rippling ball of water to float above it. “Using your own element should be effortless. You shouldn’t have to try.”

From their perch on the boulder, Sasuke cups his palms together and summons bright sparks of lightning to his fingertips. Shikamaru grumbles. “Show off.”

“Why are you jealous?” Sasuke nudges him with an elbow, “You managed to surprise sensei with your chains! I can’t even touch him.”

Naruto snickers. Of course Sasuke can’t surprise sensei; Sasuke comes at sensei from the front! Shikamaru was very sneaky with his chains. Naruto was so proud.

He’d have been awesome help with the pranks, Naruto wistfully sighs, but now I can’t prank no more. I live with sensei so they’d think sensei isn’t keeping me in line. I can't make trouble for him!

He's a little sad about that, he has to admit. He had liked pranking. He was good at it. But now he has jutsu scrolls to study, and kanji to learn, and exercises to keep up with—he has no time. Just like Iruka-sensei used to say, being a full-time shinobi is a busy hustle. He has just enough time to sleep!

Thinking of Iruka-sensei reminds him that he has dinner to look forward to tonight. Maybe Iruka-sensei will want ramen and they can go to Ichiraku!

He’s so excited thinking about tonight’s dinner that he’s the last to notice when sensei takes them to a different training area instead of Ground Four.

“But that’s the river!” Naruto gapes.

“Indeed, Naruto, it’s the river,” Orochimaru confirms, leading them to a large tree that leans over the river so much Naruto’s surprised it hasn’t toppled into the water. “We will have lunch here and then resume training.”

“Masaka,” Shikamaru slowly says, “we’re not walking on the river, are we?” (1)

“By the end of next week, you will be,” sensei smiles again. Naruto is learning to differentiate between sensei’s smiles, and this one’s not the nice one.

Shikamaru sits down with a momentous, theatrical sigh. “If I drown, one of you fetch my body and deliver it to my clan, yeah?”

“Can’t you swim?” Sasuke frowns.

“Won’t they mind if I deliver you?” Naruto frowns likewise.

“Anyway, you won’t drown,” Sasuke smartly points out as they unwrap their bento. “The river here is shallow. Hora, you can see the stones in the riverbed.” (2)

To which Shikamaru flatly responds, “It takes less than a glass of water to drown, you know.”

Naruto didn’t know that.

Contrary to his usual fare of rice and meat or vegetables, Sasuke has a large bowl of soup today. Naruto looks over it and inhales the warm aroma. The insulated canteen has kept the soup nice and hot. “Didja make it, Sasuke? What’s in it?”

“Oh, no,” Sasuke smiles, “okaa-sama is home right now so she’s been cooking stuff.”

Shikamaru swallows his kushiyaki and says, “Your mom does missions on the field, right?” (3)

“Yeah--well, at least I think so,” Sasuke stirs the soup and pulls a few chunks of vegetable to the top. “She’s a tokujo so she does all sorts of things. But this time she came home with an injury,” Sasuke mimes a cast or bandage covering his left arm, “so yeah, I think she actually left the village.”

“My mom’s been talking about going back to active duty,” Shikamaru sighs. “Don’t know how I feel about that. Oyaji and I will probably starve without her.”

“While I am sure Shikaku can manage,” Orochimaru chuckles, “your mother needn’t leave the village to be on active duty. Mission Control can always use the help. Yoshino would be an invaluable asset there.”

“Maybe you’ll learn how to cook, Shika,” Naruto grins. “That way it won’t just be me an’ Sasuke on cooking duty when we’re on the field!”

“I’ll poison you both.”

“Hey!” “Rude!”

A brief tussle ensues as Sasuke swipes at Shikamaru and Naruto attempts to steal a piece of kushiyaki.

“Speaking of poisons,” Naruto gasps, “guys, last night sensei showed me one of his summons! It was a snake and I was scared for a bit except sensei said she was his summon and she was just shy!”

Shikamaru glowers down at Naruto. “You got to see sensei’s summon?”

“Aaah,” Sasuke groans, “I want a summon!”

“Sensei, sensei, she’s not the only one, right? How many d’you have?” Naruto asks, swinging around to find that sensei is already finished with lunch.

“I have a primary contract with one, but through him, I command an entire clutch of snakes,” Orochimaru tells them. “No two are the same; each one has a unique ability I am able to borrow.” A twist of his wrist reveals a small snake coiled around the length of his forearm, thin and cordlike, with scales as white as milk. Its eyes were blood red in stark contrast. “This is Tsubone. She is quite small, as you can see, and unlike Sayuri, she is not lethally venomous to humans. She is, however, incredibly good at hiding.” With a soft hiss, the white snake turns invisible.

The three of them gasp. Shikamaru says, “She can infiltrate anywhere!”

“Precisely. Tsubone is a smart one too; she knows what to listen for. Don’t you, my sweet?” The now-invisible snake hisses again in response.

“Will we learn summoning too, sensei?” Sasuke asks.

Please please let’s learn summoning!” Naruto follows. “I wanna have a summon, that’d be so cool!”

“Not quite yet, little ones,” Orochimaru chuckles. “It won’t do to be hasty. If you want a powerful summon--a useful bond--then you must first become strong enough to impress the summon you want.”

“Impress the summon...?” Sasuke echoes.

“So how does it actually work?” Shikamaru frowns. “I know you have to sign a blood contract.”

“Correct. You will first learn Kuchiyose no Jutsu, the summoning technique. The first time you perform the technique, you will not have signed a contract with any species yet, so the technique will take you to the dimensional home of the species you have a natural affinity with,” sensei tells them. “Snakes are my natural affinity; my clansmen were all snake summoners. I inherited a majority of my summons from my mother.”

“So for the Inuzuka clan, their affinity would be dogs,” Shikamaru says.

“Yes, although the Inuzuka do not habitually sign a summoning contract, given they have bred their own dogs for battle and in fact have a biological, symbiotic bond with their familiars.”

“Huh. Kiba did say he was given Akamaru at birth.”

“But then after the jutsu takes us to the summon’s home, what happens?” asks Naruto.

“You will have to ask for a contract and impress them,” Orochimaru smiles. “They will have to like you first. Sometimes they won’t; in such cases, you will have to either try again later or try another species.”

Shikamaru frowns at this. “But what do we have to do to impress them?”

“It’s not a question of what you must do, little one. It’s a question of what you must be. Summons are not like ordinary animals; they are gifted with consciousness and knowledge far older than anything we have in this realm. They are able to see you: the suppleness of your chakra coils, the strength of your body, the integrity of your soul. If they find you wanting, they will let you know. But if they deem you worthy, you will sign their contract with your blood.”

Sensei lifts his arm then to allow a larger, more menacing snake to coil around his waist. This one is olive in color, with dark brown diamond-shaped flecks distributed in a rippling pattern down its body. It raises its small head to look upon them and flicks a tongue out in greeting.

“Hisaki says hello.” While sensei strokes a single gentle finger down the snake’s spine, they recoil in instinct. He continues, “After you sign the contract, you will use the jutsu with your blood and using the same hand you used to sign the first time. What you summon depends on how much chakra you feed the jutsu: a small amount will summon a small animal, often a pup or a cub; a large amount will summon an adult. If you are strong enough, you might summon a sage animal, gigantic in size and dead useful in large-scale battles. Or, if you wish, you can feed the jutsu-shiki small parcels of chakra to call multiple smaller summons should you need more than one.” (4)

“Can you have more than one type of summon at a time, sensei?” Sasuke asks. Meanwhile, Naruto cautiously offers his hand to Hisaki the olive-colored snake.

“I don’t see why not, although it is uncommon,” Orochimaru shrugs.

“I wonder what type of summon I’ll get,” Shikamaru sighs. “Oyaji doesn’t have one. He says he has no use for it. I think he’s just being lazy.”

Holding half a snake in his hands, Naruto snorts. “You have no business calling anyone else lazy, Shika.”

“I do if it’s my own dad!”

“Now, children,” sensei claps, calling their attention and an end to the lunchtime discussion. “Summoning aside, are we prepared to resume? We have plenty to do this afternoon.”




They spend an hour practicing chakra modulation again; it’s almost easier, Naruto dares to say, after the vertical walking. After chakra modulation, they go to the river, where sensei proceeds to casually walk over the coursing water. Shikamaru and Naruto both sink within the first three steps. Sasuke, however, manages to stay on top of the water.

“How!” Shikamaru yells, bobbing up and down near where he sank.

Sasuke bites his lip and takes another cautious step. Naruto notes that his feet are still halfway sinking, although he is able to support the majority of his body weight. “The river runs around our compound, you know,” he points out. “I’ve been practicing.”

It takes the entirety of their afternoon before Shikamaru and Naruto are even steady enough to stand on the river. Sensei seems unsurprised that only Sasuke has remained dry.

“No fair,” Naruto squints, “if Sasuke’s allowed to practice after hours, then I wanna practice too!”

“Why were you practicing after hours?” Shikamaru grumbles, stripping his shirt off to wring it dry.

Sasuke shrugs. “My parents were home and they were fighting. I didn’t wanna be in the house. So I went to the riverside. I was bored and couldn’t fall asleep.”

“I will forgive it this instance,” sensei warns Sasuke, “but I am serious when I say I want you to rest, Sasuke. Exhausting yourself, despite how much you want to practice, is not the way to success. If anything, it’s just a shortcut to chakra exhaustion and a stay at the hospital. You wouldn’t want that, now, would you?”

Chastised, Sasuke nods. “Yes, sensei. Sorry, sensei.”

“No, Naruto, you may not practice after hours,” sensei cuts Naruto even when he has only opened his mouth. “You may, however, utilize your kage bunshin during training whenever you wish.”

“Oh yeah!”

Shikamaru snorts. “Only you would forget the cheat technique you’ve been using all week.”

“Maa,” sensei inhales, tucking his hands into the folds of his kimono, “if all of you are spry and cheerful enough to try to practice even after hours, I must not be exhausting you. Very well. I shall amend next week’s regimen accordingly.”

Shikamaru gasps in dismay. “What! No!” He smacks Sasuke on the arm. “Look what you did!”

Naruto laughs as he wrings out his wet clothes and changes into dry ones. “You’re always so afraid of hard work, Shika, but like, you work harder than either of us.”

“Because you’re both monsters, that’s why!” Shikamaru exclaims. “Sage knows I’m the only normal one around here...”

Sasuke gives him an odd look. “You’re not normal. Who gave you that idea?”

The three of them bicker as they pack up and walk back towards the village, Sasuke shoving Shikamaru’s shoulder after Shikamaru got his leg with a playful kick. Soon enough, Sasuke peels away from the group to turn a corner and head towards the Uchiha compound; Shikamaru walks with them until the market street and then turns to leave.

“Bring your notebook tomorrow, Shikamaru,” sensei bids. “I want to see the work you’ve done so far.”

“Usu,” Shikamaru salutes, sauntering off with a lazy wave. He looks ridiculous with his wet hair and clingy wet pants. Naruto snickers.

“Come,” sensei then ushers Naruto, hand on his shoulder. “I shall walk you the rest of the way to the Academy.”

Naruto shakes his head vigorously. “You don’t have to, sensei!”

“I am going to the Tower to file some paperwork,” sensei assures him, “so the Academy will be on the way.”

“If you say so...” Naruto says, wondering what sort of paperwork sensei has to do. And then it occurs to him that he can just ask. “What sorta paperwork d’you gotta do?”

“Reservations for grounds Six and Eight for next week, amongst other things. You will need wide open arenas for next week’s tasks.”

Naruto grins. “For what?”

“You’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you?” sensei indulgently ruffles his hair. “Telling you now will only get you far too excited. I need you to focus on what you are doing tomorrow instead of thinking about next week.”

“Aww,” Naruto whines playfully. He doesn’t push further, though. He trusts that sensei knows best.

It occurs to him, when they get to the Academy gates, that this is the first time he has ever walked up to school with an adult guardian. Unbidden, his chest swells to almost bursting with warmth and gratitude. I’ve always wondered what it felt like, being taken to and then picked up from school by a mom or dad.

“Oh, there he is!” Naruto jumps up and waves, grinning from ear to ear. “Iruka-sensei! Iruka-sensei!”

Iruka-sensei looks up in surprise, smiling to see Naruto, and then looking alarmed when he notices Orochimaru-sensei. Naruto waits for him to come closer instead of yelling like he normally would. Orochimaru-sensei doesn’t appreciate loud noises or people being rude.

“Naruto!” Iruka-sensei exclaims, taking him by the shoulders in relief. “I overheard about what happened. Are you alright?” And then, without waiting for Naruto’s response, he continues, “Orochimaru-sama, good evening. Thank you so much for looking after this one.”

“It is no trouble,” Orochimaru-sensei smoothly responds. “He would like to have dinner with you if you are available.”

“O-Of course! I just finished with classes, and uh.”

“I shall be at the Tower for some paperwork,” Orochimaru-sensei says, “but I expect you home before ten, Naruto.”

Naruto frowns and opens his mouth.

“We shouldn’t take that long, Orochimaru-sama, I shall make sure he goes home early.”

“I’ve been out later than that,” Naruto interjects with an upturned scowl.

“Indeed you have,” Orochimaru-sensei nods, “but tonight you won’t. You have training tomorrow, don’t forget.”

Naruto wants to grouse, but he catches a look from Iruka-sensei and doesn’t argue any further. Naruto knows that look. That’s a warning look. So he just nods along to satisfy both of the adults.

In short order, Orochimaru-sensei leaves them for the Tower, stepping back and disappearing in a quiet whirl of leaves. Naruto blinks at the spot where he was just standing before throwing himself at Iruka-sensei in a massive bear-hug.

“You won’t believe all that happened I have so much to tell you my team is so awesome they’re the bestest Orochimaru-sensei is so cool!!”

“Okay, alright, breathe,” Iruka-sensei laughs, rubbing the back of his head like one would an overenthusiastic puppy. “Come on, you can tell me all about it over ramen. How’s chashu miso sound?” (5)

Naruto pumps his fist. “I want extra chashu!”




In exchange, Iruka-sensei wants to hear about everything that’s happened since graduation. Naruto tells him about how awesome sensei is; about Sasuke’s cooking; about all the cool stuff they’re learning about tenketsu; about sparring and jutsu scrolls and chakra; about Shikamaru, and walking up the village walls, and learning about their affinities.

“...and then we were doing water-walking on the river today and Shikamaru and I almost drowned but Sasuke was walking on water, Iruka-sensei, Sasuke’s so cool,” Naruto gushes, gesticulating wildly. It’s a busy hour at Ichiraku, but even Teuchi-oji is listening in on his story, and that’s because his story is the coolest story being told right now, isn’t it?

Iruka-sensei chuckles, “Well, he certainly sounds like he’s loosened up since the Academy. He was always such a shy boy. I knew there had to be fire in there somewhere.”

“An Uchiha’s an Uchiha no matter how they come, isn’t that how it goes, eh, sensei?” old man Teuchi grins.

“That is,” Iruka-sensei agrees. “Well, I’m glad it all worked out. I was worried when I came to check up on you at the apartment and didn’t find you there.”

Naruto slurps his noodles up—it's bad manners to cut them up after all—and then says, “Sasuke’s the best! He was the one who—who took me to sensei’s house an’ all. I wouldn’a known what to do, ya know?”

“You can always come to me, Naruto. You know that.”

“I know, but you’ve already done so much for me,” Naruto fidgets, “an’ besides, how are you gonna find a boyfriend if I crash at your place aaall the time, Iruka-sensei?” to which Teuchi-oji responds with loud laughter. Iruka-sensei can only splutter.

As Teuchi-oji continues to laugh at Iruka-sensei's expense, Naruto finishes his bowl of miso. He had saved the last bit of chashu (because it’s the best part), but looking at it all of a sudden makes Naruto want to cry. Wasn’t it just last week when he hadn’t known when he would next have enough money to eat meat? Now he doesn’t have to worry about that anymore. Sensei was talking with Tenzo-nii about making nabe for the weekend since his other two children were going to be home. If it happens, it’s gonna be Naruto’s first family dinner. What will that be like?

I can’t wait to find out!

“Your teammates are treating you well, then. That’s a relief,” Iruka-sensei sighs. “Not that you can’t stand up for yourself, but I was a bit worried. For nothing, it seems. Shikamaru and Sasuke are good kids.”

“The best!” Naruto crows. “Didja know Shikamaru even had us over at his house for dinner once?” Although that was a very awkward dinner...

“Did he really?” Iruka-sensei sounds surprised indeed. “Well, I’ll be. That kid seemed so antisocial.”

Naruto tilts his head. “Well, Shika’s really smart, ya know? Like, really really smart. I think he has no choice but to be friends with us now and he knows it. There’s no way we’ll survive whatever sensei throws at us if we don’t work together. He wants to get stronger too an’ he’s a... a whatchamacallit. Someone who likes eeeverything to be perfect.”

“A perfectionist,” Iruka-sensei laughs. “Is that so.”

“Yup! Totally,” Naruto nods, handing his empty bowl back to Teuchi-oji.

Iruka-sensei suddenly ruffles his hair and says, “You’re more perceptive than you look, kiddo.”

Which is funny, because, hah, Naruto wouldn’t have survived this long by himself if he wasn’t! He doesn’t say that, though. He just grins, crossing his arms behind his back and chirping, “Thank you for the food, oji-san, Iruka-sensei! Your ramen’s still the best ramen ever!”

“That’s right, and you better remember it!” Teuchi-oji crows. “Come over for dinner with your team sometime, eh? Maybe after your first mission! Introduce your friends to the best ramen in town!”

“Yeah!” Naruto cheers, and it’ll be my treat, in return for everything they’ve done for me!

To cap off a great dinner, Iruka-sensei takes him by the ice cream shop for dessert. They say goodbye to Teuchi-oji and head out, walking a short distance to the mouth of the market where the best ice cream store sits. He doesn’t even care that he has to wait outside while Iruka-sensei buys the ice cream—because ice cream! When’s the last time he had one!

He’s bouncing in wait outside and not really paying much attention to his surroundings when someone suddenly bumps into his shoulder and then shoves him away. “Get lost, brat!”

Naruto loses his balance and crashes into another person, who catches him bodily and sets him back upright.

“I’d suggest you get lost before my patience does,” says the person who caught Naruto. The words are cold, clipped, and delivered with enough venom that it makes Naruto want to crawl under a rock and hide.

It works, though. The civilian—and it’s another civilian—scuttles away in fear, looking like they’re regretting their entire life. It then leaves Naruto alone with the person he crashed into—Naruto gulps, gathers his courage, and looks up.

“U-Um, thanks, I think?” he says, noting that the person is definitely a shinobi. All-black outfit, a jōnin vest, snow white hair, and a black mask covering his entire face. The one visible eye looks down at him with a cold, pressurized rage that chills Naruto to his very core. Not just any shinobi, it seems; Naruto doesn’t need experience to know that this is a very strong one.

“Ah, Naruto-kun,” a familiar voice says from nearby, “what are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at dinner now?”

Naruto spins to find—“Tenzo-nii-san! Ahehehe, I was having dinner with Iruka-sensei! In a little bit I’ll be heading home.” His familiar presence eases the tension a bit so that Naruto can breathe.

“I see,” Tenzo-nii says, coming up to them with measured steps. Tenzo-nii looks to the man standing behind Naruto and adds, “Naruto, you’ve not met my captain yet. Taichou, this is Naruto, as you know.”

Oh shit, scary dude is Tenzo-nii's captain?! Naruto spins around again straight into a bow. “N-Nice to meet you, T-Taichou-san-s-sama!” (7)

“Pff,” another voice from behind him. Three more men are now standing with Tenzo to observe the goings on. All of them, like Tenzo-nii and Scary Taichou, are wearing jōnin vests and black outfits. The one with short hair and painful-looking scars on his face says, “Kid called you Taichou-san-sama. Tells you how badly you need to work on your personality, taichou.”

“He needs to work on more than just that,” says the other one with a blue bandana wrapped around his head, “but it would be a good start, wouldn’t it?”

“I thought we agreed not to badmouth the captain while he’s injured?” Tenzo-nii mildly remarks, prompting Naruto to glance back up at Scary Taichou. Dude doesn’t look injured; dude looks like he’ll injure them.

“You proposed it, I didn’t agree to anything,” Scarface shrugs.

“You assholes are scaring the kid,” Bandana frowns.

“I’m not scared!” Naruto hotly retorts, although he’s uncomfortable, just a little bit, because right now he’s surrounded with five strong-looking shinobi he doesn’t know. Except for Tenzo-nii, who he kinda sorta knows. But he’s not scared. After all, Tenzo-nii will make sure they don’t hurt him, if only because of Orochimaru-sensei.

“Intimidated,” Bandana amends.

“Uncomfortable?” Scarface suggests.

“Confused,” the third man clarifies, “because he doesn’t know any of you but you’re all standing around him like a circle of sleazy child molesters.”

“What!” “Take that back!” “I’m not a child molester...”

The third man, who up until now had not spoken, is now standing next to Scary Taichou. He has deep dark eyes, long black hair, and an oblique smile. Naruto thinks that if he had boobs, he can pass for a girl; he’s just that pretty. He also looks somehow familiar.

“Isn’t it time for you to be heading back?” Scary Taichou quietly says; it takes a moment for Naruto to realize that Scary Taichou is talking to him. “We’ll take you home.”

“U-Um, I-Iruka-sensei is getting me ice cream...”

“Naruto! What in the world...?” Iruka-sensei comes out of the store, perfect timing. He has an ice cream cone in each hand, green tea for himself and chocolate for Naruto. But instead of going to him, Iruka-sensei stops in front of the group. “Hatake-san, good evening.”

Scary Taichou blinks his one eye.

Naruto goes to Iruka-sensei then, reaching for his cone. “I was waiting an’ there was a guy who bumped into me an’ they were rude but Taichou-san-sama sent them away an’ then Tenzo-nii was here an’ Taichou-san-sama is his captain an’ I think these guys are his teammates? Oooh, it has nuts in it!” Naruto crows, taking the first lick. “Thank you, Iruka-sensei, you’re the best!”

“Does he really need more sugar?” Scarface dubiously asks, while Bandana sighs and says, “A whole two scoops, I don’t know that that’s wise.”

“Well, Naruto recently got kicked out of his apartment and deserves a treat to make up for what’s been a very difficult week,” Iruka-sensei pointedly responds. Who he’s being pointed to, though, Naruto doesn’t get. He’s too distracted by the ice cream to really pay attention. “That being said, it’s getting late and he needs to get home, don’t you, Naruto?”

“I’ll finish this first!”

“You can finish it on the way,” Iruka-sensei says, “and we can catch up again next weekend. Obviously it’s not safe for you to be staying out late at night anymore.”

“Your teacher is right,” Scary Taichou suddenly cuts in. “If you’re done, chuunin-san, we’re taking him home.”

“Chuunin-sa—... you don’t even remember my name, do you?” Iruka-sensei sighs at Scary Taichou, which in Naruto’s book is badass, because Scary Taichou is scary.

“Excuse him, Umino-san,” Tenzo-nii apologizes for the captain, “he did endure a mild concussion recently.”

“From the Hokage smacking him upside the head,” Bandana coughs, which earns a flick of an eye from Scary Taichou.

“Jiji smacked you upside the head?” Naruto snickers. “Laaame.

“Laaame,” Scarface echoes.

“We’re going now,” Scary Taichou declares, hand suddenly landing on top of Naruto’s head. Naruto momentarily freezes, looking at Iruka-sensei in askance.

“Go ahead, Naruto, let them take you home,” Iruka-sensei smiles reassuringly. “It’s alright. You’ll be perfectly safe. They’re far stronger than me, that’s for sure; they can protect you.”

Naruto dubiously looks up at Scary Taichou, but nods at Iruka-sensei anyway. “I can go home by myself, but okay, I guess. Thanks for the ramen and the ice cream, Iruka-sensei!”

Iruka-sensei chuckles. “You’re welcome, kid. Be good and work hard. And remember, you can do anything you set your mind to, alright?”

What else can Naruto respond with but a grin? “You betcha! See you next time!”

With that, they’re off, Tenzo-nii briefly bowing to Iruka-sensei in gratitude. Naruto thinks, how lucky am I to have Iruka-sensei around? I gotta remember that not everyone in the village is awful. There are good people around who are worth protecting, and Iruka-sensei is one of them.

Naruto resolves to do his best as a shinobi to protect the village, so that Iruka-sensei can be safe and continue to be around for little kids who need help and someone to care, just like he did all those years ago.




That aside, Tenzo-nii's teammates are weird.

“I can’t believe you accused me of being a child molester,” Bandana complains to the Pretty One. “If anyone’s a child molester here, it’s the taichou!”

Naruto frowns and inches away from Scary Taichou.

“Oh, yeah, keep talking, let’s see how horrible he can make our lives this time,” Scarface shoots back.

“I’m not wrong,” Bandana insists, to which Tenzo-nii responds, “But you’re gonna regret being right.”

“Watch him sign us up for a double S-class,” Scarface tacks on, “right off of recovery, and it’ll be in Ame because you ran your mouth.”

Bandana ignores them and asks the Pretty One, “How old were you when you moved in with him? Because I’m not wrong.”

“Technically he was also a minor,” the Pretty One points out, oblique smile unflinching, “but as we know, shinobi are considered adults after graduating from the Academy.”

“Yeaaah,” Naruto loudly cuts in, “but here I am, being babysitted by four jōnin... why can’t I walk home by myself?”

“Because you’re special,” Scary Taichou says.

Naruto snorts, swallowing the last of his cone and wiping his hands clean with the tissue paper Iruka-sensei gave him. “I dunno, Taichou-san-sama, don’chu got better things to do than babysit a genin?”

“No,” Scary Taichou quietly responds, “not right now.”

Like a dam released, Naruto’s curiosity comes flooding out. Despite his better judgment, he asks, “Whaddyou do anyway? Like as a jōnin? Tenzo-nii said you were injured. Did you get hit by a strong enemy nin? Did you get ‘em back?”

“We run hard missions. I did. I killed them.”

“Oh,” Naruto blinks. For an adult, Scary Taichou is unexpectedly honest. “Good job, I guess? I mean, if they were tryna kill you...”

“They were trying to kill my squad,” Scary Taichou clarifies, words edged with steel this time. “There’s only one response you can give to that.”

“Oh, well, then, in that case, you can’t back down,” Naruto agrees with a nod. “Shinobi who leave their teammates behind are trash—no, they’re worse than trash. You don’t betray your friends like that. Sensei says so too.”

“Do you like your sensei?” Scary Taichou suddenly asks, tone still low and loaded with some deep emotion Naruto can’t even begin to unpack.

“Of course! Sensei is the BEST sensei ever!” Naruto declares, yelling it out for the whole world to hear. A dog barks from some distance away, a puppy from the sounds of it, in response to his excitement. “He teaches us all the best things and we’re learning cool techniques and he’s like the strongest in the village next to the Hokage, how cool is that!”

“Good,” Scary Taichou nods. Then, in a quieter voice, he murmurs, “that’s good.”

“Just watch,” Naruto spins around, punching a fist at Scary Taichou and grinning, “one day, I’ll be as strong as you an’ as strong as sensei, an’ I’ll become Hokage an’ protect the whole village too!”

For some reason, they all stop to look at him, unfathomable expressions frozen on their faces. Maybe they don’t believe him because his dream is too big. But that hasn’t bothered him before and it doesn’t bother him now, because he’ll show them in time, and they’ll all see. Naruto doesn’t need them to believe him in order to believe in himself.

And then Scary Taichou’s only eye creases in what might be a smile. He says, “I know you will. You already do.”

Naruto blinks, lowering his fist. People usually have a different reaction than that.

“Naruto,” sensei calls from behind him, making Naruto spin in surprise. “Almost late but not quite. You’ve had a long day. Why don’t you come inside and get ready for bed?”

Naruto didn’t even notice that they’re just a few steps shy of sensei’s house. Sensei weaves between the flowering plants in the front garden and steps beyond the gate into the spill of the streetlight.

“Hi, sensei!” Naruto grins. “We ran into Tenzo-nii's team at the market and then they walked me home after ice cream.”

Orochimaru-sensei clicks his tongue. “Sugar at such a late hour... your teacher spoils you.” But instead of waiting for Naruto’s response, sensei looks up over his head and says, “Hatake. Welcome back and well done. My thanks for safeguarding Tenzo’s life.”

“I protect my pack,” Scary Taichou intones, and although he hasn’t moved a single muscle, Naruto can tell that he slouches—just a teeny tiny bit—in the face of sensei’s authority.

“I hear you sustained injuries,” sensei continues, “shattered ribs and coil attrition in your arm?”

“I’m on the mend,” Scary Taichou defends.

“But you could mend faster.” Sensei pulls out a small drawstring pouch from his kimono sleeve, holding it out for Scary Taichou to take. “Once a day with a meal, preferably high protein. Hydrate adequately. Expect pain; hastening bone regeneration will hurt no matter what you do. You should be right as rain in three days.”

Scary Taichou, or the man named Hatake, takes the pouch from sensei with care. “…thanks.”

Sensei nods, placing a hand on Naruto’s head the same way Scary Taichou had done earlier. “Are we ready to turn in for the night, little one?”

Naruto smiles. “Yes, sensei.”

“Come along then,” sensei ushers him towards the gate, although sensei does look back once to the team of jōnin gathered right outside. “You might visit with your brother once in a while, Uchiha. He misses you desperately and could use some guidance. I believe your clan is starting to put on the pressure, and there is plenty Sasuke does not yet understand.”

Naruto gasps, twisting his neck around to get another look at the Pretty One. That’s Sasuke’s older brother?! But sensei’s grip on his shoulder is strong and the hand is driving him back towards the house. Clearly sensei does not want to let him linger.

The last Naruto sees of them is the smile falling off Sasuke’s brother’s beautiful face. Instead it’s replaced by a look of sorrowful regret so anguished it makes Naruto’s chest go tight.

“Thank you for looking after them, Orochimaru-sama,” Sasuke’s brother quietly says into the night. “Katajikenai.” (8)

 

Not the least because of the ice cream, Naruto finds it very difficult to sleep afterwards.




tbc
first draft: 2019.10.27
last edited: 2021.12.16




(1) Masaka – “It can’t be...” or “You don’t mean...”

(2) Hora – “See” or “Look there”

(3) Kushiyaki – food grilled on a stick, typically chicken, fish, or vegetables

(4) Jutsu-shiki – jutsu seals (those fancy wiggly seal lines you saw Kakashi paint all over Sasuke in canon, or the incomprehensible wiggly ink lines that would pop up under the shinobi’s hand when they slammed their palm down for a summon)

(5) Chashu miso ramen – If you don’t know what chashu miso ramen is and/or have not had it, you are not living. YOU CALL YOURSELF A NARUTO FAN?

(6) Sayuri (from the previous chapter) is a red-bellied black snake. IRL, they are endemic to Australia and are fairly venomous to humans, although they will only attack if provoked. Tsubone is a fictional breed I based on the ring-necked snake, which is usually the diameter of an adult’s pinky finger and doesn’t grow too long. Ring-necked snakes are usually favored as pets because they are also not venomous to humans. Lastly, Hisaki is an inland taipan, ranked in real life as the most venomous snake on the planet with a bite that can kill a grown adult in 45 minutes or less if left untreated. The inland taipan is endemic to the semi-arid western Australian outback, so the lesson of the story is: don’t go anywhere near Australia. (jk but not really) Apparently, the amount of venom the inland taipan delivers in one bite is enough to kill 100 adults. Its venom also contains paradoxin, the most potent beta-neurotoxin ever recorded: paradoxin prevents the synapses from liberating the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which will definitely fucking kill you (total paralysis), or at least leave some things very damaged if you somehow survive.

(7) For those unfamiliar with how Japanese honorifics work, Taichou-san-sama is a very fucky combination of ‘-san’ to denote the polite address of a stranger/older person/respectable individual and ‘-sama’ to denote a more worshipful regard towards someone of superior status, capacity, seniority, or just someone superior. You use ‘-sama’ when you address gods and emperors, if that helps (although if you were indeed addressing an emperor, there would be other more flowery honorifics you could choose from). This is essentially Naruto being polite to someone he doesn’t know (hence Taichou-san) but acknowledging that -san is nowhere near enough for someone of Kakashi’s caliber. So he adds -sama. (This kid. So cute.)

(8) Katajikenai – “I am indebted to your generosity.” Some dictionaries will translate it as ‘grateful for’ or just simply ‘Thank you’ but that doesn’t quite cover the history of this expression. Katajikenai is something you might have heard in historical animes where there are samurai about. It is attached to bushido (the samurai warrior’s code of honor/philosophy of life) and denotes the speaker as inferior of rank & formally indebted to the addressed entity, in this case Orochimaru.

(9) And for those still confused: Scary Taichou-san-sama is Kakashi, the third man aka the Pretty One is Itachi, Scarface is Raidou, and Bandana is Mama Genma.

Chapter Text

016. shikamaru: perspectives

.

On Saturday morning, they are welcomed by a new and unusually abrasive presence in sensei’s house.

“Oya, the brats are here,” she grins, one knee tucked up to her chest which only serves to push her ample breast to strain against her inadequate tank top. And are those bandages she’s wearing in place of underwear? “Sensei, they’re so cute, may I play with them?”

“They are not toys, Anko,” Orochimaru-sensei chastises with much amusement and not enough force (in Shikamaru’s opinion). “Little ones, this is Anko, one of my erstwhile children. She is a tokujo and often works with T&I.”

“What’s a T&I?” Naruto squints from where he’s sitting near the engawa. (1)

“Torture and Interrogation,” Shikamaru supplies, now warily edging around Anko given this new information. “It’s a division under Intelligence.” And oyaji says the people there are kinda psycho.

Naruto turns his squinty gaze at Anko. “So you torture people as a job, Anko-nee?”

“I can see that,” Sasuke mutters, having shuffled over to sit next to Naruto and far away from Anko. (Or at least as far as the room will let him.)

“Sometimes,” Anko tilts her head with a shark-like smile. “But we have other methods of making people talk.”

“You mean the Yamanakas will do their thing and yank everything worth knowing out of their brains,” Shikamaru snorts. “It’s a good thing Konoha got the Yamanaka clan.”

“Bingo,” Anko grins, showing off her teeth. “You Nara’s kiddo, right?”

“That’s me.”

“You as good as your old man at shogi?”

“Hah, nope,” Shikamaru slumps over his notebook, which he’s brought per sensei’s request. “I get as far as endgame and then he comes out with some whiz strategy to scrub the floor with my ass. Happens every fuckin’ time.”

Sasuke shoots him a look of utter disgust. “You seriously need to wash your mouth out, Shikamaru. Do you cuss like that in front of your parents?”

“Cussing is a sign of higher intelligence,” Anko quips, “so leave him the fuck alone, baby Uchiha.”

“You know what?” Shikamaru inhales, looking her dead in the eye, “I like you. You know what’s up.”

Naruto and Sasuke exchange a laden look that Shikamaru doesn’t even try to parse. Those two have already formed a semi-psychic bond through which they can communicate without words or signals, much like how wild animals know their pack from the enemy and can literally sniff out each other’s thoughts from each other’s asses. How can Shikamaru ever hope to sink as low as that?

Before they can get any further off track, Orochimaru-sensei claps his hands. “Gather around, little ones. Anko, if you’re staying, be quiet.”

Anko splays herself starfish-like on the tatami. “If I muuust.”

“Today you will continue what you were working on last Saturday,” Orochimaru-sensei tells them. “Sasuke, genjutsu. Naruto, seals. Shikamaru, strategy. We have a three-hour working block before our first break. After the break, we will reconvene for a lesson on the practicalities of being on the field. I will answer whatever questions you might have and then we shall have lunch. Fried rice, mackerel, and chawanmushi will be served today.”

“Ooooh,” Naruto and Sasuke croon, the both of them being veritable black holes. Shikamaru wonders if they eat so much because of their significantly larger chakra cores.

“After lunch,” Orochimaru-sensei continues, “we will resume your individual activities for another three hours and then end the afternoon there. You are then free to stay or leave and spend the rest of the evening as you wish. Shall we begin?”

“Yes!” Naruto crows, eagerly reaching for his scrolls. Sasuke doesn’t say anything, but turns to face his white vase with a determined grimace. He was having the hardest time of them all last week, Shikamaru recalls.

“Shikamaru, come sit with me,” sensei beckons towards the engawa, so Shikamaru shuffles over. They are far enough from the other two that their quiet conversation shouldn’t disturb them. “How fare you with the exercises?”

Shikamaru scratches the side of his head. “I mean, they’re hard. I think they’re conversely harder than real-life scenarios because the, uhh, vagueness of some parts makes it difficult to create a gameplan.”

“But that is precisely what it’s like on the field,” sensei points out, “because although you have your mission parameters and enough information to begin with, circumstances often change and you must make adjustments on the fly with incomplete, possibly outdated intel. The trick is to be prepared with enough contingencies such that you have already done half of the legwork before you even left the village. It’ll keep you and your team alive. Now let me see what you have done with the first one.”

The first scenario is a ditch them or die situation, except Shikamaru was brought up with the philosophy that one doesn’t ditch their team. After all, his clan has longstanding partnerships with the Akimichi and Yamanaka clans, partnerships that have stood the test of time only because it is underlined with a loyalty that doesn’t waver in the face of death.

“I assumed that ‘no escape’ means literally that, and we were surrounded in foreign territory,” Shikamaru begins, “so my immediate strategy was to hide. Recover the injured teammate enough to move—and I need them to move fast. I wouldn’t want to try a hasty exit with someone who’s on the verge of dying, especially as I don’t have a medic embedded in the team. If the teammate died, it would almost defeat the point. Question: do they not usually embed a medic in teams?”

“In jōnin teams, they do,” sensei nods. “In chuunin teams, they try, but only if it’s necessary. Medics are not as numerous as other specialties, and they are precious commodities, difficult and time-consuming to train. We do not make a habit of wasting them.”

“Right. So am I right to hide or should I have hightailed it outta there?”

“You are correct. I would also hide. Patience is key when it comes to survival. Your mission is for naught unless you make it back home to report its success.”

“That’s not true for assassination missions, though,” Shikamaru points out, “I mean for the suicide types.” Nearby, Anko grunts.

Orochimaru-sensei takes a sip of his tea (today a murky brown color exuding a minty aroma) and measures his words. “We do not truly send anyone on suicide missions, Shikamaru. Konoha does not do that anymore. Although there are some missions which carry incredibly high risk profiles, we mitigate those risks as best as we can. We make the team a bigger one, assign to it the right people with appropriate skillsets and experience, send out a back-up team and perform enough reconnaissance that we have as much intel as we can possibly get... there are ways to cut down the risk.”

Shikamaru shrugs. “But it’s foolish to think everything will always turn out well.”

Sensei smiles at that. “Indeed, yes. What an insightful child you are.” Shikamaru can’t stop himself from flushing in pleasure. Anko snickers. “There are indeed some missions which are so precarious and difficult that it is almost certainly doomed to fail. In such scenarios, we ensure that those we send out are prepared and aware of the imminent probability of death. It is only fair.”

“So they can get their affairs in order.”

“So they are mentally prepared,” Orochimaru-sensei nods. “That being said, you are facing death. How does one make ready? No one ever truly is.”

“Have you done those missions before, sensei?”

“Yes, and too often. One of the unfortunate consequences of being one of the village’s strongest and most experienced is that I often get handed the ugliest mission scrolls. Although,” sensei tilts his head, “there were times in the past when I volunteered for them.”

Shikamaru gapes at him, aghast. “You volunteered to die?”

Anko bursts out in laughter, the kind that’s loud and from the belly. It makes the other two look over in surprise.

“What’s so funny?” Naruto squints.

“Must be nice, having so much fun,” Sasuke grouses.

“Simply a discussion of strategy. Back to your work, go on.” The two of them shoot lingering glances but nevertheless return to their work. Sensei turns back to Shikamaru and answers, “You will find that there are times when the blank, focused mental space you occupy during a lethal mission is far more comfortable than the pressures you face within the confines of the village. It is easier to think in terms of mission objectives and parameters than the murky ambiguity of clan politics, wouldn’t you say?”

Shikamaru grimaces. “Right. Point taken.”

“So,” sensei reorients their conversation, “what sort of contingencies would you prepare for this sort of mission, wherein there is a likelihood of being forced to hide for an indefinite period of time?”

Oh, I see, Shikamaru realizes, this is the point of the exercise.

“Uhh, I would bring extra rations and make sure I’ve studied the area’s topography very well.”

“A good start. What else?”

“...I’d make sure that I notify home base that if we’re not back by a particular time frame, we probably need help?”

“You would bring more shinobi into the trap that has caught you in its grip?” sensei raises an eyebrow.

“Well, no, now that you put it like that,” Shikamaru frowns.

“How about ensuring that you are, from the beginning, equipped with a team that has genjutsu experts to help you hide more efficiently?” sensei smiles.

Oh.

“Or have someone with you who has a jutsu capable of communicating over long distances. Maybe a summon,” Anko points out.

“Right,” Shikamaru blinks, feeling unaccountably stupid. “You can modify your team composition. You can ask for specialists to be added. I could ask for a medic, couldn’t I? So that my injured member can heal faster.”

“Very good, a medic would indeed be invaluable,” Orochimaru nods. “What else?”

Shikamaru thinks of the basic map sensei included with the first scenario, a map that only had topography details and little markers to identify the target’s base, the place their team gets trapped around, and several small towns nearby. In an instant, it makes sense.

“The little towns,” he says, snapping his fingers, “you put them there for a reason. Beforehand, I’ll do recon of those villages too, check them out and see what they’re like. How many people live there, what kind of people they are. Because we could—we could develop contacts there, or—or we could pretend to be villagers and lay low! Then we wouldn’t have to worry about resources—we'd be in a village—oh, that’s so smart.”

“Always remember that your resources are everywhere around you,” sensei smiles, pleased. “All you have to do is pay attention.”




After their first working block, over which Shikamaru powers through two more what-if scenarios with sensei, they take a break to take a piss (Naruto) and stretch (Shikamaru) and have a snack (Sasuke, who pulls out two tomatoes from his pockets—who even does that?). Shikamaru splays himself over the edge of the engawa, bare wood cool against the nape of his neck. He closes his eyes. Sensei has given him a lot to think about. He wonders, not for the first time, if the other teams get anything in their training as intensive as this, or if it’s just lucky Team Seven with the most terrifying, all-knowing sensei to whip them into shape.

I should talk to Chouji and Kiba, he muses, ask them about their jōnin sensei, their training regimen. --wait, am I allowed to ask? ...I should be. We’re only genin. No one really cares about genin training, it’s so basic.

Except nothing sensei teaches them feels basic. He has never felt so challenged (or so invigorated by a challenge) his whole life.

“Shika, you look like a dead fish,” Naruto snickers from somewhere near and to his left.

“Very dead,” Sasuke agrees through a mouthful of tomato.

Shikamaru only grunts in response. The sun is warm and he’s still tired from all of yesterday; he wants to sleep.

“Don’t fall asleep just yet, Shikamaru,” sensei closes a cold hand around his ankle, grounding him back into the moment. “Plenty of time for that this afternoon. Come, child, sit with us. We have a few more points to discuss.”

Shikamaru grunts again, levering himself up to sit cross-legged next to sensei. He blinks the sleep from his eyelids and bids his brain to pay attention for just a little while more.

“Let’s begin, little ones.”

“Field missions!” Naruto cheers, preternaturally energetic despite the exhausting work they have had to put in everyday.

Must be the Kyuubi,
Shikamaru deduces, giving him that endless stamina. I wonder how long he can go without rest? How long can he hold his kage bunshin for? I guess we’ll find out on the field. I can use that. Our team will have his stamina as an advantage. True to form, he doesn’t allow himself to feel remorse for thinking of his teammates as pieces on a board. Life is a game; those who deny that tend to lose.

“We won’t be embarking on those for a while yet,” sensei chuckles. “You have a while to go before you are ready. But in the meantime, I can at least talk you through the process of acquiring and executing a mission. Do any of you know where to begin?”

“Mission Control,” Shikamaru says; it’s where Shimizu-oba works, after all.

“Correct. Mission Control will assign you an appropriate objective, which will be outlined in a scroll. It will be sealed to your signatures upon receipt and only accessible to your team members, immediate superiors, the Jōnin Commander, and the Hokage. This is standard practice for all missions to protect you. The higher level the mission is, the less people know of its details.”

“So for A-class and S-class missions...” Sasuke leads.

“The Jōnin Commander, the head of Mission Control, and the Hokage know of all A-class missions in progress. S-class missions are on a case to case basis and personally assigned by the Hokage,” sensei follows.

“What about ANBU missions?” Shikamaru asks, curious. “Need to know basis only?”

“ANBU takes missions directly and only from the Hokage,” sensei answers. “Their operations are often highly sensitive, time-bound, and lethal. Beyond the ANBU Commander, only the Hokage has a complete list of ANBU personnel and he must sign off every mission scroll. They are the best of our very best, and there aren’t many of them; we protect these assets in every way we can.”

“Are you ANBU, sensei?” Naruto asks, squinty-eyed.

Sensei’s mouth slants into a sly little smile. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

“Baka, he can’t be ANBU, he’s with us too much!” Sasuke frowns. “...right?”

“Nah,” Shikamaru scratches the side of his head, “he could be even if he’s our jōnin sensei. He just won’t take ANBU missions for a while. I’m told that ANBU operatives pretend to be normal jōnin on the daily.”

“They are not pretending,” sensei points out, “for they are indeed proper jōnin. They take missions just as they are supposed to and their status as ANBU does not negate their jōnin rank.”

“Right, that makes sense. Even we’re not supposed to know who’s ANBU and who’s not.”

“Correct. But we are digressing from our point,” sensei rearranges his kimono sleeves and folds his arms. “We were speaking of mission scrolls. You will see your first D-rank in a handful of weeks; I will show you what a mission scroll entails then. For now, you simply need to be aware that the scroll will outline the parameters of your mission and that it will be kept in Mission Control, filed as ‘Active’ while you are gone and then signed off as ‘Complete’ when you return.”

“What if we don’t return?” Naruto asks. “Does someone come look for us?”

“Yes,” sensei smiles, “given the right circumstances.”

“That’s nice and vague,” Shikamaru remarks with a snort.

“We have discussed a scenario where you wouldn’t want a second team to follow you, haven’t we?”

“Right. Traps.”

“That aside, Konoha is quite protective of its assets. Among the Big Five we boast the highest mission success rates with the lowest levels of casualty, and we do not achieve such prestige without having care with our shinobi. As you well know, training genin into chuunin and honing chuunin into jōnin takes a lot of time. We don’t like wasting them.”

“Human capital,” Shikamaru nods along, recalling an old lesson his father talked him through some time ago. “Konoha is considered the best because Konoha makes the most of its human capital.”

“And indeed our capital is not inconsiderable,” Orochimaru smiles in approbation, “for after all, we have bright young things like you to look forward to.”

Naruto punches a determined fist in the air; Sasuke grins.

“Moving forward: practical tips for being on the field. Depending on the mission, we may be on the field for a day, a week, or a month—one never knows. You will therefore have to accustom yourself to packing light and living on a handful of belongings. I am telling you this now for practical reasons: I would like for you to carefully think about your clothes, your arsenal, and whatever else you might want to take with you on the road. Planning well ahead of time saves you a lot of pain in the long run.”

“So one backpack?” Sasuke asks. “What about rations?”

“We can hunt,” Naruto shrugs.

“And we can also buy from towns we pass through,” Shikamaru points out. “Although—sensei, am I to understand that you’re telling us this now so we can buy better clothes?”

“Or get them tailored, if you like,” Orochimaru nods, pleased with his quick deduction. “You will want clothes made of quality material, garments sturdy enough to withstand the wear and tear of battle, rough terrain, weather, and repeated washing. We will not always have the luxury of stopping at a town to buy more things, and the less you have to repair your items, the faster we can move.”

Shikamaru then turns to Naruto with an ultimatum. “You can’t wear that orange. I refuse to let you out of this village in it.”

“Whoa, why not!” Naruto hotly contests, crossing his arms over his bright orange shirt.

“Because it’s hideously bright and obnoxious!” Shikamaru barks. “You practically glow in the dark! And with your hair, you’re like a painted target!”

This time, Naruto clutches his golden head. “Hey, I can’t do anything about my hair, I was born this way!”

“I know, but you can get clothes that aren’t orange,” Shikamaru insists. “Sensei, help me convince him, you know I’m right.”

Naruto blinks doleful blue eyes up at their sensei, who simply smiles in return. “Until you are versed enough in stealth, Naruto, you would be wise to avoid the brighter colors. Your teammate is correct.”

Naruto bows his head with a sniff.

“Hey, don’t be sad,” Sasuke bumps shoulders with the boy, “think of the orange as a reward! When we get good enough at stealth, we can wear whatever we want and it won’t matter!”

Naruto sniffs again, but less despondent this time. “I guess,” he sighs. Shikamaru internally congratulates himself.

“If you have difficulty thinking of what clothes are appropriate, the village has several shops catered towards gear,” sensei then continues. “Whatever you decide upon needs to be comfortable enough that you can live in it for weeks on end. Be sure to try the ensemble on during one of our training days to see if you can move well enough in it; nothing is half as annoying as an ill-fitting pair of pants when you’re in a stakeout for five days.”

“You,” Shikamaru turns to Sasuke this time, “should get clothes that don’t have the Uchiha mon on them. At least not on the outside.”

Sasuke scowls at him. “I got that, I’m not stupid.”

“But he looks like an Uchiha,” Naruto points out.

“That doesn’t mean he has to flaunt it,” Shikamaru counters. “And both of you need to stop wearing your hitae-ate on your foreheads, it’s bad form.”

“But it’s a forehead protector!”

“It won’t protect your forehead from anything that’ll actually kill you, boke.”

“Where do we put it then?” Sasuke frowns.

“Doesn’t matter if we’re in the village, but somewhere invisible when we’re outside,” Shikamaru insists. “Think about it: Konoha has enemies. What if we randomly run across some shinobi from Kumo or Iwa? They see our symbol, they get pissed and try to kill us—or worse, they sabotage our mission.”

“You think too much, Shika,” Naruto sighs.

“You need to get your priorities in order,” Sasuke sniffs.

“But my point stands! What’s the use of being shinobi when everyone knows who you are and what you came to do? We’re supposed to be the subtle ones. We’re not samurai. We don’t have their stupid code of honor; we don’t announce ourselves. ‘A hidden village is founded upon secrets,’ that’s what oyaji always tells me, ‘and those who don’t respect the secrets tend to end up dead.’ And besides,” Shikamaru eyes Sasuke with a deeper frown, “announcing that you’re an Uchiha could paint a target on your back. They might not even want to kill you; they might want to capture you for your eyes, and that’s way worse.”

Sasuke winces, ceding Shikamaru’s point. No doubt Sasuke has also been told about the Hyuuga Incident given the nature of Kumo’s offense.

“Such a smart kiddo,” Anko murmurs from the corner of the room where she hasn’t moved from her starfish position. Shikamaru had thought she was asleep. “Can’t run circles around you, can they, little Nara? It’s like a mini-Shikaku. Cute.”

“I don’t have the Sharingan, though,” Sasuke looks down at his crossed feet.

“Not yet,” Orochimaru reaches over to pat his head, “but soon enough you will. And Shikamaru is correct: there are entities out there who would kill to have a captive Uchiha, Sharingan or not. Your bloodline is strong. It is imperative that you remember this.”

“Yes, sensei.”

“W-What about me, sensei?” Naruto asks, quiet and hesitant. “A-And the, uh...” he clutches his stomach, darting a look at Anko splayed out in the corner.

“Few know about your identity, and we will keep it that way for as long as we can.”

Naruto swallows and nods.

“Now, we have discussed clothes, arsenals, and rations,” sensei refolds his arms within his kimono sleeves, “what else should you bring with you on a mission?”

The three of them look at each other. Sasuke hazards a guess, “Medicine?”

“Very good,” sensei nods, “a med kit each. They are available at the missions desk as well as the gear shops. The shops will have more specialized ones. I make my own. You could also make your own, which you would be wise to do in the future once you know what types of injuries you commonly encounter. You should at least carry the basic ration pills with you, penicillin, and some poppy powder. You’ll thank yourself for it when you dislocate a shoulder and need it fixed on the go.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail. Preparation constitutes half of your mission and should be given due attention. As you grow and begin to tackle harder missions, your preparation will include reconnaissance, research, and specialized training. It will also require you to think about what you are being tasked to do. Blind obedience kills. You are always within your rights to question the parameters of any mission you are given. You can ask for more help, different team members, or—if you are certain that you cannot complete the mission and survive—you can defer it to another team. Yes, Shikamaru, you can refuse.”

Shikamaru hadn’t known.

“You must have a good reason to do so. Likewise, your superiors and the Hokage must have good reasons to have assigned you and your team to the mission. You will have to talk and meet midway, but there is nothing wrong with asking questions. I expect you to ask questions. Some are destined to be mindless soldiers marching into battle at the drumbeat of a superior’s orders, but you are destined for more. Do you understand my meaning?”

“You’re training us to be leaders,” Shikamaru translates, “instead of settling as followers.”

Sensei shakes his head, leveling them with eyes of liquid gold. “You are already leaders. You are the leaders of your generation. You are children born of Konoha’s oldest clans. Your fathers and forefathers walked the path of greatness; you have begun on the very same path. Because of this, the privilege of ignorance is something you do not have.”

The privilege of ignorance. Shikamaru rolls that around in his head.

“Many people would sooner die rather than think,” sensei continues quietly, “in fact, they do. (3) Thinking deeply is often uncomfortable, indeed sometimes painful; people prefer to avoid that. But no one ever did anything great without any pain. I encourage you to think carefully every step of the way. It will prepare you for the future that is to come.”

Sasuke fidgets for a moment—has indeed been fidgeting for some time under the cadence of sensei’s soft words—before he clears his throat and tells them, “Oboro-obaa-sama used to tell me when I was little that if I wanted to become something, I had to first think that I was something. That’s what you’re telling us, right, sensei? If we want to become leaders, then we have to think that we are leaders—now, not in the future. We have to—to hold ourselves to that standard, now. We can’t wait until we think we’re good enough because—because—”

“We’ll never be good enough,” Shikamaru agrees. “We’ll always think there’s better. That’s just how people think.”

This time, Orochimaru smiles properly at them, serene and satisfied. “You understand my point at last.” He turns to Naruto, who has been blinking quietly in the wake of the whole conversation, and continues, “You said you wish to become the Hokage one day, no?”

“Yes, sensei,” Naruto nods eagerly, leaning forward.

“Then you must begin thinking and training like the Hokage now. Work hard, study hard, and consider the village, that which the Hokage exists to protect. Observe and learn. Think. What is a hidden village? What is Konoha? Why does it exist? These are the questions the Hokage must know how to answer. And those answers define what the Hokage becomes.”

Reaching for the empty tea cups, sensei gathers his kimono underneath him to rise for lunch. As a final note, he says, “You might think these questions are too big for you, and you are too little to answer them. You might think that you are not yet good enough. But how will you become good enough if you do not try? Do not wait for perfection; it does not wait for you. Chase it, everyday and in everything. That is how you grow.”




What is Konoha? A village hidden in the Shodaime’s trees, a village of secrets, a home. At least, Shikamaru calls it home. He walks back into town that evening, taking in the languid sunlight, considering the houses and shops and apartments around him bathed in a golden, glimmering sunset. Konoha’s spring days tend to look like summer, long and heady, honey-like, molten gold. He wonders if they’ll start taking outside missions in the fall.

Sensei is giving them so much to think about that Shikamaru is almost afraid. It’s a foreign feeling, being afraid of being too young and inexperienced to understand. He wants to understand. But he can’t even begin to parse what sensei hopes to achieve by giving them thoughts and doubts this big. Isn’t sensei supposed to inspire loyalty?

Chouji and Ino stop him in front of the flower shop, where the two of them are sat with Kiba, Shino, Sakura, and Tenten. Almost half of our cohort, Shikamaru notes, the comrades we’re being trained to lead.

Shikamaru is not yet comfortable with that concept.

“What’ve you been up to?” Ino asks him, tone almost condescending. Since they turned ten, she’s been going through an infinitely annoying phase of judgmental know-it-all-ness that has Shikamaru avoiding her attention for whatever excuse he can conjure.

So he keeps it short and says, “Training,” with a shrug.

“By yourself?” Ino says with unwarranted incredulity.

“On a Saturday?” Chouji frowns.

Does a shinobi’s work week end on the weekend? Shikamaru wanted to retort. But because it’s Chouji, he decides to be nice. “Sensei had us over. We did some stuff at his house.”

“Isn’t that too much?” Kiba whines, sounding exactly like Akamaru. “We already train all week.”

“Hey, aren’t you on the same team as Sasuke-kun?” Ino suddenly derails, eyes bright. Sakura also perks up. Shikamaru sighs.

“Yes, and before you ask, no, I’m not doing anything for you to get his attention.”

“I wasn’t gonna ask that!” Ino hotly denies while Sakura turns the same shade of pink as her hair.

Girls are so predictable. “You totally were. Unfortunately for you, Sasuke is a single-minded idiot who cares only about training and nothing else. Maybe wait a few years. I don’t even think he has the hormones to notice girls right now.”

“What, and you do?” Ino snippily blinks.

Shikamaru gives her a side-eye that he knows will piss her off. “Unfortunately, you’re gonna have to try harder than that to get my attention.”

“Why you little—”

“Guys, I’m hungry, you wanna do dinner at my house?” Chouji cuts in, perfect from years of practice defusing tension between Shikamaru and Ino. They really weren’t this bad until about two years ago when Ino decided to notice that she was indeed a girl and had girl problems to focus on, most of them in the shape and form of Sasuke, her and Sakura’s irrational and competitive crush. Shikamaru still doesn’t get it. Sasuke’s easy enough on the eyes, sure, and likely to grow more beautiful in the way Uchihas tend to do, but Sasuke’s also a cryptid. The speed with which he has latched on to Naruto is only further proof of how little socialization he got on the daily. Did they even talk to Sasuke while they were in the Academy? Did Sasuke even talk back then?

At Chouji’s house, where they are ushered into a sitting room by Chouji’s smiling mother, the conversation turns away from Sasuke towards training. Kiba regales them with the drills their sensei are making them do everyday, mostly hunting exercises in the forest interspersed with sparring and individual training with specific jutsu.

“Hinata’s a beast, man, she doesn’t talk much but she’s strong!” Kiba rubs his ribs where he must have gotten hit. From what Shikamaru has read about Juuken, the Hyuuga clan’s taijutsu of preference, it must have hurt. There is nothing ‘gentle’ about their ‘Gentle Fist.’

“You need to work on dodging her,” Shino quietly points out from behind his high collar. “You’ll never win hand to hand against a Hyuuga.”

“Can anyone win hand to hand against a Hyuuga?” Chouji wonders.

“An Uchiha,” Shikamaru answers as he lays down on the tatami while awaiting dinner. He hears Chouji’s dad enter the house, followed closely by a few other people. Closing his eyes and reaching out with his senses, he can his own father’s chakra apart from the others, probably Ino’s dad, Ino’s mom, and his own mother. Saturday evening dinners are always rowdy and crowded like this.

“Is Sasuke-kun any good with taijutsu? What else is he good at? Is he training any specific technique right now?” Sakura asks with sudden urgency, as if she couldn’t hold herself any longer.

Shikamaru sighs. That was a very brief respite from Sasuke this, Sasuke that. “He’s a natural at taijutsu, he’s good at pretty much everything except genjutsu, and I really would rather not spend the entire evening talking about him.”

Sakura, thankfully, gets the hint and shuts up. Ino, however…

“Of course Sasuke-kun is great at taijutsu! He’s an Uchiha!”

“Yeah, that’s what Shikamaru said,” Kiba snorts, “ow! Why did you hit me!”

“For being a smartass!” Ino retorts, crossing her arms under her as yet nonexistent breasts. Shikamaru suddenly remembers Anko and shudders.

“I don’t know, Shika, Neji is really strong,” Chouji points out while digging into a bag of salted egg potato chips. “And Lee doesn’t slack either. Between the two of them, I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep up, honestly.”

“What do you do, spar all day?” Kiba snickers, only to gape in horror when Chouji nods. “All day?”

“Gai-sensei really likes sparring,” Chouji sighs. “I really hate it.”

Of course Chouji would hate it. Chouji’s a gentle soul. Not for the first time, Shikamaru wonders at the Hokage’s choice of teams. How is Chouji supposed to fit in between Lee and Neji in a team clearly billed to become an assault unit? Chouji can’t even hurt a fly.

“What do you girls do all day?” Kiba asks. “Braid each other’s hair? Paint each other’s nails?”

“Learn how to beat stupid boys like you,” Ino snipes.

“With our hair braided,” Sakura nods.

“And our nails painted,” Ino smiles.

Because of course beauty can also be deadly, Shikamaru agrees, thinking of sensei’s glimmering amber eyes and Anko’s slender limbs. He wonders how long before the all-girl team is trained for the infamous honeypot missions the Academy likes to pretend don’t exist.

Their parents come to join them in the sitting room, Chouji’s father booming a greeting that makes Shikamaru wince. He wants to turn away but familiar hands lift his head so that he’s laying on someone’s lap. He looks up and finds his father’s face staring down at him with a fond smile. “So what did your sensei teach you today?”

“Strategies to think about,” Shikamaru answers, “and questions to ask. Oyaji, is sensei ANBU?”

Shikaku raises both eyebrows. “Not anymore, why do you ask?”

“Just curious,” Shikamaru yawns then, closing his eyes. “We were talking about missions today. He said he used to run the really dangerous ones all the time.”

“His track record is certainly something else,” Shikaku agrees quietly, “which makes me a little worried for when you start your missions.” Across from them, Inoichi-oji is very loudly coddling his daughter.

“Sensei says that won’t be for a while yet,” Shikamaru points out without opening his eyes, “and besides, shouldn’t you feel better that I’ll be with Konoha’s strongest shinobi?”

“There is little in the world that can quell the worry I feel for my own son,” Shikaku quietly sighs.

Shikamaru blinks up at his father, wondering. Six or seven different questions parry for priority in his mind. Nearby, Ino is regaling her father with a report on what her team has been training; Sakura is exchanging tips with Chouji about chakra modulation; Kiba’s mother is laughing about her son’s misadventures in trying to learn how to walk up walls.

None of them, Shikamaru realizes, are being taught how to ask questions.

“Oyaji,” Shikamaru calls Shikaku’s attention again.

“Hm?”

“Why does Konoha exist?”

Shikaku looks down at him then, blinking in transparent surprise. Perhaps his father sees something in his face, something of the depth of inquiry Orochimaru-sensei is beginning to inspire—Shikaku chooses to consider the heart of his question instead of deflecting his interest.

“I suppose it depends who you’re asking,” Shikaku slowly, quietly tells him, “but at the time of the village’s birth, the continent had suffered from centuries of war. We were just one type of player on a huge board. We were tools back then. The birth of the first shinobi village—the birth of Konoha—gave us leverage. It elevated us. It gave us the capacity to decide what type of tasks we were going to be used for. Of course, that’s not true anymore.”

“The Hokage is more powerful than the daimyo.”

“In a way,” Shikaku nods. “Each kage from each village has more military power than their respective daimyo, but each daimyo has more money, more resources, more people. Our villages are very small next to their cities and towns. We depend on their produce for food. They depend on our power for security. It’s supposed to be a symbiotic relationship.”

“It’s not?”

“Well, it gets really complicated,” Shikaku sighs. “Why do you ask all of a sudden?”

“Sensei had me thinking,” Shikamaru shrugs, his shoulders pushing against his father’s leg. “Sensei always has me thinking these days.”

“That’s good.”

“It’s hard.”

“I know,” Shikaku chuckles, accepting a pour of sake from Inoichi with a toast. “But one day, you’ll thank your sensei for it.”

Shikamaru thinks of the differences he’s already seeing between his own training against his friends’ perspectives, and agrees, “I already do.”




tbc
first draft: 2020.02.19
last edited: 2021.12.16




REFERENCES

(1) Engawa - the balcony-like hallway/sitting area you see in traditional Japanese houses; they typically wrap around a living or sitting room acting as a passageway and open into or overlook a garden.

(2) Baka / boke "Stupid!"

(3) "Many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do." - Bertrand Russell

(4) "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." - Voltaire

Chapter Text

017. sasuke: curse

.

Sundays are always awkward because Sasuke never knows where to be. He cannot train (sensei would be upset) and his mother is home so there are no chores for him left to do. He doesn’t think Naruto and sensei would appreciate it if he hovered around their house on Sundays too. He doesn’t know if he’s even welcome to visit Shikamaru at their clan house or what he would do there if he went. This is how, while dithering by the entrance hall, his parents catch him unawares.

“Sasuke,” Fugaku quietly beckons from the formal sitting room, “come.”

What did I do? Did I say something wrong last night? Sasuke stiffly walks around the corner, shoulders now drawn up to his ears. He doesn’t dare ask why he’s suddenly being summoned for an audience, only sitting seiza (1) and bowing his head in deference.

“Hai, otou-sama. Okaa-san. Good morning.”

Don’t fidget, he firmly tells himself, instead folding his hands together and squeezing tight. Just breathe.

Fugaku takes time to have a sip of tea. Similarly, Mikoto seems unhurried. They both look peaceable today, agreeable moments of camaraderie like this being the closest Sasuke has seen of affection between them.

“It has been two weeks since your graduation and assignment,” Fugaku begins. “How does your team fare?”

Sasuke blinks. “Oh, um. Well, I think. Sensei is making us work hard everyday.”

Mikoto follows in a softer tone, “Are you getting along well with your teammates?”

Sasuke blinks again. These are odd questions to receive from his parents, of all people. “Yes, okaa-san, I like them a lot. Naruto’s very clever and Shikamaru’s very smart.”

A shadow passes over his mother’s face then, a faint and fleeting thing that Sasuke would have missed if he hadn’t been paying close attention. But before he can ponder what that was, his father cuts in with a firm tone, “Never forget that you represent the Uchiha clan. You must perform to your highest capacity and bring honor to us all.” (2)

Sasuke dips his head, knowing that whatever he can do will never be honor enough next to aniki but nevertheless he is bidden to try. “Hai, otou-sama, I will do my best.”

“I want you to enjoy yourself,” Mikoto suddenly interrupts, again with a soft but insistent tone, a shade of some unnamed emotion bolstering her words.

Sasuke looks up to blink at her. “Okaa-san?”

“I want you to enjoy your time in this team and make good connections,” Mikoto further explains, pinning Sasuke down with eyes that she inherited from her own mother Oboro-obaa-sama. “I want you to get to know other young shinobi too, from other clans in the village.”

Fugaku makes a dismissive sound. “That is not important. He needs to focus on getting stronger.”

“There is more than one kind of strength,” Mikoto continues as if he hadn’t spoken at all, although her words are indeed a direct response to his. She keeps her eyes pinned on Sasuke, imploring him to listen and understand. “You must take your time to grow into your own strengths. Do not cut corners, even if it means you must take the longer path. Do you understand, Sasuke?”

Sasuke blinks twice and nods. “H-Hai, okaa-san.”

Do you?” she presses, hinging forward just a touch.

“There is no quick path to greatness,” Sasuke parrots sensei for the lack of anything better to say. “Sensei has taught us as much, okaa-san. I will do my best.”

“Good,” Mikoto nods, relenting at last. “That’s good.”

When Sasuke darts a cautious look at his father, Fugaku appears displeased. Was it something I said?

“Um, I was going to visit with Oboro-obaa-sama at the shrine since I haven’t paid my respects in a while,” Sasuke tells them. “May I be excused?”

Mouth occupied now with her teacup, Mikoto simply nods. Fugaku dismisses him with a single word: “Go.”

So Sasuke goes, bowing his way out of the sitting room. He slides the shoji panels shut, obscuring his parents from sight, and then quietly rushes out of the house, breaking into a run once he’s outside. Anything to get him out of home and his parents’ disintegrating relationship. Anything to escape. The entire way to the shrine, he wonders if his parents are fighting now because of him, just like how they fought over aniki all those years ago.




The Uchiha compound stands on the southern edge of the village, tucked against its inner walls and outlined along its boundaries by the Naka river. Sasuke grew up being told that it was built there on sacred ground, but now he questions that in light of the knowledge sensei has imparted. Were they forced out of the village slowly over time, backed into a corner they simply pretended was their own choice in order to forget the disrespect they were being dealt? Was anything truly by their choice?

Their village within a village is arranged in a roughly concentric manner, with the Uchiha businesses clustered in the middle and lining the main street they called Aka-dori. (3) At the very southern edge of their compound, at the end of Aka-dori, sits the Uchiha shrine, Kaguya-jinja, where their dead are buried and their leaders venerated. As far as Sasuke knows, they are the only clan in Konoha who still follow the path of the old gods, a tradition fast disappearing under the relentless tides of time. (4) Oboro-obaa-sama laments this and often likes to say that one day Konoha will come to regret forgetting the old ways.

Sasuke trots past the shrine’s red torii, larger than the ones at the Uchiha gates and more ornate. Older too, although the wood doesn’t look it. Somehow its hinges have avoided warping through the years.

Two of obaa-sama’s priestesses in training are sweeping the path when he passes by. The stones are overrun by green moss and slippery in some places, but this is his second home and his feet know the way. He scurries down the winding steps, past ancient trees and bamboo groves, sticking one hand out to skim his fingertips along the dozens of red lanterns lining the path. When he gets to the main shrine, he doesn’t feel so anxious anymore.

He veers right towards the stately house next to the haiden (5), Oboro-obaa-sama’s official residence as the shrine’s head priestess. “Ojamashimasu (6),” he calls out, shucking his sandals at the genkan. “Obaa-sama, it’s Sasuke.”

He wanders into the tearoom, which overlooks a bamboo garden with a small pond, and finds his grandmother there with implements for a tea ceremony spread out before her. In deference, he goes to his knees and bows, reaching for her hand when she offers it, allowing her to lay a palm on his forehead. Her skin is warm. Sasuke closes his eyes.

“You are troubled,” Oboro-obaa-sama notes. “Mikoto and Fugaku are once again in disagreement.”

“Not directly? I mean,” Sasuke flounders, “they weren’t actually arguing... at least not when I left.”

Obaa-sama chuckles, patting the space beside her for Sasuke to occupy. “Two people need not argue to be in disagreement. One of the best forms of disagreement is silence.”

Sasuke hums, tucking his feet underneath him and settling in. Oboro-obaa-sama makes the best tea, after all. “Otou-san was checking on how I was doing. He reminded me that I needed to be mindful of how I presented myself in the village as a child of the Uchiha clan.”

“And what did your mother say?”

Sasuke scrunches up his nose. “She said she wanted me to, um, to have fun. With my team. And to make good connections with the other clans.”

“Neither of those statements have to necessarily be in disagreement with each other,” obaa-sama notes as she whisks matcha into water. “Why then do you say that your parents are in disagreement?”

“Well, it felt like it,” Sasuke shrugs. “They were the way they get when they’re fighting over something. They’re always fighting these days, it’s getting really annoying.”

“Have you told them that?”

“Obaa-sama, you know I can’t do that,” Sasuke frowns.

Obaa-sama only hums in response.

In short order, the matcha is prepared. Obaa-sama gives Sasuke the first cup and then partakes of hers. Perfectly done, as usual, just the right amount of bitterness curling around the edges of his tongue. He licks his lips and tells her as much. “Sensei loves tea too. He makes his own blends, I’ve seen his cupboard.”

“You might ask him for medicinal blends to help with muscle soreness and metabolic endurance,” obaa-sama advises. “He is as much a healer as he is a warrior.”

“He’s also a scholar,” Sasuke nods. And then, before he can think too much about it, he asks, “Obaa-sama, is it true that the Nidaime corralled the Uchiha clan into a corner because he didn’t trust us?”

Obaa-sama’s hands momentarily pause over her whisk, and then she reaches for her cup. “I see Orochimaru has not wasted your time or spared your innocence.”

“He says that because of who we will become in the future, we don’t have the privilege of ignorance.”

She then chuckles. “Did he, indeed? What a wise sensei you have.”

“Sensei is,” Sasuke bites his lip, “sensei is making us think of a lot of questions. It’s hard but he says we must.”

“If you don’t, the poison in the blood of this clan will eat you alive,” obaa-sama reaches for his chin and turns his face just so, looking him the eye with a gravity that seizes the breath in his throat. “Your aniki left to protect himself from it. Your mother and father are in conflict because of it. The Nidaime succeeded in separating us because of it. We are our own ruin; the curse runs in our veins.”

“C-Curse?” Sasuke stutters in surprise. “W—obaa-sama, what curse?”

Oboro-obaa-sama finishes her tea and stands, beckoning him to follow. “Come, Sasuke. I want to show you something.”

Together they leave the tearoom and then the house, Oboro-obaa-sama taking his hand as they turn towards the honden (7). Suddenly Sasuke is a little child again, tugging at his stiff ceremonial robes as he is led around the shrine grounds and told a story. Unbidden, he smiles at the memory. Oboro-obaa-sama does tend to get lost in her stories.

They ascend the steps into the honden, where at the doors obaa-sama lets go of his hand to form several rapid seals that release the wards. Sasuke helps slide one door open and mindfully follows behind her, leaving his sandals on the last step as he enters the enshrinement. Once inside, he goes to his knees, closes both doors, and turns forward to put his forehead on the floor. This is the most sacred space of his clan, the place that holds the history of his bloodline. He has only been here thrice before, and the last time was many years ago when he turned seven.

“Come forward, child. I want you to see,” obaa-sama beckons, so Sasuke rises and shuffles forward, looking up.

Around him on either side are weapons, menacing masks, scrolls, and shelves of books set against the walls. Before him is an interior shrine perfectly illuminated under two sconces obaa-sama lights with a flick of her fingers. On a pedestal is a thick book with ancient-looking pages that crawl with ink and—

Sasuke gasps, “Obaa-sama, are those—are those different types of Sharingan?”

She beckons him even closer, and when he has come close enough to sit next to her, she turns the page using wooden pincers and with great care. “In the history of our clan, there have been many incarnations of the Sharingan, but do you know how it all began?”

Sasuke shakes his head, watching her turn page after page until they are at the very beginning. Under the flickering firelight, the only source of light inside the room, the blood-red circles and black-inked tomoe look alive on the aged paper.

“In the very beginning, there was a tree. Our long-dead ancestors called it Shinju, the God Tree, divine in height and breadth for it grew to the heavens and took many days to climb.” Oboro-obaa-sama turns to the very first page of the book where an expansive illustration of an enormous tree is drawn. Sasuke blinks in surprise, realizing that he has seen this once before, on the wall of sensei’s sitting room. She continues, “The God Tree was known to bear a rare fruit that would give whoever ate it the gift of chakra. Back then, you see, our ancestors lived without this knowledge or capacity; they fought only with simple weapons and the strength of their bodies. Wars and conflict still existed, but they were not as dramatic and deadly.”

Obaa-sama turns to the next page, upon which a beautiful woman is shown bringing a glowing orb to her mouth. “Our ancestors lived under the rule of a man named Tenji, who had a beautiful, intelligent wife named Kaguya.”

“Kaguya-hime,” Sasuke nods, aware of the deity their ancestral shrine is named after.

“Indeed. They were at war with a nearby country when she became pregnant with her twin sons. Despairing at the seemingly endless conflict that has ravaged the land, she went to the God Tree and did what no one was supposed to do.”

“She ate the fruit,” Sasuke frowns, “the one that gives chakra.”

“Correct. She ate it and became the first human known to have possessed chakra. She wielded it as a most effective weapon.” Obaa-sama turns to the next page: Kaguya-hime now glowers up at them with strange, hypnotic eyes. Lilac like the Byakugan, but with concentric rings Sasuke has never seen before. The Sharingan’s tomoe are there, though, rotating along the concentric rings. “She woke the Rinne Sharingan, the predecessor of both the Byakugan and the Sharingan. Yes, Sasuke, we are indeed from the same blood as the Hyuuga clan, despite what they might have to say about the matter.”

“Do they know this story?” Sasuke asks, suddenly bewildered at the animosity their clans now hold for each other. “If we’re essentially family, why do they hate us so much?”

“It has been a long time since we were anything like family to them,” obaa-sama gently reminds him, “and our clans have done each other great wrongs during the wars of past times. Perhaps their elders recall this story, but I wager most of them dismiss it as myth.”

“Like most of our clan does,” Sasuke quietly adds, head dipping low.

“Like most of our clan does,” obaa-sama agrees. She turns to the next page, where Kaguya-hime is now standing between two young men, one with lilac eyes that look more like the modern Byakugan and the other with— “That is the Rinnegan, the predecessor of what we know today as the Sharingan. He is Kaguya-hime’s elder son, Hagoromo. You might know him as—”

“The Sage of the Six Paths!”

“Correct. His younger brother, Hamura, wielded the Byakugan. From his line, the Hyuuga clan are born.” And onward to the next page, obaa-sama continues, “Kaguya-hime used her might to end the wars. She ruled over the land and for a while there was peace. Her twin sons were born, both with chakra cores, and she raised them alongside other humans. But in time she grew enamored with her own supremacy, and as her sons grew into their own power, she began to feel threatened.”

“Oh no,” Sasuke dismays. He knows how these stories end.

“When her tyranny came to be too much, Hagoromo and Hamura were forced to put an end to her. In an attempt to subdue her sons, she merged with the God Tree and became the Ten-Tailed Beast—” Sasuke stiffens, “—intending to absorb her son’s chakras back into herself. She didn’t want anyone else to have that sort of power, you see. But her sons used a very powerful technique to seal the beast in a prison that they removed from the earth. We can still see it in the heavens at night: her prison is the moon.”

What in the world? Sasuke gapes at the book, which now shows a full moon painted red. A ten-tailed beast? Ten? Wait a second, didn’t sensei say nine?

“Obaa-sama, I’m confused.”

“Of course you are,” Oboro-obaa-sama chuckles, petting his hair. “Let’s continue.”

Wait, there’s more? Sasuke bites his lip. Where’s Shikamaru when you need him? I can’t even think of what question to ask right now.

“Hamura went to guard the moon while Hagoromo stayed on earth to share his knowledge and chakra with the humans. He believed in our capacity for good, you see, and he trusted that most of us, when given the tools to do so, would work to make the world a better place. Thus he became known to us as the Sage of the Six Paths; he taught us how to manipulate matter and life through ninshu, the philosophy of chakra.” (8)

Sasuke nods along. This much he knows, even from the Academy.

“The Sage knew that his wish to create a peaceful, prosperous world would not be achieved in one lifetime, so he chose to entrust it to whichever of his sons showed potential. The Sage had two sons: Indra, the talented one, and Ashura, who was kind. Indra, the elder, believed that his father’s goal was a worthy one and that it could be achieved through power; Indra was powerful in his own right and a gifted wielder of chakra. Ashura, the younger and less talented one, thought that love and camaraderie were more important. Ultimately, the Sage chose Ashura for his pure heart, a decision Indra did not take to very well.”

When Oboro-obaa-sama turns to the next page, Sasuke gasps. Indra looks up at them with blood-red eyes, the modern incarnation of the Uchiha clan’s Sharingan.

“Indra was our forefather,” obaa-sama quietly says, “and he created ninjutsu out of ninshu. Weapons out of words. He was so consumed with jealousy and rage that he disdained his father for the rest of time and even attacked his brother Ashura, who by the skin of his teeth managed to win. It was a narrow and bitter victory, but Indra was not finished. He went far from his family and began to spread ninjutsu in counterpoint to his father’s teachings, seeking more power to prove himself right. The only way to peace is through force, Indra said. In time, from his line came the Uchiha.”

On the following page are two blood-red orbs, black lines spiraling within them. Notes are written underneath in faded ink, the edges of the paper marred with what looks like dried blood. Sasuke can make out a bloody fingerprint on a torn corner.

“Indra woke the first incarnation of the Mangekyou Sharingan,” obaa-sama strokes a finger underneath the illustration of their ancestor’s eyes, “which is known to be the strongest form of our eyes. It only stands to reason that the Mangekyou is the ultimate expression of the curse we have inherited from him.”

Ah, Sasuke thinks, back to the curse. Obaa-sama likes to tell long stories, but they always have a point. “If it’s the most powerful, obaa-sama, then how is it a curse?”

“In order to obtain it, Indra murdered his two closest friends.”

“He what?” Sasuke blanches, recoiling from the book.

“Generations of Uchiha have misunderstood this legend; even my own great-grandfathers did. They think that one must murder in order to wake the Mangekyou. But I think—no, I know that grief comes in many forms,” obaa-sama turns the page again, “and I was proven right with your brother.”

Sasuke turns to look at her in surprise; today is just full of surprises. “What about aniki?”

“He woke the Mangekyou, the very first recorded instance of it waking without the act of murder—at least not directly, for we did lose Shisui.”

Reeling, Sasuke blinks at her. He doesn’t even know—Shisui-nii was— “Aniki has the Mangekyou?”

Oboro-obaa-sama sighs. “You are so young that you do not remember, but the clan was in much direr straits when you were born. We were so alienated from the village, so insulted, and so distrusted. Madara’s betrayal put us in a very bad position to begin with and once doubt is sowed, it grows like a weed, pernicious, stubborn. Over time it became apparent that no matter what we did to prove ourselves loyal and worthy, no matter the great deeds we achieved in the name of the village, no matter the wars we won and the sacrifices we made, we would never dispel that doubt. That sort of history breeds resentment.”

She turns to him and sweeps the fall of his hair away from his face, stroking his cheek. Her eyes are dark and sad. Sasuke gets the distinct impression that she is an inch away from tears.

“I have watched our clansmen become consumed with jealousy and hatred. I have watched them lose their sons and daughters for the village, a sacrifice that never gets honored, a grief that is never quenched. I have seen Indra’s curse fester,” she strokes under Sasuke’s eyes, “as our clan grows ever more attached to its own twisted reflection, thinking itself greater than the rest, seeking to first break away and then destroy the very village that it has sworn to shelter more than a hundred years ago. Why should we stay when we are not encouraged to do so? Why should we remain when we are shunned? Why should we keep trying when we’re never good enough? Better to make our own way, better to go away, better to carve a new path. Indra’s curse, you see, is the curse of hatred—hatred of oneself, because we Uchiha never deem ourselves good enough. And the world around us often echoes that, so we turn the hatred outwards. We burn the world before the world burns us. We destroy.”

Sasuke swallows, thoughts flashing to sensei’s lessons and his own feelings of inadequacy and his ever-present fear. The second son, the spare, the weaker one, not good enough.

Oboro-obaa-sama strokes now through his hair, leaning forward to press her lips against Sasuke’s forehead in what could be an apology or a benediction. Sasuke closes his eyes and inhales her scent, pine and tea and that darkly sweet note of elderberry. It is easy to sink into his grandmother’s embrace, like he is little again and she is putting him to bed.

She murmurs against his hair, “I tell you this not to make you despair, but so that you know the story of your origin. The curse need not be a curse, Sasuke. The thought of not being good enough can be turned into conviction to get better. We Uchiha like to pretend that we are above emotions and good intentions, but in truth, we love deeply and care too much. Surely you have noticed it, here,” she flattens a hand on his chest, “for the riptides of our emotion run wild and deep. The curse is like a blade; it cuts both ways. Handle it well and it is your weapon; mishandle it and it makes you bleed. Our hatred is born from love. We just need to learn how to turn it back. You must always remember that, especially when I am no longer here to remind you.”

Tears well in Sasuke’s eyes. He wraps arms around his grandmother, holding on tight. At some point, he has grown enough that his arms now encircle around her, or she has grown frail and old and Sasuke has not been paying attention. The thought of her no longer being around—no.

“Do you understand now, Sasuke?” she asks, leaning back a little to look into his face.

Sasuke shakes his head, “Not… not really, not all the way, but—but I’ll remember, obaa-sama. And one day, I’ll… I’ll be able to understand.”

“Good,” she nods, sighing and resting her chin on top of his head. “Very good.”

How long they sit there holding on to each other, Sasuke doesn’t know.




His head is so full of all the thoughts clamoring inside it that he gets nothing else done for the day. Oboro-obaa-sama guides him back to her house, where they eat lunch and then proceed with their respective afternoons. She has shrine duties to occupy her, so Sasuke leaves her with promises to return the following week.

“We will speak more about the Sharingan then,” she assures him, “and you can ask all the questions you no doubt have about the Mangekyou if you remember them.”

“Yes, obaa-sama, thank you for your time,” Sasuke bows. And then, against his better judgment, he lunges forward to give her one last hug before darting towards the shrine steps. “See you later, obaa-sama!”

“Be good, child,” she bids. Sasuke will certainly try.

When he returns home, his father does not seem to be there, although his mother is. Briefly calling out “Tadaima!” as he walks through the living areas, Sasuke snags tomatoes on a vine and heads for the backyard facing the river. Sensei told them not to train extra, but they are allowed tenketsu exercises, so that’s what he’ll do.

Otherwise I’ll go crazy, my head is so full. How does Shikamaru do this? Sasuke shakes his head, strips off his shirt, and gets into position.

The sun is very warm against his back and it gets only warmer when he releases his chakra coils like sensei has taught them to do. Breathing in time with their neighbor’s distant bamboo fountain, he moves through katas and slowly empties his mind, shoving aside unnecessary concerns in favor of the feel of his own chakra flowing through his limbs.

Stronger everyday, slow and steady.

The next morning, he wakes up with a headache.




“Sasuke, you okay?” Naruto asks him when they arrive on Ground Six, which is just a wide, empty space. No trees, no boulders, nothing until the demarcated edges of the training ground.

Sasuke grunts, bending down to stretch his hamstrings. “Bit of a headache, dunno why.”

“Did you take something for it already?” Shikamaru asks from his other side. “Maybe you’re dehydrated. What were you doing yesterday?”

“Maybe,” Sasuke shrugs, “I hung out at the shrine yesterday with Oboro-obaa-sama and then did some tenketsu exercises in the afternoon.”

“It’ll go away soon,” Naruto reassures him.

“Yeah, soon enough the rest of your body will be aching much worse than your head so you won’t even notice it anymore,” Shikamaru sighs. He’s not wrong.

Orochimaru-sensei arrives in short order, looking over them and noting that they have brought their weapons as they were instructed. “Good morning, little ones. Are we ready to learn new things?”

“Yus!” Naruto pumps a fist into the air. Shikamaru nods and Sasuke straightens to a ready stance.

Sensei leads them to more tenketsu exercises, which effectively banish Sasuke’s headache. How strange. Then they move on to a warm-up block, Naruto practically vibrating with excitement as sensei tells them what the agenda holds for them this week.

“We will continue our sparring session, but this time you will use your weapons. In between blocks, we will do drills that will help strengthen your body in specific ways. After lunch, we will begin on your second technique—” Naruto whoops, “—and then you will learn another basic movement, shunshin. (8) That will conclude our day. The format will be the same for the rest of the week. It is my hope that you will master shunshin within two weeks, but perhaps you will once again defy my expectations. You did, after all, master vertical and water walking each within a week.”

Sasuke stands prouder, unable to help himself when sensei smiles at them like that.

The sparring is fine. Sasuke appreciates the opportunity to use his ninjatō, learning how to fit the weapon into his movements and where it becomes more of a hindrance than a help. As a result, he feels he’s a little slower, but sensei assures him that slowing down is to be expected.

“You are having to adjust your reach with every move,” sensei tells him in between dodging Sasuke’s scissor-kicks, “because the ninjatō adds length to your arm. In time, your spatial awareness will adjust. Keep practicing.”

When his turn ends, he steps aside to try different grips out while Naruto spars with sensei, but before he can disappear into his own world, sensei’s bunshin approaches him and Shikamaru with two black vests.

Sasuke blinks. “Um, what…”

“Wear these,” sensei’s bunshin tells them, so they do.

He grunts as the vest settles on his shoulders. Beside him, Shikamaru groans, “What’s in these pockets? Rocks?”

“Now do a hundred push-ups, a hundred jump-squats, and a hundred pull-ups on these,” sensei’s bunshin creates a long bar from the earth with casual ease. “Quickly now. Naruto’s block will be over before you know it.”

“Wait,” Sasuke says in horror, “we have to finish it all before Naruto’s done?”

“You won’t be able to,” sensei’s bunshin smiles, “but I certainly want you to try. And when Shikamaru and Naruto switch, he will take the vest from Shikamaru and join you. You will keep doing this until it’s your turn to spar again.”

Shikamaru and Sasuke both groan in dismay, Sasuke already dropping to the ground to begin the push-ups. The sooner he starts, the sooner it’s over, right?

Midway through the jump-squats, Sasuke gets so winded that he has to stop. The vest is getting heavier with each rep. His back aches and his lungs are starving for oxygen, he can hardly catch his breath. He tries to squat down again and wobbles doing so.

“How,” he pants, “heavy is this?”

“Best you not concern yourself with the numbers,” sensei’s bunshin assures him. “Keep going.”

“Tired,” Sasuke gasps after another five jump-squats.

“What did I say when we began as a team? If you’re too tired, you can quit. Do you want to quit, Sasuke? Are you a quitter?”

If sensei had yelled that into his face, it might not have been as effective. Instead, sensei says it quietly, almost in a whisper, just loud enough for Sasuke to hear. Sasuke shivers and grits his teeth. “No, sensei.”

“Then keep going.”

“Yes, sensei.”

Sasuke jumps and jumps and jumps. He pulls and pulls and pulls. Several times he slips off the handlebar and falls on his ass; he shakes it off and jumps back up to continue. Next to him, Shikamaru is gasping just as hard, a paragon of attuned concentration; Sasuke doesn’t think Shikamaru is even aware of anything else anymore.

When Naruto finishes his block, he and Shikamaru switch places. Naruto puts the vest on and goes, “Oh shit,” adjusting its straps as he is told what to do. “A hundred each?!

“It’s only a hundred,” sensei obliquely smiles.

Only?! Sasuke wants to say, except he has no air to waste on words. True enough, he does not finish the whole three hundred within Naruto’s block, but he does finish it within Shikamaru’s block. Sensei allows him the rest of the time—a mere three minutes—to sit and catch his breath before his turn to spar again.

Oh god, Sasuke dreads, oh god, we’ve only done one round! When sensei dismisses Shikamaru (who collapses gasping on his back) and beckons Sasuke forward, he realizes, We’re gonna die.

“You’ve had a couple minutes, little one,” sensei smiles at him, almost mocking. Towards Sasuke, he crooks a finger and says, “Come.”

Inhaling, Sasuke charges forward with a cry. The world narrows down into the space between himself and sensei. His body automatically follows the possible lines of attack. At one point, when sensei blocks a slash of his ninjatō, Sasuke has enough wherewithal to release the blade and catch it with his other hand to quickly stab in from the opposite side. He almost nicks sensei’s arm, making sensei chuckle before he is bodily propelled away.

Sasuke charges in again and launches a flurry of kicks, pulling more energy from Sage knows where. Perhaps he pulls too much because for a moment his vision flickers—but with a grunt, he is able to block sensei’s kick at the last moment, bracing his arm against his ribs to protect them. How he saw that coming, he doesn’t know, but he’s glad he did, because that would have bruised his ribs badly.

Very good, little one. Just like that.”

Towards the end, Sasuke notices that his energy is flagging. The strength behind his kicks and punches is waning with each minute. Sensei calls the end of his block and he all but collapses on the ground, absolutely exhausted—and that’s only round two of four, oh shit.

Sensei leans over him with a challenging gleam in his golden eyes. “How does your body feel?”

“W—,” Sasuke gasps, “Weak.”

“Can you stand?” sensei asks, to which Sasuke shakes his head vehemently. But sensei tells him, “Yes, you can. Why do you say no?”

“M’not,” he pants, “m’not strong enough.” And as soon as the words leave his mouth, Sasuke’s eyes widen. There the curse goes again.

“Are you not?” sensei prods even further. “You seem plenty strong to me. You haven’t even tapped your chakra for this spar. I can feel it just under your skin, waiting. Why haven’t you used it?”

Just like that, a switch clicks on in Sasuke’s head. Ohhh! Chakra!

Inhaling, Sasuke concentrates on his coils and nudges them open, wider than their usual 25%—at once strength floods his limbs, rich and almost uncomfortably warm. He levers to a sitting position with a grunt. “We can use chakra to augment our physical strength!”

“Just so,” sensei smiles down at him, “when your body reaches its limits, when your muscles can give you no more, chakra will take you further. It acts like food for your muscles, providing energy and simultaneously enhancing blood flow. More blood flow, less fatigue. This is how jōnin are able to keep fighting for days with little food, water, or rest.”

“But surely,” Shikamaru pants from nearby, “surely this isn’t sustainable?” Sasuke watches him blast through the pull-ups now with chakra shrouding his body. Naruto has already stopped and is catching his breath before his spar block.

“It does have consequences if abused,” sensei nods, “liver and kidney failure foremost due to rhabdomyolysis. (9) But a healthy body is resilient and can weather this if used responsibly. This is why you must take care of yourself when you are in the village in between missions. Resting is part of your work too.”

“We could also just, you know, run out of chakra, like a normal person,” Shikamaru drops from the pull-up bar after his hundredth one.

“That is the objective I aim for everyday,” sensei readily agrees. “The more you exhaust your coils—”

“—the more chakra they produce,” all three of them finish, Shikamaru with a groan and Sasuke with a sigh.

“Okay, sensei!” Naruto hops up, “I’m ready!”

Sasuke moves aside to put on Naruto’s vest and begin his second set of three-hundred. He gives Shikamaru a high-five and drops to the ground, breathing deep before he starts the first push-up. I might not yet be strong enough, he consciously turns his thoughts around, but one day I will be. And today is one day closer to that day.

So he drops to the ground and pushes.




tbc
first draft: 2020.03.23
last edited: 2021.12.16




REFERENCES

:

(1) Seiza is how Japanese people sit on the floor, with their feet tucked under their bodies and their weight resting evenly distributed between their knees and ankles. It's the polite way of sitting anyway, I mean, you could always sprawl or sit cross-legged but that's distinctly too casual.

(2) Tell me your heard the Mulan song.

(3) Aka-dori literally translates to "red path" or "red street" and is a fun name I thought up because of course the Uchiha clan would be obsessed with everything red. Incidentally, the other street that bisects Aka-dori is called Kura-dori, or "black street" because why the fuck not, this is what worldbuilding is for!

(4) Shinto or kami-no-michi (lit. "way of the gods") is the indigenous animistic polytheistic religion of Japan. It revolves around the kami (gods or spirits), supernatural entities that are believed to inhabit all things (trees, rocks, rivers, you name it). Their shrines are easy to identify against the Buddhist ones because they have the bright red torii gates at the front, indicating that the visitor is passing from the worldly realm to the sacred grounds of a sanctified shrine. In that sense, I am pretty much saying that the entire Uchiha compound is built on shrine grounds. They do have a main shrine, however, which they call Kaguya-jinja (Kaguya shrine) after Otsutsuki Kaguya. (Worldbuilding ftw.) A little bit more on shinto: belief in kami can be traced back to the Yayoi period (300 BCE) although similar concepts existed as far back as the prehistoric Jomon period (14000-300 BCE). Today, Shinto is considered one of Japan's two predominant religions, coexisting peacefully next to Buddhism. Majority of Japanese people regularly visit both Shinto and Buddhist shrines, partaking in rituals of both religions in equal measure. Shinto involves a lot of rituals (kagura dances, seasonal festivals celebrating the sakura blooming or the harvest, age-specific milestone celebrations) that are embedded into the Japanese way of life. Shinto does not have any overarching, codified ethical doctrine other than ritual purity, reverence for kami and by extension nature, and regular participation in the communal celebration of festivals. There is, however, significant emphasis given to certain character traits - sincerity, honesty, honor - as well as ideas about goodness that revolve around beauty, aesthetic, excellence, nobility, sustainability, harmony, and conformity. It's more of a way/philosophy of life than a religion as Westerners would think of it.

(5) The haiden is the oratory or worship hall in a Shinto shrine.

shinto shrine layout

(6) Ojamashimasu. lit. "I am intruding." / fig. "Please excuse my intrusion."

(7) Honden is the shrine's main hall where the kami is enshrined. See layout above.

(8) Ninshu is the collective whole of Hagoromo’s teachings, more of a philosophy of chakra than combat techniques from what canon makes it sound like. Of course, this is me reading between the lines once again, but worldbuilding! \o/

(9) Rhabdomyolysis is what happens when you exercise too much, abuse drugs or certain meds, or suffer a severe crush injury (i.e. a car crash or falling from a really high place) that damages your large muscle groups. The rapid breakdown of skeletal muscle leads to kidney damage and disseminated intravascular coagulation, the combination of which will kill you.

(10) Kaguya-jinja is inspired by two shrines I visited in Kyoto two years ago: Kifune-jinja and the ever-famous Fushimi Inari-taisha. Below are some reference pics for your imagination: (added 2020.06.27)

kifune jinja

fushimi inari taisha

fushimi inari taisha

fushimi inari taisha

Chapter Text

018. orochimaru: tragedies

.

Three full rotations later and Orochimaru allows them rest. They collapse in an undignified heap, Naruto clumsily dropping his new fuuma shuriken to the ground and cutting his own leg.

“Oww,” the boy whimpers; the cut is superficial but nonetheless catches him by surprise.

“Idiot,” Shikamaru grunts, batting Naruto’s hand away from the wound before Naruto can touch it. “You need to learn to be more careful if you’re gonna carry big-ass blades around. Here, put this on and put some pressure on it.”

“Sensei, can you heal it?” Sasuke asks, looking up from Naruto’s other side.

Orochimaru kneels next to the boys, pushing aside the fuuma shuriken which he had gifted Naruto in an attempt to acclimate the boy to weapons readily compatible with straightforward wind jutsu. Naruto is still adjusting to the weapon’s presence, never having been able to afford something so expensive before. Orochimaru tucks his little hands away from the cut visible through the gaping slit on his pant leg and—

“It’s gone,” Shikamaru blinks, pulling the slit wider and tilting Naruto’s leg to see better. “What the fuck?”

Language,” Sasuke hisses.

“Small cuts don’t stay long,” Naruto shrugs, rubbing the spot with a frown. “They still hurt, though.”

Of course they do. Just because it doesn’t leave scars doesn’t mean you were never burned. Orochimaru’s eyes narrow into slits, considering his own enhanced healing factor, which pales against what Naruto’s body can do. He would have taken at least half an hour to passively heal such a cut, whereas Naruto’s body barely even allowed it to bleed. “Extraordinary.”

The temptation to pull Naruto open and examine every crevice of his little body is, for one moment, so blinding and so great that Orochimaru has to curl his twitching fingers into a fist.

“Ya think so, sensei?” Naruto grins up at him, and just like that, the temptation breaks like water on stone.

Orochimaru eases his face into a thoughtful expression, sitting back. “An enhanced healing factor, something you must have already inherited from your mother and further augmented by your… erstwhile tenant.”

“It wants to keep its host alive,” Shikamaru deduces with a frown, “of course.”

“I’m kinda jealous,” Sasuke pouts, “I have bruises everywhere and everything takes so long to go away.”

“You’re also super pale, though,” Naruto points out, poking his friend’s arm with a finger. “I feel like if I poke you hard enough, you’ll turn purple and blue.”

A poking contest commences between the two, something Shikamaru refuses involvement in. Orochimaru gathers the used weights aside as he ushers the boys under a tree for lunch. Observing the three dig heartily into their food, Orochimaru wonders how far the healing factor can be pushed in the field, if it will significantly impair the boy’s chakra production given a large-enough injury, and if the beast will surface in the setting of a grave threat to the boy’s life.

It is a high probability, if the seal is made in such a way that binds their spirits together.

He needs to know more about the seal. Sarutobi will not tell him any more than what he already knows. He doubts that Sarutobi knows more than what he himself already knows. The only other person who will know more about sealing and Namikaze’s techniques is—

Jiraiya, damn you. Damn you to hell sideways and six times over. Where are you when you’re needed?

Sealing is a field of ninjutsu that Orochimaru admittedly never took to. He has a functional understanding of it; he is capable of wielding it well enough to suit the usual purposes, but he has never been the expert. He has never had the ease with which Jiraiya modifies and creates seals. Chakra, for him, has always been easier to wield in the immediate present and with his own body, instead of shaping it with words and symbols to fit over an inanimate object. The thought of that makes him inwardly shudder with contempt.

They treat human hosts like inanimate objects.

Orochimaru watches over the bright-haired boy, currently bartering his fried fish for Shikamaru’s agedashi tofu, and has to commend Namikaze once again for the brazen, painful commitment it must have taken to seal the beast into his own son.

Just a boy, he thinks, reaching over to give Naruto one more piece of fish from his own bento. Just a boy, burdened with great purpose.

“Sensei, I’m fine!” Naruto tries to refuse, but Orochimaru clicks his tongue once and the boy desists. Good. There is still plenty of room for Naruto to grow. Namikaze and Uzumaki Kushina were both rather tall; remedy the nutritional deficit and this boy will sprout like weed soon enough.

Sasuke begins to lecture Naruto about proteins as Shikamaru wraps up his empty bento. The little Nara then proceeds to unwrap a thermos full of fragrant tea from the bottom of his pack, an anti-inflammatory blend Orochimaru approves of. “Your mother’s idea?”

“Gotta do what I can do to help my body,” Shikamaru shrugs, shooting a sideways look at Naruto, “considering I don’t have a crazy insane healing factor.”

Yet again with the misplaced jealousy. Orochimaru chuckles, letting it slide. Once they are on field missions, Shikamaru will begin to see his own advantages over the other two and desist with this sense of nonexistent inadequacy. Simply a difference in aptitudes. It’s only a matter of time.

Another ten minutes spent sipping tea and Orochimaru gathers them round once again. “Are we ready to proceed, little ones?” He smiles at the chorus of determined yeses that echo back at him.

“What are we doing today, sensei?” Naruto eagerly leans forward.

“Chakra modulation? Chakra transformation?” Sasuke follows, eyes bright with eagerness and verve.

“Jutsu,” Orochimaru tells them, “specifically your second elemental one.” He procures three thin scrolls from his sleeve, laying one out before each boy. Naruto crows and immediately grabs his. Sasuke gasps with excitement. Even Shikamaru leans forward with a tiny grin.

“Wind… Shield?” Naruto tilts his head in that peculiar way of his, bird-like and curious. “I think that’s shield.”

“Good job, that’s shield. Kazedate,” Sasuke affirms like a good friend while in the process of unrolling his own scroll. “Oh, another lightning jutsu! Raimatou. Lightning Cloak?”

Doukutsu,” Shikamaru brandishes his own scroll at his teammates. “I was already trying to learn this, it makes a dome thing around you, dead useful if you get it right, I saw Shimizu-obaa use it during a spar.” He turns to Orochimaru and notes, “A shield, a cloak, a dome. They’re all defensive jutsu.”

“Correct,” Orochimaru nods, pleased. “A well-rounded shinobi arms himself with both offensive and defensive jutsu. Although I am of the opinion that the best defense is the strongest offense, it never hurts to be prepared in case you are caught on the back foot.”

He beckons them to spread their scrolls open on the ground, showing them how each jutsu still only consists of three or four hand seals. They are simple enough and require only minute amounts of fine chakra control that Orochimaru expects them to have the set down before the end of the week.

“You have already learned one elemental jutsu last week. You will apply the same procedure when learning your second one this week. First, you must learn the seals,” Orochimaru guides Naruto’s clumsy hands into a dragon, “and then you will channel the element and attempt to bend it into the desired shape.”

“They’re still single-step shape transformation jutsu,” Shikamaru nods, quickly reading through his entire scroll first before making an attempt at forming the seals.

“Precisely so. These three techniques will require more chakra from you than the ones you learned last week; can any of you tell me why?”

This time the answer comes from Sasuke’s quarter. “This jutsu makes me wrap myself in my element,” the little Uchiha says, “and so that means that I have to pour more chakra out, all over my body instead of just in my hands…?”

“Very good, Sasuke. What does that mean for you when you are using it in combat?”

Sasuke frowns, puzzling over the scroll with furrowed brows. “Um, I’ll run out of chakra faster?”

“Which means…?”

“I have to use it sparingly,” Sasuke’s brows smooth over as he realizes what lesson Orochimaru is trying to impart. “I have to quickly turn it on and off—only activate it when I’m about to get hit but otherwise leave it off because I don’t need it all the time! Oh, that’s gonna be hard,” the boy frowns again, deeper this time.

“With enough practice, you will be able to activate it on reflex, in the split-second before a hit lands on you. Chakra has memory, much like your body does. It will remember.” Orochimaru pats his dark little head and moves on to Shikamaru, who has his lanky arms crossed while reading through the scroll. “Difficulties, Shikamaru?”

“No, just curious.”

A strong gust of wind then swirls around Naruto, knocking him flat on his back with a yelp. “Oops?”

“Goddamnit, slow down!” Shikamaru snarled, yanking his scroll closer to his knees and shooting a glare at his teammates.

“Impressive,” Orochimaru smiles down at the blonde boy. “Now pull it tighter around your body and sustain it. If you can manage enough control, you can refine the wind into a contiguous shield that looks like this.” He pulls his own chakra around himself and transforms it into a very thin, almost translucent layer of rippling water that Naruto attempts to touch. The chakra repels him; he pulls away with another yelp.

“That’s so cool,” Sasuke breathes quietly from Naruto’s other side, wide eyes admiring Orochimaru’s water shield until he dismisses it.

Orochimaru claps his hands. “Now—to work, little ones. Begin.”




Within two hours, there is observable progress. Shikamaru has managed to pull a full dome around himself, albeit small and a tad crumbly at the top. Naruto continues to summon large, almost uncontrolled gusts of wind around himself, but he is pulling it into a tighter radius each time. Sasuke crackles away on the other corner, already shifting the mass of his chakra from one side of the body to the other, proof of the boy’s intuitive understanding of how to use the shield in combat.

Orochimaru thinks of the little Uchiha’s elder brother, gifted with a similar propensity for chakra manipulation and a rippling core promising immense power. Both brothers are battle-born and indeed testaments to the very best the Uchiha bloodline can offer. A shame Orochimaru did not have the opportunity to mold the elder one as well; what a fine weapon he would have been able to make out of that raw potential! He inhales at the tempting thought.

I have this one to cultivate, though, Orochimaru watches over Sasuke, whose eyes are closed in concentration, and I’m beginning to think I drew the better lot.

Sasuke holds unnamed potential but without the messy complications Itachi brings from his involvement in the Uchiha clan’s internal turmoil. If Orochimaru plays his hand with care, Sasuke will remain largely underappreciated within his clan’s political machinations, allowing him to evade the pressures of clan-born expectations beyond the pale. Sasuke will bloom unnoticed until such a time that his evolution can be ignored no more.

At an ideal breaking point, Orochimaru calls an end to the exercise, earning a whine from Naruto’s quarter and a displeased grunt from Shikamaru.

“I almost had it,” the little Nara grumbles, punching through the earthen dome he has repeatedly created around himself, each time a little sturdier and more substantial. “The top and back parts just don’t want to close thickly enough.”

“It’s a matter of chakra distribution,” Orochimaru hints. “You tend to not visualize what you routinely cannot see.”

Shikamaru’s eyes grow wide. “Oh!”

“Now, moving on—”

“Aw, sensei!

“—we are learning another basic movement. Up you get.”

The three children totter to their feet, each day more graceful than the last. Orochimaru brings them to the middle of the ground once again. Around them yawns empty space, plenty enough for the children to share, plenty of space to stumble and fail without hurting themselves. When he has their undivided attention at last, Orochimaru vanishes from sight and reappears halfway across the ground.

“Whoa!” Naruto gasps, clutching at Sasuke’s shoulder. Sasuke, for his part, only narrows those dark, observant eyes. Shikamaru clicks his tongue and says, “Shunshin, I knew it.”

Orochimaru flashes back towards them, coming to a perfect measured stop a step away from the children.

“Indeed, shunshin is our next skill to learn. It appears difficult but in truth, it is basic. Every genin masters it before they are able to promote to chuunin, hence it is known as the first milestone skill.” Orochimaru considers the two clan-born heirs and asks, “What do you know about it?”

Shikamaru says, “It looks like you’re disappearing, but it’s just because you’re moving so fast that our eyes can’t follow you.”

“Correct, and?”

“You use chakra to augment your movement so that you can be much faster than what the eye can see.”

“Again, correct. And?”

Shikamaru scratches the back of his head. Instead of answering, Sasuke drops his weight backwards and balances on the balls of his feet, frowning with an intense cast of concentration. Chakra burgeons from the boy’s core, flowing downwards and gathering towards his feet, before exploding in a bright burst of power. Sasuke vanishes in a flash and reappears halfway across the clearing, his imperfect shunshin breaking rough and landing him face-first into the dirt.

Orochimaru does not even fight his smile.

Whoa!” Naruto yelps, louder this time, jumping half a foot into the air. “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Sasuke can already do it!”

Sasuke hops back up to his feet, scrubbing his cheek as he concentrates and attempts the same feat again. The boy flashes out and then back into sight, miscalculating his landing by two feet and barreling right into his teammates. Orochimaru catches him by the shoulder, righting them all before they can get hurt. Naruto crows in delight; Shikamaru only drops his head backwards in defeat.

“You’re killing me,” Shikamaru sighs at Sasuke.

Sasuke gives them a little grin, elbowing Shikamaru in turn. “It’s actually easier than the spider-walking stuff! You’ll get it in no time. You just—just put chakra to your feet and go!” The boy makes a forward-shoving motion with his arms in an attempt to communicate rapid movement. “Like—like the time when we were jumping in the trees, but much faster. It doesn’t need as much thinking as the spider-walking, at least I don’t think so.”

Orochimaru steps aside to allow Naruto to give it a try. With eagerness, Naruto loads an excessive amount of chakra to his feet and flies—

Oof.

Shikamaru sighs, “Idiot.”

It would have been a successful shunshin if Naruto didn’t trip over his own feet. Orochimaru flashes over and helps the boy up, examining the fine bruise blooming on his jaw. “Not to worry; in a minute, it’ll begin to fade.”

“Woops, hehehe,” Naruto bashfully rubs the back of his head, “sorry, sensei, I think I tripped!”

“You are using a lot of chakra to propel your body into motion,” Orochimaru tells them, “therefore you must take care and pay attention to your environment. This is why I have given you a wide-open space to practice for the week. There are almost no obstacles for you here; you can pour as little or as much power as you wish into your shunshin. However, things become more complicated when you are in environments that are riddled with obstacles: for example, the forest.”

“Or the town,” Shikamaru notes, “it takes a lot of control to use shunshin effectively in town, what with all the people everywhere.”

“Precisely. You are correct, Sasuke, when you say that shunshin does not require as much thought or control as water- or vertical walking. Not until you begin to factor in environmental obstacles, or the complicated dance of combat, or a mission that requires absolute stealth. How do you channel enough power to your shunshin without giving your position away to enemies?”

Sasuke frowns, “Is that possible, sensei?”

“Certainly.”

Sasuke mulls on it and Orochimaru allows him, turning back to Shikamaru instead. “Give it a shot, little one. You might surprise yourself.”

After a false start, Shikamaru flashes out and manages to break several meters away without falling over, already a sight more controlled than his peers. “Okay, that wasn’t so bad. I didn’t go as far as they did, but that wasn’t so bad.”

Orochimaru sets a distance for them—half the ground, or two dozen meters apart—and begins a structured exercise. “You will go back and forth between these lines. Do your best to be as precise as possible: begin exactly there and stop exactly here. Try your best not to fall. When you are more comfortable, do each shunshin faster. Do it with less chakra. Don’t scuff the ground. Don’t hurt yourself. If you can, do several in a row. You have the rest of the afternoon; begin.”

 

If anything, the boys are always intent learners. Shikamaru might grumble and sometimes Naruto might whine, but they are a proactive team. Orochimaru acknowledges his good fortune and makes a note to commend Shikaku for a job well done, having raised a strong heir for the Nara clan. Even more impressive are the other two for having grown into what they are now with minimal guidance from parental figures. He supposes some credit can also be given to the little Uchiha’s grandmother, who seems to have had a significant hand in shaping the boy’s manners.

Idly, Orochimaru notes that Naruto needs to pour less chakra into his shunshin; he keeps breaking roughly and catching himself on a knee, or worse, on his face. It’s an enduring feature when Naruto attempts something new. Orochimaru then wonders if Naruto finds it difficult to channel small amounts of chakra because of the seal acting as a barrier; a point to consider for later, another reason to further investigate the seal.

There are books and old scrolls in the Hokage’s library about such seals, he is certain of it. He simply needs access to them. Sneaking in is not much of a difficulty, but he prefers having the luxury of taking the scrolls home for extended perusal. Orochimaru sighs; he will have to ask.

Perhaps I’ll tell sensei I am concerned about the seal’s integrity, he considers, although that might alarm the Council and they might attempt to take Naruto from me. Hmm.

Sarutobi is far easier to manipulate than the Council; the old man will be inclined towards indulging the curiosity of his favorite student if he deems it harmless enough. Besides, Sarutobi is unlikely to allow the Council power over Konoha’s genin team placements; that would be a breach of the Hokage’s traditional powers, and it would set a dangerous precedent. No, Sarutobi will not allow them to take Naruto away from Team Seven, not anymore.

Well,
Naruto will not allow the Council to take him away from his friends, Orochimaru notes with pleasure, not anymore.

The boy is far too attached now, his strange bond with the little Uchiha growing thicker and stronger every day. There is something foreboding about the two of them, especially when they have their heads bent together like so: one light and one dark, a sun and a moon, two sides of a very sharp blade. Orochimaru watches them and wonders at the strange feeling, perhaps a harbinger of things to come, like the static in the air before a powerful thunderstorm, or the kinetic thrum in the earth before it shakes. Konoha is no stranger to such bonds; Konoha has birthed plenty of them.

Konoha is, in fact, founded upon one such bond.

Sudden like lightning, Orochimaru thinks of Madara and Hashirama, two halves of one legend. He recognizes what they built and remembers how much they destroyed. Across the training ground, as Naruto catches Sasuke by the elbow when they break their shunshin together with shared laughter, as their twin grins glint bright under the summer sun, Orochimaru wishes fervently that their legend does not spell the same sort of tragedy such a bond seems to always bring.

But legends become legends precisely because they are tragedies.

Watching over three boys, Orochimaru remembers his own team—three Team Sevens ago—and mourns what once was even as he looks upon what can be.

I cannot let them become the same tragedy.




His meandering thoughts accompany him for the rest of the evening as he makes his way towards the Jōnin Taikijō (1). He dismissed the children with directives for the following day and sent Naruto home with strict instructions to soak in the bath for half an hour and then help with dinner. Tenzo will be home, perhaps Anko if she is otherwise unoccupied; Naruto will have plenty of oversight.

The station is well-populated for a weekday night, jōnin milling indoors with a few clustered outside for a smoke. Asuma is one of them, dipping a respectful greeting to Orochimaru as he approaches from the street.

“Asuma, if you have a moment,” Orochimaru pauses by the door, which startles several of the loitering jōnin into stuttered coughs.

“A-Ah, yes, Orochimaru-sama, of course,” Asuma blinks, rocking forward from his recline against the wall and following Orochimaru indoors. The man keeps his head at a respectful half-bow the entire time, still deferring to Orochimaru’s authority despite having made his own name in the field over the past decade. It seems only yesterday when Asuma was a child himself, dogging Jiraiya and Orochimaru’s steps, begging for neat tricks and shuriken practice.

What maudlin thoughts I entertain today, Orochimaru sighs at himself, perhaps I am getting too old for this.

“I wish to speak with the other jōnin-sensei. Do you know if they are here?” Orochimaru asks even as he turns the corner towards the mess hall and pans his eyes over the small crowd.

Asuma inhales and says, “Uh, Kurenai is here, I know for sure. I might have seen Gai earlier.”

“There he is,” Orochimaru easily spots Gai, who is talking at a bored-looking Hatake Kakashi. “Will you find Yuuhi and bring her to me?”

Asuma bows and veers away, already knowing where to go. Orochimaru wonders if Asuma has finally gathered the wherewithal to commit to a relationship with her, or if he is dithering much like his own father did when Sarutobi was courting Biwako.

Hatake sees him approaching and stiffens, before making his slouch even more pronounced. Beside him, the elder Uchiha straightens, eyes wide in ill-concealed surprise. Gai, predictably, does not notice until Hatake kicks him.

“…and you should sp—oh—oh, Orochimaru-sama!” Gai all but shrieks, calling the attention of the entire hall. Now everyone is paying attention, even people Orochimaru did not need to involve.

“Gai. I have a matter I wish to discuss with you,” Orochimaru opens, expertly containing the urge to sigh as Gai begins to vibrate with predictable intensity. Asuma appears at a timely manner with Yuuhi Kurenai in tow, their addition then making it obvious what Orochimaru wishes to speak about.

“Something about the kids?” Yuuhi presumes correctly.

“Ah, shit, they haven’t pissed you off this early, have they?” Asuma sighs, rubbing the back of his neck.

“On the contrary, they continue to exceed my expectations every day. Sasuke comes close to mastering shunshin in one afternoon; his aptitude is extraordinary,” Orochimaru adds with a glance towards Itachi. He returns his attention towards the three other jōnin-sensei and says, “I would like to propose a joint activity, perhaps three or four weeks from now, when you feel that your students are ready.”

“Oh dear,” Hatake chuckles darkly.

“What sort of activity?” Yuuhi asks, cocking her hip against Asuma’s in blatant passive flirtation.

Asuma pretends not to notice, of course. “Just us?” he questions, “Not including the other teams?”

“Too many teams and it gets too chaotic,” Orochimaru considers. “I am opting for those I know are familiar with my boys. Shikamaru is quite friendly with several of your students. It will make for a more interesting exercise if they are able to somewhat predict each other.”

“What a beautiful idea!” Gai enthusiastically agrees, “Please, Orochimaru-sama, allow me to participate!” Orochimaru catches the eyeroll Hatake responds with on the side.

“Yeah, but what sort of activity?” Yuuhi repeats, this time with a frown. “I’ll need to forewarn the girls. They have… delicate constitutions.”

“Isn’t it your job to toughen them up?” Hatake blandly remarks.

“That takes time and, you know, missions,” Yuuhi irritably sighs, “I haven’t had the opportunity to break them yet.”

“I defer to your judgment, of course, as you are their sensei,” Orochimaru tilts his head, “but this activity might serve as a useful stimulus to further their growth.” And then, when he realizes he still hasn’t told them what sort of activity he is proposing, he smiles, “I am thinking of war games.”

Hatake hacks out, “Oh shit. Can I watch?”

“If you’re quiet about it,” Orochimaru benevolently grants. “It wouldn’t do for us to distract the children from their tasks.”

“You’re far too bored for your own good,” Yuuhi frowns at Hatake, “You’re pretty much healed up now, shouldn’t you be taking missions again?”

“We submitted for medical leave already and it’s too much work to amend it and make it shorter,” Uchiha Itachi softly responds. “He’s being nice and letting the rest of us take it easy for another week.”

“I gotta watch this though,” Hatake brings the conversation back around, “When will it be? We’ll make sure to get back in time.”

“As I said, three to four weeks from now,” Orochimaru looks to the other jōnin-sensei for confirmation.

“Let’s do four weeks,” Asuma nods, mouthing words around an unlit cigarette. “This’ll give the brats something to work towards.”

“Motivation!” Gai cheers, volume excessive as usual for the occasion.

“Then we are agreed,” Orochimaru tucks his hands into his sleeves with a pleased air. “I shall reserve Ground Nine. Four weeks from now, shall we say Friday?”

“Friday,” nods all around, each one beginning to consider how to prepare their students for the coming exercise.

“That is all, thank you for your time,” Orochimaru dismisses them, turning then to Hatake for another matter of concern. “Hatake, since you seem relatively free, walk with me.”

Hatake’s eyebrows go up as far as his hairline, but the man does stand up to follow. Itachi also cautiously stands, following when Orochimaru inclines his head to allow it. They leave the mess hall and step outside, the village now lit up around them after dark, Orochimaru putting some distance between the three of them and the station. He flashes into shunshin through the streets and across the market, all the way until they are at the edge of his property. At the front steps, he drops the wards and lets them in.

“You’re welcome to stay for dinner if you should like,” Orochimaru folds the wards over them once again, the shimmer of ancient chakra shrouding the house in an age-old embrace. “I have questions that might warrant lengthy answers.”

Hatake’s shoulders are tight and on guard, one eye dark with caution. “I’m not sure I’ll have answers for you.”

“How much do you know about Namikaze’s seals?” Orochimaru asks without prevarication, engendering a jerk of surprise from Hatake. “I have observed that Naruto has difficulty channeling small amounts of chakra, perhaps because the seal is too high of a barrier that he requires a larger amount to overcome it and mobilize his coils. The pattern has been consistent with every skill and technique I teach him.”

“And you want to, what, fuck with the seal to help that?” Hatake asks, incredulous.

“Certainly, if it is feasible and does not cause lasting harm to the child,” Orochimaru evenly responds. “It impedes his learning and serves only to frustrate him. He thinks he has no aptitude with jutsu when in truth he is quite talented. He simply has an unfortunate handicap.”

“You do recall what that seal holds,” Hatake points out.

“Quite. But I also recall that neither Uzumaki Mito nor Uzumaki Kushina had any difficulty wielding their chakra while carrying the self-same seal,” Orochimaru counters, “unless of course it isn’t the same seal.” When Hatake opens his mouth in anger, Orochimaru preempts him by saying, “I am not questioning Namikaze’s intentions, Hatake, calm yourself. I am merely saying that he was operating, at the time, under extreme duress. His wife had just gone through a traumatic childbirth. His newborn was unprotected. His village was burning. There was plenty of room for error that night, or perhaps room for intentional improvisation. After all, a beast of such power has never before been sealed into a newborn.”

Hatake pauses and appears to consider this with a twisted frown that Orochimaru can see plainly even with the cover of his mask. “I don’t… Jiraiya-sama is the expert at seals.”

“I am acutely aware of this, but Jiraiya is elsewhere at the moment and therefore unable to help.”

Hatake shakes his head once. “I would—have to see the seal.”

“I thought as much,” Orochimaru nods. “Naruto is inside, and dinner should be ready. Would you like to come in?”

He turns and opens the door.




tbc
first draft: 2020.04.29
last edited: 2021.12.16




REFERENCES:

(1) Jōnin Taikijō – Jōnin Standby Station, where off-duty jōnin hang out & gossip like fishwives make themselves available for the next assignment.

Chapter Text

019. naruto: brothers

.

Naruto is working on his kanji notebook when the door opens to herald sensei arriving home.

“Okaerinasai!” he cheerfully yells out, making one last scribble on the kanji he’s trying to make sense of, before gathering his things to stash them aside. Dinner has actually been ready for some time, but he and Tenzo-nii are more than happy to wait for sensei so they can eat as a family.

Naruto grins to himself at the thought. I have a family now!

Sensei’s response is soft and indistinct from the genkan, but soon he emerges from the hallway in a faint rustle of cloth. There are two people behind him.

“Oh,” Naruto blinks, “Taichou-san-sama and Sasuke’s aniki!”

“Staying for dinner?” Tenzo-nii nods to his teammates in greeting. “Good thing I made extra rice.”

“I can help,” Sasuke’s brother quietly says, following Tenzo-nii out of the sitting room and towards the kitchen.

“Hi,” Naruto hops up and grins at Tenzo-nii’s Scary Taichou. “Whatcha doin’ here?”

“He is here on my invitation, Naruto. Come now, put your things away,” sensei instructs, so Naruto gathers his notebooks in arm and troops down the hallway to put them in his room. He wonders why sensei asked Scary Taichou over. Maybe something about Tenzo-nii’s missions?

He takes the opportunity to empty his bladder and wash his hands in the bathroom before heading for the dining room. When he gets there, almost everyone is seated except for Tenzo-nii, who brings the pot of nikujaga to the table with a pair of mitts on.

“It’s hot, don’t touch,” Tenzo-nii warns Naruto.

“I can wait,” Naruto scowls, “I’m not Chouji!”

Everyone waits until sensei has been served, the polite thing to do since it’s his house and his food. When Naruto gets his serving, he chirps a hearty “Itadakimasu!” before digging in. Sage almighty, nikujaga is delicious. Naruto sees now why Shikamaru loves it so much. In between mouthfuls, he wonders if Shikamaru’s mom had a special recipe for it and if she’d be willing to share. Maybe Naruto can learn how to make it too. It wouldn’t be fair if Sasuke’s the only one to cook for them on field missions after all, and Naruto’s trying to be a good friend.

He looks up and notes that while Scary Taichou was quietly enjoying his own bowl, Sasuke’s aniki had only a small serving of rice and was more intent on the miso soup Tenzo-nii had also prepared. Naruto frowns and asks, “Um, are you not hungry?”

Sasuke’s aniki looks up with those dark, thoughtful eyes and smiles. “I can’t eat a full meal yet since I sustained an internal injury during our last mission.”

“Oh, no,” Naruto gasps, “are you gonna be ok?”

“I’ll be fine, thank you. I’m easing back into it,” Sasuke’s aniki nods.

“Ok, great, because Sasuke would be super sad if you weren’t, and I don’t want Sasuke to be sad!”

Something about that might have been the wrong thing to say, because Sasuke’s aniki freezes with a blank expression.

Naruto looks to sensei for help, but sensei only smiles, encouraging. So Naruto continues, “Um, you know, Sasuke really wants to see you, but um, I think you haven’t visited in a while. Oh! By the way, I don’t even know your name, I keep calling you ‘Sasuke’s aniki’ in my head—I’m Naruto, what’s your name?”

The expression on Sasuke’s aniki’s face breaks like clouds over sunlight. “Itachi. Thank you for being such a good friend to Sasuke, Naruto-kun.”

Naruto grins back, “He’s my first friend! He’s seriously awesome, d’you know he got shunshin down in, like, one day? Today! It was awesome.”

“Sasuke’s certainly very smart,” Itachi-nii agrees amiably, picking a piece of soft yam from the side dish that had his serving of nikujaga. As soon as he takes that piece, Scary Taichou adds another one to it. “He also works very hard and studies diligently with our grandmother. Bit of a nerd, that one,” Itachi-nii adds conspiratorially.

Naruto snickers. “He and Shika both are! They made me this kanji notebook and are giving me test days, they’re being like the teachers at the Academy! Who even does that?”

“Kanji notebook?” Itachi-nii asks. “What for?”

“Oh, to help me with reading an’ stuff,” Naruto rubs the back of his head, still a little shy about the fact that he can’t read. But sensei says it’s nothing to be ashamed of, so he pushes away the shame and focuses on the warmth he feels when he thinks of how his friends have worked so hard to help him. “M’not very good at kanji so they’re helping me so I can read the seal scrolls and learn how to do ‘em!”

“You’re learning sealing?” Scary Taichou looks up in surprise.

“Ya!” Naruto grins proudly. “Sensei says I’m good at them and I can get even better.”

“Speaking of sealing,” sensei puts down his chopsticks and levels Naruto with a look, “that is why I have invited our guests here tonight. Naruto, I would like Hatake to take a look at your seal, if that’s alright.”

Naruto blinks in surprise. “Uh, my seal tags? I mean, sure? But Taichou-san-sama’s a jōnin, can’t he make better ones than mine?”

“Not your seal tags,” Orochimaru amends, “but the seal that holds your bijuu, the Kyuubi.”

That gives Naruto a real pause. What does that even mean? How will the Scary Taichou look at it? Will it hurt? Naruto is confused.

“I’m confused,” he says, because he can’t think of anything else to respond with. “What does that mean?”

Sensei takes a sip of his tea and then explains, “As we have sparred and worked through our chakra exercises, I have noticed that you are having consistent difficulty channeling small amounts of chakra through your coils. You have no problems, however, with techniques that require large surges of chakra. For example, it took you a while to master vertical walking, which requires a small and steady stream of chakra supplied to your feet, whereas it took you one afternoon to perform shunshin, a technique that requires bursts of chakra in larger amounts. Do you follow?”

Naruto nods, shoving another piece of meat to his mouth in the meantime.

“I am therefore of a thought that the seal your father used to keep the bijuu within you is somehow hampering your coils from releasing small amounts of chakra,” sensei continues, “like a wall that keeps a low tide of water back, but can be overwhelmed with a large wave otherwise.”

Naruto makes a noise of interest. Sensei is so smart. “I never noticed that!”

“But why, though?” Tenzo-nii wonders, “It’s hard to fathom that the Yondaime-sama made such an elementary mistake. He wasn’t exactly inexperienced with the seal.”

“Perhaps a failsafe,” sensei tips his head towards Tenzo-nii, “because a bijuu has never been sealed within a newborn before. It might serve to prevent Naruto from accidentally tapping the bijuu’s chakra during daily life activities, while still allowing him to release surges for whenever he is in danger and needs it. This is pure conjecture on my part, however, and we won’t know for certain unless we have a look at the seal and study its workings.”

“Does the Hokage know of this?” Scary Taichou asks, voice low and laced with an undertone Naruto doesn’t know how to read. Something passes between Scary Taichou and sensei, something heavy. Naruto stuffs his mouth with more rice to prevent himself from interrupting: this is important somehow. He needs to shut up and pay attention.

“He does,” sensei assures Scary Taichou. “He has given me due permission to watch over Naruto and train him as I see fit. That includes seeing to the integrity of the seal.”

Sensei neatly bisects a piece of yama-imo with just his chopsticks. Scary Taichou hasn’t moved.

“What would I have to do, sensei?” Naruto asks curiously, “How will you look at the seal?”

“A diagnostic jutsu,” sensei smiles down at him with reassurance, “painless and relatively easy. It allows the caster to visualize seals that might be hidden on a host or an object. It is a useful tool for you to add to your arsenal.”

Oh, that would be cool, Naruto thinks, knowing now from his (slow) readings that seals can be made invisible after they’re drawn. After all, it would be useless if an enemy shinobi sees the seal on a weapon and immediately guesses its purpose. Naruto doesn’t need Shikamaru to tell him to understand that seals are best when part of a trap or a sneaky trick.

So he swallows his mouthful of juicy beef and says, “Ok, cool! We can do it after dinner?”

Sensei nods, exchanging another look with Scary Taichou, who returns to his food with a thoughtful air. Naruto shovels more rice in and looks at Itachi-nii (can Naruto call him that?), who is also deep in thought, sipping on his miso soup. Everyone is deep in thought! Shikamaru would have loved to be here.

They finish dinner in short order, Tenzo-nii and Itachi-nii taking over clean-up so that Naruto can sit with sensei and Scary Taichou for the diagnostic jutsu. It’s also a seal, which Naruto finds a little funny but sensible, and it has to be drawn on his skin to work. Sensei hands Scary Taichou a brush and an inkpot, all the while urging Naruto to lay down.

“Again, this will not hurt,” sensei reassures him, “although it might tingle a little.”

“I’m fine, sensei!” Naruto grins, holding up the hem of his shirt to his collarbones so that Scary Taichou has space to paint on his chest and belly. “You don’t gotta worry so much, I’m not scared of pain.”

Something passes over sensei’s face at that, but he doesn’t say anything in response. He only pets a hand through Naruto’s hair; Naruto’s eyes flutter shut. That feels nice.

The brush is soft and makes him squirm; the ink is a little cold.

“Ticklish? I’m almost done,” Scary Taichou quietly tells him.

Naruto wiggles his toes and tries not too move too much. “I don’t know if I’m ticklish cuz I’ve never had anyone tickle me before.”

“We can certainly get Sasuke to remedy that,” sensei chuckles to him, a mischievous glint in his eyes.

“Sasuke’s feet are ticklish,” Itachi-nii says as he comes into the sitting room with Tenzo-nii right behind him. Itachi-nii also has a mischievous smile. “If you get him pinned down—and make sure he’s well pinned down, he’s got strong legs—all it takes is a stroke to the arch of his foot.”

“Oooh,” Naruto grins, “thanks, Itachi-nii! I can definitely use that!”

“You didn’t hear it from me,” Itachi-nii warns.

Naruto makes a zipping motion over his lips.

“All done,” Scary Taichou calls his attention back, “now stay still.” Naruto freezes. Scary Taichou makes four rapid hand seals—tiger, dragon, tiger, rat—and puts a palm over the lines he drew on Naruto’s chest. Chakra ripples over Naruto’s body—foreign chakra, warm and prickly like static crawling under his skin—and then it’s done. Sensei and Scary Taichou both lean over him with scary focused laser eyes. Naruto then realizes that they’re looking at his chest and belly.

“What is it?” Naruto scrunches up, trying to see whatever they’re looking at. “What’sit say?”

A large seal spirals out from his belly button, black ink crawling all the way up his chest and around his flank. The spiral is made up of tiny kanji slithering over each other in a dizzying pattern. Naruto understands none of it beyond the fact that it’s a very powerful seal.

“How ingenious,” sensei says, pleasure clear upon his face. “An Eight Trigrams Seal.”

“More than that,” Scary Taichou murmurs, tracing a finger across one of the black squiggles on Naruto’s belly. “The two Four Symbols Seals almost entirely overlap, but not quite.” (1)

“Namikaze would not have jeopardized his newborn son,” sensei continues. “The lock is very tight. There are safeguards too, here and here and here,” sensei traces a line up Naruto’s chest, “although I am not sure what conditions are required for their activation. Perhaps a fatal threat upon Naruto’s life.”

“Or if someone tries to take the bijuu out,” Naruto quips. All four of them—sensei, Scary Taichou, Itachi-nii, and Tenzo-nii—look up at him with various levels of surprise. “What? Shikamaru said if you can put it in, you can take it out, right?”

Sensei chuckles, “Indeed. That boy’s intelligence never fails to surprise me.”

“There are eight safeguards,” Scary Taichou taps each one of them around Naruto’s belly button, “on top of an Eight Trigrams Seal. Maybe one for each tenketsu gate?”

Naruto suddenly recalls the morning they spent listening to sensei talk about the eight gates. The gates are supposed to direct chakra flow throughout the body. They can be pried open, which means they can also be sealed shut.

“That would certainly explain why he has such a hard time channeling small amounts of chakra,” sensei hums, folding his hands underneath his sleeves. “To overcome these, he has to work.”

“Sensei wouldn’t have put them there for no reason,” Scary Taichou sighs. “I wish I knew more about the seal that Kushina-san wore, but I never saw it or asked about it. I never had reason to.”

“No one expected the turn of those events,” sensei reasons with Scary Taichou, as if to tell him it’s not his fault. “Even I didn’t see that incident coming.”

Naruto can’t process anything sensei is saying anymore, though, because he’s stuck on what Scary Taichou just said. He said ‘sensei’. He called my dad—the shinobi who put this seal on me, my dad—he called him sensei.

Blinking against the sensation of his entire world shifting again around him, Naruto gasps, “Taichou-san-sama, were you my dad’s student?!”

Everyone in the room freezes all of a sudden, as if Naruto has caught them all doing something they shouldn’t have been doing. Naruto levers up to one elbow and uses the other hand to grab Scary Taichou’s arm.

“Na, what was he like? Were you in his genin team? Did he go on missions with you and stuff? Did he teach you any cool jutsu?” the questions tumble out of his mouth in poorly contained excitement.

“Slowly, Naruto,” sensei lays a hand on his shoulder. “You are not being polite.”

“Oh, s-sorry,” Naruto sheepishly ducks his head, laying down again so they can finish looking at the seal. He fidgets with the hem of his shirt and bites his lip. “I just—haven’t really met anyone who knew my dad before?”

“Actually, you have,” Scary Taichou tells him, voice hoarse and eyes bright with something that might have been grief. “Almost everyone in the village knows him. Those old enough to remember, anyway.”

“But,” Naruto frowns, “no one tells me anything, except for sensei.” And then, reminded of that terrible, horrible night when Sasuke brought him to this house and sensei sat them down for a very long conversation, Naruto remembers why. His mouth twists downwards. “No one’s allowed to tell me anything.”

“That,” Scary Taichou’s throat works through a swallow, “and I’ve also been avoiding this for a while. My fault. Not yours.”

Sensei levels Scary Taichou with an expression that almost looks… impressed? Sensei says, “You were barely an adult when Namikaze passed. No one expected you to take responsibility for a newborn. You wouldn’t have known what to do with Naruto; you barely knew what to do with yourself.”

Scary Taichou ducks his head at that, acknowledging the truth of the statement. Naruto looks between the two of them and asks, “Taichou-san-sama saa, how old are you?”

Scary Taichou blinks and says, “Twenty-six.”

Old,” Naruto wrinkles his nose. He can’t imagine growing so old. But that means that Scary Taichou was… fifteen when Naruto’s dad died twelve years ago. “So you were in my dad’s genin team, or did you learn from him after you graduated from genin?”

“No, I’m in… I was in his team,” Scary Taichou confirms, voice quieter this time. “Maybe… maybe I’ll tell you about that some other time.”

Naruto squints up at him, this stranger who isn’t such a stranger after all, and has to wonder: how much more does he miss my dad since he got to know him well? Naruto has a hard time imagining it, so he thinks instead: what if it was sensei who died and I never get to see him again?

The thought almost makes him physically recoil. Sensei can’t die. Sensei is family now, his only family, so sensei can’t die. Naruto won’t allow it.

That realization makes him incredibly sad. It must have been so hard for Scary Taichou after Naruto’s dad died. He wonders if Scary Taichou has any other family left or if he, like Naruto, is alone. He wonders if Scary Taichou can be family too.

“’Kay, well, you gotta promise,” Naruto finally decides, pinning Scary Taichou down with a look while sensei is copying the squiggly seal on his belly into a scroll. “Promise that you’ll tell me more about my dad, yeah? Cuz I don’t got anyone else I can ask.”

Scary Taichou takes a moment to respond, but he eventually does. “Right. Promise.”

Satisfied, Naruto nods and then turns to sensei instead. Scary Taichou looks like he needs a break from the attention. “Sensei, d’you think you can fix the seal so I can use chakra easier now?”

“I need to study the seal first, Naruto. It won’t do to be hasty with a seal this powerful and well-cast. And I don’t need to remind you what it holds,” sensei chides. “Rest assured I shall ask the Hokage for his input as well. Namikaze might have told him something that sheds a clue.”

“Or ask Jiraiya-sama,” Scary Taichou quietly suggests, “He’s the only other person I know who might know how to modify an Eight Trigrams on the fly.”

Whoever this Jiraiya is, sensei appears to know him, although maybe sensei doesn’t like him that much. Sensei does agree, “I will send him a summon and see if he responds. Perhaps if he knows it is about Naruto, he will.”

“He hasn’t been in touch with you?” Scary Taichou asks, surprised.

“I have had no cause to speak with him lately,” sensei answers, and that’s that. Even Naruto can tell that sensei doesn’t want to pursue that conversation. “All done, Naruto. You may sit up now.”

Naruto sits up as sensei is putting aside the scroll that has a copy of the seal. He looks down at his belly, where the ink seems to be fading already, and asks, “Diagnostic jutsu only lasts for a few minutes?”

“It depends on how much chakra you feed the jutsu,” Tenzo-nii answers. “If you wanted the ink to stay for longer, you could keep feeding it chakra.”

“Cool,” Naruto grins, turning back to Scary Taichou. “Can you write down the diagnostic seal for me so I can learn how to use it?”

Scary Taichou peers at him for a moment, expression obscured by his mask but not his interest. “A bit advanced, but I don’t see why not.”

“Naruto and his two friends have routinely surprised me with their aptitude,” sensei assures Scary Taichou. “I wouldn’t put it past him to learn it in a week.”

Scary Taichou and Itachi-nii both flick glances towards each other and then at sensei. Another something there that Naruto can’t parse… all of this not knowing is getting old fast. Naruto suddenly has a moment of vivid empathy with Shikamaru’s pain.

“That good, huh?” Scary Taichou’s eyes narrow then at Naruto, as if in a smirk or a smile. “A Sannin’s endorsement is no small thing.”

Naruto puffs up, crossing his arms over his chest. “I toldja I’ma be Hokage one day!”

Itachi-nii chuckles, face creasing into a beautiful smile. Man, Sasuke’s brother was pretty. “Are we looking at Konoha’s next so-called geniuses?”

This time, sensei smirks at the rest of them, conspiratorial and playful. “I hope you’re both ready to part with your titles. The next generation is at the door, and I don’t plan to waste their potential.”

Naruto grins; Scary Taichou dips his head as he finishes writing out the seal for Naruto on a spare scroll. “I wouldn’t expect anything less, Orochimaru-sama.”




The following morning, Naruto tumbles out of his bed and towards the bathroom in a hurry. He overslept a little but that’s okay—he splits himself into three kage bunshin: one to put away his futon, one to pack his bag, and one to put away the scrolls he had fallen asleep on the previous night. When he pops into the dining room ready for breakfast, sensei is already there making him a bowl of rice with a smile.

“Learning how useful kage bunshin can be, are you?” sensei chuckles at him, “I hope that doesn’t encourage bad habits, however.”

“No, sensei, of course not, sensei!” Naruto hastily assures him, sitting down seiza and waiting for sensei to start eating. “Itadakimasu!”

“Kage bunshin already, wow,” Tenzo-nii remarks, passing over the agedashi tofu. “Have you been using it to train jutsu?”

“Yep!” Naruto grins, “It’s my cheat! So I can catch up to Sasuke and Shika!”

Anko, who is sprawled on the engawa and still 80% asleep, grunts something that might have been, “Such a cheat.” Naruto sticks a tongue out at her back.

Scary Taichou—who Naruto should really call by his name, but he’s too scared too—and Itachi-nii had gone home last night after that whole discussion. Naruto has so much to tell his teammates now, because he’s sure Shikamaru can pick apart that entire situation much better than he can, and besides, Sasuke would probably love to hear about his brother.

Would Sasuke want to hear about his brother?

Naruto thinks about that for a moment, squinting as he powers his way through breakfast. Sasuke might get jealous that Naruto got to see Itachi-nii and he didn’t; Sasuke’s that type of person, Naruto can tell. But if Naruto doesn’t tell him, Sasuke might get mad later on.

Naruto scratches his head. Iruka-sensei had taught him that honesty was always the best policy, but Naruto isn’t naïve: honesty works only when the people receiving it want it.

The thinking occupies him all the way to the training grounds where Sasuke and Shikamaru are waiting. Sensei has to snap him out of it with a hand on his head.

“Put aside your concerns for later, Naruto. It is time to train.”

Sheepishly, Naruto hangs his head. He’s been chided a lot lately; he needs to get his act together or sensei might really get mad at him and kick him out. Then where would Naruto go?

“Yes, sensei, sorry, sensei.” His teammates shoot him a questioning look which Naruto returns with a sheepish smile. “Later?” he mouths at them as he rubs the back of his head.

Shikamaru and Sasuke both nod.

The morning proceeds much like every other day, although the one-on-one taijutsu sparring has progressively gotten harder. Sensei has been holding back on them a lot, and Naruto is beginning to realize how much that lot is. Sensei is fucking strong.

In between turns—while he’s doing sumo squats with a large boulder on his shoulders—Naruto watches sensei dance around with Sasuke and recalls what Scary Taichou had said last night. An endorsement from a Sannin, that’s what Team Seven is getting. Which means that they can’t disappoint.

“You’re being really weird today,” Shikamaru huffs next to him, halfway through a set of weighted push-ups. “You’re barely talking at all. What’s got you tongue-tied?”

“Later!” Naruto gasps, calves and thighs burning with the effort of keeping his balance straight with the boulder on his shoulders. “I don’t want—to get yelled at—by sensei!”

Shikamaru snorts, “Fair. Dinner at my place? Okaa-san’s making tonjiru again and I told her to make extra.”

Naruto finishes the one-hundredth squat and drops the boulder with a huge gasp of air. “Will they—be okay—with that?”

“I’m inviting you, aren’t I?” Shikamaru pops up from his push-ups and straight into a stretch. “Owww.”

Shikamaru’s arms are gaining the type of muscular definition Naruto only sees on the experienced shinobi who went around the market. Naruto looks at his own arms and wonders if he looks different too.

“Are you checking yourself out?” Shikamaru snipes, making Naruto flush. “You totally were.

“What! Look! We’re getting muscles!

“Yeah, that’s generally what happens when you get creatively tortured everyday,” Shikamaru snorts again. This time, he also looks down at his own arms and shrugs. “Not bad, I guess.”

“Now you’re checking yourself out!”

Sasuke approaches them, confused. “He’s what?”

Naruto grins and flexes his own arms. “Muscles!”

“Oh-kay…” Sasuke frowns, looking at Naruto’s arms and then his own. “Right. Muscles.”

Sensei then beckons the next one and moves the rotation along before they can get too distracted.

In the afternoon, their time is split between practicing their new jutsu and refining their shunshin. All of them can do it now, Shikamaru with the most grace and Sasuke with the farthest distance. Sensei progressively makes the exercises harder by creating hurdles and directing them through complicated maneuvers.

“Shunshin doesn’t only go forward,” sensei tells them, “but can be used in every direction and position. Control, little ones. Control your bodies, your chakra, and your minds.”

Unbidden, Naruto wonders if sensei ever loses control. Sensei always looks so put together and in command that it’s hard for Naruto to imagine a time and situation where that control breaks.

Probably a good idea never to find out, he grimly resolves, chasing after the imprints of Sasuke’s feet on the ground.

When they finally finish their day, the three of them are wordless and absolutely exhausted, Naruto laying face up and out of breath. The skies are so blue today. He blinks sweat out of his eyes.

“Fine progress today,” sensei praises their efforts. “I expect the same effort or better tomorrow. Shikamaru, you are having your teammates over for dinner, is that right?”

Shikamaru grunts from a forward-fold stretch. “Tonjiru tonight. Enough to share.”

“Very well, then; I shall leave you three to it. I have business to attend at the Tower.”

They bid sensei goodbye and eventually pull themselves together to slowly trudge towards Shikamaru’s house.

“You need to tell your folks you’ll be over for dinner?” Shikamaru asks Sasuke, who scrunches his face up as they leave the training ground.

“You know what? I can…” Sasuke makes familiar hand seals and with a puff of chakra, there are two Sasukes standing in front of Naruto.

“Hey!” Naruto grins in surprise, “That’s a kage bunshin! Badass!”

Sasuke sways a bit, looking pale.

“You okay there?” Shikamaru steadies their teammate with a hand.

“Maybe an ordinary bunshin would have been a better choice.” Sasuke shakes his head slowly as if to clear it.

“I swear to the Sage, sometimes you are so stupid I find it hard to believe you’re the top of our class,” Shikamaru grumbles. “Trying this technique at the end of the day is the farthest thing from smart!”

“Shut up,” both Sasukes scowl, before one of them sets off at a trot towards the general direction of the Uchiha compound. The remaining Sasuke continues, “We gotta get used to the high-drain techniques, you know. The more we use, the more we produce, remember?”

Shikamaru only rolls his eyes.

They set off again, this time slowly, so Sasuke won’t fall over or faint midway. It’s a nice evening for a walk anyway. They’re entering the Nara clan grounds when Naruto recalls that he has to tell them about last night.

“Oh! I have to tell you about last night!”

“Right, yeah, what happened last night?” Shikamaru catches on, “Because something must’ve. You’ve been weird all day.”

I’m not weird, you’re weird!”

“What are you, five?”

“Guys,” Sasuke sighs, rolling his eyes.

“Anyway! So, so, last night we were having dinner at home an’ stuff an’ sensei brought home some guests! Tenzo-nii’s jōnin teammates! Actually I met them a while ago when I had dinner with Iruka-sensei an’ they’re kinda weird but I kinda forgot an’ then they were there again last night so that was cool!”

“Uh-huh,” Shikamaru encourages. They pause under a large tree whose trunk is bound with thick knotted ropes and white pieces of paper.

“Anyway so sensei actually asked them to come over for dinner so Tenzo-nii’s scary captain can look over the—uhh, the seal, ya know,” Naruto widens his eyes, looking around to make sure no one will overhear them, “the seal that keeps the thing in me.”

Sasuke frowns; Shikamaru’s expression sharpens. “Did sensei say why?”

Naruto scratches his head. “Apparently I’ve been having a hard time pulling little bits of chakra but when I try to pull a lot it’s fine? And sensei thought that was weird? So he wanted to check it out.”

“So he called Tenzo-san’s jōnin captain over to look at it,” Shikamaru deduces with a frown. Crossing his arms, their resident brainiac points out, “That means sensei acknowledges the jōnin captain as a seals expert of some sort.”

“Or someone who might know something about Naruto’s thing and sensei wants a second opinion,” Sasuke suggests, earning a nod from Shikamaru.

“Well, that’s just it! Turns out Tenzo-nii’s jōnin captain was actually my dad’s student like many years ago!”

Shikamaru and Sasuke both look as shocked as Naruto felt last night.

“I know right! Crazy! An’ then I was like, why’s no one told me! But then I also thought—”

“No one’s allowed to tell you,” Shikamaru’s face darkens again, “and I bet even the jōnin captain wasn’t allowed to talk to you about it.”

Naruto nods, rubbing his head. “Yeah, so that! It sucks but it is what it is?”

Chakra exhaustion forgotten, Sasuke growls in frustration, “It’s still wrong that they hid all of this from you. Like all this time everybody knew—urgh!”

“But-but hey, now at least I know? He promised to come back an’ tell me more about my dad too, so there’s that!”

Sasuke’s frustration evens out into a commiserating smile with a hint of relief. “That’s awesome, Naruto. You get to hear more about your family and stuff.”

“Yeah, more than dusty books can tell us,” Shikamaru adds with a huff.

“So right, speaking of family,” Naruto awkwardly rubs the back of his neck, “Sasuke, please don’t be mad, okay? But apparently Tenzo-nii is in the same team as your older brother an’ he was there too last night for dinner.”

Sasuke actually reels back, looking stunned. “Aniki was there?”

“Yeah! He was cool an’ I introduced myself an’ I told him you had me over for dinner lots an’ that you were doing well an’ you missed him a lot! I said he should come see you soon,” Naruto bites his lip at the expression on Sasuke’s face, “I hope that was okay? Please don’t be mad.”

“I’m not—mad, I’m…” Sasuke gulps down breath after breath, looking distressed. Naruto gets the sudden, alarming impression that he’s about to cry.

“Okay, hold up, what about Sasuke’s aniki?” Shikamaru steps between them, “Why is this important?”

“So, uh, Sasuke’s aniki hasn’t been home in a while. Or doesn’t live at home anymore? Anyway, Sasuke hasn’t seen him in a bit, and...” Naruto grabs Shikamaru’s arm to shake it, hoping it conveys his uncertainty about the whole situation. There is so much about the Uchiha clan that Naruto doesn’t yet understand.

“Did he,” Sasuke sniffs a little and swallows, “did he—was he okay?”

“He was, um, fine! He said he got a little hurt on their last mission but he was getting better an’ he’ll be back on duty soon,” Naruto gently reassures his friend, convinced that any moment now Sasuke’s going to cry. He doesn’t want Sasuke to cry.

“Right, so obviously some sort of clan politics is involved,” Shikamaru interrupts again, calculating expression pointed at Sasuke. “Is your brother in trouble with your elders?”

“Aniki is...” Sasuke gulps down another breath and shakes his head to banish the impending tears. He squares his shoulders back and begins again with a more level voice, “Aniki got into a bad disagreement with the clan elders a few years ago. It was really bad.”

“Bad enough that he doesn’t live at your place anymore?” Shikamaru hazards.

“Yeah, bad enough that I haven’t seen him since then.” A sad and helpless expression settles over Sasuke’s face; it makes Naruto want to hug him so tight at the same time as punch someone. Preferably every single one of those stuffy elders. “He’s... he’s really strong and really smart and everyone in the clan was really proud of him, everyone said he was a genius. The best of us. But then… but then something happened—I don’t really know what—and now no one even wants to talk about him. They all pretend he doesn’t exist.”

Shikamaru’s head tilts sideways. “But wait, if he’s your aniki, that means he’s the Uchiha main branch’s firstborn. He’s the heir. And they kicked him out?” Sasuke nods; Shikamaru suddenly looks alarmed. “What could he have possibly done to make them kick the clan heir out?”

“Don’t know,” Sasuke shrugs. “Nobody tells me anything.”

“Well, they fucking should,” Shikamaru scowls, “because you’re clan heir now, right? If your aniki is not acknowledged anymore!”

“I mean, I’m young, and I’m not super strong or super smart like aniki is, so.”

“Stop that!” Naruto grabs Sasuke’s arm this time.

Shikamaru also hisses, “Stop, just—stop, okay? I get it you’ve got this huge inferiority complex going on, and yeah, maybe your aniki is strong and whatnot, but you are still the next in line. That means you have responsibilities; I can say this because I’m clan heir! And besides, sensei acknowledges that you’re strong! Are you telling me you think sensei is wrong?”

Sasuke balks, “Well, no, I’m, sensei is—of course not.”

“So my point stands: you’re next in line. You deserve to be informed and involved.” When Sasuke doesn’t say anything, Shikamaru pushes, “Tell me someone’s been teaching you something about your clan, Sasuke, because if they haven’t, then your clan has a problem.”

“Oboro-obaa-sama's teaching me a lot,” Sasuke quietly fidgets. “She’s been talking to me about the clan’s history and stuff.” When Shikamaru doesn’t look particularly satisfied, Sasuke adds, “There’s a lot going on that they won’t tell me because I think they’re trying to pretend nothing is wrong. But I know it’s big—” Sasuke looks around, “—big trouble behind the scenes, if you know what I mean. The Hokage is involved somehow.”

“Jiji is?” Naruto blinks, unable to follow. Shikamaru and Sasuke are right when they say it’s almost impossible for someone not born and raised within a clan to catch up to all the backstories between the clans.

“Yeah, so like I said, I’m not surprised that I don’t know more,” Sasuke shrugs, fingers now knotted together the way he does when he’s anxious and unsure. Naruto doesn’t like that look on him.

“Well, even if your clan elders don’t like your aniki anymore,” Naruto resolutely declares, “doesn’t mean you don’t like your aniki anymore! You can still see him, right? Anyway, I told him so! He should come see you!”

Mouth twisting into an uncertain frown, Sasuke quietly says, “He was probably trying to keep me out of trouble. I bet we’ll both get in trouble if he came to see me.”

“Still! You obviously miss him!” Naruto insists—and then, recalling the look on Sasuke’s aniki’s face, he adds, “I think he really misses you too.”

That brings up a small smile. Naruto mentally pats himself on the shoulder. Success!

Shikamaru releases a windy sigh, crossing his arms behind his head. His face shifts and clears in a way that shows how well he compartmentalizes when it comes to things like this, with an ease that Naruto can’t help but admire.

“Well, anyway, we’re gonna be late for dinner. Come on, I don’t want oyaji to eat all the pork in the tonjiru.”

“Tonjiru has pork?” Naruto brightens, tugging Sasuke along as they start walking again towards the Nara main house.

“Have you never had tonjiru before?” When Naruto shakes his head, Shikamaru brightens, “Oh, you’re in for a treat. Okaa-san's tonjiru is the best.”

“Shikamaru sa,” Naruto gives him a sideways look, “you always say your okaa-san's cooking is the best.”

“Because I like being fed, duh. You don’t insult the hand that feeds you. You don’t deny your blessings!”

That devolves into a discussion about food and cooking and Naruto asks if Shikamaru’s mom has that recipe for nikujaga. Their voices make up for Sasuke’s uncertain, painful silence, which stretches so much so that Naruto wonders if he shouldn’t have told Sasuke about his aniki’s visit after all.

But before they sit down for dinner, in the half-shadowed hallway after they’ve washed their hands, Sasuke catches him by the elbow and then gives him a hug.

It’s soft and hesitant, but it’s warm and makes Naruto smile.

Thank you, Sasuke wants to say, but he can’t find the words. That’s okay. Naruto hears his gratitude loud and clear.

So he hugs back and grins and responds, “I got your back, Sasuke. That’s what friends are for!”

And Naruto doesn’t deny his blessings.




tbc
first draft: 2020.06.25
last edited: 2021.12.16




REFERENCES

(1) The canon explanation for how the Kyuubi’s seal works MAKES NO FUCKING SENSE, like, I’m done. DONE with canon. SO, after going through three different wikis and re-reading the relevant manga chapters, I am finagling my own explanation, just ride with it, okay? I don’t buy the bullshit Kishimoto tried to sell because I can’t see Minato being so reckless with his own newborn, I mean, come on. (eyeroll)

Chapter Text

020. shikamaru: stamina

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A full month after graduation, they finally get a mission.

“Yes!” Naruto crows, jumping up and down like a frog. Or a lunatic; sometimes Shikamaru can’t tell the difference.

“Hurry along, little ones,” sensei beckons them toward the direction of the Tower. “There are other genin teams taking missions today. The early bird gets the worm, as they say. Follow me.”

From the mouth of the market where they agreed to meet up, they use shunshin and chase after sensei. Naruto still breaks rough wherever he lands and sometimes Sasuke overshoots his distance, but they all make it in one piece. Sensei looks quite pleased with their efforts. It’s considerable progress for the work of only one week.

They pass the Hokage Tower and head for a sprawling complex of compact buildings right next to it. Shikamaru knows that the buildings extend straight through the cliff face behind the Tower into underground bunkers that hide behind the Hokage Monument. Those places are for jōnin and ANBU, however, and not for little genin like them.

Mission Control is inside the main administrative wing directly adjacent to the Tower. When they step inside, the halls are almost intimidatingly busy, shinobi flitting to and fro on their myriad tasks. Sensei leads them in and it’s impossible to ignore how they all give sensei a wide and deferential (sometimes fearful) berth.

“Remember this path,” sensei tells them, turning right into a large hallway that goes on forever. “Mission Control is not difficult to find. You will come here often and, in the future, you won’t need to be with me.”

They nod in unison, taking care to follow sensei in a compact line. We probably look like baby ducklings, Shikamaru imagines, which is not far from the truth.

Another right turn and they pass under a sign that reads MISSION CONTROL. Beyond it is a hallway with five doors: two to the right labeled A and B, two the left labeled C and D, and the last at the far end labeled Request Registry.

“Civilians and clients from outside Fire Country log in through the Registry,” Orochimaru tells them. “Mission Control records and reviews their requests. Contracts are arranged, payment is taken, and each mission is thereafter ranked by risk and difficulty. The missions are then passed on to the distribution desks back here for assignment. S-ranks are, of course, excluded from this process: the Hokage reviews and issues those missions himself.”

“Question,” Shikamaru pipes up, “How do they determine the ranking?”

Sensei leads them through the door labeled D as he explains, “They assess several factors, foremost among which are the objective of the mission and its location. Missions that require shinobi to infiltrate into enemy territory are naturally ranked up. Is it a retrieval mission? A reconnaissance? An escort mission? Perhaps an assassination? All questions that must be considered. The team requirement is also a sizable factor: does the mission require a jōnin, or a medic, or a tokujō? Or is it something that an adequately equipped chūnin team can tackle?”

“It sounds so complicated,” Sasuke grimaces. “What if they make a mistake? I mean, what if they rank something low and then it turns out to be harder than they thought?”

“Then the team must either adapt or die,” sensei shrugs, simple as that. The nonchalance makes Shikamaru swallow; sometimes he forgets that their job can mean death for some unfortunate souls.

The D-rank desk is being managed by three people. There are two other genin teams looking at a large bulletin board where a long list of available missions are posted up. Shikamaru hovers near it, squinting at the details he can see. The print is tiny.

“Orochimaru-sama, welcome and good morning,” a bob-haired woman bows from behind the desk. She glances at the three of them and rightly deduces, “First mission for your genin?”

“Indeed,” sensei folds his hands under his robes. “Let us see what is available.”

“Uhh, the higher ranking missions can’t be a free-for-all like this, right?” Shikamaru frowns, because that just wouldn’t work. At the very least, B-ranks and above would need to be assigned.

“Very good, Shikamaru. Everything above D-rank works the opposite way. You make yourself available, either as an individual or as a team, and your availability is posted for everyone to see. The mission coordinators will assign you a mission thereafter.”

“So, so, so,” Naruto jitters while squinting at the bulletin, “today we get to pick our own missions?”

I will pick your missions,” sensei bops Naruto on the forehead with gentle knuckles. “Remember, this is still part of your training.”

“Right, okay!” Naruto nods, grin undeterred. “Anyway, a mission’s a mission!” One of the men behind the desk chuckles.

Sensei takes his time looking over the extensive list. Shikamaru would never have guessed the extent of it. But the more he peers at the posted listings, the more his frown grows. The missions look… simple. As in stupidly simple.

Weeding someone’s overgrown garden? That can’t be considered a real mission, right? He chews on the inside of his cheek and keeps his doubtful thoughts to himself.

At last, sensei makes a move, plucking two… three… four… five postings from the board. Even the jōnin sensei of the next team over (older than their batch, if Shikamaru has to guess) does a double take when Orochimaru takes five postings to the desk.

“I think this will provide a suitable introduction,” sensei smiles. It’s not the nice smile.

The bob-haired woman takes the postings with a nod and fetches the corresponding mission scrolls from the massive shelf spanning the wall behind the desk. It takes her but a moment; she presents them to Orochimaru with a bow.

“Come around, little ones. You need to sign for your mission scrolls.” The woman hands sensei a book. A log, much like they have at the Archives, except this one is for missions. Sensei picks up a pen and offers it to them with an encouraging smile, “One of you may sign for the team. Go on, I want you to do it.”

Sasuke and Naruto both step back in sync, leaving Shikamaru standing by himself at the front. “Hey, what—why me?!”

“I can’t read kanji—”

“Yeah,” Sasuke nods, “and your handwriting’s better than ours.”

“—and I can’t write it either!” Naruto grins, arms crossed behind his head. The little bitch. Naruto can read and write this much just fine, Shikamaru knows it, they all know it.

They just want me to do the paperwork. Don’t think I can’t tell.

With a dark look and a grumble, Shikamaru viciously takes the pen. Names, titles, date… mission number? He turns one scroll over and finds a colored tag stuck to one end. Aha.

Noting what other people have done on the log before him, Shikamaru decides to list the other four scrolls under the same name instead of writing everything over again. Who has time for that? Once finished, he hands the log back to the woman, who checks the scroll numbers and countersigns beside his name.

“You can in fact look into the scroll before signing for it. I encourage you to do so. However, since these are only D-ranks, I did not feel the need.” Orochimaru turns to them with an emphatic, solemn look and says, “The scrolls do not leave this building, be it a D-rank or a triple S-rank. You look at it, you sign for it, and then you return it so the desk may file it as Active. You may take notes about the mission, but if you know what’s good for you, you will train yourself to memorize mission parameters and objectives. Upon completion, you will return here to sign out and close the scroll, which will then get reviewed by your superiors and then filed under Complete.”

“When do mission reports have to be submitted?” Shikamaru asks. He’s heard horror stories from Shimizu-obaa about those in particular.

“The paperwork must be concluded upon sign out, which means you finish your mission report as soon as you return. This is an absolute must; Control needs to know which missions are done. An exception can be made if you are injured severely enough that you are incapable of filing the report, but if in a team, your uninjured teammates should cover for you and file the report in your stead. If the mission is sensitive or there are issues that need to be further addressed, you will be requested for a debriefing within one to two days.”

“Did you get all that?” Naruto whispers, five fingers knotted into Shikamaru’s shirt, “’Cuz I didn’t, so I hope you did.”

Shikamaru sighs, “Yes, Naruto.”

“So,” sensei offers them the first of the five scrolls, “shall we look at our missions for the day?”

And because he somehow got pushed into the position of team leader, Shikamaru gets to crack it open.




HITL 20 mission 01></center>


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When he read bridge construction, Shikamaru did not take that to mean that they would be the bridge.

“U-Um, a-are you guys close to done?” Naruto calls out from several feet away. He’s supporting the other end of the wooden beam Shikamaru has in hand.

“Almost, kid, hang in there!” one of the construction guys yells back from above.

They are in the river, standing in shoulder-deep rushing water while supporting the wooden beams that are to become the new bridge’s load-bearing framework. The concrete foundations of the bridge’s pillars have already been poured, but because of the strength of the river, the construction crew wanted shinobi help to ensure that the frame will hold while they are on top of it working to secure the parts.

Shikamaru curses himself for even daring to think that the missions sensei picked for them looked too easy.

“My arms are starting to get numb,” Sasuke quietly says from behind him.

“Screw that,” Shikamaru grunts, “my legs are gonna snap off.”

In order to remain anchored to the riverbed, they have to pour a continuous stream of chakra to their feet, while still supporting their torso and saving a strengthening portion for their arms and hands. An ingenious way to train chakra modulation, really, except they’re all too busy trying not to drown to fully appreciate sensei’s creativity.

“Why couldn’t we have done an easier one?” Naruto whines, “I mean, what about that garden? There was something about weeding someone’s garden!”

“Because sensei is sneaky as fuck,” Shikamaru grunts, “and he has to pick our missions for maximum effect.”

“Maximum deadly effect?” Sasuke hazards.

Shikamaru snorts. “Maximum training effect, but yes, that works too.”

“Alright, all clear!” the construction guy yells from above. The three of them relax and let go with communal groans. “You kids ready for the next one?”

They swim away from the now fixed beam and over to an open section where the crew is preparing to lay out the next one. Shikamaru takes a moment to stretch out and tread the water, releasing the grip he had on his chakra coils just for a breath before he has to tighten down again. He likes to imagine it’s getting easier every time; at the very least, the thought makes him feel a little better about his life.

I’ll take any consolation, he grimly thinks, because after this, we have four more.

On the riverbank, where it is nice and warm and dry, sensei stands watching them with an oblique smile.




HITL 20 mission 02




The bridge mission takes them a little more than two hours. Afterwards, they quickly leave and head for their next mission, drying out their everything along the way.

“Jutsus are awesome,” Naruto grins with abandon, shakily centering a miniature whirlwind around them that works to quickly air-dry their clothes. “Who needs a clothesline when you can dry clothes in a snap?”

“Hey, make the wind go higher, I need to dry my hair,” Sasuke says, shaking out said hair much like an irritated dog.

Shikamaru, for his part, is content to stand there and relax for a moment before his attention is needed again. He idly wonders if Konoha remains technologically handicapped because shinobi are so accustomed to using jutsu instead of appliances. He’s heard stories from the bigger cities about more advanced technologies that can take over certain daily tasks for civilians who can’t use chakra to help themselves.

That must suck, being a civilian.

The very thought is unimaginable to a clan-born heir like him.

Sensei leads them to their next mission, one that is located beyond Konoha’s walls. The Matsudaira farms are right outside of Konoha proper, but sensei assures them that this far out is very well protected. “Patrol coverage is quite thick for roughly fifty kilometers out from Konoha’s walls. As we, jōnin, like to say when injured on a mission: if you make it back within fifty, you may just survive to fight another day.”

“Good to know,” Shikamaru mumbles, looking around the thinning trees with some doubt. It’s his first time beyond the walls, no doubt Naruto and Sasuke’s too. He doesn’t like the feeling of being beyond the tree line. Because he can, he asks, “We’re not really beyond the tree line, right? Because Shodaime-sama’s forest should be way bigger than this.”

“We are in a very large clearing provided to the Matsudaira family, who grow their crops here with permission from the Senju clan. The Senju technically own this land,” sensei explains.

“Huh,” says Shikamaru, surprised at his own ignorance. A tall, burly farmer waits for them at the Matsudaira gate, features somewhat echoing those of Shikamaru’s distant cousins. He wonders if the Senju intermarried with this clan too. “Why don’t I know about them?”

“Likely because they are a minor clan and produce no shinobi,” sensei raises a hand in greeting as they near the farmer. “Pay attention now, here comes your instructions.”

The cornfield is ripe with rows and rows of crop ready for harvest. Shikamaru balks at the amount. “Can we even finish this within a day?” he dismays.

“Certainly in less time than that,” sensei smiles. “After all, you can use your weapons, your chakra, and your jutsu.”

“Oh,” Shikamaru blinks, and then again, “Ooohh, I see. Okay. Uhh, right. You two, c’mere for a bit.”

Sasuke and Naruto crowd around him, by now getting used to being directed. Shikamaru feels a twinge of awkwardness at the sight of both of their faces turned expectantly towards his word, but he squares his shoulders and does not allow himself to doubt. If the leader doubts, the team suffers. He pretends that Sasuke and Naruto are two precious pieces on his shogi board and deals appropriately.

“The cornfield is in rows,” he points out the neat lines of crop, “which means that Naruto, if you can control it well enough, you can use your Fuuken (4) to cut the heads of the corn off the stalk. Or if you want, you can use your fuuma shuriken instead, same difference. I’ll use my rope and between the two of us, we can probably knock out most of the harvesting part in, say, an hour?”

“Faster!” Naruto hops in his spot, “I can use kage bunshin!”

“Can you hold it for the whole mission? Because I also need your bunshin to gather up all the corn heads.”

“Uh, yeah! I’ve held it for longer!”

For what? Shikamaru wants to ask, but he puts it off for later because the sun is high and it’s getting hot. He’d rather finish this mission and maybe move on to another one that involves a little more shade. “Okay, great, let’s do that then.”

“What about me?” Sasuke points at himself, looking a little affronted.

What, did he think I forgot about him? Shikamaru raises both eyebrows at Sasuke and says, “The field needs to be cleared afterwards. You can go pyromaniac over it and set the whole thing on fire.”

Sasuke’s face clears into a smile, clearly delighted at the opportunity of flexing his jutsu for practical application. It’ll probably be therapeutic too, Shikamaru notes, considering how much stress he puts himself under on the daily.

As they proceed towards the cornfield, sensei gives them a smile. Shikamaru takes that as encouragement as he pulls out his rope. Within one breath and the next, there are thirty-or-so yellow-clad Narutos shouting encouragement at each other, charging at the cornfield as if it’s an enemy to be mowed down.

Shikamaru shakes his head and follows at a saner pace. Thwip goes his rope, clipping what looks like six corn heads off the stalks. He adjusts his stance and grip, trying for greater reach and accuracy. No sense in wasting the chance to practice.

Further down the cornfield, Naruto seems to have divided his horde of clones into two groups: one to slice the corn heads off the stalks and one to gather the harvest right after. Efficient. Shikamaru nods in approval, giving a passing clone a thumbs up.

Naruto’s the type to respond exponentially to positive reinforcement, gotta keep that in mind. I can probably get him to do some unreasonable things as long as I build his trust in my decisions.

He doesn’t allow himself to feel bad about treating his teammates like pieces on a board. Life is a game, and just because they’re pieces on his board doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about them. Conversely, he cares a lot and wants to protect them. He finishes a row of the field and turns around into the next one, wondering if Naruto and Sasuke will understand his point of view. Hopefully they won’t get too offended. (Some people got offended about being manipulated like that, even if it was for their own good.) It would suck if his relationship with them broke over something so simple.

A little over half an hour later, he and Naruto declare success. Returning to sensei, Shikamaru finds that Sasuke has been helping Naruto haul the harvest into large wooden containers that the farmers set out for that very purpose.

“Oi,” he calls Sasuke’s attention, “your turn!”

Sasuke perks up and turns to the three farmers who are standing nearby. “Er, you might want to, um, stand back a bit? It’ll get really hot.”

When Sasuke turns toward the field, chakra blazing high as his tenketsu flare open, Shikamaru looks up with mild alarm. “Hey, controlled flames, okay? Don’t set the fucking forest on fire!”

Sasuke shoots him an affronted glare; Naruto just laughs. “Go, Sasuke! You got this!”

Shikamaru watches his teammate take off in a running leap, making a graceful arc in the air while breathing fire over the cornfield. The fire takes the form of a long dragon that writhes across the clearing with an ear-splitting roar. (2)

“Holy fuck!” Naruto yelps from beside him, “That’s so cool, what is that?!”

“Gouryuuka no Jutsu,” Shikamaru narrows his eyes against the heat and sting of smoke. “What a fucking show-off.”

(2)

Sasuke lands several paces away, a little too close to the fire than Shikamaru thinks is advisable. The boy’s an Uchiha, though, and this sort of thing calls to their blood. Sasuke stands there watching his fire dragon make its way across the field; silhouette outlined against the intense orange inferno, he momentarily looks older and more powerful than his meager eleven years. Shikamaru suddenly sees it. Despite the heat warping his vision and the smoke in his eyes, he sees what Sasuke can be, what Sasuke will be, given enough time and guided by sensei’s firm hand.

I am in a team of monsters, he once again realizes—but this time, he knows what he needs to do. There is no other way to keep up but to become a monster myself.

As soon as the dragon melts into ordinary fire, Shikamaru smacks Naruto forward again. “Your turn now, go on, put the fire out with some wind.”

“Huh? But we just burned it!”

“Yeah, but we don’t want everything to burn! The farmers can’t control this fire so we have to put it out for them before it gets to the forest.”

Naruto blinks in alarm and goes, throwing huge gusts of wind at the cornfield to temper the fire down into a smoldering black mess. He turns to the farmer who met them at the gates. (1)

“I think the field should be ready for tilling by next week,” Shikamaru says, “but I wouldn’t touch it today. It’ll be way too hot.”

“Y-Yes, I, well, of course,” the farmer stutters, perhaps still caught by the idea that three children cleared his field in under an hour, and one of them used a fire dragon to do so.

Shikamaru turns back to his teammates who are congratulating each other. The field smokes behind them; the clearing is even hotter now. Sweat trickles down the back of his neck. The fire will help keep pests away, but it’s not the best method for preparing the ground, I guess. There won’t be as much nutrient available for the next crop than if the farmers had let the stubble rot and become fertilizer. That would have been better, even if it took more time.

A hand lands on his head; he startles and looks up. “You are thinking about why this method is not the best approach, no doubt,” sensei smiles down at him, “but the farmers are not complaining, and you have achieved your objective. I am pleased with what you have done.”

Oh, well, in that case, Shikamaru’s frown evens out into a small smile, shoulders easing back at sensei’s words. It’s its own form of subtle manipulation, sensei’s approval. By now, all three of them thrive off of it.

“Sasuke, Naruto,” sensei calls out, “come along and let us proceed to our next mission. You want to go home on time tonight, don’t you?”

“Yes, sensei!” “Coming, sensei!”

Likewise, Shikamaru readies his mind for the next task.




HITL 20 mission 03




“Oh, wait, this was the one that came tagged with an orange label,” Shikamaru realizes as sensei tells them what they must do over lunch. They only have half an hour to eat—and earlier than their usual lunch break, but whatever—before they have to do the next mission.

“Sounds easy enough,” Naruto manages through a mouthful of rice. “And I can use kage bunshin again so it can go even faster.”

“Chew your food and swallow before talking,” sensei chides, before placing another piece of tofu on Naruto’s bento. To Shikamaru, he says, “Yes, the orange label with a white stripe indicates a same-day request. They are also kept in a separate, easily visible rack to make sure that all of them are completed within the day.”

“Is it more expensive to ask for same-day completion?” Sasuke asks, polishing off a bowl of fruits with characteristic hunger. Gouryuuka probably means a good amount of chakra drain; Shikamaru can’t fault him for eating more.

“The client will pay a surcharge. But same-day requests are usually simple, C-rank or below.”

“Yeah, I can’t imagine you can ask for a same-day completion for a mission in Tea Country.” Shikamaru uncaps his mother’s herbal tea and takes a sip. “Will we be taking five missions a day this week, sensei?”

“Four or five a day, ideally. We shall have to see what’s available each day. Failing that, we can always spar. But I would like to build up your records. You need to have completed at least twenty D-ranks to qualify for a C-rank, and at least fifty missions—ten of which must be C-ranks—in order to qualify for the Chūnin Exams.”

The three of them exchange a look. Shikamaru shrugs and says, “We have almost a year, though? That’s a lot of time.”

“Indeed, we do,” sensei smiles darkly.

The three of them shiver.

“Despair not, little ones; I have your futures well in hand. Now, are we finished with our food? A mission awaits.” He claps and they tidy their things away, bentos stuffed back into backpacks and stashed aside once again under a tree. A large snake slithers out of the underbrush to sit on top of their things. Its powerful black coils ripple menacingly under the dappled midday sunlight. Sensei fondly says, “Botan will watch over our packs.”

“Aw, jealous! Botan gets to take a nap under a tree!” says Naruto.

“Come along,” sensei chuckles, allowing Naruto to pet Botan once on the head before herding them towards the market. One hand lands on the back of Shikamaru’s neck, guiding him forward. The other hand swipes at Sasuke’s cheek. “Child, you have mustard on your face. There we go. Tidy yourself. Appearances are important, especially in front of clients. They will not trust you if you do not look trustworthy.”

“Ahh, sorry, sensei,” Sasuke scrubs at his cheek with a handkerchief. He’s either hungrier or more tired than Shikamaru thought to not notice food getting on his face.

Midoriko Tsuyu, their next client, turns out to be very nice but also very stressed out. Something about a deadline, although Shikamaru can’t really parse much of her frantic mumbling. She hands them a tall stack of posters and tells them to replace the old ones.

“Ehm, miss, what do the old ones look like?” asks Naruto, momentarily swaying under the sudden weight of the posters in his arms.

“Like that!” she points to her shop’s window, which has an advertisement for a product. Some sort of skin care product for women. Shikamaru doesn’t really know.

“Okay, er, where are the old ones posted?” Sasuke asks this time, hands clasped behind his back.

Everywhere!” Midoriko Tsuyu exclaims, throwing her hands out wide, “All over the village, which is why I had to hire you! Because we don’t have the time to do it ourselves this time!”

“Right…” Shikamaru watches her dismiss them and bustle back into the store, before turning to his teammates with a frown. “Well, if she and her work friends posted these themselves last time, they’ll have only posted them in places civilians can get to.”

“So probably all over market,” Naruto hazards as he divides the pile with Sasuke, “and around some of the bigger residential streets and maybe near the Academy too.”

“More the residential streets,” Sasuke agrees. “This is about skin… lotion… stuff. Kids from the Academy won’t care about that.”

“Ah, but the kids’ moms might,” Naruto points out. “You know, civilian moms? I know your moms might not care about this stuff, but betcha civilian moms do!”

“Right,” Sasuke frowns down at the poster ad. “Yeah, no, okaa-san wouldn’t waste money on stuff like this. Besides, she’s not ugly.”

“Little ones,” sensei calls their attention, “I would like to add a parameter to your task.”

The three of them turn with varying degrees of dread. Naruto gulps, eyes falling into a squint.

“One hour,” sensei declares, holding up a single finger, “should be plenty if you use shunshin and kage bunshin to cover the village. In fact, I encourage you to use shunshin every step of the way.”

Shikamaru blinks and replays that in his head. “Every step? You don’t mean to say—we can’t walk normally, we have to shunshin all the way?”

“Precisely, Shikamaru. Every step.”

Shikamaru turns to regard his teammates with a look of disbelief. Sasuke only says, “Maximum effect,” with a grimace of a smile.

A simultaneous sigh, and then the three of them are off. After all, they only have an hour, and the clock is ticking.




HITL 20 mission 04




“Are you sure it’s wise letting kids as little as these ones take this mission?” Kamosu Gonzaburō rubs his jaw as he questions sensei. “I mean, they’re gonna be responsible for barrels and barrels of sake.”

Sensei only says, “They’re carrying the barrels, not drinking them. They are perfectly capable of that much.”

Right outside of the Kamosu clan’s gates sits a large shipment of sake, barrels upon barrels decorated in colorful flowers and animals and the Kamosu mon. The Kamosu clan are wealthy and economically influential due to their sole ownership of the largest sake brewery in Fire Country. One of the main line’s daughters is also rumored to be a favorite of the Daimyo’s eldest son. The clan’s original properties and breweries are somewhere in a civilian town south of Konoha, but they have a small compound within Konoha from where they oversee their robust trade in the ninja village. Kamosu Gonzaburō must be the appointed overseer of this branch of their family.

“Twelve of the barrels go into storage inside,” Kamosu tells them, pointing through the gates. “The rest go to establishments around the village.”

And obviously we carry them, Shikamaru sighs, because shinobi can carry weights like this with more ease and speed. Why hurt his own workers when he can pay for us? We’re probably cheaper than if he has to pay for his workers’ time or, Sage forbid, an injury.

“I have another parameter for you,” sensei calls out before they can begin.

“Sensei, noooo,” Naruto whines, scrubbing at his hair.

“What did I say about complaints, Naruto?” Sasuke elbows him; Naruto shuts up. Sensei then continues, “This won’t be so bad. Nothing you haven’t done before. You are forbidden from using jutsu or chakra to augment your strength. I want you to exclusively use your body for this exercise.”

Kamosu Gonzaburō does a double-take from behind sensei. Good! Shikamaru is glad to see that other people can also recognize how absolutely insane their training is!

“Er, jōnin-sensei,” Kamosu interjects, “each barrel weighs about 30 kilos.”

“Yes,” Orochimaru placidly nods, “I am aware.”

Shikamaru sighs, shoulders drooping. The progression does make sense. They do this every day; it’s just in a different format today.

First, a mission that works on chakra modulation. Then, a mission that makes us use jutsu and our weapons. Then a time-bound mission during which we practiced shunshin on streets full of people and around all sorts of moving obstacles. Now it’s a task that we have to complete with only our body strength.

He picks up the first barrel of sake and grimaces, both at the weight and at the thought that occurs to him next.

The last mission will probably be a combination of everything, just like how we have to use everything we know against sensei when we spar.

Sasuke and Naruto follow his lead, trooping into the Kamosu clan’s gates with sake barrels on their backs. Shikamaru decides to keep that final deduction to himself. Naruto’s already complaining; it won’t do to add fuel to the fire.

I don’t want him to run his mouth and get us into even more trouble.

So Shikamaru grits his teeth and hauls the fucking sake. Four out of five. Just one left after this.




HITL 20 mission 05




After spending the better part of an hour combing the forest near the East Gates where the cat allegedly escaped from its owner’s traveling caravan, Shikamaru is ready to go to the pet shop and just buy the lady a new one.

Can we?” Naruto whines, “Because how the hell are we supposed to find a stupid cat in a forest this big?”

“If I had the Sharingan…” Sasuke mutters under his breath, otherwise scanning the underbrush for signs of a brown cat.

“Well, you don’t yet, so here we are,” Shikamaru sighs, once again closing his eyes and reaching out with his chakra. Expanding his awareness in such a way is exhausting, but out of the three of them, he is the most sensitive to environmental fluctuations of chakra. It’s not so different from the training he gets from his dad and Shimizu-oba, the training meant to attune him to the shadows; he just hasn’t done it this much before, and certainly not at the end of a very long day. To Sasuke, he says, “Hora, go over there and do it too; it’s good training for you.”

Sasuke follows directions well, at least. They have divided the territory into manageable twenty-square-meter quadrants and have been combing steadily outwards from the village walls. By Shikamaru’s (probably low) count, no less than five perimeter patrol teams have skirted around them with ill-concealed amusement. They probably look like blind idiots.

At least someone’s deriving some fun from our suffering, Shikamaru internally complains, because sensei is surely hiding somewhere nearby. Complaints are not a Team Seven thing, and Shikamaru refuses to be responsible for worsening their situation by giving sensei a reason to up the difficulty.

A barely audible gasp comes from Sasuke’s direction, followed by a subtle spike of chakra. Shikamaru’s eyes snap open, motioning for Naruto stay quiet and follow. They head towards Sasuke, Naruto barely making a sound as he sneaks behind a tree on light feet. Their resident loudmouth is surprisingly the best at stealth, a natural from the looks of it, something Shikamaru intends to fully maximize in the future.

This team is shaping up to be a very versatile one, so we might not need to be stuck as an assault unit after all. He tucks that thought aside and comes up behind Sasuke, who points a finger forward.

The flickering tail might have remained invisible against the trunk of the tree, but the ribbon tied around the cat’s neck is bright red and hard to miss. It sits quietly on a branch, grooming itself, still oblivious to their presence.

“Okay, this can’t be that hard, right?” Shikamaru mutters under his breath, “Capture the cat, guys. On three.”

Naruto and Sasuke exchange matching grins.

“One… two… three!”




Finding the cat is one thing. Capturing the damn thing is entirely another.

“Mother—fucking—ow.”

“I’m not even going to scold you because I want to cuss too,” Sasuke pants, scrambling over gigantic tree roots as they chase after the stupid cat.

The damn animal is a professional at escaping and will use its claws with extreme prejudice when threatened with captivity. They had lunged for it as one unit, but it startled and ran, gouging both of Shikamaru’s arms, Sasuke’s shoulder, and the side of Naruto’s face on its way. Now here they are, playing forest tag, only to probably die of rabies tomorrow.

“Come—back here—you stupid—furball!” Naruto breaks his shunshin roughly against a tree trunk and lunges again for the cat.

It turns tail and sprints toward Sasuke.

“Get it, get it!”

Sasuke manages to grab a leg, but yelps in pain as his hand is bitten, and loses grip again. The cat shoots off to the next clearing over, where the sunlight is a bit brighter and their visibility much improved. The red ribbon around its neck is threatening to come off. Before that can happen—the cat is brown, practically the worst possible color to have to hunt for in a goddamn forest—Sasuke flickers into a shunshin and lands paces ahead of the animal.

He bravely picks it up with both hands again—and it promptly wriggles free of him by contorting and flinging itself bodily backwards.

“Oh no, you don’t,” Shikamaru runs forward, hands flashing through familiar seals—he pulls at the thick shadows around them and wraps them around the cat. It shrieks in rage—how dare you, I should be the one shrieking in rage—as it thrashes against Kageshibari’s tight hold.

Sasuke and Naruto both skid to a stop next to him, panting. Naruto pumps a fist into the air.

Sasuke points out, “Uh, I don’t think that’s how you’re supposed to use that jutsu. I only mean, that’s, it’s supposed to strangle an enemy.”

“Bold of you to assume I’m not currently strangling an enemy,” Shikamaru grunts, glaring at the cat still yowling between them. He turns his arm over to look at the four bleeding scratches currently throbbing like hell and spits, “This fucking fleabag is the enemy.”

“I mean, does it have to be alive?” Naruto squints at the cat, arms crossed. His face is already healed, of course. “Are we sure the lady owner wants it back? It coulda blinded me. Who knows what it’s done to the lady!”

“I don’t know, what are you suggesting?” Shikamaru’s open to suggestions.

“I can roast it?” Sasuke puts his fingers into a dragon seal with a playful grin.

Naruto gasps, “Are you saying you want to eat it?! I don’t wanna eat it, that’s gross!”

“No, wait, that’s actually a great idea,” Shikamaru grins too, “because we have to get rid of the evidence! Hey, the mission parameters only said to find the cat.

Naruto squints again, fingers rubbing at his chin. “You’re not wrong… and we did find the cat…”

Children,” sensei materializes next to them in a rustle of swirling leaves, “I do believe you have a mission to complete.”

All three of them erupt in whines and complaints, Shikamaru brandishing his arm at sensei. “I was brutalized! It wanted to take my arms! I should be entitled to at least a little revenge!” He isn’t often this dramatic and childish, but he’s frankly exhausted, and it feels good to be able to laugh a little at this ridiculous joke of a mission.

Sensei only chuckles at them, one hand landing on top of Shikamaru’s head. “I believe the best revenge to be had here is returning Tora to his owner.”

 

Half an hour later, they stand outside of the administrative hall watching Shijimi-sama, the Daimyo’s wife, enthusiastically reunited with her beloved pet. Naruto blinks at the spectacle, Sasuke standing next to him in horrified silence. Shikamaru turns to sensei and says, “You’re right, this is better.”

“I take it back,” Naruto quietly says on sensei’s other side, “I feel bad. Who knows what that lady has done to the cat?!”

“No wonder it ran away,” Sasuke sighs. “I would run away too.”

Both Sasuke and Naruto would take their words back, however, when it turns out that they have to hunt the cat down again the very next day.




tbc
first draft: 2020.07.01
last edited: 2021.12.16




REFERENCES

(1) This practice is called stubble burning. It’s banned in most developed countries but is a huge problem in India, especially in the north. It’s the culprit for a huge percentage of their air pollution issues—among the worst in the world, frankly horrible, I don’t recommend it. The greenhouse gas emissions are massive and while it’s a fast way of clearing the field, it’s not the greatest for the lungs of the humans who live nearby. Stubble burning is an ancient practice, however, so I can see smaller scale farmers using it even in their world. Besides, Naruto put out the fires afterwards, so you could almost say that it’s technically not as bad. But don’t do it. Seriously. Be kind to our planet. There are other methods that don’t involve lung cancer and global warming.

(2) Anyone remember that old ninja anime predating Naruto called Flame of Recca? No? Tsk. You zygotes. Go check it out! Don't be turned away by the old animation! There be flame dragons, time travel, and as Naruto would say, coooool jutsuuuuu! Anyway, here's a reference for Sasuke's Katon: Gouryuuka 豪龍火 (Great Dragon Fire).

(3) Tria (aventria) would like to add evidence that despite Shikamaru's claims about Team Seven not complaining, they do, in fact, complain. A lot. (Addendum 2020.07.07)

(4) Fuuton: Fuuken 風剣 (Wind Blades)

Chapter Text

021. sasuke: worthy

.

“Well, then,” Orochimaru-sensei begins when they sit down for their debriefing, “What are our impressions?”

We hate D-ranks!” the three of them declare in unison, Naruto’s volume startling some birds from a nearby tree. It makes sensei actually laugh.

Today is the second full day of missions. They helped with the bridge construction again, this time hauling lumber while walking over running water; they got wet first thing in the morning. After that, they painted the exterior of a newly built apartment complex, using their vertical walking skills and a lot of core and back muscles. The third mission was something Shikamaru liked: the Archives needed help reorganizing their shelves, so for an hour and a half, they moved furniture around and re-shelved books at the direction of the archivists. The fourth mission was to help haul a civilian caravan’s contents from the main road where the caravan wheels broke in a pothole into the village market where the produce needed to go. Sensei hadn’t forbidden the use of chakra but made them use their shunshin while carrying heavy weights instead. The fifth and final mission of the day—the worst of them all—was once again to find and capture Tora the cat.

“Don’t get me wrong, I understand why,” Shikamaru begins—

Why!” whines Naruto—

“—strength training! Skills practice! Ninjutsu! Chakra modulation!” Shikamaru enumerates with his fingers, “But that doesn’t mean I have to like it!”

“Is it really so distasteful when you can clearly tell you are progressing daily?” sensei’s eyes glitter with much amusement at their token complaints.

“It would be different if they were actually missions,” Shikamaru scratches angrily at his head, ponytail going askew, “you know what I mean? But these—ugh, they’re like chores, and I hate chores. This is why I don’t do chores at home!”

“You don’t?” Naruto asks. He then turns to sensei and frowns, “Sensei, Shika doesn’t do chores at home. That’s not right.”

Sensei chuckles, “Shikamaru’s parents are ultimately in charge of his upbringing and that includes household responsibilities, Naruto.”

“Yeah, I negotiated my way out of chores a long time ago!”

Sasuke doesn’t think Shikamaru notices it, but he’s actually quite a spoiled brat. “You’re a spoiled brat,” he echoes out loud, because, well, why not? He can say these things now. They’re his best friends and this is his team. Sasuke puts on a beatific smile that Shikamaru repays with a scowl.

Orochimaru-sensei pulls their attention back once again. “Before we get further derailed, I wish to conclude this debriefing. You have all done well adapting to the missions these past two days,” his golden eyes sweep over them with obvious pleasure, “and Team Seven now has ten D-ranks under the belt. Still a long way to go, of course, but we are making headway. Recall that you need—”

“—twenty D-ranks to qualify for C-ranks, and fifty missions total to qualify for the Chuunin Exams.”

“Correct,” sensei nods at Shikamaru, “which is why we will once again do missions tomorrow morning, although I will reserve the afternoon for a different exercise.”

“Ooh!” Naruto grins, “What’re we doing? Are we learning a new jutsu?”

They have already managed their second technique; even Naruto’s tricky wind shield is now consistent and solid. Sasuke is proud of him for controlling such an errant element so well; wind is incredibly hard for Sasuke to get a handle on. (He tried.)

“We are indeed starting on our third jutsu tomorrow, but we are also sparring. As such, I ask that you bring your weapons and be prepared to incorporate into combat the techniques you know as much as possible.”

“Yes, sensei,” they chorus, all excited to learn another jutsu. Sensei does such a great job choosing their jutsu that learning never feels like a hardship.

At this rate, I might actually learn a hundred-fifty jutsus like I wanted to! Sasuke bites down on his lip to suppress the grin that wants to take over his face. For once, he dares to think, Maybe—maybe I can catch up.

The thought buoys his tired feet as he runs back home.




After dinner and dishes, Sasuke shuffles into their home library, intent on finding more jutsu scrolls to learn on his own time. He might not be able to practice them for real but he can at least learn the hand seals and accompanying chakra modulation. But when he gets there, his father is sitting at the table in front of the shelves.

“O-Oh,” Sasuke drops into a bow, “excuse my interruption, otou-sama, I d-didn’t know you were—I was—”

“Sasuke,” Fugaku looks up from the documents on the table. “You should be resting.”

“I—um,” Sasuke stutters, taken aback, “I just—wanted to take a few scrolls? For training? Jutsu and… stuff.”

Fugaku peers at him with an unfathomable expression. Sasuke finds himself fidgeting by the door. Is he supposed to leave now? Should he go back to his room?

But then Fugaku puts his pen down and asks, “What jutsu have you mastered so far?”

Sasuke is struck speechless for a moment, because—is his father actually asking him about jutsu training? That’s never happened before.

“Um, a few Katon!” he scrambles to reply, closing the door behind him and sitting seiza at the other end of the table. “Goukakyuu, of course, and uh, Dai Endan, Ryuuka, Gouryuuka… I’ve been using them in sparring.”

Fugaku peers at him some more and clarifies, “You are able to sustain Gouryuuka to effect?”

“Yes…?” Sasuke blinks, thinking of the scorched cornfield from yesterday and how he hadn’t let the dragon burn past the edges of it. The forest had remained untouched. Destructive power is not enough; control is also a must, as sensei always says. “Although, um, sensei has been teaching me… he’s been teaching us other jutsu too, um, from our own affinities. So I haven’t been learning a lot of Katon lately.”

This time, Fugaku frowns at him. Sasuke stiffens and bites down on his lip. “Do you mean to say,” Fugaku slowly says, “that your affinity isn’t Fire?”

Oh, I guess I never told anyone. Sasuke looks up with a blink. Well, no one ever asks…

“Um, no, otou-sama. I was surprised too.” And then, because there’s no better way of explaining it, Sasuke summons the lightning to wrap around his shoulders like a mantle. It rises crackling from underneath his skin, easy as breathing. The more he does it, the easier it gets. He looks at his sparkling hands with a small smile. This is mine. My chakra, my power. Mine.

Lightning,” Fugaku breathes in surprise, much like sensei did that first time many weeks ago. “That’s… unexpected.”

“Sensei thought so too!” Sasuke shifts the mass of his chakra from one hand to the other and watches the lightning follow. “He said usually Uchihas have Fire affinity, and that you’re one of the best at Fire jutsu in Konoha, and, um, he said it was a-admirable that I got Fire jutsus down before I even learned Lightning jutsu.”

When he looks up again, Fugaku’s forehead is drawn deep in thought. Sasuke is once again stunned when Fugaku says, “When Itachi manifested a Yin affinity, it came as a surprise, but at least it had precedent, since your mother’s affinity is also Yin. But Lightning… none in my line were ever Lightning-born.”

He just said aniki’s name. Sasuke fights the urge to gape. How long has it been since aniki’s name was spoken in this household? How long since otou-sama said it?

Fugaku flares his chakra in a way that must summon his mother. There is a brief pause before an answering flare comes from upstairs. Sasuke can feel their chakra keenly now and with high fidelity that he couldn’t manage before. The more attuned he is with his own chakra, the more attuned he becomes to everyone else’s.

In short order, Mikoto slips into the room, socked feet near-soundless as she tucks her yukata accordingly and sits between her husband and her son. “What seems to be the matter?” she looks between them, surely noting how Sasuke is fidgeting at the other end of the table.

“Show her,” Fugaku nods, arms now crossed in front of his chest.

Sasuke doesn’t get why this is such a big deal, but he summons the lightning again. Mikoto gasps.

“What…”

“Um, my affinity is Lightning, not Fire,” Sasuke helpfully adds, looking down at his hand because it’s less awkward than watching his parents, both of whom are hard to understand. He wants to ask about aniki but holds his tongue; the last time he had tried that, he’d gotten a sharply worded reprimand and then got grounded, training and even shrine-visiting privileges taken away.

“Neither of our children have Fire affinity,” Fugaku says, “and now Sasuke presents with an affinity never recorded in my branch of the family before.”

“Spontaneous changes like this have been known to happen,” Mikoto evenly responds, although there is still a note of wonder in her voice. “I don’t know of any Lightning-born in the main line either. All of my brothers were born to Fire, as you know. I was the exception.”

Fugaku takes a sip of his tea and quietly remarks, “It seems that both of our sons are now also exceptions.”

“I fail to see how this is as a negative,” Mikoto immediately interjects. “Sasuke, have you been training with jutsu in your affinity?”

“Yes, okaa-san, um, sensei has been, uhh, tailoring our training? I guess that’s the word,” he bites his lip and plays with the hem of his shirt.

“Explain,” Fugaku prompts.

Why are they suddenly so interested? Sasuke wonders, but because he’s been prompted, he obediently answers. “So, um, sensei usually gives us a new jutsu to learn every week. And, um, so far, every jutsu has been in our affinity. We have two or three hours everyday to practice the new jutsu—oh, except this week we started taking D-ranks, which are boring and take all day… but we’re gonna get our third jutsu tomorrow, I think.”

He looks up and finds that both of his parents are waiting for him to say more. They want to hear more? …what if I run out of things to say?

“…sensei gave us this scroll, um, we’re supposed to list down all the jutsu we know and I guess rate how comfortable we feel with each one, kind of like a skills list? Yeah,” Sasuke nods to himself. “He also said he’ll help us figure out the best build that fits our, um, style. We usually spar for about two or three hours one-on-one with sensei and he makes us use all the jutsus we know, and our weapons too, so we get used to them. Sometimes we spar three-on-one and still we don’t ever win.”

There is momentary silence during which Sasuke feels the back of his neck begin to sweat, until Fugaku speaks again. “You came in here intending to find jutsu scrolls, is that right?”

“Y-Yes, otou-sama, I’m s-sorry, I didn’t know you were here.”

Fugaku waves to dismiss his apology and instead asks, “Do you intend to continue learning Fire jutsu, then? Perhaps to hone it as a secondary element?”

“…y-yes, otou-sama, that was the, um, the intention,” Sasuke manages despite his confusion. What is going on here? He can’t read this situation at all. To cover his own disorientation, he adds, “Sensei explained the affinities in relation to each other and said that, um, that most jōnin are capable of mastering two or three. He said that next to Lightning, Fire and Water would be the easiest for me.”

“Yin is also an option,” Mikoto gently suggests, “although you certainly don’t seem to have the temperament for it. Perhaps you would indeed be better served mastering Fire.”

“O-Okay.” What else is Sasuke supposed to say?

Fugaku stands just then, going to the shelves without a word. Sasuke darts a look at his mother, who sits placid and silent at the table. Neither of them look particularly upset, which is… good?

“Begin with these,” Fugaku lays three scrolls in front of him, two of which are thin and one unnaturally thick. “Only two of them are strictly jutsu: Rin'en and Go-chiten Shouheki. (5) The third is a treatise on the manipulation of Fire as an element, written by one of our ancestors.”

Sasuke opens his mouth and then closes it, unable to think of a fitting response. He pulls the scrolls towards himself and considers what precisely his father is attempting to teach him. I guess I won’t know until I study the scrolls?

“It will be more difficult, as your sensei has no doubt told you, to master Fire because of your affinity,” Fugaku thoughtfully tells him. “These scrolls should help you conceptualize Fire as an element with more clarity, since it will not come as naturally to you as Lightning does.”

“T-Thank you, otou-sama. I’ll study them diligently.”

“See that you do,” his father nods, and Sasuke almost takes that as his dismissal, except his mother interjects again. She does that a lot these days, come to think.

“Sasuke,” she leans forward a tad to peer into his face, “are you enjoying yourself?”

This question, most of all, stuns Sasuke the most. It takes him two full seconds before he stutters out, “A-Ah, y-yes, okaa-san! Of course! I’m—it’s—fun. Training, I mean. And, um, getting stronger.”

Mikoto’s face then eases into a small smile. “Good,” she nods. “That’s good.”

Fugaku’s face looks dark and thoughtful again. Sasuke attempts to dismiss himself before he gets trapped between the two of them in yet another confusing disagreement. He’s beginning to think that the disagreements of recent weeks have been about him, but that makes no sense, does it? Since when has he been important enough for them to argue about? The fights have always been about aniki and whatever is going on with the clan, never about Sasuke.

I mean, I’m just Sasuke. Unless I did something… but I don’t remember doing anything bad. What could it possibly be about me?

But just as he’s about to rise from his seat, Fugaku cuts in again and says, “You speak of getting stronger, Sasuke. Tell me, son: what do you intend to do with that strength?”

Again, Sasuke is stumped. What does he intend to do with it? Wait—does he need to do something with it? Can he not get strong simply for the sake of getting strong?

But no; that sort of thinking is naïve. He’s not Shikamaru, but he’s not absolutely stupid either. He knows that strength begets responsibility. He just hasn’t figured out yet what that responsibility looks like or what it means.

“I don’t know, otou-sama,” he quietly, uncertainly responds. “What does it mean to be strong?”

Mikoto turns from outright glaring at her husband to looking at Sasuke in surprise and… pleasure? Even Fugaku appears to be struck speechless.

“I-I know I’m not as good as a-aniki, and all that, um, b-but I’m trying my best,” Sasuke fights against the sudden and almost overpowering urge to cry, “and e-even then there’s a lot of things I don’t really understand. What’s it like being strong? I’ve never been… I don’t know what that’s like. So I don’t know yet what I’ll do if—w-when I get there. D-Does that make sense?”

This conversation would much be so much easier if it was with sensei. Ideally, it should be with Oboro-obaa-sama. She knows how Sasuke tends to ramble sometimes; she would understand.

He then thinks of obaa-sama’s stories, of their clan’s history, and of the curse. A strong curse, born from strong hatred. Indra and Ashura, Madara and Izuna… himself and his aniki. Fate, echoing through time.

Can I change it? Can we turn it back?

Those were obaa-sama’s words. Our hatred is born from love, she had told him. We just need to remember to turn it back.

He bites down on his lip again, looking down at his fingers which are twisted into a parody of the dragon hand seal. He wants to quit this conversation now, but sensei doesn’t raise quitters—so he takes a deep breath and forges onward, “I just want to be able to stand on my own two feet. I want to be able to protect my friends. And I know I’ll never be like a-aniki, but I just want to be worthy of the Uchiha.”

The words come spilling out of his mouth in a wave of determination. Because they need to be said, he doesn’t try to stop them.

“M-Maybe one day, someday, when I’m strong enough, I can—help. I can help the Uchiha. Our clan.” Sasuke looks up at his parents and decides to be brave. “Otou-sama, okaa-san—something’s wrong with our clan. Something even worse is wrong with the village. I know that I’m not strong enough to make a difference either way, but I’m trying to get stronger so that I can help, however… however I’m needed. Because what’s happening in the village is not right. It’s not right at all.”

“Sasuke, you…” his mother quietly breathes.

Sasuke, for his part, is too busy thinking of Naruto. Thinking of sensei and everything Shikamaru has been noticing. Thinking of what obaa-sama has been trying to tell him all this time. The puzzle is beginning to come together even though he’s still missing many pieces. Maybe if aniki comes to visit like Naruto asked him to, Sasuke can get some answers and paint a clearer picture.

He jolts when Mikoto’s hand strokes his head like she used to when he was still a little boy. Her face is creased into a sad smile. Is that… regret? “We’ve been remiss in raising you, haven’t we? But you’ve done well growing up all on your own.”

Sasuke just looks down. What is he supposed to say to that?

“Have you spoken about this with your sensei?” Mikoto quietly asks, hand still gently carding through Sasuke’s hair. She pushes aside the tiny, lopsided braid Naruto did for him at lunch.

“Um, we’ve spoken more about the village,” Sasuke hesitantly answers, suppressing a flinch of surprise when her fingers brush his forehead, “because I didn’t know how much about our clan I’m supposed to tell him.” And then, because he actually wants to know, “We’re allies with his clan, right?”

“Yes,” Fugaku answers this time, “and, in a manner of speaking, we are indebted to him.”

Sasuke blinks and tilts his head. There’s a story there.

“Your sensei is one of the village’s strongest. No doubt you’ve figured this by now. He is well connected and has served in many capacities throughout his time.” Fugaku pauses, exchanging a long look with Mikoto. Sasuke wonders if aniki ever got frustrated with their parents the same way he does during awfully lopsided conversations like these. Fugaku continues, “Listen well and make the most of your time with him. You have been given an incredible privilege, learning from a legend. In time and under his tutelage, perhaps you will grow strong enough to become a pillar of our clan.”

Sasuke straightens and nods. There’s no perhaps about it. I can. I will. I’m not a quitter.

“If you have any questions,” Mikoto adds, “if anything your sensei teaches you is unclear, you can come to me or to your father, Sasuke. Whatever your concerns might be. Do you understand?”

They must be trying to tell him something. Or they’re trying to get something from him. Sasuke doesn’t know what, but he knows this conversation is more than passing strange. He nods and almost dismisses himself from the room again—except—

Well, they did say whatever the concerns might be, right?

So he decides to be brave one more time—it worked just a little while ago, after all—and turns to ask one more question.

“Okaa-san, otou-sama, please excuse my impertinence, b-but it’s for my friend’s sake. Both of you must have known Yondaime-sama and Uzumaki Kushina-san. W-Would you happen to have any keepsakes or, or pictures…? I only wanted to—to make copies for Naruto. He—he doesn’t know what his parents look like. He didn’t even know about them until, um, three weeks ago.”

And for the third time, Sasuke silences his parents again.




The following morning, he trips over himself in his haste to make it to the bridge where they are supposed to meet.

“Naruto!” he waves as he runs full-tilt towards the boy sitting on a bench, “Naruto, Naruto!”

Naruto, who looks surprised and vaguely alarmed, erupts to his feet. “Sasuke! What’s up? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing!” Sasuke comes to a screeching halt in front of his friend. “Everything! Well, okay, not everything, but—” he shoves the envelope he’s been holding into Naruto’s chest, “—okaa-san gave me these last night! She says you can keep ‘em!”

“O-Okay?” Naruto squints at him, taking the envelope. “What’s in it?”

“Open it!” Sasuke bounces impatiently, grin threatening on his face. To his left, Shikamaru approaches, raising a lazy hand in greeting. Sasuke doesn’t turn to acknowledge him, instead nudging Naruto again, “Open it, open it!”

“What’s happening now?” Shikamaru sighs in a very put-upon manner.

“Sasuke brought me this, he’s really excited about it, I don’t know what’s…”

The first photo in the stack is of two familiar-looking infants, swaddled and fast asleep. Naruto looks about as gobsmacked as Sasuke had felt last night.

“That’s me,” Sasuke points at the sleeping dark-haired baby, “and that’s you!” The other baby is blonde, the whisker-like birthmarks a dead giveaway. “Okaa-san says she came and saw you a few weeks after you were born!”

Naruto flips to the next picture and gasps. Sasuke points to the red-haired lady grinning up at the camera, looking happy and very pregnant indeed.

“That’s your mom. She was friends with my mom,” Sasuke motions to a younger, similarly pregnant Mikoto, who stands next to the redhead in the photo. “They worked together a lot as chuunin and jōnin. This was taken at, um, what do you call those parties for pregnant ladies?”

“Baby showers,” Shikamaru helpfully supplies, now crowded close on Naruto’s other side.

“Yeah, those! Okaa-san says they had a joint baby shower for us!” Sasuke waits impatiently for Naruto to flip to the next picture, which shows their parents standing together as a group. All of their parents. “That’s, um, that’s okaa-san and otou-sama next to her—”

“—hey, it’s oyaji!” Shikamaru taps his own father’s likeness, in the group photo still a young man whose looks Shikamaru will probably mirror in a few years—

“—yeah, and a bunch of other folks from their batch, but um,” Sasuke points at the tall, blond man laughing at something the redhead said right before the camera went off, “Naruto, that’s your dad. Yondaime-sama.”

If there was any doubt about Naruto’s father being Yondaime, it disappears with the next and final photo. Sasuke’s parents stand in full Uchiha regalia next to Naruto’s parents, Namikaze Minato wearing the full Hokage garb.

“This one was taken at your dad’s inauguration,” Sasuke faithfully relays. “Okaa-san says your mom insisted on the photos before the men all got drunk. Your dad apparently tended to cry a lot when he got drunk. Okaa-san says your mom was already pregnant when this was taken so she couldn’t drink anything and she hated that because it sucked. Otou-sama wasn’t very close with your parents, but he said lots of good things about your dad, it sounds like he was really strong and—whoa, are you okay?”

He suddenly finds his arms full of Naruto, whose face is pressed firmly into his shoulder. Sasuke can feel Naruto’s hand fisting into the back of his shirt.

“You’re the bestest friend ever,” Naruto mumbles wetly into his neck, “seriously, the bestest best of the best ever, Sasuke, thank you so much.”

Pressing his lips together to keep from crying too, Sasuke returns the hug. He meets Shikamaru’s eye over Naruto’s shoulder and smiles when the Nara gives him two thumbs up.

“It’s the least I can do,” Sasuke tells Naruto, “and the least you deserve.”

There have been so many wrongs done to Naruto by now that Sasuke feels like they’ve come too late, but that won’t stop them from trying to remedy the situation anyway.




Naruto hands the photos to sensei for safekeeping before they begin their morning missions. “Please, sensei, I don’t want them to get damaged.”

Sensei tucks the envelope into his obi with care. “You shall get them back as soon as we are finished with the day’s training. We can buy frames for you to put them up in your room this evening, if you like.”

Naruto looks on the verge of tears again at the very thought. Small wonder; Sasuke figures he would be too if he lived his entire life not knowing what his parents looked like, only to find out from someone else’s photo. He’s glad he worked up the courage to ask his parents for them because he doubts they would have come out about it on their own.

Everyone is forbidden from talking about it, Sasuke reminds himself before the anger can build, and that includes okaa-san and otou-sama.

Throughout the tiring monotony of their first mission—hauling logs across the river for the bridge construction crew—he wonders what it must have been like for his parents, having to shut up about their friends after they died and left behind an orphaned infant.

How could okaa-san put up with that for all these years? How could she have done nothing?

But Sasuke kicks himself as soon as the thought crosses his head. Things aren’t that simple; life hardly ever is. There were probably other things going on preventing her from stepping up. If Shikamaru’s parents couldn’t do anything despite being in a relatively safe and uncontroversial position as a clan, what could an Uchiha have done? Much less Mikoto, daughter and then newly made heir to the main branch after her last remaining brother’s death. Her hands were probably tied—they probably still are, come to think, except Sasuke asked and forced the issue.

At least she didn’t lie to me, Sasuke frowns. I don’t know what I would have done if she had lied to me about Naruto’s family.

Being disappointed in his own parents is not a new experience, but familiarity doesn’t make it any less unpleasant. He doesn’t know if he wants to go back to a simpler time when he believed the world of his clan, or if carrying this heavy, nuanced knowledge is better.

But then there’s this.

“Sasuke,” sensei puts a hand on his shoulder after the first D-rank of their day, “you have remained faithful to Naruto as I asked of you. I commend your dedication. Well done.”

When Sasuke looks up, sensei is smiling down at him, that small and private smile that has less to do with the mouth and more with the glimmer of those strange, golden eyes. He recalls that first week when sensei had warned him that Naruto would soon need his friendship more than ever. A shiver of… something runs down his spine.

“You knew,” Sasuke then says, “you must have known our parents knew each other. But you didn’t say anything about it.”

“Although I know a lot, some secrets are not mine to tell. Do you understand what I mean?”

Sasuke nods. He gets it, he does. And sensei has done far more to inform them and encourage their initiative than any other adult so far. It’s just this nagging feeling he can’t quite shake—a feeling he knows is best kept quiet—that the adults will always, always hide things from them because they are children.

Sensei knows far more than he lets on and far more than they can ever imagine. Sasuke must take care to remember that.

They spend the rest of the morning repairing Ground Nine. Shikamaru is for once the most ravenous of them all at lunch, having used Earth jutsu nonstop to smooth Ground Nine’s surface back down to its original state. Whoever had used it for training left massive, intimidating gouges in the soil, as well as burned tree stumps and horse-sized boulders scattered everywhere.

“We shoulda just left the boulders where they were,” Naruto remarks over their food. “They make great obstacles for training.”

Shikamaru groans. “For fuck’s sake, stop giving sensei ideas.”

“Worry not, little ones; we need no obstacles for this afternoon. We are sparring again so that your bodies do not forget how to move. Muscle memory cannot be built in a mere handful of weeks. We cannot lose the tremendous momentum you have built for your own progress.”

Before that, however, sensei sits them down to help them through their third jutsu, an intentional pause in the day to allow their food to settle. There is no scroll this time, only sensei’s words as their guidance.

“Recall the two other jutsus you have learned,” sensei says, “both of them in your elemental affinity. By now, you should know which of the two you find easier to execute. Naruto?”

Naruto scratches the back of his neck. “Uhh, I think the Wind Blades are easier. I just throw them like that!” he mimes the move with one arm.

“Very good. Shikamaru?”

“Dōkutsu, now that I have it down. Easier than shaping the chains.”

Sensei nods again and then finally turns to Sasuke. “And you, Sasuke?”

Like how he showed his affinity to his parents, Sasuke summons the lightning from under his skin. “Lightning Cloak is easier, which is kinda weird, because it’s technically just an extension of Lightning Palm, isn’t it?”

“You are simply surrounding yourself with chakra and turning it into your element of choice, instead of concentrating it to a particular body part. Of course it is easier.”

“Oh,” Sasuke’s face clears as he lets go of the lightning, “that makes sense.”

Sensei crosses his arms under his yukata. “Now that we have established which jutsu is easier for you, you will attempt to perform it—but you will do so in an element other than your affinity. In other words, I want you to adapt a known technique into a secondary element of your choice.”

Shikamaru does a double-take. "Isn’t that kind of advanced?”

“That does sound kind of hard,” Sasuke mutters, frown pulling his eyebrows together. Next to him, Naruto looks a little lost.

“Indeed perhaps some would consider it advanced for genin,” sensei shrugs. “Most jōnin train their fledgling genin with techniques that agree with their affinities in the beginning. That is because most genin end up disadvantaged when they start off learning jutsu from their opposite affinities. But I am not most jōnin, and you are not most genin; I think this much is clear. And I do enjoy defying expectations. Don’t you?”

Coyly, sensei shares with them a mischievous smile; the three of them echo it back.

“So: we shall relearn a jutsu you already know in a different element. You are free to choose which element you like. Ideas?”

Shikamaru looks deep in thought, so Sasuke beats him to it and says, “I mean, I already know Fire… should I try a third element?”

Sensei tilts his head, “You may try. It might make it harder on you, but if you manage a third, then your possibilities expand.”

“Wouldn’t that mean that the best one for you to try is Water? Since your affinity is Lightning,” Naruto squints at him.

“I guess so. But I’ll try it with Fire first. What about you?”

“Water!” Naruto grins, “Wind and water sounds cool, doesn’t it?”

Sasuke grins back, refreshed by the simple ease of Naruto’s mindset. Here there are no agendas. With Naruto, he doesn’t ever need to second-guess where he stands.

“For idiots,” Shikamaru cuts in all of a sudden, “you two are surprisingly smart.”

“Hey!” “Rude!”

Shikamaru shakes his head and says, “No, listen. Sasuke, you’ll have Fire and Lightning. Naruto, you’ll have Wind and Water. That means that on the battlefield, your techniques will complement each other. Wind empowers Fire, Water conducts Lightning! You could—in theory and with a lot of practice—combine your techniques to lethal effect! I bet that coordination wouldn’t be that hard for you to pin down anyway, what with how you both have this weird telepathy already going on.”

Caught by the suggestion, Sasuke blinks owlishly at his teammate. Naruto, on the other hand, snorts and says, “If I didn’t know any better, Shika, I’d say you sound like you’re feeling left out.”

“Masaka,” Shikamaru snorts. “You two can keep each other. I’m more than fine with that. I’ve got no time or patience to try being a third wheel.”

“Shikamaru makes a very good point,” sensei cuts in before they can get derailed. “The three of you will likely be spending the next two or three years functioning as a unit. Creating shared advantages such as this one will pay off tenfold. It is rare that you can build a complementary combat partnership from the ground up. If you are prepared for the added difficulty, I would be more than happy to guide you until such time that you can manage for yourselves.”

“Hora,” Shikamaru smiles, satisfied and catlike, “sensei agrees with me because I’m right.”

“Okay then,” Sasuke exchanges a look with Naruto, who glows bright with mounting excitement. “Let’s try it. I mean, we’ve got nothing to lose.”

“And everything to gain,” Naruto grins.

“An admirable mindset,” sensei nods in satisfaction. “Very well. Shikamaru, what secondary element have you decided upon?”

“Er, not an elemental release,” Shikamaru scratches his cheek. “I’d like to try adapting Dōkutsu to the shadows. Yin release. I think I can do it.”

Sensei looks momentarily surprised. “Does such a technique exist within the specialty of your clan?”

Sasuke then recalls that apart from being master strategists, the Nara clan are renowned shadow weavers. He doesn’t understand much about how that works, but he understands enough to know that it makes them dangerous.

“Not to my knowledge… but as you said,” Shikamaru shrugs with a sharp little grin, “we’re breaking expectations, right? I’d like to see if I can add a new Shadow jutsu to oyaji’s list.”

Sensei approves. “Ambitious. I like it.”

Without further ado, they make themselves comfortable in a sitting half-circle and face sensei for guidance. Sensei bids them to close their eyes and reach inside to feel for their core.

“Your affinity comes as easy as breathing,” he quietly tells them, “but this one will require added effort that will feel unfamiliar at first. That is to be expected. Because you expect it, you will not allow the hardship to deter you. You will push through.”

“Yes, sensei,” they chorus. In unison and without having to be told, they open their tenketsu halfway.

“Focus on the shape of your jutsu. Focus on its mass. Naruto, feel the ghost-weight of the blades in your hands right before you throw them. Sasuke, think of how the lightning crawls up from within your bones. Shikamaru, imagine the dark shade of that earthen dome. Fix this in your mind.”

The prickling feeling under his skin is becoming a familiar one. Sasuke holds it there and commits the sensation to memory. The lightning courses from his head down to his toes. Muscles twitch and jump underneath it as he focuses, his own body impatient to move with the chakra, imbued with so much energy that it takes an effort to hold still.

“Seize that sensation,” sensei instructs, “while you think of the new element. What do you already know about it? Naruto, you chose to master Water. How does water feel? What does it look like under the light? Sasuke, you are familiar with Fire. You know its heat, you know its sting… you know how it can burn you just as much as it will burn your enemy. Grasp that memory. Shikamaru, likewise, you know what it feels like when the shadows wrap around you in an embrace.”

“I’ve known it since I was young,” Shikamaru quietly exhales, “I was born for it.”

Sensei hums, “Indeed you were, just the same as your friends. Sasuke, whose very blood is fire. Naruto, whose clan tamed the storms of the eastern seas. This should not even be a hardship, should it? Now put your jutsu and the element of your choice together. Put it together and form the seals.”

Sasuke doesn’t even need hand seals. Just as the lightning cloaks him with a mere thought, a wreath of fire blooms around his shoulders in under a second. He catches himself before it singes Naruto’s hair.

Naruto, for his part, has managed to summon rippling blades of water to his hands. They are hesitant but they are corporeal nonetheless; Sasuke shoots him a delighted grin.

But Naruto’s wide eyes are fixed upon Shikamaru, so Sasuke turns and finds—

“Whoa.”

Shikamaru has disappeared behind a black dome of cotton-soft shadow; its slowly swirling surface is opaque and vaguely ominous.

Sasuke immediately blurts out, “That’s dead useful for hiding at night!”

“I know, right?” Shikamaru’s warped and muffled voice comes from somewhere inside. “The shadows grow stronger in the dark too. I need less chakra to use it at night.” He releases the jutsu and emerges from within, still sitting cross-legged and smug as you please. “Sensei, you’re right, that was easier than I thought.”

Sensei looks immensely pleased indeed and says, “You will add these to your repertoire and work on applying them during spars. Keep practicing them now; you have another hour to become familiar with a new element.”

By the end of the hour, all three of them are shakily switching between their two elements under sensei’s watchful eyes. (2)




Ultimately, it is during sparring that he gets the idea.

Sensei is parrying them together, an unfair and entirely humbling three-on-one. Despite the obvious progress they have made individually and as a team, sensei is still staggeringly strong; Sasuke never even sees an opening. Nevertheless they try. They hurl themselves against their teacher in creatively desperate configurations, using every jutsu they have at their disposal.

“Persistence against failure is something you must learn,” sensei casually lectures while bodily throwing Naruto into the ground. “You will inevitably face an enemy stronger than yourself and have no choice but to fight. In such a situation, what do you do?”

Fight, what else,” Shikamaru darts in with lashes of his rope.

Sensei catches the end of it and yanks him into a kick. “And what do you fight for?”

Naruto’s water blades whiz into the fray, forcing sensei to dodge and allowing Shikamaru enough room to breathe. Sasuke wastes no time and ducks in with a barrage of lightning-wreathed limbs, although he’s ineffectual against sensei’s airtight defense.

Survive,” sensei grabs him by the arm and twists it; Sasuke finds himself pinned and held, arms struggling against a stronger grip. “You fight to survive, little ones. When against a stronger opponent, your survival is your victory. Do you understand?”

Sasuke grunts when sensei tosses him back out to catch Naruto’s spinning kick. The ground under their feet crack open, Shikamaru darting in at once as sensei’s stance is momentarily destabilized. Still useless; sensei allows himself to fall off-balance only to use Shikamaru’s momentum to right himself. Situational awareness. Sensei has it in spades.

The frustration gets to Naruto. In between attacks, Naruto somehow manages to dart in close enough to grab sensei’s hair and yank on it to tug him aside. Sasuke’s kick grazes sensei’s cheek—but he doesn’t see the open palm coming at him from the other side. He hits the ground with a thud and a grunt of pain.

“Agh, almost!” Naruto yells, to which sensei responds with a vicious smile.

Very good, Naruto.” Sensei swipes at the healing scratch on his cheek. “There is no such thing as fighting dirty when you are a shinobi; there is only fighting. Use every advantage you can find. Exploit their weaknesses. Aim for the gaps in their defense. Throw sand in their eyes if that’s what it takes. Knee them in the balls. Insult their mothers. Anything goes. The enemy is free game.”

“You let Naruto have that one,” Shikamaru pants with narrowed eyes, “you must have, because how else could he have gotten close otherwise?”

“Correct. You three have a ways to go before you can touch me in combat. I allowed Naruto in to make a point.” Sensei turns to Sasuke with a raised eyebrow. “You should have seen my hand coming. Why are you not augmenting your senses with your chakra?”

“Um,” Sasuke blinks, “I don’t know?”

“That is not an acceptable answer, Sasuke. Guard up. Defend yourself.” That is all the warning he gets before the onslaught resumes again.

 

It isn’t long before all three of them are plastered on the ground. This too has become familiar. Sasuke heaves breath after precious breath and blinks the sweat out of his eyes. He wonders how long it will take them to even so much as touch sensei in single combat. Sensei stands over them, his shadow long and deep against the setting of the sun.

“You fight to survive in order to fight another day. There are those who like to romanticize death, sometimes painting it as a noble sacrifice, but ultimately death is pointless. Very rarely does it serve a constructive purpose. But life has purpose, it has meaning. In death, there is only darkness; in life, you can grow and build and change. Therefore it stands to reason that your life is worth more than your pride any day, so as shinobi, you must learn tenacity—how to fight for your life—as well as discretion—when to run for your life.”

“Every strategic retreat is part of a strategic advance,” Shikamaru says from Sasuke’s left, echoing sensei’s words from weeks ago.

“Just so,” the approval is golden in sensei’s voice. “You have done well today. Tomorrow will be much of the same. Do either of you require healing, Sasuke, Shikamaru?”

“No, sensei,” Sasuke sighs at the same time as Shikamaru’s disgruntled, “M’fine.”

They eventually get up and retrieve their packs. While Sasuke is chugging the last of his water, sensei asks Naruto, “Do you have enough in you to go to the market and find frames for your photos?”

The envelope makes it back into Naruto’s greedy hands. “Yes, please, sensei! You guys wanna come help me pick?”

“If I do, you’ll have to carry me home,” says Shikamaru. True enough, he’s swaying on his feet.

“Um, I’ll pass for tonight,” Sasuke likewise refuses, shouldering his pack. “I gotta go see obaa-sama at the shrine. I’ll come see the frames you pick on Saturday?”

“Oh, okay!” Naruto grins. “Bye then!”

“Later.”

“See you tomorrow!” Sasuke waves as he trots away. Back towards the Uchiha compound, past the town and the market and the park and the Naka river. His mind races as fast as his feet.

Why am I not augmenting my senses using chakra?

Through the compound gates, past the sentries, past the senbei shop and the weapons store, down the street that leads to his father’s house.

Why am I not augmenting my vision using chakra?

Once inside, he quickly tucks his sandals away—“Tadaima!”—and stumbles up the stairs to his room. He can feel his mother’s chakra in the kitchen; his father is not yet home. Sasuke closes the door behind him, drops his pack, and sits cross-legged on the tatami floor. (4)

I can augment my senses with chakra, he closes his eyes and breathes, just as I can augment parts of my body with chakra.

It’s not just limited to strengthening his kicks and punches. It’s not just for more stamina. He wills his heart rate to come down, focusing on the tired burn of his chakra core until he can see it like a flame flickering within his chest.

Please let me be right. Please be right.

Slowly and very carefully, he channels a stream of chakra to his eyes. He feels it at once: a mounting, prickling pressure behind his eyeballs. It’s at once a foreign and familiar sensation, like something half-remembered from a dream.

Sasuke looks up at the mirror on his wall.

A pair of blood-red eyes stare back.




tbc
first draft: 2020.07.06
last edited: 2021.12.16




REFERENCES

(1) Masaka "No way!" / "On the contrary..."

(2) Learning the element separate from the jutsu is something that seems common sense if you put it this way, but it’s not something that canon shows us. Canon’s usage of jutsu appears very regimented and rule-bound instead of intuitive, or at least the bits of it that canon actually bothers to explain. I guess it makes sense that most shinobi are taught jutsu in piecemeal, one technique at a time, instead of being taught how to manipulate their chakra into elements and thereby how to shape an element. It’s easier to just learn jutsu the simple way. But Orochimaru doesn’t do the simple way, and I personally am a proponent of conceptual learning: instead of learning something by starting with how to do it, first learn why and what. So instead of learning a whole bunch of elemental jutsu, Orochimaru makes them learn the elements themselves. In other words, fuck canon. (¬‿¬)

(3) Once again, canon makes little sense. In it, Sasuke activated his sharingan under duress and without much explanation, but I can’t imagine that such a powerful, long-surviving clan has no better Sharingan-rearing method than throwing their widdle beanie babeys at life-or-death situations while crossing their figurative fingers and hoping for the best. Which is why, once again, fuck canon. ƪ(˘⌣˘)ʃ There has to be a safer and more methodical way of activating their eyes, I mean, come on! So in this fic, in line with Oboro-obaa-sama’s earlier explanation, the Sharingan is heavily reliant on strong and supple coils that are trained to withstand continuous high chakra output. Likewise, the Sharingan can be slowly coaxed awake by training those coils. Biologically speaking, it’s also not far-fetched for the Uchihas to have evolved accompanying physiological adaptations to accommodate the evolution of the Sharingan. (I mean, we already see evidence of it in canon: the veins that appear around the eyes when a Hyuuga activates the Byakugan indicates to me that a doujutsu that powerful demands higher blood flow towards the eyes. Makes perfect sense.) I imagine that these physiological changes happen as they grow, hence the younger they activate the Sharingan—and the more mature the form of said Sharingan—the worse off they actually are. Underdeveloped coils put under extreme amounts of strain = stress, attrition injury, and eventual failure. Conversely, a slow and gradual exposure of the coils to chakra augmentation can mean a slow and gradual (safer) development of the eyes. It can’t actually be that difficult to turn the base version of the Sharingan on either—it’s absurd to make a traumatic experience a requirement—because pretty much all of them can do it eventually. Like Orochimaru said, their own method of education simply fell on the wayside in favor of the village’s education system, so they likely forgot how to train their kids into manifesting the eyes properly. A shame.

(4) Tadaima (lit. Just now) is a shortened version of "Tada ima kaerimashita," which means, "I have just arrived home." Usually colloquially translated to, "I'm home!" and is something you yell out when you arrive to inform the house occupants of your presence, it's only polite. The response would be "Okaerinasai," (lit. Please come/return home) which roughly translates to, "Welcome home," and shortens to "Okaeri."

(5) Rin'en 輪火 means Circle Fire or Fire Wreath. Go-chiten Shouheki 五地点障壁 means Five-Point Barrier. Both are Katon (Fire Release) jutsus of my making.

Chapter Text

022. naruto: awakenings

.

As if sensei hasn’t already given him so much, sensei buys him the frames for his parents’ photos. And a frame for his commencement scroll too, the one that lists his name under Team Seven, right next to his two best friends. Naruto arranges them on the shelf that dominates one wall in his room; in the picture frame, his mother’s grin winks up at him with warmth.

Okaa-san, he tries out in the quiet darkness of his own head. Otou-san.

Strange and foreign words. Strange and foreign faces.

The tears come at once. There’s nothing he can do to stop them. Sitting there cross-legged in front of his parents’ smiling faces, he buries his face in his arms and hiccups through his grief. Now that he knows their faces, he wants to hear their voices too.

This is why it’s better to not have nice things, he furiously shoves at the errant thoughts in his head, because look! Now I’m getting greedy! I should be thankful.

Naruto doesn’t feel thankful.

Okaa-san, what does your hug feel like? Otou-san, I want to hear your voice.

He curls up on the floor, alone with his tears and the weight of futile wishes. He falls asleep like that, in between one sob and the next.




Darkness. Silence.

Water under his feet.

Naruto looks down and watches the water ripple outwards when he moves. Strange; he can’t see his reflection in it. Maybe it’s too dark.

He follows the ripples up and out with watchful eyes. He’s been here before. When was he here before?

The ripples lap against the bars of a gigantic metal gate. No, it’s not a gate—it’s a cage. Naruto steps forward, squinting at the piece of paper affixed on the lock. (He doesn’t know how he knows it’s a lock.) Is that a seal?

Three steps in, a rumbling growl stops his approach. The sound comes from nowhere and everywhere at once, building in intensity when Naruto tries to take another step forward. The shadows stir from behind the cage.

“Hello?” he calls out, “I know you’re there.”

Now he can hear it: heavy breathing, as if from a large and slumbering beast. Except Naruto thinks it’s starting to wake up.

“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, ya kno’. I’m sorry to have woken you up!”

Curiosity drives him forward more than bravery. He takes a few more steps and stops within arm’s reach of the bars.

“Anyway, I’m being rude, aren’t I? Just barging in here, not even introducing myself.” Naruto scratches the back of his head and grins. “I’m Naruto, by the way. Uzumaki Naruto!”

Two eyes slide open from within the shadows, blood-red and menacing as it pins him down with a glare. Its pupils narrow into thin vertical slits; a voice as old as time rips through his body.

It only says, “I know.




“But I don’t know.”

“Don’t know what, little one?” a gentle voice beckons with likewise gentle hands stroking through his hair. “Wake up, Naruto. It’s time for breakfast.”

“Mmh? S’nsei?” Naruto rolls halfway and scrubs at his eyes, squinting. Sunlight streams through his open window. It’s jarring after the darkness of his dream.

Sensei peers down at him. “You were talking in your sleep.”

“Weird dream,” he mumbles, followed by a jaw-cracking yawn. “Sorry, sensei, I didn’t mean to sleep in.”

“You did not sleep in and you need not apologize. Your exhaustion is warranted. You didn’t even roll out your futon to sleep.”

“Oh,” and it’s then that Naruto realizes he fell asleep on the tatami mat immediately after dinner. “Wow, I don’t even remember falling asleep.” He remembers crying, though. Sensei doesn’t need to know that.

“Come along,” sensei rises gracefully and offers a hand. “Tenzo has prepared breakfast for us. You might bid him good fortune this morning; his team departs today for a two-week mission.”

“Oh,” Naruto blinks again. That means Itachi-nii and Scary Taichou are also leaving. He had been hoping for another visit, maybe when Sasuke can also be around, but he supposes it’ll have to wait until after Scary Taichou’s team comes home.

Naruto takes sensei’s hand and allows himself to be led outside, where sensei directs him to the bath before breakfast. When he arrives at the table ten minutes later, there sits a new face.

“Ah, good morning,” smiles the new face, “you must be Naruto-kun.”

“Oh, uh, yes, hi, who are you?” Naruto blurts out, staring at the stranger’s pale grey hair, a color almost as uncommon as Haruno Sakura’s full head of pastel pink. But then he hears himself and flushes in shame. “S-Sorry, that was rude! Um, I meant, um, it’s nice to meet you…?”

Anko-nee saunters in from the kitchen with the rice and a derisive cackle. “Anija, you surprised the baby snakeling into rudeness!” (1)

“Please, both of you, it’s too early in the morning,” Tenzo-nii sighs from somewhere behind her. “Have mercy on Naruto-kun.”

Baffled beyond words, Naruto drops into his seat and squints at the stranger across the table, who only chuckles and pours for him some tea. Sensei walks in soon enough, hands full with karaage and tamagoyaki. The mere sight of food makes Naruto’s stomach rumble in hunger.

“Naruto, you’ve not met my eldest before,” sensei lays the food out as Anko and Tenzo both sit. “Kabuto has been away on an extended mission.”

“Um, hi! Sorry I was rude! I’m Uzumaki Naruto!”

Kabuto waves the apology away, dark eyes crinkling in an easy laugh. “You weren’t rude; just surprised. It’s my fault for ambushing you so early in the morning.”

Against Anko-nee’s brash loudness and Tenzo-nii’s steadfast calm, Kabuto’s laid-back demeanor is both a shock and a breath of fresh air. Naruto can’t help but stare at the bespectacled young man and wonder how old he is if he’s indeed the eldest. He can’t be that much older than the other two; he barely looks twenty!

“You don’ look old, though?” Naruto points out.

Kabuto laughs again amidst Tenzo-nii’s sigh and Anko’s hiss of, “That’s because he cheats!”

“Wrinkles are unbecoming,” says Kabuto with a wily expression, “and I like looking young. More people underestimate me that way!”

“Huh. That makes sense,” Naruto nods, acknowledging the truth in the statement. People routinely underestimate how much young people can achieve and understand. He swallows a mouthful of rice and asks, “Are you jōnin too? What kinda jōnin are you? Was your mission really hard?”

Kabuto looks amused with his enthusiastic questions more than anything. “Yes, I’m a jōnin. I have several specialties: I’m a medic, foremost, but I’m also pretty good at recon and infiltration. My mission was fine; it just took some time to travel to and fro. That reminds me,” he turns to Orochimaru with a smile, “shishō, I brought you two tins of cloudberry tea. I put it in your cupboard; I knew you were running low.” (2)

Pleasure cuts across Orochimaru-sensei’s face. “Thank you, Kabuto, that is very thoughtful of you.”

“Sensei gets tea, Tenzo gets wagashi (3), but I get nothing?” Anko-nee snipes, her leg kicking out under the table as she digs her heel into what must be Kabuto’s thigh. “Is this how you repay me for the shit I got Ibiki to do for you?”

Kabuto rolls his eyes, “That was last year, Anko, I’ve repaid you plenty since then.”

O-mi-ya-ge!” (4) Anko-nee loudly demands in the thick of a mood that seems to waver between playful and spiteful. Naruto gets the feeling that the only reason they’re behaving at the table is because of Orochimaru-sensei’s presence. She says, “You gotta cough up something, anija, or else I and our new otouto (5) will prank your ass until next year!”

“Oh, I’m really good at pranks!” Naruto helpfully volunteers. The grin Anko-nee gives him is wide and shit-eating; Tenzo-nii sighs again.

Over the rest of breakfast and the ensuing clean-up, Anko-nee continues ragging on Kabuto-nii who rags on her right back. It’s not really about the omiyage; this is just how siblings talk. Naruto troops into the kitchen with dirty dishes and what must be a dopey smile. Just listening to them makes him happy; this is his family!

I have a family now, he tells himself again, still halfway unwilling to believe it. I have a sister and two brothers. I have sensei and my best friends. Not blood-family, but it’s a real family. Not a clan, but they’re my people!

“Kabuto-nii, did you need a bento?” Naruto asks as he wraps up his own food for the day. There are only two prepared on the table, one for himself and one for sensei. “There’s some more rice if you want it!”

Kabuto-nii, he calls you,” Anko-nee snickers, “makes you sound so dignified when it’s the farthest thing from the truth! Naru-chan, call him anija!”

“Isn’t anija even more dignified?” Naruto squints, confused.

“I’m plenty dignified, excuse you,” Kabuto-nii turns his nose up at Anko-nee’s insults. To Naruto, he says, “I don’t need one, Naruto-kun, I’m staying home today. It’s an off day and I’d like to relax, preferably without shrews ragging on me because they’re jealous about my youthful looks.”

Jealous?!” Anko-nee yells. “I’ll show you jealous!”

“Please don’t, it’s unbecoming and really rather bad for both of our complexions.”

“Pox on your complexion!”

“Onee-san,” Tenzo-nii sighs, “anija, please.”

Instead of desisting, Kabuto-nii snidely continues, “This is why you’re still single. How are you supposed to attract a boyfriend like this? You have to start taking care of yourself, little sister of mine.”

Anko-nee incoherently warbles and makes to throttle Kabuto-nii, a lunge Tenzo-nii stops with a well-placed arm. Naruto is beside himself laughing and in the midst of it all, sensei calmly enjoys the last of his morning tea.

While Tenzo-nii is attempting to talk Anko-nee down, Naruto asks, “So do I call you anija too?”

“If you like,” Kabuto-nii smiles down at him. “Come see me later when you finish training, I have something for you.”

Anko-nee hears that and shrieks her indignation. “The newest brother gets a souvenir and I don’t?! What the fuck, you asshole!”

Before her ire can find its way to Naruto, he laughingly ducks out to the hallway, where sensei beckons him along. They are meeting Sasuke and Shikamaru in front of the Hokage Tower today; sensei will then pick out their daily D-rank torture. It won’t do to be late.

Anko-nee’s yelling carries to the genkan, so when Naruto finishes tugging on his sandals, he calls out, “Ittekimasu!” louder than he usually does. Three voices respond with varying volumes of “Itterasshai!” from within the house. (6) It’s a treasured sound.

Naruto turns and walks into the bright sunlight, dark dreams far behind him as he faces the day with a grin.




Their morning missions are more tedious than difficult, except for the bridge construction where their presence is quickly becoming routine. Today the crew has them bracing huge wooden trunks dug into the earth as support pillars, a significantly harder task against the river coursing rough and high with run-off from the summer storms that had passed over the highlands north of Konoha. Afterwards, they are not only wet but muddy to boot, Sasuke and Shikamaru both sporting scrapes and bruises from small rocks smacking against their legs in the stream. Naruto glances down at his own legs knowing that he should have bruises too, although he finds none.

They trot back to the Nara main house to bathe and change. “Our baths are probably the biggest,” Shikamaru says, irritably scratching dried mud off the nape of his neck.

“I think the baths in the Uchiha main house is about the same size, but your house is definitely closer,” Sasuke thoughtfully hums.

“But wait,” Naruto says, “your house is not that huge, Sasuke.”

“Oh, we don’t live in the main house right now,” Sasuke explains with a smile, “you see, since okaa-san was the youngest of the main line and a daughter, she wasn’t originally the heir. My uncles lived in the main house before they died. The house we’re living in right now is the house otou-sama inherited from his branch; okaa-san moved in with him when they married.”

“Makes sense,” Shikamaru nods along, so Naruto supposes it does. (What does he know of these clan things?) “So who lives in the Uchiha main house right now?”

“Oboro-obaa-sama, of course,” Sasuke responds matter-of-factly, “she’s always lived there. She’s always taken care of the shrine.” And then, as if realizing that these things are not in fact obvious to the rest of them, he adds, “Oh, Oboro-obaa-sama is the matriarch of the main line. She’s technically the head of our clan, but um, that’s too much for her to manage now with how old she is, so she just takes care of the shrine. The main house is built on shrine grounds; it’s huge, and has a pretty garden with a pond where the koi are getting fat, and three tea rooms for some reason, and tons of bedrooms, and a dojo, and another library even if the honden is right there with all the old scrolls—oh, and a bath house, of course!”

Such an abundance of space sounds absolutely staggering to Naruto, who survived for so long with a tiny single bedroom apartment, but Shikamaru only nods, “A proper clan house.”

“Yep!” Sasuke nods back. “Kinda wish we lived there with obaa-sama, to be honest… I like the shrine, it’s so calm and beautiful. But I think that, um, otou-sama and obaa-sama don’t always see eye to eye, so…”

“In-laws,” Shikamaru grimly responds, “I don’t look forward to it.”

“You’re heir, though,” Sasuke tips his head with a frown, “so it should be easier for you, right? You’ll have more pull than your future in-laws.”

Shikamaru shrugs again. “Depends on who the in-laws are. If I end up marrying a civilian, no big deal. But if I marry someone from a bigger clan? A Hyuuga, for example, or maybe one of your cousins? Arguably, our political weight should be about equal, but my clan is relatively smaller and probably financially inferior. I’d be marrying up in all but technicality, get it?”

Sasuke’s grimace of distaste matches Naruto’s confused expression. Sasuke also steals the words right out of Naruto’s mouth. “Clan marriages are so complicated. It makes me not wanna get married.”

“Unlike some people, I don’t have a choice,” Shikamaru grumbles in turn, “gotta produce an heir and all that.”

Naruto’s head is spinning. Heirs have to think about marriage already? But they’re barely twelve! Who thinks about marriage at their age?!

These two, apparently. Clan heirs. After a moment, Naruto jolts and realizes that he’s a clan heir too. Wait, oh shit— “Does that mean that I also have to get married?!” he all but yelps, startling a deer back into the shadowed woods around Shikamaru’s house. (7)

Sensei, as always, steps in with soothing words and a calming hand which settles warm against the back of Naruto’s itchy neck. “No need to fret now, Naruto, you have plenty of time to decide upon such matters.”

“But sensei,” Naruto looks up with only half-contrived dismay, “I don’t even know what kind of person I like, or, or what liking a person is even about!”

Sensei chuckles, also reaching over to ruffle Shikamaru’s ponytail. “Again, you have plenty of time to decide.”

“Do we?” Shikamaru grumbles, “Do we really?”

“Think of it as delegation,” sensei wisely advises, coy smile slanting playful as he leads them towards the Nara main house’s front doors. “You’re delegating tasks to your future self, who will be equipped with more information than you are right now and therefore more suited to the responsibility of decision-making. This is an important skill to learn not only as a shinobi, but as a person. Sometimes when there is no answer forthcoming about a concern, it is best to put aside said concern for later perusal. Time can often illuminate for you what logic cannot.”

At the doors, Shikamaru’s mom takes one look at their muddy faces and clicks her tongue. “Boys,” she sighs, shaking her head as she lets them in. “Leave your sandals here! Kora, Shikamaru, pick up after yourself! Oh, the mud is all over your clothes—Shikamaru has some clothes you can borrow—”

“Ah, thank you so much, but there’s no need,” Sasuke politely declines, “we brought our change of clothes!”

“Yes, we knew we were gonna get wet again! But thank you so much!” Naruto follows with a bright grin.

“Very well, then, to the bath with you!” she shoos them away, before turning to sensei and asking in a lower, more deferential tone, “Orochimaru-sama, would you like some tea while you wait for the children? Shizuo-onii brought home a fresh batch of sencha, I’ve found it quite refreshing.”

“That sounds wonderful, Yoshino-kun,” sensei quietly responds, and before long Naruto can’t hear their conversation anymore.

Shikamaru hadn’t been lying; their bathhouse is huge. There’s an honest to god onsen inside! Naruto gapes at it, wondering why one family needed to have their own onsen in their house. (8)

“You can leave your clothes here,” Shikamaru strips out of his muddy shirt and drops it into an empty wicker basket. “They’ll be clean by tomorrow.”

“I can take my clothes home…” Naruto frowns, feeling bad about making other people wash his clothes.

“Don’t be silly, the stains will set into your clothes if it doesn’t get washed right away. Kora, put it there and wash already.”

Sasuke doesn’t need to be told twice, stripping off and neatly putting his dirty clothes aside. They fill up wooden buckets with hot water and wash side by side, Naruto scrubbing vigorously at his hair where stubborn bits of mud have clumped strands together with tiny leaves. The soap smells like some sort of citrus and the shampoo is green tea scented; he dumps water over his head with a happy sigh.

Why did we have to do this mission first thing in the morning?” Naruto whines, “I mean, if we were gonna get dirty, shouldn’t we do it last, so we can go home and take a bath and then rest?”

“It’s chakra modulation training,” Shikamaru explains, “so it makes sense that we do it first thing. Opens our tenketsu up for all the shit we gotta do later.”

“Doesn’t mean it doesn’t suck less,” Sasuke says grimly, face obscured by his wet hair.

Naruto decides to change track. “Do you ever get tired of knowing things, Shika? Because I swear sometimes you know too much!”

Shikamaru sticks his nose in the air. “You’re just jealous because I’m always right,” he sniffs, followed by a yelp when Naruto and Sasuke both splash him with water. “Abuse!”

But of course, they can’t afford to goof off just yet; their day has only begun. “Children,” sensei’s voice calls from beyond the bathhouse’s screen door, “ten minutes.”

“Yes, sensei!” “Shit, hurry, gimme the soap—”

They soap down, rinse, and dry in a flurry, nearly tripping over each other in their haste. Shikamaru tosses clean towels at them from a linen closet and hits them both squarely in the face. Sasuke squawks but Naruto just giggles; it’s just Shikamaru abusing them right back.

As they’re putting their clean clothes on, Naruto tells them about Kabuto-nii and the omiyage, a story that awakens Shikamaru’s curiosity again. Sensei’s eldest child is the only one they haven’t met, and Naruto won’t deny that he too had his own theories about the matter. But Kabuto-nii is unlike anything he or even Shikamaru expected.

“He’s really smiley,” Naruto relays, tugging his shirt on before fixing his thigh holster. “I dunno, he wasn’t what I imagined at all! He seems super nice and, uhh, harmless?”

“The ones who seem harmless usually aren’t,” Sasuke quietly points out.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t be fooled by appearances,” Shikamaru agrees, “because for all you know, he’s ANBU. I’m fairly convinced Tenzo-san is ANBU too, especially considering how you said that Sasuke’s aniki is in his team. Also have you noticed how good he is at stealth?”

“Actually, about that,” Naruto scratches his head, “I think they’re making a point of not hiding when they’re at home so that I don’t feel uncomfortable. I dunno, does that make sense?”

Sasuke gives him a small smile. “They’re just looking out for you. That’s a good thing.”

“I don’t want them to feel like they have to be a particular way in their own home.”

“Then tell them that,” Shikamaru sighs again. “For all intents and purposes, they’re your siblings now, so you can tell them that. You know, by talking. And before you ask, no, I don’t think they’ll mind. There are things you don’t mind doing for family, and listening is one of them.”

Naruto fidgets and tugs at his shirt again, considering the idea. In the meantime, sensei finds them, satisfied that they are ready within the ten minutes they were allotted.

“Good,” sensei smiles at them, “come along, your second mission awaits.”

They bid goodbye to Shikamaru’s mom, who sees them off at the door again, bopping an irritable Shikamaru on the forehead as he passes by. “Be good, children. Oh, and I’ll have Shikamaru bring your clothes tomorrow morning!”

She doesn’t seem bothered with the added chore at all; she actually looks happy to Naruto, maybe because Shikamaru keeps bringing home friends. It could be that an added chore is one of those things she doesn’t mind doing for family—or for her son’s friends.

There’s a lot about family I have to learn, Naruto realizes, but with a grin he also thinks, but I’ll happily learn forever if it means I get to keep them!

The rest of the morning flies by, but none of the tedium dulls his quiet happiness.




It’s not until lunchtime that Sasuke speaks up about the new development.

“I, um,” Sasuke fusses with his chopsticks as he tucks away his empty bento, “I have a report, sensei.”

Orochimaru-sensei tilts his head, a sign to encourage Sasuke to keep going. Naruto swivels in his spot to blink at his friend; likewise, Shikamaru looks appropriately curious. Sasuke hardly ever starts a talk unless it’s important.

“I… well, it’s easier to just show you, I guess.” Straightening in his seat, Sasuke closes his eyes for a moment—Naruto feels his tenketsu unfurl and his chakra surge—and when Sasuke opens his eyes, they are blood red.

Naruto and Shikamaru both gasp. “Sharingan?!”

“…just a baby one, though,” Sasuke sheepishly smiles, scuffing his cheek with two knuckles.

Sensei gently tilts Sasuke’s face up. From his angle, Naruto watches a sunbeam slant into Sasuke’s new eyes, which glimmer with a dozen shades of red that Naruto doesn’t yet know how to differentiate. Like a jewel with many sides, the kind Naruto’s seen at the expensive stores near the fancier end of Konoha’s market—except Sasuke’s eyes are way prettier and likely harder to acquire than any jewel money can buy.

“When?” sensei quietly asks, observing the eyes with keen interest.

“Um, last night, sensei,” Sasuke blinks with a flush. “I thought about what you said—why I wasn’t augmenting my senses with chakra too—so I tried it at home by myself, and, well. I couldn’t keep it up for too long yesterday because I was too tired, but this morning, I went to obaa-sama first thing to show her, and it already changed!”

Sensei releases his chin and asks, “In what way do you mean?”

“So if you look closely, there are two tomoes,” Sasuke pushes his hair away from his forehead, “which unlocks two out of the three layers of Sharingan.”

“Oh, wait a sec, hold up,” Shikamaru eagerly repositions himself and leans forward, “are you actually gonna tell us about your doujutsu? Am I actually gonna learn about the elusive Sharingan’s workings?”

Sasuke blinks, opens his mouth, and then closes it again. He frowns. “I don’t know everything.”

“I know nothing,” Shikamaru shrugs, “so what you know, even if it’s not everything, is still more than what I know.”

“You’re a nerd,” Naruto declares with a grin.

“Shut up. Anyway, you were telling us about your Sharingan, Sasuke.”

“Um. Right, so, uh, a mature Sharingan typically has three tomoes, uh, swirling around the pupil. According to obaa-sama, each tomoe adds a layer—an ability—to the Sharingan. I have two right now,” and when Sasuke blinks, Naruto leans forward to peer closer at the two, “but obaa-sama says if I just continue training my tenketsu as we’ve been doing everyday, I’ll soon be able to channel enough chakra through them to activate the third. At first I won’t be able to use it for very long, but the more I train—”

“—the more endurance you gain,” Shikamaru nods, “makes sense, since it’s still a physical ability after all. And tenketsu are like muscle.”

Sensei is smiling now, golden eyes lit with true delight. Naruto asks, “So if each tomoe adds an ability, that means Uchiha who have a mature Sharingan have all three abilities?”

“Right!” Sasuke nods, counting off on three fingers, “A mature Sharingan grants its wielder three things: perfect optic memory, chakra vision, and something called visual insight. Each ability comes with each tomoe. Obaa-sama said that, um, the first one to manifest is the optic memory and the last is the insight.”

Shikamaru frowns, thoughtful. “The first two are self-explanatory; explain the third one. Visual insight?”

Sasuke scratches his head, nose wrinkling the way he does when he’s thinking through something complicated. “Um, it’s a little hard to explain… most Uchiha call it the foresight. Obaa-sama’s the only one who calls it visual insight.”

“Ah,” sensei lifts his face in comprehension, “the famed Uchiha foresight, a capacity to see into the future.”

“Except… it’s not?” Sasuke bites his lip, “At least, obaa-sama says it’s not foresight, not really. It’s more like—more like our enhanced vision picks up very subtle cues in the environment that almost everybody misses, even the Byakugan. When used properly, and especially in close combat, it almost seems like we’re reading the enemy’s moves ahead of time—like we’re foreseeing the future a handful of seconds, even minutes ahead.”

“But that’s…” Shikamaru’s face slackens in confusion.

“Wait,” Naruto scratches his head as he tries to keep up, “just because you can see what’s coming doesn’t mean you can always dodge or counter, though. Like what if you’re not fast enough?”

“That’s just the thing,” Sasuke patiently explains, “you have to be.”

Silence from both Naruto and Shikamaru. After a moment, Shikamaru says, “That’s insane. You’re forever gonna be trying to catch up to your eyes.”

Sasuke chews on his lip some more; Naruto can tell he’s holding back some words, maybe trying to put them together in a better way. He’s learning to read Sasuke with greater depth every day, a heartening development, but that also means he can tell when Sasuke’s troubled. And Sasuke is troubled a lot.

Sensei to rescue, though. “Not necessarily true, although he might be for a little while. While it is true that the Sharingan’s conferred advantages seem ungainly if the wielder is unskilled, Uchihas are also born with something we scholars like to call the Sharingan sense.”

“Sharingan…”

“…sense?” Sasuke finishes for Shikamaru. He frowns and says, “I haven’t heard of that.”

“Naturally, you haven’t,” sensei agrees, “for it isn’t something your clan would discuss. There’s no need, for within your clan’s structure, its existence is likely an expected presence.”

Securing the lid on his now empty tea mug, sensei puts it down and braces one elbow on a knee. They then know that what comes next is both a lesson and a story.

“You might have heard the common misconception, Shikamaru, that a Sharingan wielder is capable of copying jutsu from another shinobi after seeing it only once,” sensei says, to which Shikamaru responds with a nod. “Perhaps for simple jutsu, that is a reasonable assumption to draw, but for complex ones, the very thought is preposterous. You’ve already learned a few jutsu on your own, so you should understand why that is. Imagine: another person able to copy a jutsu they don’t even know, simply because you did it in front of them? Hand seals are one thing, but what about the hours you spent practicing the element and molding the jutsu into its shape? What about the fine art of channeling your chakra to the appropriate tenketsu, or the modulation you had to repeat over and over until it became second nature? Or what if it’s a jutsu that requires specialist knowledge, like a bio-tissue repair technique or an advanced summoning ritual like Edo Tensei?” (9)

The three of them sit wordless and blinking. Even Naruto can see how copying at first sight makes no sense.

“This is why jutsu scholars agree that there must be another, more feasible explanation. Over years of observation, I can hypothesize that the Uchiha clan have, over time, developed biological adaptations that allow them to catch up to their eyes, so to speak.” Sensei pins Shikamaru down with a sharp look and remarks, “You’ve already noticed it; you simply didn’t have a name for what you were seeing. Sasuke’s aptitude for chakra manipulation, elemental releases, and taijutsu; his natural speed and adaptable form; his large chakra core, paired with supple coils—all of these things are conferred by his biology, adaptations inherited from his ancestors who all wielded strong incarnations of their doujutsu.”

Sasuke flushes at sensei’s high praise. All of it is well-deserved, in Naruto’s opinion; Sasuke’s awesome. Sasuke just gets it, sometimes without even trying, and although Naruto’s kinda jealous and afraid of being left behind, he also cherishes the chance to grow alongside someone so strong. It can only be good for them—for all three of them.

Sensei continues, “If he isn’t fast or flexible enough to adapt to the cues his insight gives him, the insight is rendered useless. If he doesn’t have a natural feel for how to mold and manipulate chakra, then the chakra vision is not as much of a weapon as it can be. And if he doesn’t have the chakra reserves to perform jutsu after jutsu in a battle, it will matter little how he can remember every single hand seal the enemy does for a jutsu that he wants to ‘steal’.”

Shikamaru huffs and sits back, arms crossed. “Makes sense.”

“You see, little one, your Sharingan is indeed a gift,” sensei turns back to Sasuke with an intent look, “but it will only be your weapon if you strengthen yourself in all other aspects such that you are able maximize your eyes’ potential. Therefore, I ask that you do not devote too much time to just training your eyes. It will only ultimately lead to tragedy if you are able to see but unable to act.”

“Yes, sensei,” Sasuke dips his head, respectful and quiet.

With a smile, sensei adds, “Well done, little one. I am proud of your achievement.”

At that, Sasuke’s face scrunches up in an effort not to cry. He dips his head even lower, this time into a seated bow. “Arigato, sensei. I’ll do my best.”

“I expect nothing less.”

When they stand at last and set aside their packs in favor of the training ground, Naruto catches Sasuke by the shoulders with a grin. Sasuke blinks up at him, a little startled—and from this distance, looking straight into those beautiful eyes, Naruto finally remembers the word he was looking for, the name of the jewel that reminded him of Sasuke’s eyes:

“Garnet!” Naruto grins, nose to nose with Sasuke while stroking a finger under his friend’s eye. “That’s what your eyes look like! Pretty!”

The two tomoes in each eye swirl faster; Sasuke grins back.

“We’ll have to add the kanji for that to your notebook, then!”

 

They do, and next to the kanji entry, Naruto draws a red circle with black tomoes dancing within it. It’s a word he won’t ever forget how to write.




tbc
first draft: 2020.07.21
last edited: 2021.12.16




NOTES & REFERENCES

(1) Anija - Another form of "older brother," alternative to aniki and onii-san.

(2) Shishō – "Master," as in teacher.

(3) Wagashi – Traditional Japanese sweets, like daifuku (mochi or pounded sweet rice stuffed with anko/red bean paste), dango (sticky and sweet dumpling skewered on a stick), and dorayaki (castella wrapped around anko). Usually served with tea.

(4) Omiyage - Souvenirs or gifts that a traveler buys to take home to loved ones or friends.

(5) Otouto – "Little brother"

(6) Ittekimasu! literally means "I'll be going!" and Itterasshai! means "Go forth!" which is said as a send-off response to the former.

(7) For those who didn't catch it, the Nara clan being associated with deer is a direct allusion to the real life city of Nara, Japan. It's about an hour away from Kyoto and very popular for the fact that there are deer wandering everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. Nara was also a capital of Japan during the appropriately named Nara period (710-794 AD) before the seat of the Emperor was moved to Kyoto nearby. In Nara, you can find the Kasuga-Taisha or Kasuga Grand Shrine (Shinto), the shrine of the influential Fujiwara family, established in 768 AD. The deer are believed to be sacred messengers of the Shinto gods that inhabit the forest and surrounding mountains, therefore they are free to roam in the shrine and city as they please. According to the legends, the shrine was founded when the first kami (god) of Kasuga-Taisha, Takemikazuchi (a god of thunder & swordsmanship), rode on the back of a white deer to the top of Mount Mikasa in 768 AD in order to stand guard over & protect Nara. Takemikazuchi is enshrined within Kasuga-Taisha, along with three other kami: Ame-no-Koyane, Futsunushi-no-Mikoto, and Himegami. Apart from Kasuga-Taisha, Nara also holds dozens of influential Buddhist temples, making it at one point in history a center for knowledge and philosophical scholarship. Fitting irl background for the Nara clan, don't you think? :D If you ever get a chance to go to Japan, I highly suggest a day or two set aside to explore this city. It's only an hour's train ride away from Kyoto and 110% worth the experience because you get to make friends with the most polite deer in the world!

(8) Japanese bathhouses are typically separated into male & female sections, with an area for washing your body apart from the onsen or hot spring. Custom dictates that you wash your body thoroughly first before using the onsen in order to keep it hygienic, because you're not the only one taking advantage of the mineral-rich onsen waters. The separate washing area is usually divided up into small stalls, each with a faucet or shower handle. You can Google "onsen" if you're having a hard time picturing this. Yes, everyone is naked inside; in fact, it's considered unhygienic & impolite to bring anything else other than a small hand towel for your face into the onsen. If you ever get the chance to experience an authentic Japanese onsen, please be sure to review the proper etiquette before going inside, so you avoid looking like a complete boor.

(9) In other words, Kakashi is a badass motherfucker. Recall that he's not an Uchiha, he doesn't have the biological adaptations Uchihas do - and yet he's using a transplanted Sharingan at such a high level of profieciency that he outstrips most native Sharingan wielders! No wonder some of the clansmen hate him...

(10) Several readers brought to my attention an error I did with the affinities. Sasuke's next easiest affinities apart from Lightning (his primary) would indeed be Fire and Water, not Fire and Earth. My bad! I corrected it in the previous chapters, thanks for those who pointed that out! :D What attentive readers I am blessed with! It doesn't change that much as far as plot progression, but the details matter. I really appreciate it!

Chapter Text

023. orochimaru: generativity

.

 

If the known world is finite, then likewise the unknown is infinite; in every generation, it is the business of great minds to expand the breadth of human knowledge and continue to chip away at the great unknown. Orochimaru has never been an optimist, instead always a pragmatist as most survivors are, but he now finds himself the only future-facing, unknown-chasing one out of the three of them. He never dreamed in excess, but he has always reached for a future that did not yet exist, an unborn world he sought to shape with his own two hands. A different tomorrow.

His two friends, they used to be the same way. Himself, Jiraiya, and Tsunade—once upon a time, all three of them faced forward together. Now, no longer. Now, he’s alone.

Except not quite,
he chides himself as he sheds his sandals and follows the pitter-patter of Naruto’s eager feet into the house. Kabuto welcomes them in with a smile, Anko laying out dinner at the table with a new bejeweled clip gleaming against her hair. Tenzo has already left for a mission, but Orochimaru’s other children are here with him, safe and whole and home.

They sit down to eat. Orochimaru’s gaze inadvertently passes over Naruto, who happily relays his day to Kabuto and Anko with a bright innocence yet untarnished despite his various hardships. A resilient soul, this one; all three of them are, the little ones now under his care. He recalls again Shikamaru’s razor-sharp intellect and the garnet glimmer of Sasuke’s newfound Sharingan and has to smile. Perhaps optimism and pragmatism need not be at odds; perhaps these changing times are calling upon him to place his trust upon the collective human potential once again.

“Well, it sounds like you’ve had a good day,” Kabuto remarks to Naruto, who puts away a whole bowl of rice and then shyly reaches for more. “Shishō looks to be in a good mood too,” the eldest adds with raised eyebrows.

“Oh, that’s ‘cuz Sasuke got the Sharingan today!” Naruto declares, loud and proud as if it’s his own achievement. “It was awesome, anija, Sasuke’s eyes were so pretty!”

“Aaah,” Kabuto nods, Anko making a similar sound of assent. “I’ve heard things about his bloodline’s strong eyes. All hearsay, though. Never worked with his brother before.”

“Uchiha Itachi?” Anko gulps down the last of her miso soup and says, “He’s a fuckin’ beast. I hear the only reason he hasn’t made captain is because Hatake refuses to let him go.”

“Well, what do you think, shishō?” Kabuto leans on an elbow, empty bowls stacked together under neatly aligned chopsticks. “Can the younger one hold a candle to the elder brother?”

“Certainly, although Sasuke’s aptitude may not be so obvious to the casual observer. But I am optimistic,” Orochimaru tests the word against his tongue, “and find myself looking forward to shepherding Sasuke’s growth. In time, he will become a formidable warrior on his own right.”

“Aaaaahhh,” Naruto flails backwards and scrubs both hands into his sweaty hair, “I gotta catch uuuup!”

Orochimaru reaches to pat the boy’s knee. “You will, little one. Patience and persistence.”

Naruto then grabs his arm with both hands, imploring eyes blinking up at him with the kind of blind faith only children can manage. “Promise, sensei?”

“I promise,” Orochimaru chuckles, sipping at the last of his tea. “One of these days, the three of you will realize that your perceived inadequacies are just that—mere perceptions, and the farthest kind from the truth.” Naruto’s only response is a squinty-eyed sort of confusion.

“Are they competing against each other already?” Kabuto chuckles.

Orochimaru sighs, “Naturally they are. And each one is convinced they’re the weakest of the lot.”

“But Sasuke’s so strong,” Naruto sighs, still sprawled on the tatami, “and Shikamaru’s so smart!”

“You’re also strong and smart,” Kabuto points out, chin nested into his palm. “Shishō doesn’t waste his time with the stupid and the weak. And if you’re not yet strong enough or smart enough, shishō will get you there. He got all of us there, didn’t he? Me and Anko and Tenzo. We were all like you once; small and powerless. Orphans.”

Even Orochimaru was like them once: small and powerless, an orphan. Alone.

Naruto rolls back up to perch on his knees and peer up at his newest brother. “You all got strong, though.”

“Yep,” Kabuto smiles, “and you will too, wait and see. Speaking of which, I have an omiyage for you—but you get it only after you help clean up dinner.”

Eager to please, Naruto bounces to his feet, gathering dishes for washing without complaint. Kabuto similarly rises, taking with him the larger items so that Naruto won’t have to struggle.

Orochimaru pours himself another cup of tea, relocates to the sitting room, and savors the sounds of his household settling for the night. Anko spreads herself on the engawa nearby, taking advantage of the cooler night, the humidity warning of impending rain. He hears praise when Naruto produces several bunshin to hasten the dishwashing process; Naruto’s answering laughter is clear and bright. Ever the generous brother, Kabuto has always made himself available for his erstwhile siblings in whatever capacity they might need.

“Sensei?” Anko says, quiet and motionless.

“Yes, Anko.”

“I’m glad you’re happy.” A pause, before she adds, “The brats, they make you happy.”

Is it happiness? Orochimaru traces the rim of his teacup and looks at the shadows adorning his tea garden. After such a long life, he sometimes finds it hard to remember what pure and positive emotions feel like. Every memory is muddled with pain and time. But when he takes a moment to think upon his little ones, three bright faces upturned towards his every word, he feels a bubble of something warm and tender deep in his chest. Something familiar and old, a feeling buried under years of quiet resentment and bitterness.

Pride? No. He pins it down and pulls it apart, attempting a definition; for a moment, he thinks of Jiraiya and Tsunade again, except the connection is not quite right. It’s more than pride. It’s deeper than happiness.

Kabuto and Naruto come back into the sitting room soon enough, Naruto sprawling next to him with a grin. Orochimaru’s hand pets through the boy’s blonde hair on instinct; the boy leans into it, clearly touch-starved and eager for any scrap of affection. It’s so easy that Orochimaru can’t even call it manipulation.

“Here,” Kabuto presents the omiyage, “You’ll need to practice a lot with it, but when you get it down, it’ll be dead useful.”

Naruto gasps, “A weapon! Sensei, look, anija got me a weapon!”

“It’s called kusarigama,” Kabuto explains, “essentially a sickle on a chain. The sickle part is fairly straightforward; it’s the chain that makes it deadly. A trapping weapon, ideally paired with Wind jutsu.” (2)

“Like the fuuma shuriken!” Naruto crows. The weapon looks too big for his little hands to handle, the chains wrapping around his wrists thrice in a thick embrace. “It’s kinda heavy but I’ll get used to it, huh?”

They watch him familiarize with the heft and weight of the weapon for a few minutes before Kabuto explains further. “Actually, I got you this for a reason. I thought you might take to it easily, considering… well.”

Naruto blinks, “Considering?”

“Your mother, Uzumaki Kushina, she used to fight with chains.”

Naruto’s eyes grow wide. “You knew my mom?”

Kabuto leans back to rest on his hands with a sigh. “Not well, but I worked with her on a few missions… I was only chūnin back then. She was a strong jōnin. Very good at capturing and subduing targets. Her chains were a special technique; they suppressed the target’s chakra. Dead useful during the last war. I wish I could give you that technique, but I don’t know it. The next best thing’s to get you a chain weapon and at least get you used to it, so that maybe one day when you find out what technique she was using, you’ll be all set.” And then, with a smile that echoes an old pain, Kabuto adds, “It’s nice to have something of your parents, isn’t it? No matter how little. It’s good to know where you came from.”

They never did find anything about Kabuto’s parentage, despite Orochimaru putting his considerable resources towards finding a lead. Kabuto had arrived at that orphanage alone and without any memories of his past life, for all intents and purposes a blank slate, easy for Danzou to commodify. To this day, Orochimaru is convinced that Kabuto’s parents were casualties of Danzou’s manipulations. There is too much grief in Kabuto’s life for any of it to be pure coincidence, much like how Naruto’s miserable excuse for a childhood is a result of conspiracies layered so thickly atop each other that Orochimaru has to take an age to unravel them lest he endanger the very child he seeks to protect.

“Anija, arigato,” Naruto grins up at Kabuto, eyes a little damp despite the bright edges of his expression. “I’ll get soooo good at this I’ll be better than you one day!”

“Challenge accepted!” Kabuto laughs, and for a moment Orochimaru sees him as a young man again, just barely out of childhood, maddened with grief and the blood of his mother figure on his unsuspecting hands. That Kabuto can laugh again is one of Orochimaru’s achievements too. That same warm feeling bubbles up within his chest again, making him think back to younger times.

Sometimes optimism does pay off. Orochimaru only has to take care to remember that.




The following morning brings another handful of missions for the children. The daimyo’s wife has lost her cat. Again. One of these days, they won’t be able to find that cat, either because it’ll meet some gruesome accident in the forests around Konoha or because it’ll get away entirely.

“I’m tempted to just let it get away,” Sasuke quietly sighs, putting his Sharingan to good use as they comb the forest floor. “I feel bad for it, getting tortured like that everyday.”

“I’m not,” Shikamaru darkly mutters, “so keep looking. We’re giving that rabid monster back to its owner. I don’t forgive and forget.” In the shadow of a tree, Orochimaru smiles to himself; the little Nara is definitely the vindictive one in the group, a trait to cultivate for the benefit of future battles.

With the Sharingan, it takes them less than a half hour to find the cat, allowing plenty of time for the second task. Orochimaru sends them to the river again. By the end of the week, they will have secured enough missions that Naruto will be able to afford the overcoat he’s been eyeing since last week. Orochimaru could have purchased it for the child, but he wants to allow Naruto the satisfaction of affording things with his own hard-earned money. Work ethic isn’t built overnight; any chance at positive reinforcement is an opportunity that must not be wasted.

After two hours, the children trot out of the river, Naruto summoning a large whirlwind to quickly dry their clothes. Like Sasuke, Naruto is quickly adapting to his elements, taking no more than a second to summon wind whenever he needs it. Still struggling with techniques that require finesse, but with larger ones like this the boy has no difficulty.

Orochimaru shepherds them to their next mission even as Namikaze’s modified Eight Trigrams Seal yet again dominates his thoughts.

He had gone to the old man and asked about it but Sarutobi-sensei was equally clueless. Did you not look at the seal when Naruto was returned to you after the attack? Orochimaru had asked.

“Of course I looked,” Sarutobi had sighed, “and I saw the eight limits he modified for the boy. But why he did so, I don’t know, and without direct reference, it’s difficult to compare it to the past hosts’ seals.”

Does the Hokage’s private library not keep record of the seal Shodaime used to secure the bijuu? Orochimaru had asked further.

“The records are there and you’re welcome to them, but I’ll warn you that they’re quite obscure. I’m convinced that the Shodaime didn’t write everything down for fear of someone stealing the scrolls and reverse-engineering the seal. Mito-hime must have passed further instruction directly down to Kushina, who received the Kyuubi when she was ten. Although I was already the Hokage, I wasn’t privy to that ceremony; none of the Council were either.”

A good thing, Orochimaru had quietly responded, the two of them exchanging a dark look. The fewer people know, the better kept the secret.

“Which is why, Orochimaru-kun,” Sarutobi had then turned to level him with keen eyes, “when you reverse-engineer Minato’s seal, you will keep the secret to yourself. Whoever it is that attacked on the night of Naruto’s birth waited for that chance; you know what that means.”

Orochimaru considers this as he watches over the children. A pregnant Uzumaki Kushina would have been more vulnerable to attack, yet their unidentified assailant preferred to wait until the birth despite Namikaze’s increased vigilance at that time. The original seal must therefore be airtight enough that the assailant would rather wait for it to weaken on its own. Furthermore, that the seal was modified after that attack means—

Wait a minute. Inhaling in surprise, Orochimaru cups a hand over his mouth and curses his own oversight. All this time, I’ve been assuming Namikaze modified the Eight Trigrams Seal on Naruto, but it wouldn’t have been him, would it? What would he know about the jinchuuriki’s seal when even Sarutobi-sensei knew nothing? Mito-hime gave the seal’s secrets to only one person. It was Uzumaki Kushina who modified the seal! She was still alive at the end.

Of course she was alive, she had to have been. She lived long enough to help recapture the Kyuubi—chains, a special technique, capable of suppressing a target’s chakra—and then she helped seal the bijuu into her own son. Such an effort so soon after childbirth… no wonder she didn’t survive. She and Namikaze died together to secure the beast into their only child.

But the secrets also died with her, Orochimaru frowns, and there aren’t many Uzumakis left who would recall the clan’s signature fuinjutsu, indeed no other Uzumaki left in Konoha but Naruto.

It doesn’t change the problem, but it does provide context. Kushina, herself a jinchuuriki, would have known precisely what she was doing. The modifications must be there for a reason and from there it is easy enough to conjecture that she did it for the sake of her son.

Several floors overhead and clinging to the side of an apartment complex, Naruto is arguing with Shikamaru over how to properly clean windows. Orochimaru looks up to observe them and sighs.

What did you want for him, Kushina? What did you hope to achieve when you changed the seal for your son?

But these are questions the dead cannot answer.




He sits them down for an important lesson at the end of the week.

“We are learning hand signals,” Orochimaru tells them, “which are vital when you are on the field.”

“Oh, I know a few,” Shikamaru perks up from his slouch, signaling STOP, SCATTER, and PURSUE with his right hand.

Sasuke squints at the signs. “I know the first one meant stop and the last one meant chase, what’s the second one you did?”

Scatter,” Orochimaru repeats the sign for Sasuke to watch—there his Sharingan goes, pulsing red and spinning ever-watchful. “It’s a command you will receive from your team leader or captain when he wants you to keep a distance. These are signals universally known to jōnin. You would do well to learn them now; you’ll need a method of non-verbal communication when on a stake-out, for example.”

“What about signals only we would understand?” Naruto quips, currently upside-down and maintaining a five-minute handstand per the terms of his lost bet against Shikamaru. “You know, like a secret code!”

What code, though?” Sasuke frowns.

“No matter how secret a code is, if we learn it from somewhere, that means someone else is bound to know it,” Shikamaru irritably sighs. Exhaustion makes Shikamaru irritable and the children have done plenty to exhaust themselves in the past week, so Orochimaru allows him another custard pudding. The frown eases from the boy’s forehead in no time.

“Shika, you’re supposed to be the smart one,” Naruto mock-chides. “We’ll make our own code, of course! Think of how cool that’ll be! Team Seven’s own secret code, and if we’re good about keeping secrets, then no one else will know it!”

Sasuke licks custard from his lip and agrees. “Good idea. We should use chakra too. Like chakra flares and stuff, for when we’re too far from each other to see hand signals.”

Orochimaru turns a pleased look towards Sasuke. “Chakra flares are, in fact, one of the signals I want you to learn. ANBU are proficient chakra sensors and often use chakra signals in lieu of easily discernible hand signals, especially in espionage.”

“Oh,” Sasuke blinks, “I just saw otou-sama do it to call okaa-san down. I didn’t realize it was a thing.”

“Whoa!” Naruto flips down from his handstand, “Sasuke, are your parents ANBU?!”

Sasuke frowns again, tilting his head sideways in birdlike consideration. “I don’t think so…? But, I mean, if they were, I wouldn’t really know, would I? But I don’t think so.”

“Your aniki’s definitely ANBU,” Shikamaru cleans off the last of his custard and sets the cup down. “I’m calling it and taking bets.”

“No bets,” Naruto pouts, “I don’t wanna bet against you anymore!”

Orochimaru claps to stem their bickering before it derails their morning entirely. Snack break concluded, he gathers them around and walks them through the basic hand signals, correcting Naruto’s clumsy attempts with gentle guidance.

“Although all of you must learn how to call the signals, you must still follow your chain of command. That will keep the team functioning smoothly on the field, especially during fast-paced and confusing emergencies. When we are on the field, your eyes are on me,” he waits until all three of them are looking up at them just so, “and if I am unavailable or incapacitated, your eyes are on Shikamaru. Understood?”

“Yes, sensei!” “Understood, sensei!” “Yessir!”

“Shikamaru, you understand why I am entrusting the team to you?”

Shikamaru looks away for just a moment, teeth working on the inside of his cheek, before nodding. “I’m not the strongest or the fastest, but because of that, I see the most.”

Orochimaru smiles. “Correct. You also make the most circumspect judgment. Never forget that your survival as a team is the highest priority, especially if you are ever in a situation on your own and without my direct guidance. The mission is secondary; you can always regroup and try another approach.”

Shikamaru nods with a weighted frown. “What if there’s other shinobi from Konoha there? Other shinobi more senior than us, I mean. Do I defer to their direction?”

“Indeed that would be the proper protocol,” Orochimaru agrees, “but I would say that there are exceptions. Can you think of a few?”

“If one of us are injured but they want us to keep going?” Sasuke hazards. “You said prioritize our survival first…”

“But Sasuke, if they’re more senior than us, they’ll probably know not to take us along if we’re injured,” Naruto insightfully points out, “’cuz then we’d just be dead weight.”

“If they’re giving us bad directives,” Shikamaru cuts in, looking up at last with sharp, dark eyes. “If their judgment is wrong or if it will mean more casualties on our side to follow them. You want me to question them if I disagree.”

“As long as your disagreement is measured, calm, and with sound basis, you are well within your rights to question any leader of any team,” Orochimaru nods, not bothering to disguise his pleasure. “Those who stop thinking for themselves often become casualties. Do not allow rank to hinder your application of logic. Even those who lead can make mistakes, and if you don’t take the chance to correct those mistakes when you see them, then the mistakes are as much yours as it is theirs.”

 

They have the hand signals mostly memorized by lunchtime. He reserves the chakra signals for later in order to avoid overwhelming them. Kabuto returns in time for food, and although Anko is elsewhere today, the table is lively enough to feel like home.

“Na, na, anija, we’re making our own secret code!” Naruto grins, brandishing his chopsticks as Orochimaru’s bunshin helps lay out the table.

“Oi, boke, don’t tell him about it!” Shikamaru hotly reprimands. “If you tell him, it won’t be a secret anymore!”

Kabuto laughs underneath Sasuke’s sigh of, “I don’t know that he can keep this a secret,” meanwhile pouring himself a glass of orange juice.

“I’m telling him about it, I’m not telling him the actual code,” Naruto parries back.

“Knowledge of the existence of a secret is enough to begin to unravel the secret!” snaps Shikamaru.

“Wow, Shunsai,” Kabuto remarks. “As expected from a Nara, you’re quite well-read.” (3)

Shikamaru blinks and flushes, looking away. “Eh, maa… oyaji gives me a lot of material to study.”

“What’s a Shunsai?” Naruto asks.

“A philosopher who wrote many influential books from before the founding of our village,” Orochimaru answers. He takes his place at the head of the table and begins the meal. “Itadakimasu.”

“Itadakimasu! Sensei, what about you, are you a philosopher?” Naruto asks again, full to bursting with curiosity today.

Orochimaru thinks on that and blows gently on his miso soup. “I suppose I am, sometimes.”

“Only sometimes, shishō?” Kabuto teasingly smiles, handing a serving of rice first to Naruto and last to himself. To the three boys, he says, “Shunsai is actually my second favorite philosopher.”

“Only second?” Naruto asks.

“Who’s your favorite?” Sasuke asks.

Kabuto grins. “Shishō, of course.”

“Do you have any written works, sensei?” Shikamaru eagerly looks up. “Have you published anything?” Orochimaru shakes his head. “Aw, bummer! I’d so read it if you published anything, sensei!”

Naruto and Sasuke both nod in tandem. Naruto adds, “I’d read it all even if it took me a long time because of the kanji!”

“Perhaps after my death,” Orochimaru contemplates, “although admittedly the idea isn’t a pleasant one. Words are so easily misunderstood, after all.”

“That’s true,” Shikamaru concedes, returning his attention towards Kabuto. “I’m surprised you like Shunsai that much. He’s not that popular, from what I hear.”

Kabuto shrugs. “He’s popular enough, just not here. His philosophy’s too peaceful and kind for a village full of shinobi, especially a powerful one like Konoha. You don’t get as strong as we are with peace and kindness. But that’s why I like him.”

“Because he’s contradictory?”

“Because he reminds us what it is we fight for, what we work to get stronger for… what we wage wars to protect.”

“And what’s that?” Naruto asks, chipmunk-like with cheeks stuffed full of rice.

“Peace,” Kabuto quietly answers, “a fragile one within which we can have space for kindness.”

Shikamaru makes a soft, thoughtful noise. Even Sasuke looks to be deep in thought. The table is silent for a while except for the sounds of a thoroughly enjoyed meal. Orochimaru thinks back on that night he found Kabuto so many years ago and wonders what would have happened to that lost and grieving boy had they not met. Perhaps nothing, perhaps everything. Not for the first time, he resents Konoha’s habit of creating its own problems.

And Naruto, he could have easily become one of those problems. What of Namikaze Minato and Kushina’s sacrifice then?

 

After the meal, Kabuto helps him tidy up in the kitchen. “They’re good kids,” his eldest remarks from the sink, “sharp and insightful. I see why Anko says you like them a lot.”

“Their potential is considerable,” Orochimaru agrees. There is no need to say more; Kabuto is well aware of Orochimaru’s weakness for power. “I need to diversify their sparring regimen. Are you available any of the afternoons this coming week?”

“Oh dear,” Kabuto chuckles, “sparring, huh? Let’s see, I think I’m free on Tuesday and Wednesday.”

“Perhaps I’ll also allow them a taste of Anko.”

This time Kabuto laughs. “That oughta be entertaining. Please let me watch, shishō, I need stress relief and that just might do it!”

Orochimaru wipes down the teacup Kabuto hands him, noting that the porcelain has a chip near the lip. Perhaps a relic from one of Anko’s temper tantrums or damage from his own mishandling. He sets it to dry and asks, “When do you set out next?”

“Not for another fortnight.” Kabuto no doubt notes his unrest and likewise tenses. “What do you need?”

Weighing his words carefully, Orochimaru says, “It’s nothing particularly urgent, but beware that you might attract attention. I need information on Uzumaki Kushina, the Uzumaki clan, and their fuinjutsu.”

“Have you already asked the others?”

“I will. I simply wanted to look into the Tower’s library first.”

“Nothing?”

“Not a thing,” Orochimaru shrugs. “I wasn’t expecting much from it anyway.”

“I know there are survivors,” Kabuto quietly says, words almost obscured by the hiss of water from the faucet. “Do you want me to find one and bring them to you?”

“Unless they’re an expert on fuinjutsu, I don’t need them.”

“…do you think Tayuya might know anything?”

“She was too young when Uzushiogakure was destroyed. Nonetheless, if you encounter her on your way, there’s no harm in asking.” He puts away the last of the dishes and wipes his hands dry. “Use utmost caution, Kabuto. An entire village doesn’t disappear under one attack overnight.”

Kabuto nods. In silence, they make tea out of the cloudberry blend Kabuto brought home, before returning the sitting room together. Orochimaru stops at the doorway and observes the children; there goes that bubbling warmth again. Is he getting too sentimental? Is this becoming a liability?

But when he pins that feeling down again, it doesn’t feel like a liability. It doesn’t reek of weakness.

Sasuke is patiently overseeing Naruto’s weekly kanji quiz; they both look up as Kabuto approaches with tea. Nearby, Shikamaru is napping on the engawa, spread out belly-up under a spill of sunlight.

It comes to him in a flash, unexpected and refreshing, like the bright ring of Naruto’s laughter or the cautious hope in the corners of Kabuto’s honest smiles. Like the fierce strength of Anko’s loyalty. Like the quiet devotion in Tenzo’s every step.

Fulfillment. That’s what it is.

He looks over the bright faces of his youngest children and finds the definition of that fragile peace. Something to wage war over. Something to fight for.

Momentarily, he experiences an intense wave of empathetic connection with Uzumaki Kushina, with whom he barely spoke, much less share any sort of relationship; this is what she must have felt like, or at least a fraction of it, in that moment when she decided to seal the world’s most powerful weapon into her own son. A son she barely got to hold, a son she didn’t get to meet.

But at least he’s alive, she must have thought, just as Orochimaru thinks today, and he will continue to live. And as long as he’s alive, there’s tomorrow. A different tomorrow. A chance.

 

Naruto looks towards him with a grin and beckons, “Sensei, come look! I didn’t get anything wrong this week!”

It has been a long time, but Orochimaru thinks of his own mother with gratitude as he steps into the room. What was it she always used to say?

You can’t hold on to kindness, my little snake. You can only pass it on.

And so Orochimaru passes it on, even if the world continues to make a pessimist out of him.

“Well done, little ones,” he kneels to stroke the tops of Naruto and Sasuke’s heads. “Commendable initiative. I am proud of you all.”




tbc
first draft: 2020.07.30
last edited: 2021.12.16




NOTES & REFERENCES

(1) “The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land.” – Thomas Henry Huxley, 1887

(2) Kusarigama (lit. chain-sickle) is a traditional Japanese weapon, pretty much as Kabuto described: a sickle on a chain, typically with a weighted ball/spike on the far end. It was in high use during the Muromachi period and had a pretty high mortality rate if wielded properly (the weighted chain can create a significant centrifugal force when swung around overhead).

(3) Shunsai is a character I based on the actual historical figure (the O.G. rich Japanese hipster) Kukai (also known as Koubou-Daishi), an influential Japanese Buddhist monk who reinvented Buddhism into the Esoteric (Shingon) Buddhism that is practiced widely in Japan today. He wrote many works and is responsible for reinventing the Japanese written language by introducing the kana syllabary they use today in conjunction with the traditional Chinese-derived kanji. He established a retreat in Mount Kouya and taught his followers there. I was fortunate enough to visit the seat of Shingon Buddhism in Mount Kouya when I went to Japan two years ago; it's a beautiful place, a fitting birthplace for beautiful philosophies. Highly recommend a visit!

Chapter Text

024. shikamaru: lessons

.

When they return to Ground Five for sparring the following week, Anko is there waiting for them.

Oh fuck, Shikamaru thinks, shoulders dropping in dread. The grin on her face is telltale of suffering to come.

“Anko-nee? Whatcha doin’ here?” Naruto trots up to her, arms crossed behind his head. “Masaka—are you gonna help train us today? Are you?”

“Afternoon, ducklings! I’m givin’ sensei a break,” she leads, twirling a kunai round and round, round and round, round and round the one finger. She cocks her hip and rests a hand on it, glancing up to exchange a look with Orochimaru-sensei. “Are they good to go?”

“Allow them to set down their packs,” sensei responds. To the three of them, he says, “Quickly now, we don’t have all day.”

“Let me guess, three-on-one?” Shikamaru grunts, dropping his backpack under their favorite tree in Ground 5. He digs out his water bottle, takes a swig, and props it next to the bag for quick access.

“Correct. You need as much practice moving in a unit as we can manage. You are not yet strong enough to single-handedly win a battle, but together you can shut down a chūnin, or even a jōnin if you are prepared. The key is seamless integration,” sensei sweeps a keen gaze over them, “even in the face of an unknown opponent. Make ready.”

In short order, they stand in front of Anko, who eye them with open delight. Shikamaru dips his chin down and adopts a ready stance, waiting. The other two follow his lead.

Lesson 16: Don’t provoke a stronger opponent.

“Ohoho, you want me to come to you? Alright, we can play like that!”

She vanishes and reappears in front of Sasuke, who dodges her rapid kicks and responds with his own. Shikamaru lets past the brief flare of admiration—that Sasuke saw her at all, much less dodged her, is a feat—and throws his rope out to herd her towards Naruto’s blades. Naruto bravely ducks into the fray, but he isn’t as fast at reacting as Sasuke. Shikamaru fractures the ground under their feet just as Naruto takes a kick to the shoulder with a grunt.

“Too slow, baby snake!” she taunts, catching Sasuke by the wrist and bodily flipping him into the ground.

Sasuke bolts away before she can crush him with a fist, which crunches against the earth with deadly force. She pushes with that fist and flips around to scissor her legs at Shikamaru—yeah, nope. He summons three consecutive layers of Doukutsu and ducks away as she busts through each one. Naruto crowds in with six clones, each baying for a hit—are those wind blades curved around his fist? Since when could he do that?

No time to wonder. At Sasuke’s signal, Shikamaru pulls up a half-dome from the ground, trapping her in an earthen bowl. Sasuke leaps up high and fills it with fire; the Katon slams against the dome with enough force that it almost ricochets. Anko busts through the dome and crouches atop a boulder some paces away, regrouping as she pats down the flames on the hem of her shirt.

“Fuckin’ brats, that’s fuckin’ hot,” she spits, but the near-feral grin on her face tells them she’s far from over.

Lesson 21: Don’t let fear overtake you. Fear is the smell of prey.

All six of Naruto’s clones emerge from the dome unscathed, water shields shimmering over their limbs. They punch their fists into their palms with a grin. “Mada mada!” (1)

The clones charge in unison, Sasuke blending in with the rabble. Shikamaru waits until the last moment before opening fissures under Anko again, hoping to destabilize her even just a little. Maybe it works; she kills two clones but takes a solid kick in the ribs from Sasuke, who then rudely blows fire into her face at point blank range.

“Agh, you little pissant!”

She dodges back right into Naruto’s hands. Naruto grabs her by the shoulder, and when she wrenches free, he reaches for her braided hair instead, yanking hard—Shikamaru darts in and follows with two kicks. She still blocks those, but in the mess of it, Sasuke slams a sparkling palm against her flank—she yelps in pain.

“Pesky—little—zygotes—”

She grabs and throws Naruto at Sasuke before stabbing three more clones dead in the neck. Naruto gurgles a curse when they disperse; Shikamaru winces in sympathy.

But one of the clones manages to trap Anko’s arm in chains, and before she can wrench free, Shikamaru adds his rope to the restraint. “Naruto, clones! Pull!”

She fights it, but in the space between two breaths, there are twenty-or-so clones holding on to the end of the chain.

She’s temporarily immobilized—chance!

Sasuke is off like a shot, hurtling full speed at Anko with weapons out. She parries his tantou with a kunai and for a while there is only the sound of steel against steel—she’s doing absurdly well fighting while tethered and one-handed—Sasuke ducks under a blade so narrowly it snips the tips of his hair.

With a grunt of effort, Anko uses her chained arm as a fulcrum and swings her legs into a spinning kick that clips Sasuke on the shoulder. Shikamaru then realizes that while he and Naruto have her pinned, that also means that they are unable to let go, leaving Sasuke functionally alone against a tokujo who still has three free limbs with which to fight.

What else can I do? Shikamaru pants, eyes scanning the vicinity and watching Sasuke who has gotten back into the fistfight. What else can I help with? There’s gotta be something—something I can do—

“Naruto, can you make more?” Shikamaru asks, a twinge of self-recrimination slashing across his chest. But he only lets himself feel sorry about his own helplessness for a second. Succeeding is more important.

Wordlessly, Naruto complies: five more clones join Sasuke in the fray.

Is there a limit to how many he can make? Shikamaru wonders as he grunts against the pull of the rope. Chakra to his feet to ground him, chakra to his arms to reinforce his grip—wait a second, maybe I can—

Focusing with an inhale-exhale, he starts pouring his chakra into the rope, extending it out and out until it reaches Anko’s arm, and then thinking of fire. He strains so hard he can hear his heartbeat throbbing in his ears—the rope begins to heat up in his grip—and then Anko yells out in pain.

Sasuke doesn’t hesitate to use the opening. Anko is distracted for a split-second. In a flash, Sasuke lashes out with his ninjatō, coated in crackling lightning—it cuts through Anko’s kunai like butter, ripping through the weapon and then her sleeve and leaving a shallow gash on her collarbone.

First blood!

And then Anko explodes in a blast of blade-edged wind.




“You three are stubborn pieces of shit!” she spits blood on the ground afterwards, standing over them with her hands on her hips. Her shirtsleeve is ripped, her legs are scuffed up, and her collarbone is bleeding, but altogether she looks more intact than all three children combined. “Pesky infants! Rambunctious puppies! Snapping at my heels with your sharp little baby teeth, so adorable! Sensei’s clutch of feral anklebiters!”

“Can Team Anklebiters tap out for the day?” Shikamaru groans, still clutching at his ribs. He can’t tell if they’re just bruised or actually broken.

Next to him, Sasuke is still gasping for air, chakra burning lower than Shikamaru’s ever felt it go before. Sasuke ended up shouldering the bulk of the immediate battle, an unfortunate result of his apparent aptitude with jutsu and combat. Naruto hadn’t been too far behind either, although his attempts at hand-to-hand had still been clumsy and full of holes. Shikamaru knows that he did the least in the fight and can’t help but feel despondent about it.

“In a minute, I want you to sit for a debrief, but yes,” sensei kneels next to him, “well done, all of you. You exceeded my expectations.”

Sensei puts glowing hands on Shikamaru’s flank and almost at once the pain bleeds away, knotted muscles releasing to allow blood flow into damaged tissue. He gasps in bright, blinding relief—and then sags against the ground. When he doesn’t feel like crying from the pain anymore, Shikamaru licks his lips and asks the burning question.

“How exactly did we exceed expectations when we’re all on the ground?”

“Yeah, if Anko-nee was a real enemy, we’d be so dead, like, ten times over ‘ttebayo…”

“You pushed her hard enough to make her use jutsu, and you did so within the first ten minutes. While Anko is a specialist, not a frontline combatant, she is still strong and skilled and moreover trained by me. You all did well,” Orochimaru-sensei emphasizes again as he lifts his hands from Shikamaru’s ribs, “within the perimeters of the task you were set. I certainly did not expect you to win, so you can set that concern aside.”

Shikamaru flops back with a sigh. He knows they couldn’t have won, he knows it, but it still rankles. It’s not that they’re not used to losing—Sage knows they lose to sensei enough—but losing to sensei is different. Losing to anyone else other than sensei grates on his fucking nerves.

“One day soon,” Naruto declares breathlessly, “we’re gonna kick your butt, Anko-nee.”

She laughs. “You can certainly try, pipsqueak!”

“Sasuke, do you require healing?” sensei quietly asks as Shikamaru props himself up on his elbows.

Sasuke grunts and turns his head. “No, thank you, sensei. Just tired.”

Anko takes her leave, jauntily saluting before she flashes away towards the town proper. Something about getting a heaping of dango and meeting up with friends from T&I. Shikamaru can’t help but suspect that she just wants to regale everyone about Team Anklebiters’ misfortunes, but surely adults have better things to do than gossip about children, right?

Sensei gathers them around for the debrief. They sprawl in various states of exhaustion under their favorite tree. The sun sets over Konoha and into Shikamaru’s eyes, making him squint.

“Shall I begin with Naruto, then, since he appears the most recovered and coherent?”

True enough when Shikamaru looks over, Naruto is digging through his pack while sucking on the straw of his overlarge water jug. That thing had to carry more than a liter, which is… not a bad idea. Naruto triumphantly produces three paper pouches from the pack, handing one to Shikamaru and one to Sasuke. “Electrolyte thingies! Tenzo-nii and anija told me about them, you mix ‘em with your water, hora. Sasuke, you want me to do yours?”

“Please,” Sasuke grunts again, still supine with both eyes closed.

“But you have to sit up and drink all of it, ‘kay?” Naruto pours the powder into Sasuke’s bottle, caps it, and starts shaking. “Sensei, go ahead! I’m listening!”

Resting an elbow on a knee, sensei leans forward with comments forthcoming. “Commendations first. You did well leveraging your kage bunshin during the fight, despite how disorientating it must have been when they dispelled all at once. Keep practicing with it and it’ll become one of your most formidable weapons.”

“Especially given how you don’t seem to have a limit with it,” Shikamaru agrees. “I mean, do you?”

Naruto scratches the back of his neck. “I don’t know? I’ve never tried to, ya kno’, reach a limit. All I know is I can hold them for at least a day.”

Shikamaru does a doubletake. “Um, what the fuck for?”

Naruto averts his eyes, nudging Sasuke with the reconstituted electrolyte drink. “When I still lived at the old place, sometimes some nasty neighbors would threaten to burn my stuff, so I, um, I’d leave a bunshin there all day.”

It takes all of Shikamaru’s precious scarce restraint to keep from letting loose a string of curses. Thankfully, sensei steps in.

“I suggest testing your limits with the jutsu,” and goddamn, how does sensei sound so calm after hearing shit like that? Jaw clenched, Shikamaru breathes and listens, “perhaps see if you are able to hold a bunshin while you’re asleep, for example, or if you can hold the same bunshin for consecutive days. I would proceed with care, however; I imagine receiving five or six days’ worth of memories from a bunshin would give you quite the headache.”

“Yikes,” Naruto grimaces.

“Furthermore, I commend your jutsu modifications on the fly. Wind blades, adapted to your fists, were they?”

“Oh!” Naruto grins, showing them off with ease now that he’s used them in a spar. “I thought, ya kno’, I needed blades of some sort, bigger than a kunai that I could hold on to but not necessarily throw! It worked well!”

“Indeed,” sensei nods, “and I encourage you to continue adapting jutsu like so. Recall what I said about Sasuke’s father, who has mastered so many Fire jutsu that the jutsu matters less than the element itself? Likewise, I want you to pay more attention to the element you are attempting to bend. The jutsus will follow.” (2)

“This is why you have the five dots as an option on our jutsu log,” Shikamaru blinks, simultaneously wondering at how his brain is still operating despite his exhaustion. Chugging from his electrolyte water, he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and says, “You want us to make our own jutsu from our own elements in the future.”

Sensei’s snake-like smile stretches wider. “Why, Shikamaru, you’ve already begun.”

Oh, Shikamaru sniffs, looking down at his rope, that’s right.

“All three of you adapted jutsu today, in fact. Shikamaru, your use of a partial Doukutsu to create a bowl around Anko was inspired, as was your use of fire with your rope.”

Naruto squints at him. “When was that?”

“When you guys had her restrained using the rope,” Sasuke finally levers himself up to a sitting position, “Shika extended his chakra through the rope and then turned his chakra to fire to heat the metal. That’s why she got distracted enough for me to land a hit, it must’ve burned. Right, sensei?”

“Correct.”

“How come I didn’t get burned? I was holding the rope too!”

“Because I only heated up the far part of the rope touching her, otherwise you would have let go too, and that would have defeated the purpose. If you let go, I wouldn’t have been enough to hold her down.”

Naruto gapes at Shikamaru then. “You can control your chakra that well?!”

Shikamaru does another doubletake. “…you can’t?”

“Uhh, no!”

“I think you really underestimate how much better at chakra control you are compared to us,” Sasuke tiredly points out, slurring his words. “Now that I can actually see it, it’s very obvious. Me and Naruto, we’re like—like fluffy baby animals, like newborn puppies when they still have that fuzz around them—our chakras are like fuzzy clouds around us. But you, your chakra is all tight and, and sleek. Like a wet cat—when its fur is squished close to its skin.”

“Are you actually trying to be annoying right now? Because I really want to punch you,” Shikamaru grits out, “except since I’m so weak right now I might have to postpone the punch to tomorrow.”

“Please do tomorrow,” Sasuke immediately responds over Naruto’s snickering and sensei’s chuckles. “If you punch me today, you’ll also need to carry me home.”

Shikamaru continues, “That has got to be the most backhanded compliment I’ve ever gotten. A wet cat? Fucking find a better analogy, asshole!”

“M’too tired to analogy right now,” Sasuke irritably swats. “Anyway, sensei was saying important things. Hora, before I completely fall asleep.”

“Looks like you need to be carried home anyway,” Shikamaru irritably huffs.

They all turn back to their sensei, who has been watching them with much amusement. Shikamaru imagines he’s had a lot of entertainment today, with more to come tomorrow. Sensei remains quiet for a moment, and Shikamaru has the distinct impression that there is an inaudible chuckle they’re not hearing, before sensei gently remarks, “I do enjoy your bickering perhaps a touch too much. I look forward to the sass when you three are proper teenagers.”

Shikamaru grumbles at that. “My parents already tell me I’m too much as I am. Shimizu-oba calls me a smartass all the time.”

“Sarcasm and wit are both signs of high intelligence. I encourage it in all of my students. Or, as Anko would say, since the world gives you nothing but shit, you have to learn how to give shit right back.”

Sasuke looks a little off-put hearing their sensei curse so honestly; Naruto only grins (and if his teeth look a little sharper than normal, Shikamaru’s sure that’s just his imagination playing tricks).

“Continuing my remarks,” sensei straightens once again, golden eyes sliding over the only one left, “Sasuke, little one—well done today. I don’t think I need to enumerate all the ways you outperformed your own benchmarks, but I will tell you that you are heading in the right direction as far as your use of lightning. How you reinforced your blade to cut through Anko’s kunai—that is one of the advantages a lightning-user brings to the field. Lightning reinforces almost anything, and if you can manage it, it will even reinforce your fire.”

It’s as if a lightbulb flicks on above Sasuke’s head; Shikamaru can see him already thinking of ways to blend the two elements together. It sounds difficult and frankly insane for a genin to try—which just means it’s perfect for their team to attempt.

Difficult and insane, that’s our jam.

Sensei changes tack. “Now—points upon which to improve. Naruto first.” Naruto fidgets. “Your taijutsu is still clumsier than where I want it. You don’t pay attention to the limbs you aren’t actively using. While you have an instinctive understanding of how to move your body, it’s not enough when you are against more experienced opponents, or indeed opponents like Sasuke who can see several moves ahead with the Sharingan. Wasted movements seem fine when you have an immense and almost limitless energy source to draw from, but it slows you down and provides your opponent openings. Anko took advantage of several, I’m sure you noticed. I won’t have any child of mine wandering into a fight without proper form; it’s unbecoming and moreover fatal. We will refocus on your katas moving forward.” (3)

“YessenseiI’lldomybestsensei!”

Naruto looks about ready to shit his pants or cry, either in frustrated determination or intimidation, but manages to hold it together. Sensei moves on.

“Sasuke, you expended yourself at a faster rate than you could recover. What would you have done if Anko decided to bait you, string you along, and then strike when you are finally exhausted?”

Sasuke pales, swaying slightly to the left.

Sensei continues, “It’s what I would have done. Not only would you have revealed your entire arsenal to me, you would have also become a burden to your teammates afterwards. Divided between defending you and attacking your opponent, Naruto and Shikamaru would have been overwhelmed. Do you see my point?”

Sasuke nods, “I do, sensei.”

“Which then brings us to your task henceforth: you will work with Naruto to create more cohesive assault tactics that leverage your force and Naruto’s stamina. In time, you will grow a core rivaling the very best of Konoha’s warriors, but until then, you must use your resources—and that includes your team. You do not fight alone, Sasuke; you fight in a unit. Use your unit.”

Using Naruto would also help catch Naruto up in terms of jutsu, Shikamaru thinks solicitously, although he doesn’t seem to be having a hard time improvising on the fly. Anyway, any progress is preferable to no progress.

Sasuke bows and says, “Arigato, sensei. I’ll work on it and—and count upon your guidance.” Steeped in the old tenets of the Sage, Sasuke is ever the most proper out of the three of them.

And Sensei moves on.

“Shikamaru.”

“Yes, sensei.”

“I could read your disappointment in your own performance.” Shikamaru drops his eyes and stares at his own toes, which peek out from his sandals, caked in dirt. Sensei continues, “I can hazard a guess about what you are most disappointed in. My question is this: why do you insist on measuring yourself against benchmarks that don’t apply to you?”

Shikamaru blinks and looks up. Sensei meets him eye to eye, an even and measured kind of consideration that makes Shikamaru feel seen. It’s… not a bad feeling.

“More than any specific metric of your performance today, what I want you to work upon is your focus. You already know you’re not a frontliner; you said so yourself when we first began as a team. There is no shame in that. Instead, I need you to shed your self-recrimination and redirect your energies toward embracing the fact that you are a specialist. Focus, Shikamaru, on the role you’re meant to play. Because only you can play it in this team, and if you become good enough, in time you will be able to play it in the village. If you wish to become the best, then there is no space or time to waste on envy, much less regret.” Eyes that glitter like backlit amber pin him down with such gravity that for a moment it’s hard to breathe under the weight of sensei’s expectations. “Once again, Shikamaru: what are you?”

Licking his lips, Shikamaru answers, “A strategist.”

“And what does a strategist do?”

Shikamaru swallows, thinking on their spar today and the shogi match he lost yesterday afternoon. The stark black kanji on each shogi piece. The brilliant forethought in his dad’s game. Lesson 6: “A strategist predicts.”

“And what did you do today?”

“I reacted,” he realizes. “The entire time, I was just reacting.”

Sensei lifts his gaze and the pressure eases a touch. A tiny, timid voice in the back of Shikamaru’s head wonders how sensei even does that. When sensei speaks again, his words are far softer and pitched lower than before: “Never forget, Shikamaru, that the only shadow worth chasing is your own. Not Sasuke, not Naruto, not your father, and certainly not me—you are your own benchmark.”

Shikamaru bows beneath the wisdom of his sensei.




That night, Shikamaru powers through dinner without a single word and tucks himself into bed with his swirling thoughts. The following day, sensei puts them through the paces again—missions in the morning, sparring (against Kabuto-san this time) in the afternoon—and still his thoughts run deep. They leave him only when he is too occupied dodging the glinting edges of Kabuto’s kunai to think beyond left and now and jump.

Kabuto is a significantly harder opponent to touch, much less pin down; compared to Anko, he’s faster, stronger, and infinitely cleverer to boot. The three of them approach with a few tactics planned, but within an hour they run out and are reduced once again to reacting as best as they can. When sensei calls an end to the spar at last, they collapse in unison and are no closer to working on sensei’s suggestions from yesterday.

“Any feedback, Kabuto?” sensei asks, momentarily catching Shikamaru by surprise.

Sensei must give Kabuto-san’s opinion a lot of weight.

“Mm,” Kabuto taps the flat end of a kunai against his lips and smiles. “Practice, practice, and practice. Your combinations were quite good, actually. I rather liked the bunshin-shuriken one, that was a nice touch. (4) It was just a bit obvious, so I would work on making it more seamless. Also, Shikamaru-kun, nice try on the shadow binding! You almost caught me twice.”

Shikamaru clicks his tongue and sighs. “I know.”

“Better luck next time,” Kabuto chuckles. “You all did quite well! I’m duly impressed, it’s considerable progress for the work of a month and some. As expected of shishou’s pupils, of course,” he bows to sensei, who blinks with slow pleasure.

They chorus arigato as Kabuto leaves them, heading for the general direction of sensei’s house. Probably to cook dinner, since Tenzo-san is out on a mission. Unlike Anko, Shikamaru notes that Kabuto walks away from them without a single scratch on his person, although his clothes do look somewhat dirty and there are scorch-marks on his arm guards.

“He was holding back on us, wasn’t he,” Shikamaru blinks at the brief after-image of Kabuto’s shunshin; his eyes are itchy and irritated, what with Naruto’s wind kicking up so much dust and Sasuke’s fire creating so much smoke.

Sasuke groans from behind him, “He was totally taking it easy. Sensei, he’s so strong, what the hell.” Sasuke must also be more tired than usual.

“Sensei, is Kabuto-nii ANBU?” Naruto asks thoughtlessly, before he realizes the futility of his question. “Ah, oops, never mind, you can’t tell me, hehehe.”

Sensei sits down next to them and answers instead, “He is certainly strong enough to qualify.”

“Okay, that makes me feel a lot better,” Sasuke mutters, more to himself than anyone else. Shikamaru huffs in agreement.

That makes two of sensei’s children ANBU, he considers while chugging the rest of his water bottle, because I’m 90% sure Tenzo-san’s also ANBU. What a scary household.

“Shikamaru, I wish to hear your impression,” sensei calls upon him, so he puts down the bottle and wipes his mouth. “Tell me, do you think Kabuto is particularly gifted in taijutsu?”

“Yes,” Shikamaru answers, and then frowns. “Wait, no.”

“Uh, he totally is!” Naruto heatedly argues.

Skilled, yes. Gifted, I don’t think so,” Shikamaru slowly responds. “He doesn’t… he doesn’t give off the same feeling I get from Sasuke. But he’s very good! I just think he’s not… naturally gifted with taijutsu, like… he must have trained really hard to get where he is, or something.”

“That is exactly true,” sensei nods. “And what about his jutsu proficiency or his chakra core? Does he strike you as a powerhouse?”

“…no?” Shikamaru responds again, slower and quieter this time. He doesn’t want to offend or anything but watching Kabuto fight… isn’t watching like sensei fight. “At least, I don’t think he necessarily qualifies as a powerhouse, strictly speaking. His chakra control is pretty high—”

Really high,” Sasuke nods fervently, “like pinpoint control, I could see it.”

“—yeah, but his core didn’t feel huge, so I’d say he’s a specialist more than a powerhouse combatant. And he doesn’t seem to like fighting at close range. In fact, he tried to keep us away as much as possible,” Shikamaru frowns, examining the spar over again in his head. “Of course, he could have been putting up a front and suppressing his chakra the entire time, I mean, he could be a powerhouse without us knowing, but—”

“Do you really think you wouldn’t notice?” Orochimaru-sensei interrupts him, voice low and gaze intent. “You, as you are now, wouldn’t notice if someone you were fighting was a powerhouse?”

“I…” Shikamaru bites his lip and hazards, “I think I’d notice.” Is that too presumptuous of him to say?

But sensei smiles warmly. “That you would, I agree. By virtue of your daily tenketsu exercises and the attention you pay towards the development of your core, your instinct for feeling foreign chakra has also exponentially grown. You might not yet be able to judge the exact gap between your own capacity and that of your opponent’s, but you are at least able to judge if they are very powerful and therefore a dire threat or if they are at a level you can somehow manage. Honing this judgment comes with time and experience, as with all things pertaining to mastery.

“Additionally, you are correct, Sasuke. Kabuto might not have a very large chakra core, but what power he can produce, he can direct with prodigious control. Kabuto is a medic by specialty, and medicine is a field that requires precision in all things.” Sensei’s smile widens into what Shikamaru reads as pride. “When he first came to me, he had middling proficiency in other pursuits and his talent was horribly underutilized. I trained him in medicine and, to date, he is Konoha’s strongest field medic. Of those, we have only a precious few; field medics have to also be competent combatants, you see.”

“Right, they can’t be too weak that they die out there, or worse, drag everyone else down,” Sasuke nods. “Tsubasa-oba told me once that she stayed a healer and didn’t apply to be a field medic because she’s not great at fighting. She didn’t want to be a burden.”

“Wise of her,” sensei commends. “Knowing your own weaknesses is as vital, if not more, than knowing your own strengths.”

“But sensei,” Naruto squints, “since you trained Kabuto-nii, doesn’t that mean that you’re Konoha’s strongest field medic? I mean, technically, ya kno’.”

Sensei chuckles. “Technically, I am not a medic. I do not have that designation on my profile.”

“Whaaaat?” Shikamaru gapes. “Why the fuck not?”

Sensei’s answer is accompanied by a delicate shrug. “By the village’s judgment, I am still more proficient at destroying things than putting them back together.”

Shikamaru reels while Sasuke shakes his head in disbelief. Naruto whispers, “That’s so wrong.”

I mean, it’s not the first time the village’s judgment is fucked sideways and upside down. I think sensei fixed Naruto’s situation just fine, Shikamaru thinks darkly to himself, while no other adult lifted a single fucking finger… and I bet that’s not the only controversial and fucked up thing he’s had to fix, which is probably why he has such a complicated reputation.

Sensei waves their concern aside. “Before we get too derailed—my original point. Shikamaru, do you see why I asked Kabuto to spar with you today?”

Huh? Wait, he chews on his lip again, thinking about Kabuto, who is not that strong but has fine control, who is a specialist by training, who likes to fight at a distance—oh.

“It’s for me,” Shikamaru’s face blows open with realization, “you wanted to show him to me. You wanted to show me what a specialist can be.”

Sensei taps his nose with a finger. “Precisely. He is, in essence, your senpai. He struggled too, just like you do now.”

Beside him, Naruto flops backward to lay spread-eagle on the ground. “Maaaan, sensei is so smart, what the heck! I didn’t even see that coming!”

“Of course sensei is smart,” Sasuke huffs in second-hand offense, “sensei is sensei.”

Shikamaru is still blinking at their sensei, who benevolently sits there, arms crossed and likewise considering him with what must indeed be great expectations.

“Do you know,” sensei adds as if in afterthought, “that Kabuto fought you at his weakest today?”

No way,” Sasuke groans, while Naruto whines on the ground.

“Surrounded alone against three is one of the worst situations he can find himself in,” sensei explains. “A fighter of Kabuto’s type shines best when he can maximize his specialty in a support role behind the heavy hitters. He is strongest when embedded in a team of powerhouses, working seamlessly to keep the team going through injuries and traps, assisting with recon and infiltration, gathering information. The brighter his teammates burn in the eyes of the enemy, the longer the shadows they cast. The more for him to hide within.”

It clicks in Shikamaru’s head then, what sensei has been trying to tell him all this time.

“A strategist predicts,” sensei repeats once more. “A strategist waits. A strategist hides. And then, when it is time, a strategist strikes the killing blow.”

 

Shikamaru walks home that afternoon, his head echoing with a lesson he learned long ago but somehow forgot. Oyaji is the one who taught him, like many of earliest lessons in shogi, in life. Sensei is just reminding him of something he already knew.

Lesson 12: Let the world underestimate you. It will be your enemy’s downfall.

Shikamaru won’t forget it ever again.




At the end of the week, Shikamaru’s bruises have bruises but he feels better about life. Two days ago they actually sprained Anko’s wrist (well, Naruto did) and yesterday they almost set Kabuto’s hair on fire (Sasuke’s fault). Shikamaru even caught Kabuto’s leg in a partial shadow bind for maybe ten seconds; considering how he kept missing during their first spar, he counts it as improvement.

“Well, you’re cheerful today,” his father notes at the breakfast table, nudging the last egg-fried slice of eggplant over. “That’s good, you’ll need the energy.”

Shikamaru grunts and swallows half the eggplant in one bite. Without him even having to ask, his mother refills his bowl with rice.

“You’ll be at Ground Nine with the men, then?” his mother asks his father, who grins.

“You bet I will,” Shikaku says, “it ought to be entertaining.”

“What’s entertaining?” Shikamaru asks, teeth crunching into sliced cucumbers wrapped in seaweed. “Something up at Ground Nine today?”

His father blinks at him for a moment, taken aback.

Shikamaru shrugs, “I get it if it’s jōnin-only or some shit. Just say classified, that’s that.”

“Well, yes, a handful of jōnin are coming with.” His parents then exchange a smile over his head, eyebrows cocked a particular way that means they’re talking about something he shouldn’t overhear. Shikaku then says, “Don’t you worry about it, kid, you got training to do today, don’t you?”

“Eh, missions all morning, and then probably sparring again this afternoon. Sensei’s been making us do a lot of three-on-ones this week.” He stands up and gathers his dishes, bringing them to the sink to wash them. His mother stops him with a smile. “What, seriously? Can I go now?”

“Go,” Yoshino chuckles, handing him his bento and the thermos with the custom-blend anti-inflammatory tea. “Have fun.”

Fun is a relative concept,” Shikamaru snorts as he heads for the door. “Ittekimasu.”

“Itterasshai,” his parents cheerfully send him off, and he doesn’t think anything more about their strange conversation until later that day.

It’s much later, in fact after lunch, that sensei reminds him of it. They have finished their morning missions (the bridge again, and then painting the apartments again, and then delivering several packages around town for a small business during which sensei only allowed them to use shunshin) and have also enjoyed a rare (and strange) free hour after lunch that Shikamaru spent napping while Naruto practiced braids on Sasuke’s hair. Sensei taps Shikamaru awake and lends Naruto a red ribbon with which to secure the braids he fixed.

“This is kinda tricky, how do I even do this,” Naruto mumbles, and when Shikamaru sits up to look, Naruto is holding a braided section of Sasuke’s hair to the side under his fringe. There are two braided sections, in fact; the other one is in Sasuke’s hand.

“Here,” sensei takes the ribbon and the braid, winding the former around the latter in a crisscrossing pattern that eventually loops twice around the tail. “Sasuke’s hair is thicker than mine and will hold a braid well. That being said, if you want it to stay in place during combat, the tie must be secure like so.” Sensei repeats the process on the other side, and before long, Sasuke has two ribbon-bound braids on either side of his face, resting under the fall of his fringes. (5) “Next time, you may attempt braiding the ribbon into it. That will hold for longer.”

Naruto grins, clapping his hands together in satisfaction. “Pretty, Sasuke!”

Sasuke flushes with a pleased smile.

Do they even realize they’re outright flirting? Shikamaru wonders as he gets up and yawns and stretches. Wait… do they even know what flirting is?

That occupies him for long enough of a moment that he almost doesn’t hear sensei instruct them to gather their things.

“Feeling rested now?” A chorus of yeses; sensei nods in satisfaction. “Then off to Ground Nine we go.”

Shikamaru stops. “Wait. Ground Nine? What’s happening at Ground Nine?”

And then sensei’s smile deepens.




“I fucking knew it,” Shikamaru mutters, dropping his pack next to the tree his father is leaning against. Shikaku chuckles, exchanging a laden look with Inoichi-oji. “I fucking hate you all right now.”

“My god, Shikaku, that mouth on your son!” says Tsume-oba, as if her own mouth isn’t as potty if not more.

“There, there, I have faith that you’ll do just fine,” Shikaku reaches out with a hand that Shikamaru deftly dodges. No amount of fatherly affection will mollify him right now; they’re about to be humiliated in front of all their parents and a passel of other jōnin too!

Sasuke drops his pack next to Shikamaru’s and ducks a polite bow at Shikaku. Naruto doesn’t stop to pay respect to the parents, instead bouncing over to where Anko is lounging with several shinobi whose names Shikamaru doesn’t know. He’s seen them around the market though. Two are chūnin and the other one is either jōnin or tokujō like Anko.

“Anko-nee, Anko-nee, you came to watch! You don’t have missions to do today?” Naruto grins, vibrating with excitement.

“It seems no one has missions to do today,” Shikamaru grouses, and when he looks up, “oh, great, here comes Shimizu-oba. The whole family, practically. Where’s okaa-san? You didn’t bring okaa-san?”

“She’s having an afternoon with the wife,” Inoichi-oji grins. “Don’t you worry, we’ll make a thorough report about your performance.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” Shikamaru rolls his eyes and walks away, hands shoved into his pockets and ears perked just enough to hear Shimizu-oba remarking on his behavior again. Is it any wonder he behaves like this if his entire family behaves like that?

Team Seven gathers around their sensei, who stands tall and watchful as the other teams arrive. More spectators too. Chouza-oji, Shino’s older brother Sano, Kiba’s sister Hana, is that Hyuuga Hizashi? Team Eight gathers next, Kiba looking nervously at his mother and sister.

“Kora, Kiba, take your tail out from between your legs and man up, goddamnit!” there goes Tsume-oba, barking as always. If Shikamaru didn’t know about their pack dynamic, he would call it abuse.

“Uwah,” Naruto mutters, “Kiba’s mom is scary.”

“Nah,” Shikamaru snorts, “Shimizu-oba is scarier.”

Sasuke suddenly gasps, straightening against Naruto’s side. “Oboro-obaa-sama!”

True enough, an elderly Uchiha breaks out of shunshin at the edge of the ground and walks sedately towards the spectators, who immediately clear a spot on a low-set boulder for her to rest. Maybe because she looks so old; Shikamaru judges that she must be as old, if not older, than the Hokage. She gathers her white-and-red robes—the colors of an Uchiha priestess—and sits down with a smile.

Sasuke dashes up to her, dropping to a knee in respect. “Obaa-sama, you—I—you didn’t need to come today, I’m so sorry to take up your time!”

“Perhaps I wanted to come,” Oboro-obaa-sama says, taking Sasuke by the chin and tilting his face up. She pauses for a moment and then she plucks at one of Sasuke’s braids. “I should like to see how my grandson has grown, especially with how little he visits me these days.”

Even from a distance, Shikamaru can see the back of Sasuke’s neck flush in shame. “I-I’m sorry, obaa-sama, I’ll, um, I’ll visit more often!”

Before Sasuke can embarrass himself any further, Orochimaru-sensei glides over to give his respect; Shikamaru and Naruto tail after him like ducklings.

“Oboro-sama,” Orochimaru likewise kneels, which then makes Shikamaru and Naruto shuffle awkwardly behind him, “gobusatashite orimasu. I am heartened to see that you are well.” (6)

“Orochimaru-dono,” she bobs her head with a smile, “indeed, it has been far too long. I thank you for the care you have taken with little Sasuke.”

“He is most astute; truly an excellent student.” Sensei rises; Shikamaru exhales.

“I am gratified. He has always been exceptional. The blood runs strong.” Oboro-sama then turns her smile towards Shikamaru and Naruto, who are crowding around Sasuke for the lack of a better thing to do. “And these must be the young friends I haven’t heard enough about.”

Shikamaru straightens and then folds into a proper bow, every bit of heir training drilled into his skull as a child surfacing under the heat of his father and aunt’s pointed stares. “It is an honor to meet you, Oboro-sama. I am Shikamaru of the Nara-ke, son of Shikaku and Yoshino.” It’s a little clumsy, but it’ll have to do; he had no warning and he has no idea what sort of relationship his parents have with Oboro-sama besides.

“Aah, the Nara heir. What a well-mannered child. No doubt even brighter, with blood as true as yours. I am pleased to meet you, Shikamaru, and I pray your friendship with Sasuke withstands the test of time.”

“I…” Shikamaru blinks, “I hope so too.” What a weird thing to say.

Finally, Naruto drops into an overenthusiastic bow, almost knocking his forehead against his knees. “Konnichiwa! I’m Uzumaki Naruto! Um, thank you for letting me be friends with Sasuke!”

At this point, Sasuke’s cheekbones are flushed pink; small wonder when everyone around is listening in. Shikamaru sighs inwardly and commits himself to life in a circus for an afternoon. What other choice does he have?

Oboro-sama chuckles. “It is Sasuke’s decision, not anyone else’s, who he befriends. If he has deemed you worthy of his friendship, then it is he you should thank and not me,” she reaches up and pats Naruto’s birthmarked cheeks with a kind hand. “Well met, Naruto, inheritor of the Uzumaki legacy. Although I’m sure bright young things like yourself are always busy training and growing, I hope you will come to visit me too, once in a while.”

“O-Okay!” Naruto nods twice, clutching at Sasuke’s wrist with a grin. “Um, i-if, whenever Sasuke goes!”

Sasuke nods too, twice, and mumbles something that sounds like, “You’re always welcome,” under his breath.

“It seems we are all here,” sensei turns to regard Teams Nine and Ten now present with their respective jōnin-sensei. “Come along, little ones. Your challenge awaits.”

In the short amount of time that Shikamaru was distracted, enough people have gathered to spectate that he’s somewhat worried for the state of Konoha’s security. Surely some of these people need to work for a living? More nameless chūnin and jōnin are gathered around Anko. Iruka-sensei and Asako-sensei are present too, apparently having abandoned their Academy students for the day. There is even a group of five masked ANBU operatives crouched atop the wall separating Ground Nine from Ground Ten, what in the world?

Aren’t ANBU supposed to be hiding?

But before he can call his teammates’ attention to it, sensei raises his voice a touch to address the gathered teams.

“Good afternoon and welcome, genin-tomo. I am Orochimaru of Team Seven.”

Neji and Shino both blink in surprise; Kiba actually flinches. Did Shikamaru never tell them? He can’t remember; he’s been spending so little time with them lately that their latest interactions are distant and hazy.

Sensei continues, “As per the agreement between your jōnin-sensei and myself, a joint training session will now commence between Teams Seven, Eight, Nine, and Ten.”

Shikamaru tilts his face up to the sky. “Fuck my luck.”

Asuma-san audibly snorts. Sensei reaches over to put a hand on Shikamaru’s exposed forehead, fingernails scratching lightly at his hairline like one would a temperamental cat.

“As Shikamaru has already surmised, it will be hard. No doubt you will struggle. But you will persevere, for that is what it means to be shinobi. That is what it means to learn and grow.”

Naruto clutches at sensei’s sleeve much like the excitable child he is. “Na, na, sensei, what are we gonna do?”

“Today,” sensei declares, “you will be at war.”

Fuck, Shikamaru really hates that smile.




tbc
first draft: 2020.08.19
last edited: 2021.12.16




NOTES & REFERENCES

(1) "Mada mada!" means "Not yet!"

(2) WHO WILL BE THE LAST AIRBENDER?! Lmaooooo I’m such a nerd

(3) That was always a point of contention for me in canon. Naruto fights like he never learned the forms properly and all the way—he knows some of them but not well. Case and point, that final fight of Shippuden, Sasuke vs Naruto. Look at how Sasuke moves, specifically his limbs… and then look at Naruto’s limbs. I get why; canon-verse never gave Naruto an opportunity to hone taijutsu specifically. His training with Jiraiya seemed heavily invested in ninjutsu, fuinjutsu, senjutsu, and harnessing the Kyuubi—but never taijutsu. Kakashi didn’t teach him shit either. (#highkeysalty) But Orochimaru-sensei would never settle for less than excellent, guys. Overachiever, thy name is Team Orochimaru!

(4) The bunshin-shuriken combo – Sasuke and Naruto seem to love this, it’s when one of them throws a fuuma shuriken (or some other type of weapon) and the weapon turns out to be one of their bunshin or they do a kawarimi to switch spots with the weapon. I believe they first used it against Zabuza in the Wave Arc. They also prominently use it during the Boruto movie fight against Momoshiki (watch here). EDIT (2020.08.22): @Drizztgeass pointed out that in the manga, Naruto (and not a kage bunshin) actually transforms himself into a shuriken and Sasuke throws him. My mistake! That is interesting, however, because it raises the question of whether or not his kage bunshin would be capable of doing the same thing... hmm! Perhaps an opportunity here...

(5) Think Indra, except instead of two thin strips of bound hair, Sasuke has braids instead.

(6) "Gobusatashite orimasu" is a very, very polite way of saying "It has been a while." One level of politeness down would be the more common "O-hisashiburi de gozaimasu." Orochimaru is being very mindful of the fact that Oboro is from a generation even older than himself and was alive at the time of Konoha's founding. Konoha's not actually that old, you know!

(7) 家 ke – ‘extended family’ or lit. ‘house' (i.e. Nara-ke, literally House of Nara). This is the old way of saying clan; today it is read as shi (i.e. Nara-shi). This term was used by the four prominent samurai clans of the Heian Era (the Fujiwara, Minamoto, Taira, and Tachibana clans). (Addendum: 2020.08.23 - since someone asked about it! :D)

(8) 共 tomo - 'both; all; together; with' - this is a suffix that indicates a group of people, i.e. genin-tomo (group of genin), futari-tomo (a pair), ryouhou-tomo (lit. 'both of you'), zehi-tomo (everyone/all of you), etc. Someone asked if it's a term that is similar to the suffix -tachi which is also a plural marker for people, but far less formal. It sounds oddly casual for Orochimaru as a sensei to refer to the children with -tachi. It'd be more applicable for, say, Kabuto to use when referring to the children (i.e. kodomo-tachi). Notably, both suffixes only connotate 'more than one' - they don't specify how many persons are involved. (Addendum: 2020.08.23)

(9) Last but not the least: Shikamaru's expression for the entirety of that last scene:

Chapter Text

025. war games part 1

.

Sakura

Kurenai-sensei had warned them last week, but when faced with the reality of the joint exercise, Sakura still finds herself intimidated. Within minutes of Team Seven’s sensei explaining the rules, she comes to a cold realization: We haven’t been trained for this.

On the contrary, Team Seven and Team Nine both look relatively unfazed. Shikamaru is acting put-upon, but Shikamaru is always like that; Ino makes a point of daily complaining about it, after all. Rock Lee and Hyuuga Neji, although polar opposites in manner, both look like they’re itching for a fight.

Ground Nine contains four different types of terrain and is bisected diagonally by the Naka river flowing in from the forest beyond. The river is high and rushing today, but at least the water is not as muddy as it was last week after the rainfall up north. Sakura looks down at her sandals and dismays that she and Ino took the time to paint their nails over the weekend. Her toenails are probably going to get damaged today.

“The first exercise will be a game of Capture the Flag,” says Team Seven’s sensei. Team Ten’s sensei produces four flags in four different colors, one for each team. “You will be assigned a territory to begin with. Your task is to protect your own flag while capturing as many enemy flags as you can. In order to win, you must not lose your own flag, although of course you may attempt to reclaim it if another team takes it from you. You may use any and every jutsu you know. You may use weapons, tags, traps, and familiar animals. Nothing is prohibited. Rest assured there are healers readily available for any life-threatening injury. You have one hour and fifteen minutes for this exercise. Questions?”

“Does it matter whose flag we capture?” Shikamaru immediately fires off, taking the words right out of Sakura’s mouth.

“No; every enemy is free game.”

“And I’m guessing we need to capture more than the other teams in order to win,” Shikamaru continues, because if two teams capture the other two teams’ flags, then that’s just a stalemate.

“Correct.”

So the winning team will have to capture two flags and protect their own, Sakura follows along. She shifts on her feet and hesitantly asks, “U-Um, do we get some time to plan before we start?”

Team Seven’s sensei looks at her then, eerie golden eyes seemingly piercing through her very soul; she shrinks back a little.

“Yes, you will have fifteen minutes to plan and survey your terrain before we start the game. We will blow a whistle to indicate that the game has started.”

Team Seven’s sensei is strangely beautiful, but scary intense. How do they even manage being under this much scrutiny every day? But Shikamaru appears quite comfortable next to their sensei, and Naruto too, although Naruto’s always been overly friendly from the start. Sasuke, as usual, is quiet and cool and handsome.

“You’ll start from the four corners of Ground Nine,” Team Ten’s sensei gruffly tells them, exchanging a glance with Team Seven’s sensei. “Team Seven’s territory is this quadrant we’re on. Team Eight is across the river on the rocky terrain. Team Nine starts from the bamboo grove over there. Finally, Team Ten gets the hill opposite the grove.”

Sakura mentally maps them out and realizes that her team is hemmed around by the river like Team Seven, and both of them are across the water from the other two teams.

“What the hell,” Shikamaru grouses, “we get the open terrain? Sensei, I know you’re doing this on purpose,” he glares up at their sensei, who only pats his head.

“Let’s waste no more time!” cheers Team Nine’s sensei, who looks and acts like an older Rock Lee. Or Rock Lee is a younger version of the sensei. “Off you go, youthful comrades! Victory is within reach!”

I don’t know about that, Sakura internally sighs, following after her teammates towards their assigned territory. Kurenai-sensei sends them off with a smile, just a smile, no encouraging words or nuggets of advice. How are we even supposed to go about this? We’ve been training jutsu and water walking almost exclusively the last few weeks! This is like—this is like a mission.

“Well,” Tenten immediately says after hopping across the river, “we’re obviously at a disadvantage.”

“It’s so unfair,” Ino whines, “we’ve barely started training as a team!”

Sakura wrings her hands and says, “At least we have you, Tenten. You’re probably as strong as the boys with sparring.”

Tenten, who spars with sensei often and takes pride in her mastery of multiple weapons, actually frowns with hesitance. “Me? No. I don’t think so. At least, I don’t think I’ll do well against Neji or Sasuke. Or even Lee; he’s fast.”

“Well, we gotta at least try,” Ino huffs, flicking the flag that’s in her hand.

“Right. We have better territory than Team Seven or Ten, so there’s that to begin with,” Tenten points out. True enough, the terrain is rocky on this side of the river, with the water coursing fast and turbulent enough that it will be difficult to stand on. The boulders around them are large enough to hide behind, several as large as carriages or a small hut.

“Do you think we should hide the flag, or…?” Sakura follows after her teammates as they wander further in between the rocks. Since they’re not certain they’ll be able to defend the flag if it’s on their persons, maybe hiding it will help.

“That might be an idea,” Tenten agrees. “They’ll assume we’ll have it on us, so we can try to lure them into a chase, although I don’t know how long we’ll last. But at least we’ll waste their time and prevent them from getting our flag.”

“Yeah,” Sakura nods, noting that there are crevices in the rock formations and gaps underneath some boulders. “We can probably wedge it under there and cover it up with some soil.”

“Not here, let’s find a spot deeper in,” Ino contrarily quips. Sakura bites her lip but says nothing; Ino’s right anyway, this place is probably too easy a hiding spot.

They’ve just finished shoving the flag under a boulder, tucking its purple tail under a handful of earth, when the whistle pierces sharp and shrill from the direction they came. Birds scatter up from the dense woods beyond them; behind her, Tenten whirls around with a gasp.

“They’re coming!”

In what seems like no time at all, Team Seven appears from nowhere, Naruto darting in like a yellow flash headed straight for Ino. Sakura gasps and flattens herself against the boulder. Ino dodges and tries to kick, but Naruto easily flips behind her and knocks her down. Simultaneously, Sasuke disarms Tenten—Sakura doesn’t even see what happened there, only that Tenten’s two weapon scrolls are on the ground and he has both her arms held behind her back. Tenten grunts and tries to struggle, but Sasuke is obviously stronger.

“Might wanna save it,” Shikamaru quietly says, slinking between the other two to stand in front of Sakura. He meets her eyes and somehow looks far older and more intimidating even though Sakura knows they’re all the same age. “Will you move aside, or do I have to make you?”

“Goddamnit, Sakura! At least fight!” Ino gasps from where she’s squirming and pinned under Naruto.

But there is no fight here, Sakura already knows, at the same time Shikamaru responds with, “She knows better than that. She’s smarter than you, after all.”

Shut up!” Ino spits viciously. “Sakura, no!”

But Sakura only steps aside, dipping her head to hide behind the fall of her hair. “Maido,” (1) Shikamaru says, easing the flag from under the boulder and tossing Naruto a coil of rope. Within a minute, Ino and Tenten are both tied up on the ground.

Shikamaru doesn’t tie Sakura up. Maybe he was going to, but there’s no time—suddenly Team Nine charges in from the other direction, Rock Lee attacking with a spinning kick from above.

“Dynamic entry!”

It might have worked if he hadn’t yelled out first, Sakura thinks, watching Shikamaru dodge the kick. Team Seven quickly books it back towards the river, Team Nine hot on their heels. Both teams disappear in a flurry of dust and chakra and Rock Lee’s yelling. When they’ve gone far enough away, her pounding heartbeat and harsh breaths are loud in the resulting silence.

“Damn,” Tenten curses, sagging against the ground. “Under two minutes. We lost in under two minutes.”

Ino exhales a sharp, short scream. “We’re not trained for this! How are we supposed to win like this? The odds aren’t fair!”

But the odds are never fair, Sakura knows, and maybe that’s what the lesson is supposed to be. She looks after where the other teams disappeared towards the river and pushes away from where she’s plastered herself against the boulder. That, and to show us the difference between us and them. What are we doing wrong? What are they doing right?

Sakura goes to try and free her teammates even though she knows Ino will rip into her about giving in so quickly. And to Shikamaru, at that.

If I had tried to fight him, would it have delayed them enough for Team Nine to get here and distract them? Would we have kept our flag if that had happened? …ah, but even then, can we even capture another team’s flag?

Well, like Ino had said, the odds aren’t fair. There was never any winning against those teams from the beginning, not in this kind of exercise. Sakura already knows that her team will become a specialized one; it’s useless trying to become something they’re not meant to be.

She tries not to think too hard about how she’s doing just that, a civilian girl trying to be a kunoichi.




Chōji

He never expected he’d ever have to go up against Shikamaru. It was supposed to have been InoShikaChō; they were supposed to be on the same team. But here Chōji is instead, standing between Lee and Neji, feeling as always horribly out of place.

He had tucked his potato chips away when they went to check out the bamboo grove, Lee enthusiastically spouting his usual cheer-ups as they hop over the river. Chōji’s sandals had gotten wet there; he’s still not that steady over the water, especially water as rough as this. Neji’s the only one capable of holding himself over rough water, which is probably not good. Or maybe it won’t matter; the river’s not that big, so most of the fighting should happen on solid ground, right?

Ugh, I don’t know, Chōji’s face scrunches up in uncertainty, Shikamaru’s the one who thinks like this, not me.

Before they disappear into the grove, he glances back across Ground Nine and sees Shikamaru in the distance, standing with the rest of his team on open terrain. The teachers have retreated to the wall from where their parents and other jōnin are also watching. Chōji won’t deny that he’s jealous; Shikamaru obviously fits in very well with Naruto and Sasuke. Who would have thought?

“Chōji,” Neji prompts when they’re at last obscured by the tall bamboo trees, “your opinion on what Team Seven will do first.”

“Huh? Why me?” Chōji blinks in surprise.

Neji crosses his arms. “You know Shikamaru best out of all of us, you must be able to predict him a little bit.”

Chōji presses his lips together and looks away. “…to an extent, maybe, but Shikamaru’s much, much smarter than me. You know that.”

“Shikamaru is indeed very smart,” Lee nods in agreement, arms crossed in mimicry of Neji’s pose. “He will likely be a threat.”

“Team Seven is the biggest threat,” Neji flatly states. “They’re the strongest team next to us and the only other ones geared to become an assault unit.”

Agreeing, Chōji says, “They’ll definitely attack first. Shikamaru won’t try to defend their territory because—well, open terrain is the hardest to defend, right? I just don’t know who they’ll go for.”

“The all-girls team, don’t you think?” Neji frowns.

Chōji pauses, thinks about it, and realizes that he’s right. “Yeah, probably.”

“The way I see it, we have two options,” Neji continues, “and that’s to either stay here and wait, or to go out and attack. While waiting is fine, and this grove is certainly more defensible than open terrain, I don’t think anyone will outright attack us until later, so we might run out of time. So I say we go out there and attack. We should attack the all-girls team too, because they’ll be the easiest to overwhelm. What do you think?”

“Very youthful! I like it!” Lee immediately agrees. Lee always agrees with Neji unless they’re sparring, in which case their disagreements get very physical and painful. Chōji prefers to stay away from all that.

So he only says, “Sounds good to me,” with a shrug, because when Neji’s made up his mind, it’s very hard to sway him, and Chōji certainly isn’t the type of person who could. The whistle then shrieks across the training ground.

He does have a good point, Chōji thinks as he follows his teammates at a run towards the direction of Team Eight. Team Ten won’t leave their territory and attack us, not when they have the vantage point uphill. Team Eight will lose to Team Seven, and from there…

Neji intends to face Sasuke today, Chōji knows that much. Neji has always been fixated on Sasuke ever since Academy, probably because of their clans and how the two of them were the very best of the class. Chōji honestly can’t tell who would win, because Neji trains very hard and spars everyday, but Chōji also knows that Team Seven’s sensei drives them harder than most jōnin sensei do. He’s seen Shikamaru stagger home in the evenings, covered in dirt and bruises, dead on his feet. If Shikamaru’s working that hard—lazy, irreverent Shikamaru who has mastered the art of energy conservation—then how much harder must Sasuke be training?

They sprint across the river—Chōji’s sandals get even wetter, to say the least of Lee’s—and then over the boulders that litter Team Eight’s territory. When they find the girls, Team Seven is already there. Ino and Tenten are both tied down. Shikamaru dodges Lee’s spinning kick and sprints for the opposite direction, his two teammates chasing after him.

“Forget it, they have the flag!” Neji directs when Chōji makes a move to head for the girls. Chōji’s body immediately obeys, following after the team leader’s voice before his thoughts even solidify.

He’s right, Team Seven wouldn’t have left the girls if they didn’t already have what they came for. Chōji tries to keep up as they sprint again over a rougher section of the river towards the open terrain where Team Seven started. How did they get to the girls so fast?

As soon as they make it over the water, Lee throws himself towards Naruto. Naruto actually dodges—dodges Lee!—and weaves under the spinning limbs, bearing left. Sasuke too, who is doing his best to disengage from Neji’s persistent attacks. Chōji notes then that he can’t tell who is holding the girls’ purple flag.

“Now!” Shikamaru barks, dropping to slam his palms on the ground. Earth rises up to form a half-dome before him, destabilizing Lee and Neji’s advance.

Fire then slams against the dome from above—is that Sasuke?—making Chōji and his teammates stagger away from the heat. Suddenly he’s glad that his sandals are wet; the fire momentarily licks at his ankles until he gets far enough away. Chōji sees their silhouettes flicker out from beyond the curtain of flames. When Neji sweeps the fire aside with a blast from his chakra-infused palm, Team Seven is nowhere to be found.

“Shunshin,” sighs Chōji, shoulders sagging. “That’s how they got to the girls so fast. They already know how to do shunshin.”

Lee wails, “Nooo! Where did you go, Naruto! That was extremely un-youthful of you! Come baaack!”

Neji, whose eyes have quickened into the telltale strain of the Byakugan, turns toward the bamboo grove in the distance, the very same bamboo grove they started from. It sits directly diagonal from where they are now, the trees crowding against each other in a corner of Ground Nine that also rubs shoulders with the dense forest beyond. Chōji watches the bamboo trees sway gently with the wind, casting crisscrossing shadows that lengthen with the aging afternoon, and once again envies that he’s not in Shikamaru’s team.

“They’re in the bamboo grove,” Neji tells Lee quietly. “They meant to string us along and it worked.”

“It worked perfectly,” Chōji ruefully agrees, because now Team Seven has the most defensible position in the whole training ground where they can set traps and Shikamaru can use the shadows to his advantage. They took a flag from Team Eight, avoided fighting with us, and shuffled our territories around in under fifteen minutes. “I told you he’s much smarter than me.”

Really, Shikamaru is a goddamn genius.




Shino

“Team Seven knows,” Shino quietly tells his teammates, who are crouched atop the hill next to him, waiting and watching the rest of Ground Nine. “Because they’ve figured it out.”

“Hah?” Kiba scratches the back of his neck. “How?”

“I’m not sure,” Shino says. “Sharingan, maybe. Because Sasuke would be able to see my kikaichū with it.”

Hinata says nothing, her watchful eyes sweeping across the training ground. Kiba sighs, crouching low and pushing a hand into the scruff on the back of Akamaru’s neck.

“How d’you know they know?”

“What they just did, taking over Team Nine’s bamboo grove,” Shino points out, “they didn’t discuss that verbally or I would have heard it through the kikaichū. Because they must have used hand signals even before the exercise started, which means—”

“—they saw it from the start,” Kiba sighs again. “Damnit, why do they have to be so good?”

“They’ve been working really hard.” Shino knows from Chōji and his own observations of Shikamaru, who has been quieter and extra tired whenever their families had dinner together. More than half the time, Shikamaru would fall asleep within thirty minutes, head pillowed on his father’s lap. “And you see who their sensei is.”

Kiba winces. “Yeah, can’t imagine that’s pleasant, training with the village’s scariest jōnin.”

“They don’t look scared, though?” Hinata adds in that quiet, hesitant way of hers. At least she’s talking now; Shino counts that as a success. “They looked very… friendly.”

“Again, can’t imagine how. Hey, look,” Kiba points towards the bifurcation of the river, where Team Nine seems to be approaching the all-girl team, “are they teaming up?”

“Looks like it,” says Hinata.

Shino closes his eyes and listens to the hum of his kikaichū, the handful that are clinging to the members of Teams Eight and Nine. Unlike Team Seven, both teams have yet to notice the kikaichū—or maybe Neji has but is choosing to ignore it.

“Ino and Chōji are working out a temporary truce in the interest of regaining the girls’ flag and taking down Team Seven,” Shino reports, “…although Chōji doesn’t sound too optimistic about it.”

“I wouldn’t be either,” Kiba ruffles his familiar’s ears. “To be frank, Shikamaru terrifies me these days.”

“Shikamaru does?” Hinata tilts her head.

“Oh, right, you haven’t seen him at the dinners.” Kiba adjusts his crouch and explains, “Dude’s gotten, I dunno, what’s the word… intense? Like there’s something about him recently that just seems heavier and super serious.”

“Oh,” Hinata blinks, “you must be feeling his core. It must be growing quickly.”

“Probably. You’d know better, what with your, you know,” Kiba motions to indicate her eyes. “Shino agrees, don’t you, Shino?”

Shino nods. “His aura has definitely changed.”

“What about Sasuke-kun and N-Naruto-kun?” Hinata asks.

“Dunno,” Kiba shrugs, “they don’t come to the dinners.”

Shino is about to remark on Naruto’s noticeably improved form when it comes at them, a sharp spike of aggressive intent. All three of them shoot to their feet, Akamaru raising his hackles in a growl. Shino has just enough time to yell, “Back!” before he has to dodge under Sasuke’s spinning legs.

Shunshin! It’s the only way they could have gotten from the grove to the top of the hill in one burst.

In between dodging Sasuke’s form-perfect taijutsu, Shino feels more than sees the sudden swarm of Naruto clones herding Kiba back and away from the rest of the team. “No, stay together!” he yells—

Sasuke lands a palm strike on his flank, which stuns him hard enough that he falls to the ground, unable to breathe. Lightning?!

“Sorry about this!” Naruto is yelling from somewhere behind him, shortly before Kiba and Akamaru release simultaneous yelps of outrage.

“GODDAMNIT, NARUTO!” Kiba howls, “MY NOSE! WHAT THE FUCK DID YOU EAT?!”

“Natto!” Naruto cackles, “Just so happened we had it for breakfast this morning! Gotta thank anija later!”

Shino wheezes as his rib muscles begin responding again. Naruto must have… farted on Kiba’s face. Forehead pressed against the ground, Shino pushes aside the sheer absurdity of the situation, and attempts to—

“I wouldn’t, if I were you,” Sasuke says from above him, and when Shino looks up, he meets two swirling blood-red eyes. “If you pull your kikaichū out, I’ll have to retaliate. With fire.”

Shino grimaces, slowly getting to his feet. Whatever Lightning jutsu it was that Sasuke had used, it made the muscles all over his torso temporarily seize; it’s an effort to breathe well, much less maintain a straight posture.

“Even so,” Shino pants, bringing one hand to a half-tiger seal, “I have to fight back.”

Something shifts in Sasuke’s eyes, perhaps a glimmer of respect. In the far distance, Shikamaru calls out, “Hey, I got their flag. Wrap it up.”

Hinata must have been overwhelmed. That, or outsmarted. Hinata is the strongest combatant in their team, but Kageshibari is capable of catching her before she can even come close to Shikamaru. Shino inhales and pulls at his core, summoning a cloud of kikaichū from where they are restlessly shifting under his skin. They swarm around his shoulders and arms, a hive gearing for an attack—

Fire.

Shino hisses, recoiling from the heat of the barrier now surrounding him. Translucent and dome-like, it sprouts from five thin ropes of flame that rise from the ground to enclose him in a scorching prison. (2)

Must be an Uchiha clan technique.

“Oh, hey! New jutsu, badass!” Naruto crows.

“What the fuck, man,” Kiba groans, still clutching at his nose even as three of Naruto’s clones manhandle him towards the flame barrier.

Shino watches as Sasuke momentarily opens the barrier to admit Kiba, Akamaru, and then a limping Hinata. He withdraws his kikaichū to avoid losing any more and dips his head to Sasuke, who similarly bows back with an apologetic air.

“I hope I didn’t hurt too many of your kikaichū,” Sasuke says, “but we have to win, you see. Sensei won’t accept anything less.”

Shino wants to nod and say he understands, but that would be a lie. He doubts that he can understand what sort of hellish training Team Seven must have undergone in order to improve so much in seven short weeks. He doesn’t l know if he even wants to understand.

“Heads up,” Shikamaru interrupts, already looking toward their next move. “Phase four up next.”

True to Kiba’s words, Shikamaru’s eyes shine with a dark, intense focus that makes Shino guiltily thankful their part is done. Teams Eight and Nine are gearing up to go against Team Seven again, having noticed their scuffle atop the hill.

Nursing his bruised ribs, Shino gingerly sits on the ground to observe. His team is not built to be an assault team, but if anything, they can at least pick up a few tricks.




Kurenai

Knowing the difference is one thing, but seeing it is entirely another.

Kurenai considers Team Seven and can’t help the shiver of apprehension running down the length of her back. It’s animal instinct, a primal sort of premonition, that overtakes her hindbrain when she watches them. They’re manageable now, little as they are, but given a few years…

What sort of training does Orochimaru-sama put them through? She can’t help the stab of pity either; they must hurt everywhere every day.

“Your kid calling the shots there, Shikaku?” Tsume-senpai remarks, fingers scratching behind the ears of her familiar Kuromaru.

Shikaku-san shrugs, mouth twisted into a half-grin. “Looks like something he’d do.”

Orochimaru-sama says nothing, simply observing with a placid expression. They have all watched with mounting disbelief as Team Seven made their way around the ground, first shutting down Kurenai’s team of three girls in under two minutes, and then luring Gai’s team out to open terrain only to bolt and steal the bamboo grove from under their noses, and finally incapacitating Asuma’s trio in a short but skilled display of tactical prowess.

She has to admire that level of foresight in a genin. Shikamaru might be a Nara, but Kurenai doubts normal Nara children operate with this much ruthlessness right off the bat. Now if only her own team showed the same sort of initiative…

But Sakura and Ino are too busy bickering, Kurenai sighs to herself, and if not that, they’re complaining. It’s like they don’t even think about being kunoichi, what that means, what that entails. Tenten being the exception, of course, although I do feel bad for her, stuck between the other two.

Never let it be said that Kurenai doesn’t try to push her girls. She does. But there’s only so much pushing she can do—and becoming kunoichi isn’t something girls should be pushed into. That’s how kunoichi die early; that’s how mistakes are made. The girls have to choose it. They have to commit. Only then can Kurenai take them and mold them and sharpen their talents; only then, not before.

“Wait—what are they doing?!” Gai exclaims. Kurenai looks up to see that Team Seven is leaving the hilltop where Asuma’s brats are trapped under a well-executed Go-chiten Shouheki (2). “They don’t need to move!”

Team Seven flickers into shunshin and breaks it over running water. Now wary of what is clearly a more experienced team, her girls and Gai’s boys back away from the river in surprise. Perhaps they had been formulating a plan of attack for the hilltop and are now confounded about Team Seven’s decision to leave it.

“That’s… not smart,” Iruka-sensei murmurs from behind her. “Why would they do that?”

A fight soon breaks out. Neji, Lee, and Tenten lunge forward at once, the three best taijutsu fighters on the opposition. It’s a lot happening at once, but Kurenai pays special attention to her student, who does her best to hold up against Shikamaru.

Shikamaru, who is fighting. Fighting well. Hand to hand!

“Shikaku-san,” Kurenai laughingly calls out, “your boy’s actually moving.”

“I know!” Shikaku cackles, “Color me impressed! Orochimaru-sama, I don’t know what you’re doing, but whatever it is, please keep doing it.”

“Provide them the appropriate incentive and they will work,” is Orochimaru-sama’s cryptic response.

Incentive, huh. Kurenai glances at the other two girls—Ino cheering Tenten on, Sakura fidgeting behind her friend—and knows that although some might say it’s cruel of her, she’s done the right thing. They won’t be persuaded by words; they won’t change no matter how much I push them. The only way I can mold them is if I break them first, and total defeat will be the hammer that will shatter their complacence. From here, they either quit or they flourish.

Lee’s cries are becoming progressively louder and more desperate as none of his hits seem to land on Sasuke. A Sharingan-wielding Uchiha is the worst possible opponent for a taijutsu specialist; Lee has been baited and effectively played. Naruto, meanwhile, is overwhelming Neji with an ungodly number of clones—not just ordinary clones, but Kage Bunshin—and with each one dispelled, Naruto easily makes two more.

“Ow, that hurt!” the boy yelps, scrambling on hands and feet over rushing water as his bunshin disperse, “Gosh, Neji, you’re worse than Sasuke! Agh! Not the balls!

Neji sweeps wave after wave of chakra at the clones, Byakugan flickering to and fro in an attempt to discern which Naruto is the real Naruto. But Kage Bunshin is indiscernible to the Byakugan, and at the rate Naruto is producing them, it’ll be very difficult for Neji to even touch the real one.

Chōji, who has been watching and waiting behind the line, attempts to charge in and help Lee. When he comes close, however, Sasuke leaps up and summons a fulminant Goukakyuu that collides with several Fuuken from one of the many Narutos’ fists. (3) Lee and Chōji both stagger back, feet landing on rushing water—and then they sink.

“Ah, shit,” Asuma laughs, low and amused, “they can’t hold themselves over rough water yet, I guess.”

“Oh no!! My poor disciples!” Gai moans, collapsing to his knees. Needlessly theatric, as per usual.

Lee and Chōji are both being swept downstream, and although they aren’t drowning, they are effectively out for the count. Kurenai checks the time: a little over ten minutes left. Tenten is starting to flag, but Shikamaru looks like he’s only now breaking a sweat.

Seeing that Naruto has Neji handled, Sasuke directs his attention towards Tenten, who begins to back away now that she has two of Team Seven focused on her. Kurenai notes that the two strongest fighters of Team Seven each have a flag tucked into their holsters. Her lips twist into a wry smile; these kids have thought of everything.

“You’re so touchy!” a Naruto yells at Neji, echoed by several clones who agree, “Yeah, touchy!” “Touchy feely!” The first Naruto (the original?) continues, “If you wanna play like that, fine! Lemme give you something to touch!”

With a puff of smoke, every single clone turns into—

“Oiroke no Jutsu!”

Next to her, Asuma chokes.

If the sudden transformation shocks every adult in the audience into silence, the following sequence of events jolts everyone into laughter. Neji had been flowing into a kata that would have landed a palm strike on a nearby clone’s chest; unfortunately—or fortunately, who am I to judge—his hand lands on—

Ohh, Neji-kun~!” shrieks the female Naruto clone, “Where are you touching?!

Kurenai has to bite down on her knuckles. Shikaku-san is holding tight onto Shimizu-san’s shoulders, looking fit to burst. Asuma is crouched and punching the ground with a fist as he wheezes. Anko outright shrieks with joy.

An assortment of yells follow from the rest of the children. The girls look altogether outraged. Sasuke lands on the water to level a nearby female Naruto clone with puzzlement and a little bit of wonder. Shikamaru’s face meets his palm with a resounding smack!

“Neji-kun? Aiya, are you alright?” a female Naruto clone sidles up to Neji.

Red-faced and flustered, Neji staggers backward and falls on his ass.

Oh gods, Kurenai watches as another clone comes closer and bends down, surely giving the poor Hyuuga boy an eyeful of—

The whistle cuts across the training ground, interrupting the worst (or best) sexual awakening a teenage boy can possibly experience.

Orochimaru-sama steps forward, unfazed by Naruto’s collective state of undress. “Time is up, genin-tomo. Gather around and prepare for debriefing. If you are injured and require assistance, raise your hand.”

And just like that, Naruto dismisses his personal harem, becoming once again a singularly mischievous and entirely unrepentant prankster of a boy.

“So,” Naruto grins with both arms crossed behind his head, “how cool was that?”




Sakura

Lee and Chōji have to be fished from the river downstream. Team Ten’s sensei also has to go up the hill to fetch the three. When they return, Sakura notes that Kiba is swaying as if dizzy, Akamaru similarly whining in some form of distress. Hinata looks tired and Shino somewhat singed.

We all look beat up, she sighs, except for Team Seven. They look like they just did a warm-up.

Naruto is happily chattering away at his teammates while Sasuke dumps a powder packet into his water bottle and proceeds to shake it. Shikamaru has collapsed belly-up on the grass, head pillowed on Sasuke’s leg.

They look so comfortable. I wonder what it’s like to be that comfortable with your team.

Sakura sneaks a look at her teammates and immediately drops her gaze with a wince. Ino is inches away from exploding; Tenten looks so dejected she’s near tears. Sakura doesn’t know why; by anyone’s reckoning, Tenten performed the best out of their pathetic little group. Tenten at least held her own for a short while. Sakura hadn’t even tried.

Didn’t we say we would prove them all wrong? Sakura recalls that conversation under a tree, all of them bright-eyed and optimistic. Perhaps naively optimistic. We said we would show them how wrong they were about all-girl teams, how we would prove ourselves as worthy as the boys… we said a lot of things, but we’ve done nothing to achieve those things.

They are soon gathered under the keen eyes of their teachers. For once in her life, Sakura is thankful that her parents are civilians; how much worse would it be if they were here to see her fail? She can’t even imagine—and Ino’s dad is right there!

“How would you like to debrief them?” Team Seven’s sensei addresses the other three jōnin, who all regard them with considering eyes. “I typically run them through their accomplishments and mistakes.”

“Same,” Team Ten’s sensei nods, puffing on a cigarette, “but I think it might be beneficial to hear their impressions first.”

“There was a lot happening at once!” agrees the sensei that looks like Rock Lee. “I should like to hear the students’ perspectives before offering my suggestions!”

Kurenai-sensei only shrugs, so Team Seven’s sensei says, “Very well. Perhaps a chronological account.”

“Team Seven first, then,” Shino turns towards the winning team. “You knew my kikaichū were there from the beginning.”

“I thought about that,” Chōji mutters under his breath at the same time that Ino goes, “Hah?! You put kikaichū on us before it started?

“Of course he did,” Tenten closes her eyes in defeat. “I should have thought of that.”

Sakura looks toward Team Seven again. Naruto and Sasuke are both poking at Shikamaru’s cheeks.

“Hora, captain,” coaxes Sasuke.

“Team captain, it’s your turn!” Naruto chirps.

“Ngh,” Shikamaru irritably bats them away, levering up to a cross-legged sit. “Bite me.”

“Hey, Sasuke and I did most of the fighting today, so you can’t complain!” Naruto reaches over to poke Shikamaru’s cheek again. “And besides, you got a nice nap after lunch so you can’t actually be that cranky already!”

Nearby, Shikamaru’s father chuckles; Shikamaru himself only sighs.

“So,” Shino interrupts again, “did you see my kikaichū with your Sharingan, Sasuke?”

“Oh! Uh, no,” Sasuke turns in surprise, “that was Shikamaru.”

Kiba frowns. “Shikamaru doesn’t have the Sharingan.”

“No shit,” Shikamaru snorts. “I didn’t see the kikaichū; I just predicted Shino would send them. It’s what I would do in his place.”

Oh, Sakura blinks. That makes sense.

“Right, let’s make this quick.” Shikamaru leans forward to brace his elbow on a knee and flicks up one finger. “First: I knew Shino would send kikaichū to latch on to us before the exercise even started, so we used hand signals to communicate our plan during the prep time. Out of the three teams, the girls are the weakest—”

You shit,” Ino snarls—

“—and Neji’s team is the strongest. Our terrain, being flat and open, was undesirable for defense, so it made no sense to sit around and wait; besides, we weren’t given that much time. So I decided we would attack the girls’ team first, because if we didn’t, Neji’s team would, and they would win, and then we’d have to wrestle not one but two flags from them. And anyway, I knew you knew you were the weakest,” Shikamaru meets Sakura eye to eye, “so I also knew you’d try to hide the flag because you knew you couldn’t protect it, not against all of us. Would have worked if you had more time to hide it better, maybe.”

Sakura feels simultaneously impressed and infuriated. She knows Shikamaru is smart—everyone knows Shikamaru is smart—but I’m smart too, Sakura wants to yell, I can do what you do!

Flicking up a second finger, Shikamaru continues, “So we got the girls’ team, one flag down. Second: I knew Neji’s team would attack the girls too. It makes sense, and besides which, Neji’s team is an assault team.” To Lee and Neji, he raises an eyebrow, “You guys looked like you were itching for a fight.”

“I wanted to measure my youthfulness against yours!” Lee exclaims.

“Yeah, and I knew you would, so it didn’t take much to bait you further out to open terrain,” Shikamaru nods. “Once you were there, it was a simple matter of disengaging as fast as possible. We used shunshin to cross the ground and go to your bamboo grove and regroup.”

“You didn’t need to leave that grove, man,” Kiba whines. “It makes no sense! Why did you have to come for us?!”

“As a child, I was taught: whilst you are unsure of victory, defend; when you are sure of victory, attack. A siege is the lowest form of warfare and should only be done if unavoidable. Waiting you out would have been a waste of our resources and time when we so obviously have the advantage, plus you weren’t expecting us to attack. No one was,” Shikamaru emphatically declares. Not for the first time, Sakura wonders where he gets the confidence to deploy his ideas into reality; if only she had that nerve. He flicks up a third finger and continues, “The third step was to take your flag, because we needed to win, and in order to do that, we needed one more flag.”

“Gee, thanks,” Kiba slouches, looking away.

“Hey, it’s a war game,” Naruto shrugs, grin still fixed in place.

“You were smart; you already had the higher ground and you decided to defend it,” Shikamaru commends them, only to knock them back down with, “Unfortunately for you, we match up as your worst opponents. Sasuke can easily subdue Shino’s kikaichū with fire. I fight at a distance, which renders Hinata a distinct disadvantage since she’s a taijutsu specialist. Lastly, Naruto can overwhelm Kiba with his bunshin—and no, I didn’t tell him to fart on your face, Kiba, that was his own trick.”

“I’ll have you know that something’s very wrong with your gut!” Kiba howls with outrage, even as Naruto sniggers against Sasuke’s shoulder. “It’s like something died in there, are you sure you’re okay?”

Shino only sighs in resignation. “You used our own strengths against us.”

“Yep. And once you guys were down,” Shikamaru flicks up the fourth finger, “we just had to stall until time was called. We could have gone back to the bamboo grove, and I did consider it because Naruto left traps there, but I really prefer being on the offensive. We’re better at it as a whole, and sensei always says to play to our strengths. So I figured we could engage the rest of you again while staying on top of the river; I noticed that only Neji and Tenten could manage rough waters which gave us another advantage. And, uh, that’s it. Simple enough.”

Is it horrible of Sakura to feel somewhat relieved that her team is not the only one so horribly underprepared against Team Seven?

Chōji dusts his hands of potato chip crumbs and sighs, “Nothing about that was simple, Shikamaru.”

“Ehh, Sasuke and Naruto did most of the work. I just followed along. Speaking of which,” Shikamaru turns to smack Naruto upside the head, “what the fuck was that jutsu at the end, some sort of henge?” (4)

“Yes, what was that?” Sasuke perks up. “All of your bunshin changed form, but I couldn’t really see anything different with your chakra using the Sharingan.”

“Oiroke no Jutsu!” Naruto chirps. “I made it! Sensei, I can have a five-dot jutsu on my scroll now, yay!”

Team Seven’s sensei benevolently looks upon Naruto and only says, “Well done, little one.”

Naruto throws both arms into the air—but Sakura has difficulty believing that this… boy, the dead last in their class, is creating jutsu of his own. She’s supposed to be smarter than him!

Caught up in her own chaotic thoughts, Sakura spaces out for the rest of the debrief, uninterested in what the other jōnin sensei have to say about the other teams’ performance. She thinks about the ease with which Sasuke moved while fighting, and the fluid logic in Shikamaru’s strategy, and the energetic creativity Naruto seemed to vibrate with that easily made up for his lack of finesse and experience.

When they were still at the Academy, Sakura had thought of herself a step above Naruto despite her civilian upbringing. She had a supportive family, after all, and friends who were from shinobi families. Naruto had no one. Therefore it stands to reason that Naruto should be behind her, right?

Except at some indeterminate point during the past seven weeks—while Sakura and Ino were debating their outfits, while Ino and Tenten were only training jutsu they were good at, while the three of them half-heartedly followed along with Kurenai-sensei’s training regimen—everyone else passed them by.

Team Seven, in particular, has leapfrogged over all of them.

They’re so far away that catching up seems almost impossible, Sakura picks at a hangnail and chews on her lip. What are we supposed to do when we’re up against enemies like that? Or Sage forbid, someone stronger?

She’s so distracted that she almost misses it when Team Seven’s sensei announces the next exercise; only Ino’s gasp calls her attention back.

“We’re not done?” her friend whispers in mounting horror.

“Done?” Shikamaru raises both his eyebrows at Ino. “We’re just getting started.” And then, with sadomasochistic glee, he smirks, “Welcome to Team Seven’s daily torture regimen. No excuses are acceptable.”

Sakura grips her own hand tight enough to bruise.

If I can’t make excuses for myself, then what else is there to do? Quit?

But on her own, it’s impossible to find an answer.




tbc
first draft: 2020.08.25
last edited: 2021.12.16




NOTES & REFERENCES

(1) "Maido" 毎度 (lit. "every time") is a casual greeting/acknowledgement business owners & establishments will say to their customers, especially loyal ones. The formal version actually goes "Maido arigato gozaimasu" (lit. "Thank you for [returning] every time") and is a way of expressing gratitude towards a customer for their return business - at least in the formal sense. In this instance, Shikamaru is being very sarcastic, saying "Maido" to Sakura as in, "Thanks for your business (i.e. stepping aside for me), until next time." Because Shikamaru is a little shit. (─‿─)

(2) Katon: Go-chiten Shōheki 五地点障壁 (Fire Release: Five-Point Barrier) - If you recall, Fugaku gave Sasuke this jutsu scroll to study. The boy's a fast learner, what can I say.

(3) Katon: Gōkakyū 豪火球 (Fire Release: Great Breath of Fire) and Fūton: Fūken 風剣 (Wind Release: Wind Blade) are two techniques that have been mentioned in prior chapters.

(4) Henge no Jutsu 変化の術 (Transformation Technique) is a basic Academy-level jutsu that allows the user to change their shape/appearance into whatever they choose, be it another person or an object (i.e. a shuriken). And I don't think any of us need a refresher on what Oiroke no Jutsu おいろけの術 (Sexy Technique) is, right? (¬‿¬)

(5) Several readers commented in the prior chapter about how it doesn't seem to make sense that Konoha is only 61 years old when Tsunade is a contemporary of Orochimaru (age 53 now) and the granddaughter of the Shodaime Hokage. There were questions about how that would be possible if Hashirama and Mito married after the founding of the village. But nowhere does canon say that their marriage happened after the village was founded; in fact, politically, it makes more sense for them to marry before Konoha's founding. An Uzumaki-Senju alliance would have made more sense at the tail end of the clan wars, because the marriage would have been a fortuitous tie that would have put pressure on the other clans to also find ways of bolstering their own alliances. If they participated in Hashirama's crazy idea of living in one village, inter-clan marriages suddenly become easy and practical where it was nigh impossible to achieve before. Point number two: canon showed us that they put their children on the battlefield even earlier during those days. They were fighting at age 8 or 9 - really as soon as they were able to handle a weapon - which means that they probably also died early, and that puts great precedent on having children early. As early as 14 or 15, which was common in the medieval times anyway. So Tsunade can still be Hashirama's grandchild. Here, I even marched the dates out on my timeline:

- Hashirama born 25 years before Konoha's founding
- Tobirama born 2 years later
- Hashirama & Madara become clan heads at 15 (totally plausible if everyone dies quickly)
- Hashirama marries Mito at age 18 (that's late, actually; coulda been earlier)
- Their first child is born next year when they're 19
- Konoha is founded 6 years later when Hashirama is 25yo (their eldest is around 5-6yo)
- Sarutobi's generation is the first children born in Konoha during its first year
- 8 or 9 years post-founding, Hashirama's child (age 14/15) produces the grandchild (Tsunade)
- That calculates out to Oro, Tsunade, and Jiraiya being 53yo by the current timeline

Additionally, Hashirama & Madara (if they were alive) wouldn't actually be that old! They'd be about 85/86yo. Tobirama would have been 84. Incidentally, Oboro-sama is 65 and Sarutobi is 60.

(6) Last but definitely not the least... I am saying this because I can already anticipate the comments: If you are about to complain about the girls' team and how weak they are in this chapter, SHELVE IT and WAIT. It's called character development. It should be obvious by now that I'm not here to write Mary Sue characters who are perfect and badass from the get-go; they are kids and they have their flaws. I'm even keeping their canon flaws. Sakura and Ino both needed significant pushes to grow up and I resolutely believe that adversity is an agent of change. So sit down, wait for it, and watch them grow.

Chapter Text

026. war games part 2

.

Asuma

Before the next stage commences, Orochimaru-sama pulls them aside. Far enough away from the children’s line of sight, Asuma touches his fingers into quick hand seals to form an invisible sound barrier that engulfs them in silence.

“Kiba’s ears and Shino’s kikaichū,” he says around his cigarette when Gai shoots him a questioning look. “I’m assuming we want this to be a surprise?”

Nods all around.

“Your team will make a formidable tracking unit,” Orochimaru-sama commends in that placid, thoughtful way of his. “They seem to have a good working relationship.”

“Yeah, far cry from mine,” Kurenai snorts. She puts a hand on her hip and sighs, “I’ll take any advice you’re willing to give, Orochimaru-sama. I’m out of thoughts and I don’t know what else to do. This is my first time handling a genin team, to boot.”

“Same,” Asuma huffs, “you’d think they’d have mercy on us, but nooo. We get the special brats.”

“My valiant comrades, rest assured your efforts will not be in vain!” Gai quips, optimistic as Asuma can never be. “The youthful children are smart and strong; just give them time!”

“Gai is correct,” Orochimaru-sama agrees, “although I do have pointers for you. Perhaps after this exercise.”

They agree, of course; none of them are stupid enough to spurn a Sannin’s generosity.

“So sparring next?”

Orochimaru-sama nods again, “Three-on-one with a special objective. Asuma, you might be familiar with it. Has your father ever told you of the bell test?”

Stiffening in surprise, Asuma almost drops the cigarette in his mouth. “The bell test? Isn’t that a Team Seven tradition?”

“Of sorts. I have yet to subject my little ones to it.”

Kurenai tilts her head just so, dark hair brushing against the pale skin of her neck. “What’s the bell test?” she asks, blinking up at Asuma, who can’t be blamed for the direction his thoughts inevitably take.

“The children will attempt to take the bells from us, although there are only two,” Orochimaru-sama explains, saving Asuma from having to put together a coherent response. “The third student who fails to take a bell suffers a penalty. In my day, Sarutobi-sensei threatened to send us back to the Academy. It was only a threat, of course; the true objective was to see if we were smart enough to realize the futility of the challenge and work together to attempt to overcome the skill gap between ourselves and our sensei.”

“A teamwork challenge!” Gai vibrates in excitement, “This will be most helpful for our students!”

“I don’t think threatening them with the Academy will work at this point, though,” Kurenai points out. “They’ve been out for too long and they’ve all done D-ranks.”

“Agreed. I think threatening them with a physical penalty will be enough for this exercise. A hundred push-ups, weighted squats, and pull-ups, perhaps. No chakra.”

Asuma can’t help his eyebrows attempting to float off his face. “Thank fuck you weren’t my sensei.”

Orochimaru-sama blinks slowly, and Asuma knows him well enough to see the amusement in the expression. “Sarutobi-sensei certainly considered it at the time, but my skills were needed on the battlefront.”

“Well, my girls will fail, as you all can expect, and I don’t think they’ll be able to push through a whole set of that penalty.” Kurenai considers something for a moment, and then shrugs. “Oh well! They need the exposure.”

Orochimaru-sama turns to her with a keen expression. “Do you want me to push them, Yuuhi-kun? I am more than willing to be the villain in this scenario. Your students need to be broken in.”

“Sure, why the hell not? Sage knows I’ve tried everything.”

Asuma has heard enough about her troubles from dinners and weekend drinking parties, but he won’t pretend to understand a whit of it. Kunoichi are a different breed and require a particular kind of handling; soon enough, Asuma will need advice on how to handle Hinata too. He can only pray for the three girls who will be subjected to Orochimaru-sama’s brand of ‘breaking in.’

“So Orochimaru-sama goes against Kurenai’s girls,” Asuma moves things along, “Gai, could you do my team? I want your opinion on Hinata’s taijutsu. You’ve handled Neji; your insight would be great.”

“No problem, my youthful comrade! Leave it to me!”

“I’ll take Gai’s team,” Kurenai quickly steps in, leveling Asuma with an apologetic smile.

“You’re leaving me with Orochimaru-sama’s brats?” Asuma grimaces. “I thought we were friends.”

“You’ll be fine!” Kurenai smacks his back.

“Just fine!” Gai smacks him on the shoulder.

Orochimaru-sama gifts him with an indulgent expression. “Sasuke is an adept short-range fighter and will push you. Naruto does not seem to have a limit with his clones. But beware Shikamaru the most; he’s the ruthless one.”

“Great,” Asuma heaves a sigh, “just great. Let’s get this started then. Kurenai, you owe me a drink.”

“I’ll buy you two,” she laughs, her voice ringing free as Asuma allows his silencing shield to fall.

They return to the children, who are huddled together and casting them looks full of suspicion and apprehension. Gai exchanges a thumbs up with his team, but that’s about the extent of optimism within the group. Seeing the lazy distrust on Shikamaru’s face makes Asuma chuckle.

He tells them, “We’re coming up on half an hour, which should be enough of a recovery break. The second part of this joint exercise will start shortly.”

From his obi, Orochimaru-sama retrieves a pair of tiny bells each tied to a short string. Above the wall, Asuma notices Kakashi shift in what must be surprise.

Surprised to see a Team Seven tradition being used for a joint exercise, huh? But Orochimaru-sama has never been orthodox, Asuma thinks, and that’s part of what makes him so fearsome. Absolutely nothing is out of line.

Once again, he considers the three children entrusted to Orochimaru-sama’s care. Little Naruto is leaning against Sasuke’s shoulder, who doesn’t appear to mind; Shikamaru is reclining on his elbows in a careless sprawl. Asuma knows he’s not the only one who’s more than a little apprehensive of what monsters these children will become. Will they grow to become like their sensei, ruthless and irreverent, sometimes outright disrespectful of tradition and law?

Is Konoha prepared for that?

But before his thoughts can meander down maudlin paths, the second part of the exercise begins. Orochimaru-sama hands the bells to Gai as Asuma’s trio (reluctantly) heads for the middle of the clearing.

“You have half an hour,” Orochimaru-sama calls out to them. “Begin.”

 

They’re… not bad.

Asuma puffs on his cigarette and considers how his team moves. A smile hovers on his lips as he realizes precisely why Orochimaru-sama chose this particular exercise: it’s useful to see the team from outside, a perspective they don’t often get as jōnin sensei, given they’re usually the ones sparring with the children. Looking in from the outside, it’s easier for Asuma to spot that Kiba tends to forget to cover Shino’s left, or that Hinata still moves a little too slow for the pace her teammates prefer.

“They hold good formation, Asuma,” Orochimaru-sama quietly remarks. “Is this something you have trained with them?”

“Not explicitly, but I’ve been encouraging it. It’s far from perfect but they move well together.” It certainly helps that these children grew up together. He stops himself from going any further or he might begin to wonder how many of the children will survive to adulthood.

Orochimaru-sama continues, “If you encourage their friendship to grow, they will become more seamless. The Hyuuga girl hesitates far too much when she needs to lead. She is the strongest combatant out of the three, yes?”

Asuma nods, chuckling when Tsume-senpai nearby snaps, “My son needs to grow a pair, is what. Look at ‘im, stumbling around like a newborn pup!”

Crouched on the grass with her three ninken, Inuzuka Hana remarks, “I think a newborn pup has more grace, mama.”

“Kiba has strong instincts,” Asuma counters, “so he relies on it too much instead of properly using form. He’s still very much a reactive fighter; I’m trying to train that out of him.”

“Make my niece teach him,” Hyuuga Hizashi suddenly suggests, startling half the spectators with his words. “Hinata can use the experience to grow out of her shell. She’s a good child, but far too shy; she has unfortunately been isolated within the clan. But she has the patience to be a teacher. It will be good for them both.”

“I don’t know about that, otou-sama,” Neji frowns, chin set upon steepled fingers as he watches Gai dance around Hinata’s Jūken. (1) “She can barely manage three words to me. Teaching might be too much.”

Hizashi merely says, “You intimidate her, son.”

“I don’t know why.”

“You don’t?” Shikamaru and Chōji turn to Neji in unison. Shikamaru continues, “You’re always scowling at her, of course she’d be intimidated.”

“You’re also way stronger than her,” Chōji points out. “I think that’s intimidating.”

“Yeah, you know, if you frowned less, more girls would like you,” Naruto quips—and at the sound of his voice, a flush erupts on Neji’s ears and neck. Asuma has to chuckle.

Ahh, children and their puppy crushes.

With a shout, Gai slams Shino into the ground and roundhouse-kicks Hinata halfway across the clearing. Kiba retreats a safe distance away, helping Hinata to her feet. Shino rolls to avoid Gai’s other fist. Akamaru darts in from Gai’s left, powerful jaws snapping at Gai’s arm—Shino darts away in the interim and then raises his hand to show off—

“Hey, badass!” Naruto crows. “He got a bell!”

“Youthful! Amazing! Bravo!” Lee cheers, echoing Gai’s own proclamations.

“I didn’t see it,” frowns Tenten, “how did he do it?”

“Kikaichū,” Neji and Sasuke answer at the same time. The two boys look at each other, Sasuke looking down and away first. Neji then explains, “Shino put a small handful of kikaichū on Gai-sensei’s leg when he got thrown to the ground. The kikaichū stole the bell from his belt and delivered it to Shino’s hand. It was very fast.”

“Shino, man, what the hell!” Kiba whines, “How could you leave us like this?!”

“Sumanai,” (2) Shino folds into a shallow bow. “I didn’t want to prolong the battle. My stamina is not as high as yours, Kiba.” He then limps back towards the audience, delivering the bell to Asuma, who nods in acknowledgement.

“Well done, kid,” Asuma complements him. “Can’t have been easy. You okay? Where does it hurt?”

“My flank,” Shino puts a hand over his side, “because Sasuke hit me with a lightning jutsu earlier and then Gai-sensei punched me on the same side.”

“Yeah, that usually means you keep leaving that side open,” Shikamaru points out. “Might wanna work on your blocks.”

“Sorry,” Sasuke quietly dips his head, fingers fiddling with his shirt. “I guess I should have held back more.”

Orochimaru-sama kneels to put healing hands on Shino’s flank. Assured that the boy is being cared for, Asuma returns his attention to his other two genin, who warily circle Gai with clear desperation. No doubt they’re acutely aware of their decreased offensive capacity; despite his unassuming nature, Shino is a capable child and his kikaichū are versatile.

What now, kids? Asuma regards them with half a grin. Hinata, you have to step up. Kiba, you can’t let her carry you the entire time.

Perhaps Hinata hears him. She squares her jaw and charges at Gai, who loudly commends her verve even as he turns the force of her fists against herself. It must hurt, being outclassed in her own specialty; Hinata, like most Hyuuga, was raised to believe that Jūken is the strongest iteration of taijutsu in all of Konoha. Gai summarily shuts that down.

When Orochimaru-sama calls time, Gai still has the last bell on his belt.

“Well, then,” he puffs on his cigarette and considers the frustration painted stark over Hinata and Kiba’s faces. “Sit and let the next team get ready. It’s your turn to watch and learn.”

Asuma can at least concede that they tried their best. His team will walk away from this with plenty of new ideas and a taste of defeat to vindicate them towards growth, so it has not been a waste of time.




Tenten

 

Oh, Tenten realizes with a sinking sensation, sensei’s been holding out on us. A lot.

Sitting with her teammates, who are both brooding on her either side, Tenten watches as Kurenai-sensei toys with Team Nine. Toying is the right word for it—Kurenai-sensei flits like a restless leaf between Neji, Chōji, and Lee, teasing them this way and that, leading them on enough that their formation breaks without them noticing until it’s too late. She’s not even breaking a sweat.

Back in the Academy, Tenten used to spar with Lee, who was fast and has gotten much faster now. His speed doesn’t even faze Kurenai-sensei in the slightest. Lee jumps up and corkscrews down, leg outstretched in a kick that would have broken bones on a normal person. Kurenai-sensei dodges and neatly flips Lee airborne again with a smile.

Even Neji doesn’t stand a chance. He comes close to grabbing a bell once, or at least appears to—except Kurenai-sensei vanishes in a mirage that makes Tenten scrub her eyes with two fists. Genjutsu? Kurenai-sensei reappears behind Chōji and Lee both, only to disappear again when they turn to make a hit.

Team Seven’s sensei, the jōnin called Orochimaru, crouches down behind Shikamaru and quietly directs them, “Little ones, pay attention. Use your Sharingan, Sasuke. Genjutsu can be a powerful weapon, and Yuuhi Kurenai is one of Konoha’s best.”

It doesn’t look like her sensei is doing much beyond dancing around the boys, but none of them are touching her. Tauntingly, the bells tinkle from her waist whenever she moves.

“Since when could sensei move like that?” Sakura whispers next to Tenten. Sakura is twisting the ends of her hair again, round and round, an anxious habit that needs to go away. Actually, the long hair needs to go away; neither Sakura nor Ino are strong enough to fight without it becoming an easy handhold, an opening for the enemy.

“She’s always been able to move like that,” Tenten evenly points out. “We just never saw it.”

“But why?” it’s Ino this time, and it takes all of Tenten’s patience not to snap.

Because we never gave her a reason to, she wants to say. Because neither of you were listening anyway. And, most damningly, Because we’re not strong enough to even begin training like this.

Maybe Tenten can do it, but Tenten is one person, and they are supposed to be functioning as a team. How are they supposed to function like a team when she’s forever on the outside of the strange dynamic Sakura and Ino have built around each other? Tenten is tired of playing catch up to their drama. Tenten is also tired of waiting on their skills to catch up to her.

Not for the first time, Tenten decides that it would have been better if they put her in a team with two boys. She fantasizes about it for a moment, wondering what it would be like to stand between Neji and Lee, her weaponry complementing their taijutsu.

It must be nice, being challenged every day. A sudden, choking fear then grips Tenten around the throat. I don’t want to be left behind. I don’t want to be stuck here forever. I don’t want to stay weak. How do I get stronger? How?

The answer is close at hand. It’s here somewhere, she can tell. Maybe she’ll even find it today.

Kurenai-sensei sidesteps Neji’s Jūken, swatting his arms aside. She punches his shoulder, then kicks his hip, and finally knees him in the gut. It visibly steals the air from Neji, who doubles over with a gasp. Kurenai-sensei then hauls him up and throws him at Chōji, much like a limp sack of potatoes. Lee steps in to take advantage of her distraction, but once again she vanishes.

“Nooo!” Lee wails, “Kurenai-sensei, you are too clever!”

“She really is,” Sasuke quietly agrees from where he’s sitting shoulder to shoulder with his teammates. “She’s got the whole field under genjutsu.”

“And only Neji can see her,” Shikamaru continues, “so if they want this to work, they have to use his eyes and talk to each other.”

“They ain’t got no way to talk,” Naruto points out, “so they gotta improvise!”

But Team Nine’s teamwork is nowhere near that level. They aren’t yet capable of improvising on the fly. During a timebound exercise like this one, where they are under pressure to achieve a seemingly impossible objective, improvising is reckless and moreover difficult. Tenten wouldn’t be able to do it, especially not with a team like hers.

So what are we to do? When faced with the impossible, what can we do?

She glances sideways and up at Team Seven’s sensei. That’s who they’ll be going up against. Tenten already knows it won’t end well for them; still, there must be something they can do. Otherwise, what’s the point of this exercise? What’s the point of setting them up to miserably fail?

Kurenai-sensei’s turn ends far too quickly. Swallowing the bile that crawls up the back of her throat, Tenten stands and collects her weapon scrolls, hoping against hope that she won’t humiliate herself too bad. She might not be from a big clan like everyone else, but that doesn’t mean she’s any less exacting on herself.

I don’t want them to see me so weak. Tenten shakes her head and amends that to, I don’t want to be weak!

But if her two teammates are not seriously trying to get stronger—if her two teammates won’t put the effort in and change—then they won’t be able to grow stronger together as a team. Does that mean that Tenten can go it alone?

Is it okay for her to leave them behind?

Something curls up inside her belly at the thought, something mournful and disappointed. It’s a damn shame, their wasted potential. It’s not what she envisioned for herself, walking the road alone. She had wanted a team; she had dreamed of it.

But this is what she has instead: teammates who are practically strangers, incapable of helping or watching her back. And maybe that’s just how it’s meant to be. Maybe Tenten has to walk alone.

The only problem is that Tenten doesn’t know how to fight alone.




Hinata

 

A team with three girls, that must be nice. I wonder what it’s like to not be alone.

There it goes again, the little voice in her head. Hinata is old friends with this voice, a this little voice that has whispered to her since she was very young. The little voice likes to say things that would get her in trouble, so she doesn’t. In this particular case, if she said this thought out loud, it would make her sound ungrateful. She really isn’t; Hinata is thankful to have her team.

I have a good team, she nods to herself, and my teammates treat me well. I should be happy.

Next to her, Kiba shifts to pull most of Akamaru’s body into his lap. Kiba does that when he’s afraid. Considering the current match-up, the all-girls team facing Team Seven’s sensei, Kiba is right to be afraid. He’s probably imagining himself in the girls’ shoes.

“I dunno about this,” Naruto-kun sighs. When Hinata glances over, he’s squinting at the match-up, arms crossed and elbows braced against his knees, body folded forward into half. “I feel bad for the girls. Shika, don’t you feel bad for the girls?”

Shikamaru shrugs, “Not particularly.”

“That’s because you’re mean,” Sasuke follows. “You don’t care for the suffering of others.”

“Excuse you, I care selectively,” Shikamaru corrects him. “I just have a limited amount of care to give, so I have to ration it out.”

This time, Shino, Chōji, and Naruto all make noises of varied disbelief. Chōji says, “You just want to see Ino lose, be honest.”

A dark smile hovers over Shikamaru’s face, “It’s a fine day for a good lesson.”

“I still don’t get why the two of you are so upset at each other,” Chōji sighs in dismay, popping open another bag of potato chips. “You used to get along just fine.”

I still don’t get how you’re not annoyed by her,” Shikamaru throws back, reaching over to snag a handful of chips. “Oh, here we go.”

Hinata turns back to the match-up. The spar has begun, Tenten charging at Team Seven’s sensei to start. Out of habit, Hinata activates her Byakugan to see how Team Seven’s sensei moves around Tenten’s attacks, easily swatting aside weapons with minimal waste of movement.

“Oof, that hurts!” Naruto-kun winces in sympathy when a strike lands on Tenten’s back. In fact, all of Team Seven winces in coordinated sympathy; they’ve all been on the receiving end of that move before.

“Tenten’s good, though,” Sasuke commends, watching Tenten attempt to regroup at some distance away. “Better than the other two.”

Ino is attempting to attack while Sakura circles warily nearby. Clearly neither of them are strong enough to make a difference. Hinata knows that they have to make a move before Team Seven’s sensei runs out of patience waiting for them—she wants to tell them, warn them that it’ll be worse if they wait—

But instead of attacking Ino or Sakura, Team Seven’s sensei dogs Tenten with intent. What intent, Hinata doesn’t know. Tenten tries to shake him, but this is an experienced jōnin she’s up against; her efforts amount to nothing.

Hinata follows Team Seven’s sensei, unable to look away. His movements are so flawless that even with the Byakugan, Hinata is having a hard time finding openings. What would she do in Tenten’s shoes? What could she do?

The jōnin called Orochimaru flows like water around Tenten’s increasingly desperate attacks, and with his speed, the girls are rendered entirely helpless. Tenten is once again knocked down, hard enough to make her spit at the ground. And then Team Seven’s sensei picks her up by the neck, turning to the other girls who—

Tenten!” Ino and Sakura both call out, Ino lurching forward before she catches herself mid-step. Fair enough; Hinata would pause too.

What can she do? The little voice whispers into Hinata’s ear, What can I do?

Tenten tries to fight, her hands coming up to claw ineffectively at her captor. She even tries to kick but can’t seem to gather momentum. It must hurt, being held up like that. A strong hand is closed around her neck tight enough that she starts turning red in the face. Hinata can see her struggling to breathe.

“Well?” Team Seven’s sensei challenges the other two, “An enemy has your teammate in a stranglehold. What do you do now?”

Sakura, who hasn’t done much since the spar began, bites her lip hard enough to make it bleed. Hinata can read her thoughts bare on her face: Retreat. Ino, on the other hand, wavers where she stands. She doesn’t seem okay with leaving her teammate behind.

But what can she do?

Tenten’s movements are growing sluggish. In the corner of her eye, Hinata sees Kurenai-sensei shift forward in concern.

“This is not an uncommon predicament in the field,” Team Seven’s sensei continues, “in fact, you will encounter this very situation at least once as a genin. You must know what to do. You won’t always have the time to decide.”

Shikamaru makes an impatient noise, now leaning forward with a fist braced against his mouth. Hinata turns back to the spar and realizes that Sakura has moved two or three steps back, away from the aggressor. The only option is retreat.

Another minute passes; Tenten slumps in her captor’s grip. Hinata sees the exact moment she goes unconscious, her chakra pathways going dull and silent like a fire guttering into mere embers.

“Tenten!” Ino gasps, blanching in shock. “No!”

Team Seven’s sensei shrugs and tosses Tenten aside. “Congratulations, Team Eight. For the purposes of this exercise, one of your teammates has died.”

Fuck,” Shikamaru curses against his knuckles, “Sensei is in a mood today.”

Naruto-kun whimpers, clutching his head in both hands, hunched down as though it will help hide him from their sensei’s attention. Sasuke wears a complicated look on his face.

Team Seven’s sensei continues, “I don’t think I need to spell out how your team is the weakest out of all four teams gathered here today; you are smart enough to know this. But for all your intelligence, neither of you have worked to apply it and help yourselves. This is very disappointing.”

The words hit Ino and Sakura like projectiles. Ino looks stricken, hand opening and closing around the handle of a kunai. Sakura is hiding behind the fall of her hair.

On the ground, Tenten begins to regain consciousness. Hinata has to suppress the instinctual urge to go and help her; Hinata has to suppress the urge to comfort them all. As much as she wants to, it’s not her place.

“Your sensei is one of Konoha’s best kunoichi,” Team Seven’s sensei crosses his arms. “She has tried her best to mold you, but you have not been responsive. As a result, you come here today with nothing to show for the time you have spent as a team except for this loss. A teammate is dead; you have no other recourse but retreat. I daresay that if this were a mission, you have already failed. Who knows if you’ll survive to make it home?”

“I-It’s like you said,” Sakura quietly says, “we have no other options but to retreat.”

“And why is that?” Team Seven’s sensei asks.

“Because you’re too strong,” Ino answers this time.

“Wrong. It’s because you’re so weak.”

Everyone winces at that. Team Seven’s sensei certainly doesn’t mince his words.

“Strength,” he then explains, “takes many forms, especially as a shinobi. Take your sensei, for example: a genjutsu specialist and a formidable jōnin in her own right. Kurenai is neither the best melee fighter nor is she gifted with a large chakra core, but she has capitalized on what she can do and, in time, developed herself into a valuable weapon for the village.

“Indeed, this is precisely why you were given to her; she is a fitting role model for three young kunoichi who have shown great intelligence and potential. But it has been seven weeks since you graduated from the Academy, and in that span of time, under her direction and tutelage, you seem to have learned nothing. I know it isn’t from her lack of trying; she has given you opportunities to grow. Why have you not taken it?”

Nearby, Tenten sits up, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. Team Seven’s sensei looks her over with a critical eye. He beckons her closer and puts glowing hands to the bruises on her neck. The healing must hurt; it makes Tenten cough hard enough that she almost falls over again. Team Seven’s sensei steadies her with a hand on her shoulder, a gentle one this time, worlds away from how threatening he was earlier as their enemy.

He continues, “Your sensei can only push you so far. You must also put in the work. It will be hard and painful and tiring, but such is the life of a shinobi. If you cannot endure, then you should not become shinobi,” and at those words, Hinata sees Sakura flinch. “If you cannot persevere, then you will never grow stronger. And strength—that which comes in many forms—is what gives you options. Because if you are strong enough, no matter the overwhelming capacity of your opponent, you will always have more options than simply abandoning your team.”

Shikamaru makes another sound, this time more thoughtful. Hinata wonders if Team Seven’s sensei is always like this, full of wisdom to impart, in turns gentle and harsh depending on what Team Seven needs. It must be nice to have someone that powerful and wise to hold your hand.

But I’m too old to want someone to hold my hand, aren’t I? The little voice is full of doubt again. Hinata tucks her chin down and deactivates her Byakugan; the third spar has reached its end. This is what chichiue always says. How am I gonna get stronger if I can’t even stand on my own two feet?

Three defeated girls trudge back towards them, shadowed by Team Seven’s sensei who turns over the bells to Asuma-sensei. The jōnin sensei all exchange nods. Hinata then realizes that all of that was intentional, a ploy to introduce Team Eight with their own flaws in the most brutal manner possible.

It comes to her at once, a flash of insight accompanied by a memory. Herself, in pain and panting with her forehead against the floor, having lost against the overwhelming talent of her younger sister. Team Eight, now facing the humiliation of being so weak they couldn’t even put up a fight. Past superimposes over present, and with clear eyes, Hinata sees what the jōnin sensei are trying to achieve.

You have to know you’re weak before you can vow to become strong. But also, as Team Seven’s sensei said, strength comes in many forms.

Team Seven stands to make ready. Meanwhile, Team Eight sits together in a cluster, downtrodden and—in Sakura’s case—incredibly conflicted. Hinata observes and thinks and wonders if maybe she’s been doing it wrong all this time.

Maybe getting stronger doesn’t have to mean fighting like Neji. Maybe getting stronger doesn’t mean pitching herself against her own sister. Maybe she can define her strength in another way—a way for her to still be useful despite her flaws.

Strength comes in many forms, Hinata nods to herself, so all I have to do is find what form it takes for me.

It will just take hard work to get there, but such is the life of a shinobi.




Asuma

It’s been a while since he last saw such intense, concentrated aggression on such young faces. For a moment, Asuma is brought back to the Third War, and although it’s been more than a decade, a chill still crawls through his veins. War has left its marks on them all.

These children, however, have not lived through a war. He looks upon them and amends, Not yet, at least, because it’s plain for all to see that Orochimaru-sama is preparing them for it, or something like it. Asuma considers Shikamaru’s attentive eyes and has to smile.

“You have to know,” he tells the boy, “that you’re going to lose, yes?” It isn’t arrogance for Asuma to say so, only fact; he is a jōnin, and they are only genin.

Shikamaru dips his chin and doesn’t deny it. “Today, victory isn’t the objective.”

“Then what is?” Asuma asks.

They all vanish and reappear in a furious assault of weapons and limbs. Asuma dodges some and blocks others, shoving Shikamaru back with some force. To his left, Sasuke spins in midair—impressive core control—and attempts to land a kick. Chakra-reinforced. Asuma dodges that, and the ninjatō that comes right behind it too. He grabs Naruto by a clumsy arm and throws him at his teammates.

Naruto isn’t fazed; probably used to being thrown around. The boy turns and uses Sasuke as a springboard, leaping back into the fray. Asuma ducks under two wind blades—wow, Fuuken—and a fuuma shuriken to boot. But when he tries to create space, a well-placed, powerful burst of fire herds him towards more attacks. He catches the lash of an earthen chain against his thigh with a grunt.

Effective formations, Asuma notes despite himself. The chain didn’t injure him, but it did slow him down.

He concentrates on battering Naruto, attacking the weakest link with persistence. A punch, a kick, another kick, a palm strike—Naruto dodges some of it, and what he can’t dodge, he switches with a bunshin for. Asuma grins at the boy and says, “You gotta do better than that, brat.” He catches Naruto by the shoulder and slams him into the ground.

The body under his fingers turns into a log.

“Yo, jōnin-onii-san, why you pissed at me?!” Naruto yelps from behind him. Asuma turns and—

Whoa, fuck!

—a blast of fire slams against his body, the wide-open jaws of a dragon snapping at his feet and arms. Asuma braces his knees against its force and still finds himself pushed back a meter. Only his chakra reflexes have saved him from second-degree burns and a trip to the clothing shop; his arm guards are probably done for.

Fire and smoke obscure the field for a second. It’s enough of an opening for the little Uchiha. Bursting through the tail end of the dragon fire, Sasuke attacks with ferocity and speed, all sharp jabs and strong kicks. Asuma blocks most but not all of them; the inherent difficulty of fighting a Sharingan-wielder is their ability to see through defenses. Sasuke is clearly reading his moves. Asuma ups the force behind his blows and finds that he has to increase his speed too. The little Uchiha is actually pushing him.

“Not bad, kid,” Asuma grins. The ninjatō flashes with threat. Asuma parries it with a kunai—

Lightning?

—and barely dodges back when it cuts through his steel. The bare tip of the sword scores a shallow gash across his vest; it catches him by surprise.

“Now!”

A starburst of chakra from two directions—Asuma has to resort to a complicated maneuver in order to avoid getting skewered between the wind blades from behind him and the earthen spikes that sprout under his feet.

And then with a puff of smoke, there are seven Narutos assaulting him. Far too many limbs to count. Sasuke weaves between the kage bunshin and lands a few jabs. Maybe the Sharingan sees split-second openings too; Asuma grunts as a tiny, little fist digs into his ribs with enough chakra to bruise.

Pesky little—

With a single hand, he shapes a Dragon seal and hurls fire at the kage bunshin.

“Mada mada!” Naruto bursts through the fire, encased in a shimmering water shield. It explodes outwards in six or seven water blades, followed by more clumsily aggressive punches. Asuma ducks under the onslaught. Naruto produces more bunshin and yells, “Sasuke, get ‘im!”

Uchiha Itachi’s little brother, Asuma is forcibly reminded as he leans away from the oncoming blade. It crackles with lightning inches away from his face and lights the butt of his cigarette even as it cuts it in half. Asuma spits the cigarette out and follows it with a fireball. Sasuke swats the fire aside with a burst of chakra from his sword that even Asuma has to admit is impressive as hell for a genin.

But there’s no time to be too impressed. Naruto swarms him with bunshin again; the experience quickly gets annoying. Asuma lets loose a touch and begins eliminating the bunshin with prejudice.

That should hurt, he shoves a kunai through a bunshin’s neck—except none of the Narutos appear to even slow down. Not even a flinch? His surprise allows Sasuke to grab hold of his arm and use it as a fulcrum for a revolving scissor-kick. One leg catches Asuma in the jaw; his head snaps to the side.

Fucking ow.

Asuma slams both hands into rapid seals and summons wind with fire.

It expands with a bang that echoes around the training ground, forcing both genin away to give Asuma space to regroup. He braces his knees, eyes tracking Sasuke, and prepares to—

Stop!

Asuma stops, turning towards Shikamaru’s voice. The boy, a few meters away, releases a Ram seal and opens his palm. Shadows dissolve from his hands to reveal two bells on a string.

What?

Shikamaru holds the bells up with a grin. “Today, victory isn’t the objective. Getting this is the objective.”

Straightening, Asuma gapes in shock. “You sneaky little shit.

Hell yeah!” Naruto crows, rushing at Shikamaru with arms outstretched. Sasuke too, who slings an arm each around both of his teammates with a wide grin. “We got ‘em!” Naruto cheers, “Sensei, look, look, we got both of ‘em!

Sasuke is shaking Shikamaru by the shoulder, “I thought it wouldn’t work. I was for sure it wouldn’t work!”

“It was close to fifty-fifty,” Shikamaru shrugs, “but if there’s a chance…”

We’re so badass, we’re the most badass of them all!” Naruto spins around to give Asuma two thumbs up. “Get that, jōnin-onii-san! You might be stronger than us, but we’re sneakier than you!”

When Asuma looks toward his peers with honest disbelief, Kurenai laughs and shrugs, “Looks like you got done in fair and square.”

Gai is actually weeping, what the hell. “That was very well done, Team Seven! I am so impressed with your refreshing youthfulness!”

But it only really sinks in that he actually lost the bells to a team of genin when Orochimaru-sama gathers the little monsters together to commend them, “Well done, little ones. I am most gratified. A well-executed tactic, Shikamaru. Naruto, Sasuke, I applaud your coordination.”

Asuma looks down at his hands, one of which is still holding a kunai, and shakes his head. “Well, fuck me, that was embarrassing.” With a sigh, he tucks the kunai back into its holster. They admittedly caught him by surprise. Lighting a cigarette if only to give his hands something to do, he walks toward them and asks, “Orochimaru-sama, what in the world do you teach your kids?”

Orochimaru-sama looks up with what Asuma reads as a satisfied smile. “Only what they should learn, Asuma. Nothing more, nothing less.”

Asuma sincerely doubts that, but far be it for him to contradict a Sannin face to face.

Kurenai hands him a bottle of water. Anko laughs and points out the scorch marks on his armguards. Asuma almost wants to feel sorry for himself, but as he watches the kids swarm around each other—Kiba harassing Team Seven for details, Chōji tugging at Shikamaru’s sleeve to ask when he stole the bells and how—he feels his mouth pull into a small smile. Whatever their communal misgivings about Orochimaru-sama handling a genin team, one thing is for certain: the future leaders of Konoha are growing up strong.

“But hold on, wait up,” Naruto’s voice cuts through the chatter around them, “there are only two bells, though! And there are three of us!”

“Idiot!” Shikamaru whacks him on the shoulder, “You shouldn’t have said anything!”

“I don’t think sensei is going to forget anyway,” Sasuke sighs, looking up at Orochimaru-sama, who folds his arms under the fall of his sleeves with a smile. “Sensei, what does it mean that there are only two bells?”

“Traditionally, this challenge was meant to leave one team member out. In my time, our sensei—”

“Hokage-jiji?!” Naruto grins.

“—indeed, Sarutobi-sensei threatened that the person who did not manage to seize a bell would be sent back to the Academy as a reject. If they wanted to regain their genin status, they would have to do the exit exams again.”

The grin falls off of Naruto’s face.

“Wait, Shikamaru got both bells,” Sasuke blanches, “so what does that mean? …Naruto and I aren’t going back to the Academy, are we?”

Orochimaru-sama purses his lips, suppressing amusement. “Fortunately for the both of you, you’ve already done D-ranks, so that’s no longer a valid penalty.”

Naruto and Sasuke sag against each other in relief, a comical display of just how little they still are. There’s no trace of the aggressively intense hellions assaulting Asuma only minutes prior.

“However, there is still a penalty for not getting your own bell. That goes for everyone, children, so do listen closely.” The genin all warily look up, some with well-placed fear in their eyes. “A hundred push-ups, weighted squats, and pull-ups each, with no chakra to aid you. Your weights will be boulders I will make momentarily. There is no time limit, but if you want to enjoy dinner tonight, I suggest you pick a good pace.”

Lee bursts to his feet and declares, “I accept this penalty with honor! Thank you, jōnin-sensei, for allowing us an opportunity to redeem our youthfulness!”

Kiba barks, “Speak for yourself, man!” Beside him, Chōji’s shoulders drop; the girls all pale in dread.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Shikamaru mutters before squaring his shoulders, “but sensei, I wouldn’t have been able to use my jutsu to snag the bells without Naruto and Sasuke doing such a great job of distracting Asuma-sensei. Their efforts deserve due recognition. If they’re getting the penalty, then I petition that some of it be split for me to take.”

Naruto gasps, tearfully grabbing his teammate by the shoulders. “Shikamaru!”

Sasuke too, who turns to the little Nara with expressive eyes. “Shikamaru, arigato.”

“Are you sure?” Orochimaru-sama asks.

Shikamaru exchanges looks with his teammates and then nods. “It’s only fair. We worked as a team so if we failed, we failed as a team. That means we suffer the penalty as a team.”

Bingo. Asuma huffs around his cigarette. Figures that only one of Team Seven gets to the heart of the exercise.

Orochimaru-sama puts a hand on top of Shikamaru’s head with an actual smile. “Very good, little one. That is precisely the idea. You three pass.”

The three of them blink up at their sensei in confusion, until understanding dawns on Shikamaru’s face. “Ohh, I get it! Oh, that’s kinda messed up.”

“What?” Naruto blinks.

Sasuke frowns, “Wait.”

“I’m confused, what’s going on?” Kiba scratches the back of his head. “Are we still doing the penalty or not?”

“Oh, you are,” Asuma says around his cigarette, “because you didn’t accomplish the objective—either objective. There were two.” To their confused faces, he holds up two fingers. “The first objective was to seize the bell from us; the second was to show your teamwork. Well, you need teamwork to get the bell anyway, since you’re still only genin going up against jōnin—but the point of the matter is to test how well you understand the heart of being a shinobi of Konoha. Any guesses?”

“We don’t give up even against overwhelming odds?” Lee guesses.

“Close.”

“Oh! We don’t abandon our team,” Naruto shouts, “because those who do that are worse than trash!”

Asuma looks at him, this boy whose face echoes that of a long-dead Hokage, and smiles. “That is correct.”

Orochimaru-sama steps in with a solemn nod, “What we wanted you to understand with this exercise is your own worth, and the worth of your team. What do you bring to the team? How do you help your teammates? Or is that you slow them down? It becomes easier to find the cracks in your teamwork when you are under immense pressure, and what better pressure to put you under than the prospect of complete and inescapable defeat? Going into each spar, you knew there was no way for you to win. Nevertheless, you were given an objective. You were forced to try. Faced with such a challenge, you must make a choice: to help each other, or to go alone? To keep trying despite assured defeat, or to surrender? To save a teammate, or to retreat? How you tackled those choices allowed us to identify ways in which we can help you grow.”

Orochimaru-sama takes the bell from Shikamaru and holds it up for the children to see. It catches the glare of the setting sun and sparks bright orange against his dark purple sleeves.

“These bells are a metaphor for the missions you will be given in the future. Oftentimes they will be difficult, sometimes dangerous, and in select instances even impossible. It will be your responsibility to find or make a way. Right now, it is our responsibility to mold you into shinobi capable of doing so.” He tucks the bells into his obi and continues, “Konoha’s strength is and has always been its people. We are the strongest precisely because we are rich in human capital. Any loss of life is therefore a loss of strength; lose enough strength and we become vulnerable. This is why teamwork is of the utmost importance, especially for genin like yourselves. We don’t abandon our team, children, because our team is Konoha.”

Neji, who has been paying keen attention, rises and asks, “What if it’s a choice between our mission and our team, sensei? How do we handle that?”

“That you are given such a mission is a failure on the part of your superiors. No mission should be so unreasonably insecure in its setup that the loss of an entire team is preferable to failure. There are some who might tell you that the failure of one mission can lead to catastrophic consequences like war, but those who say so are incredibly narrowminded and frankly wrong. Wars do not erupt from a single catalyst; wars are complicated affairs. And always remember that your mission will still be there tomorrow for you to try again; your teammates may not.”

Atop the wall where the ANBU are still crouched and watching, there is a conspicuous absence of motion. Asuma wonders what Kakashi thinks of the jab at the Hokage that hides amongst Orochimaru-sama’s well-spoken words. The White Fang isn’t the first mistake the old man has made, and Orochimaru-sama certainly has a long memory.

As for Asuma himself, he has long since acknowledged that although his father is the Sandaime Hokage, his father is also only human, and humans inevitably disappoint.

“Now, I do believe there is a penalty that must be completed.” Communal groans and whines erupt from the children. “Team Seven will split one person’s penalty between them. Shino, you are technically exempt on the grounds of having taken a bell.”

“No, sensei, that’s okay,” Shino dips his chin below his collar, “I’ll take part of my teammates’ penalty also.”

“Good boy,” Kurenai praises. “Let’s get to it, then! Move along, brats!”

“I shall do the penalty with all of you, boys and girls!” Gai cheers. “Come on! Youthfully, now!”

The children slowly get into position. Shikamaru, Naruto, and Sasuke make a circle and exchange fist bumps before dropping to begin their push-ups. Asuma watches them with a rueful huff and acknowledges, while helping Orochimaru-sama make boulders for weights, that Team Seven is made up of little monsters.

Is Konoha ready for that?

Asuma can’t wait to find out.




tbc
first draft: 2020.09.08
last edited: 2021.12.16




NOTES & REFERENCES

(1) Jūken 柔拳, also known as Gentle Fist, is the Hyuuga clan's proprietary taijutsu style.

(2) "Sumanai." - "My bad." / "I'm sorry." (informal; note lack of honorifics)

Chapter Text

027. shikamaru: positions

.

Shikamaru passes the Yamanaka flower shop in the morning and finds Sakura waiting at the door. He would have kept going on his way to sensei’s house, but she catches his eye.

“Ah, Shikamaru-kun, good morning.”

“Morning,” he slows down, pausing below what he knows is Ino’s window. The curtains are closed when he looks up. “Is she even awake this early on a Saturday?”

Sakura smiles, although nowhere near the cheerful nature of her usual smile. “We agreed to meet up today.”

“As a team?”

She nods. Shikamaru raises both eyebrows, somewhat impressed. He had thought they were the only team who met up on Saturdays.

“Well, good luck. If Ino takes too long, just throw rocks at her window. Guarantee it’ll piss her off.” He turns and is about to start walking away when she calls out again.

“Hey, Shikamaru-kun, can I ask you a question?”

When he turns back, she’s fidgeting with a corner of her red dress, an outfit patently incompatible with field missions in Shikamaru’s very humble opinion. “I can’t promise an answer, but sure, I guess.”

Instead of asking the question, she fidgets some more. Was she always this shy? Shikamaru doesn’t remember her being this painfully shy. Painfully shy was Hinata through and through, but not Sakura. Sakura is a smart one and, typical of the smart ones, grew up knowing she’s smart. Shikamaru is quite familiar with the experience; awareness of one’s own intelligence usually confers a fair bit of confidence, the internal kind, an assurance that the world operated under a certain set of rules that can be understood.

But maybe it’s not an issue of internal confidence here, Shikamaru considers as Ino comes out of the house. Sakura sees her and brightens, before shooting a cautious look at Shikamaru’s direction.

Ino, on the other hand, saw Shikamaru through the window beforehand and comes ready with a scowl. “What do you want?”

“Why would I want anything from you?” Shikamaru shoots back. Between them, Sakura fidgets even more.

“Sakura, are you letting Shikamaru bully you? Don’t listen to him, he’s always been like that.”

“Excuse me,” Shikamaru crosses his arms, “I’m not the bully here.”

“What do you call yesterday then?”

“Uhh, an entirely honest reflection of the skill gap between our teams? What the hell, Ino, you’re not this stupid. Quit fooling yourself, it’s unbecoming of a Yamanaka.”

But as soon as the words leave Shikamaru’s mouth, he knows they’re futile. Ino’s pride is high. If a change is to happen, it’ll happen in private and away from prying eyes—certainly far away from Shikamaru, who has somehow made it into her list of enemies.

Well, okay, not enemies; she just really doesn’t like me, Shikamaru mentally amends, and to be honest, the sentiment is mutual.

Maybe when they’re older, they’ll recover the easy dynamic they used to have as children. Maturing needs to happen first, and Shikamaru is humble enough to admit that it’s needed on both sides of the equation.

Ino huffs and turns back to Sakura, whose eyes are darting to and fro as though she’s watching a game of catch. “Come on, Sakura. We shouldn’t make Tenten wait too long. Whatever he wants from you, forget it, he’s not worth the time.”

“Again, excuse you, it was Sakura who wanted to ask me a question.”

Ino appears taken aback, perhaps unable to fathom what Sakura could want out of Shikamaru. Shikamaru meanwhile watches Sakura as the focus of the conversation shifts again.

Yeah, it’s not an issue of internal confidence at all, he realizes, but of the external kind. Shikamaru never noticed because he hadn’t been paying attention, but these two have an interesting dynamic that is probably unhealthy.

Ino overwhelms her—and she allows it.

Of course Sakura allows it. Ino, a daughter of one of Konoha’s oldest clans; Ino, who is heir to the legacy of the Yamanaka; Ino, who grew up secure in the knowledge of her future position as a kunoichi in Konoha—Ino is in the lead, and Sakura has no choice but to follow.

Peer pressure is an ugly thing. Shikamaru considers Sakura’s hesitation and wonders how best he can help her, or if he even should. Is she worth the investment of time and social connection? Will she yield results?

Sakura recovers herself while he’s occupied thinking. “Never mind, Shikamaru-kun,” she shakes her head, “it’s not important. Sorry to waste your time.”

Ino sighs as if put-upon. “See? She doesn’t have a question. Come on, Sakura, let’s go.”

In a flash of irritation, Shikamaru makes up his mind. “No,” his hand shoots out to grab Sakura’s arm, “you had an actual serious question you wanted to ask before Ino got here and pressured you out of it.”

Ino pivots with her mouth open and—

“Ask the damn question and forget what Ino thinks about it for once,” Shikamaru supersedes her, pinning Sakura down with a look. “I know you’re smart. You know you’re smart. Quit letting Ino push you around when you obviously have ideas of your own. She’s being a bully and you’re enabling her. Look, I’m not saying you’ll always be right, but you have a responsibility to your team to speak up and question things. Even if it’s your own teammate.”

Lesson 2: The only foolish question is the one you didn’t ask.

Both girls are speechless for a few seconds. Ino looks stricken; Sakura is blinking at his words.

“I… I just wanted to ask… what you thought about yesterday and…” Sakura bites her lip, looking everywhere but at Shikamaru’s face. “Do you think I can actually do this? Because your sensei pretty much told me not to be a shinobi, and that hurts.”

This time, it’s Shikamaru’s turn to reel.

“Sakura!” Ino gasps, “Don’t be stupid! Of course you’re going to be a shinobi! Oh, what are we saying—you’re already a shinobi!”

But Shikamaru is more concerned with what Sakura is not saying. Before Ino can keep going, he interjects, “Sensei didn’t specifically tell you that you shouldn’t become shinobi. That was a general statement that I actually think was directed at all of us. But if you think he said it to you specifically, then—that means that you agree with what he said before that.”

Sakura can’t seem to meet his eyes. Well, they’ve gone this far; Shikamaru decides to push the extra inch.

“What’s actually making you think of quitting? Be honest.”

Ino shoots him a glare but doesn’t interrupt. She obviously wants to hear it too.

Sakura inhales and says, “I’ve—I’ve had this conversation with my parents too, and they’re always trying to get me to quit. I’ve told you this,” she adds to Ino, who scowls. “A-And you always told me not to listen to them, but after yesterday, I…”

“Why do they want you to quit?” Shikamaru clarifies. “Didn’t they support you through the Academy? You’re not stupid so they can’t be stupid; they had to have known what graduating from the Academy means.”

“That was always me insisting I wanted to go,” Sakura’s shoulders sag, “but maybe I just really didn’t understand what I was getting into.”

“None of us do,” Shikamaru raises both eyebrows at her. When Sakura darts a look at Ino and at him too, he insists, “No, none of us do. Even us clan-born kids. Anyone who tells you they know exactly what we’re getting into is straight-up lying. There’s no way for us to really understand what being a shinobi is like, which is why we’re genin supervised by jōnin sensei. Exposure, Sakura. You already made it this far; at least try first before you quit.”

“Can’t believe I’m saying this, but I agree with Shikamaru,” Ino crosses her arms with a nod. “You’re smart, Sakura. You shouldn’t quit.”

There Ino goes with the should and shouldn’ts again. Shikamaru sighs in annoyance.

“I don’t know,” Sakura hedges about it. “My parents are always worried too… the job’s not exactly the safest. Outside the village, I mean.”

“You don’t have to go outside the village to be useful,” Ino says, which—goddamnit, Ino, that’s not the point.

Shikamaru slashes an arm down in impatience and says, “Look—you know what my oyaji does, right?”

“Um,” Sakura blinks, “he’s a high-ranking jōnin who works at the Hokage Tower, right?”

“Oyaji is the Jōnin Commander,” and at that, Sakura’s eyes widen, “good, you know what that means. He says that sensei is the strongest shinobi in Konoha next to the Hokage. Oyaji’s honest about that sort of thing and I’ve been with sensei long enough to know it’s true. So oyaji should be feeling pretty good about me being in a team with Konoha’s strongest, right? At least I thought so. But you know what he told me when I said that? Oyaji said: There is little in the world that can quell the worry I feel for my own son.” (1)

Seeing the consideration settle in Sakura’s eyes, Shikamaru continues.

“Shinobi or not, nothing will ever quell your parents’ worry for you. The only thing you can do about it—the only thing that can help them worry less—is if you get stronger. Strong enough to protect yourself, strong enough to protect your team. So, having said all that,” Shikamaru levels her with a look, “do you really wanna quit because of your parents, or because of yourself?”

She needs to think about that, carefully and at length. Theirs is not a job that can be done with half a heart. She has to commit to it or she’ll die out there, Shikamaru knows it. As things are, life is harder as a kunoichi—not because they’re weaker for their sex, but because they get assigned more undercover missions in more questionable situations. Kunoichi need every advantage they can get.

Think about it,” Shikamaru urges her, “really think and don’t listen to anyone else. Not your sensei, not your teammates, not even Ino. It has to be something you want. That’s my answer.”

He waits until she nods. It takes a moment, but she ultimately does. “…thanks, Shikamaru-kun.”

“Right,” he nods back. “Well, I’m running late now. Gotta go. Good luck with training.”

Shikamaru doesn’t wait for Ino to come up with any response, instead turning and trotting down market street in the direction of sensei’s house. He’ll have to apologize for being late, but sensei will understand. His delay has been for a good cause.

If my words can keep her from dying on the field, or worse, getting other people killed on the field, then I did good.

Now the rest’s up to her own determination.




When he relays the strange conversation, sensei agrees. “You could not have done much else for her. There are some things in one’s life that others cannot decide.”

“That’s what I thought.” Shikamaru feels vindicated and subsequently released from the tension that he carried away from that conversation. He hadn’t been expecting it. He hates getting caught off-guard like that.

“I feel kinda bad for her, ya know,” Naruto sighs. “She must be having a hard time.”

Shikamaru stares at his teammate—who right now smears a bit of ink on a whiskered cheek because he’s clumsy with the brush while making seal tags—and can’t quite believe what he’s hearing.

“Not to be a jerk or anything,” Shikamaru blinks, “but you feel sorry for her?

Naruto squints. “What’s that s’posed to mean?”

So Shikamaru enumerates, “She’s not an orphan. Her parents provide whatever she needs. She’s well connected with resources easily available for her use. She’s not carrying a bijuu.”

“Ehhh, I don’t know that I’d call the bijuu a bad thing,” Naruto shrugs. “I mean, it doesn’t do anything right now. And it gives me a lot of chakra I can use!”

“It also gives everyone in the village an excuse to either act like turds or continue turning a blind eye to your situation,” Shikamaru deadpans. From where he’s practicing his genjutsu (the vase is halfway red now), Sasuke agrees with a soft grunt.

“My situation’s muuuch better,” Naruto grins. “You don’t gotta worry about that anymore, Shika!”

“Yeah, it still makes no sense that you’re feeling sorry for her.”

“Well, sometimes what we feel doesn’t make any sense,” Naruto shrugs in a show of unexpected insight. “We just feel the way we do. I feel bad for her, she’s struggling. I hope she doesn’t quit.”

A warm hand lands on Shikamaru’s shoulder, quelling further questions for the moment. Shikamaru looks up to meet sensei’s eyes. “I believe Naruto can identify with Haruno Sakura’s hardship in the sense that he was once in her position at the bottom rung of the ladder, looking up at everyone else.”

“Oh!” Naruto blinks. “I didn’t notice that!”

Sensei continues, “Just the same as Naruto is growing leaps and bounds under proper supervision, Haruno will too. I’ve spoken at length with the other jōnin sensei and given Kurenai specific advice on how to train her team better. I believe she was using the wrong approach, although I can’t blame her for doing so. Most jōnin would have done the same.”

“Is it true that jōnin eat their young?” Shikamaru suddenly asks, because it’s something he’s heard before and the thought of Kurenai-sensei reminds him of it. The other jōnin sensei are so young. Shikamaru can’t help but wonder if by being given a team of genin that they’re being hazed.

“It can certainly seem like it,” sensei chuckles, sipping at his tea. (It’s not the cloudberry one today, but something with tiny green pine leaves. Minty and surprisingly strong.) “But the life of a jōnin is inherently tough and almost always dangerous. It’s not that the seniors are bullying their juniors; it’s just the nature of the job itself.”

“I guess there’s also not a lot of older jōnin, huh.”

“It’s not conducive to a long life, no,” this time sensei laughs. He’s in a great mood today; Shikamaru wants to ask what made him so happy but doesn’t yet know how.

They return to their individual exercises for another two hours before sensei releases them to lunch. Today the table is set with plenty of grilled meat, a departure from their usual healthier fare.

“Oooh, pork belly,” Naruto croons at the dish when sensei sets it down.

“Something special today, sensei?” Shikamaru asks.

“A reward,” sensei pats his and Naruto’s heads, “for yesterday’s excellent performance. Although I do want you to still eat your vegetables. Naruto, go wash your hands again, your fingers are still smeared with ink.”

“Yes, sensei!” Naruto scampers away without a thought to first reserve his portion of the pork. If Shikamaru or Sasuke were less well-mannered, they would have already stolen the best bits; Naruto is fortunate that sensei is at the table.

“Sensei, thank you for all of this food,” Sasuke smiles. It’s a very sweet smile, disarming in its bashfulness. Shikamaru thinks that if Sasuke learned how to use that smile, it could be weaponized. “Oboro-obaa-sama wanted me to extend her thanks again, I spoke with her this morning! She said she’s very happy—no, that’s not the word she used, uhh—she’s very gratified to see that the old ways are still being respected and taught to the next generation.”

He looks so proud to have delivered the message intact that Shikamaru has to reach over and pat the top of his head. “Good job, Sasuke, remembering all that must have been hard work.”

Sasuke’s smile turns upside down in an instant. “No bullying in this team.”

In between two bites, Shikamaru snorts. “If you think this is bullying, you’ve got something coming.”

“Who are we bullying?” Naruto pops back into his place at the dining table. “I’m great at pranks!”

“You really are,” Shikamaru snickers. “Farting at Kiba’s face was inspired. And that bit with Neji—genius.”

Naruto pretends to stagger under the weight of Shikamaru’s praise. “To be called a genius, by you—!”

All the while, underneath their playful ribbing and banter, sensei chuckles along. It’s just them today: Anko-nee is at work, Kabuto-nii helping at the hospital, and Tenzo-nii elsewhere. Shikamaru actually likes it. He swipes a bit of the steamed sweet potato from under Naruto’s nose and grins.

“Guys, there’s enough food,” Sasuke sighs, “stop fighting over the potatoes.” That said, Sasuke himself darts in to grab one before they eat it all.

Naruto pouts at that but doesn’t argue. They’re not really fighting, Shikamaru knows, but it’s probably bad table manners according to Sasuke’s clan’s teachings or something so they desist. Between their second and third bowls of rice, Naruto asks if sensei could teach him the pork belly recipe please, which then makes Shikamaru wonder when Naruto has the time to practice so much cooking between their training regimen and coming up with new jutsu like the one he used yesterday.

“What was that anyway?” he asks after swallowing the last bit of pork belly on his plate, “The jutsu you used on Neji. A henge?”

“Ooohh,” Naruto chuckles darkly, “ohohohoh, Shikamaru-kun, I’m so glad you asked!”

Putting down his bowl, Naruto forms three quick hand seals and changes in a puff of smoke. “Oiroke no Jutsu!”

“…remind me to never let you name your own jutsu ever again,” Shikamaru pinches the bridge of his nose. “Wait—are you naked again?!”

“No!” a distinctly feminine version of Naruto’s voice chirps from behind the smoke. “That was a play to get Neji really distracted. He seems awkward with girls. I knew it would make him nervous!”

The smoke settles to reveal a female Naruto, long hair and all, sitting in the same clothes and with the same irreverent grin. The whisker marks seem too large for the smaller female face he now wears. Shikamaru and Sasuke both frown at him—her? Sasuke’s Sharingan swirls to life, sweeping up and down as if looking for a weakness to the jutsu.

“…wow,” Sasuke says after a moment, “it’s like a kage bunshin, the jutsu completely covers the whole body.”

“A combination of henge and kage bunshin, is it?” sensei puts his teacup down and reaches over to stroke Naruto’s hair all the way down to its ends. “It’s not an illusion.”

“No, ‘cuz then how am I supposed to walk through the market and get stuff? Illusions would look great but the moment someone touched me, it’s game over,” Naruto shrugs. “But you know how you make a whole ‘nother body when you summon a kage bunshin? And you can change stuff about the bunshin’s body because technically they’re made of chakra, right? So I thought, maybe I can change my body with chakra! Add bits, remove bits, move things around… it’s really not that complicated, hehehe!” (2)

“Not… that… complicated,” Shikamaru echoes with mounting disbelief.

“You walked around in the market while looking like a girl?” Sasuke asks.

“Well, that way I was just some random kid on an errand, so they’d sell me the good stuff. Whenever I had enough money to buy good vegetables and some meat, ya kno!” Naruto shovels what remains of the sweet potatoes into his—her—mouth in a manner that definitely isn’t ladylike. After swallowing, he—she adds, “Iruka-sensei said we’re supposed to use henge for spying and blending into crowds. I thought it was great practice!”

Shikamaru puts his knuckles against his mouth, radically rearranging the schema he has made of their team in his head. He thought that it would be either himself or Sasuke who would be good at infiltration. It turns out that Naruto is already better than both of them.

Definitely better than Sasuke, he huffs, because our resident Uchiha is as dense as a rock when it comes to people.

Sasuke might be the epitome of an aspiring shinobi warrior, but that combat aptitude comes with the steep price of social ineptitude.

“Well then,” sensei smiles at all three of them, “it seems it’s high time for us to revisit your list of jutsu. Perhaps after we clean up.”

They rise at once, gathering empty dishes and cups to bring back to the kitchen for washing. They’ve done this often enough now that they know how to move around each other with silent efficiency. Naruto doesn’t change back to his male form, something that seems to amuse sensei; in fact, Naruto doesn’t change back even when they sit down to look at their scrolls.

“You don’t mind, right?” Naruto asks, unrolling his—her—scroll over the floor. “If I stay like this for a bit, I mean. Sometimes it’s nice!”

Sasuke shrugs. “I like your hair.”

Naruto grins at him and then looks at Shikamaru. Shikamaru also shrugs, “It’s just another thing to get used to, no big deal. You’re still you.”

That much is unmistakable. Naruto’s expressions and mannerism are the same, simply transcribed over a female body. Shikamaru can’t help but think about all the advantages of that technique. He wonders if he and Sasuke can learn it too.

Probably, if Naruto can explain it well enough. Although I guess Sasuke won’t need an explanation with the Sharingan helping him.

Shaking his head, Shikamaru spreads out his own scroll. He smiles. His list of techniques is growing—perhaps not as fast as Sasuke’s, but growth is growth.

“All three of you have something to add that is worth five dots, am I right?” sensei peers over their scrolls with ill-concealed pride. It must be a rare thing, genin improvising an entirely new technique out of old ones.

“Yes!” Naruto crows, adding Oiroke under his Yin category with relish. “Five dots!”

“But wait,” Shikamaru frowns, “you’ve had this jutsu for a while now, if you had it before you came to live here. Why didn’t you add it there to begin with?”

Naruto scratches his—her—head. “I forgot about it.”

“You forgot.”

“I mean, in my head, it’s kind of just another level of henge! I had henge on the list already. And I haven’t really had Oiroke for that long!”

“About that,” Sasuke interrupts, looking up at their sensei, “what do I do about Raimatou? Technically it’s not something I made, but—”

“You adapted it in a manner that hasn’t been done before,” sensei nods, “so you may add five dots next to it. Wrapping it around a corporeal weapon instead of a body part is not commonly done for the simple fact that it’s quite difficult to extend beyond the user’s body. Lightning is also a volatile element to do it with. You did well, Sasuke.” (3)

Sasuke ducks under the compliment with a flush. In silence, he adds five dots next to the aforementioned technique.

Shikamaru sighs. “I guess mine’s the shadow dome, huh?”

Sensei turns to him and asks, “What did your father have to say about it?”

“I showed him this morning. He was kicking himself about having never thought about it before,” Shikamaru smirks as he writes it down. Ontengai, under his Yin category, next to the rest of the shadow jutsu he inherited from his clan. He’s the heir of the clan and one day he’ll be the head. It stands to reason that he can add more to their family repertoire.

“What about your family, Sasuke?” Naruto asks, bumping shoulders with their resident Uchiha. “Your grandma saw how badass you were! Did she tell your parents? Did she?”

Sasuke flushes even deeper, although he doesn’t move away. “Obaa-sama doesn’t talk to my parents that much, actually, but um. She was very happy.”

“Psssh, she needs to brag about you to your clan some more!” declares Naruto. “She needs to use her old person privilege for the greater good!”

Old person privilege?” Shikamaru laughs, “What the hell?”

“You know what I mean! You can’t ever talk back to an old person, you can’t disagree with an old person, you can’t even look at them wrong! That’s privilege if you ask me!”

At that, sensei chuckles with Shikamaru. Sometimes Naruto can be so patently ridiculous that there’s no other appropriate response but to laugh.

 

Once they’ve updated their jutsu lists, sensei releases them for the rest of the afternoon. Sasuke and Naruto decide to hang out in the sitting room poring over Naruto’s kanji list as per usual, so Shikamaru decides to spread out on the engawa sunning himself as per usual. Sensei goes out to the garden with sleeves rolled up, making rounds to check on each tea tree and potted herb in silence. Once in a while, iridescent snake scales peek out from between leaves, the residents of the garden slithering happily over cool soil to greet their master.

“You’re not going back home, Shika?” Sasuke asks, polishing his kunai while Naruto works on another problem set. “Not that I’m saying you should, that is. Just that, well, you usually go home.”

“Don’t feel like it,” Shikamaru grunts, arm thrown across his eyes to shield them from the glare of the sun. “Might run into people on the way home. Got ambushed once today already. Don’t want a repeat.”

Sasuke snorts at that, soft over the sound of his polishing stone skidding against metal. They are quiet for another handful of minutes, the ambient sounds of a lazy afternoon settling around them, until Sasuke clears his throat to speak again.

Or at least, Sasuke tries. “I… um.”

Shikamaru counts to thirty and then sighs, “Spit it out, it’s just us.”

“About—heir stuff. I just wanted to—about heir stuff.”

Turning his head to look at Sasuke, Shikamaru asks, “What about it?”

“Obaa-sama says… obaa-sama says it wouldn’t hurt to learn,” Sasuke continues to polish his kunai, probably to give himself something to do. Next to him, Naruto—still in female form—darts a glance up but doesn’t interrupt. “She says I should have been trained in the first place, but um. The current situation makes things complicated.”

“Glad to hear I’m not the only voice of reason around here,” Shikamaru grunts. “So why are you telling me about it?”

“Well, obaa-sama is teaching me what she can about the clan,” Sasuke continues, “in fact, I’m supposed to spend all of tomorrow with her. But um, she… she doesn’t know enough about the current situation with the other clans to… to teach me about clan politics.”

Shikamaru parses that for a moment, before he sits up and turns around. “Wait, so you want me to teach you? About clan politics?”

Sasuke looks up then, expression somewhat hesitant. “Yes? I mean, um, who else would I ask?”

Sensei,” Shikamaru raises both eyebrows at him. “It’s literally his job to teach us.”

Sasuke tilts his head at that and points out, “Isn’t it a conflict of interest? For him to be our jōnin sensei but also to teach me about clan politics, I mean.”

So Sasuke does understand. Enough, it seems, to see how treacherously easy it is to commit a faux pas as clan heir. “I mean, technically yes, but not really? Depends on how you look at it.”

But Shikamaru can also see the flip side of that argument. While sensei is far more experienced and would make a better teacher overall, sensei is also somewhat separated from the hum of village life. They don’t outright shun him like they do Naruto, but they definitely fear him, and the object of fear is often held at arm’s length or farther.

“Okay, fine,” Shikamaru concedes with a sigh, “I guess I can teach you what I know. But you really should still ask sensei about it.”

“I will! I just—I wanted to ask you first.”

That Sasuke is willing to trust him with this warms him from the inside. Well, if I can invest in someone as removed from me as Sakura, I can’t really say no to Sasuke, can I?

It will also make his life that much easier in the future, if he does succeed his father in such a prestigious position of power, to have the second son of the Uchiha clan as a staunch ally. Sasuke’s older brother might officially hold the title of heir apparent, but that title might end up being more of a presumptive one if their political situation doesn’t resolve itself. Sasuke’s grandmother certainly seems to think there’s a chance. It’s only prudent of Shikamaru to make contingencies in preparation of that chance.

And maybe one of these days, when I get him to trust me enough, he’ll tell me what the hell is going on inside the Uchiha clan, hopefully before everything explodes in our faces.

Shikamaru lays back down and releases a gusty sigh.

People are so troublesome.




tbc
first draft: 2020.09.24
last edited: 2021.12.16




NOTES & REFERENCES

(1) Oyaji - Dad. (Very casual; don't use this on someone you just met lol)

(2) Kage Bunshin is actually a very OP technique the way that it's explained in the canon. Because each clone is made of the user's chakra, it can behave the same way the user does, perform jutsus the way the user does, even make new kage bunshin and proliferate itself like the user does. What really interests me, however, is how it's usually classified as Yin jutsu (for the fact that it's a shadow-based technique) when it's more apparently a Yang jutsu. Why? It's not an illusion; it's very corporeal. It doesn't disperse with one hit like ordinary bunshin; in fact, Naruto's Kage Bunshin are capable of withstanding some amount of damage before they disperse. Most people would jump at how amazing that would be as a jutsu in battle, but what interests me about it is how it's chakra made flesh. (I mean, we've already broken the laws of physics, right? Why not smash the pieces into dust? XD) Soooo that's where I'm getting this explanation for the Oiroke. A henge (transformation) jutsu obviously fucks with matter and not just visual perception (e.g. an illusion) so if you can use chakra to make whole new bodies using Kage Bunshin, you cna surely use chakra to modify or transform your own. That Naruto has an instinctive grasp of this points to his understated genius, I think.

(3) Raimatou - 雷纏う Lightning Cloak

(4) I don’t actually think Ino is a bully. At the very least, she doesn’t mean it. I just picture her to be like most privileged children, unaware of the advantages her privileged position confers. She actually does value Sakura as a friend, but they’re still very young. Girls at this age are a handful, let me tell you. Add to that the pains of peer pressure and you’ve got quite a toxic mix happening; no wonder Sakura feels pressured. That being said, of course it’s not just on Ino’s side; Sakura is also a very sensitive girl - she's impressionable as fuck. I’m convinced that more than half of her canon crush on Sasuke was from a process of osmosis from Ino. It’s that thing where you make yourself like what your friends like, and one could say that in the process of trying to be like Ino, she ended up forming a rivalry with Ino, because Ino is the type of person who hates being imitated. Funny how that works out, right? Anyway, Sakura has never struck me as a natural leader; she doesn’t have the correct mindset for it even after Shippuden. So this progression makes sense to me. If you have differing opinions (which is fine!), let me know in the comments - or in the Discord server!

(5) Oh, and this is Sasuke's weaponizable smile:

Chapter Text

028. naruto: kindness

.

After all the excitement of training with the other teams, the following week is almost boring. Not that Naruto will say it out loud—he’s not that stupid—but it’s just more of their usual every day. Their usual is definitely not bad, don’t get him wrong; he’s just used to it now! So he tries to make it interesting by doing other extra things, like trying to keep a kage bunshin up for longer and longer, or reading beginner books on fuinjutsu and chakra theory, or practicing his calligraphy for better seal tags. Sensei hasn’t said anything about it, so Naruto thinks he’s doing rather well!

“Na, na, Shika, Shika,” Naruto nags one afternoon while they’re cooling down at the end of the day, “didja know there’s like four main types of chakra? I was reading about it in the book sensei let me borrow!”

Shikamaru only grunts, midway into a forward fold stretch that must hurt from Naruto’s own personal experience. Sasuke looks up at him though and enumerates, “Human, nature, sage… what’s the fourth one?”

“Something called Rikudou chakra?” Naruto tilts his head, “I think I read that right.”

“Rikudou,” Sasuke frowns, “as in Six Paths?” (1)

“Mm-hmm,” Naruto nods twice, “you can come read the scroll with me to check if I read it right.”

“You did,” Shikamaru sighs as he straightens from his fold. “There’s not a lot known about Rikudou chakra. Or if there is, there’s not much written about it. Our archives don’t have much either.”

“You looked?” Sasuke asks.

“Out of curiosity,” their resident nerd shrugs. “I’ve read almost every book in our archives except the restricted ones I’m not yet allowed to touch.”

“Why are they restricted?” Naruto asks.

Shikamaru’s face takes on a put-upon look. “Oyaji says I’m too young.”

“Your father is only trying to protect you,” Orochimaru-sensei comes back towards them with refilled water jugs. “Rikudou chakra is obscure knowledge. Written records of it, if there are any, are speaking almost as if the very thing is a legend. I’ve looked far and wide for more information but have never found anything. Although…”

“Although?” Shikamaru looks all sharp and curious, eyes trained on sensei like he doesn’t see anything else.

“Hmm,” sensei shrugs, a smooth motion that shifts the fabric of his yukata across his shoulders. “I now realize that I didn’t ask the Hakuja Sennin when I had the chance.” (2)

“Hakuja Sennin?” Shikamaru echoes. “Who’s that?”

Sensei begins explaining as they gather their things from under the tree to head out. “Hakuja Sennin—the sacred White Snake Sage—is the leader of the snakes who live in the legendary Ryuuchi Cave. Do you know what I speak of, Shikamaru?”

Shikamaru shakes his head no. Naruto glances at Sasuke, who also shakes his head no.

“A long time ago, when the Sage still walked among the living, there were beasts possessed of chakra and great knowledge. I am not talking about chakra beasts like the bijuu, but living beasts—animals, in fact, only far wiser. A few of these beasts have survived the ages and are known today as the legendary sage beasts who impart mastery of senjutsu to those who are worthy. The Hakuja Sennin is one such beast, alive for so long that the knowledge she holds about the world is immense.”

Naruto thinks through all of that for a moment. “So if you want to learn about senjutsu… you have to go to the sage beasts and they have to teach you?”

“That is the way,” sensei nods, “alhough they are not obligated to teach you.”

“Oooh, sensei, sensei, can we go?” Naruto trots a few steps ahead and turns around to face his team, walking backwards with a wide grin. “Can we, can we? I wanna learn senjutsu too!”

Sensei chuckles. “Later, Naruto, when you are all worthy of the sage beasts’ time. It is not a simple undertaking.”

“Okay!” Naruto turns to Sasuke and cheers, “We get to learn senjutsu!”

“Eventually,” Shikamaru sighs, “after shedding tears and blood.”

“So dramatic! You’ll be fiiiiine, Shika, you didn’t even cry or bleed today! Dunno what you’re complaining about,” Naruto crosses his arms behind his head as he dodges around a villager without looking. They’re approaching market street, which then reminds Naruto of something he’d been meaning to ask his teammates. “Oh, hey, hey, so I need your help, guys!”

“As long as it doesn’t involve crying or bleeding or, as a matter of fact, sweating,” Shikamaru gripes, plucking sadly at the sweat-soaked shirt clinging to his skin. “Summer is so overrated.”

Before Shikamaru can keep on whining, Sasuke expertly cuts in, “What did you need help with?”

“Clothes!” Naruto chirps. “So I think I have enough money from the D-ranks now and I wanna buy mission clothes like sensei told us to! Except I don’t know anything about clothes, so I need help.”

“We can go after training tomorrow,” Sasuke offers.

“What? No!” Shikamaru sounds so aghast that Naruto actually stops walking. “You’ll be all sweaty and gross! They won’t let you try on the clothes like that, and you definitely want to try them on to make sure they fit well.”

Naruto makes a face at him, but Sasuke agrees. “He’s right. We have to go before—oh, but the store won’t be open that early…”

“We may make an excursion of it on a Saturday afternoon, little ones. I shall accompany you.”

Naruto brightens on the spot. “Thank you, sensei! You’re the bestest!”

If sensei is there, surely the shopkeepers won’t be able to say anything about Naruto! Maybe they’ll even be intimidated enough that they won’t dare upcharge him on the clothes. It’ll be an experience shopping for expensive things—well, expensive compared to everything he’s ever bought for himself in the past—without the shopkeepers hoarding all their best goods away. Naruto can’t wait!

As always, they separate at the mouth of market street. Sasuke and Naruto exchange a jaunty wave; Shikamaru only grunts and continues trudging towards the Nara compound. When they get home, Naruto calls out, “Tadaima!” to the household and revels at the three voices that greet back.

“Ooh, sensei, Tenzo-nii’s here!”

“Be sure to say thank you for the dinner,” sensei reminds him, although Naruto doesn’t need a reminder. He’ll always be thankful for clean food!

But first, a bath. It’s impolite to be filthy at the table when being clean is an alternative. Sasuke has been telling him more about the teachings of the Sage, which Naruto thought would be stuffy and boring at first but they’re actually not bad! In fact they’re very good teachings, and he thinks the world would be a much kinder place if everyone just followed the Sage’s words. Unfortunately, according to Sasuke’s obaa-sama and sensei both, the Sage’s teachings are going out of style.

Maybe that’s something I can change, Naruto wonders, stripping his clothes off before heading for the hot water. Maybe if people see how Team Seven has gotten stronger as a team because we followed the Sage’s way, we’ll bring it back into style!

Naruto likes that idea: bringing things back into style. He likes the thought of setting an example that other shinobi can follow. Even if it’s only those younger than them—because he knows for a fact that most adults (except sensei) don’t like to change—it’ll still be worth the effort. It means that the next generation can be better than the previous one.

I wonder if that’s what sensei thinks about when he looks at us. I wonder if he thinks we’ll be better than his generation.

One day he’ll feel comfortable enough to ask these questions of sensei—or maybe meet sensei’s teammates in person!—and he’ll find out.




Dispelling the kage bunshin after dinner gives him a headache.

“How long did you have it up this time?” sensei asks, scratching fingers through his hair like one would do to a good dog.

“32 hours,” Naruto moans, face-down on the floor. The tatami ridges will probably leave red marks on his forehead again, but his head hurts more at the moment. “That’s the longest ever.”

Somewhere near his feet, Anko-nee whistles low. “Damn, kid. How are you even talking?”

“Are you dizzy? Nauseous?” Kabuto-nii asks.

“Nope.”

“Just a headache, then,” sensei verifies.

“Yep.”

“Can you move?” Kabuto-nii asks again. Naruto responds by sitting up.

“It’s not nice, but yeah,” he squints at the table, face scrunched up in pain. If he sits still for a bit, maybe the pain will go away.

Kabuto-nii smiles at him then, low and sly. “That means it’s viable for use on the field.”

“Don’t think I can fight if my head hurts this much.”

“Pain is a construct,” Kabuto-nii dismisses with the wave of a hand, “and can be fixed many different ways. I’m sure sensei will eventually get you three proficient in basic healing and first aid, both of which include analgesic techniques, but there are also medicines and the threat of an enemy.”

“The threat of an enemy?”

“Nothing like adrenaline to make you forget the pain. In the heat of battle, you won’t even realize that you’re hurting. Pain comes after when there is time to properly feel it.”

Kabuto-nii speaks as if from experience so Naruto doesn’t argue. He’ll find out if it’s true soon enough.

“Here,” sensei hands him a pill to take with a cup of tea, “take this and go to bed. No reading for tonight, it will make your headache worse.”

Naruto doesn’t need to be told twice. He swallows the pill, chugs the tea, and bids everyone a good night. “Tenzo-nii, I’m glad your mission went well!”

“Me too,” Tenzo-nii chuckles. “Go to bed, Naruto-kun.”

As he slips down the hall to his bedroom, he can’t help but wonder: what do they talk about when he’s not in the room? Do they talk about him? Do they complain about the extra mouth to feed?

Naruto doesn’t actually know how the money works in this household; the last time he asked—that is, when he asked about rent—sensei had gotten angry. He hadn’t dared to ask again since then.

But maybe I should, he frowns, because I should pitch in somehow, right? It’s only fair.

Every member of the household is an active shinobi of Konoha. That means that every member of the household has an income, including Naruto. It only makes sense that he pays his part of the expenses. Money doesn’t grow on trees and in Naruto’s experience, it also tends to run out very fast. They can’t all be relying on sensei to pay their way through daily living forever!

But how much does sensei actually earn?

Probably a lot. Definitely way more than Naruto earns from the crappy D-ranks they do every morning. It’s more money than Naruto’s ever earned in his life, though, so he’s not complaining—just that sensei definitely earns more.

For that matter, Kabuto-nii, Anko-nee, and Tenzo-nii are all jōnin-class—so they all earn more! He wonders how much more each rank earns compared to a genin. He resolves to ask sensei tomorrow.

Naruto makes short work of spreading out his futon and then flops face-down into the welcoming softness. His head is still throbbing in time with his heartbeat, but if he tries hard enough, he can kind of push it aside, so he distracts himself with idle thoughts. He has plenty of those.

I wonder what being a clan heir is like. I mean, I’m a clan heir, but I don’t actually have a clan, so it doesn’t really count, right? Being a clan heir sounds like so much trouble. But it would be nice to have a family like that. It would be nice to have other people who have the same name.

It’s not that Naruto’s jealous, because he isn’t. Who has time for being jealous? It’s just that the night is dark, and he feels safe, and that’s when idle thoughts like these pop up out of nowhere. Like mushrooms! Mushrooms are great. He likes mushrooms in his ramen!

I wonder if okaa-san or otou-san liked ramen too.

In between one breath and the next, he falls asleep.




Darkness. Silence.

Water under his feet.

Naruto looks down and watches the water ripple outwards when he moves. It’s too dark for a reflection, but there’s light enough for him to see that the water is there; how strange.

Out of curiosity, he holds his arms out in front of him. He can see himself just fine. Where is the light coming from? His body looks like it’s glowing from the inside. Is that what chakra looks like? Does Sasuke see chakra like this with the Sharingan?

When he looks up, two large eyes are watching him.

“Oh, hey!” he barely keeps from jumping a foot in the air. It’s so silent in here that it’s like he’s alone. “Did I wake you up again? Sorry about that, hehehe!”

It doesn’t respond, but its blood-red eyes stay fixed on him. He can’t see the rest of its body; the shadows are too deep.

“So, uhh… I don’t know how I got here. I think I’m asleep?” he scratches the back of his neck and looks around. The cage looks the same as last time, the seal still pasted on its gates.

He’s studied a little bit about fuinjutsu now to recognize that it’s an unusual seal. He didn’t see it when he rifled through the basic books sensei let him borrow. Curious, he steps closer, squinting at the ink that sprawls all over the flimsy-looking paper. Whoever wrote it seemed like they were in a hurry, that’s for sure.

I wouldn’t touch that if I were you,” it warns when he reaches out for the seal.

He jerks back and retracts his hand. “Why not?”

Because you’re not ready.


With a gasp, Naruto wakes up.




“Describe it to me again,” sensei instructs him, “with as much detail as you can manage.”

Naruto fidgets and squirms in his seat, both hands wrapped around a piping hot cup of tea. It’s barely six in the morning, way too early for him to wake up, but he couldn’t go back to sleep after that weird dream.

Does it even count as a dream?

“So it’s very dark and super quiet,” Naruto begins describing the dream, which of course isn’t a dream at all. Not the ordinary kind, at least, because ordinary dreams fade away within minutes of waking up. Some even fade away before he wakes up! But this one is clear as day in his mind’s eye, down to the detail of the seal affixed on the gate. “I think the seal keeps it inside, sensei. But it doesn’t look that secure.”

Sensei looks at him intently. “In what way do you mean?”

“Like it might rip in half if you pulled too hard?” Naruto paws at his hair and adds, “But also it’s made of paper. The paper looks really thin. I dunno, it just doesn’t seem very strong. Maybe that’s just how it looks but it’s actually strong, I can’t really tell.”

“If I were to give you ink and paper, can you copy it down?”

Naruto squints. “Hmmmm, no… I mean, I can try? But I don’t know if I can get it down. I’ve only seen it twice and the first time I wasn’t really paying attention.”

“This wasn’t the first time?” sensei sounds surprised and just a little bit alarmed.

“Oh! Hahaha,” Naruto scratches his head again, “the first time was the night Kabuto-nii got home! I didn’t realize it wasn’t just a dream back then, though. It was really short.”

“Do you remember dreaming other dreams before or after you go to this place?”

“No.”

“How about before you fall asleep? What were you thinking about? Were you feeling some strong emotion? Anger, perhaps, or fear?”

“…no? I just had that headache last night.”

“Ah, yes,” sensei nods, “from your 32-hour kage bunshin.”

“Yep! Hey, isn’t that badass?” Naruto grins. Even Kabuto-nii was impressed, so it must be something!

“It is, indeed, badass,” sensei indulges his terminology, which makes Naruto giggle. “I have an assignment for you.”

“Yes, sensei!”

“Every time this happens again in the future, I want you to write down everything about the dream. You will keep a journal in your room so that you can accurately keep track. Note the time and date so we can track if it recurs on a regular interval. I also want you to write down what you were feeling and thinking prior to falling asleep and if you were doing anything special the previous day. Got it?”

Naruto nods along, repeating the instructions several times in his head so that he won’t forget. “Ah, I’ll need another notebook…”

“I shall bring you one. Be diligent about this, Naruto. We know precious little about the bijuu or the seal that holds it within you. Every little bit of information helps us understand better.”

“I understand, sensei!”

“And one more thing,” sensei adds, “that I want you to pay attention to.”

Sensei pauses then, briefly looking out at the garden where the friendly snakes live. For a moment, there is something… haunting and lonely about the look that passes on sensei’s face—and Naruto only sees it because he’s paying attention, it flickers away after only a second—that suddenly overwhelms Naruto with the urge to hug him.

“Imagine,” sensei quietly tells him, “that you are alone in a dark place. It is absolutely dark, so dark that you cannot see your own hand, so dark that the absence of light is almost a physical presence.”

Naruto’s nose scrunches up in thought. Has he ever been anywhere that dark? At the old apartment, even at night when there was no moon in the sky, the streetlamps outside cast some light, enough to render everything at least a hazy grey. He doesn’t think he’s ever been anywhere that dark, so instead he covers his eyes with both hands and tries to imagine.

Sensei continues, “Imagine also that it’s deathly silent. So silent that the silence is deafening; so silent that your heartbeat is like thunder and your breaths are like a gale. You are the only one you can hear. After a time, it must become difficult to know whether or not you are speaking your thoughts out loud; if there is no one around to respond, to listen, it then seems the silence only echoes all your words back to you.”

“That sounds horrible,” Naruto’s eyes fly open in horror. “I’d go crazy, sensei!”

“You would, wouldn’t you? Even the most self-sufficient individual would find it painful,” sensei agrees. “What if someone put you there, in a place where the darkness and the silence are absolute? What if someone forced you into that space against your will? How would you feel?”

If someone forced him? If someone tried that, Naruto would fight, of course! He’d make sure it didn’t happen! But he pauses and considers what sensei is trying to tell him. What if, sensei says. So what if Naruto loses that fight? What if someone catches him and puts him in a… a box? A sealed room with no windows?

Naruto shudders in horror for a moment—before the anger crashes into his chest. Anger at whoever would do something like that, and frustration at his own weakness because he should have been able to stop them.

A cold hand suddenly lands on the middle of his chest. “Are you angry?” sensei asks when Naruto looks up. Naruto nods. “Of course you are. That’s what we feel first when someone wrongs us. Other feelings will come, other feelings will go, like a tide coming in and out of a bay… but the anger is fed by the pain and it stays. As long as you’re hurting, the anger will remain.”

Naruto’s not stupid. It takes a moment, but it does come together. There is a beast inside of him, trapped in a box with no means of escape.

“You understand what I am trying to say,” sensei sees clearly, withdrawing the hand on Naruto’s chest. “The beast will be angry. It will be frustrated. It will resent—perhaps you, but perhaps not; definitely the shinobi world at large for all that we have done to it.”

“…what do I do then, sensei?” Naruto’s not great at calming down angry people, after all. The last time he had to deal with that, Sasuke ended up kicking the angry person.

“Do what Sasuke would do.”

Naruto’s eyebrows go up. “…Sensei, you want me to kick the bijuu?” But it’s already angry; won’t that make it angrier?

Sensei blinks—and then chuckles, realizing which event Naruto is referring to. “Not what Sasuke did in that particular instance, but what Sasuke would usually do.”

“Uhhh,” Naruto squints, and then, “oh! Be polite!”

Sensei nods. “Manners exist as a buffer between your unhappiness and mine, or my unhappiness and the world. It will help to prevent an escalation of emotion, and although the bijuu is not human like us, I am inclined to think that the Sage left his precepts behind to guide our behavior for a reason.” (5)

“Okay, I can do that,” Naruto nods to himself, “I can be polite, yeah!”

“Good,” sensei says, “and moreover, Naruto, be kind.”

Naruto blinks, momentarily thrown. “Be kind?”

“Be kind,” a smile hovers around the edges of sensei’s eyes then, a sad smile. Why is it sad? “It is very difficult to be angry in the face of overwhelming kindness, but only if the kindness is sincere.”

That’s worth a moment of thought. Naruto crosses his arms and hums. “That’s true; I would feel like an absolute jerk yelling at someone who’s just being nice.”

“We have an instinct to give back what is given to us,” sensei says, “and when we receive only anger and cruelty and unkindness, that is what we want to give back. Flip that on its head and you can change the tone of the conversation. Give kindness to someone who has never received it, or perhaps it has been a long time since they received it, and they will inevitably want to give that kindness back.”

“Oh,” Naruto blinks and smiles, “I see! Just like you did for me!”

Sensei blinks back at him, surprise flashing over his face like sunlight through the leaves.

“Okay, okay!” Naruto then nods, “I got it, sensei, I’ll do my best! I’ll be nice even if the bijuu is a grumpy old fox!”

I might not be as smart as Shika or as awesome as Sasuke, but I can be stubborn like a rock!

He gulps down the rest of his tea just as Tenzo-nii comes around the corner and greets them a good morning. He gets up with a grin and a ‘good morning’ as he troops to the kitchen to help with breakfast. Now that sensei has brought it up, he can’t help but be distracted about the bijuu all morning. He definitely has to stay longer next time and actually talk to it so it won’t be lonely anymore.

Calling it ‘it’ sounds so rude... Does it have a name?

The Sage says that names have power. Surely something as old and powerful as the bijuu will have a name! But it won’t be a name Naruto can readily use, not unless the bijuu gives him permission. He’s learned that much from Sasuke.

Well, the next time I see him, I’ll just have to ask, won’t I? After all, that’s the polite thing to do.

It’ll be years hence before Naruto realizes that he’s the only one kind enough to ask.




On Saturday afternoon, Naruto sets out with a full froggy wallet and his team at his side.

“Are you guys buying anything?” he asks, playfully elbowing Shikamaru and Sasuke.

“I’m picking up stuff, yeah,” Shikamaru yawns mid-sentence, “I had to ask them to customize some stuff for me. Oh, and their vest sizes run a bit large so I had to order a smaller one.”

“I hope you only ordered one,” sensei idly notes, “because I expect you to sprout like a weed soon enough.”

“Your dad is kinda tall,” Naruto points out, “and you’re already taller than me and Sasuke. Aahh, I also wanna get taller!”

Sensei only pats his head. “We’ll work on it, but I think you’ll be my little one for a while yet.”

Naruto whines but it’s only a token complaint. He doesn’t mind being little if it means he gets to stay with sensei.

“What about you, Sasuke? Are you buying new clothes?” He thinks that Sasuke might not need to buy any, however. Sasuke seems materially well-provided for through his clan.

“I’m getting mine made by Sayo-oba-san—ah, she’s our seamstress,” Sasuke explains. “Her daughters are actually making my clothes. Oba-san is just overseeing them ‘cause they have to learn.”

“They better not put the Uchiha mon all over the clothes,” Shikamaru darkly grumbles. “It won’t hurt you to wear some clothes that don’t have your clan’s mon on them.” (3)

“I heard you the first time,” Sasuke tetchily responds. Naruto can’t blame him; Shikamaru has been nagging about their clothes for a while now.

The clothes shop is only a little busy when they arrive. There are two other shinobi in the store, browsing separately in silence. Sensei immediately commands the shopkeeper’s attention just by standing at the door.

“I am here with the genin,” sensei addresses the shopkeeper, who nods. “Naruto, why don’t you tell them what you need?”

“Good afternoon!” Naruto pastes a bright smile on his face. “I already know what I want, oji-san!”

“Alright then,” the shopkeeper eyes him with a little reservation, but fetches all the items Naruto asks for.

“I’d like to try them on, please?”

Faced with Naruto’s best behavior (and sensei’s placid presence), the shopkeeper lets him into the changing room without a fuss.

Sensei is the best! Naruto crows, pulling the divider shut and shucking off his shirt. He can hear Shikamaru talking to the shopkeeper the entire time he’s inside. Naruto had also considered a functional vest of the same kind Shikamaru is getting, but then he saw this coat…

“Oh, hey, that looks pretty good,” Sasuke smiles when Naruto steps out of the changing room.

“I know, right?” Naruto tries hopping up and down in his new outfit. The black pants are nothing special, just the typical sturdy kind most shinobi wear. He’ll bind them down with bandages and tuck them into the sandals, which are also nothing special; he doesn’t have enough money to be buying fancy stuff when he’ll just wear them down and get them dirty on the field.

For his innermost layer he chooses a sleeveless undershirt, black so that it hides stains, thin enough to breathe. His body tends to run warm (maybe because of the bijuu’s chakra?) so he’d rather not have the weight of thick clothes.

But the coat! It’s more a jacket, a little longer than the usual kind, its hem ending past the hips. Mostly black, its sleeves are long enough to cover his wrists, the collar high enough to curve around the back of his neck. Tons of pockets are worked into its many corners, but the best part is the yellow piping along the middle zip, collar edges, and cuffs. (4)

“Comfortable?” sensei asks, looking him over top to bottom with a critical eye.

“Yep! This color is fine, right, sensei? Even if it has a little yellow?”

Shikamaru huffs but sensei’s mouth curls into approval. “I don’t see why not. Make sure everything fits right. Get three or four of the pants and undershirt.”

Shockingly, he has enough money for all of it.

As soon as he’s sure everything is in order, Naruto changes back into his training clothes. Best not make the shopkeeper angry if he has to come back here for future purchases. While he’s counting out money from his froggy wallet, he asks after Shikamaru’s clothes.

“Just a typical flak jacket,” Shikamaru holds it up for them to see.

Sasuke frowns. “It’s grey, not green.”

“I feel like green is a dead giveaway for Konoha,” Shikamaru explains. Naruto spies the flash of a smile on sensei’s face. “Anyway, I like grey, it blends in.”

“Should I buy a new pack?” Sasuke asks, eyeing one on display as the shopkeeper packs Naruto’s things into a bag.

“I was gonna wear mine out before buying a new one,” Naruto says. “Oh, thank you, oji-san! Okay, guys, I’m done!”

“That was less painful than I thought it would be, thank the Sage,” Shikamaru mutters as if they can’t hear him anyway. He turns, “Oi, Sasuke, I demand to see your clothes before we actually go on a mission, okay?”

“Yes, fine,” Sasuke irritably sighs, “I’ll wear it next week whenever I get it. You’re a nag, you know that?”

“Only because you need nagging on.”

Naruto laughs at them. His teammates are seriously the best. Other teams probably don’t have a Shikamaru, who’s so invested in making sure that all of them succeed together—or if they do, they’re nowhere near as good as Shikamaru is at it! The knowledge that a friend is reliably watching his back puts Naruto in a good mood; add to that the excitement he feels about having his new coat and his mood edges right into buoyant.

It’s so nice to finally be able to afford things I want.

He clutches his purchase to his chest and dares to dream about what else he can afford now that he’s not worrying about rent and food anymore, now that he’s gone beyond basic survival, now that he can breathe. The horizons have opened; it’s a whole new world.

.

That night, Naruto’s bone-deep happiness tides him through his nighttime routine, after which he puts his new clothes into his closet and spreads out his futon and tucks tired limbs into bed. He floats into his dreams with a lightness that he wants to get used to, and when he lands in front of the cage again, a grin stretches across his face.

He knows what to do this time. He remembers sensei’s words.

Staring into the bijuu’s red eyes undeterred, Naruto arms himself with kindness.




tbc
first draft: 2020.09.30
last edited: 2021.12.16




NOTES & REFERENCES

(1) Rikudou chakra, according to canon, is unique to Hagoromo (the Sage of the Six Paths, Rikudou Sennin 六道仙人). What "rikudou" (six paths) actually means on the deeper level, we don't really know, because canon is unhelpful like that. ╰(  ̄x ̄)╯ Oh well! #fuckcanon

(2) The Hakuja Sennin 白蛇仙人 is the huge-ass albino Japanese rat snake that lives in the Ryuuchi Cave. In canon, Orochimaru tried to learn senjutsu from her.

(3) The Uchiha mon (seal) is based on the uchiwa (Japanese rigid fan) which can be traced back to ancient China. In canon, Madara is shown to carry a massive uchiwa as a weapon - but ironically, the uchiwa is historically not the weaponized version. Japanese war fans from the feudal era were called tessen and looked like Temari's massive iron fan. There is also the gunbai-uchiwa (a military leader's fan) which was rigid and made of wood or iron, used to signal troops, but it doesn't look anything like the uchiwa that Madara carried.

(4) Naruto’s outfit looks very similar to his bijuu transformation look (see below) - except invert the yellow overcoat into black with yellow accents. I actually think that looks quite practical for mission work.


(5) Manners are important. That being said… I’m not advocating repressing your anger (that’s how you get Issues; do it long enough and your Issues become whole Subscriptions) – but keep in mind that this is based on an Asian society. Repressing huge displays of emotion is a Thing. Moreover, impeccable MANNERS are a Thing. ╰(  ̄x ̄)╯

Chapter Text

029. sasuke: questions

.

“Do you recall what I have told you about the history of our clan?”

Sasuke licks his lips clean of miso soup and nods. “Yes, obaa-sama, I do.” Hard to forget that lesson when it’s such a compelling story.

Oboro-obaa-sama gives him the last piece of tamagoyaki. “Then you know how the Uchiha clan came to be. But we are learning something different today, Sasuke. Tell me: what is the clan?”

Sasuke pauses at that, chopsticks hovering over the goma-ae that he meant to pile on top of his rice. (1) “What is the clan?” he echoes the question. What an odd question. “I don’t understand what you mean, obaa-sama. The clan is… um, I don’t understand.”

“Good,” she nods, smile flashing sharp like the flick of a knife. “At least you don’t pretend to understand. That is one less thing to unlearn.” She motions to Sasuke’s bowl of rice, still half-full, and the half-eaten grilled salmon on his dish. “Eat, child. You need it to grow.”

So Sasuke dips his head down and continues to eat, stuffing rice into his cheeks with a hunger born from his chakra core’s constant exhaustion. It has been two days since the joint exercise and his body is still recovering; no doubt tomorrow, sensei will put them through the paces again, a never-ending cycle in the pursuit of excellence.

Obaa-sama pours herself another cup of tea and settles until he finishes his breakfast. She watches him intently today; Sasuke noticed it from the moment he arrived at the shrine. Something has changed. Sasuke doesn’t know what.

“As the area of our knowledge grows, so does the perimeter of our ignorance. You are learning at a rapid pace, so surely you have noticed that the more you learn, the more questions you now know to ask.”

Sasuke nods twice. Take Naruto’s situation, for example, or otherwise aniki’s leave-taking. The more he learns about the village and its other clans, the more he questions what exactly happened.

“Often the answers are around us, hidden in the rhythms of our daily lives,” obaa-sama continues. “We find them by searching, by listening, and by paying attention. I asked you a question that you do not know how to answer, a question you do not even understand; I could tell you the answer, but that defeats the purpose. When I am gone and you are leading the clan, or perhaps assisting your brother who might yet return to us, who will you turn to for ready answers to problems you might encounter? No, you must know how to find the answers for yourself.”

Sasuke nods again. “Sensei says we have to think, not just follow.”

“Yes, and I want you to observe,” obaa-sama nudges his cheekbone with a gentle knuckle. “Put those bright eyes of yours to work. You have been given the gift of sight: use it. Do not be willfully blind.”

They conclude breakfast with that directive, Sasuke inhaling the last of his second bowl of rice with gusto. He helps clean up and wash dishes and before long they are leaving the clan house together, he and his grandmother, just the way they always have since he was very little. In a burst of affection, Sasuke takes obaa-sama’s hand and holds on.

“Come along, then,” she beckons, “let us go to Sayo-san’s place first.” Her pace is far brisker than what most would expect.

Sasuke smiles at each miko they walk past, cousins training under obaa-sama, every morning tasked with the duty to keep the shrine clean. He asks, “Why Sayo-oba-san’s place?”

“You wear your play clothes to train; that won’t do on the field,” obaa-sama points out. “You need proper clothes that will withstand your future missions.”

“Oh, yes! I mean,” Sasuke sheepishly laughs, “I was meaning to buy clothes later this week, so that works out.”

“You are a child of the main bloodline. You will not buy your clothes; they will be made for you.”

It’s not a scolding but a firm reminder; Sasuke ducks his head nonetheless. “Yes, obaa-sama, I’m sorry.”

Summer has descended entirely over the compound, blanketing even the shrine grounds in balmy heat. As early as it is, the sunlight is already warm on his skin, spilling through the leaves overhead like liquid gold. When they emerge from the shade of the forest into Aka-dori, the warmth is almost cloying.

Sayo-oba-san is a master seamstress who often takes care of otou-sama and okaa-san’s formal clothes; her shop is right around the corner from the square. Sasuke has several sets of formal kimono that she made on okaa-san’s request. It makes sense, therefore, to come to her for clothes; she already knows Sasuke’s body.

“We ought to take another set of measurements anyway,” Sayo-oba-san pours Oboro-obaa-sama a cup of tea as her daughters bring out the tools. “Sage knows you young ones grow so quickly; I make you a haori one season and by the next you’ve outgrown it!” (2)

“I, um, I didn’t know you also made field clothes, oba-san.”

“Well, I can certainly make an exception for you, Sasuke-chan. Of course you can buy the ready-made clothes at the village, but I daresay we can make it better.” Sayo-oba-san pivots in her seat and frowns, “Hitoka, go fetch your uncle! Oboro-sama, my apologies; I told Satoshi to be here on time but you know how that hardhead never listens to me.” (3)

Soon enough, Satoshi-oji arrives from next door, still scrubbing the sleep from his face even as Hitoka-nee pours him a strong cup of tea. They sit Sasuke down to hear his opinions.

“We can customize everything as little or as much as you want,” Hitomi-nee explains. “Do you have an idea of what items you’d feel most comfortable in?”

“I, um, I was thinking just the usual pants but sturdier?” Hitomi-nee nods along, so Sasuke continues, “A sleeveless undershirt, um, so that I don’t overheat. I was going to get armguards, the kind that covers all the way down to the back of my hands, and um, for the outer part, a haori, maybe?”

Sasuke is relieved to find that they are, in fact, paying attention to him. Hitoka-nee is making notes on a piece of paper with a pencil that she had been using to keep her hair twisted up. “What sort of specifics would you like for the haori?” she asks.

“Don’t be shy, Sasuke-bō,” Satoshi-oji grins sleepily, “we can even dress it up with cats if you like.”

Sayo-oba-san rolls her eyes, which makes Sasuke smile. He replies, “I don’t think that my team captain would let me wear that outside of the village, oji-san. Um, actually, I’m supposed to ask for clothes that don’t, uhh, don’t have our mon on it.”

Satoshi-oji’s eyebrows quirk up. “Smart,” Sayo-oba-san remarks.

“No mon,” Hitomi-nee notes down, “means no mon outside, right? We can still embroider a mon inside, right?”

“Uhh,” Sasuke hazards, “yes…?” That should be fine, right? He can’t imagine a reason for an enemy to be looking under his clothes long enough to find a mon. “A small one should be fine.”

“Great,” Satoshi-oji straightens and takes a measuring tool from Hitoka-nee, “up you get, Sasuke-bō. We gotta get some numbers.”

Then ensues a brisk, business-like series of measurements carried out behind a privacy screen where Sasuke strips out of his clothes and stands in his underwear for Satoshi-oji to examine.

“You’ve gotten taller,” Satoshi-oji remarks, “and your limbs are getting longer. We’ll add a bit of leeway so you can grow into the clothes for at least a year.”

“You hope it’s a year,” Sayo-oba-san snorts from outside, “but these boys, I tell you. Like weeds!”

If he indeed grows that fast, enough to match Shikamaru’s height if not overtake it, Sasuke will be happy. It’s tiring being so short.

By the time the measurements are over, Hitomi-nee has a sketch of what his mission clothes will look like. Sasuke agrees with most of it except the haori’s sleeves. “I don’t think I can manage sleeves with tails that long, onee-san. I don’t know how my sensei does it. I was planning on tucking the sleeves under the armguards or binding them with bandages, kind of like the pants?”

“Ah!” she flicks her pencil against the edge of the paper, “No need for that! We can tailor the sleeves to be straight instead of having a furisode. (4) Okay, anything else? Special requests for embroidered designs or color accents?”

Sasuke shakes his head no. “They’re mission clothes, onee-san. They’re probably just gonna get roughed up. No need for fancy things.”

“What a practical boy,” Sayo-oba-san praises, more to Oboro-obaa-sama than anything. Satisfied that everything has been concluded in an orderly fashion, she tells him, “We should have three sets, if not more, ready by two weeks. If you think of anything else, come back and let us know. The earlier the better, alright?”

“Yes, oba-san, thank you very much,” Sasuke bows low and holds it for a moment. They have been very nice, listening to all of his input. He’s usually not worth this much attention. “Um, when do I need to pay for the clothes, oba-san?”

“The account will be settled with your parents, Sasuke-bō, not to worry.”

Well, they’re for missions, not leisure; Sasuke hopes that otou-sama won’t think it too excessive.

After a few more minutes of Sayo-oba-san and Oboro-obaa-sama’s quiet conversation, they conclude their business and take their leave. Sasuke takes obaa-sama’s hand again as they reemerge into the street, this time heading for the smithy at obaa-sama’s bidding.

“Hitoka and Hitomi will begin training with me at the shrine next year,” obaa-sama tells Sasuke. “Both of them have activated the Sharingan, but their eyes are weak and unsuited for battle. It is a good thing that neither of them wants to go to battle in the first place.”

“Oh,” Sasuke blinks, looking back at the house where Sayo-oba-san and her two teenage daughters live. “I didn’t know that. Will they still be taking after oba-san’s work?”

“Yes,” obaa-sama nods, “the workload is manageable so long as there are enough priestesses to mind the shrine. Most of it is maintenance anyhow. When I am gone, your mother will take over my place to keep watch over our histories and artefacts. They, along with the other priestesses, will assist her.”

That makes sense. Sasuke knows that the shrine takes quite a bit of upkeep considering its size and the sprawling breadth of the Uchiha main house. It’s a shame that only obaa-sama lives there now, with one or two of the priestesses sometimes sleeping over; he wonders what it must have been like when the Uchiha main family was more than one straight line.

At the smithy, Ginrō-oji welcomes them in with a bright grin. “Oya, if it isn’t Oboro-sama! What brings you in today?”

“Sasuke requires a new sword,” obaa-sama says, making Sasuke abruptly look up at her in surprise. “He will go out on missions soon and should have a quality weapon.”

“O-Obaa-sama, I already have a ninjatō,” Sasuke tries to protest, because first the clothes and then this—surely it’s too much? He doesn’t want otou-sama to be mad.

Obaa-sama looks down at him and raises an eyebrow. “You channel an element most unusual to us Uchiha. Your ninjatō is made for fire, but you use lightning. Therefore, you need a new sword.”

Well now,” Ginrō-oji’s grin sharpens and sobers at the edges, like a blade tempered with a kiss of water. “A Lightning affinity? I’ve never heard of that before.”

“Did someone say lightning?” Gintoki-nii, Ginrō-oji’s eldest son, steps out from behind the forge. “Sasuke-bō has a Lightning affinity? Really? Oyaji, does this mean we get to use the silver ore?” At Sasuke’s confused look, Gintoki-nii adds, “It’s a hyperconductive metal! Great for those who use a lot of lightning jutsu. We usually fold it into the tamahagane (5) for wire, rope, and shuriken. It’ll be a nice change to use it for a sword.”

“I-I really don’t know that I need a new one,” Sasuke quietly says.

“You are getting one nonetheless. Hora,” obaa-sama lets go of his hand to usher him forward, “Gintoki-kun needs to measure your reach. Go on, be good.”

In the face of his obaa-sama’s insistence, how is Sasuke supposed to disagree?

He will admit to some excitement, however, about the prospect of a sword specifically made for his element. He wonders what it will feel like in his hand as Gintoki-nii makes him hold out both arms. Another round of measurement commences, but this one doesn’t require him to disrobe; he thinks of a question and gathers up the courage to ask it.

“If I grow taller,” he asks Gintoki-nii, “will you need to adjust the sword?”

“We can,” Gintoki-nii agrees, “but we don’t have to. Ultimately it depends on you. You’re the one using it, right?”

Sasuke hums and watches him work for a quiet moment, before asking the other burning question that is borderline rude, the original question that makes him hesitate: “Do you not want to become shinobi, nii-san? Do you like making weapons more?”

Gintoki-nii pauses, glancing at him with some surprise. Sasuke is more than ten years younger, but for a moment that gap seems to shrink, Gintoki-nii regarding him with more weight than Sasuke thinks he’s worth. “Not all of us are made to be shinobi, Sasuke-bō.”

“I’m aware,” Sasuke nods, trying not to shrink. “I just—you seem, uh, strong. Enough.”

Gintoki-nii then smiles. “Not all of us want to be shinobi.”

“Oh,” Sasuke blinks, “oh, okay. I’m sorry, nii-san, I didn’t mean to be rude. I was just, uh—”

“Curious,” Gintoki-nii ruffles his hair the way that Shikamaru’s dad sometimes does to Shikamaru, “and there’s nothing wrong with curiosity. I’m not offended. Thank you for asking instead of assuming!”

“Do people do that?” Sasuke asks as they move back to the front of the smithy where obaa-sama is in conversation with Ginrō-oji. “Assume, I mean.”

“Oh, all the time,” Gintoki-nii shrugs, “they assume that there’s something wrong with me that keeps me away from the battlefield. Well, if having a sense of self-preservation makes me broken somehow, then I guess I’m broken!”

Sasuke frowns. “That’s not nice. No, that’s not right.”

And yet he can see some of his own clansmen casting that sort of judgment on someone like Gintoki-nii, someone who prefers to stay back.

But there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a civilian, Sasuke thinks as he considers the matter further, because who else would do all the things that they do for us if they all became shinobi? Who would run the smithy or do the tailoring or farm the food?

Oboro-obaa-sama takes him back at the door, where Ginrō-oji bids them a good day. Sasuke is told that the sword will be ready for him in a month. But he’s still thinking about Gintoki-nii as they walk away, obaa-sama leading him by the hand with a knowing expression. Obaa-sama always knows; she’s far more experienced at looking underneath the underneath.

Their third and final stop is the grocer, where more people are congregated to look at the weekend produce. The compound has enough farmers to tend to a very large garden that produces a dizzying variety of vegetables, spices, and fruits. The farmers also keep poultry and cattle of their own, not as much as the farms beyond the village do but enough to have a steady supply of eggs and milk. They do not have enough land to plant rice, but with everything else, the Uchiha clan is self-sufficient.

Warm greetings wash over them as obaa-sama examines the selection with a smile. Sasuke remains by her side, quiet and observant, nodding and bowing at appropriate intervals so as not to seem impolite.

Uruchi-oba from the bakery is buying flour today, while Haruka-oji from the weapons shop is asking about salted duck eggs. Natori-jiji cheerfully haggles with several people at once; there seems to be a demand for the apricots and the watermelons. Oboro-obaa-sama buys a passel of okra, bell peppers in yellow and orange and red, eggplants longer than Sasuke’s arm, string beans by the handful, the last of the past season’s strawberry harvest, and tomatoes on the vine, two of which she gives to Sasuke with a smile. He polishes them on the hem of his shirt and eats them on the spot.

“Maa, Sasuke-bou does love his tomatoes, doesn’t he?” Uruchi-oba chuckles, reaching over to rub a spot on Sasuke’s cheek as if he were six years old again and tiny. “How’s training treating you, then? I haven’t seen you in some time. You should bring your teammates over to the bakery and have them try our senbei!”

Sasuke readily agrees; their senbei is easily the best in Konoha. He’s brought some to sensei’s house, in fact, and they enjoyed it as a team over tea. But there is merit to the idea of bringing his team to see the compound. He wants them to see the shrine and he’s sure Shikamaru will have a hundred and one questions about it.

“Ahh, Sasuke-chan, don’t grow up too fast,” and this time it’s Kaede-obaa who pets his hair. Her fingers are gnarled and thick from the labor of the earth, but she has always been unfailingly kind to him even back when everyone only paid attention to aniki. (6)

“I don’t know how to slow time down, obaa-san.”

They all laugh at him, although adoringly. Kaede-obaa’s smile is wide and warm when she says, “Ah, it’s not about slowing time down; it’s about staying young even as time keeps marching on.”

“How do I do that?” he asks. Older folk do love to give him seemingly impossible tasks.

“You keep hope here,” Kaede-obaa pokes his chest with a finger and gives him a wink. “Maa, what am I saying, don’t listen to this old crone’s ramblings! We know nothing of the world anymore, isn’t that right, Oboro-nee?”

“If only,” Oboro-obaa-sama huffs, ushering Sasuke back in. “Come, Sasuke, help me carry these back to the shrine.”

“Ah!” Natori-oji flutters around them, “I can get my son to help, Oboro-sama!”

“Did he not just return from a mission with an injury? Natori-kun, let the boy rest. We can manage it.”

Sasuke nods, wondering how obaa-sama seems to know what is happening with everyone’s families even as he squats down to strap one heavy basket to his back. “Oji-san, can you stack the second basket on top, please? No, obaa-sama, I got it! Really, I got it, um, sensei makes us carry stuff heavier than this all the time.”

His chakra core is not so exhausted that he can’t manage a little flow to help stabilize his back muscles as he stands up. Natori-oji rewards his labor with three pieces of mochi wrapped in yellow paper; Sasuke tucks it away with a smile.

Back to the shrine they go, bidding everyone else a good day. Sasuke navigates the steps with care, sweat trickling slowly down the back of his neck as they walk. The heat is overbearing now, the noonday sun its relentless source. Everywhere around them, cicadas shriek in chorus, drowning out the faint rustle of leaves under a near-nonexistent breeze. A bath sounds absolutely wonderful.

“Sasuke.”

Sasuke straightens to attention. “Yes, obaa-sama.”

“I shall ask you again,” obaa-sama quietly says, voice barely making it over the rustle of her robes, “what is the clan?”

He almost falters on the last step at the bottom of the stone stairs. What is the clan? Why is Oboro-obaa-sama asking him again? Why now?

There must have been a lesson today, Sasuke frowns, that I was supposed to see.

He thinks back on what they have done all morning, the clothes Sayo-oba-san and her family are making just for him, the measurements and the sketches, the mon to be stitched on the inside of his new haori. He thinks about the sword he didn’t ask for, and Gintoki-nii who is eager for the month’s work it will take to make it, and the question that Sasuke was right to have asked. He thinks about the farmers gathered at the grocer, the ordinary people of the Uchiha that no one thinks about when they think Uchiha, and—

“Oh,” he looks up at obaa-sama, “it’s the people. Our clan is our people. All of us, not just the shinobi; all one hundred and eighty-six of us. That’s what the clan is.”

A smile full of sharp pleasure spreads over Oboro-obaa-sama’s face. “And now that you know this, tell me: what is your primary duty when you become the clan’s leader?”

“To protect the clan,” Sasuke easily answers; this much is obvious even to him, a mere child.

“And to protect the clan is to protect the people,” Oboro-obaa-sama reaches for both of his hands and emphatically repeats, “the people, Sasuke. Not the clan’s interests, not the clan’s position, and certainly not the clan’s power; it is the people you protect with these two hands. You do not yet understand, but I want you to remember. Can you promise me that?”

Sasuke swallows and knows that the weight he feels on his shoulders is not just from the baskets of produce on his back. He nods. “Yes, obaa-sama, I promise I’ll remember.”

“Good,” obaa-sama breathes, releasing one hand to take the other and lead him inside. “Now come. That’s enough hard lessons for the day. We’ll put the vegetables away and have our lunch. After we eat, I will help you with some Sharingan exercises.”

 

Later, when Sasuke is struggling to sustain his Sharingan beyond a continuous four hours of use, he wonders exactly how the morning lessons are the hard ones.

I guess that’s why obaa-sama says I don’t yet understand, he thinks, because it seems obvious to me that the people of our clan should be the clan leader’s highest priority. What could possibly be more important than protecting them?

It’s a question to ask his father, Sasuke does not have the courage to ask.




Over the week, his lessons with Oboro-obaa-sama continue. It creates a significant change in his daily routine; obaa-sama now asks to see him every evening, even after their training with sensei. Sasuke isn’t able to do much with the Sharingan at the end of the day, but she insists, citing that her lessons on clan history, economy, and structure are just as important as Sharingan exercises for the shaping of his future.

“To feel the weight of your bloodline’s legacy,” she tells him one night, “is to gain clarity of purpose and inspiration. You learn history in order to expose not just the buried roots of things that have happened, but also to shore up the fragile bedrock of a future vulnerable to the human propensity to forget and repeat—to be ignorant and led. It is as your sensei has taught you; you are not born to blindly follow. You must take care to avoid being led.”

Sasuke dutifully hoards her words and tucks them away in selective memory, understanding that obaa-sama wants him to hear the stories before her time runs out, and there is no one left to tell them as they should be told. Sasuke is thankful that he’s at least allowed to relax while listening.

After he falls asleep at the main house enough times for it to be a bother, he takes a Saturday evening to pack clothes and commonly used items to keep in his borrowed room. Well, it’s his room now; he takes weapons to store there too. Mother asks him about it on his way out the door.

“Surely that’s a bit much for an outside mission,” she remarks, hands hovering over what looks like a medical kit. Sasuke knows she’s due to leave for an outside mission herself.

“Um, no, okaa-san,” Sasuke fidgets, “but I’ve been going over to obaa-sama’s house a lot after training because she’s teaching me some stuff and uh, I keep falling asleep there and then I wake up and I have no clean clothes for the next day.”

“Ah,” Mikoto’s face clears, “yes, of course. I suppose I’ll buy less food to keep here if you’ll be eating dinners there in the meantime.”

Sasuke chews at his lip. “…it’s okay if I stay more at the main house?”

“It relieves me to know that okaa-sama can look after you when I’m out on missions,” Mikoto admits. “I know I’ve been gone a lot and your father is busy. With your brother—well… it relieves me to know that you’re not alone in this house.”

Oh, okay, Sasuke nods, it’s not that she doesn’t care; it’s that she knows I’m better off with obaa-sama.

“When do you leave for your next mission, okaa-san?”

“Tomorrow morning.” Mikoto hands him a basket of fruit and says, “Be back in time for dinner tonight. I’d like to eat as a family before I leave.”

They usually do before anyone leaves for an outside mission, even back when aniki still lived at home. It could very well be their final dinner together; the world beyond the village walls is a cruel one.

“Yes, okaa-san. Shall I invite obaa-sama to come over?”

“If she likes,” Mikoto nods. That’s another thing: otou-sama and Oboro-obaa-sama don’t always agree on things, so obaa-sama often ends up on her own at the shrine instead of with them here.

It’s not right, Sasuke scowls, carrying his bags down the street as dusk settles over the compound. He passes by shops whose insides are lit with a glow that spills into the lengthening shadows outside. But what can I do about it, even if I see that it’s not right? I can’t fix everything wrong in the world, I’m just me.

Sensei tells them that they are to be the leaders of their generation, but sometimes the troubles mantling the world seem so obscure and encompassing that a single pair of young hands like his can’t possibly be enough to lift the weight. What can one person do, no matter how skilled, no matter how wise? What can one person do to fix a world so fundamentally broken that Sasuke sometimes questions its very worth?

And obaa-sama is right, as she always ever is: the more he learns, the more he sees, the more he finds faults wherever he looks. This village is wrong, but this clan is also wrong; some of the people in it are wrong. And considering the Uchiha conceit, they probably think that they’re right. It’ll be nigh impossible to convince them otherwise.

What can one person do? Sasuke thinks about it all the way into the shrine. What can I do?

Oboro-obaa-sama is at the kitchen preparing food when he comes around. Sasuke comes up for a greeting and delivers the dinner invitation.

“You might help me pack these up to bring to your father’s house, then,” obaa-sama gestures to the goma-ae, another fresh batch made from the greens in the shrine’s vegetable garden. Obaa-sama doesn’t have the time to grow everything like the farmers do, but she makes her own fair share of the shrine’s food.

Before helping, Sasuke puts his things away in the room he has been borrowing. It’s only two doors down the hall from obaa-sama; it used to belong to one of her sons, Sasuke’s uncle. There isn’t much in there to begin with, only a few old weapons and a meditation scroll on the wall. Sasuke’s uncle’s signature is affixed to the corner. As always, Sasuke bows to it in respect.

Lend me your strength, honored uncle, he always prays in the silence of his mind. Watch over my hands.

When he returns to the kitchen, obaa-sama has tidied up. Sasuke takes the two clay jars full of delicious vegetables and sets off with her towards his father’s house. Obaa-sama’s presence at his shoulder makes him dread it less; a family dinner will be much calmer with her around to buffer his parents’ displeasure. He finds a skip in his step when they take to the steps.

He should have known better than to expect no conflict.




Small talk lasts for all of two minutes. As soon as the rice is served and the dishes are circulated, obaa-sama addresses the matter of Sasuke’s training.

“I have taken over Sasuke’s free time to begin directing him in a manner that befits his station in this family,” says Oboro-obaa-sama, making them all pause and look with varying shades of surprise. Mikoto is mildly surprised and Sasuke mildly mortified; Fugaku appears unpleasantly taken aback.

“By what approval, Oboro-sama? Sasuke has not been recognized by our elders as the heir.”

“Elders? Pah. Remember who it is you speak to,” obaa-sama scoffs. Now Sasuke’s ears are properly burning; no one else speaks to his father like that. Undeterred, obaa-sama continues, “Why should it matter to your lot anyhow, what Sasuke does with his time? You’ve shown no interest in him since he was born. Too occupied with your firstborn to notice that you even had another child.”

Fugaku’s mien darkens; he has never taken well to obaa-sama’s borderline disrespectful tone towards him.

Then again, otou-sama has hardly taken to any of obaa-sama’s teachings, Sasuke muses, so maybe it just evens out across the board. As Shikamaru would say, an eye for an eye.

“I’ve watched Sasuke closely. He shows great aptitude and potential. Plenty of initiative too, which never goes amiss. I will henceforth teach him what I know, and you will not forbid it.”

“Mother,” Mikoto sighs, although she sounds defeated already.

“Shush,” obaa-sama frowns at her, “you’re away on missions far too often to do anything about Sasuke’s education yourself. You’re young and strong yet; I don’t blame you for wanting to spend your remaining years on the field. When it is time and you are ready, you will take over for me. In the meantime, I shall take Sasuke for you. He will be raised right.”

“I do not appreciate the insinuation that we have not been raising our children right,” Fugaku puts down his chopsticks in a telltale sign that the discussion is about to escalate into a full-blown argument.

“The truth does not need you to appreciate it to be true,” obaa-sama counters deftly. With a ruthless look, she adds, “If you raised your boys in a truly faultless manner, then where is your firstborn?”

Holy shit, obaa-sama, Sasuke nearly chokes in his food. He reaches for his cup of oolong and washes the mouthful down, tears gathering in the corners of his eyes.

“Itachi’s situation is delicate and requires—”

“Itachi’s situation is a right mess,” Oboro-obaa-sama cuts Fugaku’s words in half. “You and your near-sighted comrades put far too much on his shoulders, denied him the freedom to decide for himself, and trapped him in a situation where he had no other escape route but betray his blood. Your coalition didn’t even grant him a modicum of trust. Is it a wonder why he refuses to come home? You have effectively driven him away.”

Now even Mikoto has put down her chopsticks, straight and perfectly aligned atop her rice bowl. Sasuke slowly chews and keeps his eyes down. It might be more polite to also stop eating, but the hunger gnaws in his stomach, and putting down his bowl might mean he’ll be expected to speak up. He doesn’t want to have to speak up.

“Mother, that might be going a step too far.”

“I don’t believe so. It’s high time you ripped the blindfolds from your own eyes, daughter, and remember that you are the child of the main line.” Obaa-sama takes a sip of her tea and continues, “You two have given this clan tremendous gifts in the form of your boys. Itachi and Sasuke are both exemplary children, each exceptional in different ways. We are all blessed with the Sage’s fortune that they both seem to understand what it means to put the clan first, intuitively and with their hearts, rather than succumb to the poison you and your comrades allow to fester within our bloodline.”

“Again with the Curse you like to speak of,” Fugaku sighs, casting a dismayed glance across the table at Sasuke, who ducks to avoid it. “Mere myths, okaa-sama. The time is long past for myths. We must take action.”

“What action?” obaa-sama mirthlessly chuckles. “All of you are frozen in position, the mess you’ve made littered around you like bits of broken glass. Now you’re afraid to take a step in any direction for fear of skewering yourselves!”

Silence settles for a heartbeat over the table, amplifying the sound of Sasuke’s soup bowl clicking against the tabletop.

“When my sons died, my bid for a different direction for us died with them,” Oboro-obaa-sama quietly sighs. “I let you and your comrades, the other elders, take the lead. Perhaps it was time to try it your way, I thought. Perhaps you were right all along: that we need to push back hard against the village, at last. They’ve certainly taken enough from us; they’ve taken my husband and all my sons. But then I watched Sasuke the other week,” her hand lands on top of Sasuke’s head, a welcome and familiar weight, “and saw with my own eyes how his sensei is shaping him to be a formidable warrior. A testament to our legacy, the kind of statement we haven’t shown since my youth… since before my grand-uncle left us.”

Grand-uncle… Sasuke frowns… does she mean Madara-sama?

“I shall try one last time,” obaa-sama then says, a slight tremble wavering in her voice. Sasuke looks up to find her smiling down at him with dark, sorrowful eyes. “I have enough left in me to try one last time.” Without looking away from Sasuke’s face, she tells his parents, “You have tried shaping Itachi into the sharpest blade, a lethal weapon for our clan to wield against those who would harm us, including Konoha… you did not succeed. Now it is time for me to try to mold Sasuke into a pillar, like I tried to do with my sons, my sons who were taken from me far too young. You have had your chance; now you will give me mine.”

Unable to bear the intensity of obaa-sama’s regard for much longer, Sasuke scoots back a tad and bows towards her in deference, making his choice known, perhaps for the first time as a clan member. “I entrust myself into your hands, Oboro-obaa-sama.” (7)

Obaa-sama pats his head twice and then beckons him back up. “You haven’t finished your meal, young man. Eat. Your body needs it. Your Sharingan needs all the chakra you can generate.”

So Sasuke straightens back up and returns to his food, studiously avoiding his parents’ gazes. Mikoto looks mostly thoughtful; Fugaku looks… somewhat upset. Not ballistic, though, so maybe obaa-sama’s words weren’t as rough as Sasuke thought they were.

Balancing another piece of tofu on top of his rice, Sasuke can’t help but wonder if aniki spoke with obaa-sama before he left.

Maybe if obaa-sama had talked to him first, he wouldn’t have left. After all, obaa-sama always knows what to say.

It won’t occur to Sasuke until later that obaa-sama had spoken of Konoha like the village was an enemy of the clan, and by then, it’s much too late to ask.




tbc
first draft: 2020.11.10
last edited: 2021.12.16




NOTES & REFERENCES

(1) Goma-ae - vegetables dressed with sake, miso paste, and sesame seeds

(2) Haori 羽織 - a traditional hip- or thigh-length wrap top worn like a jacket/coat over a kimono

(3) Sasuke-bō, “bō” from “bōzu 坊ず” or “bōya 坊や” meaning ‘boy’ but actually more from “bocchan” (young master)

(4) Furisode 振袖 - lit. "swinging sleeves" or the very long kimono sleeves ranging from 85cm to as long as 115cm. In the past, they were only worn by young, unmarried women; these days they are considered very formal wear, appropriate for tea ceremonies or weddings.

(5) Tamahagane 玉鋼 (lit. ‘jewel-steel’) – high-carbon content pure iron sand (satetsu) for katana forging, usually wrapped around an inner (core) later of hocho-tetsu (softer iron)

(6) Obaa, oba, ojii, and oji can be confusing for non-Japanese speakers. Obaa = grandmother, oba = aunt, ojii = grandfather, and oji = uncle.

(7) Osewa ni narimasu. "I entrust myself into your hands." (roughly)

Chapter Text

030. orochimaru: preparations

.

Orochimaru looks upon his little ones and knows how vast the world must seem to their bright, hopeful eyes. He remembers the sight himself, a vista so vibrant and colorful it almost hurt to look at. The future, its potential; every day a discovery, every hour an adventure. Every moment laden with life and implicit with meaning. He watches them and remembers what it was like to be so young and unafraid.

It’s a far cry from how he looks at the world now. Out there are tragedies aplenty of which to be afraid.

These days, time races through his life, each day passing faster than the last. The meaning of his days no longer rests in individual events but instead spreads over large swaths of time, years perhaps, so much time that it isn’t possible to comprehend the whole in anything but abstract terms. What was it that the Hakuja Sennin used to say?

Meaning requires content; content requires time; time requires resistance.

Orochimaru whisks warm water into matcha and considers this.

Likewise, resistance begets stasis; stasis creates distance; distance shapes knowledge; and ultimately, knowledge becomes the enemy of meaning.

A warning, complexly imparted, against the pitfalls of acquiring only knowledge. Knowledge is nothing if left alone; the children must learn how to derive from it meaning. The only way to do that is through time and experience.

Best start early, then, he thinks as he samples the matcha with a hum. In the garden, Naruto sits with a lapful of snakes. Orochimaru watches him under the spill of summer sunlight and considers the first mission.




One early morning, he makes a visit to the Tower and brings tea. Several administrative jōnin pass him by on the stairs, Shikaku being one of them. There appears to be some serious conversation happening—there are always serious conversations happening—so he doesn’t linger or make an attempt at a greeting; instead, he tips his head to acknowledge Shikaku and moves on.

Upstairs, ANBU operatives shift in the shadows at his approach. Some of them are old enough to be wary of him; enough of them are rats who should be wary. He knocks on the old man’s door and picks through the chakra signatures he can feel.

No rats today, it seems.

“Ah,” sensei beckons him in from behind the desk, “Orochimaru-kun, come in, come in.”

“Sensei,” he dips forward for a bow, “good morning.”

Sarutobi-sensei smiles around his pipe. “What brings you in so early today? That isn’t for me, now, is it?”

“A new blend. I’ve found it quite refreshing.” Orochimaru places the tin on top of sensei’s desk and then sits down. “Cloudberry, jasmine, and mint. It complemented the mooncakes Tenzo brought home from his last mission.”

Sensei puts down his pipe—an indulgence he really should stop at his age—and unstoppers the tin to sniff at the contents. “Hmmm, that’s an aroma Biwako liked.”

“Please offer some of it to her tablet,” Orochimaru bids. And then, noting that sensei’s feet are propped up on a stool, he asks, “Are your feet still ailing you, sensei?”

“Unfortunately. It’s age, you know. They’ve never been the same since I shattered them on that mission so long ago,” Sarutobi-sensei leans back in the chair and steeples his fingers atop his belly. “Ah, Orochimaru-kun, how time flies… it seems like just yesterday when you were still one of my little ones.”

“Funny that you say so. I was thinking the very same thoughts yesterday,” Orochimaru looks around the room, which has barely changed in the intervening years since he and his teammates were genin dogging after Sarutobi-sensei’s daunting steps. Namikaze’s reign was so brief that there was barely any time for him to leave lasting changes to the Tower before he died.

“Your little ones provoking some thought, are they?” sensei chuckles, eyes crinkling in delight. “They do that, the genin.”

“They make one needlessly maudlin,” Orochimaru delicately crosses one leg over the other even as he smooths a fold of his yukata down. “I’ve caught myself entertaining thoughts I otherwise wouldn’t bother with when I watch them grow. It’s fascinating, watching them grow. Was it the same for you when we were young?”

“Yes and no. I imagine you are feeling more for the simple fact that you have the luxury to take your time with them. Unlike when I had you as a student, we are not at war, and you are not saddled with this office.”

“I still don’t know how you were able to do that.”

“Needs must. We were short-handed and we couldn’t afford to wait. That’s what war does to a village; it whittles away at the reserve until none are left but the young,” the old man heaves forward and picks through the scrolls on his desk. After a moment’s deliberation, he picks up a black scroll—an ANBU report—and holds it out in askance. “Tell me what you make of this.”

Orochimaru takes the scroll and splits it open with the slice of a fingernail. The seals unfurl underneath his touch, ink sprawling across the empty page to tell a story. He reads the entire thing before making a remark.

“Iwa and Kumo are certainly out to try your patience,” he looks up at the old Hokage with a knowing half-smile. “What other option but to play them against each other? Nothing we haven’t already done before.”

“I fear we are getting predictable, Orochimaru-kun.”

“The correct course of action remains the correct one regardless of its predictability. I daresay the current state of things on our northern borders are complicated enough as they are.” Kumogakure never did forgive him for that debacle with the Hyuuga clan eight years ago. Orochimaru curves a palm over one knee and considers how much his own actions are to blame for how far Konoha’s relationship has deteriorated with their northern neighbors.

“Sage bless that unclaimed swath of land between us,” sensei laments.

The people who live there certainly need the blessing. It’s always the ones stuck in between that suffer, smaller countries and inconsequential villages incapable of marshalling enough resources and force to make a stand for themselves. Ame is one such tragic example.

“If you would like to expend less manpower,” Orochimaru thinks to suggest, “then perhaps tighten the trade embargoes we levied at the borders last year. It would make us appear less belligerent.”

The old man grunts. “Both of these countries only respect shows of power. Economic sanctions aren’t worth their trouble to enforce any more than we already have. No; if we are to admonish them for their behavior, then we’ll do so with the same clarity we’ve given them in the past.”

An impasse, then, Orochimaru watches his sensei write out orders on a fresh scroll. Several of them will go to the B- and A-rank desks to be assigned to jōnin-led teams; at least one will be given to ANBU. Yet another one will be to apprise the Logistics and Intelligence COs of the Hokage’s deliberation, although none of these maneuvers are new.

Sensei prefers to maintain a level of moral authority over the other two villages because Konoha has always been thus, or at least it likes to think so, given that it is the oldest village of all. If it were Orochimaru making the decisions, however, he would rather strike cleanly at the problem—never mind if underhandedly—and scorch a clean line upon the sand.

But I am not Hokage, Orochimaru tilts his head, and these decisions are not mine to make.

For now, he decides to enjoy the freedom his position confers. Sarutobi-sensei thanks him for his input right as Shikaku enters the room with a short knock.

“Hope I’m not interrupting anything too important. Hokage-sama, the reports are ready.”

“Yes, thank you, Shikaku,” sensei rises to his feet with a soft grunt. “Oh, these knees. Soon enough they’ll fail me; what sort of Hokage shall I be then?”

“Come now, sensei, you’re not yet so infirm,” Orochimaru rises likewise and walks with him into the hall. “There are also plenty of us to do the physical work for you such that you need not exert your knees.”

“For now it’ll do,” Sarutobi-sensei sighs, “but soon enough Konoha will demand a strong new leader. There are some battles that cannot be fought from that chair alone, you know this well.”

All too well, Orochimaru thinks as his eyes meet Shikaku’s over the old man’s head. Shikaku tips forward in a small bow as they separate, the two officials heading towards the council hall while Orochimaru retreats back down the steps that lead out of the Tower.

When he arrives at the Missions Desk, he pointedly asks for C-ranks that would make Team Seven head south.




“An outside mission?” Naruto erupts from the ground, hopping in his spot like the excitable pup that he is. “We’re going on an outside mission? Sensei, what! How! When!”

“Uh, I think where is more important,” Sasuke frowns.

“Wrong,” Shikamaru squints up at Orochimaru and asks, “Why is the most important. Why now, sensei?”

“Why not?” Orochimaru levies in response. “You have so far succeeded at three months’ worth of building basic skills that you have applied in your genin-rank missions.”

“Is that enough, though?”

“How will you know if we don’t try?” Orochimaru shrugs gently enough not to dislodge Botan’s weight over his shoulders. Seeing the naked doubt in Shikamaru’s eyes, he adds, “I have gone ahead and chosen what I deem to be an appropriate mission for you to undertake. Rest assured you will be challenged without being exposed to an unreasonable level of risk.”

“If sensei says we’re ready,” Sasuke raises both eyebrows and shrugs at Shikamaru, “then I guess we are.”

Shikamaru only sighs. Orochimaru is not offended; in fact, he finds the persistence of Shikamaru’s doubt quite adorable. A skeptic to balance out the infectious optimism of the other two, a shinobi who sees and appreciates the depth of shadow bright lights cast—it can only mean good things for this generation’s Team Seven.

“We have the rest of the week to prepare,” Orochimaru continues, pulling out a copy of the mission scroll’s particulars that he made that morning. “Would you like to see what you are being tasked to do?”

“Yes, please!” “Let’s see it.” “A mission, yesyesyes!”

Shikamaru opens the scroll and begins reading in silence. The other two read from over his shoulders, Naruto mouthing out the words as he picks through the kanji with increasing speed.

“Reconnaissance. It doesn’t have a set departure date,” Shikamaru notes.

“Or a deadline,” Sasuke tugs out the end of the scroll to make sure there isn’t anything more. “Sensei, does that mean we can take as long as we want?”

“Yes, although we will of course be reasonable about it. The scroll would be marked urgent otherwise. That is partly why I picked this. I would like to give you as much time as possible to acclimate to the conditions of being outside the village for a mission.”

“Sensei is being so nice,” Naruto remarks, crossing his arms as a squinty-eyed thoughtfulness settles over his face. “It’s kinda making me more scared, which dun make sense.”

“Makes total sense,” Shikamaru retorts. “Everyone has an ulterior motive, even sensei. No one is ever nice for free.”

“Nothing is free,” Sasuke readily agrees. What wisdom from the mouths of babes.

“So, as the only person who has ever been out of the village on missions before, how long do you think we’ll be fielded, sensei?” Shikamaru lays the scroll out in front of them and steeples his fingers. To his teammates, he says, “We need to coordinate our packing. The lighter we travel, the faster we can move, and the sooner we’re home.”

“But Shika! Don’t you wanna see the world out there?” Naruto grins, vibrating within the confines of his own skin with excitement. “We don’t have a deadline so we don’t have to rush!”

“We’re not going sightseeing,” sighs the little Nara. “We’re on a mission.”

“But isn’t that what recon is?” Naruto points out in a flash of insight. “We go see things and then we come back to tell Hokage-jiji what we saw!”

Shikamaru opens his mouth, closes his mouth, frowns, and then huffs. “Well, I mean, you’re not wrong. But I doubt that a C-rank recon mission would yield anything that we’d need to directly report to the Hokage.”

Sasuke shrugs. “Obaa-sama says never say never.”

“Yeah, Shika, don’t jinx us!”

Orochimaru claps his hands to silence them. All three boys settle and return their attention forward, by now trained well enough to know when to desist.

“Let us not get derailed, children. We have plenty of planning to do. Do you recall what I told you about preparation?”

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,” Shikamaru and Sasuke echo each other. Naruto follows with, “Preparation is like half the mission!”

“So as you begin the process of said preparation for your first ever mission, I want you to pay attention. We will proceed in a particular order, and I want you to remember this order, because for all future missions, you will do the same.” Orochimaru pulls out another scroll and, with the snap of a wrist, spreads it out on the ground. On it is a meticulously-drawn topographical political map of the continent. “First: we consider the location. Where are we going, little ones?”

Sasuke points to a small dot on the map, several hundred miles east-southeast of the village of Konoha.

“Nami.” (1)

Naruto tilts his head. “What’s in Nami, sensei?”

Orochimaru reaches over to brush hair away from Naruto’s bare, sun-kissed forehead. This mission is as much for Naruto as it is for the whole team’s relative safety. “Well, little one, I daresay we’ll find out soon enough.”




That night, well after Naruto is asleep, Kabuto approaches him downstairs. It would only be Kabuto; none of his children routinely enter these labs, tightly warded and two stories underground for security. Orochimaru is folding his own kind of soldier pills into small squares of wax paper and doesn’t pause the task to say, “Welcome home. There is enough left over from dinner in the kitchen if you are hungry.”

“I saw. Thank you, shishou. It’s good to be home.” Kabuto comes up next to him, lays a photogr