Chapter 1: sasuke: commencement
001. sasuke: commencement
On commencement day, Sasuke is not alone. This in itself is unusual, making the day feel even stranger. After today, he will never again visit the Ninja Academy, except maybe to bring his own children there one day, or much sooner than that, to pick up a distant cousin after school as a favor to an uncle or a grandma.
It'll be weird, but Sasuke hopes it'll be the good kind of weird. He doesn't know yet which team he'll be assigned to or with whom—Iruka-sensei says they'll get their assignments when they get their commencement scrolls—but he's ready to move forward, to learn new things that will help him get stronger. He won't get there as fast as aniki did, maybe, but that's okay. By now he knows this as fact, and it doesn't stop him from working hard, very hard, so that he, too, can bring honor to his clan and his village.
His excitement mixes with his anxiety and leaves him jittering as he waits by the genkan. When chichiue steps out, Sasuke forces himself into an obedient stillness.
Chichiue seems distracted today. Sasuke chews on his lip and hopes that the ceremony doesn't take too long, so that he doesn't keep chichiue from more important clan things at the shrine. If he had a choice about the matter, he would have told chichiue that he could go alone. But he knows that going alone would set a bad image for the clan to the rest of the village, showing as if their family isn't united as a single entity, and Sasuke does not want to be responsible for something so shameful as that. No; he'll just have to hope and pray to the spirit of the Sage that the ceremony is quick.
Once outside, he walks behind chichiue, following at a quiet, respectful distance. Many people pass them by and greet chichiue with deferential bows, some even exchanging words with him. Sasuke waves at Teyaki-jii and Uruchi-baa, who wave back and congratulate him. There's technically enough time to stop for some senbei but he doesn't want to ask chichiue to stop; he resolves to stop by later by himself.
Past the eaves of the Uchiha gates, chichiue's easy composure tightens up into guard. Sasuke unintentionally stiffens up as well. Plenty of people in the village still greet them, some even bowing to chichiue, but not as much. Everyone looks, though. Maybe because chichiue is wearing one of his ceremonial coats today, the black one with the Uchiha mon embroidered large on the back and red waves running along the hem. Sasuke wonders if one day maybe he'll be worthy enough to wear something like that too.
At the Academy, they are welcomed at the gates and given their seat appointments. A jounin 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 jounin 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 jounin 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 ninja, 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 ninjas 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 ninjas or were casualties of past wars. Sasuke wonders if Naruto's parents were ninja 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 jounin 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 ninja 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 ninja 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:
Uchiha Sasuke, Nara Shikamaru, Uzumaki Naruto
— Assemble at Academy rooftop at 1400. —
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 ninja 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 a ninja 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 ninja 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 ninjas like us," Sasuke says, but then admits, "It'd be awesome, though. Maybe if we're lucky we'll get a jounin who was taught by the Hokage."
"Or a jounin who was taught by a jounin 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 ninja. Sasuke knows from aniki that behind the cliff face hide underground bases too, where many different types of ninja 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, "chichiue's very busy as Clan Head and jounin, and, well, hahaue's now a tokujo again, so she's really busy too, and aniki is also a jounin, 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 jounin 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 jounin 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 jounin 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 jounin 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 jounin 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 jounin 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 jounin. 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.
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 jounin 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 ninjatou 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 jounin, 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 ninja; 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 ninja-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 ninjatou 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 ninjatou, 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 ninjas; 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 ninjatou and keeps his eyes trained on his sensei’s back, unwilling to be left behind.
This is it, he thinks to himself. Today, I’m a ninja.
first draft: 2018.05.11
last edited: 2018.12.18
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?”
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 jounin 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 jounin sensei's jounin 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.
first draft: 2018.05.11
last edited: 2018.12.27
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.
A little year end gift, short and sweet. MERRY CHRISTMAS, YA FILTHY ANIMALS!
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?”
“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 jounin,” 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 jounin, actually, hahaue and chichiue and aniki.”
“I thought you said your mom was a to-toku—"
“Tokujo! It means special jounin. 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.
first draft: 2018.05.11
last edited: 2019.01.21
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 jounin 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 dojutsu. 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. Jounin. One of our strongest.”
“Stronger than Asuma-san?”
“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.
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 jounin.”
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.”
“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.
first draft: 2017.06.12
last edited: 2019.01.21
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.
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!"
"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."
"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.
"Jounin 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 Earth 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!"
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.
first draft: 2018.05.19
last edited: 2019.02.21
Chapter 6: orochimaru: expectations
Chapter by iluxia
Took a while to update again, my apologies! Life has been quite busy - I was out of the country (Spain for work, Morocco for fun) for a month and then came back to a mountain of work plus an uncooperative uterus. (The curse of being female, lesigh.) All of my writing time has been swallowed by my clinical rota & the study I'm heading so that's why this took so long. I'm technically three chapters ahead, so I have more to post if I wanted, but I'm trying to stay ahead instead of being flush... ^^;; we'll see how long it lasts. Anyway, enjoy!!
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?”
“…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 that 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 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 jounin, before relaxing when they see a jounin-sensei watching the kids. After twenty minutes, two more chuunin come by and pick out a spot from where they can watch. They stay. So far the children does 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.
first draft: 2018.08.31
last edited: 2019.02.28
Chapter 7: shikamaru: whirlpools
Chapter by iluxia
A longer chapter, because Shikamaru is my favorite character in this fic, even though I am always and forever a SNS fujoshi. XD
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 on 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 jounin-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 jounin 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 Kagekushibari. 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. Beside him, Sasuke jots down a neat list of Fire techniques: Goukakyuu, Dai Endan, Ryuuka, Gouryuuka. A classic Uchiha pyromaniac, this one.
“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 know, 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?”
“Why is asking forbidden?”
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!”
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 jounin 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.
first draft: 2018.12.18
last edited: 2019.07.19
Chapter 8: naruto: doubt
Chapter by iluxia
Brace yourselves; shit's about to start getting heavy, fast.
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.
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.
“…you can talk about them but there are certain things you can’t say?”
“Like their names?”
“Uzumaki Kushina,” Shikamaru’s dad says.
“Naruto’s mother, yes, sensei said so,” Shikamaru nods in satisfaction.
“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.”
“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.
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 jounin 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 jounin, 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 jounin 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.”
“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.”
“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 ignores him—which is guaranteed to make Shikamaru follow—and turns back to Naruto. “Come on, this way.”
“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.”
first draft: 2019.06.03
last edited: 2019.08.05
Entirely unpaid solicitation:
Some of you might have heard about the spate of shootings & gun violence in the country this past week; hard to not know, considering it's been the only thing on the news every damn day. If you are wondering how to help, I can give you a simple way to do so, wherever you are & if you are able: DONATE BLOOD. We'll need it. Lots of it.
For those of you who are unaware, I am a medical doctor in residency practicing in the USA, and I can tell you why this is important. Because victims of these shootings are wheeled into ERs as trauma cases, they immediately get priority access to reserves of red blood cells and plasma each hospital has. If the hospital runs out, the region's other hospitals funnel their supplies to meet that gap. As a result, an entire region can undergo a sudden critical shortage of blood products in a very short period of time - and it isn't easy to make up that shortage. We can't make blood products; they have to be harvested from donors. And trauma patients are not the only ones who need blood. Cancer patients do, usually on a daily basis. Those undergoing massive surgeries like brain and heart operations. Pregnant mothers suffering severe blood loss after childbirth complications. Tiny premature babies and elderly feeble patients who fell at home, fractured their hip, and now need major orthopedic surgery to fix it.
So please, if you are able & willing, donate. You can find out where to donate blood here via the Red Cross. I am advertising here because I know most of my readers are younger and fairly healthy (I hope). This is a simple way to help your community. I hope you consider it & tell your friends. From the patients & the medical community, thank you!! ❤
Chapter 10: orochimaru: revelations
Chapter by iluxia
Apologies for the delay! Between running my own research study, hospital rotations, and mentoring lower years, I am beat. It is difficult to find time to write. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy this! Shit's goin' down, fast... brace yourselves.
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 jounin, 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 jounin 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.
first draft: 2019.07.30
last edited: 2019.07.31
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 jounin 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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.
first draft: 2019.08.01
last edited: 2019.08.01
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.
“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—
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.”
“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.
first draft: 2019.08.01
last edited: 2019.10.09
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.
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.”
“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.