She woke up and glanced around the room. She had time for a satisfied smile as she took in her surroundings, and then she was off – there was much to be done.
She padded to the window on silent feet, slipping out into the night. There was no sign of her passing. Sticking to the shadows, she soon reached the first target. It was too easy. The ordinary shopkeeper would never find out who had stolen his wares.
Hiding in the canopy of an oak, she scrawled down notes on her pilfered scrolls as fast as possible. After an hour and a half, it was time to move on. She knew just where to leave each message so it would find the right person at the right time.
In a rarely-used training ground, a boulder bore a new design carved into the front. During a solo exercise routine, a freshly graduated chunin was going to stumble across it and be inspired to develop a powerful new technique.
A letter addressed to one of Konoha's genin would push them from mediocrity to greatness, given time.
A bolthole that hadn't been used in almost twenty years now held notes from a series of rather unpleasant experiments. It would be months before they were found and years before they bore fruit.
She snapped back to attention, annoyed at the time lost by reminiscing. A single pebble cast from the top of a mountain could become an avalanche, it was said. She'd just toppled a pile of boulders.
Some things were more delicate, of course. They would need to be guided by a firmer hand. Hers. A long chain of handseals was required for the next step, and she gasped as she felt her – their – mind reshape, memories carefully transplanted.
Her breathing was slightly strained now, and she hurried back to where she'd started, still keeping out of sight. At last she was back home, and she vaulted through the window without touching the sides of the frame. She pulled herself under the covers and finally relaxed, her technique fading.
...She woke up, dazed and disoriented.
Naruto Uzumaki woke up in the dark of pre-dawn, full of energy and motivation. His alarm hadn't gone off yet, but he leapt out of bed and got ready at breakneck speed anyway. He was excited for the graduation exam tomorrow – this time he'd pass for sure! – which meant getting some exercise in before class.
He rushed around his small apartment, slice of toast in one hand and t-shirt in the other. On his kitchen table were piles and piles of open scrolls from his practicing. A smaller pile of closed scrolls to the side showed where he'd finished working his way through some exercises.
The few people who knew Naruto well would have been surprised at his focus. Despite spraying crumbs everywhere with each word, he was reciting a list of the Land of Fire's neighbouring countries while trying to get his t-shirt over his head.
He'd never lacked in drive; he'd always had big dreams and intended to reach them. There was just always something more interesting to try than practising with kunai or punching training logs. Apart from sparring at the Academy and his pranks, nothing held his focus for more than five minutes.
Today Naruto had loftier goals, though. Sasuke had beaten him at kunai throwing for the last time, he swore. He grabbed his practice kunai and left his apartment, heading for a throwing range that was always empty this early in the morning.
Sasuke Uchiha turned the plain red comb over in his hands. It had belonged to his mother once. Now it was his, just like everything else she'd owned. He'd thought it lost until he'd seen it lying on the attic floor, covered in dust.
He remembered his mother running it through his hair when he was small.
"Sasuke, your turn to practice!" Iruka called, interrupting Sasuke's daydreams. He quickly slipped the comb back into his pocket. This morning the class was revising the Transformation technique, thanks to Naruto clowning around again after Sasuke beat him at kunai throwing.
Sasuke stood up and walked to the front of the classroom. Suddenly he was sick of the classroom, sick of being tested and observed and made to wait. Somewhere at that very moment Itachi Uchiha was walking around, and meanwhile his entire family was dead and buried and crying out for vengeance.
"I'd like you to transform into me, please," Iruka said.
Concentrating for a moment, Sasuke expelled a thin layer of chakra from his skin, using a single handseal as a focus. The soft puff of chakra-based smoke around him dulled the sounds of the rest of the room. He concentrated, then warped the chakra around his body, changes spreading at the speed of thought. He let it solidify once it held an image of Iruka.
As the smoke cleared, he saw his reflection in the mirror at the front of the room. Iruka's face looked back, frowning. He noticed some of the lines on the face weren't the right depth, and the frown deepened.
"Very good!" Iruka praised him, and Sasuke swallowed his anger, swallowed all the things he would regret saying, and nodded once. He walked back to his lonely seat in silence.
Sakura Haruno headed home after the graduation exam with a skip in her step. Her graduating had never been in doubt, but she'd not been sure of where she'd place. Top marks of all the girls in the class – that was really something. She'd mentioned it in front of Sasuke twice, and the first time he'd seemed quite surprised. He'd really looked at her, as though he was re-evaluating her. Sakura was sure today's diary entry would be a very happy one. Her mum had even promised to cook her favourite dinner tonight, to celebrate her becoming a 'real ninja'.
It was so exciting! At last she'd be able to show off her skills. She knew she was good at being a ninja, because she'd always done well in all the lessons and tests. When Sasuke saw how amazing she was, he'd ask her to marry him on the spot. And when Ino saw that there was no point still fighting over Sasuke, they'd be friends again.
"Oi! Sakura!" she heard a familiar voice call from behind her.
"What do you want, Ino?" Sakura couldn't help the slight wariness that crept into her voice. If Ino noticed it, she didn't let on.
"Just... well done on the exam."
"Thanks. You too."
They stood there awkwardly for a moment before Ino broke the silence. "Did you get the answer to the last question? About which spice best covers the taste of poisonous yew beetles?"
"The beetles have a strong taste of cinnamon, so mixing their crushed remains with real cinnamon lets you not only cover up any differences in taste but also gives you the perfect cover to add it to the food."
Ino smiled. "That's really clever! I can never keep all those details right, but I suppose I have my own strengths to make up for it. You should come train with me sometime – I can work on those noodle arms of yours while you fix the glaring holes in my education." She lashed out at the empty air with a pair of jabs and a kick.
"Oi, my arms are not noodly!"
"Maybe we can just arrange some flowers then, like back when we were little kids," Ino said.
"Yeah," Sakura said, smiling. "It's... nice, I suppose. I've missed this a bit – having someone to talk to like this."
"Swing by the flower shop sometime, and we can catch up properly. I need to go run some errands now, but it was good to talk." Ino waved goodbye as she jumped up and onto a rooftop, then darted out of sight.
When Sakura went to bed that night, she was still thinking about Ino, and hoping that their new peace would last. Ino would make a fantastic maid of honour. She dreamed of marrying Sasuke. They'd have a big wedding, and she'd wear white, and everything would be perfect forever.
Iruka Umino raced towards the next hiding place to check. A single thought was running through his head. Why would Naruto take the scroll?
Naruto's childhood was rough, he knew. The boy's endless mischief and vandalism hadn't made him any friends, and Iruka knew how piss-poor the support network for orphans was. But stealing the Scroll of Forbidden Techniques was more than a juvenile prank – there was too much at stake. Nobody knew what would happen if Naruto tried to use the Fourth's sealing technique, the same technique that had trapped the Demon Fox in Naruto's stomach. At worst, the seal would break and the whole village could be destroyed.
Iruka tried to calm his rapid breathing. Focus! he told himself. Naruto had taken the Scroll of Seven Seals for some reason. Nothing in there was likely to be safe for a genin, so Iruka had to find his student before he injured himself, or worse. The village was sealed and Mizuki had been one of those called away to form a perimeter. Nobody would be escaping.
The only way Naruto hadn't been found yet was if he was hiding somewhere, that much was guaranteed. If he'd been killed – if the seal had broken – the whole village would know. So he must have gone to ground inside Konoha. Naruto was too smart to go somewhere he'd been caught before, which ruled out the western training grounds and most of the south of the village. Iruka had just searched through the North Fields, so now he would swing around the east and check the forested areas. If he went near Mizuki's place in the perimeter, he could ask for any advice Naruto's other teacher could give.
There! A speck of orange amongst the foliage! Iruka changed course, leaping down next to his student. "I've found you at last!"
"Wrong! I've found you!"
As Naruto told his tale of secret surprise make-up exams, Iruka became more and more confused. Something wasn't right, but trying to dispel genjutsu had no effect on the scene before him. Then, Naruto's story meandered towards some relevant information. "Mizuki told me about the scroll. And this place too." And suddenly Iruka knew, the pieces of the puzzle falling into place with the inevitability of an avalanche.
He wanted to deny it; he'd worked with Mizuki for years, they were friends and comrades, and yet there was almost nothing else that could fit the facts. He clung to a single faint hope. "If I find out this was all a prank," Iruka threatened, anger and fear showing on his face and in his voice. He was interrupted by a flicker of movement in his peripheral vision, and his heart sunk as his body sprang into action.
Iruka flung Naruto to the side, mind half on the fight and half on Mizuki's larger plan. This was really bad. If Mizuki fled with the scroll, he would be chased. He wouldn't make it far. If Mizuki had a plan – and it seemed like he did – then he'd need to cause a distraction that could delay or even kill any pursuit. Something dangerous and attention-grabbing that was close by, preferably. Like Naruto...
Iruka was too slow to dodge Mizuki's attack, but protecting Naruto was more important. As the knives cut through his vest and into his body, Iruka was already planning the best way out of this.
Mizuki looked surprised that his first volley hadn't killed his target, but seemed content to just stand and watch now that he'd lost the element of surprise. A rush of anger let Iruka ignore the pain of a dozen small wounds. The traitor had a small grin on his face as he looked down at his prey, and Iruka saw two huge shuriken strapped to his back. The branch he stood on was too high to reach easily and wide enough that it would shield him from any counterattacks.
"Hey, Iruka, I can explain," Mizuki said. "I've got a pretty sweet offer from another village, and I'm sure they'd jump at the chance of getting a second teacher to defect. What do you say, pal? We can kill the idiot and leave right away."
Iruka spat on the floor, a mixture of blood and saliva. He regretted not training regularly since he'd become a teacher. If he were in the same shape as two years ago, Mizuki wouldn't dare confront him like this.
"Traitor," he snarled, and the word carried the weight of twenty-two years of loyalty, of caring for the village and the people in it. And pain, as he realised that all their shared coffee breaks, the quick complaints about problem students, shared celebration when their first class graduated, their friendship was built on lies and deceit.
"Naruto," Mizuki taunted in a sing-song voice. "There's something you should know. You've always been hated, haven't you? Excluded, isolated, unfairly cast aside... Have you never wondered why?"
"Naruto. Whatever Mizuki says, he's trying to trick you. He's a traitor to the village. It's all mind games. Don't listen!" Iruka yelled out.
For a moment, as Mizuki's forked tongue spread poisonous half-truths, it even looked like Naruto would trust Iruka's words. It helped, Iruka thought, that Naruto really didn't want to believe the story, especially since Mizuki had filled it with casual insults.
"How do I know you're not just lying to get me to give you the scroll?" Naruto said angrily once Mizuki had finished. It was a question that couldn't really be answered, and Mizuki knew it. Time was not on his side, but he still seemed to be stalling for some reason.
"Naruto. Listen to me," Iruka pleaded. "I'm an orphan too. I know what it feels like to have no-one. But if you help capture a traitor to the village, I can pass you. It will be a field promotion. You'll have a team." And hopefully, nothing like this will ever happen to you again.
Naruto's face lit up and he turned to face Iruka, hands ready in an unusual seal. But it seemed that Mizuki's patience had worn out. He sent a massive shuriken, large enough to bisect his target, whirling down towards Naruto, who had neither the speed to dodge it nor the skill to block it. So Iruka did the only thing he could, and moved.
He flung himself over his student, bracing for the last thing he'd feel in this life. The impact never came. Iruka heard the voice he'd been praying for since he'd found Naruto, and felt the tension drain out of his body.
White robes whipped around him as the Hokage walked out of the shadows, two ANBU flanking him while a third stood before Iruka, snatching the windmill shuriken out of the air. The air seemed to groan under the weight of Hiruzen Sarutobi's anger as he spoke."Mizuki, you are a traitor to the Village of the Hidden Leaf. Your sentence, to be carried out as soon as is expedient, is execution."
The treacherous chunin turned to run but another ANBU effortlessly slammed him to the ground, kunai in hand. The Hokage considered the scene for a moment, then ordered, "Take him away to interrogation first."
Hiruzen Sarutobi's voice was measured, calm, and regal. Iruka could have hugged the man if his legs weren't about to give way. He smiled down at the boy looking up at him, unshed tears in his eyes.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the Sandaime walk over to them. His voice was gentler now that the danger had passed. "Naruto, my boy. I'm so glad you're safe. Let's go get something to eat, you must be hungry. And I really want to tell you a story, all about how the Yondaime built the greatest cage the world has ever seen, and put a very brave person in charge of guarding it."
Iruka rolled off from where he had still been crouched over and shielding Naruto, letting him up. Naruto's eyes widened as he realised that his teacher had been ready to take a windmill shuriken for him. Iruka gave him a tired grin and a hand up, and Naruto took it.
Now that he was no longer making a cross seal, his technique finally completed and chakra flooded the clearing. Suddenly there were a hundred Narutos all around the Hokage, appearing in a huge burst of chakra-laden smoke. Iruka was about ready to pass out from shock. Things only got more surreal when a hundred voices asked the same question in concert.
"Um, am I a genin now?"
Kakashi Hatake peered down at the three students he'd been given this year. Everything he needed to know about them was right on the surface – there was the clown, the talented and aggressive loner, and the mediator to keep them in line. These three new genin had little else in common with his original team, though, and he refused to be swayed by such an obvious attempt at emotional manipulation. It set a bad precedent.
Perhaps it was a coincidence, but ninja who believed in coincidences tended to die young.
He'd not been ordered on – or even offered – any sensitive or particularly important missions in the last few years, and Kakashi knew why. He was considered a flight risk: a talented jounin with no close ties, who was preoccupied with the past and all his dead teammates, and slightly too fond of alcohol and women. It was a formula that he'd seen result in a desertion rate as high as one in five. And now that he was part of that group, Konoha didn't trust him anymore.
Once he accepted a team, the village would give him some time to grow attached. They called it the Will of Fire – using people caring for their comrades as a way to ensure their loyalty. It was still infinitely preferable to how the other ninja villages enforced obedience. And once Konoha trusted him again, he'd be given dangerous missions once more. Which would kill him.
He simply lacked the will to keep up. There was no-one left for him to prove himself to. As long as he could stay even with Might Guy, Kakashi considered himself good enough.
Starting to care about and then losing a team of genin would take him out of his comfortable rut.
Kakashi was professional enough that his face didn't so much as twitch while those thoughts passed through his mind. "So, why don't we do introductions?"
He went first, giving vague non-answers that seemed to annoy his audience. Then, he noticed a detail that hadn't stuck out at first. Naruto was wearing goggles.
There weren't many ninja who wore goggles.
Kakashi could count the living on one hand, and the dead on the other.
"...I hate waiting three minutes for the ramen to cook," Naruto was saying when Kakashi started paying attention again.
"Why are you wearing those?" Kakashi asked, gesturing at Naruto's face. Nothing that a new teacher wouldn't usually ask of his charges, he told himself, and if that wasn't his true motivation, no-one needed to know that.
"I was gonna stop wearing them when I got my headband, but they're good for stopping smoke from getting in your eyes and stuff. So now I have my headband on my shoulder instead. It's pretty cool! Why, do you want a pair too?"
"No. They can hurt your peripheral vision, so I'd recommend getting rid of them." Accurate advice, and it would make it less uncomfortable to look Naruto in the eyes when he failed him.
Naruto seemed to consider this recommendation for a moment before shrugging. "Anyway, my goal is to surpass all the Hokage and gain the acknowledgement of every person in the village!" Save the most surprising for last, Kakashi thought to himself.
Sasuke went next. It was roughly what Kakashi had expected. Lots of brooding about killing Itachi Uchiha, despite the fact that Itachi was probably the most dangerous man alive and could murder Kakashi with both eyes closed and one hand tied behind his back.
The only surprising part was his plan to restore the Uchiha clan. Kakashi didn't think the boy was emotionally ready to be in a relationship or care for a child, let alone handle several women and children at once. That was a headache for someone else, though – once he'd failed this team, they would never be his problem.
Sakura's introduction was unexpected, and not in a good way. She seemed temperamentally unsuited to the life of a ninja. Not counting outliers like Itachi, the main limits that ninja had were down to their drive and ambition. A complete nobody who worked their ass off could be one of the elite – if they were willing to give up every distraction and pleasure for the rest of their life. Guy was the perfect example, and Sakura was his opposite. Skill and natural talent in almost indecent amounts, but no drive at all to improve as a ninja.
Kakashi looked at her – really looked, taking in all the minor details and small tells that he wouldn't usually bother with. Soft hands unmarred by callouses from training or small cuts from frequently handling blades. Thin arms and legs that spoke of good chakra control, but no base strength to augment. Long hair that was a liability in even a schoolyard brawl, and it wasn't even put up into a slightly more practical ponytail. On top of everything else, her stance, slightly huddled over and clutching her knees, painted the picture of someone who was in over her head and just starting to realise it.
He analysed Sasuke as well. Strength was there, and plenty of it, as well as control and skill. The arms could have been Kakashi's own at that age, except for the shorter sleeves, and Sasuke's stance kept his hands near his mouth. Kakashi didn't doubt that Sasuke had at least one technique he could quickly launch from that position, and the outline of a kunai under each wristwrap enhanced the image of someone ready to fight at any second. He was very impressive for a genin nominee, and more competent than some chunin exam candidates, although it remained to be seen whether or not Sasuke's other skills were at the same level as his paranoia.
Naruto had calloused hands with no cuts at all. It was quite easy for Kakashi to deduce a regenerative ability – Naruto's weapon skills were good enough that it was clear he practised regularly, but not so good that he never made mistakes. While the orange outfit was good for merging with a crowd, it didn't exactly lend itself to hiding in forests – but somehow he made it work, and wasn't that a nice ace to have? Currently, Naruto was the weakest member, no doubt about it, but he definitely had enough drive to excel one day. His goal was just as out of reach as Sasuke's, and he seemed just as determined to reach it despite all the possible setbacks.
"Alright," Kakashi said, now that the new genin nominees were watching him expectantly. "We have survival training tomorrow."
He talked over the questions and complaints. "This is a different kind of training. I will be your opponent." There was a surefire way to separate the wheat from the chaff – mental pressure. Once the wannabe genins' confusion peaked, he started laughing gently.
"There's a secret purpose to the training. If you fail..." He raised the pressure to a fever pitch. "You go back to the academy. It would be as if you failed the graduation exam. And your odds aren't good, either – two-thirds of the teams get sent back every year. Of the 27 graduates, there will usually be 9 genin."
Chuckling, he enjoyed the looks on their faces. Naruto was trying to hide his surprise, Sasuke looked angry, and Sakura seemed defeated already. Kakashi fielded their questions without offering much information of value, and gave them some misleading advice to top it off, then headed off to his favourite pub. He had a pretty girl to meet, and a new book to keep him company while he waited.