Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. This story was written for fun, not profit.

Three by Three


The sky is overcast and it will be storming soon. In a small clearing three potential genin sit beside three posts and argue about how to get a pair of bells back from a particularly obnoxious jounin. Perched in a tree not fifty feet from them, the jounin smiles to herself and twirls a kunai with deft flicks of her fingers. One of the genin will come up with a plan sooner or later -- or just attack. She is a little surprised Izumi hasn't attacked already.

Other jounin disapprove of her methods. The Hokage is dead and the Sound is tightening its noose, and the tests are slowly becoming less rigorous, more matters of course. Get them through quickly. Get them into the field, get them behind enemy lines. Many think she shouldn't be training genin at all, that her talents are wasted here. But she disagrees. She is the best at what she does, and who is going to argue with her?

Rinji's kunai flies at her face. She catches it with one hand and smiles at him, honestly friendly even after years of war. "You can do better than that."

And they certainly can. She swings down from the tree as Tai blurs at her. They are unremarkable children, neither the best nor the worst, and no one understands why she chose them. Naruto might have known why. They try the hardest. She sees them now, and she understands that if they are allowed to live they will never give up. The legendary Three Leafs are staring back at her, three by three, and she wonders if anyone else noticed how eagerly she snatched up Team Nine.

Ah. There's Izumi. Very clever. Tai and Rinji were just distractions. She sidesteps and spins, knocking the girl to the ground, and goes back to dodging her two determined teammates. Her mind is elsewhere. Yes, Naruto would have understood, but he is dead and Sasuke might as well be, since he watches the world with the eyes of a corpse. It is left to her now, the last as well as the least.

The Leaf will have to pick a Hokage soon. She knows they will choose her and she does not want the job, because that's the same old tune, isn't it? Round and round, three by three, and she wonders why no one else has seen the dance they all fell into a long time ago.

None of the genin can touch the bells. But they are hers now, and she passes them anyway.

She treats them to dinner afterwards, observing them out of the corner of her eye. Tai is clever, but not to a fault. Rinji is quiet, but not overly so. And Izumi, making silly faces because the ramen is too hot, had as normal and loving a childhood as any could wish. They are ordinary children, and that is all she could ever hope for them.

Outside, it begins to rain. Sakura wraps her fingers around her teacup and watches the storm.