As Strong as Need Be

Chapter One:
The First Hint

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"What are you doing here, Sensei?" Sasuke's voice cracked a little, but the hostility was plain. The rain pouring down around them had muffled the footsteps of his final interceptor, one of the last people he expected to see in this place.

"You already know the answer to that question, so why do you ask?" was the distressingly calm response.

Sasuke kept walking. "I'm not going back."

"Hnn."

For a long moment there was no sound but the rain and the soft crunch of leaves underfoot. Sasuke noticed that the other man had matched the timing of his footsteps to Sasuke's own; it brought back memories of training. How many hours had they spent together in the woods while he'd learned the art of imitation from Konoha's little-known 'Master of Henge'? He'd been trying so hard to waken his Sharingan, but it had taken the fight with Haku to begin those wheels turning. Still, it had been good training for infiltration, and they would go to eat sushi together afterwards. He'd been taught how to observe, how to learn the little habits that truly sold an impersonation, how to project the proper attitude... but he hadn't been skilled enough to learn the art that made the other man the 'Master of Henge', the altering of the Chakra aura to match the outward appearance. The memory of that failure brought a thousand thoughts he'd been suppressing back to the surface of his mind.

"I'm not like you. I didn't choose him."

The first hint was the unexpected pressure on his left shin and arm; the second hint was the muddy ground rushing up to meet him; the third hint was the hand under his neck, holding him a scant few centimeters from the ground; the fourth and final hint was the disapproving "Tch." His old teacher was displeased, but not angry. It was the same thing he would do whenever he thought Sasuke was being dense.

It was embarrassing. Sasuke rolled quickly away from the gentle hand, pushing himself upright to glare at the other man. "Why yo-"

"I didn't pick him over you. You picked him over me." the other man cut him off.

The very suggestion was impossible, insulting even! "I would never pick that Dobe over you! You're the one who-" His kick was blocked, as was the follow-up palm strike. The hand that gathered his collar into a fist and lifted him off the ground wasn't as gentle as the tripping foot, but his pride was the worst wounded. He hadn't been manhandled this easily in years, had never been this weak to anyone else.

"I lifted another lonely boy from the ground onto my back." the block came with the swiftness of long practice.

"He took you away!" it was a snarl and plea, the anger of a boy betrayed.

"I never left you. You couldn't stand the sight of Naruto and I together, so you ran away. You were afraid let someone else into your heart. And that is why I am still stronger than you."

"I am stronger than you!" he managed to break the other man's grip and somersault away. "I have always been stronger than you! You are nobody!" If only he wasn't so drained of chakra, he would have gladly proved his words. How dare this lowly schoolteacher think he was stronger than the last of the great Uchiha clan? He had no special abilities other than Henge, which was an art taught to the lowliest of academy cadets! He had no bloodline, no special jutsu, nothing!

If his contempt had any effect, the other man didn't show it on his usually expressive face. He shook his head slowly, "Wrong again, Sasuke. You've become more skilled, but not any stronger."

"You're the wrong one, Iruka-Sensei." the last of Sasuke's smoke-bombs swirled around his feet, and the sound of breaking twigs spoke of as hasty a retreat as could be managed. It wasn't all that fast.