Being a ninja is hard enough when you work for the good guys, let alone when you get reincarnated into a family of psychopaths.
Disclaimer: I own nothing but this new shore and all the coconuts that have washed up on it. Oh, sweet coconuts, how I have missed you.
Chapter 7: Poisoning Young Minds
"Hurry up!" Temari called over her shoulder, hand clamped tight around my wrist as she led me through the streets, dodging past the rare pedestrian doing business at the early hour.
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes as I pumped my legs to keep up with her ferocious pace. For some reason my first day of school had galvanized her into Big Sister mode, and she insisted on getting there early to show me the ropes. Even if it meant tearing my arm off at the shoulder on the way there.
A few minutes of frantic running later left us standing in the academy's courtyard. The building was two stories, though most of the first was sunk into the ground, and built more like a fortress than a school. The doors were down a set of steps dug into the earth, and squat windows filled with thick Nenshoudo glass dotted the walls in either direction, inches above the ground. In contrast, the windows of the second floor were high and thin, reminding me of nothing so much as arrow slits.
I spent a moment flexing feeling back into my fingers and rolled my arm in its socket a couple times before I noticed the concern that flashed across my sister's face. It had been months since the accident, and for the most part we'd returned to our competitive dynamic, but from time to time she would give me a look that made me feel fragile as glass.
I'd once tried to use it against her in a spar, and the worry in her eyes as I called out had made me sick to my stomach.
"So," she finally said, breaking the awkward silence, "this is the academy..."
"Really?" I asked, this time giving in and offering up a hearty eye roll. That seemed to galvanize her, concern giving way to her far more typical annoyance in an instant.
"Yes," she spat, "really, and we're here early to make sure you don't embarrass me."
"Temari!" I gasped, and clasped my hands under my chin in mock innocence. "Would I ever do such a thing?"
The glare she shot me was more than enough to get across her skepticism.
"Fine," I huffed, crossing my arms as impetuously as possible. "I'll keep the weird to a minimum around your friends. But I'm not pulling any punches with mine."
"I guess that's the best I'll get," she said before seamlessly going from put-upon to instructive. It was impressive how quickly she could shift gears. "Which brings us to the next thing, don't come running to me if you get in trouble, it'll only make us both look weak."
I nodded, recalling the time she'd complained of our clan being mocked by a clique led by a member of the Hansha clan during her weekly report to father. He had answered with trickle of killing intent and a lecture explaining that the Sabidou name was worth a great deal of political capital, but like any asset would only grow with careful investment. Stripping away the fiscal metaphor, the message had been to take care of it herself to prove the worth of the clan name rather than lessen it by using it to bail her out.
I hadn't missed the extra ryu slipped into her allowance a couple weeks later when she proudly mentioned flattening the kid in a spar.
"Anything else?" I asked, eyes sweeping over the crowd that was beginning to form around us. Most of it came from the group of orphans that had just been herded into the square by their caretaker. Suna paid for their upkeep in the absence of parents, and expected a return on its investment.
"Suzu asked a cousin who just graduated about your sensei, Norio," she happily relayed the gossip. "He likes pop quizes and, what do you call them, objection lessons?"
"Object lessons," I corrected idly, and held in an exasperated sigh. I was beginning to detect a theme in my learning experience.
The rest of our conversation continued in the vein of gossip as she told me what various friends of friends had to say about the relatives that would be in my year, each colored by the various stereotypes attached to their clans. The Hansha boy was, obviously in my sister's eyes, a menace, some Keieii girl was creepy, a Hikou brat couldn't sit still, and so on and so forth.
Most of the students thus gossiped about showed up over the course of the conversation, often accompanied by older clan members who broke away to enter the building for their own classes.
"...And Suzu has a cousin coming in, be nice he's-" Her eyes skipped away from me and across the crowd as she started waving vigorously. "Oh! Suzu, over here!" A pair of children our age started pushing our way, their sandy brown hair just visible over the crowd.
The two chatted idly for a moment while the other boy and I sized each other up. Keiji Nenshoudo and I had met a couple of times before, but neither of us had particularly caught the interest of the other. He seemed to enjoy 'who's dad would win in a fight' debates with his peers, and my father being the Kazekage seemed to stymie him. For my part, I saw him as a loudmouth without Hikaru's infectious energy to balance it out.
"Kankuro, I've gotta go," Temari said as her counterpart spoke with her own relative. "Remember, if you embarrass me I'll put a scorpion in your bed!"
"Likewise, Keiji!" Suzu scolded before the two of them turned and made for the doors.
"I'll call it Mr Stabs and love him forever!" I called at their retreating backs, and grinned as I saw my sister's hand rise to plaster itself across her face in consternation. My grin only grew wider as I noted the confused gazes shot my way from other first years near us in the crowd. A definite bonus to having twenty years of mental development on my contemporaries was that I didn't feel self conscious around them. Who needed to impress a passel of six year olds?
Finally, the older children had all wandered inside and the adults had gone their own way, leaving the first years to mill about on their own. The security inherent in a ninja village meant that people could take a fairly lackadaisical approach to child safety, trusting their ever-watchful guardians to prevent any undue harm.
I took a moment to try and spot the twins, but a surge of murmurs swept across the crowd and, seeing a few hands pointed skyward, I lifted my gaze to the academy's roof, squinting against the sun that was just peeking over the building. There, silhouetted in the morning light, I could make out someone looking down on us. He waited a moment for the chatter to die down before stepping out, smoothly pivoting ninety degrees to walk down along the wall. Just above the main entrance he hopped off the wall to land neatly at the top of the steps.
The act triggered a fresh batch of excited whispers as the group exclaimed over the casual show of skill. I didn't join the talk, but I could feel a small smile spread across my face. It was one thing to know about the seemingly impossible powers that this new world offered, and quite another to see them. While wall walking was a common enough skill, hardly anyone used it within the village in favor of the quicker roof hopping.
Beside me, there was a snort and I glanced over to see Keiji sneering at the display. "He's showing off for the civies," he said, unimpressed. "Anyone could do that."
I stamped down on the urge to snap 'then you do it' at him. I'd promised to be nice and he was probably right in any case. "Maybe," I answered instead, "but you have to admire the showmanship."
His look turned confused for a moment before resettling into the most imperious expression I'd ever seen on a six year old.
A moment later the babble died down again as the man I could only assume was our instructor swept his eyes over us. His blonde hair hung a few inches past his ears and was held away from his face by his hitai-ate in typical Suna fashion. Some kind of thin scarf was looped around his neck above the dusty brown flak vest that Suna chunin wore.
"Greetings," he began with a slight bow to the crowd. "My name is Norio Tsukino, you will refer to me as Norio-sensei. Today you begin your journey towards becoming shinobi and kunoichi of Sunagakure. Some of you may believe that you have already begun this journey and will find retreading these first steps easy." I couldn't help but feel that his gaze lingered on me specifically when he said this, though a quick glance to the stiffened Keiji beside me told me that it might apply just as much to him.
"Whether or not that is the case, consider this your first lesson: Complacency breeds weakness. Adversity fosters strength." I could only imagine the confusion the long words brought about in the children who hadn't spent their lives actively re-expanding their vocabularies. "That means that, no matter how good you are, hard work will make you better. Since Suna requires the best, you can all look forward to a lot of hard work."
The assembled children practically exploded in conversation at this declaration. Civilian children second guessing their decisions to enter into the shinobi life, orphans grumbling resignedly, and clan kids wondering whether or not they were as prepared as they'd thought. Of course there was a fourth camp, exemplified by the Nenshoudo boy beside me, that declared they'd be the best regardless.
For my part, I enjoyed the show and let the chatter wash over me. A year of weekly trials by my crazy ex-ANBU uncle had left me feeling fairly certain of my abilities.
A short burst of killing intent, which I was beginning to suspect was an accepted child rearing strategy amongst ninja parents rather than an affectation of my father, cut through the noise like a kunai through sinew. More than a few of the kids who hadn't benefitted from a shinobi upraising were shivering.
"One more thing," Norio stated. "Any lesson, no matter how harsh, still teaches you. And you should always thank your teachers."
I joined my peers in making a hasty bow and muttering "thank you."
"Very good," he said agreeably before turning to descend the stairs into the building. "Follow."
I was suddenly glad I'd stuck towards the back of the gathering as the crowd practically leaped to obey, pushing and shoving to follow the order without actually getting too close to the instructor.
My impression that the academy had been built like a fortress was reinforced once we were inside. Pillars jutted from the hallway walls at regular intervals, providing cover should it be needed, and the classroom doors were offset so that none of them had a clear line of fire into any other. I guessed that the heavy door, set next to the stairs leading to the second floor at the end of the hall, lead down into the catacombs as a final fallback.
Our room was at the far end, putting the more advanced students between us and the entrance. The room itself was somehow more normal than I'd anticipated after the display our teacher had put on outside. I don't know what I'd expected, but it wasn't low workbenches scattered about facing a desk and blackboard opposite the door. Each bench had a trio of chairs arranged along one side with a couple of books stacked before them. On closer inspection there was also a small paper cup beside each stack.
A quick survey found Hisoka and Hikaru already sitting at a table along the lefthand side of the room, midway from the front and under one of the windows. Hikaru was waving frantically to get my attention while his sister glared at anyone who tried to take the third seat. I joined them as the rest of the class shuffled itself into some semblance of order.
"Now then," Norio began once everyone had been seated. "You have each been issued a book of Suna's Shinobi Guidelines and the standard history text. The former is yours to keep and the later, along with other texts you will be issued over the course of your time here, belongs to the village, be sure to treat them accordingly.
"You will have also noticed the water set beside the books. Despite what you may hope, this is not meant to serve as refreshment, each of you are expected to bring your own flask or water skin from home. The water provided contains traces of Brittle Pulse." There was a small yelp from the table to our right and I turned to see a girl carefully place her cup back on the table. The basketball sized gourd resting by her chair marked her as a member of the Keieii, Suna's resident clan of water users who managed the aquifer beneath the village and mixed poison into their jutsu to great effect. The fact that our water was provided by poison masters didn't concern the populace as much as it might have somewhere else.
"It seems some of you are already familiar," the teacher went on with a smirk. "For the rest of you, Brittle Pulse is one of Suna's signature poisons. As one might divine from the name, it is a cardiovascular poison, stiffening and constricting blood vessels to restrict oxygen flow, weakening the victim, slowing their reactions, and, in high doses, causing cardiac arrest and death." His description caused a number of outcries as various students tried to discreetly distance themselves from the cups in front of them.
"You're going to drink them."
"You want us to drink poison!?" Hikaru shouted from my left, and I turned to see that he'd jumped out of his chair to point dramatically at the front of the room. Hisoka's eyes flickered between him and the teacher and she looked like she was torn between being deeply embarrassed by her brother and joining him, and I found myself pondering the same.
"Yes," he said as if it were a perfectly sane order to issue. "And as I am effectively your commanding officer, that should be enough." He paused for a moment to let that sink in and whispers started started rising. A handful of the shinobi children looked disdainfully at their peers, such exacting discipline having apparently featured in their upbringing.
"However," he finally continued, accompanied by a flash of killing intent to silence conversation. "I recognize that such loyalty is the mark of a proud ninja, and it is not my place to expect such a level of discipline from first years. It is my place to instill it. An explanation is warranted.
"Brittle Pulse is often deployed as a gas during open combat to weaken as many enemy units as possible. Despite efforts by wind users to corral the cloud, there is often blowback that can effect allies. The watered down samples in front of you are far from a lethal dose, and its effects shouldn't even be felt so long as you don't exert yourselves in the next few hours. Such diluted exposure has the benefit of building up a resistance in the body. Hopefully, by the time you complete the full set of doses you will have nothing to fear from this particular poison in any dosage you're likely to encounter.
"Orders will not always make sense, because not all information can be available to every soldier. You must trust your commanders to know the situation and do what is best for the village, and you can rely on me to act in your best interest. This treatment may one day save your life.
"Now drink. That's an order," he finished, gaze sweeping the room as he waited for us to comply.
Thoughtfully, I lifted the cup and looked inside. I couldn't see any discoloration, any sign that it was anything other than water, but that seemed a lot to go through to say 'just kidding, we only wanted to make sure you would'. Besides, it wasn't as though poison was required to be sickly green. Shrugging, I downed it along with the rest of the class.
I could see the beginnings of indoctrination here, the fervent loyalty that I'd seen in Yashamaru all those months ago, the devotion that made Suna famous for ninja that would complete the mission at any cost. As before, it was still a completely alien mindset to me, so different from the philosophy of self determination I'd been raised to in my first life. But for the first time I began to worry that it wouldn't stay that way, that I might come to understand it, to believe it. The method might not be designed for adult minds, but how much difference would that make? How long could I stay me?
As the rest of the class finished taking their medicine Norio rapped his desk to draw our attention back to him and I dropped my train of thought. Suddenly espousing the virtues of free will would be unwise, to say the least, and dwelling on it wouldn't help any.
"Well done," he said warmly. "Now open your texts and we'll do a brief overview of the village's history." As textbooks were opened he began his lecture.
"The Shodaime Kazekage, Masaaki Nenshoudo, also known as The Glass Mountain of the Desert, founded Sunagakure in the hopes of putting an end to the frequent and often pointless conflicts between the shinobi clans of Wind Country. Without his brokering peace between the clans, many of you would likely be at war with one another today. However, even after the first clans joined the village, many were reluctant to..."
I zoned out as Norio retreaded material I'd already learned from my tutor and delving into the Sabidou library. The last, at least, had made mention of the fact that Konoha had been founded first, and had obliquely referenced that it had been the first Hokage that initially tamed the Biiju. Which made the next part of history all the more confusing because the majority of Wind Country clans, most of them nomads or marauders who found the concept of living in one place unappealing, had only entered the village because the Shodaime's unparalleled Glass Release was the only thing that challenged a free Shukaku rampaging across the desert.
Had Konoha sealed the one-tail some time after the founding and Masaki took credit for it? Had Konoha stolen credit for a tailed beast they'd never touched? Had Shukaku escaped its first seal, leaving our Shodaime to recapture it? Had it been released to threaten the unconsolidated clans and convince them to join?
It was impossible to say which, if any, of the myriad scenarios I'd concocted were accurate. The history of a hidden village was redacted and reshaped so frequently and severely that working out what had actually happened without access to classified vaults was an exercise in futility. For all I knew the villages had existed for a thousand years and the warring states period was a shared fiction designed to some convoluted end.
"...The Shodaime's reign was cut unfortunately short when he fell to assassins two years after the war's conclusion. It would not be until two decades later that the village would learn that his death was orchestrated by Yasuhiro Goukanou, the Nidaime Kazekage..." There were scattered murmurs at that, and I could spot a few pointed glares being directed at the handful of redheaded students, most of them orphans.
The crimson haired children that continued to crop up periodically in Suna were a legacy of the long defunct Goukanou clan. They had been seal masters specializing in the mind who were prolific in marrying into other clans, a combination that became disturbing after a moment of consideration. The worst of them had been Yasuhiro who, after killing the Shodaime, had used his talents to enthrall the upper echelons of the Shinobi Corps.
The crimes attributed to him during his reign were numerous and varied and, as a result, he had grown into something of a bogeyman in modern Suna. None of my caretakers had ever seen fit to use them on me, but the twins had apparently received more than a few tales of the man to scare them into behaving.
Part of the reason that my grandfather was so well loved in the village was that he had been swept into office on a wave of Goukanou blood. In what had come to be called the Iron Night, he'd overthrown the Nidaime and slaughtered every clan member above enlistment age, scattering what children remained. The early years of the Sandaime's rule, before the Second war had begun, were devoted to purging their seal archives, which had inadvertently contributed to the sorry state of sealing in the village.
Huh, I considered, I wonder if that has anything to do with why Sasori went after the-
My reverie came to an end as I felt something thud into my forehead before dropping into my open book, which I realized I hadn't been leafing through with the rest of the class. There were more than a few snickers as I stared at the piece of chalk before rubbing at my forehead and coming away with a smear of white dust. They only intensified as I started trying to brush it away, periodically rolling my thumb across my fingers in an effort to get it off.
It was bad enough living in a village where sand getting everywhere was a fact of life. Chalk dust clung.
The history lesson was followed by an introduction to the Shinobi Guidelines, with Norio calling on students to read a handful of excerpts aloud. I found myself suppressing the reflex to cringe at the occasional butchered pronunciation, reminding myself that most of them were still learning to read.
The following question and answer section stretched long enough to take us to lunch, and we were led out onto the roof to eat whatever we'd brought along. Apparently rather than waste space to establish a student training field near the academy building, the second story and the roof served the purpose. Targets were mounted on the walls of the second to prevent rogue weapons from flying off into the streets and training, and training logs and dummies were embedded in the middle of the roof. The floors were of packed earth rather than the stone of the classrooms on the first floor.
The twins and I found a bench along the edge of the building near the stairs and sat facing out, looking out over the village as we ate our meals. For once there was a gentle breeze instead of the typical cutting wind one could expect above ground level, and we chatted idly about the day.
"I still can't believe he made us drink poison!" Hikaru exclaimed.
"And expects us to keep drinking it," Hisoka noted.
"Well, none of us had heart attacks on the way up the steps," I said, shrugging expansively. "So I guess he knows what he's doing."
"Shtill shay it'sh crashy," Hikaru answered around a mouthful and I hastily averted my gaze from the ghastly sight as Hisoka flicked his ear in recompense.
"So," came a voice from behind us, stalling our conversation. "Do you know how he did it?"
"Very carefully, I imagine," I said, glancing back to see Keiji attempting to loom behind us before turning back to my meal.
"What?" He asked, confusion evident before his voice firmed again. "No, not the poison, I mean how did your dad kill the Third?" I froze, mouth hanging open and food halfway from my bento.
"Is... Is that a thing?" I asked after a moment, baffled. "Do people ask that?" A lot of commonly known 'facts' of my new life caused me cognitive dissonance, were so contrary to what I'd carried over that I had trouble parsing them. Sasori was still regarded as a hero and a legend. The moon was occasionally referred to as a god-corpse, which was all the more confounding because it might actually be right.
But the idea that my father had murdered his father? That didn't just disagree with what I knew from the anime or physics, it disagreed with everything I knew about him as a person. Was he a killer? Absolutely, all the killing intent he'd thrown around over the years made it impossible to picture him otherwise. But his own father? Maybe if his loyalty to Suna had demanded it, as it had demanded that the Third kill his own predecessor, but never for the sake of power. For all that my father respected strength, it was only as a means to fulfilling one's duty.
"Don't play dumb," Keiji taunted. "Every Kazekage gets the hat by killing the last one. Why should the Fourth be any different?"
My brain started ticking over again as it worked past the initial mind breaking question. This wasn't idle conversation, and it definitely wasn't how you made friends. This was some kind of challenge. I didn't know why he would do something like that on the first day and, as far as my next actions were concerned, it didn't particularly matter. My family name was being insulted, and there were only so many reactions one could have to that.
Fight my own battles, I thought, considering my sister's advice from the start of the day. Before, I would have ignored him as best I could, let his mockery wash over me like water off a duck's back. I hadn't exactly been at the bottom of the totem pole before, but I'd had my share of schoolyard taunting and the ability to tune it out had been invaluable. Now, though, I could fight back. More than that, I was expected to.
It was tempting, to say the least.
I set my bento down on the bench beside me and got to my feet, turning to face the Nenshoudo boy.
"Kankuro," Hisoka interrupted before I could say anything. "It's only the first day of school. It's not his fault he doesn't know anything yet. Besides," she added, "it looks like lunch is over." Sure enough, a moment later there was a sharp whistle from Norio and the class started trooping back towards the roof hutch that housed the stairs.
I found myself smirking as Keiji scowled and turned to stomp away. I could feel the smirk widen into a vicious grin when, as he reached a few yards from the stairwell, he tripped and landed on his hands and knees with a grunt.
Approaching him, we could see the faint glimmer of ninja wire around his ankle and were close enough to hear the faint swip as another loop closed around his wrist. He started muttering under his breath and yanking his arm back as a small crowd formed.
"How did you...?" Hikaru asked, turning to me with something approaching awe.
"As much as I would love to take credit," I said, studying the ground before us, "that wasn't me. Unless I invent time travel at some point and use it for petty revenge." On our left a boy who's vest and pale blonde hair identified him as a Hikou clansman was jostled forward by the crowd and yelped as a loop of wire snapped around his own foot. "And he hasn't done anything to me, so it's probably not that."
"Class starts in two minutes," Norio stated, strolling almost idly into the stairwell. "Don't be late."
One of our classmates hesitated for an instant before looking as though he'd just had a clever idea. He trotted over to where our instructor had started and carefully placed his foot along Norio's path. When nothing happened he grinned and confidently took another step, when there was the gentle swip noise we were all rapidly becoming familiar with. The group of students who had begun assembling behind him re-dispersed as it became apparent that he hadn't discovered a solution.
"The hell are you doing?" Keiji grumbled as I kneeled down behind him and a bit to the right. I ignored him as I studied the ground around his snared foot. His struggles had shifted the packed earth of the roof, but I could just make out the circle of disturbed dirt that the wire had sprung from. It was about a foot across with more spray at the front where the wire had sprung upward to catch the foot and the anchor line planted at the back, a typical 'sand snare' that was a village favorite for open spaces. I had gotten caught by more than few under my uncle's tutelage.
I had to wonder how they'd been planted. Sand snares were supposed to be quick and easy to deploy if most of the work was done in advance, but doing it in plain sight without anyone seeing was a whole other story. Had they been working under a genjutsu? Maybe there was some kind of arming mechanism and they'd actually been planted the night before?
How they'd avoided detection was irrelevant at the moment, I needed to figure out how they'd sunk the wires. As the name implied, the snares were typically planted in sand because it was easy enough to cover them up, sand didn't look much different whether or not there were a few spools of wire under it, after all. The packed earth of the roof, on the other hand, could hold a shape, take a mark. Unless they'd used an extremely precise earth jutsu, there should have been some sign of where they'd been planted.
"Alright," I said, getting back to my feet. "Just do as I do." The twins nodded as I stepped up to the no-man's land that had formed around the trapped region, with a few others congregating to watch the latest attempt. A handful more had gotten caught in the field while I'd been studying the traps and some squatted on the periphery making observations of their own.
Taking a steadying breath, I planted my foot where I hoped there wouldn't be any snares. I exhaled in relief when I was proven right and started picking my way towards the stairs.
There wasn't anything so obvious as furrowed or unnaturally flat earth, but looking carefully I could see circles where the irregularities didn't quite line up. Out of the corners of my eyes I could spot others making their own ways through, and behind me I could hear others following my own path. I tuned them out as best I could, focussing on my next step.
After what seemed like an eternity I made it to the stairs and grinned wide as I stepped down.
And cringed an instant later as I felt something give beneath my foot. The next thing I knew, I was dangling by my ankle from a line that reached up to the stairwell's ceiling. With it wrapped tightly around one limb my escape technique couldn't do anything but tighten the line.
"I thought it was a safe zone," I grumbled as the twins offered me commiserating looks before picking their own way down the steps, careful of the tripwires that I'd so helpfully demonstrated were hidden in their shadows. "There's never a safe zone!"
By the end of the two minute time limit there were five distinct groups. There were those who'd been been snared, clan kids who'd learned what to look for through either instruction or inter-clan pranking, kids who had followed the second group, a bunch who hadn't worked up the courage to make the attempt at all, and finally a group that had made it through on the practical expedience of stepping where the first group had already set off the traps.
Once the time had expired I was surprised to see our sensei walk into view on the roof, stepping deftly among the traps to cut students free with a kunai. Bunshin, I thought, remembering the way he'd gone through the field so easily despite clearly stepping in the traps. Right. That's a thing.
He was soon joined by a young genin who moved through the traps just as deftly as he did, cutting the others free and guiding them carefully through to the stairs. When he got to me he slashed through the line and caught me around the waist before righting me.
"Thanks," I ground out as I shook feeling back into my foot. It galled me to have gotten caught just because I'd let my guard down. I didn't look forward to reporting it at the end of the week.
"Fah," came a voice from behind me. I wasn't particularly surprised to find that it belonged to Keiji when I turned to look. "All that time looking at dirt didn't get you very far, did it?"
"Seven steps farther than you," I shot back, eager for some kind of victory.
We were herded downstairs before he could respond and soon found ourselves back in the classroom, returning to our seats as Norio and the genin went to the front.
"This is Rokuro," our instructor stated, gesturing to the boy on his right, who offered the class a cocky smirk and a bow. "He is a genin of the Trap Corps and was responsible for you difficulties in returning to class today. Consider it a lesson." He paused and swept his gaze over the room, seeming to expect something.
"Thank you, Rokuro-sensei," Hisoka said from beside me and I turned to her, startled. There were a handul of similar responses scattered through the room. She offered him a respectful bow of the head before shooting a look my way and another to her brother. Always thank your teachers, I realized, recalling the second lesson we'd been given, and quickly joined in the growing number of students giving thanks. Soon most of the room had offered up their gratitude and Norio nodded approvingly before he continued.
"You may also consider it a test. Periodically, the school will hire genin to test your instincts and abilities, and I will grade your performance as I see fit. The only guaranteed result is that those who do not make the attempt will receive the lowest marks." He looked pointedly at a few of the students who had held back as he said this, most of them cringing under his gaze.
"That's not fair!" One of them called out, "we didn't know it was a test!" They got a burst of killing intent for their trouble.
"You will find that mosts tests in life do not make themselves obvious until after the fact," Norio stated plainly. "Often, seeing them for what they are is the first step to passing them."
The next period found me bored out of my skull as we reviewed spelling. Apparently, while basic literacy was expected by the time one reached the academy, they made allowances that not everyone had a private tutor.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity of stumbling pronunciations and chorused readings, we were led back to the roof. Norio led us through a set of basic stretches with the aid of another shinobi. It seemed that taijutsu instructors were cycled in from a pool of ninja on temporary medical leave, forbade from the sort of strenuous activity associated with missions or training but more than capable of keeping up with academy students.
This was followed by running laps along the roof perimeter, where I found myself keeping pace with the leading third of the pack, which was made up of mostly clan kids. Following us were the second generation ninja and orphans, who'd had training regimens but lacked the advantages of established clans, and bringing up the rear were mainly fresh civilians either enamored of the shinobi profession or trying to lever themselves out of poverty.
After half an hour we were set to practicing a few basic taijutsu forms, the instructors wandering through the group to correct stances, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that the village style was subtly different from the family techniques I'd been learning. The stances were largely the same, but their execution was more direct and aggressive than what I'd been taught. It made sense, the Sabidou style was built around backing up their powerful jutsu, focusing on dodging and deflecting attacks in favor of using chakra on the offensive instead of fists.
It would work well enough for Temari, I knew her fan techniques would be a more than adequate substitute for several tons of metal particles, but it would be nice to have something more direct for myself.
"I want everyone to memorize the first two pages of the handbook for class tomorrow," Norio stated as the workout ended. "Dismissed."
For a moment the class congregated at the edge of the region that had been trapped at lunch, no one quite willing to go first even if none of us could see any sign of buried hazards. After considering our options, Hisoka and I shared a glance before shoving Hikaru out in front of us with a squawk of protest.
Shrugging at his glower when any traps failed to trigger, we and the rest of the class marched down the stairs and out the front of the building. A fair number immediately scattered, either running home or off to some adventure of their own devising. Others remained to find relatives who were either waiting for them or wrapping up their own days at the academy.
"See you guys tomorrow," I told the twins, grinning as I spotted Yashamaru and Gaara on the edge of the square. Attending the academy meant that my afternoons were now my own to manage, leaving me free to wander beyond the compound walls. I'd probably end up spending a fair portion of my new found free time gallivanting across the village with Hikaru and Hisoka, but today I'd promised to tell my brother everything about school.
"Kankuro!" Temari called from the door as the twins said their goodbyes and made their own escape. "How was your first day? Second year stepped it up way more than I was expecting. They trapped the door and made us drink poison!"
"We... Also did that," I answered, turning to look at her in bewilderment. Come to think of it, she hadn't mentioned either of those during her first year.
"That's weird, I wonder if they..." She trailed off, looking at something over my shoulder. "Hey, I've gotta... We'll talk at home, okay?" She asked, and turned to walk off before I could answer. She tossed a couple of nervous glances over her shoulder as she went, and I sighed as I tracked her gaze to Gaara.
She'd acted like that every time she ran into him, and went out of her way to avoid crossing paths to begin with. She wasn't being cold, and didn't seem frightened. Our father was the only thing I'd ever seen her afraid of, and even then she faced his rebukes head on rather than run away or hide. I couldn't figure it out, but I got the feeling that she was confused more than anything.
Shrugging, I decided to leave that problem for another day and headed over to where I could still see my uncle over the throng of children. At least Gaara didn't seem to have noticed our sister's reaction, he was leaning against Yashamaru with his eyes half lidded and gave a start when I called his name.
"Hey big brother," he yawned, scrubbing at a ringed eye with one hand. "How'd it go?"
"Absolutely amazing and easy as attracting buzzards," I answered, grinning with a confidence I didn't quite feel. "How else would your awesome older brother's first day go? Sleep well last night?"
"'m fine," he mumbled. "Just nightmares."
I had to focus for a moment to keep my smile from slipping. I'd really been hoping that the 'devours the host's soul in his sleep' aspect of Shukaku would miraculously never reveal itself, but Gaara's increasingly erratic sleep schedule told me otherwise.
Waking, his control had become good enough that ripples of sand rarely reached anyone without him wanting them to, and even when they did they didn't do any more than trip their intended victim. But asleep... I'd noted the furniture in his room had been replaced at least once, and certain parts of the walls looked as though they'd been sandblasted.
I was worried about my little brother.
Two months into the academy it was decided that everyone was proficient enough in the village style to begin spars. To my deep aggravation, Keiji proved to be the best in the class, something he enjoyed thoroughly after I'd dominated academics so completely. If Suna's taijutsu could be considered aggressive, the Nenshoudo techniques were downright vicious, even if they weren't as dangerous empty handed as they would be with their infamous glass blades.
The two of us couldn't stand each other. I suspected that it galled him to be anything less than the best at anything, and I refused to return to the tactic of backing down that I'd resorted to in my past life. Some applied the term 'rivalry' to us, but that didn't feel right. Neither of us was measuring our advancement against the other, we were just lashing out for the sake of taking the other down a peg.
It was also around this time that the twins' uncle Takeo got married to a civilian woman, already pregnant with what were apparently triplets. I wouldn't have known this if it weren't for Hisoka occasionally cackling about 'minions'.
The 'exams' that were thrown at us were even more varied than those my uncle had deployed, owing to the fact that while I had always had a set objective, they could change the parameters however they liked. The traps were familiar enough, though I had to admit that the Trap Corps genin that were hired tended to be more creative than Yashamaru's competent but straight forward setups.
The genjutsu we occasionally faced were mostly of the camouflage and redirection variety which could sometimes catch even those few of us who could break them, getting us into the habit of pulsing our chakra any time we changed rooms. Everyone else was left trying to brute force their way through, flinging themselves at what appeared to be blank stretches of wall where they were pretty sure they remembered the door being. There were more than a few bruises caused by bad guesses.
One harrowing day, we realized over lunch that someone had been removing students and replacing them with bunshin over the course of the day. It turned out that they'd been bound and gagged at the back of the room, hidden under a genjutsu so that they wouldn't miss class. The Infiltration Corps corps could be scary when they wanted to be, and I'd found the whole thing to be a fair approximation of being in a horror movie. Hisoka, on the other hand, seemed to have found a new career path, positively gushing over the tactic.
We finished our doses of Brittle Pulse and were declared thoroughly immune to its effects, and moved onto Burning Glory. The Poison Corps seemed to have a lot of fun with their naming schemes.
In what seemed no time at all over a year had passed.
After weeks of build up and meditation exercises the class was deemed ready to draw upon our chakra. It was, at least from my perspective, a relatively simple exercise of drawing energy out into our palms, the resulting faint glow a clear indicator of who'd gotten it right and, to a lesser extent, the depths of their reserves.
I and a handful of other clan kids who had gotten an early start on chakra manipulation got a handle on it almost immediately, cradling the pale blue lights of our chakra in our hands. The rest of the class was more evenly distributed, chakra control being one of the few things that didn't particularly favor ninja over civilians.
Once class was dismissed I left the building, absently calling chakra to my palm and dismissing it, considering how I might use it more practically. It was too inefficient to use for reading after dark, but maybe that was something to work on? At the very least it would help when I got up at night until I learned how to enhance my night vision.
Incorporating chakra exercises into my daily routine was, aside from being prudent training, unspeakably cool. I had superpowers, even if they didn't seem like much compared to what grown ninja threw about on a regular basis.
"Is that the best you can do?"
I sighed as I heard Keiji's voice over my shoulder and turned to see him focusing on his own hand. The light he called forth wasn't anywhere near blinding, but it was still brighter than I could manage. And I'd been in such a good mood, too.
"So much for Sabidou powerhouses," he sneered. A moment later he glanced over my shoulder and took on a predatory grin. "And what do we have here? Another disappointment?"
"Keiji," I said warningly as I traced his gaze to Gaara in the square. He'd started meeting me here on his own to hang around the twins and I and the other students who occasionally joined us. Some of them didn't like someone two years their younger tagging along, but the Gankyou at least understood sticking by family. He wasn't falling asleep on his feet anymore, but only because Yashamaru had started teaching him the techniques ANBU used to stay awake for weeks at a time on extended missions. It stopped the nightmares, but it wasn't healthy.
"At least when he was attacking people he was doing something," he said, pushing past me and approaching my brother. "Now he can barely stay on his feet." Gaara was glaring at him, eyes balanced between fear and anger, ready to fall into one or the other at a moment's notice. It worried me how quickly he could flicker between them these days, a side effect of the ANBU techniques.
"Keiji," I growled, clamping my gloved hand over his shoulder. "You're going to walk away now."
He froze for a moment and then moved, his hand closing over my own in and instant, pulling it from his shoulder as he spun and yanking it at an awkward angle to prevent any retaliation on my part. He planted his other fist in my stomach before I could even think about breaking his hold and I folded as my breath exploded from my lungs. Twisting my wrist, he forced me to my knees.
"Don't touch me," he snarled as I tried to catch my breath. "You have no-"
"G-get away from him!" My eyes widened as I heard the panic in my brother's voice. Keiji turned to face the brat who had dared interrupt him, but had barely spun a quarter of the way before a fountain of sand struck him.
I distantly noted Yashamaru and an ANBU landing in our midst as I raised a hand to my cheek. I stared at the sprinkle of red on my finger tips uncomprehendingly, wondering if I couldn't feel it because I was in shock.
Keiji started screaming from where he'd landed behind me.
Right, I thought, brain feeling slow as molasses, not my blood.
"Tend to the boy," the ANBU said clinically as she loomed above me. Her mask was given a reptilian feel by a few deft strokes and the squiggled line from the center of its forehead to the temple told me she was Sidewinder. "I'll get them home."
I felt her arm close around my waist as she picked me up, and a moment later the world dissolved as we entered shunshin.
A/N: Ach, another over long delay. Sorry about that.
Some parts of this chapter, especially Keiji's development, feel a little rushed, but that's necessary if I'm going to get to cannon any time soon.
Hopefully the history lesson wasn't too much, just trying to fill in a few blanks and lay some groundwork. The Goukanou are my attempt to reconcile Sasori, a memory seal master that puts Danzo to shame, coming from the same village that can't keep its biiju from screaming at its container every waking moment.
I've been reading In Bad Faith by Slayer Anderson, which is a Harry Potter SI that does a great job of dropping someone in with the bad guys, and Memories of Rain by Against.The.Current, which has plenty of shenanigans from small children who will do anything for family. Against.The.Current is also responsible for every new clan name you see in this chapter, heaps of glory on her name.
Finally, I've been wondering whether I should change the summary. It's occurred to me that you can't tell it even takes place in Suna unless you check the characters. Suggestions?
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