It is in my honest opinion that the Uchiha clan has produced some of the finest shinobi and kunoichi that I have ever known. And I know that it will doubtless continue to produce men and women of exceptional caliber, so long as the clan exists.
- Senju Hashirama, in a letter to the 123rd Daimyo of the Land of Fire; May 19th, Akiharu 29 (109 BU)
I have no idea what you see in those guys.
- Senju Tobirama, in a memo to his brother; August 8th, Akiharu 29 (109 BU)
"I'm through." This was the first thing Sasuke said, upon entering. "That's it, I've had it. I am not handling these brats any longer."
This was the third time Naruto had heard him say those words since becoming Hokage, and for the third time, Naruto frowned and asked, "What's wrong with them?"
"They're just... terrible. Awful. Incompetent. Shall I continue? I could go on for hours." Sasuke sighed instead, pacing around Naruto's office, not even waiting for a reply. "Honestly. I can't handle them any longer. I'm through. This is a terrible idea. It's always been a terrible idea. Why do I keep doing this?"
Because your wife keeps talking to Sakura, and she keeps telling me that it'd be good for you, Naruto thought, but said nothing, instead standing, searching for, and finding the files on this particular batch of students. He flipped through the papers. "These guys were assigned to you only three days ago..." None of Sasuke's students tended to last more than a day, much less three. Odd. Naruto looked up. "Did you do the bell test?"
"And did they pass?"
A pause. "...yes. But only barely." The annoyance in his voice returned in an instant. "I asked for the best, I always ask for the best."
Tired eyes looked over the paper, and records of test scores and grade placements in the single digits were what they saw. First, third, fourth in their classes, never below the top five in any rank. "Sasuke, these are the best. They're top in their class, y’know. I even had Sakura make sure when I chose them."
"Then, please, explain to me why I find myself so disappointed," Sasuke continued. Naruto could hear his foot tapping on the floor. "Honestly, I'm waiting."
He put the files down and looked at his best friend with as severe a look as he could muster. "Sasuke, they passed the test, didn't they?"
"I don't care. I'm not interested." He had his arms crossed, and his red eyes were narrowed. As always.
"Just... explain to me what went wrong this time, okay?" Naruto said, managing a slight smile.
"One of them fainted before I could even introduce myself."
Naruto chuckled, almost nervously, almost knowingly. "Well, uh, maybe she was just a little nervous? First day of class, y’know."
"Oh." He frowned and thought this over for a moment. "Well, either way. Was he okay?"
"Of course he was fine. Took us five minutes to wake him up, and after that he was quaking like a leaf," said Sasuke. "I told him he should just go home, but no, it was 'I'm f-fine, I s-s-swear.'" He scoffed, starting another loop around the office. "Didn't say a word after that. Unlike the other one."
"Chatterbox, huh." Naruto was looking through the files again, though he wasn't really reading them. Three students, three photographs; two boys and a girl.
"Thinks I'm some sort of idol," was the half-grumbled reply.
Naruto glanced upward to see Sasuke glaring at him a bit more than usual, tapping his foot again. "That meaning...?”
"I was given a basket of tomatoes," Sasuke replied, "as a 'welcome gift.' And then I was offered a backrub. Apparently," he added, after a brief pause, "I look tense."
Naruto wondered, for a moment, if Sasuke still had as many female fans as he’d had when he was younger. If this was any indication… Pff, tomatoes. He struggled to turn his smile into something more like comfort, rather than amusement. "So'd you let her give you one?"
Sasuke didn't even reply, just glaring.
"Well, I dunno... Maybe she was just trying to make a good impression," Naruto continued. "I mean, I guess you're still pretty popular with the ladies. Girls are like that, y’know?"
"The girl was the one who gave me the least trouble."
Naruto paused, took a quick glance at the files again, and the photographs. He guessed that the boy that didn't look like the camera was going to eat him was the one that Sasuke was talking about.
Well, the world had shown him stranger things.
"It still doesn't sound that bad," Naruto said, putting the files down again. "And besides, man, they passed the bell test. That's huge, y’know."
"The bell test is nothing more than a diagnostic tool. It means nothing," Sasuke said.
"Well there's a reason, like, everyone uses it, y’know," Naruto replied.
"You do know that only Kakashi-sensei used it, don't you?"
Naruto opened his mouth to say something, paused, closed it, then began to speak. "Well we use it, too." Sasuke rolled his eyes and resumed pacing, as if that didn't answer everything. "Well none of your other students passed it, y’know. Didn't you send them all back to the academy?" Naruto continued.
"So just take these guys in, I don't think it would be fair to send them back after getting this far, y’know." Naruto leaned forward on his desk and laced his fingers together, shrugging thoughtfully.
"I never said I was sending these three back to the academy. I'm merely requesting that you give them another teacher and leave me to my own business. I have enough on my plate already."
Naruto smirked. "So they're not that bad, then? Worth another shot?"
Sasuke stopped his pacing, not looking at Naruto. "...I'm too busy to handle them."
"And what, exactly, is keeping you busy?"
"That is between me and my clan." His Sharingan spun in annoyance, or intimidation.
Naruto sighed. Of course. He always did the whole eye-spinny-thingy whenever his family came up. "That's not the issue, Sasuke. Look, obviously, you think they have potential. Why not train them yourself? You can't be that busy, y’know."
"Trust me. I am."
And that was where Naruto found himself in a hard spot, a promise and a favor repeating in the back of his mind.
("Do it for her, Naruto. And their kids. They're overwhelmed and they could seriously use a break.")
"Well, that's not an issue. You can make time."
Sasuke stood there for several seconds, looking like he could annihilate a small fleet with his discontent.
"I'm saying that I'm not gonna let you just dump these kids, Sasuke," Naruto continued. "Give them a chance before you go off and request another teacher 'n whatever, y’know? You're just being dramatic."
A pause. "Dramatic. Really."
Well, Naruto wasn't going to deny it. "Look, even Kakashi-sensei didn't like us when we first met. But, well, that turned out all right!" And Naruto smiled, laughing, leaning back in his chair with his hands behind his head. "I'm sure these guys are all right, too, you just gotta give 'em a chance. Maybe you should start by taking them on a mission. Learning on the job and all that, y’know?"
Sasuke's eyebrow twitched slightly.
"Just hear me out." Naruto stood, opened a drawer, sorted around for a moment, and produced a scroll, unrolling it on his desk. He looked up to see that, fortunately, Sasuke was still in the room, standing stock-still, arms crossed. At least he wasn't pacing, though his stare was almost as bad.
Naruto read over the scroll. "Here we go. This village up in the Land of Rice got hit pretty bad by a landslide a while back, they're asking for people to help them rebuild. I was gonna send out Yamato but… I’ve been sending that guy on enough missions these days, y’know. He needs some time at home with his kid.”
“Oh, so you’re saying I can’t have time with my family?”
(“Just anything to keep him out of the house. Please.”)
Naruto sighed and fixed his mouth to the side of his face. He’d made a promise. “Come on, Sasuke. It should be really simple, a perfect first mission for your team."
"They're not my team."
"These documents and your Hokage say otherwise." Naruto smiled a little smile, folding up the scroll and holding it out over his desk. "You leave in two days."
Sasuke glared, took the scroll, and left without another word. Naruto could practically see the scorch marks in his wake.
Sasuke was greeted by Karai when he came home. She'd been getting better at not assaulting him with hugs like she did when she was younger, and instead bowed, politely, as was expected of her, after sprinting down the hallway. "Welcome home, Father! Didja have a good day?"
"Where's your mother?" Sasuke asked, instead.
"Oh, she's cookin' dinner," Karai said, bouncing on the balls of her feet, hands clasped behind her back. "You get what you needed t'get done all done an' stuff?"
Even though Sasuke didn't respond, sitting to take off his shoes, she continued, more enthusiasm leaking into her words. "So I'm awful excited, Father, 'cos Masao-sensei said that we're gonna go on our very first mission tomorrow! We're gonna be pickin' up walnuts an' stuff. It sounds like a lotta fun!"
Walnuts. The things they made children do these days, when it would be so much more worthwhile for them to spar, learn practical skills. Sasuke stood and walked down the hallway, his youngest daughter in his wake, still talking, though he no longer really heard her.
He could smell frying rice from the kitchen, and he opened the sliding door, stepping inside.
Inou, his third son, sat at the kitchen table. Upon Sasuke's entrance he shifted his position, crossing his arms and looking out the window, dark hair falling over his right eye. The rings he wore around his neck scraped against the table’s surface.
"Oh hi, honey, you home?" His wife was hacking at some rice and vegetables in a wok with a spoon. She was wearing the lavender apron that day. "I'm making fried rice and beef stir fry, I hope that's okay. Making use of those lovely tomatoes you brought home the other day."
She went back to her cooking. "So how'd it go with Naruto?"
"It went. He's making me go on a mission with the genin in two days." He felt the scroll in his pocket, but didn't feel like taking it out, much less reading it again. It had been long since memorized, anyways. "I have to 'give them a try,' apparently."
There was a subtle rise in her shoulders as she breathed in. It was good news. To her, at least. "Well that'll be exciting, won't it?"
"It's a waste of my time."
"Oh come on, Sasuke. I keep telling you that you should try teaching a little genin team." She flipped the rice around in the wok, and it sizzled and hissed. "It'll be a good experience."
"I think it's much more worthwhile to train my actual children, thank you very much." Sasuke looked at Inou, whose eyes snapped from his father to the window again. "And what have you been doing today? Just sitting around?"
"Chouko-chan an' Shikake-chan an’ I had a mission today," he replied, adjusting himself in his chair. "I just got home…"
"What sort of mission?"
"Just a mission. C-rank." He glanced at his father and then back out the window in an unconvincing display of dismissal. Sasuke's expression was not one of approval. "It wasn't just an errand, Dad, it was a bodyguard thing.”
“Oh? Was there a skirmish?”
“Well, no, but I did get to use this technique I’ve been working on…”
“What sort of technique?”
A slight shrug. "I… I used it for surveillance, to scan the area an’ make sure we weren’t gonna be ambushed or anything.”
Sasuke sighed. Surveillance. Inou was better than that. “When was the last time you practiced throwing kunai? Your long-range attacks could use some work." He crossed his arms, staring the boy down from across the table. “Since you never seem to get any practice in on-mission.”
Inou looked up with something resembling guilt, folding his arms tighter into each other. "I get a lotta practice in, Dad. An’ Grampa said that I'm really good at the Mind Disruption technique, even better than when he was my-"
"Don’t even start with that, that’s not a true offensive technique. You need to work on skills that’ll actually be useful in battle. The Mind Disruption technique is useless unless you have backup. Besides,” he added, “no son of mine will ever be reduced to surveillance work."
His wife had begun looking over her shoulder again at them as she cooked, a slightly worried expression on her face. Karai remained in the doorway, saying nothing.
"But, Dad…" Inou said weakly.
"Go outside and practice throwing kunai until dinner's ready.”
Inou opened his mouth as if to protest, and then he sighed, knowing better. “Okay...”
He stood quickly, and would have made it out had Sasuke not caught a glimpse of something as he moved towards the door. “What are you hiding?”
His hands shot behind his back. “I’m not hiding anything.”
“Oh, really.” Sasuke reached over and pulled a thin book from out of his hands before he could leave the kitchen. The cover was a sickening shade of pink, with an illustration of doe-eyed young men and women on it, and he scowled. Inou’s shoulders fell. Karai got out of the way. Bracing for impact.
"Comic books? Comic books, Inou? I can’t believe this. I cannot believe this.” He held the thing up and looked Inou in the eye. The boy didn’t look back at him. “What have I told you about these?”
"It’s not… mine, I’m just… holding onto it for Chouko-chan…”
"Don’t lie to me,” Sasuke continued. “These things are a waste of time. How many times have I told you this?”
Inou didn’t respond. Sasuke flipped through the pages as if trying to prove a point, but snapped the book shut halfway through. “Honestly, Inou. I keep catching you doing this. Are you trying to disappoint me?”
His wife made a half-hearted attempt. “Sasuke, it’s just a book. There’s no need to be so harsh.”
“You stay out of this,” Sasuke told her.
So she did, and went back to her cooking.
Sasuke went back to Inou. “If you’re going to be sitting around and reading all day, can’t you at least read something useful?”
“I don’t sit around and read all day, Dad, I told you, I had a mission-”
“That’s not answering my question. What have you read lately that was worth anything?”
Inou didn’t respond.
“Inou, I’m waiting for an answer.”
“…been reading this book about using psychology in interrogations, some Yamanaka clan technique scrolls, an’ I found this really cool study on Two-Mind Syndrome…”
Inou looked up suddenly, confusion and a strange sort of hope in his expression. “Two-Mind Syndrome…?”
Sasuke sighed. Inou, while book-smart, was not always head-smart. “I’m not asking about that. You were mumbling, I couldn’t hear you.”
Sasuke didn’t feel like arguing any more. He held the book up again. “If I catch you reading these things again, there will be consequences.”
“Now go outside and train until dinner’s ready.”
For a moment, Inou gave his mother a pained glance. She didn’t acknowledge him, and he sighed, defeated. "Okay, Dad."
He left the kitchen, slouching with discontent.
"Mom, can I help with the dinner at all…?" Karai had returned to the doorframe.
"Umm... start chopping the tomatoes, sweetie. Large chunks," her mother replied. "For the stir-fry." There was an uncomfortable silence as Karai went to get the cutting board. His wife looked over her shoulder again, eyebrows tilted upward. "Sasuke, maybe you should get something to drink...?"
She sighed. "He's probably at the training grounds, Sasuke."
Sasuke smiled slightly. His second-oldest, Takeru never disappointed. "I'll go check on him, then."
"And before you ask," she added, before her husband could exit the kitchen, “I got a letter from Hajime today, he said he won’t be back for a few days yet. And Nadeshiko-”
Sasuke left the kitchen, not letting her finish, tossing Inou's comic book on the kitchen table as he went. He didn’t want his mood to be darkened any further. Takeru—his bright one—would help so much with that.
Karai asked her mother a question, once her father was gone, as she chopped tomatoes a few feet away. She sent the words directly from her mind, just in case. Should I have told Father that it was really my book?
It probably would have made things worse, honey. I know it’s not really yours. But you’re a good girl for thinking to do that.
Karai was very good with a knife, chopping the tomatoes quickly. I just feel bad for Inou. I should’ve told him that I heard Father coming home.
He’ll be fine, Karai. Your father’s just in a bad mood.
Karai finished with the tomatoes, eventually, but she stared at the cutting board for a long while after she was done, a helpless look in her eyes.
Ino glanced at her daughter, giving her as reassuring a smile as she could manage. None of this was new.
Just keep your head down. He’ll calm down by dinnertime. We’ll be fine, and so will Inou.
Sasuke woke up the next day in something of a bad mood, rubbing his eyes and scowling in the early morning light. One day until the mission, and he had to tell his... students what was going on. As much as they could qualify as such. They were nothing but a trial run, he told himself. He'd just send them back after the mission. So he could at least say he tried. Naruto would stop bothering him after that, he was sure of it.
How was he even going to contact them, anyways? He figured he'd start at the academy. See if they were there, or something.
The house was quiet when he left an hour later, Karai gone on her frivolous walnut mission and his other children busy with their own teams and jobs. He didn't bother putting on his green flak jacket, seeing no real use for it. It was just a temporary thing. Not like it was required, anyways. Jounin had no real uniform; hell, Yuuhi Kurenai’s child was out there, running around in little more than cargo pants and a few strips of cloth for a shirt, as a matter of fact. The way people went about things those days.
Ino saw him out with leftovers tied into a bento box and a dry kiss on the cheek, as usual.
In the end, he had to resort to phone calls. Unfortunately.
Except in the case of Senritsu Go’on. The fainting boy. “Apparently, his family doesn’t have a telephone,” the school records secretary said, scratching at the skin of her temple when she went to look up the numbers. “We can contact his mother at her workplace, though; that might get the message through, Uchiha-san.”
“Just do whatever,” Sasuke replied, with a sigh, and went to go make the other phone calls.
The other boy, Houkan Kyou, was at the academy within five minutes of Sasuke’s call, gasping and out of breath but grinning like a fool. His shirt was half-tucked in and his forehead protector was slipping over his eyes, having been hastily tied onto his head. "I came as... soon as you... called, Sasuke-sensei...!"
Sasuke rolled his eyes, unable to really say anything else. Kyou leaned against the wall, still panting.
"You know, you really didn't have to run here," Sasuke said, after a minute or two had gone by with the boy still breathing heavily. "I said to meet by noon so I could discuss some things with you and your teammates. That’s in an hour."
"Oh, but it's... a good thing to be early!" Kyou replied, swallowing halfway through his words. "Promptness is a good thing, don't you know."
"Promptness means that you show up exactly when you are called," Sasuke said. He crossed his arms. "When I say come at noon, come at noon."
"Oh! I get it now, Sensei! I’ll try to be more punctual from here on out, then." He grinned, and reached up to adjust his forehead protector, which had fallen over the bridge of his nose again.
Sasuke wondered, for a while, about who the boy reminded him of, kneading his temples as Kyou jabbered on about what Sasuke-sensei could possibly want to talk to them about, if it was a mission, it is a mission isn't it, oh goodness what kind of mission could it be, he couldn't wait, finally, a mission with the great Uchiha Sasuke-sama, on and on and on.
He sent the boy to wait in the hallway for his classmates when he began asking about Naruto and “war stories,” after all, Sasuke certainly had many fascinating stories to tell didn’t he after all he was a great war hero and surely a significant player in the history of Konoha and he was the head of the Uchiha clan and all, wasn’t he?
Kyou was more than happy to leave, on Sasuke’s command. It afforded Sasuke a blessed silence, and time to think. And, most importantly, time enough to calm down and not want to hit something any more.
He had a vague idea about who Kyou reminded him of by the time the other two, Namigata Sunao and Senritsu Go'on, showed up, roughly around the same time. Minus the otherworldly eyebrows and caterpillar-green jumpsuit, Kyou was a dead ringer for Sakura's husband, Lee. Personality-wise, anyways; they didn't resemble each other at all, in terms of appearance. Kyou's hair was messy, brown, and coarse, and his eyes were ovals, pale-irised.
Likewise, Lee wasn't nearly as annoying as Kyou. Lee, at least, had some restraint.
"So what did you need to talk to us about, Sensei?" Sunao, the girl, asked. She leaned casually against a desk with her ankles crossed over each other.
"It's a mission, I know-" Kyou began, but Sasuke cut him off with a sharp wave of the arm before he could continue.
"Let me explain. We haven't been together long, and I haven't really... gotten a feel for your skills. Strengths, weaknesses." Despite the fact that the papers they had given him about the team clearly outlined everything, courtesy of years of academy observation and training. But Sasuke didn't know what else to say that sounded decent. "So we're going on a mission tomorrow."
"I knew it was a miss-"
"Please be quiet," Sasuke snapped, holding up his hand again before Kyou could go off on another ramble about oh, of course, Sasuke-sensei, he'll be quiet from here on out, anything for you, blah blah shut up. "Yes, it is a mission. We'll be heading up to the Land of Rice tomorrow for a volunteer job, helping rebuild some houses."
The boy named Go'on, with his black, fear-filled eyes, shivered visibly. His hands were already clasped at his collar bone, almost as if in prayer. Sasuke noticed, and spoke, cutting over Kyou’s enthusiastic babble.
"Oh, what is it, it's not like we're going to be engaging in combat," he said, putting a hand on his hip. Go'on shook his head. Even his mouth was shaking. "Then what's the matter?"
"The La-Land of Rice... That's where Oro… Orochimaru used to live, right...?"
Orochimaru. Sasuke paused. "...that's no longer an issue, it's been years since any Sound ninja have lived there," he said. "There's nothing to worry about, it's almost entirely a civilian nation now."
"Almost...?" Go'on gulped.
"I don't mean it literally." The boy still looked like he was about to faint, like he had done on the first day, all the color drained out of his brown ash-colored face. "Look, you seriously don't need to worry about anything, okay?" Sasuke said, harsh eyes paired with half-comforting words. "Besides, if anything happens out there then it's my duty as your sensei to protect you." For the time being, anyways.
Go'on continued to shiver, before Sunao stood away from the desk to rest a hand on his arm. "Just trust Sensei, okay?" Her smile was far more reassuring than Sasuke's red, certain eyes.
"Yeah! Sasuke-sensei is the best, one of the greatest ninja in Konoha, don't you know! He'd totally wipe the floor with any sort of ninja that would dare challenge him!" Kyou added, making fists out of his hands. "Especially Sound nin. Don’t you know? We've got nothing to worry about."
Go’on still shivered, but at least his twitching mouth was pulled into something like a smile now. Sunao took her hand off his arm.
Sasuke continued. "So, anyways. We leave tomorrow at nine AM. And don't arrive any earlier, you got me?" he said, staring pointedly at Kyou, who nodded eagerly. "We’re to meet at the village gates. We’ll be going on foot.”
“What, we’re not taking a transport up there?” Sunao said.
“No, we’ll be traveling by foot.”
(In the years following the war, a system of rail-based transports had been subsequently planned, commissioned, invented, and built, connecting first the capital cities of the Five Great Nations, and from there the capitals of the smaller countries, and so on, and so forth. They’d become something of a necessity in recent times, what with the civilian population rising, and the ninja population shrinking.)
(Sasuke, however, still insisted on traveling the old-fashioned way.)
“Well, that’s fair, I suppose,” she said.
“Yeah, great stamina training!” Kyou added.
Sasuke sighed, rubbing his temples. “So I trust you already know what to pack? We won't be there longer than maybe two weeks; the journey up shouldn't be more than a day or so."
"Of course, Sasuke-sensei! Basic camping and survival skills were covered in our academy classes," Kyou said, smiling widely. His forehead protector was beginning to slip again from all his nodding. "I'll be sure to pack exactly the right amount."
"I'm sure you will," Sasuke grumbled. "The rest will be covered when we get there. It'll be good stamina training, lifting lumber and the like. So, to get ready, we'll be doing some preparations, preliminary training. It should take up most of the afternoon. I'll give you the evening to pack and rest."
"Yes! Actual training! So are we gonna start with a more taijutsu-friendly approach, or ninjutsu?" Kyou clapped his hands together, but stopped when Sasuke glared at him, though he couldn't extinguish that crazed, over-enthusiastic smile of his. "Just lead the way, Sensei!"
Sunao shrugged half-heartedly as Sasuke left the classroom with a heavy sigh, Kyou tagging along behind him like a baby duck, chattering on about how many laps they were going to run, how many pushups, sets and things like that, right, Sensei?
Go'on remained inside the classroom, hands held tightly together. Sunao paused for a moment, head tilted, dark brown hair falling over her shoulder.
"Hey, you gonna be okay? It's only a little harsher than academy training," she said. He was trembling, badly. "You're not gonna pass out, are you?"
Go'on shook his head vigorously. "No, no, I'll be fine. It's just... I've never really been outside of Konoha and I'm kinda... Well, the things I've heard about..."
The poor thing looked like he was going to cry, and, having very little idea about what else to do, Sunao reached out and put her hand on his shoulder. "Come on, let's go catch up," she said, with as gentle a tone as she could manage. "You can just ask Sensei if you need to take a break, okay? And if you want, I can ask him for you, okay?" It was a voice she used with her younger siblings and cousins, a well-practiced one. Just anything to calm him down.
"No, no, it's fine..." Go'on said, managing another crooked smile. He was still shivering slightly. "I can handle... it." He pulled away from her and continued onward and out of the classroom, hearing Sasuke's annoyed voice down the hallway calling for them. But he took his time, and he kept his eyes to the floor.
Really, the further back he was from Sasuke-sensei, the less he had to see those red eyes that he had heard all the stories about, the better.
Those eyes terrified him.
The village of Tamina was in shambles, to put it kindly. But Sasuke had never been happier to rest anywhere in his life.
Nearly two days of travel with Kyou and he had only barely gotten the boy to shut up about anything. The best he could do was ignore, ignore, ignore and hope that for every conversation Kyou attempted with him, he'd deflect to the other two after a while, which happened with a comforting accuracy.
This wouldn't have been nearly as bad if it weren't for Go'on's tendency to lag behind and need to rest far more frequently than his teammates, no matter how many times Sasuke told him to man up and hurry up. They would have gotten to the village by early afternoon the day after setting out, but because of him, night was falling when they finally arrived, the sun half-set behind the collapsed hill rising above Tamina. Remnants of houses stuck out of it like broken bones. By then, everyone was tired, and hungry.
And Sasuke was not in a good mood. Obviously.
And afterwards? He was someone else's problem.
This was mostly an issue with Kyou. Well, and Go'on had made them late, so there was some anger directed towards him as well. And Sunao...
Well, one out of three wasn't enough, Sasuke figured. Much easier to swap out three students than just two.
In the distance, they heard a bell ringing out, and over the hill the glow of lanterns began to gather. The villagers greeted them with faces of dirty worry, and gratitude, illuminated yellow by the half-light.
And that was when Sasuke first saw it.
There was a shadow of something familiar in the crowd. Sasuke narrowed his eyes as they got closer, trying to figure out just what, exactly, it was. It had disappeared by the time they got within speaking distance of the crowd, but his mind was still elsewhere.
"Thank you so much for coming to help us, Konoha-nin," an older man said, from the front of the crowd—the elder, Sasuke quickly remembered, from the informational scroll. He snapped back to the situation at hand. "I trust the journey over was pleasant?"
"We had a lovely time, the scenery was so nice and I've never been to the Land of Rice before but-"
"My team is very tired and we are in need of a place to set up camp," Sasuke said, nudging Kyou and bringing at least a temporary halt to his rambling. "Since I doubt there's anywhere else for us to stay."
The village elder shrunk back, tapping his calloused fingers together. "Normally, yes, I'd have you lodged in my home, but..."
"We don't want to be a bother," Sasuke said, in a tone that said, "Don't waste our time.”
"Of course, of course... Well you could probably settle down near the edge of the forest, there hasn't been much damage there. Of course you'll have somewhere nicer to stay once the rebuilding starts and-"
"Just show us where it is," Sasuke said, tacking on a half-felt "Thank you," to the end, eyes locked on the elder. He’d been avoiding eye contact until then, not exactly fearing intimidation, but wanting to avoid the use of it as much as possible.
And his eyes had been searching the crowd, for that thing he had seen.
The elder simply nodded hurriedly and asked a handful of people near the front with him to escort Sasuke's team.
Kyou thanked them the entire way, after Sunao managed a mild thank-you of her own. Go'on stayed silent, shivering in the evening heat, eyes to the muddy ground.
Sasuke looked over his shoulder at the crowd, which had begun to disperse behind them.
A flicker, there was something in there, shoved out of sight in an instant, lost into the mass of people shuffling away. His mind stayed with the crowd long after they had moved out of sight, images he was trying to process clicking through his mind like shaky camera footage.
What was that…?
"We'll bring you some dinner soon, you must have had a long day," a woman said, and suddenly there he was at the forest’s edge. The genin had started to unpack their things. How long had he been standing there...? "We don't have much to offer, but we hope it's appreciated."
"More than appreciated! I'm so hungry I could eat a-"
"That's fine. Thank you," Sasuke said. He began to take off his backpack, and when they did not leave, his eyes met theirs.
Hint taken, the villagers glanced at each other, nodded, and went on their way down the road back to the ruins.
Sasuke's so-called team continued making their arrangements, setting up tents, and the sun set.
Sasuke still had no idea what it was, exactly, he had seen there, back in the village. Though by the time a woman and her two children came by with a pot of rice and a lantern each, respectively, he had decided that it was nothing to worry about.
Just a shadow, nothing more.
The meal really wasn't much, but it was good. And there was something to be said about rice from the country—really from The Country—that just made any other rice pale in comparison. There was a richness, a freshness to the flavor that you couldn't get really anywhere else.
Sasuke knew the taste well, bitter memories included.
People said that smells had the strongest ties to memory.
He never thought he'd be thinking it, but he was almost glad that Kyou was talking at him almost non-stop during the meal, as it gave him something else to be annoyed at.
In all honesty, he hadn't really made the mental connection about where he was and what he had once done there, over two, almost three decades before. He’d folded those memories away, tucked them somewhere, and that had been that, not wanting, not needing to deal with it any more.
Land was just land, what was in the past was in the past. There had been treaties, and amnesty.
Summoned memories were harder to get rid of. They threatened to unfold themselves. He could already hear that hollow laughter at the back of his head, the touch of those cold, white hands.
He nudged Kyou aside again and filled his bowl with more rice from the pot over the fire ("Oh, sorry, Sasuke-sensei, was I in the way? I hope I'm leaving enough rice for you, I think it's only fair that you get more, you're our teacher after all, you know?"), waiting for the distractions of the next day.
He woke from a dream about red eyes and a voice he hadn’t heard in years, but that was nothing unusual.
(Sasuke only ever dreamed of things he had seen before, heard before.)
The things required of them in Tamina were perfect for beginners. Simple, hard work. Hauling felled trees, raising walls, retrieving things lost in the earth.
Sasuke had to admit it: the genin had their flaws, but they worked hard, and without question. The villagers seemed to like Kyou enough, in his enthusiasm, doing all and anything he was asked and with terrific speed. Sunao was more stoic, but at least she did not complain nor shy away from the more difficult tasks.
Go'on made himself hard to find, though Sasuke once discovered him crouched at the base of a tree, breathing heavily, covered in sweat, his forehead pressed against the trunk.
“Just taking a… break, Sensei…” he had gasped. “I’ll be back in a minute, I promise… I just need to…”
Luckily, he didn’t faint.
Sasuke was needed for most of the difficult matters. Putting the mountain back where it belonged. Child's play, that.
He tried not to notice when people pointed and stared at his red eyes, but his eyes kept him from missing anything. And, true, people were still kind enough, bringing them refreshments, just like the other workers. Though some acted shyly, hesitantly, or just outright avoided him.
Well, it was to be expected. Some people just wouldn't let bygones be bygones, as Sasuke did.
They returned to their camp when the sun set, to bathe in the lake about a half-mile away and then eat some dinner.
But when they were on their way back…
There, in a face caught for just a half-second, wrapped in a blanket by a fire, before turning over in sleep.
What was that there…?
They ate rice around their plain fire, under the stars. "Amazing how many you can see out in the country, isn't it?" Kyou said, after pointing out several constellations. "The city just swallows up the rest of the sky normally. I read somewhere that it’s ‘cos of light pollution. Weird term, right? I think it’s so nice to see so much, don’t you agree, Sasuke-sensei?"
Sasuke said nothing, but at least Sunao told him that she thought they were nice.
He could have sworn…
It was nothing.
He did not dream, that night.
The third day was cloudy, and without shadows.
The third night, they were relocated to the elder's house, which had been finished in the morning, after the hill had been moved and the foundations for the other houses laid. His wife made them tea, and it was hot and sweet.
Go'on managed to not only spill his tea but also drop and shatter the cup it had come in, afterwards going to bed early, his dark hair in his eyes. Nobody said anything about it in the morning. Sasuke's reasoning was that, if he had said something, the boy would probably have a heart attack or snap or something, and he didn't want to have that on his hands. He was twitchy enough as it was.
He didn’t feel terribly sorry for the kid, but…
It was the fourth day, and the village was starting to look like itself again. People were sleeping under roofs, instead of around fires.
There was talk of maybe a celebration, once all was said and done. And once-mistrustful glances, Sasuke found, had been replaced with nods while passing in the road and subtle words of thanks.
He was almost enjoying himself, of all things.
Kyou's energy was almost tolerable when channeled into productive uses, and Sunao and Go’on more than pulled their weight. They would probably be done by the end of the week, a good four or five days before schedule. Sasuke was careful not to tell them this, lest a stray compliment erupt into another episode of hero-worship from Kyou. They continued to do their work.
Of course, there were things Sasuke would honestly rather do.
He doubted that Inou had been keeping up on his exercises; it seemed like the boy needed constant reminders, else he'd be reading all day or otherwise wasting his time.
Though Sasuke had long since given up on her.
And at least she was a chuunin.
(Well. At least, she used to be.)
The next round of exams was coming up in a few months, and Inou had already failed twice.
They enjoyed real baths, that night, after going home early. And the elder’s wife chattered on excitedly about maybe treating Sasuke to some warmed rice wine later in the evening, she was so glad it hadn’t been damaged in the landslide. “Managed to get it out of the house before it hit. A lucky thing, that!”
Yes, he was almost enjoying himself, wanting to go home and listening to Kyou jabber away to Sunao about something or another.
But it was on that fourth night that the flickering thing finally moved out of the shadows.
And Sasuke saw his brother’s face again for the first time in years.