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White Snakes and Rusted Kunai

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Legends aren’t made out of fate. Legends are formed by defying fate. It was the one thing the Hyuuga clan hadn’t grasped; how many could have been great but stumbled due to their unyielding belief in fate? They lost, so it must have been destiny. Fate wasn’t a wheel which couldn’t be turned aside…fate was a river. A river which could be diverted and the roaring of the people in it could define the future.

Snakes were creatures of the earth and he did not delude himself in his youth. Letting their scales rub over his arms and body, the screams of the matrons hurt his ears as she found large white snakes curled around their newest child. If they reared and spat it was in his defence. No more. No one would approach him to take them away …for terror lurked deep in their eyes of the sinuous muscles and unblinking eyes. He yawned in contempt, his childish brain already separating the people with worth knowing from the less desirable.

Snake child. Demon child. They hissed just out of his range and he scowled. What were they saying? Was it about him? His childish mistrust slowly began to rot into paranoia. So he sent his snakes to find out. Sometimes they would listen to him, and what a feeling of power that was! To whisper in the dark and hear the rustle of your every command being obeyed. It did not matter he could not understand them, they tried to tell him but he was too slow, too ignorant to fully understand what they meant. They hissed at him in exasperation and he stifled laughter in his bed knowing if the other children woke up his friends would all be dead.

The other children were wary of the strange boy. Already hours of hiding indoors to play with the snakes had started to pale his skin and his eyes have always been an unsettling yellow. But that was good. In a shinobi village the strange ones are the ones with the most potential. Things start to go missing. A little trinket here, a trinket there. A ring stolen off a matron’s finger, a toy car out of a closet, nothing of value really. He denies the accusations because really while he may be the quietest, quickest child he is no thief to go crawling in the dark. The matrons look at him with distrust and dismiss him. They have no proof it was him, they have no proof it wasn’t him. The thief is never found.

When he turned five a prostitute is killed by the steps of the orphanage and he doesn’t quite understand the concept of death. He literally trips over it in the morning when sneaking out to catch rats as a treat for the baby hatchlings. The blood is still warm and oddly sticky on his skin as he clambers up and stares at the body. His first dead body didn’t faze him and he calmly walked into the matron’s room covered in the dead woman’s blood to wake her up. Her screams at so called devil’s child wake the whole orphanage up and bring the nearby shinobi running. He looks in the mirror later blood drying on his cheek as his snakes curiously sniff and lick at it and he thinks how striking the red looks on his skin. Isn’t it good not to be scared by blood in a shinobi village? Then why did people look at him with such surprise and mild horror?

They avoided him after that. Nothing too obvious, but in the corridors they would quickly change direction. In the kitchen they wouldn’t look at him in the eyes as they served him, in the bedroom too many children caught “ill” too often. That was fine. He spent his time looking hungrily beyond the walls of the orphanage. What was that smell? What was that sound? What could he see if only the wall wasn’t there? His snakes tried to tell him, really they did, filling his ears with soothing hisses but to his chagrin not one word could be understood. And that made his desire to know all the stronger.

That summer an epidemic broke out. The streets were empty and stark with the rotting sweet smell of disease. Shops stared blankly into the streets and crime skyrocketed. Three matrons died of the illness leaving the orphanage dangerously underworked. Food was in short supply and they weren’t that important to receive regular imports of clean water. Even more children died; one day they would be fine, next they would be coughing then in a few hours they would be dead. It was a terrifying and silent killer. Konoha was in complete lockdown and for the first time he stood in fear of death. His dorm now had five people left, he had woken up one day to find both his neighbours lying with purple faces and glassy eyes in their beds. His stifled scream at the suddenness had sent all his snakes fleeing as an exhausted matron had stumbled in. They weren’t avoiding him anymore, the epidemic forced them to live in close quarters and really, he was just a child. Their weary eyes now reflected quiet fear at the thought of being the next casualty.

He had been lucky. Before the orphanage could collapse in on itself the Hokage’s brother had come to relieve them. He was a tall, fierce looking man with a head of wild white hair and in his armour he looked ready to go to war again. He had ordered them all out of the building and set it ablaze to get rid of the filthy disease breeding grounds. All the children cowed under his hard gaze and not even he would dare to stare the second most powerful man in the eyes. The matrons had been dismissed to different corners of Konoha to act as nurses while the children had been swept along stumbling after the stoic man as he walked them to their new home. He didn’t ever want to feel this helpless before anything ever again.

Abruptly the man stopped outside a low flat building.

“All of you have a choice to make…You’re all weak little children but with help you can become strong. In this world only people who help themselves become strong…This is the Academy…for potential future shinobi. Anyone who wishes to stare back in the face of death and spit in his eyes is welcome to pass the threshold. If not we will continue and I will divide you up between the professions so you can at least do something useful for the village. Speak up now!”

He stood with an easy, feline grace in front of the dirty, wide eyed children. This was a dangerous man. He had killed, seen war and survived. The snake boy clenched his fist. This was his chance to climb the rungs of society…he could become someone important.

He shuffled forward a few inches and the taller man’s eyes picked him out instantly. The man smiled. It was not a nice smile. He knew what the man was thinking. Small, starved, thin, pale boys did not make good shinobi. But what did the Senju know about him?

Two more children joined him. A sly eyed girl and a lock jawed boy. They were such a joke. Riff raff from the lowest levels of society going to learn beside the heirs and heiresses of proud clans. He couldn’t help but laugh under his breath.

“Very well…Step over the threshold between civilian and military. I, Senju Tobirama, do grant you this honour and may your loyalty never waver. May your courage never flicker and may your death be swift.”

He steeled his jaw and stepped over the unamusing line carved into the dirt. When he looked back the shinobi and everyone else except for the other two children were gone. The building was long and twisted like some bizarre serpent, he liked it immediately.

They pushed the door open of a room. Fifty pairs of eyes flashed back. He stared back just like his snakes did. Cold. Unflinching. This was the proud heirs and heiresses to the shinobi clans? He remembered the Senju’s pitying gaze and gritted his teeth. He would be top. He refused to be anything less than the best and in time that man would acknowledge him.

“Ah new students.”

The teacher was a lazy eyed man with bloody grooves carved into his face. His smile was cold and he knew this was a man who raised weapons not children.

“Names?”

This marked the point he would remember as he first shed his skin. His old life over, his new life began here and now. A new life needed a new name to fit it…the name given to him by the Matrons was too weak for a shinobi!

“Orochimaru.” The lie spilled easily from his lips. “Take good care of us sensei.”

The Academy was brutal. The sensei made no allowances for skinny, vitamin deprived orphans but in a way he was grateful. He couldn’t become the best by being coddled after all. Everyday his muscles screamed at him and his head pounded like some giant war drum. The other children laughed and smiled behind their hands but he knew, he must have looked ridiculous running, jumping and learning next to distinguished families. Some muttered about the three orphan’s audacity to train with them, some pointed and smiled at their obvious difficulties while some left them alone and watched with hooded eyes. These were the children he was the most wary of, children who grew up too quickly. Children with the same dark eyes as his, children who wouldn’t hesitate to use him for their benefit.

His kanji was terrible, the pen was shaky in his grasp and the ink made large splotches on the paper. The idea of knowledge being written down fascinated him, he could know what people hundreds of years ago thought and learnt. The fact he could slip into their mind and look at the world through their eyes lit a fire in him. What did they know? And how could it help him? The dark ink on paper had effectively immortalised these writers and if one day he produced a similar work, children in the future would pore over his kanji too. His snakes tried to help him practise his kanji in the earth but their bodies were too curved and watching them attempt to spell out letters made him laugh rather than concentrate.

He was housed in a small apartment given to shinobi orphans, a far cry from the civilian orphanage. It was true he mused, rank was everything. Civilians were at the bottom of the social hierarchy while the Hokage and his brother reigned at the very top. What must the view be like? To stand at the top of their village and look down knowing every light was a person under their protection? Only the strong could survive in the shinobi world. He had no delusions, he knew if it had been a few generations previous he would have been stuck at the bottom of the ninja world with the grunts and terrorised civilians while the ninja clashed again and again in fields watered by blood and rain. It wasn’t an ideal life for a child but as he looked up at the grey sky and the first few drops of rain hit his cheek he thought it could have been much worse.

The Uchiha were a proud clan. With their Sharingan and their status as a founding clan they were nigh untouchable. The Uchiha children in the Academy were little Lords and Ladies with their courts of influence. People flocked to them; the Nara, the Akimichi, the Aburame all because they offered scraps of prestige and influence wherever they went. The only clan able to meet them power for power was the Senju clan. The heiress Tsunade and the Uchiha heir Kuroto had the unfortunate luck to be in the same class so each day was another battle with whispers and cutting remarks to attempts to cut down the other’s sphere of influence. The orphans weren’t used a pawns or even approached. They were the commoners, the outsiders and until they proved themselves to have the will of the shinobi nothing would change. He marvelled at what strength of spirit every child possessed, to plunge headlong into life knowing that their life expectancy was as fragile as a candle flame. The Warring clan era was over but the suspicions and the mental strength hadn’t faded from the clan’s children. Peace was fragile between all the villages and the Hokage was more often out of the village than in.

Then the rumours exploded. Their legendary Hokage had truly blazed himself into history further. The biju had all been captured, their leader had gone out and captured every single living natural disaster there was! Everyone knew tales of the biju, whispers and rumours filtered down into every level of society; even in the orphanage he had heard about the monstrous biju capable of splitting mountains and wiping towns off the maps. Konoha celebrated that week. The Academy released them all for a day and he wandered the village looking up at the carved head of the Senju leader gazing over his village. What now? What could the Hokage possibly be thinking of doing now? He wasn’t stupid, his snakes had returned nearly dead from kunai strikes in the last few days. Security was soaring, tension between the higher Nin was almost palatable. Only the ignorant were truly celebrating. An uneasy feeling rolled in his gut as crowds of people gathered to see the Hokage’s brother talk powerfully in the square. He looked the same as he remembered. A wild shock of white hair, the strange facial tattoos and that ever present blue armour. What secrets did he hold that the rest could only dream of? He turned his back and pushed his way out of the cheering crowd. Then a thought chilled him to the bone. If they held all the force of the biju…what would the other villages do? He couldn’t imagine the Tsuchikage or any of the other kages to let the fact they had nine biju under their control go. He shuddered in the warm air and his snake wrapped around his throat hissing lightly.

The mood turned sour a few weeks later. If ninjas were one thing, they were fast. He remembered standing in a line full of awestruck children as the most powerful man in Konoha strode into the Academy.

“Future shinobi of Konoha.” The Hokage’s smile was kind but that couldn’t possibly be true. Kind shinobi didn’t exist. They were weak. And weak people were not military leaders of several politically griping clans.

“As of now we are at war.”

Konoha blurred into action. He gazed out of his window and saw numerous Nin, far more than he had ever seen in his life, far more than he thought there existed pour into Konoha. Patrols lined the streets, a curfew was set up quickly and martial law was implemented. In a space of a few days the open village had transformed into a veritable fortress. Shopkeepers grumbled as goods were seized and heavily regulated, all the beggars had mysteriously disappeared off the streets and the civilians had been threatened into not stepping one toe out of line. Crime on the streets was at a record low, the ninjas could not afford discontent in the village so any criminals were punished harshly. He saw screaming men trying to staunch the spurting blood from their stumps where their hands had been seconds ago. On his way back from picking up his share of meat he saw two shinobi push a woman to her knees in a back alley and cleanly remove her head in a flick of steel. He stood frozen as his first sight of a deliberate death was over in milliseconds. The ninja flicked her blood from his sword, saw him frozen at the alley entrance and glared ferociously enough to goad his legs into working again.

The Academy stepped up their training. Their teachers did not shy away from inflicting them with wounds knowing that it was this training that might just save their lives in an emergency. Troops of Nin left the village for days on end, when they came back he didn’t recognise them at all. Some came back in bags, some came back missing parts and some didn’t come back at all. They finally started handling live weapons in training. He felt the cold steel edge and remembered the hollow rage when the matron had seized one of his snakes and brought down a knife for the death blow. It is this rage that allows him to throw the kunai with enough force to hit the target. He sees the adults blink in surprise and looks around. The ground is littered with kunai feet a fair distance away from the target, how? How could the clan children have missed such an easy shot? He feels his snake constrict with hissing laughter and clamps down on his resignment. It was a mistake, they must be used to handling different style weapons. It happens again. Granted the shot wasn’t anywhere close to the centre but it hit. Plenty of his classmate’s didn’t, some hit and bounced off in the most infuriating display possible. For the first time his classmate’s assessing eyes turn in his direction and he can read the question in their eyes. How could the skinny non clan child hit the target when they couldn’t? Why couldn’t they see it? Why couldn’t they see where to throw to hit the target? Wind was a massive factor and they had to take everything into account…He keeps throwing the kunai, one after another with rising glee. This was proof he could make it as a shinobi. This was proof he had potential. When he finally leaves that target pitch sweat running down his back, he leaves a target peppered with kunai so thickly it looked black from the distance behind.

Then their sensei is called to the frontlines and the Academy is strange without that ruthless man goading them on. They moved on to shuriken, bo basics, short blades, more advanced taijutsu and he is surprised to find himself actually being to compete with the clan children. He still loses most of the time due to his still lean frame and developing strength but now he can see their movements clearer. Stealth comes easy to him due to years of sneaking out to see his snakes and trapping is a nice exercise for him to work on in the forests to save his meagre allowance. He staggers home and collapses in his bed half of the days, the other half he runs until his legs turn to water and his snakes literally bite him to keep him down. He has to become stronger! Training is the only way he can do that.

The news of the frontlines are grim. Konoha is in a heated stalemate with Kumo, that mountainous village was as swift and devastating as the lightning. But the Leaf Special Forces had superior sensory abilities to keep fighting and it sounded like no side would make progress. Suna, Kiri and Iwa are at each other’s throats and the tales whisper of Kyoraku ‘Pale fire’ Nishiki, Shinshui ‘Commander’ Yuuichi and many more. The teachers are unusually solemn one day as they bark out that their year will graduate in the coming spring so they need to get serious. He clenches his fist under the table, with their graduation in the middle of a war it was granted that most would die. Everyone knew that. Ninjutsu training begins immediately to make up for the months they would have had. Chakra sounds like a dream and his blood races at the thought of spitting fire or cracking the earth open. Could he have ever dreamed when he was a lonely little civilian that one day he would one day wield the same power as the ninja from all the horror stories?

The first time he consciously uses chakra he nearly loses it due to sheer exhilaration. The feeling of his chakra pulsing in his coils is a new sensation and it is heady, for the first time he thinks that maybe the lifestyle he is throwing himself into is addictive and well worth the danger. That day his whole cynical class has eyes of wonder and his teachers smirk knowingly in the background. Even in war there was still wonder to discover. Tsunade snaps the commands like she’s done it all her life and they look on in jealousy as she is replaced with a chair in a poof of smoke. A white haired boy manages to mangle the jutsu so horribly he ends up on the roof, the Nara drawls it out and is suddenly at his desk sleepy eyed while the Uchiha switches with Tsunade herself to show off. Here the clan children have a distinct advantage. But he will not give up, instead this propels him into trying the jutsu all the way home. He collapses spitting blood at his front door but the sheer feeling of pulling off a jutsu successfully is glorious.

He wakes up in fire and screams in agony. His entire building is alight and the noise of the crashing rafters and the crackling flames drown out everything but the screams of the people burning alive. He was lucky, the smell of his ninja rubber shoes burning and his snakes woke him before it was too late. His snakes extracted their fangs from his nerve centres and hissed for him to get out. The fire is hot and strange, if he peers into the raging flames he can just catch dark shapes moving in the corner of his eye. He has to escape, the fire is clearly a jutsu as his water was burning on the floor. It was regrettable but anyone caught by the fire was doomed, he had no way of saving them. His snakes wound around his arms and he takes a running leap out of the thirteen story window. The wind is cool against his flushed skin and he has a moment to spare to think about his landing. One of his snakes screams as much as she can for her dying children and his heart twists at hearing her scream and writhe.

The wind whistles and the ground is dangerously close and he prepares to lose a few bones but something hard snatches him out of mid-air and he lands choking on the street with a shadow of the masked Nin above him.

“Easy boy.” The voice sounds almost bored. “Don’t jump out of buildings if you don’t know how to land.”

That was his first meeting with that infuriating ANBU. The man was gone before he could recover and respond but he looked up at the burning building pouring red smoke into the night and thought with a dull flicker of interest that that building housed dozens of civilians and at least eight shinobi. The metal screamed in the burning building, was that his imagination? Or was that howling faces in the fire? His spine prickled with unease. The fire would not go out! It buckled under the force of the water jutsus but it sprang up again after. The water hissed and turned the earth into a muddy sludge under his knees. He sat there and watched his life’s possessions burn. His snakes had died in there; he gritted his teeth and looked down in shame. He had failed to protect them! They had always protected him…even now, they had woken him up before he burnt to death. No more. Now he would protect them.

“I’m so sorry.” He whispers and the snakes understand.

There is a peculiar dryness in the air and upon his flesh. He rubs one hand over papery skin and frowns. Then a familiar voice roars behind him and an avalanche of glittering water leapt over him in the shape of long legged horses and galloped into the doomed building. The water horses are magnificent with their diamond bright manes and fierce glares and he is left breathless in wonder as they leap over his head and his world turns into foamy white and the familiar smell of sea water fills his nose. They’re special he can tell even more they neigh and run through fires extinguishing them in angry hisses. The smell of smoke lingers in the air and it is an awful mix of burning fat and ash. That Senju man had rescued him again! Again! This was humiliating!

But he swallowed his self-contempt and forced himself to think. That cursed fire had no natural origins, so where did it originate? He knew the answer in the back of his mind, where it whispered to him…surely there was an enemy infiltrator in the village. But why not aim for more vital residences? Why rundown orphans’ apartments? Or was it a random attack with him being a victim of chance? For the second time as far he could remember he lost his home to fire.

The boy from the orphanage was killed that night and their little alliance dwindled down to two. With a jolt he realised he hadn’t bothered to remember the dead child’s name. From the bitter smile on the girl’s face she had realised it too. He turned away not willing to look at the judgement in those eyes. The clan children didn’t even notice of the class was gone and that was the most infuriating of all. Did they not recognise them as classmates even after all this time!? Or were they too jaded from their families’ deaths to care about one nameless, quiet civilian born child? People don’t care he thought bitterly, stepping out of their assigned roles in society had consequences and he hated it. He had as much right to be here as any of the children who sat laughing around his table. One day he would change that, he swore to himself that he would change this awful mentality. He would make them notice him, make them acknowledge him as one of them…his mouth slipped into a smirk. Taking the top graduating spot from the Konoha prince and princess should do the trick quite nicely.

He devoured every single text the Academy gave him and more. Reading into the night until his eyes were dry as dust and his head ached from the contrast between black ink and parchment. He snuck back into the Academy grounds to use the targets in the dark, it was difficult and he missed more often than hit at the beginning. There was no time to build up from the easier tasks, he jumped head along into moving targets and dynamic throwing. One night his foot caught in a coil of wire and he crashed painfully into the dirt. Every single one of his bruises stung, his hands were slippery from the times he had cut himself on the sharp edges but he pushed himself anyway feeling the burn of earth in his cuts. He would be faster than any of them, sharper, stronger.

There was one area of ninja life they hadn’t touched at all. And his curiosity was like an itch that refused to fade. Staring at the rabbit he had caught in the eyes, he tried to reason what genjutsu was. It was a manifestation of his will upon the mind of the victim…so…how on earth did that work? He growled and smashed their foreheads together, wide frightened pink eyes stared into frustrated brilliant yellow and the poor thing struggled frantically to escape. He felt his chakra bubble in his throat and out of exasperation finally he hissed,

“Remain still you foolish creature.”

To his utter shock the rabbit froze quivering in his hands. Dropping the rabbit in surprise he watched the animal streak away in terror. What was that? A hiss drew his attention, and his heart jumped in his throat. His precious snake was fully reared in the grass and he could see the burning pink of its throat. Viciously sharp fangs were exposed to their full extent-why? Why was his snake scared of him? He wouldn’t hurt them! He took one step forward and the snake coiled as if readying itself to spring, he retreated almost immediately. It hurt him, why did it hurt him? Why did it hurt so much? The snakes were his confidants, why were they doing this?

“Reign in your killing intent boy.”

That masked ANBU leant against a tree a few feet away. When had he? He backed away reflexively, the man watched him backpedal without moving. Killing intent? But only higher level ninja could use that. There was no way he was excluding that, the ANBU must be lying.

There was a snort.

“I do not lie brat.”

He could read his mind! The man scooped up the hissing snake by the throat and it coiled around his arm clearly squeezing it with all its might. He had no right! In spite of himself he felt his chakra fluctuate to accommodate his sudden spike in emotion. He didn’t need words to communicate what he wanted. His outstretched hand did the job well enough.

“Calm yourself.” The man held up the alarmed snake high above his head as if examining a specimen. He swallowed and clamped down on all his emotions; his frustration towards his classmates, his anger at his treatment, his loneliness, his burning ambition to change things no matter how small it might be. Breathing out he opened his eyes, the ANBU smirked behind his mask to see the icy eyes slice him across the field. This boy could be great.

The pale child across him reached out a hand with fingers slender from gripping lethal weapons. He got his wish, a breeze later and he was alone in the clearing with his snake comfortably draped around his neck. It licked its cheek and he stroked it in apology. Killing intent huh? Interesting…

He hadn’t even realised his emotions were getting out of hand. This could not be repeated, it was a weakness. Had he been leaking his emotions to everyone who could pick up on them? Speaking of which could he learn to pick these kind of things up? In class he sat alone surrounded by his classmates and for the first time truly watched them. Several of his beliefs were shattered at once. The Nara noticed him observing and for the first time since he started sent him a sly smile. Then he went right back to feigning sleep. Well he had successfully caught the attention of one Nara and lost it again in a blink of an eye…it was progress?

He defeated his first opponent in the sparring ring. The watching crowd went silent, and he gave the proper bow under the weight of fifty pairs of eyes. The Inuzuka wiped blood from her mouth and gave him a smile with more fang than emotion.

“About time.”

His shoulder stung from the hefty slap. It couldn’t be…no way…all he had done was to watch the fight and he had moved on instinct…his hours of practice had paid off and he had smashed her across the jaw and out of the ring. Were they waiting for him to realise this? Being a shinobi wasn’t all about power, he had to be smart and watch everything with a critical eye then strike at the most opportune moment…like a snake. He grinned and his hair hid it from view, oh he liked this!

“Her left leg was weak from a previous injury. Why didn’t you target that?”

The Nara boy dropped into a chair facing him. His first words to him and it was already an interrogation. He didn’t bother lying that he hadn’t noticed it. Licking the spilled filling off his fingers he answered.

“Why should I point out a disadvantage I can use later?”

The lazy boy uncharacteristically threw his head back in laughter.

“Not bad…not bad at all.”

That was his introduction to the Ino-Shika-Chou trio. If the Nara had approved him and by Kami’s grace as he had passed some sort of test the other two accepted his presence eventually. Of course to the rest he was still invisible but the progress made, made his chest tight with something before he squashed it down.

He stared at his clone slouching in a chair. He cocked his head, the clone rolled its eyes and passed a hand through its head. It was quite startling and a welcome refresher. Did his illusion…just think independently? He was just bending light right? And colouring it with his chakra? So how on earth was it moving independent to him? Chakra being the automatic and all magical answer was getting a bit tiring. What the hell was chakra anyway? Where did it go when it was used? He knew Nin animals had chakra but what decided if creatures had chakra or not? He circled the bunshin warily, it seemed three dimensional but when he stuck a ruler through it the marks indicated it had no width. He drew it back shakily somewhat unsettled. The clone just sent him a smile and he understood what it was like to be on the other side of that sly smirk.

He hadn’t forgotten the fact there had been an enemy spy in Konoha who had set his apartment ablaze. Everyone who had survived had been relocated around Konoha, he had ended up rooming next to a woman with a young baby. Her cries sometimes kept him up at night and he just lay there kicking off the covers in the hot humid night and wondering where he would end up in five years? Ten years? Twenty? At what age did he expect to die? A few years earlier he would have answered old age or disease in a heartbeat, now he wasn’t sure… the way this war was heading it was very likely he’d die in some ditch far away from Konoha. He shivered in the hot night and traced the familiar constellations just visible from the window.

Clearly Konoha hadn’t forgotten the infiltrator either. He was rudely awoken one night to find Chunin prowling his apartment, he himself was dragged out in the night to answer questions as truthfully as he could half bleary with sleep. He could admire the tactic used, now only if it wasn’t used on him.

“He’s one of the victims Aburame.” Came an irritated voice from the window sill, “For Kami’s sake we don’t have much time, stop wasting it on people who cannot possibly be the culprit.”

There were about a hundred ANBU, so why…why was it always that one?! His casual dismissal irritated him.

“I could have framed myself as a victim.” He bit out mulishly. The Chunin went terribly still. Then his head went snapping forward as a hand struck it cleanly at the back.

“There is no way a brat like you is capable of doing an S ranked jutsu.” The ANBU stalked forward into his room reminding him of a tiger prowling its prey. Snapping out orders the man neatly stole charge from the Aburame and the whole squad simply disappeared within the space of time he took to blink. He blinked at the sudden empty space and tried not to notice how big his apartment seemed with only him in it. His snakes slid out from under the bed where they had fled to at the first noise and they looked as startled as he felt.

Things at the Academy soon took a darker turn. Winter was approaching fast and as the cold approached so did ill omens. There was a rift between the clan kids and tension was building. The Yamanaka boy filled him in quietly over lunch, the Hyuuga had implemented a new seal on their branch members. It had apparently been a requirement for them to join the fledgling Konoha only it had taken this long to develop the perfect seal. Rumours were flying about the work, word was the Hyuuga branch members were all missing from the Academy and from Konoha work lives. A Morino was telling anyone who would listen that he had seen a Hyuuga elder drop a branch member to his knees screaming with a hand sign. Yamanaka took a sip of his drink and continued. The Uchiha were furious, they didn’t like anything that could interfere with clan politics and if there was a seal floating around that could empower some clan members over others, it could be disastrous for them. The Inuzuka were backing the Uchiha, the Aburame were backing the Hyuuga due to old familial ties, the Senju were backing the Hyuuga of course, and even the Nara, Akimichi and Yamanaka clans were split over the issue. The kids didn’t have the full picture but their parent’s tension had filtered down to the Academy. What didn’t help was that the big glaring absence of the branch Hyuuga made any and all interaction between the two factions poisonous. He wondered out loud who would even agree to develop a seal and how complicated the seal had to be to take several years to make. Kuroto Uchiha overheard him and laughed bitterly the sound sounding odd from his normally good natured face.

“Hashirama Senju of course.”

The Hyuuga girl returned the next day hiding her face behind a big scarf. She shrank in her seat at the back of the class and even the instructor looked at her in some pity before continuing the lesson. Tsunade sent her a half worried look before the Hyuuga main branch next to her drew her into conversation. Kuroto who normally was a cutting, abrupt person took the time to send his entire court away, take the seat next to her and talk to her in a low, comforting voice. If he and her left the classroom halfway because she was crying bitterly into her hands everyone ignored it. A white haired boy sighed from next to him.

“Ai what’s the world coming to? Corrupting the beauty of seals to such a thing.”

The Aburame and the Inuzuka had to be violently split up in the sparring ring. Half listening to the instructor lecture them on comradeship he tilted his head towards the white haired boy.

“The will of the Hokage is iron clad.” He murmured, “Whether us lowly commoners agree or disagree.”

The boy snorted. “Jiraiya.”

“Orochimaru.”

He had been right. The first Hokage was not a kind man.

It got worse. The God of Shinobi had fallen in battle. The news shook Konoha down to its very core. How could their Hokage fall? He was the strongest! He pushed his way through the crowd to see the Hokage’s brother set their fallen leader’s pyre alight. The wood he had so lovingly grown was burning in screaming rasps and crackling laughter, the Hokage’s face was oddly peaceful before the fire obstructed his view. The Will of Fire that the man had advocated had killed him in the end, it didn’t matter of a few of his decisions had been contested heavily. Everybody mourned. Everybody. Their beloved leader who had risked everything to end the Warring Clans era was dead. In one breath taking movement all the active shinobi knelt as one and paid their respects to the blazing pyre. It was awe inspiring watching the ranks and ranks of active shinobi with bowed heads, it was truly an electric moment and everyone fell silent. They could have been carved from stone for all they moved, and for the first time he understood the sheer loyalty and love the Hokage induced in his followers.

The Hokage’s brother was instated as the Second Hokage the very next day. If the other villages hoped losing their Kage would them weak they were wrong. The First had taken out three of the other kages with him and about half of Suna’s poison corps. There were many names in history but they would pale next to his. Tsunade wasn’t seen in class for a week while she was involved in clan affairs and when she did, people smiled and chalked up her red rimmed eyes up to tiredness.

One of the Second Hokage’s changes came evident a few weeks later. The instructors seemed unusually prepared that day, even the students could see the hidden coils of wire, kunai and more wrapped around their bodies. They were all marched single file from the Academy into a low ceiling run down building in the outer district of the inner tier. The teachers offered no comments. He observed each of them and how their fingers ran over the edges of their weapons. Was this a test? Or was that a nervous tick? A man stomped in a few minutes later and smiled. Even the Uchiha flinched. With a flourish the man gestured behind him.

“You all graduate in two months. You may have noticed, we are in a war.” The man’s sardonic comments let him quite inappropriately amused. “Guess what happens in war, and then tax your brains to guess what you’re going to do today.”

An instant silence fell. For all their training the clan children had never actually taken a life. They were still sheltered from that much by their parents. So this day he was going to become a murderer. He wasn’t that bothered by it strangely, it was going to happen one day or another after all.

One by one they were ushered to an identical door each, handed a kunai and pushed gently inside. He distinctly heard the lock click. He smiled in dark humour, they really wanted their children to overcome their disgust at killing didn’t they? It was sudden but he didn’t mind, his life seemed to be sudden anyway. He took a few silent steps forward and the light shifted so he caught sight of a chained prisoner on the opposite wall. The woman stared at the sight of a small, lean child with a kunai and looked away when his yellow eyes won their little staring competition.

There was a clipboard on the floor. Picking it up, he leafed through the pages. Ah personal details. Favourite colour, food, background, family details and so on. The woman had a husband and three children back in Iwa, the youngest being a baby just born five months earlier. She had fought bravely and nearly eliminated an entire squad just to save the rookies under her command as a SHARD captain. There were several pictures of her smiling; alone, with a handsome man and with several children. She was a blood donor, sensei to three kunoichi and a prisoner doomed to die by Konoha.

He was a bit surprised Konoha was letting him be alone in a room with such a dangerous woman, let alone execute her. He supposed it was a way for the Hokage to show some trust in the future shinobi, in return they would have to trust the elite ninja to take care of them.

“Are you to be my executioner boy?”

Her voice was mocking and languid. She looked at him through hooded eyes and a curtain of dirty hair.

“A boy, who has not even seen his first taste of war.” She laughed and the noise unsettled him slightly.

He bowed his head in respect to her. For her to be still sane after spending time in T&I was impressive, combined with her previous record the woman in front of him had a spine of steel.

“You played the game and you lost. Don’t complain about who gets to relieve you.”

“Smart boy.” She whispered approvingly.

He gripped the kunai tighter. He was going to kill this woman, question was how. She was right, this kind of death was disgraceful no matter how you looked at it. He remembered the prostitute on the orphanage steps what seemed like decades ago, remembered the feeling of cold clotting blood sticking to his skin. Such a funny thing, this woman and that one had left completely different lives…yet they had the same ending. Everyone had the same ending, so why did people bother with fighting over disagreements? It seemed such a waste.

He walked forward, his steps muffled by the dusty floor and rested the edge of the cold edge against the woman’s throat. The mocking glint still hadn’t left her eyes, now came the test, could he do it? Her comrade might have been the one to burn down his building and kill so many civilians, his anger prickled deep inside him and something must have shown on his face as she laughed and tilted her neck to give him better access.

He was the first one out. One by one his classmates exited their rooms looking pale and weak kneed. A few upheaved their food behind a few bushes, others looked seconds away from collapsing. His knees buckled under the weight of an adult hand ruffling his hair, startled he looked up only to see ANBU strolling into the building and exiting with a child each. He tossed the hand away irritated, they couldn’t ask him to kill like an adult then treat him like a child. The ANBU seemed to pick up on this and with an amused snort he found himself flying through the air in pitch blackness. Then his feet slammed into the ground outside his apartment and he staggered back clutching his spinning head.

“Child.” There was a peculiar weight to the ANBU’s voice, “You did well.”

That was it? Was everyone else getting the same treatment? Their first deliberate kill and this was all they got after it?? Well he supposed everyone else would get comfort from their clan but he wouldn’t. The ANBU seemed to have realised this as well and the man’s conscience didn’t seem to be able to stop him leaving in a blink of an eye. Finally the older man stripped off his gloves and touched his forehead with a cool finger.

At the corner of his eye, the shadows shifted and flowed like a restless dog and deep colours blossomed from the edges, so dark they merged into the black at the edges. Green, blue, crimson melted in and out, fading and flaring. Chinks of gold and orange drew the eye to the darker areas where they bloomed into silver and deep dark purples. All around him, the walls came alive with fiery jewels embedded in black satin.

He watched in quiet wonder, eyes reflecting the rippling, dancing illumination. Vines of green and gold twined up the walls and bloomed deep red roses only for them to coalesce and sprout snarling panthers with bright silver eyes which leapt and transformed into sea foam. Flames of purple and black consumed dancing maidens as black as the night sky, who threw up their hands and horses sprouted from their faces and arms, with manes of orange fire and hooves of gold which shone too bright to look at. Blue light flickered amongst red, amongst gold, amongst violet; creating, destroying, birthing, dying, intense and always, always beautiful.

His cheeks were cool and wet as he watched, enraptured by the wild beauty that the light showed him. He just stood there, hardly afraid to blink in case that magnificent magic decided to flow away and enthral someone else. He didn’t notice the ANBU gently pick him up and place him on his bed and close the door on his way out. The lights mesmerised him down to his very core.

Finally Konoha was alight with good news. The Second Hokage’s prodigy child had broken through the Kumo defence line and was now cutting a bloody swathe through the mountain ninja ranks. Carts of plundered food rolled into Konoha and the people knew they could eat for a little longer. There was a general air of celebration, the war was finally breaking out of its stale mate. He wondered what the Second’s protégé was like, would he ever work under him? Or would he be like the First and go down in a blaze of glory? Tsunade and Kuroto’s rivalry had gotten worse than ever. The Hyuuga incident still hadn’t simmered down fully and now the Uchiha had been granted power of their own in the village. He had seen the dark haired Uchiha police patrol the streets, the katana happy chunin were nowhere to be seen. Sometimes he thought he saw that woman’s face peering out of abstract shapes in the street but when he blinked they were gone. It was funny, he hadn’t thought he would feel any lingering emotions about her death. It was pure business that was all, he supposed he still needed a lot of practise before he could call himself a shinobi.

“She’s not dead you know.” The Nara set down a piece with a clack on the gorgeous board. “As long as you remember her, she lives. So forget her before you fail the mission.”

He moved a piece forward marvelling at the quality of the wood. The Nara was right of course, but there was something still nagging at him. It was quite infuriating that he couldn’t place it at all. A month left until graduation and tension was heating up between all the students for that coveted position of top graduate. He was firmly in the top ten of the class but it was undeniable that there were people stronger than him, he smirked, well he just had to step up the training then hadn’t he?

“You’re not a threat.” His head snapped up startled. What- “That’s what people will be thinking.” Nara rolled a piece between his long fingers. “You are literally history in the making, we’re not used to being challenged by blood inferior to ours.” The other boy’s lips twisted in a sardonic smile. “Do not mistake comradeship for acceptance. It will not happen until you drive the idea home that you are here.” He tapped his king on the head, “And you are not going to give up.”

He recovered one of his pieces. “You have a dream Nara?”

The aura of certainty leaking from the boy would have cowed even select Jonin. The intensity of the stare rattled him for a minute.

“Jonin commander.”

The instructors didn’t offer the students any respite as the end drew nearer. In defiance of that looming deadline they seemed to be determined to work them to exhaustion just so they would know they did all they could to help them. Yamanaka’s father came in as a guest speaker to drill in the importance of information, the Uchiha matriarch offered to trounce every single student there was so everyone would find new ways to improve, Hatake’s uncle somehow managed to disguise himself as a student and shock everyone into next week and the Academy’s share of meat was increased for a while. It felt like everyone wanted the new rookies to be at their best. Where ever he went, he got smiles and claps on the shoulder and encouragements for the final test. The older Nin just flat out didn’t care who he was, where he came from only what he could do and what he could possibly do. It was a stunningly refreshing slap on his face.

He couldn’t stop the grin on his face. The rabbit twitched its nose in front of him and scampered around in ever tightening circles, eventually it turned too fast and a small popping sound preluded one of the small legs bending oddly as the small animal screamed. His snakes slid out from his shirt, they had grown magnificently and some were as thick as his wrist. The poor animal didn’t even see them coming. That ANBU’s genjutsu had helped him marvellously to deduce how to place a genjutsu and even how to reverse engineer one, he really doubted there was one premade that the man had shown him. Admittedly it was still quite low level but sufficient enough to use against Academy students, he turned his small laugh into a cough. They wouldn’t know what had hit them.

One week. It’s was bit strange he mused. Why bother telling people when they would be assessed? It didn’t give a very realistic picture of what they were like on the days they had no motivation. Weren’t they lectured on reliability a few weeks ago? Or maybe…he stole a glance at the lounging instructor. He certainly didn’t look like he was paying attention but when the man’s eyes shifted and met his, a jolt ran down his spine from the sheer intensity. Oh they were clever… One corner of the man’s lips twitched upwards then it smoothed into a bored mask as usual.

No one was more surprised than Aburame when the boy found himself on the ground with his foot over the boy’s throat. A ripple spread through the assembled ranks, Aburame stood at the fifth seat of power in the class. With this defeat the ever rotating top tier students had finally been breached. Genjutsu really was formidable when used properly he thought as he pulled the fallen boy to his feet. Now there were only four obstacles in front of him; Hyuuga, Hyuuga, Uchiha and Senju. All big clan names. But at the same time with his victory against opponents who had previously seemed steadfast meant that he had to watch out for attacks from behind. Now did they see him yet?

The next day, the Fire Lord’s son was killed by Mist assassins. It was a grievous insult and a fatal mistake for Mist. The Fire Lord was no coward that he hid behind his castle and took the deaths of his blood lightly, the great lord himself rode into Konoha on a handsome strider decked head to toe in strange silvery armour. There was very much a feeling of outrage with the Lord’s retainers and now the Fire Lord’s money became a stable wall at their backs. His son would be avenged, even if the old man had to rip enemy combatant’s throats out himself! He sat on a mokuton enhanced tree and watched the village gates clang shut with a heavy finality behind the impressive train. Must be nice to indulge wars on a whim…

The knock out style tournament continued. How positively fantastic timing it finished the day before the big test. He snorted under his breath and watched the two Hyuuga try and kill each other by tapping. On a side note he really needed to find a way to counter that. Those eyes were nightmare to attack against, they saw through everything! He froze. No way…that could work, especially as he fought both back to back in about an hours’ time. Ignoring everyone else’s startled looks he leapt up and tore out of the field. The instructor didn’t stop him already having seen the glint of trickery in his eyes.

The Hyuuga girl was quite plainly stumped. She was hitting him in all the correct positions yet he just refused to show any effects. For his own part he was quite enjoying the mind game being played, with the Jyuuken nullified the Hyuuga weren’t at all that hard to handle. A sweeping leg kick collapsed the shocked girl’s knees out from under her and he stood in Fourth seat. Her cousin wouldn’t be so easy to handle, he plainly knew a trick was being played. And naturally to detect it his Byakugan was active from the instant he stepped into the ring. And to his glee the boy fell into the same trap and soon the stunned Hyuuga was looking up in his shadow at mischievous yellow eyes. Even the Senju was shocked silent. For a non-clan child to enter the Academy a few months ago, rise through the ranks until he stood behind the Founding clan heirs in terms of strength; that was some incredible growth. The spar wasn’t pure Taijutsu so they couldn’t claim subject specialty. Anything went. Ninjutsu, weapons, anything else they might have learnt of their own initiative, and the pale boy had taken all they had thrown at him and sent it back with double the force. A snicker broke the silence.

The white haired boy was laughing. “Guess we can’t ignore the prodigy child any longer.”

But he was not a prodigy child. All he wanted was to stand on the top and keep fighting. Was the desire to climb from anonymity so alien to these children? Well that feeling of your opponent looking up at you in such surprise when they honestly thought they would win was one of the best feelings ever. It was addictive and it burned inside him, he wanted to feel it again!

The sound of clapping washed through the field. Kuroto Uchiha still clapping stepped onto the ring, and with a jolt he saw that the other boy’s eyes were fully serious. He could feel every single of his muscles moving, the other boy seemed to be moving in slow motion; the Uchiha was finally acknowledging him as an opponent.

“Take that armour off.” Uchiha ordered lazily, “I refuse to fight an opponent without his full range of mobility.”

So some people had seen through it. Gasps could be heard from where the Hyuuga sat, their Byakugan saw directly through to the chakra coils and so everything on top couldn’t be seen. It was a very risky gamble especially if there was a layer in between which nullified their access to the coils. Ah the armour would be more of a hindrance against non Jyuuken users anyway. He let the Academy issued armour drop away in a neat pile and returned to the ring. It wasn’t even supposed to be their match now, but the tide of the momentum generated by his earlier two matches had settled on it.

He was faster and stronger than what he had been. But Uchiha matched him movement for movement easily before nearly breaking his rib cage with a kick. A flash of crimson streaked from where Kuroto’s eyes had been. Sharingan. No wonder all his moves were being countered so easily. Genjutsu was out of the picture now as well, he grinned baring his teeth. What a boring fight it would have been if everything happened to go his way. He was in top form in that fight, he could tell which parts of his body were working beyond its capacity yet it still wasn’t enough. Uchiha was dangerous enough to hold his own without the legendary dojutsu and now…it felt more like he was being shut down. But the boy couldn’t hold it for long! With a snarl the bloody eyes flickered out and suddenly he had a chance again.

Steel flashed under the sun. The two fighters circled the ring, their footsteps barely audible. He threw himself to the side flicking shuriken like he had done so many times in secret, they flew true and Uchiha was forced to abandon his jutsu midway. The next clash was decidedly even, but then the last seals fall into place. Heat blasts him like a slap across the face as a column of bright blue fire roared into life fed by the breath from Uchiha’s mouth. Just how hot was that fire?! He catches sight of cool black eyes surveying him from inside the deadly tornado and he knows that Kuroto will not hesitate to burn him permanently. Perhaps he has already done so before. Blue streaks whirl around the ring, obscuring the stunned faces of the onlookers. Sweat drips from his back and his hair clings to his neck. Calm. Uchiha could not have the reserves to keep it up for long. Then his heart freezes in his chest as his snake constricts in blind panic. Of course the fire would remind them of that night! His breath is shallow as the snake tightens more and more and he drops to his knees wheezing. Suddenly he can breathe again and he stretches out an arm in alarm as his snake shoots out of his sleeve, fangs bared at the clan boy. No! It would die! No more!

Kuroto tilts his head almost clinically at the enraged serpent and with a speed too fast for him to see, he snatches his snake out of the air. The dreadful heat makes his snake scream in agony and something snaps inside him. Had he not made a promise? That he would protect his snakes? Every second his snake remained in that boy’s grip made him a liar.

“Let go of him.” His voice is quiet even to his ears but Kuroto hears him.

“Stop me then.” In response the Uchiha starts squeezing tighter.

He smiles. A small smile.

Rage snaps out of him like a burst geyser. White hot Rage, fear for his snake and wrath floods him and he can feel his blood running hot in his fingertips and loud in his ears. Chakra exploded out of him and the resulting killing intent is enough to persuade the Uchiha that he really will kill Kuroto if anything happens to the reptile. Unfortunately for the Uchiha the snake was already used to the killing intent and bit down so hard two inches of fang pierced through the boy’s palm. The resulting pain combined with the disorientating killing intent caused Kuroto to stumble back cursing profusely.

A sharp whistle cuts through the field. Kuroto’s foot is outside the ring. A flash of pure fury shows in the proud boy’s eyes before a stiff bow is offered. His snake is released grudgingly and he kneels to pick it up whispering soothingly. Despite the fight, he feels oddly drained. Running his fingers over the smooth scales he flicks a gaze to the audience. One thing was clear, by defeating Uchiha…even as unorthodox as a defeat as it had been, it was still a defeat; Kuroto’s position had been weakened slightly. And his debut into the complex relationships between his classmates could not be ignored. He noticed the girl from the orphanage standing at the back, shadows over her eyes. Truth be told he felt a bit sorry for her, they had not accepted her strength, mentality or resilience. He simply didn’t stand in her world anymore.

Tsunade is his last obstacle. He is not so arrogant to think he can defeat her in a fair fight, the girl is vicious and lethal and fast. And he can’t. He hits the dirt hard, pressure points screaming in agony as she slides into another form he doesn’t recognise. His arm is completely numb and he can’t force his chest to take in breaths, and it hurts his mind more than his body that he wouldn’t be able to win this match even after giving it his all. Perhaps he should have kept the armour. A hand is stuck in his face, he blinks and peers up at the blonde Senju silhouetted against the sun.

“Has anyone told you Orochimaru-kun, you’re a very frightening child?”

He swallowed his bitterness and accepted the hand which up to half a minute earlier had been trying to incapacitate him with great effect. Next time. Next time he would stand on the top. Tsunade shivered inside when she met the freezing yellow eyes of her opponent, the boy in front of her would be a monster one day. How had she missed it?

In the end of the tournament he stood at second seat, second to only Tsunade. For a little hatchling shaking off its shell it wasn’t bad at all. So why wasn’t he satisfied? His classmates were not so shallow to crowd him especially after ignoring him for months, but there was a definite undertone of camaraderie which wasn’t there before. He rested his hand in his palm and gazed out of the window, it was raining miserably but he didn’t care. His entire class was reflected in the dark stormy glass, and it looked strange; just like a normal civilian class. Learning normal things like accountancy, business management and more. Idly he wondered how his classmates would have done if they had been dropped in a civilian’s life.

His neighbour is a small woman with a naively sweet smile and he wonders how she grew up in a ninja village without losing that innocence. She makes him biscuits sometimes and invites him in to talk over a hot drink. He treasures those visits, for those few minutes he can pretend he has a family, and that that kind woman fussing over her daughter was his mother. Such a nostalgic word, mother; the matrons had made the children call them mother. He never thought that they deserved the title but they did deserve credit for not abandoning them to the streets. The hot drink warms him up inside and the woman doesn’t even realise how honoured she is when he smiles at her genuinely. The baby girl is a mess of fat and limbs and he has to hold her gently for fear of breaking her fragile body. And the only hint he gets that her mother is far wearier than she seems is:

“Look after her would you child? When I’m gone, watch over my baby girl for me.”

The soft kiss on his forehead leaves him frozen in shock in that rundown apartment.

Konoha has really bad luck in leaders he thinks cynically as a bearded Jonin tells a choked up crowd how the Second Hokage sacrificed himself to allow his apprentices to live. It is a touching story he admits, he remembers that strong, ferocious man and finds it hard to imagine him gone. He had vowed to make that man acknowledge him. But he had died before even knowing the orphan he had saved had broken through the glass ceiling and become a shinobi. The funeral is less grand than the First’s but equally as impressive. The fire that blazes on the pyre is blue, then white then green then blue again in memory of the fallen Water master. Honestly were they even going to have any Senju left?

Graduation is disappointingly simple. He actually feels the burn of injustice scrape his chest as he stares at the paper in front of him. A written test…after everything they learnt, all they have to do is pass a written test and demonstrate knowledge of the Academy three? Where was the challenge? Where was the questions to make them think? This was an insult. His paper is torn and splattered with ink when he hands it in from angry strokes. Looking around he can tell everyone else is confused too…he sighed mentally. What on earth was the trick to this then? His new headband is shiny and it reflects the light well; he runs pale fingers over the grooved metal and smiles. Finally. He did it, he’s now a legal shinobi of Konoha. It goes around his forehead as a symbol of everything he had to endure for that one moment when he slipped fully into the ninja world.

Akimichi is the first to congratulate him. He smiles back and lightly punches the boy’s shoulder; the boy is cheerful and good natured with a ruthlessly pragmatic streak hiding underneath the kind exterior. He can respect that. Yamanaka is slouched over the table, reminiscent of the Nara next to him, and a quick nod of approval is shot his way. Nara himself is napping but one crafty black eye opens to wink at him before nodding off again. Kuroto, the Hyuugas and Tsunade send him small smirks, Jiraiya is busy scribbling on his desk and he tilts his head in curiosity but dismisses it. Everyone was in a good mood, despite the Second’s death. The war was very close to finishing, even the civilians could tell. The Second’s two protégés had not taken their master’s death well. Instead to release their fury they had completely decimated Kumo and that weakened the opposing side massively. It was just a matter of time before the final treaties were finished in secret then released to the public. The First great Ninja War would be over. What a…strange thought. The Third Hokage was a bearded man, lean enough to resemble a coiled whip. He had this hardness around the eyes, which he shared with his brother apprentice in fact. Other than that, the only impressive thing about him was his aura. It commanded effort. No one was allowed to do anything less than their best in his presence, it sounded quite tiring if he was honest. But the nickname of Professor did command his respect, as well as admiration.

The war finished the very next day. The streets were covered in banners, loud music drifted from corner bands and everybody took dancing wildly in the streets. Shinobi prowled the shadows uncomfortably but were eventually dragged into the party with the temptations of alcohol, games and women. The shops all burst open in flurries of activity, he spotted his neighbour laughing with little Anko-chan in her arms. Jiraiya smirked to him and raised a glass of sake in pride and challenge, uhh no, no way was he going near alcohol. Even the Uchiha police weren’t spared, he was treated to the lovely sight of Kuroto’s wide eyes as his relatives were literally dragged out of their posts and thrown in laughing, cheering crowds. He compared this Konoha to the Konoha when war was declared and his mind reeled trying to connect the two. Then he too was victim to the crowd and was thrown stumbling amongst strangers.

He hurt more from partying than he did from sparring. The universe was cruel and ironic. He huffed out a small laugh before tuning into the instructor’s speech.

“-Split into three man cells-”

And who were the unlucky people to end up with him? His lips twitched then straightened, right this actually needed his attention.

“Team 7 will consist of Senju Tsunade, Jiraiya and Orochimaru.”

The Konoha princess was teamed up with him and the dead last. A three man cell, he’d be working with them for years to come now, he should at least make an effort. What was the point of splitting them into teams if not teamwork? Scraping his chair back he stood to sit with his new team but a voice distracted him.

“Word to the wise Orochimaru-kun.” Nara stood there, hands behind his back with the dull gleam of his headband bright against his hair, “It was never resentment of you stepping out of your place in society.” The boy smiled wistfully, “It was jealousy. That you could and could so well. I apologise my friend, but we are all human.” A hand was extended towards him. A hand he had seen push wooden knights around and sacrifice many a piece for a tactical advantage. Was he too merely a pawn too to this boy?

Their sensei was late. The drumming of fingers on wood echoed in his ears. Jiraiya noticed his irritated look and gave him a crafty smile. Tsunade merely sat stiffly in her chair, waiting like nobility only could. Finally the door clicked open and his heart jumped. A very familiar ANBU mask peered around the door. No way…not him. He stared at the ANBU in absolute disbelief, was fate mocking him? Of all the elite, why him? Why only him?

“Team 7?” His voice was the same bored, clipped tone that he remembered. They nodded and he had the awful feeling the ANBU was laughing at them mentally. Then one slender strong hand rose to the mask and gripped it. He nearly leant forward in anticipation, he would finally know his face and name. The mask was lowered and everyone’s jaw hit the ground.

“I have a good feeling about this team.” Hiruzen Sarutobi, the Third Hokage, smiled wickedly at the seated, stunned beyond belief graduates.