Chapter 1: Cataclyst
(Five Years Ago)
Itachi hasn't been really, truly scared in a while. But the ground underneath him is so soaked in blood that his normally silent footsteps squelch, and he's fairly sure Yugao is pale as paper underneath that still mask.
"...Say," She grinds out quietly, slowly, carefully, because ANBU do not stutter, don't have voices that could break, "What... what do you think happened?"
Itachi answers truthfully. "I don't know."
In front of them, Frog's body is pinned to a tree- one kunai through each of his wrists, right through some important vein that would surely spurt blood if the blade were to be removed- his mask is discarded somewhere behind them, the colorful surface permanently stained crimson , and his eyes are open, so they can see the pale mess in his eye sockets, the destroyed Byakugan in all its glory. On his forehead, the Caged Bird Seal he so despised has disappeared.
The standard-issue breastplate was gone, his chest ripped open in a savage, jagged tear, clotted with thick, dried blood. They'd found Horse's body a few meters over, slumped over the ground and dried blood running down his chin. But the other team had said that Panther and Lynx's bodies had been discovered on the other end of Konoha's vast, thick forest, and something just didn't add up...
"All the blood," Itachi says, "Where'd it come from? There's too much to just have come from them..."
Behind him, Yugao chuckles darkly, brokenly; and stares up at the sky. "Isn't it obvious?"
When Itachi says nothing, she points up at the tree boughs. "Look at the leaves, Tiger. The tips, they're singed."
"So? They fought opponents with Katon jutsu."
"No. Lightning. The clouds are moving in, see."
Now, he can see the wry half-smile through her mask, just like he can the maniac-grief in her eyes, because Yugao had always been closer to the other Members of Team Ro than he'd been.
"Hound-Taichou was here."
"Our Sensei's laaaate!" Naruto moans and falls back in his seat, folding his arms behind his head. Sakura rolls her eyes, propping her chin on one hand.
"Shut up, baka. I'm sure he'll be here any second."
No, she isn't. But Naruto's actually right, and like hell she's gonna admit that!
"I know! Let's play a prank!" Naruto grins widely, bolting from his seat and rushing the chalkboard. Sakura kinda agrees, but...
"Baka! We want our sensei to like us!"
"Hey, it's his own fault for being late!"
And that is how Sakura ends up glaring at the chalk eraser Naruto had wedged in the gap between the door and the wall. Naruto himself was gleefully chuckling to himself, and Sasuke... well, she was pretty sure he just didn't care. It kinda makes her feel bad for grinning behind her folded hands. Naruto, she supposes, might possibly be just slightly right on some level... their teacher, after all, was one of the village's precious Jounin. They should know better than to be late.
Fifteen minutes later, though, they're still watching the door. (Even Sasuke, she's caught him a few times. Apparently, even he wants to give their teacher his comeuppance.)
"Oh, come on," Naruto howls, "Where is he?! We're not gonna become ninja at this rate!" Sasuke scoffs. "Dobe. You don't stand a chance in the first place."
"Hey, shut up, teme! I do so!"
"Baka! Don't talk to Sasuke-kun like that!"
"Oi, I'm not a baka!"
At this point, they're all so deeply submerged in their argument that the sigh from the window goes right over their heads. The subsequent sentence, though, does not.
There's a woman perched on the windowsill, with bright eyes and purple hair. Sakura feels heat rush to her cheeks, and she shakes her head to clear it. She's straight, dammit, and this woman is a least twice her age. Think Sasuke, think Sasuke...
"Hey, who are you calling argumentative, lady?"
Naruto shoots from his seat to glare at the woman. "We're waiting for our sensei, so leave us alone!"
At this, the woman just chuckles. "Uzumaki-kun, I am your sensei."
...Well, now Sakura feels dirty as crap.
Uzuki Yugao became an official Jounin two years ago, and she still intensely regrets it because it means that somehow, she's ended up a Jounin-sensei, of all things, and she misses ANBU, dammit. Now, she's seated on the academy's roof with her cute little students sitting in a ring around her, introducing herself to them.
"Okay, so let's all tell each other our names, our hobbies, what we like and dislike, and any big dreams for the future, okay? I'll go first."
All the genin nod dutifully, and Yugao smiles. So much more obedient than new recruits.
"Okay, let's see... my name's Uzuki Yugao, but you can call me Yugao-Sensei. I like practicing Kenjutsu and being with my friends, I dislike lazy people and traitors, my hobby is moon-viewing, and my dream for the future...." 'Is being back in ANBU and having my Team well and alive and loyal', she doesn't say. "Is marrying the man I love." At this, Itachi's brother- Sasuke, she reminds herself- scoffs, and she's pretty sure Sakura deflates a bit.
Aw, that's kinda cute. Reminds her a bit of Tenzo, actually, during that time they all thought Shisui and Kakashi were dating. They weren't, but still...
Yugao chuckles sadly and gestures for someone else to go.
"Okay, Uzumaki-kun, it's your turn."
"You got it, dattebayo! My name's Uzumaki Naruto, and my dream is to become the greatest Hokage ever! I like ramen and Sakura-chan, I dislike the forty seconds it takes for the water in cup ramen to heat up, and my hobby is eating different types of ramen, dattebayo! And I'm gonna be the best ninja ever!"
Yugao chuckles and smiles fondly.
"Well, that's what I'm going to help you with, Naruto-kun. Haruno-chan?"
"Well..." The girl looks nervous, but she starts talking anyways. "My name is Haruno Sakura, and who I like- I-I mean what I like is, uh..."
Here, she trails off in favor of looking at the Uchiha and drooling. It takes everything in Yugao not to laugh. Definitely Tenzo.
The girl shakes her head and starts again. "What I dislike is Naruto-" She glares at her other teammate, who winces back, and Yugao's face creases with a frown. Definitely not Tenzo. "And my hobby is, uh..." More blushing and drooling. Yugao sighs and stares at her sternly.
"Sakura-chan." The tone of her voice must be pretty serious, because both Sakura and Naruto flinch.
"Uh, y-yes, Yugao-Sensei?"
The girl looks scared, and Yugao bites her tongue and forces herself to sound gentler.
"Do you know what my Nindo is?"
One's Nindo is a sacred, important thing. It defines how one lives their life and carries out their duties. It's immensely powerful, so she supposes she can understand the way all three of them jolt and cast intense, watchful gazes on her. So young, so impressionable... Yugao will have to be careful with these three, she can tell.
"Those who break the rules are trash," She begins, tilting her up at the sky and leaning back on the railing. She can practically hear the approval in Sasuke's eyes. "But those who betray their friends are worse than trash." Here, she fixes her stare on all three of them.
"That was the Nindo of a great man, who was like an older brother to me. He died honoring it."
(The tang of ozone and blood in the air, horribly disfigured bodies, the grass dyed red...)
"Remember that, Sakura. Your teammates are what will help you become a great Kunoich, and I highly doubt that will work out for you if you all dislike each other. Do you understand me?"
Naruto and Sakura are both nodding, the former a bit more vehemently than the latter. Sasuke, though...
"If he died," The boy said offhandedly, "He couldn't have been all that great."
Even Sakura looked appalled at that. "Sasuke-kun..."
"Teme! She shouldn't say that!" Naruto pointed rather violently at their brand-new Sensei. "Apologize to Yugao-Sensei! Now!"
Sasuke sniffs, and jerks his head away. "No."
"Teme..." Naruto springs upright, and starts towards his teammate. Yugao's hand lashes out though, too quickly for the three of them to track, and she grabs him by the collar.
"It's okay, Naruto-kun," She says calmly, even though it's not, it's not- "Several people shared Uchiha-kun's opinion. All that matters is that I, and many people close to him, think that he was a great man."
Naruto keeps struggling anyways. "Teme, take it back! Can't you see she's upset?"
That startles Yugao a bit, she'll admit it. This boy can tell how she really feels about the subject matter... impressive. Of course, he could be just guessing, but not very many people would have this reaction all the same. She smiles.
"Naruto-kun, please sit down. We haven't finished the introductions, and I was thinking that after them, we'd all go get ramen and discuss the test you have to take tomorrow..."
Why no, Yugao is not above bribery.
Naruto goes stiff in her hold, and when she releases his jacket collar, he retreats back to where he was sitting before all this. He's still glaring at Sasuke, though.
"Now then, Uchiha-kun, if you wouldn't mind."
Sasuke huffs, but he starts anyways.
"My name is Uchiha Sasuke. I have no likes or dislikes. I don't have any hobbies. My dream is to kill a certain man."
...Welp, that's not worrying at all. Yugao is going to have a tough time with these ones, she can tell.
"Okay then, now that we're all introduced, does everyone like Ichiraku's? I'll treat you."
Naruto grins, and begins to open his mouth, but Sakura cuts him off.
"Excuse me, Yugao-Sensei? You mentioned a test earlier..."
Yugao nods as she stands up and starts towards the door. Her students all rise and follow after her, like baby ducklings waddling after their mother.
"Yes. You see, you're not technically ninja yet. You all have to pass a test first, to show me that you're capable enough to be promoted. If you fail, you go back to the academy, if you succeed, you can be promoted to Genin. Although, I should probably warn you... about sixty percent of academy students fail their tests. Don't eat breakfast tomorrow morning, or you'll throw up. "
They all swallow nervously behind her, and it takes effort not to cackle. She can see why Kakashi-Taichou always seemed so happy about their evaluations. It probably gave him satisfaction somewhere in his cold, shriveled soul about all the lip they gave him. Which... actually wasn't fair, considering he gave them just as much lip right back.
Yugao grins despite herself. These Genin.... she'll make them just as strong as team Ro.
Except she won't let this one die.
Chapter 2: I Don't Want To Remember It All
Or, Yugao has a conversation with Teuchi, some sake, and a few doubts.
(Five Years Ago)
They didn’t find any bodies, but they did find the painted Cat’s mask out a few miles, and a hitai-ate some trackers had identified as belonging to Hound-Taichou. They’re sending fresh teams out, even as Itachi and Yugao are called back into Headquarters.
There’s no gossip network that works quite as fast as ANBU, several of who gather and pass information for a living, so it’s not really all that surprising that half the locker room abruptly shuts their mouths and stare when they enter.
Yugao swallows under the weight of their combined interest. Normally, she’d be able to handle this, but now… not now. Not when a team she’d come to associate with family wasn’t coming back, and no one even knew if Hound-Taichou and Cat-Sempai were alive.
In an uncharacteristic gesture of… something (In Yugao’s defense, Uchiha, as a rule, rarely display any kind of emotion other than disgust, difference, and whatever you call having an ego the size of Fire Country) Itachi grabs her wrist and begins walking. It takes her a moment to realize he’s dragging them towards her locker, where Shisui is already waited, lips pursed anxiously.
Itachi doesn’t release her until they reach Shisui. He’d gripped her wrist tight enough to hurt in a miniscule, dull way, and she’d probably have bruises come morning, but Yugao didn’t care. When Itachi released her, she just stood there for a minute as the world crumbled away from her, and around her, the locker room slowly returned to its natural state of quiet chatter.
“Hey, Yu?” Shisui reached out for her shoulder, and when he started to ease her down on the bench, Yugao let him. “It’s going to be okay. Tenzo and Ka- Cat and Hound, they’re made of tough stuff. I mean, you saw what your Captain did, right? And they’re saying they’ve found traces of Te- Cat’s chakra in certain places. They’ll be fine. They’re coming back.”
As Shisui lowered himself down beside her and tried to stop him from saying their actual names, Yugao couldn’t help but wonder who he was trying to convince- Her, or himself.
Yugao sweats nervously as Naruto downs his… fifteenth? Sixteenth? ... Bowl of ramen. Sakura is staring with something between disgust and awe, and she’d caught Sasuke sneaking a couple of subtle glances out of the corner of his eye. She doesn’t actually think her wallet can handle it...
A set of shuffling footsteps, and someone is standing in front of her. Yugao looks up from the countertop to stare up into the lined face of the stall-owner, meeting his smile with a small one of her own.
Teuchi nods. “Jounin-san. I understand that you’re Naruto-kun’s Sensi, isn’t that right?”
Yugao nods. “Yes. Why do you ask, Teuchi-san?”
The owner just smiles wistfully and looks away. Yugao tracks his gaze almost on reflex. He’s looking at Naruto, over where the kid is almost single-handedly emptying out her pockets. Looks like Hayate will be paying their rent this month.
“He’s a good kid,” Teuchi says suddenly. Yugao glances back at him, but Teuchi doesn’t break his kindly stare.
“Really, Jounin-san, he is. I promise you, he is.” Teuchi finally looks away, shaking his head softly and gathering up her empty dishes before bustling away from her.
“Jounin-san,” He calls quietly as he disappears into the corner, “It’s on the house.”
Yugao only allows herself a single, solitary blink, and then she smiles before rising from her stool. Her genin haven’t even noticed the exchange, haven’t even looked away from their meals (or the window Sasuke has chosen to stare out of moodily).
“Sakura-chan, Naruto-kun, Sasuke-kun.” She taps one of them on the shoulder without bothering to see who. Sakura turns to face her, eyes startled and cheeks stained with the faintest of pinks.
For some reason, the tagged-on honorific brings a small smile to Yugao’s lips. “I’m going to go now, Sakura-chan. I just wanted to let you three know, and to remind you of tomorrow’s test.”
At the word test, Sasuke looks away from… whatever he was staring at. Naruto doesn’t stop eating.
“Meet me at training ground five at six AM sharp. Your meals have already been paid for, but you shouldn’t get anymore, okay, Naruto-kun?”
Naruto groans through a mouthful of broth and noodles, spraying more than a little of it in the process. Sakura squeaks and ducks, and Sasuke subtly scoots away. Yugao chuckles, and backs up half a step so that none of it gets on her uniform.
“Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you all tomorrow. Good luck!” With a cheery(fakefakfake) smile and a matching wave, Yugao disappears in a blur of color and motion.
It’s a tradition of sorts for all the jounin-sensei to go to a bar located in Konoha’s southside, and the only reason Yugao remembers to go is because Genma shunshins into her window, crosses his arms, and glares at her until she relents and goes with him. Her protests that she needs to plan out the entrance exam for her team go unnoticed.
“Oh, just relax,” Genma says offhandedly as they turn a corner, and bats at the air with one hand. Yugao shifts next to him in a rare bit of unmasked nervousness. She’s been out of ANBU for a few months, and she still isn’t used to actually walking places instead of just getting there via shunshin.
“Everyone struggles with this. Look, just come up with something and fail them out purpose- boom, they’re out of your hair, and you’ll be back in ANBU. That’s what I’m gonna do with mine.”
“I was thinking of doing that, actually,” Yugao confesses as they come up to the bar’s entrance, and Genma grins and holds the door for her like the gentleman he occasionally pretends to be. “A watered down version of K- Hound-taichou’s training.”
Genma mimes a flinch and ignores her almost-slip-up.
“Ouch. I remember what that was like.” Like most ANBU, Genma had floated through squads before finding the one he usually took missions, and Team Ro had been one of his first tests. Like most shinobi, he’d found it an unpleasant experience. In fact, she was fairly sure Hound-taichou’s training regime had almost been classified as an S-class tortue tactic. It had nearly killed her, and the image of Itachi laying on the ground with wide eyed and a senbon less than a millimeter from his neck trembling in the grass next to him flashed across her mind unbidden. Yugao chased that out of her mind with the thought of Hayate’s face before she could picture the blood-soaked Uchiha compound.
“You only took the evaluation,” She pointed out as they made their way to a table already occupied with the other jounin and tokubetsu-jounin who’d gotten stuck with a team.
“Exactly,” Genma sniped back. “Imagine how terrible the watered-down version will be for academy students. It’ll be hell..”
Yugao took her seat next to Anko as Asuma called a waiter other with a raised hand.
“So, Yugao.” Ank sneered, sly pupils darting to the corners of her eyes to eye Yugao like a prime piece of meat. “I heard you got stuck with the jinchuruki, huh?” She does not mention Itachi’s brother. Even Anko knows some topics are off-limits in casual conversation. Well, the casual conversation that were actually casual conversations and not cleverly hidden interrogations.
“Mmhmm.” Yugao nods. “What about you?”
Anko scoffed and rocked back on her chair with her feet propped on the table. “Bleh, no one special. A couple of civilian brats and a branch-clan Hyuga with an inferiority complex. I’m gonna give the usual.”
Given that Anko’s version of ‘the usual’ consists of a mixture of Anbu-class scare tactics and a few seriously disturbed genjutsu, Yugao can’t help but feel a tad sorry for the poor kids.
“They’ll fail,” Anko says without a drop of doubt, and there’s a soft murmuring of agreement from around the table before Anko continues with another train of thought. “So, what test are ya giving for Genma to call it hell?”
Here, Genma himself laughs and takes over the conversation.
“She’s giving them a version of one of Hatake’s exercises.”
Asuma nearly spits out his cigarette in shock, and Ank laughs so hard she’d fall off her chair if she wasn't nearly S-class.
“Shodai,” Asuma says once he’s regained his composure, “You want them to fail that bad?”
Genma nods like the question was directed toward shim. “She’s hoping if she flunks ‘em, she’ll get put back in ANBU.”
Asuma chuckles and shakes his head gently. “You know that won’t work, right? You're not out, just temporarily benched. You’re captain-class, and you know what they say-” He pauses to fumble in his pockets for the appropriate amount of ryo as the waiter shuffles over with their drinks.
“There’s no such thing as a retired ANBU,” Asuma says once he’s dished out the pay and the waiter’s left. “You just have to take care of this, and you’ll be back on missions in no time. Besides, it’s really more of an assignment than anything. Powerful shinobi are supposed to leave behind legacies and all that. They’ll just keep trying until you spit out a good team. I mean, do you know how many teams they ran past the fourth Hokage before he turned out one he was satisfied with?” Here, they all shake their heads, and her friend’s smile glows with the smug knowledge of knowing.
“Twenty-seven,” He says pridefully, even though Yugao highly doubts that’s actually accurate, just like everybody else seated at the table. Kurenai rolls her eyes gently, and and Anko snorts.
“Yeah, right. That ain’t possible, Sarutobi. So, which one are ya gonna put ‘em through?” It takes Yugao a second to realize Anko’s talking to her. “The one with the bells? Or the one with all the genjutsu and the senbon?”
“Oh, do the one with the sinkhole.”
“No, the one where they get chased by dogs. Though, I suppose you don’t actually have any dogs to chase them, though, do you?”
“Are you crazy? It won't be a real test if you don’t do the one with the ninja wire and all the blood.”
Genma chortles. “Are you going to put on a mask and make them try to remove it? Oh, that one was fun.” His voice bites down hard on the last word, and most of them flinch in remembrance. Kurenai just cocks an eyebrow in confusion and tilts her head to one side.
“What’s that one?” Oh, that’s right. Yugao almost forgot Kurenai was one of the only ones here who hadn’t been with ANBU yet. Granted, her promotion might’ve still been new, and the taste of their celebratory sake might still linger in the back of Yugao’s mouth, but Kurenai’s genjutsu are all easily A-class, a few of them S-0class, even, so it can’t be long now.
“Don’t ask,” Asuma advises her honestly. “Just… we don’t talk about the one with the mask. Ever.” And then, “So, which is it, Yugao?”
“The one with the bells,” Yugao takes a sip of her sake. “What about you?”
“Eh, just a strategy-based spar, I think. I got Ino-Shika-Cho. The rest of you?”
Kurenai’s going to put her team through some genjutsu to test their durability. Genma’s going to put them through a spar too, but with poisons. Maen doesn’t have one planned out. Raido’s is an endurance test. Aoba’s might be even crueler than her and Anko’s, and involves tying his students to trees and setting several crows on them. At the end of the hour, they’re all pulling out, and since no one accompanies her back to her apartment, Yugao doesn’t bother to walk. She appears in front of her door in a blur of blue and green and purple, flares her chakra to disable the surrounding traps, and twists the doorknob open.
The lights are off, of course, and her papers are still left out on the desk. They’re nothing particularly special- just the files of her maybe-maybe-not students. Naruto’s lays on top, complete with the supposedly-destroyed pictures of the ridiculous kabuki getupp he’d tried to get his photo taken in. Sasuke’s file is next to it, and Sakura’s wedged partially under both of theirs.
Sasuke's psych reports are a mile long, and the only remotely unusual thing about Sakura is her near-perfect chakra control- strange for a civilian that’s for sure, but when Yugao was a kid, chakra control like that was required for graduation, especially for civilians, with their pitiful puddles of chakra.
Then again, Yugao graduated in a generation that had been born on the retreating back of the war, and people had still been worried. This generation, though, was the postwar baby boom, and the academy had gone perilously lax in their teaching. The Uchiha was heralded as a prodigy, but his skills were barely on par with your average chunin- impressive for an academy student, but not that much.
Sakura and Naruto, for all their talents, (or lack of, in Naruto’s case, despite having what Yugao’s convinced is the personification of hell locked in him) are walking disasters. She can change that, of course, she knows she can. And she wants to, on some, basic level of desire, even though flunking them might get her closer to getting back on ANBU’s regular list.
But still, she can see Tenzo in the adoring, loyal glint of Sakura’s glass-green eyes, recognizes the loud, exuberant exclamations of Lynx and Frog in Naruto, supposes that Sasuke and Itachi have the same air of… well, Uchiha-ness. There isn’t really anything else one can call it.
But along those lines, Yugao can see blood-stained masks, the mangled bodies and the unnervingly quiet disappearance of Tenzo and Kakashi, because they had never found a body, only bloody, broken, standard-issue ANBU equipment. If Yugao closes her eyes, she knows that she’ll be standing in a deathly-silent clearing, or maybe the red-washed rubble of the Uchiha compound.
Yugao doesn’t go to sleep until later that evening, and when she does, she dreams of harshly jangling bells, and the feel of hard oak underneath her fingers, and bloody lightning spearing her through her eye sockets.
Chapter 3: Eager Eyes
(Short, I know, but hey, there's an omake?)
Or, Team 7 is informed of what their test is.
(Five years ago)
“What do you mean, they’re calling off the search parties?” Shisui smiles gently at her, and grasps Yugao by the shoulder.
“I mean that they’re calling off the search parties. Kakashi and Tenzo were both great operatives, and Tenzo’s Kekkei Genkai was an irreplaceable resource, but there’s nothing else they can do at this point. The village can’t afford to keep expanding operatives.” His smile cracks down the middle. “Yu, it’s been two weeks, if they could come back, they would’ve by now. We have to consider the possibility that-” Shisui bites the end of his sentence off, looking down at the ground and fisting one hand in the hem of his shirt. Yugao grits her teeth, and when she speaks, her voice is chilling.
“That what, Shisui?”
“You know what I mean, Yu. ANBU’s dangerous, you knew that it’d come to this at some point-”
“Say it.” From where she perches on the windowsill of Shisui’s tiny, horrendously decorated apartment, Yugao turns her head to face him. “Say it,” She repeats icily.
Shisui takes a deep breath, and-
“They’re dead, Yu-chan. You know they’re dead.”
Yugao snarls. “They’re not, they’re not, they’re not-”
“They’re dead, Yu-chan.”
Shisui drapes his arms around her and pulls a spitting, indignant Yugao off his windowsill and into an awkward half-hug.
“They’re dead. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Come Six AM, Yugao-Sensei is at training ground five, sitting on a tree branch with her legs dangling down, and Sasuke and Sakura are sitting at the bridge near the training ground’s edge, waiting for Naruto to show up.
“Gah, where is he? He’s late!”
Sakura snarls and throws her arms up into the air angrily. She’d taken Yugao-Sensei’s advise and skipped breakfast, and even though she's gotten used to eating smaller portions (the diet plan had been one of the last things Ino had ever given her as a plan, Sakura is sticking to it!) she hasn’t skipped a meal as a whole in a while, and the decision is currently burning a gaping hole into her stomach. If Naruto would just show up already, then they could get a move on already, and once she’s a full-fledged kunoichi (because Sakura WILL pass, she will), Sakura’s going to reward herself with some dango, because she’ll have earned it.
“Hnn. He’s probably sleeping in.” Sasuke looks vaguely annoyed, most likely at their idiotic deadlast of a teammate.
“Yeah,” Sakura says, “Probably. I don’t think that stupid idiot can do anything right.”
Sasuke makes a small noise that sounds remotely close to agreement, and Sasuke practically squeals. Sasuke agrees with her, Sasuke agrees with her, Sasuke agrees with her-
“Nee, Sakura-chan, Sasuke-kun. Do either of you know if Naruto’s coming?” Yugao-Sensei is suddenly standing over them, and she’s wearing a sleeveless turtleneck that shows off all of her arms and shoulders, holy crap-
“Sakura-chan? Are you okay?”
“O-Oh, h-hai, I’m sorry, Sensei.” Sakura swallows and swipes one hand over her mouth to wipe away any drool that’s accumulated there.
“It’s okay, Sakura-chan.” Yugao chuckles. “You remind me of this guy I used to know, actually.”
“Really?” Sakura does not blush, she does not- “What was he like?”
With another, soft chuckle, Yugao-Sensei sits down on the grass in front of them. Sasuke is apparently curious enough to glance over, and between them both, Inner Sakura is freaking out.
“Oh, he was very sweet. He joined my old team a little before I did, and he had the most obvious crush on our Captain.”
Captain? Sakura supposes that’s an odd way of referring to a superior officer, but she’s heard other Shinobi use it before, so she ignores it.
Sasuke does not.
“Captain?” His eyes narrow, and Sakura feels her knees go weak. She just can’t help it, with that look on his face. “Were you in ANBU?”
Yugao-Sensei smiles. “Oh, yes. I still am, actually. I was just pulled out for a short while to train a team. There aren’t too many Jounin, after all, and it never hurts to have strong shinobi training new ones.”
“Ah,” Sakura says, and nods to show that she understands. “That makes sense.”
“Yugao-Sensei! Sakura-chan! Teme! I’m sorry I’m late!” Naruto comes sprinting over the bridge, and they all have to scurry out of the way so he doesn’t trip over them. He trips over his feet, and tumbles down at the foot of the bridge.
“Naruto, watch it! You could’ve hit us!”
“Heh, sorry about that, Sakura-chan.” Naruto apologizes as he struggles to his feet, holding his head as a red lump begins to swell. Yugao-Sensei chuckles, and reaches into her pocket for something.
“You’re late, Naruto-kun.”
“I know, I’m sorry, Yugao-Sensei! My alarm clock broke, so I slept in on accident!”
Yugao-Sensei smiles to herself and shakes her head.
“Well, you’re here now, so we can start the test. Are the three of you ready?”
Naruto cheers, and Sakura and Sasuke both scramble to their feet. Well, Sakura scrambles, Sasuke just rises up gracefully. Yugao-Sensei’s holding two small, half-polished metal bells, the kind you can buy in a convenience store in a pack of a hundred. They’ve been strung up on a long loop of twine, and they sway in the breeze.
“This is the bell test. The idea of it is that to pass, you each get a bell. You’ll have to take them from me.” Here, she smiles and hooks the piece of twine to her waistband. The test seems simple and straightforward enough, but something… something’s wrong.
“Yugao-Sensei?” Sakura raises her hand, and Yugao-Sensei nods to acknowledge her. “Yes, Sakura-chan?”
“Where’s the third bell?”
Yugao-Sensei smiles, calm and serene and kind.
“There is no third bell. Only two of you will pass.”
Sakura feels like she’s just been sucker punched in the gut.
“Eh?” Naruto looks almost scared next to her, with his eyes blown wide. “What do you mean, Yugao-Sensei?”
On Sakura’s other side, Sasuke nods, looking their sensei dead on with serious features. “You’re bluffing. You have to pass all of us or none of us.”
“Nope! It’s my team, my test. I will decide if you’re worthy to be part of my team with an examination of my choice. This was my examination. That’s how it’s always been, and sometimes, Jounin decide to use a method like this one. In fact, the bell test is one of the more common methods. It’s a tradition in the case of Team Sevsen in particular, and my old Captain used it as an ANBU training exercise.”
“You can’t use an ANBU class training exercise with genin,” Sasuke reasons, and in that second, Sakura can’t help but think that Yugao-Sensei looks very cruel.
“Says who,” Yugao-Sensei asks, and tilts her head to one side, slipping her hands into her pockets. Sakura and Naruto open their mouths to argue, and-
“Begin,” Says Yugao.
(Six Years Ago)
Yugao is crouched in a tree, Shisui one one side and Tenzo on the other. Panther, Lynx and Racoon are in the tree across from them, with the others scattered throughout. Kakashi-taichou stands in the center of the clearing below them, that infuriating orange book clutched in one hand.
She hates it when Shisui and Taichou decide to train their teams together.
“So,” Tenzo whispers, “What are the odds that’s a shadow clone?”
“Well,” She begins, “Knowing him, it would be a shadow clone. But he knows we know that, which means that it’s probably the real one. But he also knows that we’d know that, so it might be a shadow clone-”
“You don’t know,” Shisui whispers, “Do you?”
(Six Years Ago)
“Goddamn.” With a pained grunt, Shisui pops his shoulder back into his socket and resumes glowering at her captain. Forget kunai or daggers, Yugao’s fairly sure that Shisui has a whole damn armory he’s glaring at Taichou. “Does it physically pain you to go easy on us or something?”
“Yes,” Taichou shoots back, lazily paging through his book. Two hours, and the exercise is up.The objective had been for one of them to at least get maybe a glimpse under the cloth mask. Again.
Only Shisui had managed to even get past the dig mask, and that’d been dumb luck that failed to follow through.
Lynx cackles, even though she’d gotten thrown into a tree. Horse has to sit on one of her hands to get her anywhere near still enough for him to get a proper look at her bruised ribs.
“I told ya we wouldn’t get anywhere. We never do.” She looks vaguely thoughtful for a moment, her head dipping down a bit.
“It’s witchcraft,” She says abruptly, “Isn’t it? That’s how you always win, Taichou. You’re a bloody witch.”
Taichou snorts. “That’s hardly correct, Lynx.”
“Nope,you’re a witch. I’ll bet money on it.” the words roll of Lynx’s tongue loftily, and Yugao has to stifle a giggle by burying it in Itachi’s shoulder. Not the best idea, since she’s supposed to be looking over a dark bruise where he tackled a log a bit too hard on accident. (The bruise looks like it’s already been there for a bit, and Yugao knows that clan children are always pushed a bit harder than most. Politely, she says nothing.)
“You know,” Tenzo begins in that cheeky little voice he uses on the rare occasions he feels like being mischievous, “That would explain quite a lot, Senpai…”
“You too, Tenzo?” Taichou makes a small, mock-hurt noise in the back of his book that makes Shisui snort. “Ganging up on your poor old Taichou like this-”
“You’re younger than half the people in this clearing,” Horse cuts in with the sharp wit that every medic seems to have, Yugao included. She’s starting to think it’s a side effect of having to put up with the ‘I’m-not-seriously-injured-it’s-just-a-broken-leg’ bullshit every ANBU operative ever seems to pull.
Taichou makes that same, pseudo-wounded sound, and Yugao laughs.
“Begin,” Yugao-Sensei says calmly, securing the bells around her waist, and Sakura realizes that she probably needs a plan.
The best case scenario involves her and Sasuke both getting one of the bells- Naruto goes back to the academy, becomes a drop-out failure and never sees her again, Yugao-Sensei trains both her and Sasuke into super awesome S-rank Shinobi, and then the two of them fall in passionate, heart stopping love, get married, and repopulate the Uchiha clan. At least, that’s what Inner Sakura is currently screaming into her skull.
She isn’t sure if the worst case scenario is Naruto and Sasuke passing without her (unbelievable, how could Naruto pass and not her?) or if she and Naruto both pass, but not Sasuke. (Also unbelievable. Sasuke is a genius, and can definitely get the bells, and Naruto is an idiot.)
But each and every scenario goes rushing out of her skull the minute Naruto screams some unintelligible war cry and charges past her, and Sasuke turns and runs for the surrounding forest. Sasuke looks like he’s going to attempt an ambush, while Naruto is going to directly attack an ex-ANBU, head on.
“He really is that stupid,” Sakura whispers to herself, half horrified and half awed at the sheer amount of brain power that must have been left out in the making of that decision.
In front of her, Naruto stops a couple inches short of their sensei, braces one foot against the ground, and lashes out with a sloppy roundhouse kick. Yugao slides backward, and Naruto’s foot slices into the air in front of her. He snarls, slips into the stance for another attack, and-
Yugao is suddenly there, and Naruto is doubled over with her fist buried in his gut. Naruto’s eyes bug out, and he splutters in shock.
Yugao yanks her hand back and grabs Naruto’s shoulder. Only a measly, flimsy fifteen feet away, Sakura watches in terror as Yugao flings Naruto over her head and sends him crashing into the river roughly thirty feet from them. Her teammate’s body enters with a large, wet splash, and Yugao turns back. Her eyes are sharp and dangerous, and Sakura-
Sakura turns on her heel and runs.
“Tch.” From where he is perched on a tree limb, securely hidden behind several layers of leaves and branches, Sasuke sniffs in disdain and leans back. His teammates are so weak.
Several feet below him, Sakura disappears into the thick shrubbery of the forest, crashing through it like she wants to be heard. Yugao-Sensei rolls her shoulders once, and even though Sasuke expects her to seek out him or Sakura, she stays put. So she’s forcing them to come and get the bells from her, huh? There must be some sort of time limit, even though she didn’t mention one…
Sasuke’s eyes narrow in thought. None of them had brought a lunch, and she’d told them to skip breakfast. A trick, most likely. To weaken them. Because Sasuke could see Naruto or Sakura throwing up under these conditions, but not him. He’d been through too much. He’s put up with enough pain, he’s not weak anymore- Something shifts out of the corner of his vision, and Sasuke turns his head towards the river.
A bright wave of something orange and yellow comes rising out of the river, and surprise sticks him in the throat when he realizes what it is.
Across the clearing, the virtual mountain of Narutos collapses against the ground, and then Yugao’s facing down dozens of them. Her eyes go wide in surprise for a moment, and Sasuke smirks. This is his moment. While she’s preoccupied with dealing with those, he’ll swing down and take one of the bells, yes.
When Yugao launches herself into the center of a pile of genin, Sasuke draws a roll of ninja wire, hooks it around the tree branch he’s on, and goes zipping off it.
Yugao side steps a punch to the gut, grabs the offending forearm, and swings it around, tossing it into two more Narutos. All three clones disappear in a puff of white smoke that goes trailing off in the wind. Two more surge up to grab at her arms, and in a moment of indulgence, she lets them. Instead of reaching for her waist like she expects them to, though, two more lash out to hold her by her ankles and then a fifth one comes rushing towards her. Sasuke swoops down from above her, one hand reaching for the bells. He can practically hear them jingling in his hand, the way Naruto can as he surges forward with eager hands. They’re going to pass, they’re going to graduate-
Naruto’s hand brushes Yugao’s side, and the clone disappears in a blinding puff of smoke. Sasuke’s face contorts in frustrated rage, and before he can pull back, he’s tumbling into the pile of Naruto clones, unable to see past all the smoke and eye-burning orange fabric.
Sasuke’s fingers catch in filthy, grimy cloth as something heavy and solid lands on his stomach, and more clones disperse into billowing tails of churning white smoke around them. His hand surge upwards, tangling in short hair, and he yanks down hard. Naruto cries out as he’s thrown into the ground, and when the air clears, Sasuke has a foot planted in his ribcage, and he’s glaring with all the fury of a thunderstorm behind him.
“Idiot,” Sasuke snarls in an uncharacteristic display of emotion, “You got in my way!”
Naruto’s eyes go wide before they narrow again, and with a huff, he bucks upwards, unbalancing the other genin.
“I got in your way? You got in mine, you teme!”
Naruto rights himself, scrapes his bangs from his eyes, and glares down on his teammate. He’s two years older than the other two, he’s failed the graduation test what feels like a dozen times before this, and as Naruto draws himself up to his full height, he towers over Sasuke like a giant.
“Now who knows where she is? You scared her off!”
“No, you fool, that was a shadow clone! She wasn’t even here in the first place! You didn’t have a chance at all!”
“Then neither did you!” Heat begins to spark in the back of Naruto’s mind. He’s been humiliated, he’s sopping wet, and he wants nothing more than to shove Sasuke off a cliff, preferably a tall one overlooking several very craggy, very sharp mountaintops.
Sasuke grinds his teeth together, reaches up, and grabs Naruto by his jacket collar.
“Shut up, deadlast!”
With a burst of infuriated strength, Sasuke throws Naruto over his shoulder and turns on his heel to glare down at him.
“You don’t have a chance, dobe.” Sasuke turns away as Naruto struggles up into a sitting position, hurt and anger written into every feature.
“So stay out of my way.”
“Teme, you take that back!” Naruto staggers upright, draws a fist back and launches at the back of Sasuke’s head-
Sasuke twists and buries his knee in Naruto’s stomach. As the older boy reels back, Sasuke reaches out to wrap a pale hand around his wrist and spins them, tossing him back again. Naruto lands facedown in the hard, scuffed ground.
When he rises with fire blazing in his eyes and acid burning his tongue, Sasuke’s gone.
Sakura is running, running with leaves in her hair and dirt scuffed along the skirt of her dress. The air feels thick, like she could reach out and cut into it with one of her kunai. Killing intent, she thinks a bit numbly as she half-remembers a suddenly blurry passage from a textbook. Skilled ninja can funnel their chakra out into it, creating a thick film of suffocating chakra.
Yugao-Sensei wouldn’t really pull something like that out on a few gennin, would she?
This can’t really be an ANBU-level test, right? It has to be a joke, right?
Sakura’s foot catches on a long, bumpy tree root that stretches out in front of her. If she were in a better condition, she could have probably caught herself; but Sakura’s tired and shot with fear and nerves. She faceplants in the ground, and when she sits up, Yugao-Sensei is sitting in a tree branch directly over her, toying with the hilt of her sword impatiently.
Sakura thinks she might start crying.
“Ah, Sakura-chan!” Cheerily, Yugao-Sensei slips forward, off the tree branch. She lands straight and poised, with her feet positioned in such a way that she could’ve easily broken any one of Sakura’s numerous and extremely fragile bones. But Sakura manages to scrabble backwards, and when Yugao lands, all that accompanies itis a soft little puff of dust, and no crunch of bone. Sakura cuts her soft, tiny little palms open in her haste, drawing thin lines of blood. Her legs are suddenly a tangle of flesh and skin and cloth, and when Yugao-Sensei comes closer, she feels her joints freeze in her skin.
The woman smiles down on her, even as she draws the ninjato. It’s a sleek, slender blade; light bending around it like it’s not even there. If she swung it fast enough, one probably wouldn’t even see it coming. Sakura scoots back frantically, ruining the fine red fabric of her dress as she drags it through the dust. Her back bumps up against the rough surface of a tree trunk, and Sakura reaches for where her weapon pouch is secured against her thigh.
Her fingers brush against empty air, though, and Yugao smiles like a harsh, mean thing.
Sakura is going to die.
She is going to die, and turn the grass red with her pretty civilian blood. It won’t be great or glorious or even tragic. It won’t be the blaze of glory she’d envisioned when Iruka-Sensei had told them what happened to most ninja. It would be no more than a matchstick guttering out in a storm, right alongside a dozen other matchsticks. Sasuke, had Yugao-Sensei killed him? Had Naruto ever climbed out of that river?
The sun shines down on Sakura’s young, broad face as the woman swings the sword forward in one deadly, graceful flick of her wrist. As predicted, the blade is little more than a glittering line of blurred light, arcing dangerously in her direction. Unbidden, the image of Sasuke laying gutted on the grass of the training ground comes flitting across her mind, swiftly followed by Naruto with his legs pinned under rocks no larger than an adult’s fist, but twice as heavy. Sakura brings her hands up as the thought of Naruto breathing out bloody bubbles presses itself irrationally forward. Her tongue has turned to lead in her mouth, and when she speaks, it's slurred and only half-audible.
“Kai,” Sakura rasps fearfully as the tip of the sword scores a cut along her nose. Suddenly, Naruto’s dying image is clearer than her murderer, standing high above her, and Sakura isn’t trapped against a tree trunk, she’s sitting underwater. Her hair drifts around her in a messy pink cloud, and Naruto is slowly turning the water crimson; bleeding colour into it bit by bit, drop by drop, awful, stinging gash by awful, stinging gash.
And then there’s a low whistle, and the illusion shatters under her command. Sakura isn’t at the bottom of a lake or a tree now, she’s hogtied in the middle of a clearing she could’ve sworn she’d passed through already. Her weapons pouch is sitting in the grass next to her, not a inch from her head.
“Very good, Sakura-chan,” Yugao-Sensei says as she tightens the wire around sakura’s wrists and ankles. “I was wondering when you’d notice. You did well.”
Sakura swallows thickly and opens her mouth to say she realized when she didn’t have her weapons pouch; to ask her if that was really necessary; to demand how Sasuke was.
Instead, the image of Naruto bleeding out underwater burns itself into her eyelids, and bile rises in her throat. Yugao-Sensei gently rests a hand on the back of her neck and tilts her head off to the side so Sakura can vomit on the grass instead of her dress. It’s painful, and bitter, and some of the gunk catches in Sakura’s nose, so now she’ll be stuck with the smell until she can get it out.
“Just genjutsu,” Yugao-Sensei whispers softly, gathering all of Sakura’s long, lovely hair up in one hand, “Just layered genjutsu. They’re okay, Sakura-chan.”
She’s just dry heaving now, and it hurts. She’s choking on her tongue, and she doesn’t quite register it when Yugao-Sensei rights her, and hoists her up in her arms. Sakura’s head is pressed up to the flak jacket’s hard, bulky shoulder pad, her legs dangling over the woman’s other arm. Yugao adjusts her a bit, checks the wire, and stoops to collect the weapon’s pouch as more of an afterthought than anything else.
And then the world disappears in a blur of motion, and she can’t breath, oh god what help, HELP- Yugao touches down in the training ground, setting Sakura down by a convenient log.
Sakura leans over and starts dry heaving again.
Late, late, I know. In my defense though, exams are coming up, and I'm bloody drowning in math. Who ever came up with quadratic equations deserves a painful death. So here, have some of how messed up Yugao really is, and also the sort-of conclusion to the little omake from last chapter.