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Scarecrow at Dawn

Chapter Text

Naruto grinned widely as he rushed to the Academy. Today was the day. The first official day of being a ninja, the first day he got to wear his hitai-ate, the day he’d be assigned a team. Maybe he’d even get paired up with Sakura-chan! The only thought clouding his otherwise sunny mindset was the worry that he could end up with that teme, Sasuke, instead.

He pounded up the steps, quickly maneuvering around other new genin lingering in the hallways, and entered the classroom, choosing a seat half-way up.

Of course, someone just had to say something about him being there.

“Hey Naruto! Today is only for people who passed!” another genin sneered.

Naruto spun around, already clamping a hand to his forehead protector to show it off. “Yeah, well, see this? I passed, too! So shut up!”

He then turned his back on the genin, choosing instead to glare at Sasuke, his arch rival. Not only did the guy ace every single ninja exam they had, he also got all the girls’ attention, even Sakura-chan’s! And he didn’t even care! Without thinking, Naruto hopped up on the desk in front of Sasuke, forcing the Uchiha to meet his eyes in a vicious staring match. It was sheer bad luck that some idiot bumped into Naruto from behind and knocked him into Sasuke.

“Ugh, gross!” Naruto gagged, jerking back from the accidental lip-lock and wiping his mouth frantically. Likewise, Sasuke looked like he was torn between throwing up and murdering Naruto right there, though the Uchiha’s angry dignity was ruined by his tongue sticking out in disgust. 

And then there was the angry mob of fangirls…

Thankfully Iruka chose to start class not long after, patiently calling his distracted students to order.

“Pay attention!” he called out, moving surprisingly easily despite the bandages under his clothes from the battle with Mizuki. “I’ll be reading off your team assignments in a minute. The teams were designed to balance out each genin’s strengths and weaknesses, so don’t bother asking to swap with someone.”

Clearing his throat, he began listing off team numbers and names as students murmured to their neighbors. Sometimes a groan could be heard, but generally the class was well-behaved. At least until Team Seven was called.

“Team Seven:  Uzumaki Naruto…” Naruto perked up. “...Haruno Sakura…”

“Yes!” Naruto exclaimed, happily pumping his fist in the air. Best day ever! A pitiful groan came from Sakura a few seats down as she whacked her head on the desk in dejection.

“...and Uchiha Sasuke.”

“Crap…” Naruto grumbled, flopping down onto the desk. So much for ‘best day ever.’ Sakura, on the other hand, let out a happy squeal, immediately feeling better. Sasuke just looked away, as if the whole embarrassing scene was beneath his notice.

“Your jounin sensei,” added Iruka, “is Matsuoka Masaru.”

“Aw, Iruka-sensei, why do I have-ta be paired up with that teme?!” Naruto whined, pointing an accusing finger at Sasuke.

Iruka looked up at the interruption, putting his hands on his hips in irritation. “Like I said earlier, Naruto, each team was chosen based on strengths and weaknesses. Since you had the lowest grades, you were paired up with students who had the highest grades.”

Naruto flushed in embarrassment, slumping down in his seat again in a sulk as Iruka continued listing off the teams.

After all teams were called, the genin were released for lunch with instructions to return in one hour to meet their jounin instructors.

~

With a quarter of an hour to spare, most of the genin had returned to the classroom, loosely grouped into their new teams. Team Seven sat up near one top corner, a hostile and awkward silence stretching between them as all three were wrapped up in their own thoughts.

I’m glad I’m on a team with Sakura-chan, but it still really sucks that Sasuke-teme is my other teammate, Naruto mentally grumbled. Sakura was busy trying to inch closer to Sasuke without him realizing it, and trying to inch away from Naruto. And Sasuke just considered both of them to be useless pests and hoped that their new sensei would keep the other two away from him.

Finally the bell chimed, signalling the start of the jounin arrivals. Several new senseis arrived in a group, calling out their teams and leading them away. Then senseis began trickling in every few minutes, and the number of genin in the classroom slowly decreased.

It wasn’t long before a voice called out, “Team Seven?”

The three genin looked down. Their sensei wore the usual navy uniform with a green vest. He had short brown hair and brown eyes, and was moderately good-looking in a classical sense. He doesn’t hold a candle to Sasuke-kun, though, Sakura thought to herself. A traitorous little part of her added, Except maybe in the hair department…  

“Oh, here, we’re up here, Sensei!” Naruto called excitedly, standing up and waving.

The man just looked up at them cooly, a faint look of disgust crossing his face at Naruto’s antics before he schooled his expression. Naruto lowered his hand sheepishly.

“Alright, you three, follow me,” the jounin instructed, turning to leave the classroom. The three genin quickly complied, avoiding eye contact with each other as their new sensei led them to one of the training grounds.

“My name is Matsuoka Masaru. You may call me Matsuoka-sensei or Matsuoka-san.” He looked at a list held in one hand. “I take it you are Uchiha Sasuke,” he commented, glancing at Sasuke and tucking the list away, “which means that the other two must be Uzumaki-kun and Haruno-chan.” His glance at Naruto and Sakura was decidedly cooler. Sakura’s tentative smile froze on her face, and Naruto’s expression clouded over.

“Why don’t you tell me a bit about yourselves,” Matsuoka continued, his gaze falling on Sasuke again.

Sakura put up a hesitant hand. “Um, Sensei? Could you show us what you mean?”

The jounin grudgingly looked over at her. “Generally I don’t tolerate interruptions, Haruno-chan. If you have a question, wait until I acknowledge you before you blurt it out.” Sakura ducked her head in confusion, her face as pink as her hair. “Uchiha-kun, you start.”

Sasuke stared back at the man for a moment, feeling distinctly uncomfortable. It was like a bad case of deja-vu. “I’m not sure what you mean,” he carefully replied.

“Tell me about your likes, dislikes, hobbies, goals, that sort of thing,” Matsuoka said easily, no hint of censure this time.

“Hey, wait a minute! When Sakura-chan asked, you shut her down, but when Sasuke-teme asks, suddenly everything’s fine?!” Naruto exploded. “What gives, Sensei?”

The look Matsuoka turned on Naruto could freeze fire. “Be quiet, Uzumaki- kun. Unless you would like to run laps the rest of the day?” Naruto stared back, for once speechless. “Now, Uchiha-kun, if you please.”

Sasuke shot a glance at Sakura and Naruto, who looked mortified and outraged respectively. “I, uh, don’t really have likes and dislikes,” he finally muttered. “And hobbies are a waste of time. My goal…” He hesitated again, not really wanting to share the full extent of it. “My goal is to get stronger.”

“I’m sure I can help you do that,” Matsuoka replied mildly. Sasuke couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d seen this sort of behavior before…

Matsuoka gestured to Sakura without looking at her. “And you?”

She pried her eyes from the ground, visibly gathering her courage. “I, um, my likes are… Well, the thing I like, or rather, the person I like…” She glanced at Sasuke coyly. Matsuoka rolled his eyes. “My dream is…” She glanced at Sasuke again and hid her face, seemingly overcome with shyness.

“Just wrap it up,” Matsuoka said, sounding bored.

Sakura lifted her face, all coyness gone and her eyes glued to the ground again at the jounin’s tone. “S-sorry. Um, my hobbies are drawing and sewing, and I really don’t like Naruto because he’s annoying.”

Distracted from his outrage, Naruto’s face fell at Sakura’s words, and she had to stifle the small guilty pang she felt.

“And… you.” It was clear by his tone that Matsuoka didn’t really care about what Naruto had to say, but Naruto pushed ahead determinedly.

“Okay, well, I like ramen a lot, especially the ramen at Ichiraku. I don’t like having to wait for the water to boil before I can eat it, though. My hobby is trying all the ramen flavors at the store. And my dream is to be the next Hokage, the greatest ninja there is!” Naruto’s eyes lit up as he stated his dream, his whole body animated.

Matsuoka examined his nails, unimpressed. Once Naruto had finished, he addressed the three genin.

“Alright, Team Seven, we will meet here tomorrow morning at 8am for your first test as genin. Don’t eat breakfast. And the only hint that I will give you is this:  consider tonight why you have been placed in a three-man team. Figure it out, and you’ll pass. If you don’t figure it out, all three of you will fail and will be barred from further shinobi training.”

With that, the jounin placed his hands together in a ninja sign, vanishing in a puff of smoke.

“What! What does he mean, ‘barred from further shinobi training’?!” Naruto yelled, a hint of panic in his blue eyes. “And what was all that about, with him fawning over Sasuke-teme?!” Naruto glared at Sasuke. “It better not be favoritism, just ‘cause you’re from a famous ninja clan or something…”

Sasuke glared back. “I don’t want special treatment, dobe! I need to get stronger, not be babied, unlike some.” Now he knew where he’d seen behavior like that. It was how people had acted around his father, and his brother… People had acted like idiots, always complimenting them and paying attention to them, hoping to get something. Dammit, the dobe was probably right, it did smack of favoritism.

“What’s that supposed to mean?!”

“Guys, quit it!” yelled Sakura, pushing between the two boys and shamelessly using it as an excuse to touch Sasuke. “We need to figure out the riddle if we want to pass, right?”

“Hmph,” Sasuke grumbled, turning away.

“Yeah, you’re right, Sakura-chan,” Naruto acquiesced immediately. “Why don’t we go work on it together?” he proposed, a bright smile on his face. “Away from that teme Sasuke, since he obviously thinks he’s too good for us.” He stuck his tongue out at Sasuke for good measure.

Sakura frowned, elbowing Naruto in the stomach and fighting down disappointment. She’d much rather work on it with Sasuke than with Naruto…

“You guys do what you want,” Sasuke spat out, “I’m going home.”

As he walked away, Sakura called out, “Sasuke-kun, wait! We need to figure out the riddle!”

“Let that loser go, Sakura-chan,” Naruto told her. “With both of us working together, I’m sure we’ll figure it out in no time!”

But I don’t want to work with Naruto! He’s so annoying! And he’s so dumb that he’ll probably just make it take longer… Sakura thought to herself as Sasuke vanished around the corner.

“…Sakura-chan?” Naruto repeated hopefully.

“Uh, I forgot, I have chores to do today,” Sakura blurted out, scrambling for an excuse to leave.

Naruto looked crestfallen. “Oh, uh, okay. Maybe we could meet early tomorrow, in case neither of us figures it out tonight?”

“…Sure,” Sakura grudgingly agreed. It wasn’t likely, but if it meant them all passing, well, it was worth it to deal with Naruto if it meant spending time with Sasuke, right? “Um, well, bye.” She turned toward home, leaving Naruto standing there alone.

“…Yeah. Bye...”

~

The next morning dawned bright and sunny. Two of the three genin, stomachs grumbling, wandered onto the assigned practice field half an hour before they were supposed to. Neither one had had much luck in puzzling out what their sensei had hinted at the day before, so both were in a bad mood.

“Hey, Sakura-chan!” Naruto called to her as she walked up. “Did you figure it out?”

She hesitated, then shook her head in defeat. “I’ve got a few ideas, but none of them sound right.”

“What are they?”

“Well, remember how Iruka-sensei said that our teams were designed to balance out our strengths and weaknesses? I thought maybe that’s it, except, if that was the answer, I don’t think Iruka-sensei would have told us.” She scuffed a toe. “Then I thought that maybe it had something to do with how they broke us all up, with two boys and a girl on each team? But I can’t figure out why that would help, either…”

“Wow,” Naruto exclaimed, “I didn’t notice that!” He began counting on his fingers. “Yeah, ‘cause there’s us, and that lazy Shikamaru ended up with the fat guy and the scary chick, and Kiba the dog freak got paired with the weird shy girl and the trench coat guy…”

Sakura’s attention immediately jumped away from Naruto when she saw Sasuke coming toward them. “SASUKE-KUN!”

Sasuke winced at her loud greeting, not deigning to respond.

“Hey, Sasuke-teme! Did you figure out what our sensei meant?!” Naruto yelled at him.

Sasuke looked away, flushing slightly at his failure. That was answer enough for Naruto. “So you didn’t figure it out either, huh? Guess you’re not so great!” Naruto crowed.

“Neither are you, dobe!” Sasuke snapped back.

“Leave Sasuke-kun alone!” Sakura berated Naruto, hitting him on the head.

Naruto rubbed his head, pouting at Sakura. “Ow…” It hadn’t really hurt, but it paid to make her think it did since she was less likely to hit him again. In all honesty, most of her physical attacks were just… wimpy. Not that he’d ever tell her that. She’d probably hate him even more if he did.

“Bickering already?” an adult voice asked them. They looked up to see their jounin sensei standing over them, arms crossed. “At this rate, you’ll all fail. I’m disappointed in you.” He said this looking directly at Sasuke, giving Sakura and Naruto the distinct impression that the disappointment wasn’t directed at either of them.

Matsuoka sighed. “Start stretching, all three of you. This will be a sparring exercise.” As the three genin warmed up in sullen silence, he paced around the training area.

Once they were done, he addressed them again. “Now, the point of this exercise is to capture me; the reward is lunch. You can use any weapons you have on you, and I am limiting myself to low-level ninjutsu to give you three a chance. You have until noon.” He looked at Sasuke, disregarding the other two. “Begin.”

~

After two hours, all three genin were exhausted. Each one had made a valiant effort. Sasuke had tried to trap the jounin with fire, but Matsuoka had been too quick for him. Naruto had planned an ambush with his shadow clones, but that had backfired, degenerating into a punching match between the clones and Naruto. And Sakura had tried setting traps and luring the jounin into them, but all of her traps were so textbook that they had been pitifully easy to avoid, no matter how clever her scheme was. Plus, she didn’t have the stamina to keep up with her teammates, let alone the jounin.

Matsuoka stood in the center of the arena, looking as though he were waiting for the bus. He wasn’t even out of breath. “C’mon, you three, your time’s running out,” he called to his students. “Clearly working alone isn’t working for you.”

Sakura, hiding in the trees and still trying to recover her breath after Matsuoka had tapped her in the solar plexus, suddenly sat up straight. I’ve been such an idiot! she thought to herself, slapping her forehead for good measure. The key is to work together. It’s like Matsuoka-san has been hinting it to us this entire time…

She looked around for the boys. Naruto wasn’t too far off, poorly concealed under some bushes courtesy of his bright orange clothes. But Sasuke was nowhere to be found.

“Pst! Naruto!” Sakura whispered.

He looked up and around, not seeing her immediately. “Sakura-chan?” he whispered back.

“Up here! I think I figured it out. It was so obvious,” she bemoaned.

“Well, share! What’s the trick to this whole thing?” Naruto hissed impatiently.

“It’s teamwork. We -- all three of us -- need to work together, or we’ll never win. Do you see Sasuke-kun anywhere?”

Naruto pouted. “Aw, couldn’t just you and me work together? Besides, he thinks we’re annoying, he’d never work with us…”

Sakura glared at Naruto, before sighing. “Look,” she said, stifling her irritation, “we’re up against a jounin, and we’re only genin. I know we don’t all like each other, but we’ve all got different skills which, if used together, would let us catch Matsuoka-san. So help me find Sasuke-kun!”

The two crept around the arena, eventually coming across Sasuke. He was working on a trap but was having trouble with it.

“You need a longer line,” Naruto muttered helpfully behind him.

Sasuke whirled around. “Get out of here, dobe! I don’t need your help! You’ll only drag me down.”

Naruto’s expression clouded up, but before he could start berating Sasuke, Sakura stepped in. “Sasuke-kun! We figured out the puzzle! It’s teamwork. We all need to work together to take Matsuoka-san down.”

Sasuke turned to her, eyeing her suspiciously. “I’d do better on my own.”

Sakura colored up, insulted enough to stand up to her crush. “I may not be very strong, but my plan was five times better than either yours or Naruto’s. And, and Naruto’s better at traps than both of us combined, while you can do fire jutsu, which most genin can’t do.”

Both Naruto and Sasuke seemed surprised at her outburst. Sakura, standing up to Sasuke? Never happened before. Sakura, complimenting Naruto? Unheard of!

Sakura squared her shoulders in determination. “So, unless you guys wanna fail and never be ninja, we need to work together. Okay?”

~

Matsuoka sat, tied up, in a circle of fire, his three genin standing outside of the burning ring. He cracked a smile, directed at Sasuke of course, and freed himself from the ropes, leaping over the flames toward his students.

“Good work,” he told them, “You passed.”

“YES! WE DID IT! WE’RE OFFICIALLY NINJA! WE’RE THE GREATEST!” Naruto whooped, jumping in the air in excitement. He held up open hands to Sakura and Sasuke for high-fives.

Sakura smacked his hand with her own before she really thought about it. “Yeah!”

Sasuke just gave a small smirk in victory, hands firmly planted in his pockets.

“Hey, teme, don’t leave me hanging,” Naruto told him, wiggling his hand in Sasuke’s face. “We’re a team now, remember?”

Sasuke glared, then grudgingly dragged a hand out of one pocket, hitting Naruto’s a little harder than necessary. Oh well, it was a start.

~~~~~

It didn’t take many training sessions for Team Seven to come to a definite conclusion about Matsuoka’s priorities. It was unquestionably favoritism, and even Sasuke was disgusted by it.

Plus, Matsuoka just wasn’t a good teacher in general.

He tried, of course, but either he put them through drills that they had perfected at the academy, or he chose drills far beyond their skill sets. He also liked to lecture them -- Sakura was the only one able to understand these lectures but she often couldn’t implement the theories, while Naruto and Sasuke both had trouble understanding the lecture without an interactive portion.

Then he’d leave them to practice whatever activity he had assigned while he went to talk with village officials. He didn’t talk about his work in front of the genin, but it was pretty apparent to Team Seven that their sensei was considered important in the village.

“Too important to teach us,” grumbled Naruto as Matsuoka disappeared from view. “Why’d he even bother getting a genin team if he isn’t even teaching us?!”

Sasuke flushed in irritation. No one needed to voice the answer to Naruto’s question out loud; they all suspected that Matsuoka had pulled strings to get himself assigned to their team because it contained the Last Uchiha.

“Not that we’re blaming you, Sasuke-kun!” Sakura hurried to add. “It’s just… frustrating.” She dropped all pretense of practicing the exceedingly basic drill they’d been assigned and scuffed her foot through the dirt.

Naruto turned from where he’d been glaring after their sensei to face his teammates. “Hey, I got an idea,” he said, eyes lighting up. Sakura and Sasuke exchanged a wary glance; Naruto’s ideas had gotten them into trouble before, whether they were actually involved or not. “Let’s go poke around the other training grounds! Maybe we’ll get to see the other teams working on cool stuff that we can practice!”

“That’s... not a bad idea,” Sakura said hesitantly, shooting a look at Sasuke to gauge his reaction. “Especially since Matsuoka-san didn’t tell us we had to stay here…”

Sasuke just shrugged. Anything was better than staying here practicing the ridiculously easy academy drill, but he didn’t have to tell the dobe that. He took off at an easy pace, his teammates scrambling to catch up as he headed off toward another set of training grounds.

~

“Not cool, teme!” Naruto yelled as he caught up with Sasuke. “Why’d you try to ditch us?!”

Sasuke smirked. “If I wanted to ditch you, I would have, dobe.”

“Cut it out, you two,” Sakura snapped at them before they could start another stupid argument over nothing. She looked out around the new training ground, ignoring Naruto flipping Sasuke the bird and noting the older genin team practicing on the far side. “Hey, look over there,” she said, pointing at the other team. “It looks like they’re practicing taijutsu.”

Both boys looked over. One of the boys, in a green leotard and orange leg warmers, was attacking his teammate, a pale-eyed shinobi with long dark hair and bandages on one arm. Their third teammate looked on while she sharpened a strangely shaped blade, occasionally making comments on the boys’ forms. When she flung the weapon at a target twenty paces away from her, it hit dead center.

Naruto studied the other team’s moves closely, focusing on the two boys. “Think we could do that?” He tried to settle into the same stance as the boy in green, but his balance was uncertain.

“No, it’s back stance, dobe.”

“Shut up, teme, I knew that! I don’t need your help!”

“Guys, why don’t we just ask them--”

“Obviously you do, or you wouldn’t be wobbling all over the place--”

“Guys! This isn’t helping!”

“Hey, like you could do any better, teme!”

“Anyone could do a better job than you!”

The sudden appearance of one of the other team’s genin brought the three-sided argument to an abrupt halt. Icy pale eyes settled over Team Seven. “If you’re just here to argue, then leave. Some of us actually have training to do.”

His eyes flicked from one gaping genin to the next, landing on Sasuke last. “Well, if it isn’t the Last Uchiha. Where’s your sensei anyway? Clearly you three need adult supervision.”

“None of your business, Hyuuga,” Sasuke practically spat out.

“Neji-kun,” came a friendly voice as the green-clad ninja jogged over, “who are you talking to? Do you know them?” He stopped next to his teammate, looking over Team Seven before focusing on Sakura. Out of nowhere, he pulled out a flower, presenting it to Sakura with a flourish.

“Hello! It is a pleasure to meet you! What is your name?”

Sakura stared at him, perplexed. “Um. Haruno Sakura. Who…?” He’s got the biggest eyebrows I’ve ever seen! And what’s with that awful bowl cut?

“My name is Rock Lee!” he said with a wink and a smile. “And I would be delighted if you would go out with me, Sakura-chan!” His teammate rolled his eyes, turning away from the spectacle.

“Ew, no way!” Sakura said, backing away from him. “Your eyebrows are just too freaky! And anyway, I don’t even know you.”

He looked absolutely crestfallen. “Oh…”

“Hey, Bushy-Brows!” Naruto cut in, looking a little too cheerful after Lee’s rejection. “Can you show us that move you were just doing? The spin-kick-thing?” Lee turned his attention away from Sakura.

Great save, Naruto, thought Sakura. Though he probably didn’t do it on purpose.

“And, you are?” Lee asked politely, distracted from his disappointment.

“I’m Uzumaki Naruto!” he said proudly. “Now, can ya help a guy out?”

Lee frowned. “That move is probably too advanced for you. I have been practicing it for a year and have only recently perfected it.” At Naruto’s falling expression, he added, “But I could teach you a few simpler techniques, if you want.”

“Sure! That would be great; thanks, Bushy-Brows!”

“Why bother?” came the cool comment from Lee’s teammate. “These three are destined for mediocrity at best. That one of them is from the Uchiha clan only makes them more pathetic. I suggest, Lee, that you send them on their way.” He started walking away. “They aren’t worth the energy.”

Team Seven collectively bristled. “How dare you say that, especially about Sasuke-kun?!” Sakura shrieked.

“Hmph,” the pale-eyed boy snorted, glancing back. “Letting others talk for you, Uchiha? As I said. Pathetic.” He continued walking away, hands in his pockets. “Looks like you’re nowhere near your brother’s skill level. But perhaps that’s a good thing -- it wouldn’t do to have two Uchiha traitors running around.”

Sasuke froze, feet rooted to the ground. His face had gone white, his fists clenched. His throat felt tight, and for the first time in a long time he heard a particular voice in the back of his head, whispering the Hyuuga’s words. You are pathetic, Little Brother.

“Hey! Ponytail! Are you normally such an asshole or do you have to work at it?!” Naruto shouted, breaking through the fog in Sasuke’s brain somewhat. The Hyuuga ignored him, reaching the kunoichi across the training grounds. She looked at her teammate disapprovingly but said nothing.

Lee looked highly embarrassed and uncomfortable, his eyes darting between his teammates and Team Seven. “I am sorry. I know there have been bad feelings between the Hyuuga Clan and the Uchiha Clan, but…”

Sakura shook her head. She had a lot of new information to mull over, but now was definitely not the time.

“I think we should leave,” she said, directing her comments to her teammates, one still frozen and the other glaring daggers across the field. Looking over at Lee, she belatedly remembered her manners, adding, “It was, uh… nice to meet you, Lee-kun.”

“Lee! C’mon, we still have more training to finish before Gai-sensei returns!” called the kunoichi.

“One moment, TenTen-chan!” he called, turning back to Sakura hopefully. “May I see you again, Sakura-chan?”

“Um...” Sakura felt her eye twitch. I’d rather not!

“Hey, wait, you never showed us the moves!” Naruto chimed in.

Sakura rolled her eyes at her teammate. “Not right now, Naruto. Lee-kun, if you don’t mind showing us some taijutsu moves, then fine, yes. Our sensei has us meet at training ground three every morning, so any time after noon is probably fine, though others start showing up then.”

Lee nodded, smiling at his minor victory. “Your sensei must have the training ground reserved in the mornings for the season. You are lucky!”

“Reserved?” Naruto asked, tilting his head curiously.

“Yes, jounin can reserve training grounds for their students. My sensei, Maito Gai, has reserved this training ground every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for our use. It is very helpful, because otherwise the training grounds can get very crowded.”

“Can genin reserve training grounds?” Sakura asked, an idea forming in her mind.

“No,” Lee replied, looking a little puzzled. “Only chuunin and higher ranked shinobi can make reservations. Why do you ask?”

Sakura shrugged, trying not to look too disappointed. “Oh. Well, no reason…”

“If you want a place to train when most of the training grounds are full, you can always try the clearings outside of the village wall,” Lee suggested helpfully. “I must join my teammates now, but it was nice to meet you all.” He bounded away, a definite spring in his step.

“Hey, that would be cool!” Naruto exclaimed, turning to Sakura. “I haven’t been outside the village much, and we could get away from all the jerks who think they’re better than everyone.” He stuck his tongue out in the Hyuuga’s direction.

Sakura grabbed the back of Naruto’s jumpsuit, distracting him from his childish antics. “Yeah, it sounds like a good place to go to escape Matsuoka-san, too. What do you think, Sasuke-kun?”

When she received no answer, she looked around in confusion. “Sasuke-kun?”

~

The two genin stood at the gates to the Uchiha compound. They had looked everywhere for their missing teammate except the most obvious place, but there was no getting around it. Sasuke must have come here.

“Do we knock, or something?” Naruto asked hesitantly.

Sakura whispered back. “I’m not sure…” Placing a hand on the stout wood, she jumped when it swung open easily, the hinges creaking.

“That is really creepy,” Naruto commented, trying to suppress a shiver. He looked from side to side, almost expecting someone to come yell at them for trespassing.

“Naruto, come on,” Sakura hissed, a determined expression on her face.

She took a few tentative steps into the empty compound, Naruto reluctantly following her. “Maybe we should just leave him alone,” Naruto murmured. “I mean, after what Ponytail-Jerk said, maybe he needs time alone.”

Sakura shook her head as she peered in one abandoned doorway after the next. Part of her agreed with Naruto’s earlier comment -- it was definitely creepy here. Like a small ghost town.

“No… I think that stupid Hyuuga triggered something. Remember how Sasuke-kun was all frozen? I don’t think being alone with the memories of…” she gestured at the abandoned compound, “what happened here is healthy.” Her forehead wrinkled in concentration. “I’m worried, honestly. And if what Hyuuga implied is true…”

Naruto looked up at her from the street he’d been staring down. “What do you mean, Sakura-chan? I didn’t really get a lot of what Ponytail-Jerk was saying.”

Sakura huffed in annoyance. “Geez, Naruto, pay attention sometimes. Hyuuga talked about an ‘Uchiha traitor’,” she reminded him, voice low. “I think that means that maybe one of the Uchiha Clan did… this.” She waved a hand in the air again, looking queasy. Naruto paled, stopping dead in his tracks.

“No way!” he exclaimed, then slapped a guilty hand over his mouth. “No way…” he whispered this time, “that would mean… I mean, who would kill…?”

“I know,” Sakura replied, hugging herself. “But it would explain a lot. And you don’t just recover from personal tragedies on your own.” There was a bitterness in her words, like she knew what she was talking about.

“So we have to find Sasuke-kun. I don’t know if we’ll be able to help, but we have to try. We’re teammates.” My poor dear Sasuke-kun, she thought, feeling as if her heart would break. Losing a sibling, your family, is bad enough, but this? On top of everything else? How does he bear it? How can he act so cool and collected when he’s gone through so much?

Naruto nodded. “Okay, I got it.” He put his hands together in a ninja sign, summoning a handful of clones. Facing them, he told them, “We’re looking for the teme-- er, Sasuke. Split up, check everywhere in case he’s hiding or something.”

“And look for the biggest house,” Sakura added. “Sasuke-kun’s one of the Uchiha heirs, so his father, being clan head, would probably have the biggest house, and it would be inside the complex where it’s safest.”

As Naruto’s clones scattered in a hurricane of orange, the original looked at her with respect. “Wow, Sakura-chan, you’re so smart! How’d you know that?”

She sighed, not wanting to get into it with Naruto but not seeing a way to avoid answering. “I used to be friends with Ino, back when we were kids. Her dad’s the Yamanaka clan head, so her house was the biggest and in the middle of her family’s compound. I figured the Uchihas probably have-- had the same set-up.”

Naruto looked curious -- even with his obliviousness, he’d have to have been blind not to notice Sakura and Ino’s vicious rivalry.

“Woah, you guys were friends?” He was distracted from this train of thought by the return of several shadow clones. “The big house is up ahead, just past the turn in the road,” he told Sakura, banishing the clones into puffs of smoke. The two genin hurried down the road to what was hopefully the Uchiha clan head’s house.

~

Sasuke sat huddled in a corner of his room, his head clutched between his hands, fingers digging into his hair. He fought to clear his mind and banish the memory fragments of that night, unsuccessfully.

‘You are pathetic, Little Brother.’

“No,” he whimpered through tight-clenched teeth, his eyes squeezed shut.

‘Run away, like the coward you are. Run away, and live. And when your hate is strong enough, seek me out.’

His muscles trembled like they did that night. He felt small again, powerless, confused and terrified out of his wits. ‘Why?! Why would you do this, Big Brother?! Mother... and Father…’

‘...I had to test my potential.’

‘Your potential?! Are you insane?!! You’ve… you k-killed them! Everyone is…’ His throat felt tight. His eyes burned beneath their lids. He clutched a kunai desperately.

“Sasuke, you in here?” came a voice from the hallway. Without thinking, Sasuke flung the blade with deadly accuracy, at the same time recoiling from the presence. The blade sliced through Naruto’s cheek as he dodged back in the nick of time. “Shit!”

Sasuke started hyperventilating.

“Sakura-chan, I found him, but he tried to kill me!” the voice called out, panic and anger in the tone.

Sasuke squeezed his eyes shut again, huddling further into himself. Just go away! Please go away! he thought desperately to himself. He didn’t want to deal with their nonsense. Not now. Not ever.

A soft voice interrupted his whirling thoughts. “Sasuke-kun? ...Please, can we come in?”

He felt paralyzed. He couldn’t answer.

“Hey. Hey, baka,” came the loud voice again. Naruto. “Don’t try to kill us, okay? We just wanna help.”

“Go away,” Sasuke finally rasped out between gasping breaths.

A brief silence descended, followed by whispered communication outside his room. “Well, you heard him, we should leave him alone”, and, “No! It’s not right, we can’t just leave him!”, countered with, “Then what do we do! Stick our heads in and let him stab us?!” More silence followed it, thick with thought. Finally, they seemed to reach a consensus.

“Sasuke-kun, it’s Sakura. Please, you know I would never hurt you. Can I come in? Just inside the doorway, I won’t come any closer without your permission.” She waited for a response, but none was forthcoming. Peeking around the door carefully, she glanced around the room. Her eyes passed over her teammate without seeing him the first time, before finally landing on the dark blob he made in the shadows.

“Sasuke-kun,” she sighed, heart aching for him. She took a slow, measured step into the room, ignoring Naruto’s hissed warning, then sat down, hands open in her lap in plain view of her dark-haired teammate. And she waited.

Naruto, antsy, stood in the doorway, shifting from foot to foot. His cheek was starting to sting. It felt like hours before Sasuke started to uncurl himself.

The Uchiha’s breathing wasn’t quite steady, but he was pretending that things were… normal. He couldn’t quite look either of his teammates in the eye though. “Why…” he rasped, then tried to swallow. His mouth was parched. Ignoring it, he continued. “Why are you here?” The words go away were unspoken but easily understood.

“Because we’re a team, teme,” Naruto replied, words gentler than usual. He scowled briefly. “Even if you tried to stab me in the face.”

Sakura whipped her head around to glare at Naruto -- not the time! -- but then she saw the slice across his cheek dripping blood onto his jacket collar. Oh. Ouch. It must have been deeper than it looked, based on the bleeding.

She turned back around to face Sasuke. “Because,” she responded carefully, “no one should have to go through that alone.” He dropped his head back down into his hands at her words.

“...I’m always alone,” came a muffled grumble.

Naruto frowned, painful understanding on his face. “Me too, teme. It sucks.”

Sakura took a deep, shuddering breath. “Same here.” Sasuke raised his head just enough to send a skeptical glance her way. Naruto looked at her askance, too. She colored up. “My... my parents are almost always away. There’s just the next door neighbor that checks on me every couple days and makes sure I’m eating enough.” Her tone started out defensive, but that faded to resignation.

The three let the silence linger, contemplating each other’s words.

Finally, Naruto walked into the room from the doorway, flopping belly-down on the floor between his teammates. “So... what now?”

Sasuke dragged his gaze upwards reluctantly, summoning enough energy to quirk a brow at Naruto.

He rolled his eyes, before sobering again. “Well, I mean… is there anything we can actually do to help? Now that we… know?”

Sasuke’s mood immediately blackened. “Why do you even care, Dead Last?” Great. Now the dobe knows. And with his big mouth… He felt sick.

Naruto clouded up, but there was understanding in his eyes behind the anger. “Because, teme, we’re a team. And to me, that means it’s us against the world. Don’t you get it? Or is your head so fat from getting fawned over by fangirls and kiss-ass jounin senseis that your brain doesn’t work anymore?”

A surge of anger shot through Sasuke, banishing the chill the flashback always brought him. He pulled his arm back to throw a punch at Naruto.

...Who sat there, watching him, totally vulnerable. Not moving to defend himself, just bracing himself for a blow.

Sasuke slugged Naruto’s shoulder, still hard enough to bruise. Why? Why would he do that, why would he trust me. I could hurt him. I did hurt him. The confusion must have shown on his face, but he hoped he managed to bury the sudden horror. I could have added one more ghost to this house.

Sakura watched the interaction, a bit perplexed, but relieved that the two didn’t seem about to kill each other. Boys are weird…

Naruto winced, rubbing his now-sore shoulder. “This team stuff is all or nothing, you know,” he told Sasuke quietly, his face serious. He looked at Sakura, including her in his final question. “Are you in?”

He gave them a minute to think about it before putting his hand out. “‘Cause I am, if you guys are.”

And Sakura realized what Naruto was really asking. Can I trust you guys? Will you let me trust you, and will you trust me in return?

Sakura swallowed down the lump in her throat. “All for one,” she said, voice wobbly as she placed her hand on top of Naruto’s.

Sasuke took a deep breath, unable to speak. He silently studied each teammate, as if seeing them for the first time. Naruto’s fierce determination and loyalty underneath the loudness and obnoxious orange. Sakura’s inner strength, her intelligence and compassion under the silliness. These two were nothing like his family. Nothing like… that man.

Maybe it was time to give them a real chance.

He added his hand to the pile.