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At the Feet of the Master Under the Tree

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Jiraiya is awoken before dawn's first light, the day after his chuunin promotion. It's Master Sarutobi, of course, looking as alert as he always does.

"Get up, boy," he says patiently, shaking him gently. "We have an appointment to keep."

After four years, Jiraiya knows better than to make even a token protest: he gets up, he shrugs into his shirt, and he obediently follows his teacher out of his house and into the misty streets of the village. He doesn't ask where they're going. Master Sarutobi will just give him a riddle of some kind or try to teach some kind of lesson, and it's too early for that. Orochimaru always figures out the answer, anyway. More and more, Jiraiya feels like Orochimaru is supposed to figure out the answer.

The eastern horizon is just starting to turn gray when Sarutobi enters the Senju household, nodding at the gate guard as they pass. Jiraiya looks around as they walk. He's only been in here a handful of times, and he's always amazed at how wealthy Tsunade's clan is. it's one thing to know your teammate is the heir to the clan that founded their village; it's another thing entirely to see her here, as comfortable in all this wealth and riches as she is among the muck and filth of the battlefield.

"Look sharp, boy," Master Sarutobi says quietly. Jiraiya straightens up and puts his best attempt at a solemn expression on his face. They turn a corner-

-and Jiraiya's breath catches in his throat. A woman is standing in the middle of the road, a lamp held high in her hand, a beautiful woman with robes like waves and hair like fire. Princess Tsunade's grandmother. The Lady Mito.

"You're late," she says flatly, and turns away.

Make one hundred perfect circles, she says,” Jiraiya mimics under his breath as he prepares his ink and wet his brush. “Like I haven’t done that before.”

It’s a test, of course, although what Master Sarutobi is playing at Jiraiya just can’t see. Jiraiya can’t figure out what Lady Mito’s part in all this is, either, although it probably has something to do with Tsunade, or maybe a favor owed. Everyone who is anyone seems to owe Master Sarutobi a favor or two, and he trades them back and forth as skillfully as any merchant.

Jiraiya thinks that is why Master Sarutobi is Hokage, although Orochimaru had just laughed derisively when he’d made the mistake of saying so out loud. The Hokage was the strongest ninja in the village, everyone knew that! Tsunade hadn’t said anything one way or another, but she’d looked thoughtful - and then she’d made them get up so she could practice unarmed combat against multiple attackers, and given them both a good couple of thumps in the meantime.

But enough lollygagging. Jiraiya is finally ready to begin. He takes the very first sheet of paper off the top of the stack that Lady Mito had provided, along with the rest of the supplies sequestered in this small, out-of-the-way room. No compass, of course, but that had always been implied in the task he’d been set: Seals were no use in battle if a shinobi had an unsteady eye or hand.

“I just passed the chuunin exam,” Jiraiya grumbles as he bent over that first sheet. “Shouldn’t I get at least one day off from more tests?”

He makes a perfect circle in one single movement, written in ink as dark as deep water.

"And the last of them," Lady Mito says, hand outstretched. Jiraiya begrudging hands over the final sheet of paper, his perfect circle still visible and defined on the translucent paper - but not for long. Lady Mito places one delicate fingertip in the exact center of the page, and three seconds later, the page combusts into less than ash.

Jiraiya could swear his circle had glowed blue right before that, though.

It's probably a trick of the light. Seals either worked, or they didn't, and Jiraiya's were very definitely in the latter category right now. He just can't understand why they're failing so catastrophically. The ink was good, the paper a little finer than what he was used to, and the brush rather ordinary - nothing had changed, but his seals are collapsing even worse than the day he'd first learnt them at age seven. Was he really so dependent on his own materials that a simple change would have such a great effect?

"Well?" Master Sarutobi asks impatiently from his position seated in the back corner. "Will he suffice?"

Jiraiya doesn't need to look back to know that his teacher is fidgeting. He's either stroking his goatee, or rolling the stem of his pipe in his hand; old-man habits, both of them, and if Tsunade saw Master Sarutobi doing it, she would mock him until he loses his temper and makes them all run laps. Lady Mito appears to have a similar opinion of nervous habits, for she turns a very quelling gaze onto that corner for an extremely long moment.

Finally, she speaks. "He'll do, Hiruzen. I'll send a servant by to pick up his belongings before the day is out. You can see yourself out, I'm sure; take Tsunade with you, she's been unforgivably self-satisfied since yesterday."

And almost as if he'd been waiting for her to say it, Master Sarutobi bows and rushes out, a slight smile on his face. His beard is mussed and awry; Tsunade is sure to give him hell when she sees him. And so Jiraiya finds himself staring dumbly at Lady Mito, utterly unsure of what was going on. Well, he has an idea of it, but the last time this had happened, Jiraiya had done far better in the eyes of the world. He hadn't completed 100 consecutive failures in a row, that was for damn sure!

Lady Mito just returns his gaze, just as impatient and abrupt as she'd been since the early morning meeting. "Well, don't just sit there gawping, boy," she says irritably. "I have work to do today, and where I have work, my apprentices most surely do as well."

Jiraiya gingerly gets to his feet, still taken aback. "Lady-" he begins, only to be cut off faster than a blade to the throat.

"Master Mito," the lady herself insists. "If you are to be my apprentice, you will call me Master Mito."

Never let it be said that Jiraiya cannot adjust to unexpected circumstances. He gathers his wits, bows as flawlessly as Master Sarutobi had taught him, and rises.

"Master Mito, what would you have me do?"