Categories > Anime/Manga > Naruto > ANBU3 Reviews
A new team of ANBU comes together.
Chapter 1: Metal Dogs
Sasuke woke abruptly and with the feeling that something was wrong.
He didn't move or even tense. His eyes drifted opened a fraction. Hidden by his lashes, the Sharingan slowly flickered into motion.
The blinds on the one window into the room had been broken for weeks, permanently closed with a few slats snapped near the top. A finger of weak sunshine poked through the gap, invading the poky apartment. Motes of dust danced in the shaft of light as if they had been recently disturbed.
Sasuke looked around slowly and discreetly without moving a muscle. The mask he'd found pinned to his door last night was lying on the kitchen table, undisturbed. The door was closed, and the alarm tag he'd stuck across the jamb was still in place.
There was no sense of presence...yet Sasuke felt somebody had been here just a few seconds before, and might still be here now. When you'd lived in Hidden Sound for nearly three years, you became hyper sensitive to stuff like that.
He pretended to wake up for the benefit of anyone watching, his hands empty of weapons as he faked a stretch. He didn't keep any blades near the bed; he didn't need them.
The room was the same as it had been when he'd gone to sleep last night, except for one addition. A chest, four feet by two, near Sasuke's small closet. It had all sorts of interesting seals on it. Burnt into the top was the loose open spiral of the ANBU.
They sure did like their little surprises and effects, didn't they? He wondered who'd been the operative to sneak into his room and drop off a chest while he slept. Sasuke hoped that person was on his team.
There was a small scroll placed on the lid. Sasuke padded over to the chest, picked up the scroll and scanned it quickly. Then he reread it more carefully, since it contained instructions on how to open the chest, and the consequences of getting it wrong would be unpleasant.
He placed his hand on the correct seal, waited three seconds, sent a small wave of chakra into the symbols and waited some more. He examined the seals curiously while he waited. He'd picked up quite a bit of information on seals in the past few years. If he were correct, these ones would adapt the chest to his handprint and chakra pattern. It would allow him to open it quickly the next time he had to, and fry anybody else who tried.
Finally there was a click and he felt a quiver under his fingers as the lid sprung open a fraction. On the lid, the symbols faded into the wood until there was only the faint trace of their presence in the flicker of his Sharingan.
Inside was what he expected; a uniform, a spare mask, several changes of clothes - speaking of clothes, how was he going to wash the bloodstains out? He didn't think the ANBU would appreciate him wandering over to the local laundromat with this stuff. It was either going to be a lot of work at the sink, or he'd have to spend his first ANBU salary on a washing machine. Too bad he couldn't access his family's residence or money...
He put the clothes back and examined the armour. Good craftsmanship; flexible but tough. Multi-layered to stop kunai, with a steel mesh inside to slow down a glancing sword blow. And speaking of swords...Sasuke lifted out the blade he found at the bottom of the box and drew it from the scabbard. Not a bad weapon, but nothing exceptional.
The scroll had also given him a time and a place for his induction into the ANBU. The coordinates were out in the middle of the woods; it wouldn't take him too long to get there, and it was three hours until the appointment. But if he left now, he could practice running in the uniform; it would take some time to get used to the unusual weight of a sword on his back and a mask on his face.
He grabbed a quick bite and put on the uniform, then examined the mask once again. It was light, made of metal, carefully built so that it would resist blows to the face. It had an inbuilt inner filter over the nose and mouth, providing some protection from poison gases. He was going to have to get used to breathing through that.
Sasuke ended up in front of the small, cracked mirror over the dresser. He'd hung a coat over it the very first day, but he removed it now.
The sixteen-year old who stared back at him was looking more like Itachi every day. Sasuke had stopped caring about that at some point during his stay in Sound. Yet one more lesson Orochimaru had taught him. When you have a goal, you don't burden yourself with non-essentials. You keep only the steel in your soul that's needed to strike down anything that stands in your path.
Sasuke slowly fitted the mask over the face that watched him in the mirror.
The steel dog now stared back at him, and nodded with approval.
There was somebody in the clearing when he arrived, ten minutes early for the appointment. Sasuke jumped down from the tree and approached the other openly. Presumably this was one of his new team-mates.
Male, around Sasuke's age from his build. The young man was wearing the stylized face of a hawk with two orange slashes similar to Sasuke's. He was leaning against a tree with his head tilted forward and his arms crossed over his chest. Sasuke had the feeling the other had been following his approach for awhile now.
They nodded at each other, and Sasuke dropped into a crouch on a fallen tree trunk nearby.
He examined the other discreetly. He wasn't sure if they would ever be introduced or not. Sasuke didn't know that much about the ANBU's inner workings, nobody did. He knew, because he'd been told during the interview, that he'd have to obey his squad leader to the letter. That he'd have to kill without compunction at his village's command. That he could tell no one what he was doing. That there would be a trial period before he was confirmed an ANBU and would receive the tattoo. He wasn't sure what other rules there were, but he had the feeling there were quite a lot and he'd be running into them soon.
...Something about this guy felt familiar. Sasuke hadn't mingled with anybody from the village since he'd come back, apart from some high-level ANBU and Jounin and those charming sessions with Ibiki. But this feeling of familiarity predated all that.
He was taller than Sasuke by a couple of inches; good build on the lanky side. His hair was blacker even than Sasuke's; it was clear of the mask, pulled back and falling to his shoulders where he'd tied it into a short braid that could be slipped into his collar if need be, to avoid giving an enemy something to grab onto.
His uniform was identical to Sasuke's, but for one exception. His long gloves went up to the forearm, but they stopped at the wrist, and he wore no wrist-guards. His fingers were long, strong yet still looked delicate. There were bandages wrapped around his knuckles to give him some minimal protection, but it didn't look like he ever expected to throw a punch.
A name floated up from Sasuke's past.
Neji - Sasuke was almost sure it was him - hadn't bothered giving Sasuke more than a glance, which would probably be enough for him to guess the Uchiha's identity. Despite Sasuke's best efforts, the bloody hair just didn't settle down, and the ties of the mask forced it up even more into its usual crest. He wondered if the squad leader would make him cut it. He hoped not. If it didn't stick out like it did, it would make him look even more like Itachi. Non-essentials be damned, he didn't particularly want to see a copy of his brother's face every time he brushed his teeth.
Sasuke wasn't sure what they said about him in the village, among those Shinobi who even knew he'd returned. It probably wasn't good. If it bothered Neji to be on his team, there was no indication from the other's stance.
The silence stretched, uncaring, between the two as they waited.
Sasuke frowned beneath the mask and glanced at the sun, barely visible through the forest canopy.
"They're late," his companion confirmed, as if Sasuke had mentioned the time out loud. The voice was deeper than he remembered, a bit blurred by the mask, but the tone of uncaring calm was exactly the same. Definitely Neji.
Sasuke said nothing. It was getting on to thirty minutes after the rendezvous time. He might have thought he'd made a mistake on the coordinates, but Neji was here too.
"This doesn't surprise me from our third new member," Neji commented enigmatically. "But I'm rather puzzled that our cell leader chose this of all days to be..."
He trailed off, probably struck by the exact same thought as Sasuke.
They stared at each other for a few seconds. Waiting for the other to speculate first.
"Yo. Sorry I'm late."
Neji glanced up in the direction of the new arrival, but Sasuke didn't turn around, merely closed his eyes briefly.
Why did it have to be him? The squad commander had to be a high-level Jounin with experience, certainly, but why him?
This is bad, Sasuke thought, remembering the last time he'd seen Hatake Kakashi.
No, the steel in Sasuke's soul corrected him coldly. This is good. He can teach me a lot. This is exactly what I needed.
He stepped off of the tree trunk and turned to face his one-time mentor. Despite expecting it intellectually, he still felt a little startled at seeing Kakashi, because the man looked at once so familiar, with his bushy grey-white hair and his relaxed stance, and also so alien, with the ANBU mask and uniform. And without those books he always used to read- what was the name again? Paradise something. Maybe he'd finally outgrown them. Yeah, like that would happen. This man took 'weird' to a whole new level, and Sasuke had never figured out how much was camouflage and how much was, well, just plain weird.
He wore a dog mask too, Sasuke noted with surprise. Their masks were sufficiently different to distinguish them; Kakashi's had a few more orange and black streaks on his. There was something about the patina of the metal that spoke of previous service.
Kakashi, hands in his pockets, had glanced over the two ANBU and was now looking around the clearing.
"He's not here," Neji supplied.
"Oh..." Kakashi said vaguely.
So the fourth member of the cell was also a guy. Good. Offhand, Sasuke couldn't recall any young female in Leaf who could keep pace with this team, the way it was shaping up.
"May I ask a question?" he asked, not sure what the formalities were.
"That's pretty much what we're here for," Kakashi answered, his gaze wandering back from the clearing towards Sasuke. "This is your induction into the ANBU."
Sasuke glanced briefly at the man he was supposing was Neji. If Kakashi answered his question, it would confirm the other's identity, and Sasuke wondered if this was allowed. The thought didn't stop him.
"Why do we have two Sharingan and the Byakugan on the same team? That's redundant. Shouldn't these abilities be spread out among several groups?"
There was a slight, condescending mutter of 'Redundant?' from Neji, who apparently didn't consider the Sharingan to be on the same level as his own talent. Sasuke vaguely recalled some inter-family politics between the two related clans, the Hyuga and the Uchiha, which, even before he'd gone over to Orochimaru, had left Sasuke utterly indifferent.
"ANBU cells are flexible," Kakashi answered. "We might eventually get solo tasks, or be individually borrowed by other teams. But when we work together...let's just say, this team has a purpose."
A purpose? A purpose that would require two extremely high-level blood limit abilities? The two top rookies of their respective years and Copy-Nin Kakashi as well? Sounded hard. Sounded dangerous. Sounded exactly what Sasuke had signed up for.
"So who's our last member?" Sasuke asked, then waved aside the mistake in the question. No names; that was another rule they'd given him. "I mean, what ability does he have?" What ability could slot into what was already gathered here?
Kakashi's dog-faced mask had turned towards the north. Sasuke realized someone was coming. Very fast, and not as discreetly as he and Kakashi had shown up. Not crashing through the forest exactly, but with speed rather than stealth as primary concern. Considering he was over half an hour late, that was no wonder.
There was a rustle of branches, a short fall of leaves, and their last member landed near them in a crouch.
"Sorry I'm late!"
The silence in the clearing was so complete, you could hear the last few leaves touch the ground in a circle around the late arrival.
The fourth ANBU straightened up and adjusted his mask self-consciously.
"Our last member," Kakashi finally said, his voice a bit weak, "has the ability to always come up with surprises. Na- you there. What the hell are you wearing?"
Sasuke resisted the urge to tear off his mask and pound his head against the nearest tree. Kakashi's presence in his team could be explained. But who in their right mind would make Naruto an ANBU?!
Naruto's uniform was the same as theirs; it was the mask that was causing some confusion. It wasn't an animal mask, and from the looks of it, it was made of papier-mÃ¢chÃ© instead of metal. It was one of those festival masks, with googly eyes and a mouth that twisted upwards into a goofy grimace. His yellow mop stuck out behind the thing at all sorts of angles.
"What happened to the mask you were supplied with?" Kakashi asked slowly. He sounded ready for just about any kind of answer, like most people who'd known Naruto a long time.
"Didn't fit. This works. It hides my face and it's white and all," Naruto said abruptly, as if he didn't see what the problem was.
This was weird even by Naruto's usual standards, and if Sasuke wasn't feeling so off-kilter, he'd have wondered exactly what was behind it, but at this point he was just trying to get back onto firm ground.
Naruto didn't belong in the ANBU. The very idea was ludicrous. What the hell was Tsunade thinking?
"Right..." Sasuke thought Kakashi sounded just a bit off balance as well, but the Jounin recovered his usual laidback aplomb pretty quickly. "Gather around."
Neji shoved himself away from his tree and approached Kakashi who'd unslung his pack and was rooting around it. Naruto walked over as well, his shoulders still rigid as if expecting further negative comments. He didn't glance in Sasuke's direction, but he drew level with him, about three feet apart.
They hadn't seen each other in almost a year, and for three years before that, and then the parting had hardly been pleasant. Sasuke couldn't begin to imagine what Naruto was thinking. The air between them was almost solid with unanswered questions and tension.
This is bad, Sasuke thought. This is a distraction I do not need.
"Okay, let's get this started," Kakashi said, straightening up. He held out three ribbons of different colours, orange, blue and green. "First, I need you guys to wear these on your person for twenty four hours or more. Give them back to me next time we meet."
That announcement got the same kind of reception as Naruto's mask.
"Please tell me this is for your mutts, and not because you want to put bows around our necks?" Naruto finally said, taking the orange band reluctantly.
Mutts? Oh, right. Kakashi's dogs. Scent marking. Sasuke picked out the blue one with resignation. It'd be a way of finding a scattered team, he supposed.
"Next," Kakashi continued without answering Naruto's question. The Jounin sounded pretty cheerful, at odds with the cold mask on his face. "Your codenames. You're Hawk-" pointing at Neji. "Orange Hawk for other teams, to distinguish you from anybody else with a similar animal mask."
"The names are always based on the masks?" Naruto interrupted, and there was something strange in his voice; something tight and controlled.
"Yes," Kakashi answered. He didn't ask Naruto about his mask again.
Naruto put his hands behind his head, body relaxing. "And how are you and Sa- and this other dog-faced guy gonna manage?" he asked, voice loud. "We can't both call you Dog."
"Easy," Kakashi murmured lazily. "For you bunch of rookies, I'm going to be Big Dog. And you can call him Puppy."
Maybe Kakashi's still a bit cross with me after all this time, Sasuke mused ironically to himself.
Naruto burst out laughing.
"And you're Joker," Kakashi concluded.
Naruto's laughter ended in indignant protests, which Kakashi ignored.
"We'll be training for a few days, up until our first mission," Kakashi announced brightly with a wide gesture at the woods around them. "That's when we'll see if this team's a go or not. If we are, you get your tattoo and your final commission. Until then, if you want to get reassigned to a new team, or quit the ANBU altogether, it's your right."
Change teams...? Sasuke wasn't going to take the chance the ANBU might change their mind about him if he got picky; besides, it was to his advantage to team up with a Sharingan-user of Kakashi's calibre. Neji he didn't care about one way or another. But he found his gaze trailing towards Naruto...
"What kind of training?" Neji asked quietly.
"Ah, I'm glad you asked," Kakashi answered. His hand flickered and reappeared with something familiar dangling from his fingers. "I have here two bells."
"You have to be bloody kidding me," Naruto said.
"Yes. I am."
The three young men froze.
Kakashi's voice had gone beyond cold. It sounded like it had come directly from the metal mask. His fist slowly closed on the bells. A press of fingers and two twisted pieces of metal fell to the forest floor.
"You have accepted to become ANBU. If a Shinobi is a tool for his village, you are its weapons. We're a cell; we have to know each other's fighting styles and habits in and out, so that we can compensate for our weaknesses and be more than the sum of our parts. But when it comes down to the line, duty will be more important than teamwork. The mission takes priority over your teammates. Each of us has to learn to fight alone."
Sasuke blinked and turned to stare at Naruto. Naruto had had the same reaction, and the stupid mask was staring right back at Sasuke. It was such an automatic reflex, as if they were still kids in Team 7, who couldn't quite believe what their sensei had just said.
They both looked away almost immediately; they weren't kids, this wasn't Team 7, there was a lot of not-so-pretty history between them. But that instant had happened, and Sasuke felt it like a crack in the metal of his soul. He shouldn't be teaming with Naruto.
"That's a change of tune," Naruto finally said, throwing out what Sasuke was thinking. Did Neji know Kakashi well enough to realize what a departure from character this was...?
"Yes, it is." Kakashi's voice still sounded distant. "But it's the way we operate in the ANBU. The missions cannot fail. If one falls, the others carry on. We use our teammates for strength, but we do not rely on them, and we do not return for them if they fall. Only make sure the body disappears. I suggest you think about this during our training together. Once the missions start, you'll have to live and die by it."
Four years ago, Kakashi's words about teamwork had been an imposition on Sasuke. Acknowledging the need for others was an imposition.
Now, Kakashi's words were exactly what Sasuke believed and what he wanted to hear. This was what he'd joined the ANBU for.
But far in the back of his mind, a twelve-year-old who'd despised Kakashi the first time around was still mildly shocked.
He wondered what it cost Kakashi to say these things now. Why was he returning to the ANBU? Sasuke hadn't paid much attention to his former teammates - in fact, he'd aggressively resisted any efforts made to update him on their status. But he sort of knew that Sakura was now working directly for Tsunade, and Naruto had passed his Chuunin exam and could take solo missions or join another team. Kakashi should be in charge of a new bunch of Genin by now.
"Okay!" Kakashi clapped his hands together, making the three ANBU rookies start. "Let's start training before I die of old age."
He was talking in that casual drawl again, back to his usual self as if he'd lazily flicked a switch and put the cold killer who'd spoken previously back into his weapon holster. Oh yeah, Kakashi hadn't changed a damn.
"...Is that it? For the induction?" Neji asked, sounding a bit less self-assured than before.
"Yeah, that's about it." Kakashi scratched his head as if thinking about it. "I gave you your codenames, I told you what we'll be doing for the next few days...did I forget anything?"
"Weren't you supposed to tell us about the rules we have to follow?"
"Rules?" Kakashi made a motion of tossing something over his shoulder. "Just use your common sense."
The set of Neji's shoulders spoke of perplexity as he muttered "Okay."
"Don't worry. If you actually break any serious rules, I'll fall on you like a ton of bricks," Kakashi added helpfully.
Sasuke felt a prickle of sympathy for Neji, who'd presumably never run headfirst into Kakashi-logic before. Kakashi was the headmaster of the school of hard knocks. He taught his charges by tossing them into the jaws of challenges that would make them stronger, sometimes rather painfully. Sasuke, a bit more used to that brand of logic, started considering the little he knew about the ANBU, and deducing the rules he should follow from that. He was sure Kakashi would tell them anything really important they should know, when it was time for them to know it; the rest of it would be common sense. If Sasuke couldn't use that, he would be very little use to Kakashi as an operative.
"We don't have much time today, but let's start with a little one-on-one," Kakashi continued blithely. "A quick introduction to each other's fighting styles. Hawk, Joker, you two start. Puppy and I will watch. Hawk, don't injure your team-mate."
"Hey! I'm the one who kicked his ass four years ago!"
"Okay, let me rephrase that. Joker, don't injure your team-mate. Hawk, don't do anything too serious to Joker's chakra points, we don't have the time for any lengthy hospital stays."
Naruto, still grumbling, took up a stance on the other side of the clearing to Neji. The latter held out one hand before him, fingers loose, knees slightly bent, and waited.
Sasuke stepped up to Kakashi's side, his mind on his own agenda. There was no way that he and Naruto could form anything like a stable team. That was self-evident. He wasn't going to bother to try to persuade Naruto of this, though, because Naruto would probably disagree out of principle - which would rather prove the point, without, however, getting them anywhere. But the bonehead would certainly listen to 'Kakashi-sensei'. Kakashi should be able to talk some sense into him.
"Hah, this brings back memories," Naruto snickered, moving slowly to Neji's left in the clearing. "You still got that handy blind spot behind you, Ne-damn, I can't get used to these bloody names. Hawk?"
"Find out. Joker."
Sasuke hesitated, half turned towards Kakashi. It wasn't the words that caught his attention, it was the tone. For all it sounded like fighting talk, there was an undercurrent of familiarity and warmth here. Not quite friendship, yet somehow deeper as well, a mutual recognition. Had Naruto and Neji teamed up before today?
"I won't attack you with my clones," Naruto declared. He was swaying back and forth on the balls of his feet now, and Sasuke felt he wasn't being as casual about this as he sounded. "If you can't use your Gentle Fist to the max, I'll tie one of my own hands behind my back too."
"Good," Neji said indifferently - yet still Sasuke had the feeling this was something of a game. "Your clones are as noisy as you are."
Naruto snickered savagely and his hand flashed.
Neji managed to actually look contemptuous without any facial expressions being visible as he dodged the three shuriken. He spun on one foot like a dancer, as if he already knew where Naruto's next attack would come from- Byakugan, Sasuke reminded himself. Naruto's strike made a whiffle noise as it brushed by Neji's shoulder. The follow-through blow did the same as Neji turned on himself once more, as if he had all the time in the world. Naruto was fast, but Neji made him look like he was flailing through molasses.
Naruto fell back. "If you're gonna do nothing but dodge, this is going to get boring, fast," he growled.
Neji didn't say anything; he merely took three steps back, slowly.
Naruto shot at him, the forest loam ploughing beneath his sandals as he picked up speed over the few feet separating them.
Neji leaned back under the blow, falling into a graceful back flip. One knee blocked Naruto's downward strike hammering into his belly- how had Naruto known Neji would move like that? The other leg caught Naruto in the crook of the arm. Neji used the leverage of his body flipping over to send Naruto tumbling into a tree.
Naruto caught himself feet-first against the trunk and he was back in the fray in a second, leg's scything towards Neji's as the latter was still getting his balance back. Neji dodged, but he was in the defensive now, and Naruto was there once more, in his face.
Sasuke had never seen Neji fight in person, but he knew the Hyuga's techniques; Kabuto's spy work had been very thorough, particularly where it concerned the cream of Konoha's rookie crop. While he was with Orochimaru, Sasuke had seen grainy videos of some of Neji's fights, particularly the elimination trials for Neji's Chuunin and Jounin exams. Sasuke had studied those videos carefully, because this young man with the curiously fluid and elegant fighting style might just end up being Orochimaru's - and thus Sasuke's - opponent one day.
Now Neji was a team-mate, his abilities of even more immediate concern to Sasuke, but the latter had another axe to grind.
"Ka-" no, he had to use those stupid codenames. But he was damned if he was going to call Kakashi 'Big Dog' until he was absolutely forced to. "...Sir?"
"Look, Joker over there shouldn't be in the ANBU. He probably applied just because he somehow heard I was joining; he still thinks we have this stupid rivalry thing going on. But I can't imagine why you people let him-"
"You shouldn't underestimate him," Kakashi said, his eyes on the fight.
Sasuke was silent for a long minute - in the clearing, Naruto had lost the advantage again, and was trying to get out of Neji's range to recoup. He leapt back into a tree, tumbled over a large branch, landed in a crouch on the side of the tree-trunk, and propelled himself sideways, trying to catch that fluid body.
"Underestimate him?" Sasuke finally whispered, keeping his voice level with some effort. "You think I underestimate him?"
He turned fully towards Kakashi, his fists clenched at his side.
"A year ago, I saw him take down Orochimaru despite all the old snake's jutsus and power and knowledge. I saw his chakra burn like the sun. I saw him nearly die and then get up again and fight on until he'd pounded Orochimaru into the dirt and you think I underestimate him?!"
The sounds of blows and breaking wood nearby covered the last few words that had risen in volume despite Sasuke's efforts to keep his voice down.
Kakashi slowly turned his head to look at him.
"You should be happy he's on your side," the Jounin pointed out neutrally, without saying whether he was talking about the events of a year ago or now.
"I saw him destroy one of the three Sannin. I saw him break Orochimaru's right arm in three places. He battled that bastard to a standstill...but he stopped short of killing him. He tried to bargain with the snake. He was going to let him live if Orochimaru promised he'd never bother Konoha again. Promised! Naruto's never killed anyone in his life, he has no idea how to. Orochimaru was a second away from destroying him, and Naruto was still trying to persuade him to surrender. Naruto has no business being an ANBU."
Naruto and Neji were back in the clearing. There'd been no words exchanged, but they seemed to have fallen by common agreement into a match of short-range blow and counter-blow. Naruto was outclassed in that kind of fight against Neji, but as Neji's hands flickered through his defence, giving him some hard slaps and punches, Naruto laughed.
"That you know of."
Sasuke frowned in bewilderment, trying to make sense of Kakashi's answer. "...What?"
"Somewhere in that long drivel about a young man you nearly killed four years ago and then haven't really spoken to since, was the remark that he'd never killed anybody. That you know of."
Sasuke stared at the cold metal profile.
"You mean he has-..." For some reason, Sasuke refused to believe that. Kakashi could lie without actually saying anything downright untruthful. "Has he actually killed anybody? If he has, why would he have gone about bargaining with Oro-"
"Maybe you should ask him."
Kakashi's voice was its usual bored drawl, but there was a steel edge to it. Sasuke realized two things. One, Kakashi would not help Sasuke dissuade Naruto from doing this. And two, Kakashi hadn't forgotten on what terms they'd parted, or that Sasuke had nearly killed Naruto on his quest for power.
Sasuke turned back to the fight again, crossing his arms over his chest. Fine. He didn't require Kakashi's friendship, as long as they could work together. As for Naruto...
"Okay, give it a break," Kakashi shouted.
The two duellists fell apart, panting. Sasuke knew the mask affected your breathing, he'd felt its impact during his run around the woods earlier. He was going to have to get used to it quickly.
"There's water in my backpack. Start learning the art of drinking without showing too much of your face," Kakashi announced with the happy, mildly sadistic cheer his ex-pupils were familiar with. "Puppy and I are going to take a turn now."
Sasuke was getting very tired of 'Puppy' already. It wasn't just the name, it was the way Kakashi said it. He stalked over to one side of the clearing, and realized his path was going to cross Naruto's.
"Good luck," Naruto whispered as he passed, and the words were an odd mix of honest and sarcastic, as if Naruto himself couldn't quite decide how he'd meant them. Sasuke ignored him.
The two metal dogs measured each other across the ten feet of space between them. Sasuke came up to Kakashi's chin now; he remembered a time he'd not made it past his chest.
He remembered how he'd attacked Kakashi back then, eager to prove himself, to test himself. Kakashi had quite literally hammered him into the ground. It was to be expected. He'd been so very young.
The two circled each other slowly. Kakashi was weighing him, he thought.
"So...why did you get back into the ANBU?" Sasuke asked, watching his old mentor carefully.
"I have my reasons," Kakashi said blandly.
"I can imagine."
Sasuke moved closer, his Sharingan flickering to life as he tracked every twitch of Kakashi's body, particularly his hands.
"They asked you to. They want you to observe me while I fight. They want you to copy and relay to them all the jutsus I learned with Orochimaru."
Kakashi wasn't making any move to attack, waiting for Sasuke to throw himself forward like a brash, arrogant kid.
"Am I right? Big Dog?" Sasuke asked, coming to a halt five feet away.
"You assume they tell me these things." He could almost hear the grin in Kakashi's voice as the latter shrugged widely, looking utterly harmless. "It does sound like a valid reason, don't you think?"
There was some noise of impatience off to the sideline, Naruto grumbling about starting already.
"Did you learn some nice tricks with Orochimaru?" Kakashi asked, his voice disinterested.
"Many. He knew it kept me in line, and besides, he wanted me to be able to defend myself, and develop my chakra pathways to the maximum extent of my physiology before he took over my body. I've studied jutsus that Konoha has never even heard of. But the one thing I learned above all is not something you can copy with a Sharingan."
"...Oh?" He'd piqued Kakashi's interest, even as the Copy-nin moved a bit, leaving his flank temptingly open to an attack to lure Sasuke in. "And what was that?"
"Patience," Sasuke whispered.
The air between them had turned to razor wire as each Sharingan-user watched and waited for the other's move, measuring every minute shift of stance, anticipating each strike, preparing each parry. Naruto had fallen abruptly silent, perhaps realizing that, contrary to appearances, the battle had in fact already begun.
"Sounds like he was a better educator than I ever was, then," Kakashi said softly.
Before Sasuke could make sense of that, or analyze the faint trace of emotion behind the words, his body was jerking into a parry.
The attack slammed into his crossed wrists, sending him sliding back a few inches over the forest floor. The bones of his arms felt like they were ringing like cymbals, but Sasuke was already reacting, years of arduous training coming to the fore. His arms, still crossed at the wrist, shot forward to capture and hold Kakashi's fist, while his balance shifted for a kick-
He grabbed nothing but air. Kakashi was three feet away and well out of range. How the fuck did he do that?! Guess the old dog still has some tricks...
Sasuke lunged forward, his body still on automatic, ready to press his momentary advantage. Fingers blurring through seals-
He skidded to a stop as he realized Kakashi had one hand held out in a 'Hold it' gesture. His sandals dug into the soft ground of the clearing to stop before ploughing right into his old teacher.
"Sorry, Puppy, time's up."
Sasuke glanced in the direction of Kakashi's nod of greeting.
There was a tall shape beneath a tree on one side of the clearing. A long dark overcoat was draped over ANBU armour; a white, faceless mask with slits for eyes, a dark bandana over his head.
Sasuke had never seen that moon-like mask before, but the way his gut clenched, he knew who it was, who it had to be.
"What does he want with me?!" he hissed, bile rising to his throat. "I came here, like I was ordered to-"
Kakashi's hand touched him lightly on the shoulder, making him start.
"He only wants to talk to you," Kakashi said, voice neutral. "Regulations."
The touch on his shoulder was so brief, Sasuke almost wondered if he'd imagined it. Kakashi was now a few paces away and talking to the other two.
"That's the induction thingie done. Clear out. Meet me here in two days, same place, same time. We'll do some serious training."
"Who's that?" Sasuke heard Naruto ask.
"None of your business. Come on, move out."
"Shouldn't we wait for Sa- Puppy?"
"No. We don't move back into town as a group to start with, and you have to be careful to-..."
Kakashi's attempt to explain 'discreet' to Naruto faded as Sasuke walked toward the figure. Morino Ibiki turned and moved away from the clearing, and Sasuke followed.
They walked on until they reached a thicker part of the forest. Then Ibiki turned and lifted his pristine mask away from his ruined face, an incongruous contrast. Sasuke obeyed the unspoken order and took off his own mask as well.
Ibiki looked him over calmly, then nodded.
"How are you doing, Sasuke?"
Sasuke remembered being shackled to a chair in the middle of a complex pattern of symbols carved into the floor, a five-pole seal for a complex Genjutsu with one of Ibiki's masked men at each pole, and Ibiki himself standing over him, saying 'How are you doing, Sasuke? I need to ask you some more questions, I'm afraid.'
"Did your cell leader give you the rules you have to follow?" Ibiki asked.
Ibiki's scarred face creased with amusement. "Of course he didn't, who am I kidding. You'll figure them out. Get him to tell you if you have any doubts, okay?"
"...What is this about?" Sasuke asked, his throat dry.
- They'd stuck long acupuncture needles into his jaw and larynx to paralyze his vocal cords so that he wouldn't damage them when he screamed. The memory was sudden and sharp, as if he could still feel the pinpricks and Ibiki's oddly gentle fingers steadying his chin. That was all that remained of those sessions: flashes and the occasional nightmare. The exact memory of what he'd been through had been erased as soon as the Genjutsus that were testing his veracity and his motivations were done tearing at his mind. As Ibiki had explained, the interrogators had no interest in breaking Sasuke; they only needed to be sure of him.
The fact that he was still alive was testimony enough that what they'd seen in his mind was convincing. He'd received a conditional pardon, an assigned place to live, and now, a new job.
Sasuke might not remember much about the Genjutsus they'd used on him, but his body could. He was standing at attention with his wrists crossed behind his back so that Ibiki couldn't see that his hands were shaking slightly.
Ibiki had asked him, after the last session, if Sasuke would resent the interrogator for all this. He'd asked the question as if this was a regrettable by-product of his job, and one that didn't really bother him all that much.
Sasuke had said no. It had been his choice to join Orochimaru. His choice to betray his friends and Konoha. Ibiki was doing his job, making sure Sasuke meant to stay this time. Besides, it was a good preparation for facing Itachi.
Ibiki had looked mildly disturbed at that. But it was hard to say if that was what he truly felt, or if it was just one more tool to dig the truth out of Sasuke's mind.
"We need to discuss the terms of your parole," Ibiki said, bringing Sasuke back to the present.
Sasuke nodded once, indicating he was listening.
Ibiki did him the favour of not mucking around or wrapping his terms in needless fluff and verbiage.
"The only time you are allowed to leave the village is with your team or to meet your team. Even on a mission, you're not to go anywhere without one of your team-mates, except under Kakashi's direct and express order. If you get separated from your team, or once you've finished the solo task your leader assigned to you, you are to make it back to Kakashi or to Konoha without any delay. I repeat; without any delay."
"Even if that compromises the team's overall mission?" Sasuke's voice was completely neutral.
"You are in a special position in the ANBU. Let us say that, because of this requirement, yours is more a support role. The others will be in charge of finishing the mission if there's a problem. You are in charge of convincing me that you're not a loose cannon anymore."
"For how long?" Sasuke asked tightly.
"For as long as I say so."
"Your life is about to get very busy. We're hoping that Orange squad is going to shape up into one of our main strike teams. You will be either training or on all sorts of missions. However busy you are, you will report to Kakashi, Shizune or myself every twenty-four hours. Even on a mission. Especially on a mission. Kakashi knows this too; he'll make sure you have the opportunity to get back to him to check in. Do not be late."
Ibiki didn't add an Or Else. He didn't need to.
"You are to tell Kakashi or myself everything that's going on in your life. I mean absolutely everything. If Kakashi asks you what you had for breakfast, you better have that menu ready. You will be under surveillance. Don't let us catch you telling a lie."
"I very much doubt my life outside missions will be that interesting, but if you want to waste the resources, sure," Sasuke murmured with an indifferent shrug.
Sasuke stared at a clump of moss hanging from a tree over Ibiki's shoulder.
"If you hear anything about him, or spot his trail in any way, you are not to go after him. You are to break off everything you are doing and return to Kakashi or Konoha, whichever is closest, and raise the alarm."
Sasuke could feel Ibiki's gaze on him while he stared straight ahead.
"I can't threaten you on this, Sasuke. But I don't need to. Do I?"
Slowly, Sasuke shook his head. It was harder than he thought it would be. But the steel in his soul felt tempered by the effort. He was the arrow; he existed only on his path between two points. Whatever the means. Whatever the means...
"Good. Do you have any questions?"
Sasuke shook his head again.
"Come and find me if you do. Or Kakashi."
Ibiki turned and started to head back the way they'd come.
Sasuke sorted the words out in his head as Ibiki glanced back at him.
"Uzumaki Naruto. I don't think we should be on the same team. There's bad blood between us. We'll be at each other's throats constantly. Since you want Kakashi to watch over me, you should move Naruto to another squad." One that wasn't going to be the main strike team of the village. If Naruto were killed on some random mission, Itachi would never come near Konoha again.
"Ah." Ibiki faced him, hands in his pockets, looking at him as if he could see right through Sasuke. "Maybe we have a problem then. It's true that I want you and Kakashi on the same team. But it is imperative that Naruto be on the same team as Kakashi as well."
"Why?" Sasuke asked sharply.
"There are only two ways you will not be on Uzumaki's team. Either you or he quit the ANBU. As for bad blood...I'm puzzled," Ibiki continued with that half-smile of his carved onto his scarred face. "Where would that bad blood be? In the way Naruto looked for you for three years and went through half of Akatsuki and Sound to get you?"
Sasuke drew a breath to elaborate on stubborn boneheads who couldn't let a thing go-
"Or was this 'bad blood' manifest when you killed Orochimaru to save Naruto's life?" Ibiki continued.
Behind Sasuke's back, his right fist clenched hard enough for his nails to score his skin through the glove.
"That means nothing. It was a dumb reflex," he stated harshly. "It was!" he added, though Ibiki hadn't said anything. "It was two months before Orochimaru was going to do the body transfer, I had no free will left by that time. He wasn't going to take a chance I'd run for it. When Naruto pounded him like that, his control slipped minutely and my body reacted on its own, striking at the source of the restraining jutsu."
"I'm sure I've told you this before in circumstances under which I couldn't lie," Sasuke pointed out coldly.
"A reflex that put your fist right through his chest."
"A reflex that saved your life as well as Uzumaki's, then, because it certainly tipped the Hokage's decision in your favour. Maybe you should cultivate those reflexes. I gave you your parole conditions and your options. Your choice."
Then Ibiki was gone.
Sasuke stared for a long time at the trees and the sunshine filtering down through the leaves. He drew his right hand from behind his back and unclenched the fingers.
"Dumb reflex," he muttered.
We'll be getting a few more details of what happened exactly with Orochimaru etc.
Unlike most of my other fics, I only have the faintest idea where I'm going with this; I have the next chapter written out in my head, and a few scenes and missions, but it's extremely open-ended. It's different for me, a bit liberating, a bit scary too :P We'll see how it goes. Don't know when next chapter will be out, probably some time. This is going to be a slow fic, but there should be no cliffhangers between chapters, so that shouldn't be too bad ^_^