Sandaime Year 26, four years before the Kyuubi
Everyone knew that Hatake Kakashi had been placed on a team of one when he graduated from the Academy. Ryouma didn’t see why they couldn’t do the same for him.
“Because you’re a thirteen-year-old hooligan, not a seven-year-old prodigy, and no one volunteered,” Naoto-sensei said unsympathetically. She’d kept him after on the last day of class to make him clean the new team assignments off the blackboards; he reached higher than she did, these days, or any of the Academy teachers except Himura-sensei. She’d stayed because, she said, someone had to make sure he didn’t write dirty things on them afterwards.
Since most of the things Ryouma knew how to write were dirty, she had a valid point.
“I heard his mother actually made it a condition of his graduation,” she added. “Himura-sensei said there was a fight about it, in front of the Hokage!”
Ryouma looked over his shoulder. “You heard? Weren’t you there?”
“Four years ago,” Naoto-sensei said. “I wasn’t teaching then.” She rubbed her thigh, and made a face.
Everyone in the Academy knew why she hadn’t been teaching then, and why she was now. She didn’t tell stories of her time on the front lines, but Himura-sensei said she’d made a name for herself before she was sixteen: she’d have made jounin at seventeen, if she hadn’t traded her leg for her teammate’s life. Ryouma said, “I thought you’d been teaching forever. Maybe since the Sannin.”
She threw a pen at him; he ducked, scooped it up on its clattering rebound off the backboard, and tucked it in his pocket. “Brat,” she said, but she was smiling faintly. “How old do you think I am?”
“Forty,” Ryouma lied recklessly. She wrinkled her nose at him, and he added, “Maybe a really well-preserved fifty-three.”
“Your new sensei is going to murder you in your sleep, and I’ll testify at her court-martial,” Naoto-sensei said. “Provocation beyond what mortals may bear. She’ll get off on self-defense.”
“My new sensei is a woman?” Ryouma demanded.
“Ugh,” Naoto-sensei said, and put her hands over her eyes. “I don’t suppose you can forget I said that?”
“I take bribes in kisses and chocolate,” Ryouma informed her.
“You’ll take it in ten laps around the training field,” Naoto-sensei said firmly. “We’ve talked about this, Ryouma-kun. Don’t say things like that to your new sensei, either.”
“Why?” Ryouma swept the last speck of chalk-dust out of the frame and began to clean his hands with the edges of the rag. Ten laps wasn’t much; he’d still make it to the team meeting in time. “Think she’d take me up on it?”
Naoto-sensei pinched the bridge of her nose. “Ten-year-olds are so much easier.”
Ryouma didn’t think he’d been any easier when he was ten, three and a half years ago, but he hadn’t been in Konoha then. He pitched the rag in with the rest of the cleaning supplies and stooped to pick up the box. Naoto-sensei slipped off her stool and limped over to unlock the closet for him. The box went on the second shelf from the bottom, but he stood on his toes and slotted it in at the very top, higher than any ten-year-old could ever reach.
“Thank you for proving my point,” Naoto-sensei said drily. “Now take it down.”
“Admit it,” Ryouma said. “You’ll miss me, sensei.”
“I’ll offer incense every week in gratitude to be rid of you,” she said heartlessly. “You’ll be Hitomi-sensei’s problem this afternoon, not mine. I should send her a bottle of migraine medication.”
And now he had a name. He pulled the box down, and smiled at her. “I’ll send you my first battlefield trophy, sensei. Would ears be enough? Or do you want the whole head?”
She sighed, and leaned against the closet door. He didn’t think she could be any older than twenty-five, assuming a year or two of rehab before she took up teaching, but there were harsh lines bracketing her mouth and winging her eyes, and she looked very tired.
She said, “Just don’t lose yours.”