Watanabe Ichigo enters the Konoha Academy of Shinobi Arts at five years old. A year later, at six, he graduates, and becomes an official Konoha Genin.
They say he’s a prodigy, that he’s going to do the same great things as Hatake Kakashi.
(Never Itachi, not for the man who slaughtered his clan and joined a terrorist organization.)
(No one cared for all the good the man had tried to do, for the love of his village.)
Sai though, Sai could see beneath it. One could say, for all his time never being able to feel emotions or read a room, he learned quite well into his adult years, how to read people.
Yes, Sai could see it, a talented boy with the most basic knowledge of chakra control grasped down and shinobi arts. A mind eager to learn and to fill his (mostly) empty head with knowledge.
But Sai could see beneath that. How he flinched when someone raised their voices near him, how he instinctively backed away from adults, especially men.
The loud voices of opposition whenever someone called Ichigo a child, despite the obvious.
He learned of that after Sai got his genin team, after he met them all officially and was learning about their likes and dislikes.
Taki Hisao, age twelve, lived for sneaking into movie theaters and hated paying for things. He had sticky fingers and he showed this off by picking Sai’s wallet (and he had known the entire time Hisao was doing it), and showed it off, to the joy of Ichigo.
This same joy did not extend to Hisao who was ‘not a kid person’ in his own words, which had made Ichigo upset and angry.
Kobayashi Matsumoto, also age twelve, was his other student. A girl with long, thick hair and took pride in her appearance, who spoke non stop about fashion magazines and the newest beauty gurus. She also flinched when people would shout, and Sai could tell under the thick foundation covering her face, that bruises peppered her skin.
Ichigo was his final student, and Sai learned, he was loud. He hated bullies, and wanted to stand up for people.
When Sai had asked why they all wanted to become Shinobi, Ichigo was the first to answer, and the loudest.
“I-I heard that when someone b’comes a sh’nobi yer a grown up! Ain’t nobody ever treatin’ me like a lil’ kid ever again!”
This revelation was treated with a pause of all Hisao, Matsumoto, and Sai staring at him.
“Hmph,” Hisao was sneering at the boy, making his dislike well known to him over Matsumoto’s shoulder. “Is that the only reason you wanted to become a ninja?”
Ichigo faltered, and it was painfully obvious how young this boy really was.
“I-I… that ain’t th’ only reason…” He was shrinking in on himself, as if speaking up louder would get him punished. Sai just watched them through this, keeping himself silent and his thoughts to himself.
“Oh hush Hisao-kun! I’m sure you’ll make a terrific grown up Ichigo-chan!” Matsumoto put a comforting hand on Ichigo’s shoulder, and a smile comes to his face.
“In any case,” Sai says, before Ichigo can speak again. “We will meet again tomorrow at the ninth training ground at seven sharp. I expect you all to be there.” And Sai left in a cloud of smoke.
From a rooftop not very far away, he could see Hisao scoffing and taking off, and Matsumoto saying a gentle goodbye to Ichigo, before leaving herself.
The boy just sat there, looking confused, and a little sad, before leaving himself.
Ten minutes later, Sai found himself in the Hokage’s office, in front of Kakashi.
Kakashi had a pleasant look on his face, and a smile, if you knew the man well enough to read his face.
Sai counted himself lucky that he could.
“Please Sai, Kakashi is just fine enough.” Kakashi brushed off the honorific with a wave of his hand, and Sai relaxed only slightly.
“I wished to… speak to you about the Genin you assigned to me.”
“Oh?” A single silver brow lifted on Kakashi’s face. “What for. Are they treating you well…?”
“Well, I’ve only known them all for about an hour. I’ve read the reports though, of course. The one I’m worried about is Watanabe Ichigo-”
Kakashi’s face fell, something of a sad expression painting itself onto his face as he sighed. “Of course. What about Watanabe-kun?”
“Please, send him back to the academy. He’s too young.” Sai’s dark eyes clashed with Kakashi's own.
“He doesn’t know enough yet, only after a year. That isn’t enough time. I also saw nothing about his parents in the reports, as well, it’s unfair to hold him to the same expectations of children six years his senior.” Sai’s hands were clasped behind his back as he spoke, his back straight. “As well, he knows the bare basics but that’s it- I don’t understand how he graduated the academy let alone was able to enter without a guardians approval-”
“I approved it Sai.” Kakashi said, cutting Sai off.
“Yes,” Kakashi took in a deep breath before sighing out again, and relaxed in his chair. “He was… the son of a friend. She had married into the Watanabe Syndicate, you know the one.”
Sai did indeed know the Watanabe Family. A crime syndicate that ruled over the small town they had with an iron grip. There was no shortage to their crimes, which included blackmailing, drug dealing, assault, money laundering… Sai could go on.
“She had… send her son out, with a handful of ryo and a note for me, asking to take care of him. In the end Ichigo-kun wanted to become a ninja, and put all his hard work into studying and training. He’s not a prodigy like myself or Itachi, by any means, but he’s a hard worker.” Kakashi laughed to himself, at some inside joke Sai did not know. “Reminds me quite a lot of Naruto when he was that age, except Ichigo-kun is far better at applying his knowledge.”
They were both silent again, for a moment, before Kakashi spoke again.
“I also have heard that his teachers were not incredibly… fond of him. It maybe be because of his families ties, or maybe his attitude. I know it drove him to work hard and graduate early. I’ve been thinking he may have graduated so early, is because they were eager to get rid of him.” There was a pregnant pause between the two of them, and Sai’s heart felt a little heavier for Ichigo’s sake.
“I’m not… comfortable, with sending a child out like that.” Sai said, finally. He was a child like that once, trained to fight and kill for people he thought he was indebted to.
“Then don’t.” Kakashi said simply. “Train him, help him. I’ll understand if you keep him out of the Chuunin exams because of his age.” Kakashi ran a hand through his hair. “I’m not comfortable having Ichigo graduate so early either… but myself and Naruto are still revising the academy system.” Another sigh. “Change cannot happen in one night, and the ah… elders are particularly stubborn about it.”
Sai nods, and excuses himself.
That night, Kankuro calls, and Sai can feel his heart flutter when he talks to the man who had been his captain during the war.
(Sai is healing, growing more and more like a person every day. He knows this.)
(The relationship was sudden, and a surprise to his friends, just as his insistence of taking on Genin was.)
(Sai’s learned that he takes great joy in surprising his friends.)
“How’s the new team?” Kankuro asks, his voice distorted slightly by the static.
“They’re all right.” Sai replies, and curses to himself as he erases an errant line in his sketchbook.
“Now I know what that voice means.” Kankuro says, and Sai can faintly hear the dim noises of Kankuro working in his workshop. “C’mon, tell me what's up.”
(“A new puppet!” he had exclaimed earlier, and Sai was content to sit back and hear all about it.)
“One of my students… worries me.” Sai puts his pencil down, and leans back against his kitchen chair. His sketch supplies are scattered around the table, and the hand studies hes sketching look nothing like what they’re supposed to be.
“Worries how?” Kankuro asks.
“A boy, Watanabe Ichigo-kun. He’s six.” Sai frowns to himself. On the chair beside him lay all his students files, their pictures poking out of the tops, their names neatly written on the front.
Kankuro whistles, a sound that any other time would cause a shiver to run up his spine. “Wow, really? Six? He must be a smart kid.”
“Not especially.” Sai answers. “He’s good at studying, and applying said information. But I spoke with Kakashi and…”
“ A-and …?”
“He’s quite like Naruto, except maybe more… rough. He’s from a syndicate family.” Sai laughs, quietly to himself.
“Oof,” Kankuro laughed too, slightly louder than Sai had. “That sounds rough- you think his family might come after him? Many families like that aren’t especially fond of shinobi-”
Sai hums. He hadn’t thought of that, really.
“If they do, I’ll protect him.” And he would.
The next day, Matsumoto and Hisao were right on time, bright and early.
Ichigo had arrived two hours later, sometime around nine fifteen.
“You’re kidding me right!” Hisao had started laying into the boy immediately. “Sensei said seven o’clock! It’s way past that!”
“R-really…!” Ichigo looked genuinely nervous, eyes darting back and forth from Hisao to Sai. “I uh- I…”
“Hisao-kun please…” Matsumoto herself looked slightly uncomfortable.
“What! He’s just gonna drag us down Mastu-chan!”
Ichigo, it seemed, had gotten his defense up. His face made a pout- an adorable look really- as he yelled right back at Hisao.
“We-well I knew that! I was jus’, I was jus’ doin’ some extra trainin’ that's all!”
“That’s enough.” Sai finally said, stepping in. “We’re going to have a test.” And he looked at each one of them, taking in their reactions.
“Bu’ I thought we were done with st’pid tests!” Ichigo was pouting, glaring up at Sai. Hisao, it seemed, agreed with this sentiment.
“You’re going to be tested all your life, faces new and different challenges along the way. It is my job, to make sure you pass them.” Sai held up two bells, gifted from Kakashi. Naruto, he understood, was giving the same test to his trio of misfits in training ground three.
(After the war, Naruto and Sakura had both realized Sai never officially took the bell test. So the three of them, versing Kakashi and Yamato, had practiced what must have been a team seven tradition.)
“You will have until lunch to take these the bells from me. Anyone without one, will be sent back to the academy.” He scanned them over, gauging their reactions before continuing. “If by the time the buzzer goes, and none of you have one, then you will all be sent back.”
“But ah, Sensei…” It was Matsumoto, who was tying back her thick strawberry blonde hair. “There’s um, only two bells…”
“That means. Well that means that one of us is going back, doesn’t it.” Hisao looked nervous, his eyes darting to little Ichigo.
“You are correct.”
They three genin were silent for a moment, processing it all, Sai was silent with them before finally saying, “You may use any means necessary to take them. You may begin.”
Hisao was darting towards him in a moment, and Ichigo seemed confused until he started running at Sai right after him.
Sai easily countered the punch Hisao aimed towards him, grabbing the boys arm and flipping Hisao over his back.
Seeing this, Ichigo stuttered, but wasn’t fast enough to correct himself and tripped over his own two feet.
His talk with Kakashi replays itself over in Sai’s mind. Yes, he wasn’t ready.
Sai takes a step towards Ichigo, and the boy retreats, and he’s afraid.
“ LEAVE HIM ALONE! ” Matsumoto screams, and she's there in an instant, jumping away and leaving an explosive tag in her stead.
Sai, idly, remembers reading the fondness the girl had for pyrotechnics and explosives.
Sai grabs Hisao before it goes off, and drops him unceremoniously into a bush as Sai jumps into one of the nearby trees to think.
Matsumoto regroups with Hisao, Ichigo’s tiny hand in her larger one.
“So you save him and not me! Way for loyalty Mastumo-” He’s cut off with a harsh slap to the cheek. That shuts him up, and it makes Ichigo snicker from behind her.
“I’ve had enough of that Hisao.” Matsumoto says, and Hisao swallows thickly. If anythings scarrier to him, other than his auntie, it’s Matsumoto, who had been a bully to the other children who picked on him since their childhood.
“I-I’m sorry, Matsu-chan.” He says, and he can feel the same brand of guilt and shame his auntie uses on him when shes upset with him.
“I’m not the one you should be apologizing to.” And she pulls little Ichigo forward, who seems to shrink even more standing before him, previous bravado gone.
Hisao feels a well of disgust run through him, at this tiny child who stands before him. At the teasing he got when the other boys learned he was on a team with the ‘easy’ Matsumoto and the kid.
The kid, whose head band kept slipping off his forehead, either because it was too loose or too big, probably both, and who wore clothes that didn’t even fit.
Matsumoto didn’t deserve the cruel names they called her, but why, why couldn’t he be on a team with Asahi Tanaka, the smartest boy in their class, or maybe even that Emi girl.
“ Now Hisao.” Matsumoto said in a tone that meant you better behave or else…
“All right, all right…” Hisao muttered, and kneeled in front of Ichigo, who was trying to push his head band up, and his dark brown bangs out of his eyes. “I’m sorry Ichigo… It wasn’t fair to me.” He said, but with no real feeling in it.
(All Hisao could think of was his bratty little sister, and if it wasn’t for her, mom would still have been…)
“Hey, hey, it’s ‘kay!” Ichigo said, and a smile was on his small face. “Le’s jus’ get them bells from Sensei, yeah!”
Now that was a plan. “Heh… yeah.”
Matsumoto smiled, clapping her hands together. “Now that that ugly business is over, let's get back to it!”
“Yeah… but hey, they’re only two bells, what’re we gonna do about that ?” Hisao asked, and his eyes darted to Ichigo, who couldn’t do much but look between them.
Matsumoto hummed, and she tapped her chin as she thought.
“Hey hey!” That was Ichigo, and they both looked down to him. A mischievous grin grew on his face, and he tugged their shirts for them to come down to his level, so he could whisper to them. “I gotta real good plan… listen up.”
(In the end the plan was to use Ichigo as bait.)
Ichigo wandered out from under the bushes, looking a bit more beat up and disheveled as he walked. And then, he sat down in the clearing, and began to wail.
Sai, who had been sketching the landscape while he waited for his students to attack, just watched as the boy cried. In the end, his curiosity got the better of him, and Sai jumped down from his perch and appeared next to him.
Ichigo stopped, eyes wide as Sai suddenly appeared, and his brown eyes welled up with tears once again.
“Ah- why are you crying…?” Sai asked, but the boy only cried more.
Sai was twenty-three, a Jounin, former Root and Anbu, was slowly learning how to cope with the new emotions and things he felt, was very uncomfortable.
“Ahh…” Sai kneeled down, and awkwardly pat Ichigo’s head. What did Sakura do, when her son got uppity and fussy….? “It’s alright?”
Secretly, he hoped that Hisao didn’t do this to Ichigo. Or else they were going to have words .
Ichigo stopped all at once, a wicked smirk on his face as he tackled Sai to the ground, punching and kicking and screaming. Sai struggled with the boy, and he didn’t want to hurt him, especially a kid so young and small, and then they appeared.
Hisao came from the bushes where Sai had dropped him, and Matsumoto, from the trees opposite. He must have been caught up in his sketching, he hadn’t even realized-
Then all three were on him. Someone’s elbow in the face, a yell in his ear, Matsumoto yelled something about Hisao kicking her in the shin. Sai could feels Hisao’s hand creeping for the bells which Sai took great pleasure in hitting away.
Then, with a cry of success they were off of him. Ichigo was first, holding the bell up high in the air as he ran around the training ground.
Matsumoto was next, elegantly rolled away from both Sai and Hisao.
Which left only the two of them, Hisao still on Sai’s back, pulling at his face. Sai grabbed the boy by the back of his shirt, easily flipping the boy over and onto his back.
Hisao made a breathless sound, eyes wide and dazed, and Sai allowed the boy to get his bearings back before looking at his students.
“Good job you two.” Sai spoke, and he knew there was something of a smile on his face as he addressed them. Matsumoto was all smiles, and the grin on Ichigo’s face could rival maybe only Naruto’s.
Hisao, however, was sulking on the ground.
“You know what this means, don’t you?” Sai asked, and slowly, Hisao stood, and started to walk off from the training grounds. Matsumoto and Ichigo watched him go, a look of pity and sadness of Matsumoto’s face, and confusion, then realization, on Ichigo’s.
Sai watched, wondering what they would do.
After all, the test was not over.
“Hisao-nii!” Ichigo called, and Hisao stopped.
“What-” He looked at Ichigo, who almost collided with Hisao’s own legs, and held the bell out to him.
“Fer you!” Ichigo yelled, and there were tears brimming in his eyes, ones that only Hisao could see.
“But- why. I thought you wanted to be a ninja…”
“Hey, hey! I still do yeah! But…” Ichigo looked away, staring sadly at his feet. “Ya prolly deserve it more th’n me…”
There was a soft gasp from Matsumoto, and she held the bell close to her heart. “Oh Ichigo-chan…”
“So you ah… Ya gotta b’come a great ninja, jus’ fer me Hisao-nii!” And Ichigo grinned, and Hisao breathed in sharply. He was still, for a moment, before ruffling the hair on Ichigo’s head.
“Yeah… I’ll do just that, til’ you can join us again.”
Hisao walked back over, to stand in front of Sai again, and Ichigo hung back, sadly watching.
“Good job,” Sai spoke. “To all three of you.” He looked at Ichigo, then motioned for the boy to come closer, and slowly, with hesitation, he did.
“You all did exceptionally. I’m proud to call all three of you, my students.”
“All… three of us Sensei?” That was Matsumoto, who looked confused.
“Yes, you all pass.”
“But, but you said!” Hisao’s face was getting red, out of anger or embarrassment, Sai couldn’t tell.
(It was both, one, that he made such a fool in his pickpocketing skills the day before and couldn’t even live up to it now, and two, that the kid of all people was able to best him)
(Maybe it was more embarassment than anger, but still.)
(It was the principle of the thing.)
“This was a test of teamwork ,” the children were quiet as he spoke, hanging on every word of his.
“To put it simply- A three man cell is crucial to our work as a Shinobi. It’s always harder to work alone, but with friends and comrades, it gets simpler.” Sai’s own thoughts of his first days with team seven came back to him. Those hard days, filled with fights and harsh words.
He much preferred it now, that he was friends with the people he could call his team .
(And he was always apart of team seven, no matter what Sasuke may have thought. Kakashi, Yamato, Sakura, Naruto, Sasuke… even Sai. They were a team.)
(And even deeper, when Sakura first announced her pregnancy to them, a family. )
(Though, Sai would never willingly include Sasuke in his family, but he supposed you didn't get to choose family.)
“You’re Genin team, and Jounin Sensei, will always be an important part of your life, and who you become in the future. A family too, I suppose.” Sai smiled at each of them, a genuine smile, not the fake ones he wore.
Ichigo seemed especially pleased in this topic of family.
After everything, Sai treated them to lunch on their way out of the training ground. They ended up running into Naruto, with his own three man team, and was gushing to them about his step-son, and how cute he was.
Tenten joined them too, walking by with her new Genin, and the nine Genin and three Jounin crowded themselves inside the newly expanded Ichiraku ramen, for lunch.
Ichigo sat besides Sai, on his knees, and a smile on his face.
“Hey, hey! I’m real ‘cited Sensei.” He said, while the other children were making small talk with their own teams and each other.
“Mmm… how so, Ichigo?” Sai asked, looking at him.
“Well… ‘m glad I don’t gotta go back t’ th’ ‘cademy. I hated that place. An’ ‘m happy I can be a ninja, like a grown up.” Ichigo picked at his ramen with his fingers, picking the noodles up and into his mouth.
“An’... it’s cool, that I gots me a family, kinda…”
Sai didn’t know what came over him, when he put an arm over Ichigo’s shoulders and pulled him to his side.
This boy was nothing like him, didn’t have the same experiences Sai did growing up, but he was still far too young, too small-
Sai would do his best, to keep that innocence alive.
“I… don’t know you well enough.” Sai started, and he kept his voice quiet for his and Ichigo’s sakes. “But… I will be glad, to help you with anything. Please… if you need it, come to me.”
The smile Ichigo gave him was blinding, and he wrapped his arms around Sai, hugging him tight.
“I will, Sensei.”
(In the coming weeks, it was easy to see how protective both Hisao and Matsumoto were over him.)
(It soothed his worried when they sat with him, to explain why Sai opted him from the Chuunin exams.)
(And in the future, when Sai became the Konoha Representative for Suna, when both Hisao and Matsumoto were Chuunin, he was relieved, when Kakashi gave him the okay for Ichigo to travel with him.)
(Officially, it was for training, but with Kankuro finally getting to meet Sai’s beloved student, and the home they all shared, it truly felt like family.)