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unexpected lessons

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She doesn't mean to take a student.

It would have been easier not to. The war is still going strong — won't die out for a year or so — and Kakashi's team has yet to go on the Kannabi Bridge mission. After that, it's worrying about the Kyūbi attack and the Uchiha...there's a lot to do and none of it will be easier if she's also responsible for teaching someone at the same time. Plus, Shikako has deliberately not set herself up to be one of the village's best ninja. She'd aimed for "mediocre wartime jōnin" and hit the mark with unerring success. The village isn't expecting her to pick up students and if she does it wouldn't expect her to make anything spectacular out of them.

But people gossip.

She overhears someone say, "Oh, yeah, get this: Orochimaru is taking a genin team. Poor kids!" and then laugh.

Poor kids, Shikako thinks to herself, but she's not laughing. She stops by the Academy the next day.

"Graduating students?" the guy at the desk says, handing her her ID back. "Yeah, uh — like, I guess? Head on back."

Shikako understands. She's young to be taking an apprentice and it's a little late in the process.

The back room of the Academy office is where they store non-confidential Academy records. The files of the current graduating class are spread out on the top of the filing cabinets in the middle of the room. There's no one else in the room now, but Shikako still takes her time paging through files. It wouldn't do to go to the one she really wants, and it's important to have an idea of what kind of graduating class this is.

The answer is: a depressing one. Shikako doesn't recognize many of the names and faces, and most of them are of no particularly notable families. There are a few stand-outs in terms of performance, but ultimately...the class is being pushed out because the war needs bodies.

Shikako doesn't like it, but this is how it is.

After she's gone through all of the files, she goes back to a few who she might have considered if she were really trying to pick a student based on these files alone. She reads the files carefully both to sell the act and just in case the information comes in handy later, before finally letting herself settle on Mitarashi Anko's file.

Anko is ten. There's no picture in the file yet, but Shikako has met versions of Anko at around this age before. Anko is an orphan of no notable heritage and of middling rank in her graduating class. Not a bad candidate for a genin team or apprenticeship, but a little unorthodox. Nothing in her file indicates she'd be an attentive student.

But Shikako knows she will. And more to the point, Shikako knows what will happen to her if she goes to Orochimaru's team. The same thing that will happen to whoever Orochimaru picks instead, Shikako supposes, but...whoever it is probably wasn't going to survive the war anyway, and Shikako can only borrow so much trouble at a time.

At some point she'll kill Orochimaru. For now, this will have to do.

"Mitarashi Anko," the chūnin teacher at the head of the room says, "you'll be doing an apprenticeship with Nara Shikako."

Shikako steps forward and watches Anko light up. It's adorable, and so is the way Anko leaps out of her chair and makes her way down to the front of the room, like she's won a prize. They exit the room immediately so that the chūnin can keep reading off the names and assignments of the recent graduates.

In the hallway, Anko bows to her. "Please take care of me!" she says.

Cute. It's really cute.

"Only if you'll take care of me," Shikako says, and noticing that Anko hadn't brought a lunch pack out with her adds, "Lunch? On me."

Anko nods and follows her out of the Academy like an eager duckling.

Shikako starts to enjoy herself.

"What do you want to do with your career?" Shikako asks later, when they've ordered. "Well. Do you even want a career?"

"I want to be a total badass," Anko says. Her feet swing under the table, unable to touch the floor. "But like, the kind that's not a shithead." She seems to abruptly realize that she's used a bad word. "Uh—"

"No," Shikako says, trying not to laugh. "It's a good goal. We can do that. Non-shithead total badass, we're on it."

Anko beams at her.

It's a good lunch.

Apprentices do less D-ranks than jōnin teams because they're expected to be spending a lot more time in one-on-one instruction. Also, sensei aren't technically required to participate in the D-ranks — many of them are office busywork, or done with Genin Corps supervision. But if Shikako's going to have a student she's going to teach Anko everything she knows. and everything she knows includes a lot of chakra tricks.

"It would be faster to use the watering can," Anko says when they get hired to weed and then water a woman's garden.

Shikako is making her catch water from the garden hose inside a container of chakra. It's character building.

"We're not paid by the hour," Shikako says serenely.

"Yeah," Anko says. "But I'm losing time I'll never get back." A little more water sloshes out of her chakra container — if she's not actively paying attention to it, it tends to flicker in and out of existence.

"It's good for you," Shikako reassures her. "And you only have just a few beds to go!"

Anko huffs and pouts, but walks away carefully while staring down at the water cupped in chakra between her hands.

Afterwards, when Anko is worn out and even grumpier, Shikako invites her to dinner like always. They haven't been on a mission out of the village yet, but Anko lives alone in free genin housing. With just the two of them they can't really create the feeling of a team dinner, but just the two of them is good, too. Usually.

"Why?" Anko says this time, instead of agreeing.

Shikako blinks. "It's dinnertime?"

"We just spent three hours wasting our time doing something we could have done in half an hour. Don't you have..." Anko waves a hand vaguely in the air, as if to illustrate. "...somewhere better to be? Clan stuff?"


"What do you think the point of the chakra exercises is?" Shikako asks, instead of addressing the other part of that question. Things with the Nara are weird on account of her pretending to be a bastard and appearing under mysterious and somewhat suspicious circumstances, but Shikako doesn't really want to explain that to a ten-year-old.

Anko shrugs, sullenly. "Using my chakra up so I'll make more?"

There are a lot better ways to make Anko use her chakra than that, although it is a fringe benefit. This is probably a case where showing is better than telling.

"We're doing it because you want to be a badass," Shikako says. "C'mon, we'll stop for a demonstration before dinner."

Because Anko hadn't said no, so they're probably still on.

They find a little stream in the training grounds. It's been awhile since Shikako actually had to do this, but comes naturally enough — she doesn't even have to crouch or anything, just put her palms down towards the water and yank smoothly like she's a waterbender. A glob of water rises up into the air. Shikako makes a sphere, a cube, and then finally a staff.

"Water doesn't compress and water is really heavy," Shikako says. She smacks a divot into the surface of the hard-packed training field. Then the water twists in her hands again and becomes a whip. She smacks the surface of the stream. For drama, and showmanship! "There are other chakra control exercises we could do, but this one will give you an impromptu weapon."

"Shikako-sensei," Anko says, "you're so cool."

Shikako drops the water back into the stream. "You probably say that to everyone who shows you how to make weapons."

Anko laughs.

They go to dinner.

Anko doesn't ask about her clan again, which is a relief.

Of course, there are complications. First of all, Shikako had been let into the village based on vouching from the Nara clan and promises that she'd be useful in the field, which the village desperately needs. Second, jōnin with apprentices are supposed to actually teach their students things, but Shikako has kind of restricted what exactly she can teach Anko, especially inside the village, because she's kept nearly everything as close to the chest as possible.

Sparring is a good first step, Shikako decides. Sparring, physical conditioning, and escape/evasion. She wants Anko to be prepared to go into the field as soon as possible — because they will be sent, although probably not straight into the war right away.

Anko takes to each lesson attentively, even when she's exhausted or hungry. She asks a lot of questions, sharp questions. Shikako can see the intelligence assets in her even this young, and even worse can see what Orochimaru probably saw in her, but Anko wants to be a badass, so that's what Shikako is going to make her.

"Explosive seals," Shikako says at the end of their first month together. "Ever used one?"

"No." Anko wrinkles her nose. "They're expensive. And rationed. We talked about them, though."

Right, genin orphan budget. Shikako digs into a pocket. "Well, I guess I know what we're going to do with these." She waves the set of standard explosive tags in the air.

Anko lights up, and doesn't even complain about the long run out to a training field that they can blow up to their hearts' content.

Knowing that Anko likely doesn't have the budget to replace even her basic, low-quality kunai, Shikako supplies her with a set to use with the exploding tags

It's a hell of an afternoon, especially after Shikako says, "So...wanna know how to make one?"

They take a lot of C-ranks. Shikako pushes for ones farther from the front, for less dangerous ones, but it's not always possible.

Teaching new ninja is a drain on resources, is the thing. It distracts a ninja from getting their shiit done. A genin team is three kids to protect, usually the kind of kids you don't want to just throw into a meatgrinder, but even just one apprentice can be a dangerous risk. Konoha could just send everyone into the Genin Corps to sink or swim, but that would end up being its own kind of wasteful; there are a lot of genin who need some specialized instruction to become useful, and Corps doesn't provide that unless you suck up to Yūhi Shinku. A balance of genin teams and apprenticeships for promising students is important, but hard to maintain in the middle of a war. The village doesn't want its best ninja tied down to students when they could be winning the war.

All of this to say: Shikako has to go to the front with Mitarashi Anko following her much, much sooner than she would have preferred.

Shikako would just leave Anko behind tucked up safe somewhere to wait the mission out but that presents a lot of problems:

There's nowhere actually safe to put her, in the middle of the Third War, when she's supposed to be out on a mission, for example. Anywhere Shikako leaves her is a place that could be quickly overrun by the enemy. So that's right out.

Also, Anko is a great student and a good teammate, for a ten year old, but there's no way Shikako is going to trust her to keep any important secrets if she doesn't have to. Important secrets like, say, Shikako going against direct mission orders to leave half of her team out of the mission details.

Finally: this is actually a two-person mission. Shikako and her greenstick genin are a terrible choice for the mission, but the only way to do it with two people would be if Shikako could use shadow clones in combat situations, which she absolutely can't.

So instead: time to set down ground rules and expectations.

"Our objective is to not die," Shikako says firmly once she's read their mission scroll to Anko. This is a B-rank that should be an A-rank.

Anko looks uncertainly between Shikako and the scroll Shikako is holding.

"Okay," Shikako concedes. "My goal is for you to not die, and your goal is for you to not die. I have a secondary goal we will probably also get around to." She wiggles the scroll. "But I'm not going back to the village without my apprentice alive and well, so you have to take care of yourself and not worry about me."

"Um, yes, sensei," Anko says. She punctuates it with an anxious bob of the head. "I won't let you down?"

"I know you won't." Shikako tucks the scroll away and pats Anko on the head. "You're going to be amazing. A real terrifying badass when you grow up. I just have to get you there first."

Anko's eyes shine up at her. They're maybe a little wet? Uh oh. Shikako pats her head again a little uncertainly.

In return, Anko flings herself at Shikako's legs, clinging tightly. "Thanks!" Anko says brightly.

Shikako doesn't really get it, but Anko isn't actually crying, so this probably went well? Maybe this teaching thing is going alright after all.