Preview – Chapter 48

Team 7 flashback continued:

They worked through the year, but they still were not a team. The chunin exams were approaching, and Kakashi warned them if they didn’t figure it out they wouldn’t make it through the exam. They would most certainly be killed.

But even his most stern warning didn’t get through. 

And after a small mission went awry and they’d nearly gotten killed — Kakashi had to save them all from their attackers and from each other — he had finally had enough. 

The walk back to Konoha was silent. Team 7 finally seemed obedient. It was almost like they could sense that they had crossed a line with Kakashi.

But once back inside Konoha’s gates, Sakura, Sai and Sasuke thought they might get off easy. They were exhausted, dirty and bruised, and it was clear they hoped their leader’s prolonged silence meant that they would just be dismissed. They were wrong.

Kakashi’s voice rumbled to life. “Meet at the bridge. At dawn.” He met their surprised eyes and answered their unasked question. “No rest,” he said emphatically. 

He usually gave them a day off after missions. 

“If you all can’t get it right, then I’m sending you back to academy.” Sasuke scowled and Kakashi doubled down. “All of you. And not just for a visit. You will each have to start over again.”

The angry timbre in his voice, the finality of his words shook them all. It was the only thing keeping Sasuke quiet. Kakashi looked hard at him for a moment, and Sasuke understood the perilous position he was in. Kakashi held his entire fate in his hands. They both knew what Sakura and Sai and the rest of their classmates did not: Sasuke was under observation by the council to be acknowledged as the head of his clan. It was a hollow victory, but it allowed him to have more say over his life and where he lived. Sasuke was intensely private about his clan.

But Kakashi was no longer in the mood to keep his secrets.

“We’re going to do more teamwork training tomorrow,” he looked at Sasuke as he spoke, “and I’ve invited the council to come see how much you’ve progressed.”

Sasuke’s mouth parted in shock. Sakura and Sai looked between them, not fully comprehending the exchange but understanding that it couldn’t be good. 

Kakashi waited for Sasuke to lose his temper, but it took every shred of restraint Sasuke had not to take the bait. Sasuke knew he couldn’t go against Kakashi. 

“Right. Tomorrow morning then.” Without another word Kakashi flash-stepped away.

The next day they showed up at dawn, expecting him to be late. But he was there, waiting for them. That was not a good sign. 

He did not say greet them. Instead he pulled a large roll of red ribbon from his pocket and began to unwind it.

Sakura recognized it as the ribbon from their school days. It was part of her favorite game.

Wanting to break the tense silence, Sakura opened her mouth to comment, but Kakashi raised a hand, stopping her.

He never looked up. “I know what you are going to say, and you are, of course, correct, Haruno. This is from the academy.”

She curled her hair behind her ear. Sasuke shot her a mean look for speaking to him.

Kakashi slowly unrolled the rest of the ribbon. “Although it’s true Team 7 has passed its D and C missions, I have a feeling that the little old ladies of Konoha are happy to have their cats back, no matter how it gets done.” He looked at Sasuke, “With visual tracking,” then to Sai, “or ferocious drawings,” then to Sakura, “or process of elimination.” The last of the ribbon wound out. “And of course a fair amount of luck.

Kakashi looked at the three before him. It wasn’t lost on him that at any time they stood together, Sakura and Sasuke always put Sai in between them. But he’d deal with that problem later.

“But if I hadn’t been your sensei, you would be dead right now.” 

Sasuke couldn’t keep in his surly behavior— “Or we’d have a better teacher and a better team—“

Sakura gasped. Even Sai angled away as if Sasuke had just lit a fuse. But Kakashi didn’t even blink.

“I am the best teacher you three will ever have,” he said, steel in his voice. “Any other teacher would have not known what to do with you.”

The observers from the council were approaching. Sasuke silently bowed his head. 

“But a better team…. Now you’re figuring it out Sasuke.” He spoke louder, so that the observers could hear him too. “I have let you all go on for too long without understanding the real value of teamwork. It could save your life. That bond is more important than your skill, more important than any weapon—“

Safe from view of the observers, Sasuke rolled his eyes. Kakashi had delivered this speech many times. It never worked. 

Irritated, Kakashi stopped.

“If you three can’t work together as a team here, then you’ll never make it to the chunin exams.” He smiled suddenly. “But I think I’ve figured out a way to see if you’re ready.”

He took the ribbon and tied it around first Sakura’s wrist, let a length fall between them, then Sai’s wrist, then let the length fall, then stood in front of Sasuke. Sasuke didn’t move. 

Kakashi had a glimmer in his eyes. “Now remember,” he said quietly, “you have guests….”

Sasuke shoved his arm forward. 

“Now…. The more you work together. The more freedom you have. The less you work together,  the less freedom you have. Understand?”

They looked at him in shocked silence.

Sakura rallied first. “T-This is not at all the game we used to play—“

“Good!” Kakashi said in a way that didn’t sound good at all. “I was hoping you’d remember this game Sakura! Please, explain it to us!” She didn’t want to answer. “Go ahead!”

Sakura mumbled her way through the explanation that they already knew. “We have to follow each other, no matter what, and not let go of the rope.”

“Ah, yes. Such fun! And you say you loved that game, Haruno?”

She nodded miserably.

“Well, good. Chin up! Hopefully you’ll come to love this one just as much!”

She frowned. She was sure she wouldn’t. Sasuke scoffed. Only Sai stood in the middle, looking out, face emotionless.

Kakashi leveled a hard gaze at him, then at the other two. He wondered just how long it would be till they cracked. Sai would probably be the last one. But he’d break. They all did.

“Alright. New rules for the ribbon game. You have to pass each mission I set out for you successfully. If you do, you get more freedom. If you don’t, you will only get closer together—“

Sai’s emotionless facade didn’t waiver. Kakashi couldn’t help himself. He reach out and grabbed Sai’s face, “Until the two of you are—“ he squeezed Sai’s cheeks together as he spoke each word— “smushed right up next to Sai!” 

Kakashi let go, and Sai blinked, his face falling back into its impassive mask. But he was pleased to see that an irritated crinkle beginning to twitch at the corner of Sai’s eye.  

Sakura and Sasuke leaned away from the display, looked horrified. Sakura did not want to be next if Kakashi was giving out smushy-faces, and Sasuke looked like he was about to blow his top, but Kakashi stopped him—

“Ah-ah-ah, I’m not finished. Last rule. You may not speak to each other. Or to me. At all.”

They gasped. Even Sai’s veneer looked like it was cracking.

“Okay, okay,” Kakashi said, smiling, “maybe that’s a little too rough. Sometimes I get carried away and go too far. How about this…. You can speak. But, you can only say ‘We move as one.’” 

“What,” Sasuke raged.

Kakashi put a finger to his ear. “I couldn’t hear that? What did you say? Already disobeying orders then?”

He stepped forward to grab the red rope as if he was going to make good on his threat and tie them a little closer.

Sakura shook her head fiercely, even Sai looked nervous. They both pulled their arms back. Sasuke defiantly left his arms out, daring Kakashi to tie them closer.

But this time, he did not. He turned away, speaking as he did. “Your mission today is the bell test—“


Kakashi whipped his head back, but they were immediately silent. He looked at them all for a long moment before he continued. “I’ll go easy on you, though. You just have to put one finger on it. Not take it.” 

He pulled out a timer. “Alright,” he said, gaze moving to each of them. The timer clicked loudly in his hand. “Off you go….“

They looked at him, stunned. Thinking quick, Sasuke stepped forward to touch the bell, his face turning smug when the first jingle filled the air—  

Kakashi exploded under his fingertip.

They were shocked. Kakashi appeared at the tree line, waving. The observers laughed at the deception. 

Sasuke’s face burned red and it was clearly taking everything in his power not to shout at Kakashi or the observers. But he didn’t.

They moved together, jogging in a spread-out line, to the woods after Kakashi, but he evaded them. Finally, out of sight of the council and their clipboards, Sasuke whispered “How are we supposed to do this if we’re shackled together?”

Kakashi appeared and clicked his timer. “Not even two minutes.” He shook his head. “That’s a record. You all are officially the worst team.”

He pulled the ropes closer between them, making them move a step closer together.

Sasuke was about to mouth off, and Kakashi paused his hands to look up at him, daring him, when Sakura interjected. “We move as one!” 

It was more of a panicked shout than statement, but it made Kakashi chuckle. 

“Now you’re getting it.” He pulled out the timer and pressed it. “Alright, start again.”

They started again, this time making it seven minutes before Sasuke jerked hard on the ribbon, pulling Sakura into Sai with a loud, “Ow!” 

Sasuke defended himself as their self-appointed leader. “Well if you would listen to what I say and follow me, then—“

Sakura fired back, “If you would just tell us first, then we could—

Sai pushed Sakura off him, and looked up soundlessly as Kakashi clicked his timer.

Sasuke and Sakura froze when they realized their error.

Kakashi bit down his smile as he pulled them a step closer. Then he stepped back. Sai looked put upon. Kakashi said, “You know what’s next don’t you Sai?” 

But Sai, who had been trained in Root, was too smart to fall for that trick.

“We move as one.”

Kakashi laughed. “That’s right. It probably won’t be Sai that gets you all cheek-to-cheek.” He glanced at Sai. “Although every shinobi has his breaking point.” Sai shifted uncomfortably.

Pleased that he got a response, Kakashi smiled as if he was really enjoying this. He clicked the timer and disappeared.

They started again. Coming to a fork in the trail, Sasuke gave a hard jerk on the ribbon to make a turn and was about to speak when they didn’t immediately follow him, but he caught himself. Teeth gritted, Sasuke said, “We move as one,” then pitched his head toward one side of the trail. 

Sakura disagreed. On the opposite side of the path, Sakura tipped her head toward the other fork. “We move as one,” she said, not as sternly, but no less certain. 

There was an impasse. Sasuke wouldn’t repeat himself, and Sakura wouldn’t budge. She said it again. “We move as one,” then jerked her head to her side.

It dawned on them at the same time that they had a tiebreaker standing between them. Sai.

He looked at both of them, then, without a word, nodded in the direction on Sakura’s side. Sasuke was put out, but he went along.

From the shadowy canopy, Kakashi nodded. Sasuke yielding to the group was their first stroke of true teamwork. Without a sound, he leapt from limb to limb, followed their backs.

Sakura picked up on Sai’s communications immediately. Kakashi supposed it was cheating to put a trained shinobi in their mix. He was, in fact, looking forward to wrapping their hands together and making them really hate each other. Sai might ruin that. But Kakashi hadn’t yet given up hope. There might still be time….

They wound down several more trails, more or less successfully. Some of them, however, were certainly not on the map as Kakashi knew it. He considered this as the three crept underneath him, looking everywhere. The training forest was leading them in circles. Kakashi smiled deeply. It must have sensed their frustration. Now the forest was toying with them too.

When they finally came to another split in the trail that Kakashi recognized, he settled down to watch. This one should be interesting….

Sakura, Sai and Sasuke stood at either ends of the ribbon, all three looking for a sign of something familiar. A hint that one path was the ‘right’ path. 

Sasuke stepped forward to peer down one sunlit path. Behind him, Sakura nodded significantly to Sai. She beckoned him, waited for him to acknowledge, and when he didn’t, she tapped his arm. Sai looked up. She pointed from Sasuke’s path to a shadier, winding path beside them, then up toward the sky. He immediately understood. Using little hand signals, they began working out the angle of the sun to chose the best direction to go.

Kakashi was pleased. They were moving faster than he expected, at least. Silent communication was imperative for them to stay alive, as long as they worked together—  But maybe he’d spoken too soon— 

Sasuke decided their course and stepped forward onto the broad, sunny path, pulling them all behind him. He wasn’t speaking, but he also wasn’t yielding. 

Sai resisted. Kakashi knew why. In the middle of the seemingly empty path was a glistening razor wire. Really, just a rounded trip wire, but the scare would be the same.

From where he stood, Sai caught sight of its glinting flash. But Sasuke was too close. It would have been impossible for him to see it until he was upon it. It wasn’t deadly, but if he was going to avoid it, then he would need his teammates’ help.

Sakura might have seen it too, might have been the one to alert him, but she was too busy tugging them in the opposite direction. What she could not know was that the log that fell across the first corner of the path concealed a paper bomb. Just like the razor wire, it was only a trick, a simple  flash bomb. It wouldn’t hurt them, just scare them.  

Sai looked at it, frowning. There were no fallen leaves on top or at the sides. It was recently placed there. No doubt it was a trap too. Trained shinobi that he was, only Sai would have been taught how to notice out-of-place items in the forest. Not Sasuke or Sakura. But if Sai didn’t help out his teammates then they were in just as much danger as if he weren’t there at all.

Sakura tugged them towards it, while Sasuke pulled the other way. The ribbon between them was straightening. Their silent skirmish was pulling them off the path, and Sai, stuck in the middle, was getting closer and closer to the edge. 

Behind his mask, Kakashi’s mouth curved up into a wicked grin. This was just what he was hoping for…. 

Sai was just realizing why the leaves in front of him looked so strange.

Sasuke broke first, opening his mouth to yell back at them but stopping himself at the last minute to growl instead, “We move as one,” while he yanked hard on the rope. They tumbled forward into him. 

Catching sight of the shimmer wire, Sakura immediately started dragging them back from danger, pleading, “We move as one!” but Sasuke couldn’t understand. 

Sai stumbled backwards with her, catching sight of the log over she shoulder. He shook his head. It wasn’t a viable option either— 

But Sakura was still pulling, then Sasuke jerked harder back, forgetting where they were and intent only on winning the tug-of-war. Sai lurched forward suddenly, and then he saw it—

Kakashi’s last trap, a pit covered with leaves just off the path, just out of the angle of sight. If he fell in, he’d drag them both in on top of him— Sai tried to stand and warn them, another hard tug sent him stumbling right for it—

“Stop it! Both of you!”

It echoed off the trees, but it worked. Both stopped, eyes blinking, shocked at his outburst. 

Slow realization broke over Sai’s face. He was the one to disobey orders this time—

Kakashi landed on the path. All three were caught.

“We move as one,” they said in breathy unison.

Kakashi laughed mirthlessly. “A little late for that, I think.”

But instead of pulling them even more tightly together, Kakashi slid the rope from their wrists and pocketed it.

“That’s enough for today. I’m starving and I don’t want to have to babysit you all night. Be at the bridge at dawn.”

None of them were relieved. They knew enough of Kakashi now to be concerned.

“Sasuke, I dismissed your observers long ago. But they’ll be back.” He wasn’t joking, and Sasuke didn’t laugh.

With a single salute, Kakashi left in a flicker. The rest broke off, going their separate ways without a sound. Sasuke went first as if he couldn’t get away fast enough. Sai turned back to forest to retrace his steps, identify his moment of error and remedy it for future assignments. And then Sakura, who was left with nothing to do but watch their backs as they left.

She knew if they were really a team, then they would have talked about tomorrow, about what Kakashi might have planned, and about how they could succeed. Or succeed at thwarting him. 

But they didn’t. She went home too.

At dawn they were there, and not long after was Kakashi. That wasn’t a good sign.

He made them all stand on the bridge. Sakura always put Sai in between her and Sasuke. She thought for a moment that Kakashi might have forgotten about their last infraction the day before because there was so much length on the rope between them. But he wrapped their wrists together, hands back to back, taking in all the space from yesterday. He didn’t forget.

Kakashi walked them to a nearby garden plot. “D-ranked mission. All week. No talking, except for what I’ve told you you can say.”

They nodded.

“And that is….”

“We move as one,” they said obediently.

He nodded.

“Each time you speak, each time you break my rule, you have another week of D missions, just like this.” They were aghast. He didn’t care. “Plant all the crops. We’ll break for lunch.” Then he waved a hand and flash stepped away.

They stood there a moment, looking at the wheelbarrow full of seedlings. There were three small shovels and three straw hats. Sai was starting to angle over, and Sakura would have been right behind him, but Sasuke didn’t move. The muscle at his jaw jumped as if he were holding back saying something. Something mean—

“And just because you can’t see me,” Kakashi’s deep, disembodied voice suddenly filled the air around them, “doesn’t mean I can’t see you!”

They jumped, and immediately started to work without a sound.