Notes: Going to attempt to narrow down a time period in which all this occurs now. Definitely at some point after Naruto and Sakura befriend Sai, and Jiraiya is still alive. Which probably doesn't help all that much.

Warning: Multiple, undeserving character deaths ahead.


A Naruto Fanfic by

Nate Grey (xman0123-at-aol-dot-com)

Part 4: Roots of a Great Tree

Tsunade had not come right out and said that Naruto was off of Team 7, as he'd requested, but Sakura knew the impending announcement was just a formality. Why else would she and Kakashi be sent on a recon mission with Kiba? True, it wasn't Naruto's strong point, but the signs were there. Kiba and Naruto had always been very similar, in both attitude and ability, so if one wasn't available for a mission, the other would likely be sent in his place. But for recon purposes, it made more sense to send a Hyuuga, and especially in this case, one Team 7 was familiar with. That Hinata or Neji had not been chosen was a major indicator: Tsunade was either arguing with the Hyuuga Clan, stroking Naruto's ego by not sending his new apprentice, or both.

At any rate, Kiba approached the mission like he did all others: with youthful abandon in abundance. It wasn't that he was careless, just that he wasn't as careful as was possible or advisable. Depending on his nose was second nature to him, so in most cases, if he couldn't smell it, there was no need to worry. Despite how often that was true, his endless confidence was a little annoying (and that reminded her of Naruto more than she cared to admit).

But in the end, Kiba being on the mission, instead of any other ninja, was one of the things that saved Sakura's life.

Naruto had learned many things about the world during his training trip with Jiraiya. He hadn't realized it at the time, but if anything was going to make him Hokage one day, it would be the things he learned then. Being Hokage was not really a dream of his anymore, but even trying to reach that goal still would keep him strong.

Of the many things Jiraiya had lectured him on, the one that concerned Naruto the most was Danzo. Alone, Danzo only had so much power, even as a member of Konoha's council. But that was the point: Danzo made sure that he was never alone in anything he did, whether he had the council's backing, or that of his private army. That a man like that could exist in the village without being exposed made Naruto wonder why they'd spent so much time chasing after Orochimaru, when the true threat to the village remained within.

What worried him most was that Orochimaru preyed on people's emotions, and twisted them until they only knew to do his bidding. Even the people of Konoha had chosen to hate Naruto of their own free will, and he had experienced their cruelty all of his life. He knew what monsters people consumed by hatred could become. And in that case, there was no telling what Danzo, who trained his men until they had no emotion at all, could inspire in his troops. And a man like Danzo didn't hide his hand for this long unless he had an unbeatable strategy to play with.

It was true that Naruto had given up on Sasuke and pursuing Akatsuki across the world, but not just because it would prove pointless until they were ready to be found. The real reason was that he didn't want to be away from the village when Danzo finally sprang his trap.

Hanabi had never really considered the idea that toads were useful summons. Her encounters with Gamatatsu had done nothing to reinforce that opinion: his threats were easily evaded with candy, which Hanabi began to keep on her at all times. She'd met Gamakichi only once, and only then because Hinata had dragged her to Naruto's apartment for that very purpose. He was polite, but in a way that suggested he was wary of her, which Hanabi could accept, considering her family.

Even Gekiyaku seemed a rather pointless summon: mostly she sat on Hinata's shoulder, occasionally commented on random things, and could use her own tongue as a jump rope upon request.

But Hanabi said nothing, because Hinata was fond of them (but mostly because Gamatatsu's threat of sitting on her still stood). Hinata had always had some unusual quirks. None of them, however, could convince Hanabi to take a bath in Naruto's apartment. Oddly enough, it wasn't Naruto peeking at her that she was concerned about. Naruto had even gone to the trouble of assuring her that the toads had seen plenty of women bathing, being Jiraiya's companions. That, of course, had only cemented Hanabi's refusal to bathe there.

Hanabi was used to getting her way, without any sort of compromise. So she was shocked, not only when Naruto refused to let her and Hinata go to the public bathhouse alone, but sent along Naruko as well. She had assumed that Naruto just wanted to see them naked, but Naruko was so unlike him in attitude that it was easy to forget she even was his clone, and not some ditzy friend of Hinata's.

Looking back, Hanabi realized that Naruto could've and should've kept them from going. If it had only been Hanabi wanting to go, he almost certainly would've refused outright. But because Hinata had wanted it as well, he'd allowed it. In some ways, that made him responsible for everything that happened afterwards. But it was only because Naruto let them go that Hanabi witnessed the true nature of her clan.

Uchiha Sasuke did not hate his former teammates. In truth, the only person he hated was Itachi. But in his quest for revenge, Sasuke's ideals had changed. There was a time when he never would've taken the same path to power as Itachi. But repeated encounters with his brother had proven that without the Mangekyou Sharingan, Itachi would not fall to him. And so however Sasuke felt about Naruto and Sakura, one of them needed to die. It just so happened that Sakura was the first of the two he came across after this realization sank in.

If Sasuke had ever loved her, he'd long since forgotten what it felt like. All that really mattered was that despite not having Kyuubi within her, she was just as easy to control. There was no need for his Sharingan, no need for genjutsu, not even a need to look into her eyes. His very presence was enough to make her helpless.

"Have you come to take me back, Sakura?" he asked quietly. "Have you come to save me?" In the distance, he could hear the sounds of battle. His associates were still keeping Kakashi and Kiba busy, according to the plan, then.

"Sasuke-kun, all I want is your happiness," Sakura whispered, tears in her eyes.

Sasuke allowed himself a small smile. "Then there is no need for us to fight, Sakura."

A smile spread across her face as he approached her. "Sasuke-kun..."

"Naruto isn't with you," he noted absently. "Was he angry with me?"

"It's not your fault, Sasuke-kun! Naruto is... he's changed. He's forgotten our promise..."

"You shouldn't be so hard on him, Sakura," Sasuke said as he reached her. "He's had a hard life, like me."

Her eyes widened. "T-That's what he said..."

"Oh?" Sasuke asked, gathering chakra in his palm. "Then you probably should've listened."

Hanabi knew that her clan was still seeking to capture Hinata. It had just never occurred to her that they might try to do so with her present. After all, why would they risk harming their prized heiress? She had failed to consider, of course, that being unable to perform her duties would mean that someone would have to take her place. And if that someone had followers who were involved in the ambush, it would be easy enough to arrange an accident that killed both sisters. The Hyuuga Council always had someone else do their dirty work, so they would only have those people's words to go on. It would be so simple to kill her and Hinata both without suffering the normal repercussions. Anything could go wrong in battle, and just as many things could go right for the wrong people.

Despite all of her training, Hanabi was completely unprepared for the attack. One moment, she had been relaxing beside Hinata, and the next, she had been dragged roughly out of the bath. At least twenty cloaked figures materialized around the bath as Hanabi opened her mouth to shout a warning, but a kunai was pressed firmly against her throat as a silent warning.

Hanabi had expected that Hinata would be taken within the next few seconds, and the attackers must have thought the same.

Instead, Hinata exploded into action, leaping onto the water's surface and whirling into a Kaiten that sent bodies and hot water flying in all directions. As expected, the rest of the ambushers timed the next wave of the attack to begin just as Hinata's spin started to die down (and certainly that would be a simple matter, if they all had the Byakugan). But that was not to be, as Naruko exploded from beneath the water, her eyes glowing a fiery red as she formed a familiar cross hand seal.

But instead of the expected Shadow Clones appearing, ten bear-sized, crimson-furred foxes filled the bath. The red drained out of Naruko's eyes at once, and she fainted, landing limply across the back of the nearest fox.

The attackers froze, and for a moment, Hanabi hoped that Konoha's almost irrational fear of foxes might stop them.

Then one of the cloaked attackers lunged for Hinata. Even from a distance, Hanabi could see that his hands were empty and reaching. Hinata must have seen it, as well: her Byakugan was activated, and the man was approaching her from her left side. There was simply no way he could've been trying to harm her at that moment, so the only logical conclusion was that he was trying to get her away from the foxes.

Whatever his intentions, they ended abruptly when one of foxes caught his neck in its jaws and snapped its head in a single motion, clearly breaking the man's neck. He fell into the water like a stone.

Hinata briefly faltered at the sight, her mouth working silently. Then she quickly bit her thumb, her fingers blurring through hand seals before she slapped her palm against the water.

Hanabi couldn't imagine what good Gekiyaki could do in such a crisis, so she was very shocked when Gamatatsu burst from the water, for once looking perfectly serious.

"Tatsu-kun, save my sister!" Hinata cried as she scrambled onto his back.

The ninja holding Hanabi stiffened, an instant before Gamatatsu's tongue whipped out and wrapped around his wrist, breaking it with almost no effort. Hanabi heard a pained hiss, and then the same tongue wrapped around her waist with surprising gentleness, lifting her into the air and depositing her neatly behind Hinata.

Even with the foxes and Gamatatsu present, the cloaked men were still considering continuing the attack.

Hinata's priorities, which were to secure Hanabi and Naruko, and then to escape in the hopes that the foxes would follow with Naruko, rather than kill everyone there, had been met. But after seeing how determined the men were, she reached up and, for the first time that Hanabi could recall, exposed the seal on her forehead. Hinata briefly touched it, and the seal burned an angry red, causing her to wince. Still, she was somehow able to form a series of hand seals that, while at first completely foreign to Hanabi, start to become chillingly familiar.

However Hinata began the sequence, she was going to end it by activating both her seal, and those of the men who were no doubt Hyuuga Branch House members as well. Hanabi wasn't sure what startled her more: that Hinata even knew the hand seals, or that she was willing to destroy her mind along with theirs. The young heiress moved without thought, yanking Hinata's hands apart before she could form the final hand seal.

"We need to leave now!" Hanabi shouted, and Hinata agreed without protest. She touched Gamatatsu's back, and he took to the air with a powerful leap. The foxes followed after a short pause, the one carrying Naruko in the lead.

"Take us to Naruto!" Hinata instructed over the roar of the wind before she turned to Hanabi.

"Whatever you were going to do, NEVER do it again!" Hanabi snapped.

Hinata's stressed expression softened. "I panicked, Hanabi-chan. I thought they might even kill you."

"So what would killing yourself and them have accomplished, other than pissing me off?!"

"I had to protect you, no matter what!"

Hanabi glared at her. "I hope you don't mean that. Because I know at least one of those men was Branch House for sure, and you would've regretted his death."

Hinata frowned. "What do you mean?"

"I recognized the voice of the one who grabbed me. It was Neji."

Sasuke's downfall had always been his pride. Pride in his name and his clan had left him no choice but to hunt Itachi. Pride in his own power had made him disregard his fellow rookies as meaningless. Pride in his choices never allowed him to question what he was doing, or doubt himself long enough to reconsider anything. And even though he had not seen Kakashi, Sakura, or Kiba in years, he was convinced that he knew them, and how to take them down. Sakura was almost disappointingly predictable, and even if she had improved, she had yet to do anything against him. Sasuke had thought an apprentice of Tsunade would at least put up a fight, but she was still the same silly girl with a crush.

No matter. She was going to die either way.

Really, a Chidori was overkill. A kunai slicing across her throat would've been far kinder. But some part of Sasuke felt she deserved punishment, if not for wasting his time, then at least for ignoring Naruto's warnings. True, he was an idiot, but he'd also survived numerous fights with Sasuke, where Sakura had not. He was probably even doing her a favor. Another enemy might have done far worse before killing her. Orochimaru certainly would've, if only to enrage Tsunade into doing something drastic and foolish.

But in all his planning, Sasuke had overlooked one possibility. Kiba always fought with Akamaru, so it had never occurred to Sasuke that they could or would separate to complete two different tasks in the field, especially not while one was fighting.

And normally, they would not have. But while Kiba talked just as much and as loudly as he always had, he'd still learned to listen and watch, especially when working with teams he was unfamiliar with. Kakashi was harder to read, having been in ANBU, but Sakura's body reacted a certain way every time Sasuke was mentioned, and Kiba had known from the start that if left alone with the Uchiha, she would die. As far as Kiba was concerned, his failure to bring in Sasuke the first time had nearly killed most of his friends. Allowing Sasuke to kill a comrade was simply out of the question.

So when Sasuke pressed Sakura's shoulder against a tree with his right hand, and raised a Chidori with his left, Akamaru was there to tear out his throat.

Neji was not in the hospital, nor did Hinata expect him to be. She could only recall Neji being seriously injured a few times, but even then, either Neji's insistence or the clan's had kept her from visiting him. In this case, though, it was more a matter of appearances. It would not do for Neji to be in the hospital with the same injuries as one of the attackers, and on the same day, no less.

On the other hand, if Neji didn't want to be found, he only had to remain on Hyuuga land. That he had not told Hinata that he wanted her to find him.

He was waiting for her at his team's usual training grounds.

"Tell me you had no choice, Neji," Hinata said softly. "Don't force me to stop believing in you, of all people."

"There is always a choice," Neji replied, staring at his bandaged wrist. "That's what Guy-sensei believes. He would say I simply made a less popular one."

"Did they threaten you? They did, didn't they? They used the seal against you?"

"I volunteered."

Hinata found herself unable to breathe. "You did it because you were worried about Hanabi, right?"

"She wasn't supposed to be there. But it had to be then. I couldn't convince them to attack later. And even if I had, the cover of night would only give them more chances to make lethal 'mistakes' that they wouldn't receive blame for." Neji closed his eyes. "I know that Naruto is trying to protect you, and there are few others I would trust your safety to. But you need to realize the position you've put the clan in, Hinata. There have always been those willing to kill you for the good of the clan. But now that they can link you to Naruto, that side has more support, and not just within the clan. I've done all I can to protect you. I can't help you anymore."

"You could join us. I know Naruto would agree to it, if you explained things to him. We could protect each other."

Neji shook his head. "No. That would just give them more reason to come after you. We shouldn't be in contact with each other any longer. I will protect Hanabi-sama as best I can, from within the clan. But only you can stress to her the importance of her role as heiress. It will be dangerous, but I will support her."

"But she's angry. She may not trust you."

"Nor should she. But despite that, she will need support in the coming days. Heiress is not so lofty a position that she can't be replaced or removed. She will need me, no matter how she feels about it. Make her understand that."

It took Sakura a moment to realize what had happened.

She had been staring into Sasuke's eyes as he leaned closer to her.

And then, suddenly, Akamaru was lying at her feet with a large, smoking hole in his throat. She had not even heard the Chidori, and she could only think of one way that might be possible. Sakura's eyes flew back to Sasuke's. Whatever she had seen before, or thought she'd seen before, was gone. Now she only saw the angry black and red of the Sharingan as Sasuke glared at his blood-soaked arm.

"You... were going to kill me?" Sakura whispered softly.

"Don't be silly, Sakura," Sasuke responded at once, and she began to hope again. "I still intend to."

Sakura was vaguely aware of Inner Sakura shrieking in outrage, but that voice was quickly drowned out by another, which certainly wasn't coming from her head.

Sasuke turned to look as an inhuman howl sounded from several yards away, followed by a blinding flash of light that could only have come from Kakashi's Raikiri. Then there was an eerie silence that lasted far too long for his liking. He turned back just in time to avoid the kunai that Sakura tried to bury in his eye, but it still slashed open his cheek. "So you chose your miserable life over me, finally?" Sasuke asked, grabbing the arm holding the kunai. "Maybe there's hope for you yet."

"I would've done anything for you," Sakura hissed, tears rolling down her cheeks.

"I know. And that's only part of what makes you so pathetic. So do us both a favor and just die."

It was then that Karin came tumbling out of the forest, screaming Sasuke's name. Mere seconds after her followed a monstrous, brown, two-tailed dog, with what remained of Kakashi's upper torso hanging limply from its blood-soaked jaws. In one smooth motion, it dropped the Copy Nin and dipped its head, neatly snapping Karin in half in mid-scream.

Then it looked at Sasuke and Sakura, and for an instant, there was recognition from all three.

Sasuke cursed under his breath, Sakura's eyes widened in disbelief, and the mad dog with Kiba's eyes unleashed a howl that promised only pain and vengeance as it closed the distance between them with a single leap.

Naruto didn't sleep that night.

There was no definite proof that Hinata or Hanabi would've been killed in the ambush, but to plan such a thing in broad daylight was worrying. The Hyuuga were clearly growing impatient and bolder, and that included the ones that wouldn't mind seeing the two sisters dead. They needed to be sent a clear message that another attack would not be tolerated.

But there were other pressing issues, as well. Naruto had learned everything after dismissing Naruko, but had immediately brought her back out to offer some comfort to Hinata. Hanabi insisted that she needed no such thing, but the little brat had still used his shower, and was currently sleeping in his bed. He would overlook it this time, considering what she'd been through that day.

What bothered Naruto most was the way in which Naruko had defended the sisters. It certainly never would've occurred to him to summon foxes, and he was fairly sure he couldn't in the first place. Even after absorbing Naruko's memories, he couldn't manage it, not that he really wanted to. But there was only one way Naruko could've pulled off such a feat, and that demanded some answers that Naruto really didn't want to explore, but knew he had to.

That feeling only got worse when Hinata came back alone. Naruko had gone out with her, and Hinata admitted that she'd been so preoccupied with Neji that she hadn't noticed Naruko was even missing.

Naruto's first instinct was to dismiss Naruko, but he hesitated. Whatever she was doing, he wanted all of her memories. Better to wait until she returned on her own. Anyway, it wasn't as if she'd just go around killing people in cold blood.

At least, he sincerely hoped not.

Tsunade was shaken awake in the middle of the night by Shizune, who had two extremely bad pieces of news to report.

First, there had been an attack on the Hyuuga Clan. Witnesses claimed that an enormous toad had plummeted from the sky and crushed a whole section of the compound. Curiously, the only victims confirmed dead were all elderly members of the Hyuuga council. They almost certainly had to be having a meeting at the time. Hiashi was conveniently on the other side of the village at the time, so he hadn't been harmed.

Next, and certainly far worse, in Tsunade's opinion, Kakashi's team had been wiped out, with Sakura as the only returning survivor. Tsunade and Shizune had immediately gone to the hospital to check on her, and received another unpleasant shock: Sakura wasn't there, and had never even been checked in.

"Shizune!" Tsunade barked. "How did Sakura get back to the village?"

"Um, she was escorted by an ANBU. He was in the area when he spotted Kakashi's Raikiri."

"What was his codename?"

"It wasn't listed in the report."

Tsunade scowled. That was sometimes a common practice in ANBU, but at the very least, they were required to list the squad they were in, or on whose orders they were acting.

The only ones that persistently failed to do either always seemed to work for one man, and one man only.

"I see you were unaware of that particular trait of the Inuzuka Clan, Haruno-san. I myself haven't seen it in almost a decade."

Sakura stared unblinkingly at the old, bandaged man sitting across from her. "You mean Kiba turned into that... thing on purpose?"

"Not quite," Danzo answered. "It's an old instinct, when a partner dies in the field. To extract revenge, no matter the cost. I can only imagine that you were spared because Akamaru was acting to protect you."

"But HOW did-"

"Every clan has its secrets, Haruno-san. The Inuzuka are no exception. It's unfortunate that we lost such exceptional shinobi on this mission, though. To think that both Kakashi and the Uchiha were both felled in the same-"

"He deserved it," Sakura said bitterly, staring at her lap.

Danzo stared at her. "Perhaps. Tell me, Haruno-san. Did he say anything to you?"

"He said I was weak. That I didn't matter!"

"Would you like to change that?"

Sakura slowly raised her head. "How?"

"The Hokage has trained you to be strong, and to heal. But she has not trained you to cast aside your heart and destroy the enemy that dares to stand before you. I can do that for you, Haruno-san. All I ask for in return is your allegiance. Become one of the roots that support the great tree that is Konoha. I will not say the reward is great, but you will never be called weak again. That, I can promise."

After the old man had gone, Sakura remained where she was, thinking over everything he'd said. She came alive with a jerk when a cup of hot tea was placed in front of her.

"Sorry," Sai said quietly, not looking the least bit apologetic.

Sakura forced a smile. "It's okay. I was just... thinking."

Sai shrugged. "Danzo-sama always has that effect on people. I'm used to it."

"Can he really make me stronger?"

"Yes," Sai responded, taking the seat that Danzo had vacated.

"Will I regret it?"

"Yes," Sai repeated. "But I suspect if you had died before I found you, you'd regret it even more."

"You're not going to tell me what I should do, are you?"

"It's not my choice to make, Sakura-san. I can only tell you the facts. Whatever Tsunade taught you, either it was useless against Sasuke, or you just didn't use it correctly. Danzo-sama could help you improve in both areas."

"Would Naruto do it?"

"No," Sai admitted after a moment. "But at this point, Naruto-kun doesn't need Danzo-sama's training. He already understands that even in Konoha, we are not entirely safe. When you understand that as well, you will have little to fear."

By the time Naruko returned to Naruto's apartment, it was almost two in the morning. She was not at all surprised to find him waiting for her.

"Have fun?" he asked mildly.

"I did what I had to," Naruko replied as she started to walk past him.

Naruto's hand shot out and grabbed her arm. "Not so fast, Kyuubi."

"If you really believed that," Naruko said quietly, "why would you do something so stupid?"

"Because you're not Kyuubi. Not entirely," Naruto said, placing his other hand over her stomach. "You're still me, somewhere. That's how I know this will work."

Naruko gasped as warmth washed over her belly, quickly yanking up her shirt to see the seal that she knew was still on Naruto's stomach. "What did you do?!"

Naruto frowned. "That you don't know tells me that you're not really me or Kyuubi. I don't know if that's good or not. All I did was give you some of my chakra, and it made the seal appear. It always does."

"But... nobody ever put a seal on me," Naruko murmured, tracing the spiral design with trembling fingers. "I'd remember if that happened..."

Naruto's frown deepened. "You really don't remember." He quickly dismissed Naruko, and then turned his thoughts inward. "What are you up to, fox?"

"What is it now?" Kyuubi demanded at once, sounding more grumpy that usual. "I was sleeping!"

"Yeah, right. What's up with that last Naruko clone?"

There was a slight pause as Naruto felt Kyuubi rooting through the clone's memories. "I don't recall giving you permission to summon my subordinates, brat," the fox said in a thoughtful tone.

"Well, I didn't. SHE did. And I want to know how she did it!"

"Frankly, so do I," Kyuubi admitted. "Only use the normal Shadow Clones until I figure this out. If she were to draw on too much of my chakra, well..."

"Well, what?"

"Think of it this way. You're already in trouble for what she did to the Hyuuga. Do you really want to be in trouble for her managing to summon me?"

Naruto's eyes widened. "She could really do that?!"

"Of course not! But do you think the fools in this village would take the time to distinguish between a five-tailed fox and myself? So for once, don't be a total moron and do what I tell you!"

Naruto debated whether he should tell Hinata and Hanabi what had happened to their home. But peeking into his bedroom, he found the sisters sleeping peacefully, their arms wrapped tightly around each other. At the foot of the bed, Gamakichi opened one eye, then closed it again.

"Tomorrow," Naruto decided. "They've been through enough for one day."

Kyuubi could not leave his cage. What he could do, however, was extend his tails (and the chakra they carried) to nearly every part of Naruto's body, in a sense. It took a great deal of concentration, but it had saved both of them countless times before. It was also the quickest way for him to gain information on what was happening inside Naruto's body.

This time, however, Kyuubi ran into something of a problem.

He had just begun to extend his tails when he heard an unexpected sound. Opening his eyes, he glanced around the cage, seeing nothing out of place, and then happened to look down.

There was a tiny, newborn child staring back up at him. From the scent, it had to be female. The bright blue eyes and the start of a golden curl atop her head confirmed most but not all of his suspicions. Curiosity getting the better of him, Kyuubi slowly poked the girl with one of his tails.

She squealed as the tip tickled her belly, then grabbed it and gave a strong yank.

There was a sound not entirely like POP!

Kyuubi's eyes widened as a miniscule amount of his overwhelming chakra suddenly vanished.

A miniature version of Naruto's seal flashed on the baby's belly, and then she shrieked happily, clapping her little hands. Smiling a gummy little smile, she rolled onto all fours and started crawling, slowly but industriously, towards the fox.

Kyuubi took a step back, realizing what was going to happen already. "We are SO screwed..."

End of Part 4.

Next Chapter:

Kyuubi identifies Naruto's new parasite. Sakura blooms under Sai's watchful eye. Hiashi's hand is forced. Naruto comes up with a risky plan to save himself, Hinata, and Hanabi. Sasuke may or may not be found dead (wahaha!).