It was a horrible night to be lurking around. Streetlights from the village below twinkled like a carpet of fireflies below the Hokage Monument, innumerable and blazing in her eyes. She wondered what all the people enjoying those lights were thinking about. Were they worrying over family? Their jobs? Dreading work in the morning? Were the children down there scared of things lurking in the dark? Having nightmares?
"Were you followed?" Whatever nightmares they were having couldn't compare to the one she was living. The voice, sickly sweet and placid, didn't come from one single direction. Even in the open air of the monument it seemed to reverberate off nonexistent walls to reach her ears.
"You would know better than I would," she snapped, covering her unease with hostility. "I just want to get this over with so I can go back home. Do you want your information or not?"
There was silence for a long moment before footsteps echoed on the nearby stone. It was eerie how he could just appear like that, but at least he was tangible now and not some kind of monster lurking in the darkness.
"Of course I do. Please, give me your report."
"The council is meeting in two days along with the jounin. I don't think the chunin are going to be affected."
"And why is that?" he asked. A quiet beat later he added, "You are not being very helpful tonight. This is information my master could have gotten through hearsay. He would be very annoyed if I only have that to report."
She stiffened. "Don't threaten me, Kabuto. If you want better information then you should have gotten a better spy!"
The teenager shrugged. "You were the perfect tool for the job. You can move around without anyone suspecting you, yet you only bring me talk of a meeting between the jounin and their superiors." He airily shook his head. "I believe you are holding out on me."
The girl bit into her cheek until she tasted blood. He was lying; Kabuto always lied. He had taken less than this before and there had been no problem. Let him walk away, she told herself.
Before Kabuto could get more than a few steps away, she was on her feet and catching him by the arm. "There is a rumor going around. They say that Hokage-sama is having problems with his health." Her breath was coming out in harsh puffs. She clenched her fist as tight as it would go and hoped to god above that it would at least put a bruise on him. "That's all I know."
Kabuto's smile in profile showed that, once again, his bluff hadn't been called. He easily extracted his arm and reached over to pat the girl on her head. "Excellent. That is the level of information we expect from you. Our organization will be pleased, Sakura-san."
"Don't get that friendly with me, freak!" Sakura snapped, slapping away the teen's hand. "You make sure they know it was me who gave you that info. You keep them off my back! If you try and take credit for it, I swear find a way to kill you."
The boy's smile didn't falter. "I wouldn't dream of it. I will be certain to let the pertinent parties know. In fact, you have earned the reward you have been asking for." He reached into his pouch and pulled out a small, unmarked scroll. "You can make your own reports now, independent of m-"
Sakura snatched it from his fingers before he could finish. "I will take that as your gratitude," Kabuto laughed. He gave her a mocking little bow before he slithered back into the surrounding darkness like smoke.
She held onto the little scroll with the desperation of a twelve-year-old who thought it a ward against everything evil in the world. It was her key to get Kabuto out of her life. She would open it later, at home where she was certain there were no prying eyes. Right now she just slumped down onto the ground and hugged her knees, looking out over the village again but still not really seeing it.
How could she have let herself get into this position? Every month she was forced to betray her village, her friends and her family. Every month a part of her shriveled up in side, replacing itself with something foreign. Something cold that wasn't Haruno Sakura.
Questions were becoming more pointed and prying. Something in the distance was building and twisting and winding up to a snapping point. And when it finally hit that tension, what could be left of her?
"Nothing," Sakura whispered. She drew up her legs and hugged them, letting her mind drift back to the times before all this started, to when she was just a simple academy student and "ninja" was just a word linked to her future.
To a time over a year removed.
Chapter One: The Windup
"Oh god, I'm late! So late!"
Sakura weaved through the morning crowds as best she could. She had spent too long doing her hair this morning and completely forgot about the orientation ceremony at the academy. She was already thirty minutes late and as things were she wasn't even going to make it to the first class on time.
Today was a very special day in the young girl's life. It marked the beginning of the third and final year of the shinobi academy. If Sakura passed this year, she would be an official Genin of Konoha. That would mean that Sasuke would finally pay her some attention and that she'd finally be better than that pig, Ino. A full ninja, with all the rights and privileges therein. She would be able to stand on her own two feet as an adult in the village.
"Watch where you're going, brat!" some decidedly unpleasant woman yelled out as Sakura brushed past her.
"Suck a brick, old bat!" Sakura shouted back as she kept running. Normally, she wouldn't be so rude but today was proving to be exceptional in annoying her. "I'm really going to catch it!"
As she slid around the last corner, the academy gates came into view and Sakura could see the other kids filing inside. The orientation was over, but class hadn't started yet. She ducked under a man carrying two-by-four's and hopped over a concrete mixer. Everything in the universe was trying to make her late, but Sakura wouldn't let it. Not today, dammit! Just as the front door was closing, she shoved her foot in, surprising the chunin that was standing there.
"Safe!" Sakura happily declared as she skipped through the door. She noticed who it was she was acting out in front of and had the decency to look somewhat embarrassed at her outburst. "Ha, sorry about that, Mizuki-sensei. I really didn't want to be late today."
The chunin teacher was mellow as always. "Well, you did a good job, Sakura-san," Mizuki said as he walked Sakura to her classroom. "That was good footwork, missing those construction workers by the gate. Have you been practicing over the winter break?"
Sakura blushed. "Maybe a little," she responded, holding up her fingers to indicate how much. "What is all that outside, though?" glancing over her shoulder at the mess out front
"Iruka-san will be explaining all of that in class. It's going to be pretty busy around here for a few days," the teacher explained. His eyes lit for a moment. "And it'll be exciting for you students as well."
The class was full by the time Sakura found a seat and she was forced to sit at the back. Fortunately, Iruka hadn't started yet thanks to Naruto getting yet another lecture up front. Given how bad the tongue-lashing was, whatever he had done to deserve it must have been impressive.
"Now that the distractions are over," Iruka began, glaring the back of Naruto's head as he skulked back to his seat, "I can properly welcome you all to, hopefully, your last year here. For some of you graduation will be next year, but I hope that you all can at least by pass next summer."
Suddenly, a loud clamor from outside interrupted Iruka's speech. The children all began talking and looking out the windows, forcing the instructor to bang a yardstick on the top if his desk to get back their attention.
"I think you should tell them about it now. Otherwise we'll never get anything done," Mizuki suggested.
"I suppose you're right." Iruka shook his head with a good-natured smile. Kids would be kids. "Alright, listen up! We're adding onto the main building this week. It was supposed to be done last month, but there were some delays. However! We'll also have some visitors from the construction: a genin team has been hired to make the work go faster." There were quite a few excited murmurs from the class at seeing some real ninja in action, but they quieted after a glare from their teacher. "You'll get plenty of chances to see them working since we'll be helping with the work. It will give you all a chance to see how a team works and get some unorthodox exercise."
"And free child labor," Shikamaru scoffed, much to the amusement of the class.
Despite the boy's protest, however, Iruka still had them file up and head out into the schoolyard for their daily exercise. Sakura guessed that it was a new teacher's lounge that was being built based on what part of the academy they were ushered to. They were broken up into teams of boys and girls. The boys would be directly helping with construction, nailing things down and such, while the girls would be carting around tools.
"And this will be your area for the day, Sakura," Iruka said as he led the girl further into the construction zone. "You're lucky. You get to learn directly from a genin."
The person Iruka had indicated, a young man with a shiny headband, smiled pleasantly at Sakura and held out his hand. "My name is Yakushi Kabuto. It's a pleasure to meet you."
He seemed pleasant enough. Sakura had been afraid that it would be three big, scary ninja bristling with weapons that would be ordering them around. "I'm Haruno Sakura," she replied as she shook his hand.
Even if they weren't physically imposing, the genin were still strange. Kabuto's two teammates, Yoroi and Tsurugi, both were wearing full masks and long sleeves despite the spring heat. Sakura mostly watched as the trio briskly created the framing of a new wall. Occasionally they would ask for more supplies, nails and such, which Sakura quickly gathered for them. Then it was back to waiting and watching.
Sakura student wondered how someone like Kabuto could be a genin. He was nice of course, but he just didn't scream "ninja" when she looked at him. Dark spots of sweat were spreading on his shirt despite his more sensible attire. Compared to the civilian workers he was downright scrawny. Still, the girl supposed it took all kinds and who was she to judge someone else's physical condition? The other two genin were odd, but at least they didn't look ready to pass out.
Thus, Sakura decided that she should just go along with it. It wasn't often that she got to see a real genin team at work, after all.
"We're taking a break for lunch now, Sakura-san," Kabuto politely called out.
Embarrassed at having been caught staring, Sakura just nodded. She watched as the odd teen went over to his teammates and smiled with them as they opened their boxed lunches, seemingly ignoring her.
Sakura lingered for a few more awkward moments before shuffling off. Iruka was already handing out lunches that the academy supplied and the rest of Sakura's classmates were breaking up into their individual groups, each talking adamantly about their earlier activities. Naruto was talking so loud about some old construction worker had taught him how to sand wood that he was shouting. Usually Sakura would be annoyed by the boy, but it was nice to hear that at least someone was enjoying themselves.
"Hey, forehead," Ino greeted as Sakura walked over. Although they were rivals, the two still acted somewhat like friends; better than eating alone. Both of them had burned too many bridges to get into a new clique this late in their school lives. "I thought you'd be happier since you got to team up with the genin. Instead, you look like someone just kicked a puppy."
Did she? Sakura was more annoyed than anything. "It's nothing, Ino-pig. I just thought they'd invite me to eat with them."
Ino smirked. "Oh yeah? I saw you checking out the one with the glasses. I guess nerds would want to stick together."
"Oh please, Sasuke-kun is the only man for me," Sakura snorted. "I just can't believe they ignored me like that after I helped them all morning. That's just rude!"
"Well, that's how men are. Better get used to it," a nearby girl said. Her friends nodded eagerly.
As the topic devolved into the enigma that was a boy's mind, Sakura finished off her lunch and started to wander away. Ino had asked where she was going and the pink haired girl had replied that she was going to check on her "team" to see if they were ready to start again.
When she reached the construction area she was assigned to, the genin were nowhere to be seen. Their food and tools were still nearby, so they couldn't have gone far. Being left by herself to do the work was not sounding good to Sakura so she went off in search of the three teens. Of course, she had no idea where they could have went. Their tools were still scattered around, along with what remained of their lunch, so they couldn't have went far.
Traipsing through a construction zone was not Sakura's idea of good time usage. Lunch was almost over and her daily teamwork grade was dependent on how well her work was done. Even if she was to do the work herself Iruka would be able to tell. Well, there was still enough time to at least look for the Genin before getting her teacher.
As she walked through the skeletal frames, Sakura tried to find any trace of her teammates. No footprints, but tracking hadn't been her best subject. She was guessing at this point.
A ply board fell off of its precarious perch and Sakura nearly jumped out of her skin. She looked around for anything that could have disturbed it and her eyes came to rest on a large snake slithering through the foundation area. She didn't recognize the coloring on it, either.
It stopped for a moment and its broad arrowed head rose to nearly two feet with even more body still on the ground. Sakura stopped and stood still, but the reptile swiveled and locked eyes with her.
Sakura told herself it was just a dumb animal; that it didn't understand what it was looking at and was just reacting to vibrations. But it knew. Sakura felt that that as surely as the sun shining on her skin.
After a moment its head went back down and it slithered off at the same sedate pace it had been going, leaving Sakura more than a little shaken. Still, she was curious. A snake that big was also a problem for the school, so Sakura decided she had to follow it.
The rout the serpent was taking led Sakura farther away from the construction zone to the point she was now on the other side of the academy. It was headed into the auxiliary training area and the young girl stopped by the gate. It wasn't exactly a forest, but it was thick shade compared to anything else in the neighborhood. The snake made a b-line toward it and Sakura told herself that the beast had only been upset by the construction. It would slither on back there and she could find a teacher so they could deal with it. No big deal.
Just as she was about to head back to the academy to talk to Iruka, Sakura heard a soft pop from the training area. No one was supposed to be back there. Only second and third years could use it, and only with a teacher supervising. All of them were at the construction zone. Stranger still, Sakura could feel the familiar buzz of chakra in use. It washed over her gently, like it was a satin curtain instead of a closed door.
A barrier. Sakura hadn't even noticed until she was standing past it. For whatever reason, the snake she had been following had somehow gotten through it with Sakura following it right in.
Taking a few minutes to investigate this was worth being late to start work, Sakura decided. Walking down the gravel path towards the training area, she also kept a look out for that snake. For some reason it had gotten past the barrier that even birds we warded away from. Something told Sakura that it was important.
As she crept closer to the clearing, muffled sounds started to drift to her ears.
"What are our new orders?"
"Just a moment, just a moment..."
The quiet voices came as a surprise to Sakura. She thought she recognized them, but wasn't completely sure. Taking the chance, she crept closer to the center of the grounds, making certain to suppress any sounds.
Standing in the middle of the area was none other than the wayward Genin team. Sakura was about to stomp over there and give them a piece of her mind, but she saw something that gave her pause.
It was the snake.
The creature had crawled into the middle of the open space where the three Genin were standing. To Sakura's incredible surprise, Kabuto stooped down until she was staring it in the face. The reptile shook and Sakura thought it was going to bite the teen straight in the face, but it did something even more horrifying – it dislocated its jaw and spat up what looked like a scroll. Afterwards, it disappeared in a puff of smoke.
'It's a summoned animal,' Sakura realized. Why would it be here? Who had summoned it? Most importantly, why would Kabuto know about it? Then Sakura realized what was going on; it had been looking for Kabuto specifically.
The genin unrolled the scroll for his teammates to see. "We are to fail the next Chunin Exams." His voice was light, not tense at all. "We have a new mission as well. We will have to obtain a new copy of ANBU's bingo book."
Sakura had no idea about the exams, or why failing them was important, but she did know the bingo book. It was only available to chunin and up and it contained information on all criminals and high-ranking shinobi from neighboring villages. It was something that genin shouldn't have access to. A thousand explanations raced through Sakura's mind at that moment, but one stood out above all others.
The girl had to fight hard to control her breathing. This was serious. The village would have to know about this! Sakura knew exactly what procedures to follow since they were all covered in class. All she had to do is go and get her teacher. That's it. Simple.
Simple, until her foot caught on a root as she was standing.
Sakura's heart nearly jumped out of her throat as she broke into a run. They would have heard that and now they would be coming for her. If she hurried, she could make it to Iruka. He could fix things, he could catch them. He could-
"Hello, Sakura-san." Kabuto had appeared right in front of the girl's path, causing her to skid to a stop. She opened her mouth to scream, but a long arm wrapped around her throat from behind. Kabuto now sadly shook his head, waving a patronizing finger in Sakura's face. "Now, now, now. We can't have you making such a fuss." His eyes flicked to a spot behind the girl and he gave a look that implied he wasn't pleased.
Instantly, Sakura felt her body lurch forward and then snap back into place. As she scrambled to her feet, she realized she didn't recognize where she was. They had taken her to a totally different part of the city!
Kabuto sighed and pushed his glasses up his nose. He looked down at the terrified student with an annoyed face before pulling a kunai from his leg pouch and stooped down so he was eye-to-eye with the girl.
He studied her for a second. "Your chakra was so tiny that I mistook you for an animal caught inside the barrier. What a bad kid. I need to know what you heard. You will tell me, yes?" The blade danced distressingly close to Sakura's throat as he asked.
Death. Sakura knew that she would have to face it eventually, but here it was, staring her in the face before she was even a ninja. The blade was pressing hard into her skin now, drawing a thin line of blood. The look on Kabuto's face made it clear he was tired of waiting.
"I-I-I didn't see anything! I swear!" Tears were starting to leak out the corners of Sakura's eyes. "I swear it, please don't kill me! Please!"
Kabuto backhanded Sakura enough that her head snapped back. She sucked in breath for a fresh scream when Kabuto roughly caught her face in his hand.
"Listen to me. If you do not tell me what you heard I will rip it from your mind. Do you understand?"
It was terrifying, looking Kabuto in the eyes. They were wild, vicious things. The kind of eyes that belonged to a demon that would snap you up if you even blinked.
"O-Orders, I heard you mention orders," Sakura sobbed. The part of her brain still working knew what Kabuto's threat meant; if she didn't answer he would use genjutsu that would surly kill her, violating her mind and pull the information out anyway.
Kabuto threw her back to the ground and glanced at his two partners. "We were careless. I suppose I'll have to ready a corpse. I only have one as young as you, though." He held up his hand and went through a few sets of seals. She had no idea what jutsu he was using, but it was clear to tell its intent. "It was fun, Sakura-san."
Just as things were going dark for the girl, something made Kabuto pull back from the edge. Something looming over his shoulder, staring down at her. Something tall and slender with eyes like burning coals that burned into her soul like a dark stain…
Atop the Fourth's head, Sakura's eyes snapped back open. She didn't want to remember this.
She stood. There was no point to it; what's done was done. Sakura had made her decision and now she had to stick with it, no matter where it led.
Glancing down at the scroll in her hands, Sakura hoped that it was something that made her job easier. She didn't like talking to, or thinking about, Kabuto if she didn't have to.
There was no trying out the scroll now. Sakura had been gone for quite some time and if her mother were to check in on her there would be problems. One of the first things she had drilled into her head by Kabuto was to cover her bases. It had almost been an hour and anything longer than that couldn't be written off as a "late night walk" to calm her nerves before graduation.
That, and she didn't like leaving her mother alone for very long, especially when Kabuto wasn't around. Sakura didn't think he'd actually go after her family when she'd been keeping up with her part of the deal, but she didn't want to push it. Though, as she walked to down she did break the seal on the scroll to get an idea of what was within.
It was a summoning scroll of some sort. Not one of the usual animal contracts, though. There was a space for a hand print and a circle ringed by runes of all sizes. Sakura recognized a few, but most were alien. It looked like it only went a few rolls deep into the scroll. She could probably unwind the entire thing on a tabletop.
A half an hour later and her house was in view. There were no lights on and for that Sakura was thankful. She was careful about leaving, but sometimes her mother would get up in the middle of the night for water.
After hopping into the window she had left unlocked on her way out, Sakura checked in on the woman just for sanity's sake. Haruno Mebuki was sleeping peacefully, not even stirring when Sakura opened and closed the door to her bedroom.
With that out of the way, Sakura retreated back to her own room and lit a candle. The soft glow illuminating part of her room, she locked her door and unrolled the scroll on her bed. Her first instinct had proven correct; it was a summoning scroll of some kind. There were two distinct hand prints on it with lettering under each: "Return" and "Recall".
Recall seemed to be the option she wanted. Hesitantly, she placed her hand on the correct print and felt a small pull of chakra. The circle of symbols glowed briefly and a small book appeared in a puff of smoke.
It was leather-bound and without markings of any kind on the front cover. Sakura picked it up and, after looking over the outside thoroughly, opened to the first page. There were several small pages that were loosely inserted into the book which fell out when she opened it. These inserts had various symbols on them that looked like a pattern or word key of some kind. Putting them away for a moment, Sakura turned her attention back to whatever was actually written in the book.
"'Weekly journal, Haruno Sakura. Accept?'" the pink-haired girl read aloud. There was nothing else printed in the book. "So it's an activity journal for my reports? Do I just write it in here?" she wondered.
Of course, the book could not answer any of her questions. Taking a chance, Sakura grabbed a pen from her desk and wrote 'yes' under the first line. Placing the book back in the circle, Sakura used her other hand on the print for "Return'. It disappeared with a pop and left in the same little cloud of smoke it had arrived with.
There was no doing anything else tonight with the seal. Sakura rolled it back up and put it into her closet with all her other academy scrolls. Unless someone knew exactly what they were looking for, it was doubtful that they would be able to pick it out of the dozens of others on the rack. Whoever had made it had used a Konoha academy scroll so the markings wouldn't give it away.
Sakura closed the window and turned back up her lamp light. She wanted to go to sleep, but those inserts that had fallen out were too intriguing to ignore. After studying it for a moment, she came to the conclusion that it was indeed a key of some kind. Groupings of musical symbols and staff lines with corresponding letters. At first Sakura thought it was a simple coding, but it soon became obvious that she'd have to have at least a fundamental knowledge of music composition to fully grasp it. It was late, though, and the girl wanted nothing more than to sink under the covers. She rolled the pieces of paper up and put them into a small cut-away she had made under her desk.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow she would be graduating from the academy, becoming a true Genin and citizen of the village. If she were caught there would be no reprieve, despite the safeguards Kabuto had put in place. The price for spying was universal for all ranks: death, usually by public execution. In some ways it was better to even be a missing-nin as you'd get a private, somewhat respectful death at the hands of your former comrades. Not a gruesome display of gore to intimidate the masses.
What was worse is that Sakura would die alone. Kabuto certainly wouldn't be joining her if she were caught, thanks to a little insurance policy he had implemented. The girl rolled her tongue around in her mouth, slightly disgusted. No, Kabuto was much too smart for something like that. There were just two choices if she was discovered: a slow, horrible death at the hands of ANBU or a quick, supremely painful one as a result of the fail-safe.
The girl shuddered as she crawled under the covers. No, she wouldn't be found out. She had been covering all of her bases and a mere academy student wouldn't draw that much attention even if she was regularly eating at Jounin hangouts. Sakura was able to avoid even more scrutiny because she didn't actually try and eavesdrop on their conversations. Kabuto would take any tidbit she could pick up from just the regular chatter that he couldn't get to.
That was all going to change, though, as Sakura fully knew. As a genin, she would be outside the village more and she'd have to take risks to get more information. The one upside was that she'd have access to a jounin of her own on a permanent basis. It would be his or her duty to answer any and all questions.
Of course, that also meant that it'd be easier for her to be caught if the jounin was particularly attentive. It was like a staring game – first one to blink loses.
I just can't blink, Sakura told herself. Death was the only reward if she were caught by the village. She had far more to lose than some random jounin. The day after tomorrow, after the exam, her real test would start.
For now, though, Sakura just enjoyed the feel of her bed. She had given Kabuto enough information to last for at least another few weeks and non-stop studying left her confident about graduating. The rest could wait.
Tomorrow, nothing would be able to drag her down. Not even the reality waiting around the corner.