Author's Note: Alright, I know this is coming as something of a shock to some people that follow my writing. The quick story is this: I start back on my sophmore college year in one week. What that means is that I have even less time than I do now to write. However, I will make time. Time for one story. Everything else is going on the backburner so I can keep up with this one and not let it go the way of my other Naruto fictions. I hope i can do it, but even if I can't I honestly like this idea. It just digs at me so I'll probably be able to stay interested. Next chapter will have a better author's note, so look for that. I'm staying a few chapters ahead so I can keep up with it. Next one will be out in around two weeks. If we're cool with one another, please enjoy my return to Naruto fiction. I hope you enjoy it.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or the characters in this work of fiction.
What a horrible night to be lurking around. It was a new moon and one could not see even a fraction in front of them. While Konoha itself was lit up by streetlamps, atop the Hokage monument their light was akin to fireflies twinkling in the darkness.
To the person standing on the massive stone head of the Fourth Hokage, though, there was something far more disconcerting lurking in the night than just the darkness.
"Were you followed?" The voice came out of nowhere, but the person didn't flinch. They were used to it.
"You would know better than I would," the first snapped. "I just want to get this over with so I can go back home. Do you want your stupid information or not?"
There was silence for a long moment before the sound of footsteps echoed on the nearby stone. A taller person joined the first, silhouetted by the flickering lights below, and lazily stared out over the city below them. "Of course. 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?" the second figured asked with a sigh. "You are not being very helpful tonight. This is information my master could have gotten through hearsay. He would be very annoyed should I only report back this."
Being reminded of who the boss really was, the smaller person stiffened. "Don't threaten me, Kabuto. If you want better information then you should have gotten a better spy."
Kabuto's smile didn't falter. "You were perfect for this 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 pushed his glasses back up his nose. "I believe you are holding out on me."
"..." The original spy didn't have anything to say to that at first. As Kabuto started to walk away, they caught his arm in a clenched fist. "There is a rumor going around. They say that Hokage-sama is having problems with his health." Defeated, the spy's shoulders drooped and the person released their hold on the taller boy. "Tell your boss that's all I know."
With his unnerving smile back, Kabuto patted his compatriot on the 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. I swear, Kabuto, if you take credit for it..."
Kabuto held up his hands in mock surrender. "I wouldn't dream of it. I will be certain to let the pertinent parties know." That seemed to remind the spy of something, though, and he pulled out a scroll. "Speaking of which, I believe this is the thing you wished for. This should allow you to personally report in now. Consider it a...graduation gift." When Sakura snatched the scroll out of his hands, their business was concluded and Kabuto disappeared in a swirl of leaves with only a parting patronizing wave.
Haruno Sakura, age twelve, looked down at the scroll she had been given and sighed a sigh that sounded like it belonged to someone three times her age. 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 but 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. Each time a part of her shriveled up in side, replacing itself with something foreign. Something cold. However, if she didn't keep her end of the deal...
For now Sakura could, but what about when Kabuto would demand something other than general information? The questions he wanted answered were getting more and more specific and invasive; something was winding up and the tension was mounting. When it sapped, what would be left for her?
"Nothing," Sakura whispered. Thus, 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, however. 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...not that her grades from last year weren't already far above everyone else's.
"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!"
Ah, finally! 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. The young girl 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 slid 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. "Heh, 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 was all that, though? Are we building something?"
"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. "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 as he was still scolding Naruto for some reason. Given how bad a tongue-lashing the boy was getting, it had to have been impressive.
"Now that the distractions are over," Iruka began, glaring at Naruto while he did so, "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 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 Genin 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. Curiously, they were split up into two groups, boys and girls, and given different tasks; the boys would be directly helping the construction workers and the Genin team while the girls would be carting around tools and nails for a group of workers.
"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'll get to learn directly from a Genin."
The person Iruka had indicated, a young man with a shiny hitai-ite, smiled pleasantly at Sakura and held out his hand. "My name is Yakushi Kabuto. It's a pleasure to meet you."
"I'm Haruno Sakura," Sakura introduced as she shook his hand.
Speaking of the Genin team, they were an odd bunch. Even in this heat they were wearing purple pants and shirts. Sakura had been delegated to helping one of them in particular, an older boy named Kabuto. He was working on getting a part of the wooden frame up while his teammates, Yoroi and Tsurugi, worked on building the next piece of frame.
"Sakura-san, could you get me another bag of nails?" Kabuto asked, noting how few he had left. He thanked the girl when she held up more and soon returned to work, hammering away on what would soon become a wall.
The young academy student wondered how someone like Kabuto could be a Genin. He was nice, of course, but he didn't scream "ninja" to Sakura. In fact, he was sweating quite a bit under the summer sun and looked about ready to pass out...not that he had looked like the physical-type when Sakura first laid eyes on him. Still, the girl supposed it took all kinds and who was she to judge someone else's physical condition? The other Genin were odd, but at least they seemed capable.
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.
It wasn't that they didn't deserve a break, Sakura told herself as she wandered off towards her class, it was that they didn't invite her. After all, hadn't she been helping them? They were part of the team for the day. Oh well, Genin probably didn't want some academy student hanging around them. It wasn't that big of a deal.
Iruka had already started handing out the 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 practically 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, after all, and there were other girls around that kept arguments from forming. "I thought you'd be happier since you got to team up with the Genin. You look like someone just kicked your favorite 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." Alright, so maybe she was a bit bitter as well as annoyed.
Ino just smirked. "Oh yeah? I saw you checking out the one with the glasses. I guess nerds would want to stick together." Several of the other girls giggled while a few more blushed. They must have wanted the same thing.
"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," one of the other girls said. Most of the others nodded sagely.
As the topic devolved into the enigma that was an almost-teen 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, though the student had never been very good at tracking.
A plyboard 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. It was practically the biggest snake Sakura had ever seen and it seemed to know where it was going. It wasn't a poisonous variety, Sakura's own training told her that, but it shouldn't be around people. Very, very odd.
Well, if her team wasn't around then there was no reason to study the snake some more. Sakura hung back, but followed the creature as it weaved around and between the debris. There were other workers around, but they were too busy with their own sections to watch one little girl. 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 wooded, but it was better than being around in the village. It seemed like the heavy construction had just upset the creature from wherever it usually stayed and it had chosen to move. No big deal.
Just as she was about to head back to the academy to talk to Iruka, Sakura heard a soft "bang" from the training area. "No one is supposed to be back there," she mumbled to herself. All the classes were out in the construction yard. Even more strange was the chakra she felt hovering over the place like a barrier. Sakura hadn't even noticed until she was standing past it. For whatever reason, the snake Sakura had been following had somehow gotten through it with Sakura following it.
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 to pick the snake up. Once in his hands, 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 bespeckled Genin unrolled the scroll for his teammates to see. "We are to fail the next Chunin exams. Yes, again." His voice was light, not tense at all. "We have a mission as well: obtain a new copy of ANBU's bingo book. That's all."
Sakura had no idea about the Chunin 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. There was really only one explanation for all of this; they were spies.
The girl had to fight hard to control her breathing. This was serious. The village would have to know about this! Even though it was just one Genin team, they could cause problems if no one knew. 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.
That was, 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 snaky 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. She didn't know where she was now, though, as it looked like a totally different part of the city. She was released, though, and she fell forward onto her knees. It had been the taller of Kabuto's teammates who had grabbed her and now he was standing back with his compatriot, apparently waiting on Kabuto.
The boy 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.
"My, my. Your chakra was so tiny that I mistook you for an animal caught inside the barrier. What a bad kid." Kabuto sounded more upset with himself than the student, though. "I simply must know how much you just 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 the girl hard enough that Sakura's head snapped back. Her crying only increased, however. When she managed to look up at Kabuto, she was struck by the sheer malice that was rolling off of him.
"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's head fell, defeated. She 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 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 while one of the others held Sakura's head steady and forced her eyes open. "It was fun, Sakura-san."
Just as things were going dark for the girl, something made Kabuto pull back from the edge. Though Sakura couldn't see what it was, she knew it saved her. Just so long as she didn't get killed...just so long as she was alive...
In the present, Sakura's eyes snapped back open. She didn't want to remember this. How long had she just been sitting here, brooding over how all this had started? There was no point to it anymore; what's done is done. She had made her decision and now she had to stick with it. Glancing down at the scroll in her hands, Sakura hoped that it was something that made her job easier, like she had asked weeks ago. She didn't like talking to, or thinking about, Kabuto.
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. At least she was getting better at picking out what information was useful, though. Her reports used to take twice as long.
Sakura rose to her feet and dusted her shorts off. She didn't like leaving her mother alone for very long, especially when Kabuto wasn't around. The student didn't think he'd actually go after her family when she'd been keeping up with her part of the deal, but Sakura didn't want to push it. As she walked, though, the girl 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 to the student. It looked like it only went a few rolls deep into the scroll, though. She could probably unwind the entire thing on a tabletop.
Her house was in view now. 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 her mother just for sanity's sake. The woman was sleeping peacefully, not even stirring when Sakura opened 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" were the labels.
'Well, since I'm looking for something I should use 'Recall',' Sakura thought. 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. In fact, it looked quite like a journal. Sakura picked it up and, after looking it over more 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. That was it; there were no other words on any of the pages. "So it's an activity journal for my reports? Do I just write it in here?"
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", not even slightly surprised when it disappeared in another puff of smoke.
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.
Back in her room, 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 had 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.
Sakura couldn't help but let her mind drift back over her predicament as she changed for bed. 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 reverent 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. Sakura couldn't even cut a deal if she were captured. 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 going to be a grand game of chicken with the first person blinking losing.
'I just can't blink,' Sakura told herself. She couldn't afford to. Death was the only reward if she were caught by the village. She had far more to lose than some random Jounin, that was for sure. 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 the exam tomorrow. The rest could wait; tomorrow, nothing would be able to drag her down. Not even the reality waiting around the corner.