Disclaimer: Naruto and its characters are created by Masashi Kishimoto, but the new plots are mine. This fanfiction had been written for entertainment purposes only and without intention of infringing upon any copyright.
Title: The Return of the Heir
Summary: Konoha is on its way to recovery with Kakashi at the helm. And Sakura thinks that she is finally progressing with her life. Until Itachi walks back into Konoha, a free man. One secret had once torn them apart. But what about the other?
50-shinobi Theme No 29: Leap of Faith
A/N: Sequel to The Lost One. Enjoy!
The Return of the Heir by elle6778 – Chapter 1
It began with a single conversation with Naruto.
And then, the next thing Sakura knew, she had enrolled herself and her blond friend for the next ANBU examination. Countless wounds, and five near-fatal blows later, Sakura had found herself and a nearly mummified Naruto in a hospital. Soon afterwards, Kakashi had paid them a visit and announced rather proudly that the two of them had made it into ANBU.
Now she wondered why she even bothered.
Sakura grimaced as she ran under a bridge, trying hard to stay within the shadows, while her mind kept reminding her why she was in this predicament now. Really, she had only herself to blame for this.
After passing her exams one year ago, she had been assigned a permanent post as the ANBU's medical team, which was exactly what she had wanted. She had been ecstatic that she was able to remain working within Konoha for the majority of her duties. However, the continuing conflict between Konoha and several minor countries meant that the shinobi ranks had been reduced, which resulted in her reassignment to the field a few months ago.
The shock of being in the field was almost too much but she had gotten used to it since. Not that she had much of a choice. Konoha needed all the shinobi they could spare, after all.
That was how she found herself on this mission. She had been sent to provide medical cover to a new ANBU squad, whose task was to trail and rescue two surviving members of a certain clan who had been kidnapped by Lightning Country nins. The aim was simple, rescue these two children gifted with a unique bloodline limit and assimilate them into the Konoha forces.
It had gone fairly well until their presence was detected by one of the shinobi guarding the children, and then all hell broke loose. Outnumbered and taken by surprise, they had been hard-pressed to hold their ground, especially when two backup Lightning teams arrived. In the end, Sakura was the only surviving member of the ANBU squad.
She had done only sensible thing then.
Panting heavily, Sakura pulled off her black nondescript hat and wiped the sweat off her brow as she continued to streak along the riverbank. The hat was soon jammed back onto her head to hide her pink-hair from view. She could still sense the presence of the Lightning shinobi somewhere behind her, so she could not slow down. She was far too outnumbered to even consider fighting.
Still, she could not carry on this way.
Spotting the outline of what looked like a forest in the distance, Sakura made a beeline for it. The moment she reached it, she felt more in at ease. The forest terrain was not new to her, after all, even though this was Tea Country.
She continued to distance herself from her attackers, but this time above ground. Soon, much to her relief, their chakra signatures gradually dissipated.
Weary from the battle and the run, she cloaked her chakra and rested on a wide tree limb. She had to stop, she decided. Closing her eyes, she allowed herself to rest. She needed it to recharge.
It was not long afterwards that a sense of… something… pricked at her.
She froze in position. Immediately on edge, she tensed straight into battle mode and scanned her surroundings quickly.
What she saw made her breath catch in her throat.
Her heart gave an odd lurch and her breath left her in a rush. It had been so long since she had last laid eyes on those Uchiha features that she could only stare at him.
She had not seen him for what? Five years? He looked different now. His hair was long once again, falling to partially cover his dark eyes, which was devoid of the Sharingan at the moment. He must have let it grow after they had parted ways all those years ago.
And then the anger began to bubble within her. So many things had happened because of the man standing there, and whilst she could overlook and forgive most of them, there was one that she simply could not accept. She recalled what his actions in the past had ultimately led to, and her temper began to boil. The urge to jump down from the tree to attack him, to physically pound him into the ground, was almost overwhelming. Her body, strung taut with emotion, was practically trembling with rage.
The next moment, her ANBU training kicked in, reminding her to tamp down her emotions, to push them to the back. This was no time to dredge up her personal issues with Itachi. The position she was in was potentially dangerous.
She inhaled deeply and forced herself to study him and the situation impassively, even though the perspiration dampening the inside of her mask told her that she was anything but impassive.
Covered in a black, unmarked cloak, Uchiha Itachi stood on the ground, staring up at her. He did not move, appearing outwardly relaxed, but she knew that he was able and could attack at any moment. She also knew that despite her brief rest, she did not have enough chakra reserves to last even minutes in a battle with him. He was in a league of his own when it came to such things.
Her other option was to run, and once again, that seemed like the best course of action. Would he chase her when she ran? She swept her eyes over her surroundings again, this time attempting to find safe route out of her predicament.
When her eyes landed back on the missing-nin, she found that he still had not moved. Was he waiting for her to initiate something? Did he recall how they had parted? What was she to him now? Just a shadow in his past? An enemy?
No, she would not think of him in those terms. It was too personal. He was just Uchiha Itachi, a wanted S-class missing nin.
Slowly, she straightened up from her reclining position until she was standing on the tree limb, her entire body fully geared for battle. She had to be prepared for anything.
Still, he did not react.
She shifted forward and allowed herself to drop to the ground gently, her knees bent slightly to absorb the impact and to allow her a better chance of shifting directions.
And yet, he only continued to stare silently at her.
For an indeterminate span of time, both of them stood facing each other across the twenty feet which separated them. She could not help but wonder if she should simply walk away, but something stilled her. Something kept her standing there, staring at those Uchiha features.
"Uchiha…" she breathed out before she could stop herself, her voice was barely audible.
But he had heard her, and inclined his head in acknowledgement. "ANBU-san," he returned.
Her breath stuck in her throat, half in panic, half in relief.
ANBU-san… He'd called her ANBU-san. It sounded as if he had not recognized her. There was a burst of something inside her, something which veered dangerously close to hysteria. How could he not have recognized her? Especially considering just how sharp his senses were. What if this was just his way of messing with her head?
No, she had to remain calm.
She knew what she had to do. The protocol was clear. If she was to find herself in a situation where she knew she could not win, she was to retreat and report the incident. Especially when it involved an S-class missing nin.
She swallowed hard as she made up her mind to do exactly that. Chances were, they would never meet again. Her hands clenched into fists at the very thought. It was best that way, so that she did not have to be reminded of the part he had played in everything. Besides, she stood no chance against him, even though she wanted him to pay for what he had done.
So, she spun around away from him, briefly catching a glimpse of his look of surprise, before she sped off.
It was only when she had travelled for miles that it struck her that he did not give chase.
Dawn broke through the clouds, casting ethereal rays upon the sprawling landscape beyond. Aside from the occasional huts dotting the land, the valley was unspoilt by human occupation. It was a view which Uchiha Itachi beheld frequently. After all, he had been residing in this secluded part of the world for a while now, having relocated after the unexpected encounter with a certain lone feline-masked Konoha ANBU last year.
On hindsight, he should have shifted elsewhere by now. For if he had done so in a timely manner, he would not be standing there with four masked Konoha ANBU facing him.
It was interesting that one of them was the lone ANBU from last year with the feline mask. Clearly, this kunoichi had reported his existence to Konoha since their last encounter and it had taken them the last one year to locate him.
As his gaze rested on her, it struck him once again that her stature seemed familiar, but he doubted that the ANBU standing in front of him was Sakura. From what he knew of said kunoichi, she was more the healing type than the killing type. Moreover, Sakura was most likely dead. His searches all those years ago had yielded no results, after all. The search process had been particularly slow since he had a certain ability of his tampered with several years ago, but he had scoured both Fire Country and Spring Country to no avail.
Itachi grimaced inwardly. It irked him that he no longer possessed the ability to tell the difference between one chakra signature and another. But it was a price he had paid for his carelessness. For letting his guard down.
"Uchiha Itachi," a male ANBU acknowledged, his posture suggesting that he was the leader of this particular team.
At those words, Itachi simply raised a brow.
The ANBU squad leader took a step forward. "You are supposed to be dead."
"That is clearly not the case," he replied smoothly.
"How is this possible?"
Was Konoha's shinobi truly so incompetent? "One year. You have not discovered the answer in that span of time?"
"One year?" the leader echoed, sounding mildly puzzled. "I'm not sure what year you're referring to, Uchiha."
Itachi slid his eyes towards the ANBU from the year before, noticing the very slight stiffening of her form. So, she had not reported sighting him, even though she had the knowledge of his identity then. Why had she broken protocol? Had she been in Tea Country last year without leave, and thus her reluctance to disclose his existence to Konoha?
This was… interesting.
Itachi decided not to reveal her. For now. "Perhaps I'm mistaken then," he murmured.
The ANBU studied him silently for a moment, and then spoke again. "I assume you know the procedure, Uchiha."
"Will you surrender?" the ANBU asked, sounding somewhat disinterested.
"I do not wish to fight, ANBU-san," Itachi said instead. "Allow us to part ways without violence."
"That is not possible. You are wanted shinobi."
Itachi nodded once. "Then, let us begin."
The two ANBU members streaked forward, past their stationary leader, while said leader crouched down with a scroll and brush. The feline-masked ANBU stood back, watching, but her posture betrayed her battle-readiness. Itachi's eyes narrowed as the implication of her stance sank in. It was one which was usually adopted by the medic of the squad. Was it simply a coincidence?
With a flare of bright energy, several large inky tigers burst from the scroll, bypassing the two ANBU, heading straight for him. Attention shifted, Itachi sidestepped, and then swiveled around with a kick which took down two of the tigers. The remaining three came at him again, and this time, he disposed of them with a water jutsu.
The black ink from the tigers had barely melted into the ground when the two male ANBU attacked with a combination jutsu. Itachi quickly disabled the wind-fire jutsu with a water barrier, and then without pause, created two clones of himself. His clones darted forward, engaging the two ANBU in a close-quarter battle.
The ANBU operatives were good, but not good enough. Before long, the clones managed to knock off the masks and trap the two ANBU into a genjutsu. They immediately fell unconscious, and Itachi directed his clones to deactivate the bloodline limit before he dismissed them. His loss of eyesight in the past had cautioned him to use the skill sparingly, even though he doubted that it would be the same this time. After all, he no longer had the same Mangekyou Sharingan as before.
A black ink horse streaked towards him, carrying a similarly ink-based rider. Before Itachi knew it, the blade of a black katana slashed past his ear. The hit was close and Itachi knew that this ANBU, the leader, was not unskilled. However, another water jutsu was all it took to melt away the ink.
Birds appeared out of the ANBU leader's scroll, circling him threateningly in the attempt to distract his focus. Itachi flipped through a series of seals, and his crows exploded into existence. It did not take long for the crows to send the birds splattering down into small puddles of black ink. The battle was growing somewhat tedious, Itachi mused.
"Why are you not attacking?" the squad leader asked flatly.
"I do not wish to fight." He sidestepped a rain of ink kunai. "It is pointless."
The squad leader simply nodded, but said nothing else. Instead, another scroll made an appearance, and he bit into his thumb, smearing blood onto it before unfurling it. This time, the tiger which emerged from it was blood red.
It charged at him. Instinctively, Itachi knew that this opponent would not be so easy to defeat. He could not consciously sense the strength of its chakra, but the light humming sensation against his skin was enough of a warning. His intuition was proven correct when his kunai went through the red tiger without harming the creature.
The tiger released an angry snarl, and launched towards him again, forcing Itachi to perform a substitution jutsu to avoid the hit.
It seemed that it was time for him to shift into a more aggressive stance, he decided, his fingers forming a specific series of seals.
"Katon: Hosenka no jutsu!"
The technique erupted with balls of fire streaking towards the tiger, which danced around them in avoidance, snarling as it did so. It was enough of a distraction to give Itachi an opening towards his true target; the ANBU squad leader.
In a mere blink of an eye, he closed the distance between them.
The ANBU squad leader twisted out of reach as Itachi delivered a kick, and then narrowly missed being hit by the retaliating punch. Those moves had been enough to inform Itachi that this ANBU was not comfortable with close-quarter combat, even though he could probably hold his own against an average shinobi. His main choice of techniques limited him to long-range battles.
They exchanged hits, with the ANBU clearly attempting to put some distance between them. Having no intention of allowing him to do so, Itachi sought an opening and soon found one. Without hesitation, he reached out and knocked the mask off the ANBU's head, revealing a pale face and dark eyes, framed by short black hair.
The ANBU looked shocked; his eyes widened.
And Itachi activated his Sharingan.
He heard a gasp from the female member of the squad, but he kept his eyes on this opponent until the pale ANBU's eyes fluttered shut, and he fell unconscious to the ground like his two other comrades. The Sharingan was dismissed soon after and not far away, the blood-red tiger exploded into nothingness.
Only then did Itachi turned his attention to the remaining member of the team. By the time his eyes landed on her, she was already halfway across the mountain, running with chakra-fuelled feet, no doubt. It was reminiscent of the last time they had met. She had taken to running as well, then. This, coupled with the fact that she had not reported him, intrigued him. It made him suspicious of her identity. And now, he had questions for her.
He followed as she rolled down to the valley, in the attempt to escape him. Without pause, he formed the required hand seals for a jutsu, which resulted in a rush of water rushing towards her in the form of spinning drills.
Rolling deftly to her feet, the female ANBU somersaulted upwards. To Itachi's surprise, she headed straight for the water drills. The foolish kunoichi should know better, he thought reprovingly, unless she had a counterattack planned.
And then he watched intently as she bounced off the water drill using her chakra-enhanced feet, launching herself safely out of the way.
Rather impressive, Itachi thought mildly. Clearly, this ANBU operative was not a typical kunoichi.
Still, it was not good enough. Another set of seals followed and the water drills reformed into long writhing ropes which sped toward the kunoichi. She ran in a zigzagging pattern, attempting to avoid them, but he made sure that there were too many for her to handle.
Before long, the bands of water curled around her, securing her to a nearby boulder. A hiss of outrage escaped her as she struggled to free herself, but that was all she uttered. Come to think of it, she did not seem very talkative at all. It had been the same the last time they had encountered each other. Now, he wondered if it was deliberate.
With the kunoichi immobilized, he stepped towards her, stopping only when they were an arm's length apart.
"You did not report my existence," he intoned evenly. "Why?"
The water jutsu held her securely against a boulder, but Itachi could see it weakening as she pushed against the water bands with her chakra-enhanced katana. It would not hold for long, he realized.
"You let them all live," she returned harshly. "Why?"
Her words were muffled by the mask. That, and the sound of rushing water made it difficult for him to distinguish her voice. But he could almost grasp a small touch of familiarity in the lilt of the words, or perhaps he was simply being wishful.
"You desire their deaths?" he asked, raising a brow.
She stared mutely at him through the mask. A mask he wished was gone so that he could ascertain her identity. Perhaps part of him wondered if she could be her, however ridiculous the notion was. She was not the ANBU type, after all. Then again, she had taken the stance of a medic earlier, something which could point to her being Sakura.
Before he could continue his thoughts along that line, a surge of chakra snapped his attention to her hands.
His eyes widened when he saw the glow spreading from her hands to surround her body entirely, and he immediately leapt backwards away from the threat. The brightness surrounding her was intensifying as whatever jutsu she was performing took hold.
He grasped her chin and activated his Sharingan, locking his eyes onto hers. She immediately froze, the jutsu dying out without her conscious direction. But he had no intention of knocking her out the way he had done to her comrades. It defeated the purpose of securing her like this.
The urge to put a face to this feline-masked ANBU struck him, and he reached for her mask.
"No," she ground out in a barely audible voice, her hand reaching for her kunai pouch.
The second his fingers made contact with her mask, she moved. She moved fast enough that even Itachi was surprised when the kunai sliced through flesh.
Not his, but hers.
Stunned by her action, he did not move for a second. Then, hand dropping to his side, he took a step back to see that she had embedded the kunai deep in her own abdomen. Confusion, and something else, coursed through him as he watched her breath harshly, doubling over in obvious pain.
"Why?" He found himself asking.
And then there was a puff of smoke and the ANBU before him disappeared into thin air.
Itachi stood still, as still as his surroundings, as he took in the implications of what had just happened with no small amount of surprise.
It was a bunshin. He had been fighting a bunshin.
And all that time, he had not realized it was a bunshin at all.
Nara Shikamaru sighed as he glanced out of the window of the Hokage's office, feeling rather wistful that he was stuck in the building instead being of outside, under the clouds. And it was such a beautiful day for cloud-watching too.
Well, as much as he wished to be anywhere but here, he held the post of the advisor to their newest, laziest Hokage, so he had no choice but to be here, listening to all manners of reports, complaints and meetings. Sometimes, he wondered if Hatake Kakashi was even awake half of those times. It was kind of hard to tell with that masked face, especially when the top half was covered by all that silver hair and the slanted hitai-ate.
He straightened slightly when a series of taps sounded on the door. Without looking up, the Hokage called out for the visitor to enter. The door opened to reveal the tall figure of Morino Ibiki, who stepped in, closing the door behind him. He looked grim, but then again, that was how he usually looked.
Without preamble, Ibiki dropped a report on the Hokage's desk and announced, "Uchiha Itachi is alive."
Shikamaru's brows furrowed as he absorbed the new information. Not far from him, Morino Ibiki was settling himself against a wall, arms crossed as he waited for the news to sink in. And Kakashi finally looked up from the book he had hidden behind a large report, his single visible eye sharpening with interest.
"Someone has seen him?" Kakashi asked mildly.
Ibiki's expression tightened. "Yes."
"All this time, he has been alive and no one knew?" Kakashi asked in a harder tone, a frown marring his forehead. "It's been what? Eight? Nine years since his battle with Sasuke?"
"Aa, around that time," Ibiki agreed. "If it's not for this one chance encounter, we would not be any wiser."
"Who saw him?" Kakashi asked, leaning forward to snatch the report from the desk.
"Sai's squad. They fought, but the Uchiha got away."
Kakashi frowned, looking concerned. "They are unharmed?"
Ibiki nodded once. "No major injuries. Sakura cleared them."
"Hm... Sakura was there. Aa, I remember assigning her to this one," Kakashi murmured as he scanned the report.
Shikamaru glanced out of the window, thinking of what it could mean. "So he left them alive."
"Left them alive, Shikamaru?" Ibiki asked.
"He could dispose of them if he wanted to."
Kakashi smirked. "Not that easily."
"No. Not easily, but it was possible if he had wanted to." Ibiki pointed at the report. "Read further into the report. Sai seems to think the Uchiha did not want to fight."
Lowering the report, Kakashi drummed his fingers thoughtfully. "This is… interesting, especially in light of what we've found in Danzou's possessions."
"His skills are unparalleled. And now that Akatsuki is all but gone…" Kakashi trailed off thoughtfully.
"So, what do we do now, Hokage-sama?" Ibiki asked.
Shikamaru was not surprised when their silver-haired leader tossed the report at him. Catching it, he waited with resignation for the words he knew would come. Kakashi was a master at delegation, that was for sure.
"What are you waiting for, Nara? Start strategizing."
And Shikamaru shook his head inwardly. How troublesome.
The light breeze blew Itachi's hair sideways, momentarily obscuring his vision and yet, he did nothing to brush it back. Idly, he mused over how a little thing like that could be enough to decide the outcome of a battle. All that was needed was one moment of distraction, one moment of weakness and then everything would be over.
He was not concerned about such a thing at that moment, for he knew that the man beside him had no intention of fighting him. What interested him, however, was the outcome of this meeting.
He had been on one of his supply trips to the nearby village when he saw the message tacked on the notice board of the village. Had anyone else chose to read it, they would find nothing untoward, only an uninteresting notice about a wedding. However, Itachi had not missed the underlying coded message. And what was more peculiar had been the fact that it was a code used only by the Sandaime to communicate with a particular Uchiha ANBU captain.
The content of the message had forced him into a few obligatory hours of contemplation, for it was odd that the Shichidaime of Konoha wished to see him under neutral terms. He had finally agreed to meet to assuage his curiosity. Only to find himself in the unusual position of being stunned into silence when the reason for the meeting became clear.
"What do you say, Uchiha?"
What would he say, indeed, Itachi mused.
It had occurred to him that this might just be a ruse to lure him back to Konoha for execution. However, his Sharingan did not lie, and had told him that the man beside him was being truthful about his motives. The pardon and the reinstatement of his status did not interest him. He was not afraid of being hunted down. As it was, the ANBU squads had not been able to capture him for years, and such a thing was unlikely to change in the future. So truly, he had no reason to accept the offer, which involved a complete disruption to his current life.
"It is not a simple request," he finally said in his usual quiet tones.
"I've explained the reasoning behind it." Hatake Kakashi's voice was light. "The massacre and everything that had happened before will be wiped off your records if you'd accept. That's not difficult to do, since there were extenuating circumstances behind it. As for this little assignment, it should not take someone of your caliber long to solve the issue. Besides, this gives you the opportunity to return to Konoha for good. You're twenty-eight, twenty-nine? Surely you do not intend to live out the rest of your life as a wandering missing-nin."
"There is nothing wrong with that."
"Akatsuki is gone, and that part of your life is over. What are you going to do next, Uchiha? How long would it be before you grow tired of wandering?" the Copy-Nin asked pointedly.
Itachi smirked at his obvious attempt to persuade him to accept. Surely he knew that he would only accept if it benefited him. In fact, right at that moment, he could only think of one thing which might influence his decision. Perhaps he should consider the offer more thoroughly, for he knew that once he accepted, it would be bothersome to turn back.
Besides, Hatake Kakashi was right. He had been feeling rather restless recently. In particular, the past few years. And he was not foolish enough to delude himself that his predicament had nothing to do with a certain pink-haired kunoichi. He had been only mildly troubled by her absence at first, and then as the months passed, he had grown increasingly unsettled.
In fact, he had been restless enough to pay Konoha a stealthy visit several years ago, around the time when the Konoha was torn between two fighting Hokages, only to discover that Sakura was not to be found there either. Finally, he had come to the conclusion that she must have foolishly allowed herself to be slain in battle.
His conclusion, however, was merely an unconfirmed assumption. One which he would confirm now.
"I have a question," he ventured evenly.
The Shichidaime's brow rose. "Will it help you to decide?"
Kakashi shrugged. "Go on."
"A medic was assigned to Yugakure several years ago," he began slowly, watching as Kakashi's eyes widen slightly. "A pink-haired kunoichi."
"She has completed that assignment." In careful tones, Kakashi asked, "Why?"
"Nothing significant. I recall seeing her then. And she… healed me once, unaware of my identity."
"I simply wish to thank her."
"You'll get the opportunity to do so if you accept."
There was no mistaking the feeling which washed over him. It was relief, pure and simple. She was not dead.
"So, Uchiha. You haven't given your decision."
And he had no intention of giving one before weighing the advantages and disadvantages. Even with Sakura's presence tilting the balance. Deciding that the meeting had gone on long enough, he turned away from Konoha's newest Hokage.
"I will be in contact."
Forming his seals quickly, he disappeared from his sight.
But not before he saw the flash of irritation in Kakashi's single visible eye.
Sakura leapt from rooftop to rooftop until she reached a new block of residential apartments. Scaling the ten-storey building easily via the balconies, she soon found herself standing outside Naruto's apartment.
There, she knocked on the glass and called out, "Naruto! Naruto, wake up!"
She stepped back from the glazed door and waited. At one time, she had been stupid enough to pick the lock in her impatience, only to be greeted by the sight of Naruto and Hinata doing… things she had no business be seeing. Since then, she'd decided that it was best for her to just wait outside.
A couple of minutes later, the pitter-patter of wobbly footsteps reached her, and the glazed door slid open to reveal a tidy living room with one tiny occupant.
"Morning, Sakura-san!" a bubbly blonde boy of three greeted, his pale Hyuuga eyes bright with delight.
Leaning down, Sakura beamed down at Naruto's and Hinata's son. "Good morning, Minato-chan. Where's your Otou-san?"
"Inside," Minato chirped. "Come in?"
Straightening, she glanced past the boy to see a sleep-ruffled Naruto stepping into the living room. Thankfully, he was already dressed in his ANBU gear, otherwise she would have to wait even longer. It was beginning to look as if he was adopting Kakashi's bad habits.
"Sakura-chan," he greeted sleepily, smiling a little.
Sakura felt her heart dip slightly as she returned his smile. Naruto had changed so much since the incident with Sasuke. It was only recently that he seemed to be slowly going back to his old self. Even though he still smiled, the brilliant spark was no longer as bright. It was as if he blamed himself in some ways for Sasuke's demise.
But that was not the case, because she knew there were so many other events which had contributed to the choices Sasuke had made. As much as it saddened her, she knew that Sasuke had not been blameless. She had not been there when it had happened, but she had heard the stories. When Danzou had captured him to bring him back, the Uchiha had been completely unrepentant. What had eventually caused his downfall were his repeated attempts at escape, even to the extent of fatally harming his guards.
By the time they had managed to regain control of Konoha, Sasuke had been executed. She could still remember just how distraught she had been, but she had been away. Naruto had been in the thick of things, and had been angrier than anyone had ever seen him, even to the extent of threatening bodily harm to Kakashi. As much as the Kakashi hated to hurt Naruto, he had no choice but to put the village's security above everything else. The council had been right in decreeing that the bodies of all shinobi with bloodline limit to be destroyed.
However, it was the very same council which had since been abolished. The remaining two members had simply died of old age a few years ago, and Kakashi had chosen not to reform another one. Instead, he relied on information and advice from Ibiki and Shikamaru.
But all that had happened a long time ago, five years to be exact. At that time, she, Naruto and Sasuke had been only what? Nineteen? Her lips twisted bitterly.
Nineteen was such a young age to die, wasn't it, Sasuke?
She blinked out of her contemplations to find Naruto peering at her curiously. Laughing lightly as she began to walk to the edge of the balcony, she shook her head. "Just thinking, that's all."
Naruto gave her a questioning look. "Eh? About what?"
"Things. Now let's go before we're late."
Bringing up Sasuke was the last thing she wanted to do in front of Naruto. There was no telling how he would react.
As for her, she found herself avoiding all thoughts of Sasuke because she each time she did so, she was reminded of another person. It had been a year since she had seen him last, and if she could help it, she never wanted to see him again, so that she did not have to relive all those painful emotions again. The feelings were still all too raw, and to some extent, she blamed him for many things.
The image of his face flashed across her eyes then, and Sakura forcibly brushed it away. She had closed that chapter in her life, and it was time to move on.
Jumping up to perch on the balcony rails, Naruto chuckled. "You're not thinking about Ryo, are you?"
Sakura smiled at the mental imagery of the redhead. "No, I'm sure Ryo is having the time of his life in Suna right now."
"When is he coming back?"
"I suppose when Gaara sends him back, or when his one month is up. Whichever comes first," Sakura replied with a grin. "Come on, we have to go now. This sounds urgent. Kakashi will have our heads if we're late again."
"We can blame it on his bad influence."
Sakura laughed. "Yeah, we can definitely do that."
With that, they launched themselves down to the ground and swiftly made their way towards their shared destination.
When they finally arrived at the Hokage's Tower, most of the ANBUs were already there, tightly packed into the space. Besides her and Naruto, Neji, Shikamaru and Shino were also there from their intake year. The rest were older ANBUs.
Seated behind his desk with Ibiki standing to one side, Kakashi had his hands propped under his cloth-covered chin as he regarded them thoughtfully. Sometimes, she could hardly believe that her tardy sensei was now the leader of Konoha. But then again, he was the obvious choice once Tsunade had died in battle. The thought of her old shishou, as always, brought a pang of sadness to her.
The sound of hushed whispers of her comrades drew her out of her contemplations. A little confused about why they were all gathered like this, Sakura turned sideways to cast a questioning glance at Neji, someone who seemed to have a lot of inside knowledge about such things. However, Neji simply shook his head slightly, silently telling her that he, too, did not know what was going on. A glance towards Shikamaru only yielded a useless shrug. But her eyes narrowed at the way the shadow user refused meet her eyes directly.
"Where's Genma?" Kakashi suddenly asked.
"Out on a mission, Hokage-sama," one of the other ANBUs replied.
"Ah, yes. I've forgotten about that." Waving a dismissive hand about, he continued, "So, it looks like we're all here."
"Good." He scanned the room again. "I suppose you're all aware of the recent issue plaguing the ANBU."
Sakura grimaced as everyone began to shuffle uncomfortably. Yes, they were all more than aware of the separate incidences which involved the mysterious deaths of ANBU operatives over the last few months. Some had said that those ANBU had been careless, and some said that they were simply weak. And those who were more suspicious suspected that someone was out there killing off Konoha's ANBU operatives. Sakura did not know what to think because the autopsies proved nothing.
"I take it you don't need further explanations on that." Kakashi's tone was flat.
One of the ANBUs held up a hand. "Hokage-sama, are you suspecting foul play?"
Kakashi raised a brow. "Should I?"
The ANBU shook his head. "I don't know."
Kakashi regarded him thoughtfully for a moment, and then he stood up abruptly to stretch. "That's your answer, then."
Sakura frowned, growing slightly impatient. Would he get to the point? Why did Kakashi call them there then if he had nothing to say? What was he playing at?
"Neh, Kakashi-sensei, why did you call us?" Naruto asked in his usual blunt manner.
"Ah, it's like this, Naruto. I ordered an analysis done on the situation. There is a simple reason for the deaths of those ANBU operatives. Seems that the ANBU training regime is simply inadequate, and the entrance exams flawed. This ultimately led to the death of those operatives," Kakashi finished with a slight eye crinkle.
A collective gasp sounded around the room, and Sakura's eyes shot wide open. Inadequate? Kakashi must be kidding. The entrance test for ANBU was one of the most difficult things she had gone through. And she knew that she was not the only one who had such an impression. She had spent two weeks recovering from her injuries after that exam.
"What are you saying, Kakashi-sensei! That we'll have to retake the exams?" Naruto exclaimed incredulously.
"Naruto!" Sakura hissed, grabbing his sleeves even though he paid no attention to her. Naruto might end up making things worse if he did not shut up. Kakashi could be a bit sadistic sometimes.
Kakashi's visible eye narrowed. "You, especially, could do with a bit more work. Some discipline would be good." Glancing around, he continued, "Lucky for you all, I'm not stripping you of your ANBU status. But ANBU will undergo some restructuring, which means that some of you might have to undertake… ah… refresher sessions, and perhaps some evaluation tests."
A discontented rumble rose in response to his verbal confirmation. Sakura instantly wilted at the thought of it. If Kakashi thought that the old test was inadequate, he would make sure that this new improved one was much worse. In that case, half of them would probably fail. Or die trying.
"Tell me about it."
"What about missions?" Yuugao asked. "Do we still go on missions as usual with all these... refresher sessions?"
"You'll only be deployed on critical ones," Kakashi replied.
"How long is this training going to last?"
Kakashi waved a dismissive hand in the air. "As long as it takes."
Frowning slightly, Neji spoke for the first time. "Who will be training us?"
The corner of Kakashi's eyes creased as he smiled widely, and for some reason, Sakura just knew that this whole thing would take a turn for the worse. Her sensei never smiled like that unless he was about to drop something really, really big on them. And nasty. It had to be something nasty as well.
"I'm glad you asked, Hyuuga." Turning to Ibiki, he instructed, "Tell him to join us now."
Ibiki eyes flickered once, and then he nodded before leaving the room, closing the door behind him.
Sakura stared at the silver-haired Hokage with growing suspicion.
There was something more to this entire thing. Firstly, Kakashi was not the type to listen to the rubbish about ANBU training being weak. Kakashi knew fully well what they had to go through to make it into ANBU in the first place, and it was not easy. Then there was the fact that he was restructuring the whole of ANBU and re-training ALL the operatives, which did not make sense. Who on earth was stronger than Naruto in terms of power? Who had better strategic skills than Shikamaru? And to think that Neji might need additional training was simply ridiculous.
No… her sensei was definitely hiding something.
"Neh, Kakashi-sensei, is it someone we know?" Naruto asked curiously.
"It is someone you know," Kakashi confirmed evasively.
Sakura's suspicion intensified.
"It's probably Yamashiro," one of the ANBUs said. "He's one of the seniors after all."
Another rolled his eyes. "He's not the type to agree to this. Lazy bastard."
"Aoba is far too busy for this," Sakura pointed out.
"But he was one of the best, right?" Naruto interjected, sounding hopeful. His eyes gleamed with excitement. "It will be like old times, then."
"We only went on two missions with him," Sakura muttered dryly. And Naruto got along just fine with the older ANBU because of their shared pervertedness.
A quiet knock sounded on the door, drawing all eyes to it, and Ibiki stepped in. "He's here."
Smiles now gone, Kakashi gave them a look of warning. "You can stop speculating now. And before any of you overreact, please remember that this restructuring is necessary. And as Leaf shinobi, you're expected to do as you're told."
Like everyone else in the room, Sakura turned to the door as it swung open wider.
Then a collective gasp sounded as a dark-haired shinobi stepped into the room, his posture regal and his steps unhurried. The room suddenly descended into a frigid silence as they all stared at the newcomer. No other sound could be heard as his onyx eyes swept over them with obvious indifference.
Sakura felt her heart grind to a halt when his presence sank in fully.
Kakashi had asked him to train them?
It could not be.
What was Kakashi thinking?
Stunned, she could only stare wordlessly as the pair of onyx, not crimson, eyes landed on her. Then, to her incredulity, those lips lifted into a smirk. He was mocking her. She could not believe it, but he was actually standing there, in the Hokage's office, with the nerve to mock her.
"Uchiha Itachi will be heading up the restructuring."