A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack
Chapter One: Rules
Disclaimer: Naruto belongs to Kishimoto Masashi, who apparently is not actually me. The actual text of this story belongs to Aaron Nowack, who apparently actually is me. The subjective experience existing only in your mind when you read this story belongs to you, who is not me, unless you are me, in which case… oh, forget it.
On the eighteenth page of the cute pink notebook her father bought her to celebrate her admission to the Hidden Leaf's ninja academy, Haruno Sakura kept a short list of the most important rules she learned in her time there. After she passed her first cryptography class, she erased it and rewrote it in a simple cipher she devised herself - she hoped more than enough to keep it safe from the prying eyes of her classmates. By the time she graduated, there were only five entries on the list.
The first lesson Sakura marked in her notebook was one she started to learn on the first day of classes in her first year: "Never draw attention to yourself." That lesson was learned in public humiliation, the first and last time she dared to answer a question not specifically asked of her. The weeks before she started attending classes, she pored over the textbooks her father had bought, reading them over and over until she felt she had almost memorized them.
When a teacher seeking to impress the new students with how much they had to learn asked a question about the basic principles behind explosive seals, Sakura raised her hand and answered without being called on. That lead to a stern warning not to speak without permission, followed by an intense interrogation on sealing techniques that quickly left the contents of the first year textbooks behind and left Sakura in tears. It took only a few similar incidents over the next weeks to secure that lesson as one she would never forget.
That was why, on the day of the final graduation exam, Sakura slipped into her classroom a few minutes before class was to start and took the empty seat in the back near the door, next to Nara Shikamaru. Before the first class of the year, he'd moved away once she was seated, but the next day he had apparently decided sitting next to her was less of a pain than sitting closer to the teachers. So long as she didn't bother him, he didn't bother her, and he'd even shared his rather thin notes without being asked when she'd missed class on the tenth of October. That made him the closest thing she had to a friend in her class.
Sakura gave a longing glance several rows toward the front of the classroom, where the two rivals for the title of top kunoichi - Ino and Ami - were feuding over who would take the prized seat next to Uchiha Sasuke. The object of their attentions kept up his facade of stoic indifference, but Sakura imagined that underneath that was a boiling cauldron of passion, just waiting for the right woman to unlock it. A slight smile worked its way onto her face as she studied him from afar. Another page in her notebook had once been dedicated to him, but after a close call the horror of Ami or Ino discovering that had forced her to destroy that page. Those fantasies were best kept inside her head. And maybe once they graduated, if they were placed on the same team… if she could just talk to him without braving the gauntlet of the other girls… maybe, maybe then they could exist in reality.
Her face hardened as the classroom door open and a very different boy raced through the door and down to his customary seat on the first row. He was the subject of the second rule on her list, one that had been a direct order from her father. She was an obedient child by nature, and her father rarely raised his voice to her. When he had told her to never have anything to do with Uzumaki Naruto was one of those few times.
The incident occurred the second week of classes in her first year. Naruto - at that point she had only known him as the loud blond kid who always sat in the front - came up to her when she'd been been eating her lunch alone, dragging behind him a silver-eyed girl that Sakura hadn't even noticed was in their class. They talked for a little bit, although the other girl - Hinata - stayed mostly silent.
Now, almost four years later, Sakura didn't remember what the conversation had involved. She remembered being excited about making her first friends, thrilled that maybe the outcast status she'd gained after her humiliating experience on the first day was lifting. Naruto had been even more excited the next day, when he rushed over to her before classes began, words tripping over themselves as he said that his mother wanted him to invite her over after classes. Why this so enthused him, Sakura still didn't know.
Sometimes she wondered what would have happened if she'd just gone with him, but she was better trained than that. She promised to ask her father for permission to go the next afternoon. His reaction had been unexpected, and she could remember his words as clearly as if he was saying them today.
"Absolutely not," her father had told her. "That… that boy and his mother, are the reason your mother is dead. What the Uzumaki have done to us, done to you, can never be forgiven!"
"Why?" Sakura asked, tears in her eyes. "What did they do?"
"I can't tell you," her father said, his voice turning gentle. "You don't need that burden yet, or ever." Then he gave her the order that became Sakura's second rule.
She obeyed of course, doing her best to ignore the boy's questions over the next few days. When Hinata asked Sakura why she was ignoring Naruto - the first time and the last time the other girl started a conversation with Sakura on her own - she explained her father's command.
The next week, Sakura was moved to another class section. She wouldn't have classes with Naruto again until her final year in the academy, when only one section was left. She was in the same class as Hinata again the next year, but her one effort to talk with the other girl was coldly and firmly rebuffed. So long as Sakura wouldn't speak with Naruto, Hinata had explained, she wouldn't have anything to do with Sakura.
The next two rules on Sakura's short list came from October 10th of that year. The year before, she had been sick with the flu on that date. During her second year, her father was away on a mission - one of the first times in her young memory that he was gone for multiple days. He had been supposed to return the day before, but was delayed.
While her father was gone, a teacher for one of the older classes who lived nearby walked her to school instead. Sakura realized this was unusual. On that day, while they were heading to attend the half-day of classes prior to festival celebrating the Fourth Hokage's final victory, she asked the silver-haired man why he was doing that for her. He smiled - actually smiled - at her, and explained that he had been her father's teammate as a genin. That was enough to put an unfamiliar bounce in Sakura's step.
That vanished when they reached the academy and found a large group of adults arguing with another teacher. "What's the issue, Iruka-sensei?" Sakura's escort asked as they drew near.
The scarred teacher gave Sakura a look she still couldn't interpret, even though it remained clear in her memories. "These… men and women, have a complaint for the teaching staff, Mizuki-sensei. Send her inside and we'll discuss it."
Before he could answer, though, one of the women spoke. "Even if our request is rejected, today of all days our children shouldn't have to be with her. It's abhorrent for her to be part of this day."
"Sakura-chan is a student of the Leaf's ninja academy," Mizuki said firmly. "You have no right to deny her that."
"Look," one of the men said. "There's an easy way to solve this." Sakura hadn't yet known to call what she felt killing intent. She fell to her knees, paralyzed in terror. "If the girl's in the hospital, she can't attend classes."
There was a blur of motion, and then Mizuki was in front her, catching a kunai strike in his bare hand. She remembered the blood dripping from his palm, fascinating her so much that she barely recalled the other adults wrestling the attacker to the ground, or the scarred teacher angrily ordering someone to fetch ANBU.
Later, in the academy infirmary, as she'd watched Mizuki bandage his hand, she tearfully asked, "Why?" Why had those parents hated her so? Why had this teacher who she didn't know let himself be hurt to save her?
He smiled again, and answered her second unspoken question. She remembered the words perfectly. "Takeru is my precious comrade, and you are his precious daughter. That makes you precious to me, also. This," he said, gesturing at his injured palm, "is nothing, if it means protecting my precious people. For my precious people, I would do anything." His smiled faded slightly. "Anything at all. That's my way of the ninja."
Then he reached out and ruffled her hair fondly. "I hear you aren't doing very well in your classes this year, Sakura-chan. I want you to study hard and do better, so in a couple years you can be my most wonderful student. All right?"
An hour later, her father returned and pulled her from class. That evening, Sakura added two more rules to her list. The third rule came from her father again, that she was never to leave home on October 10th. The fourth was her own rule, that she would always protect her precious people as best she could, even if there were only two people she could call precious in the world.
The fifth rule on her list, she would not add until this evening, after she discovered the truth about herself.
Sakura quietly got up and went into the next classroom when Mizuki called her name. There was none of the warmth he showed in private in his voice, but there never was. Sakura was used to that, and had actually been a little grateful once she'd gotten over her initial disappointment in the first classes of the year. A teacher being overly familiar with her would only draw attention.
She glanced once at the rows of forehead protectors on the desk before turning her attention to the two teachers sitting behind it. She knew what the test was, of course, but she still waited to be told what to do.
"The Replication Technique," Iruka said. "Please perform it."
Sakura nodded, her hands precisely forming the correct seal, drawing deeply on her chakra. "Replication Technique," she breathed, the words helping to focus her power. An instant later, a copy of herself appeared standing next to her, hands forming the same seal.
Mizuki smiled gently at her. "Well done, Sakura-chan." Sakura's heart leapt at the praise.
Iruka grunted. "All the other students have been able to make at least three," he said sourly. "And she's forgetting to make the replication look like it is breathing."
Sakura could feel herself wilt as she stared at her feet. Had she come this far only to fail now?
"Those aren't the conditions for a passing grade, and you know that, Iruka-sensei," Mizuki returned. "Sakura-chan has already passed the tests for the Transformation Technique and the Replacement Technique, and her academic scores have always been excellent. Even with a minimum passing grade for this test, she shouldn't be failed."
"Her chakra control is mediocre at best," Iruka returned, "and she has only average stamina to make up for it. Her scores in taijutsu are only barely passing." Sakura wanted to sink into the floor and vanish. "We aren't here to build self-esteem or churn out mediocre kunai fodder, Mizuki-sensei. We need to make sure our students are ready to be genin of the Leaf."
"Our job is to ensure they meet the standards set by Hokage-sama, Iruka-sensei," Mizuki said. "Beyond that it is the responsibility of their jounin squad leaders."
Iruka shook his head. "We shouldn't be arguing like this in front of a student."
Mizuki smiled at Sakura, reaching for one of the forehead protectors. "But she isn't our student anymore, is she?"
Iruka sighed. "I suppose you are right," he said, and then he nodded at Sakura. "Congratulations, Haruno Sakura-kun. You have succesfully completed the graduation requirements of the Hidden Village of the Leaf's ninja academy. In the name of the Third Hokage, I bestow upon you the rank of genin, with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities that entails."
Mizuki held out a forehead protector. "Come here, Sakura-chan," he told her, and she nervously stepped forward and accepted the item from his hands. She glanced between the two teachers.
"Go ahead," Iruka said. For once a slight smile graced the scarred teacher's face.
Sakura lifted the forehead protector to her face, then in one smooth motion tied it around her head. Had she really done it? She couldn't quite believe it, after four years of always being on the brink of failure.
"Congratulations," Iruka said again. Mizuki stood and lead her back out to the main classroom, calling for Hinata to come and take her test.
Sakura's eyes instantly sought out Sasuke, seated perfectly still at his desk with his hands folded over his face. She imagined that maybe his head moved slightly in acknowledgment. Seated beside him, leaning back in her seat with her arms crossed in front of her chest, Ino snorted. "What are you looking at, loser?"
On her other side, her rival Ami laughed nastily. "I bet they had to get a special, extra-large forehead protector for you."
Sakura looked away. She hadn't really expected that graduating would change anything, but it might have been nice to be able to dream for a little while. Naruto offered her a smile as she passed him on her long trek up to the back of the classroom, but with an ease born of practice she ignored him.
When she reached her seat next to the apparently sleeping Shikamaru, the boy raised his head from his desk, momentarily opening one eye. "I guess this test really isn't anything to worry about." There wasn't any malice in the statement, so Sakura just nodded. He was right down with her at the bottom of the class rankings, after all.
She did her best to ignore the cheers and congratulations each other student got from their friends as they passed the final test. She offered her own when Shikamaru returned wearing his forehead protector on his sleeve. He only shrugged and went back to sleep.
A short while later, at the graduation celebration, Sakura immediately sought out her father, leaning on a tree out in the playground. Sakura raced toward him, and when his face broke into the wide smile she so rarely saw, her heart pounded like it was going to burst. "Come here, you," he mock snarled, kneeling down and gathering her into a great big hug.
Sakura gave a squeal as he stood, lifting her up with him. He raised her up until she was looking him directly in the green eyes that matched her own, and then he thrust his head forward, knocking his own, battered forehead protector against hers. "If your mother could see you now," he whispered, and in that moment Sakura didn't care about the other girls, didn't care about Naruto, and didn't even care about Sasuke.
Her father gently set her down. "Mizuki," he said in greeting, and Sakura half-turned to see her now former teacher standing behind her. "Thank you for taking care of her," he said.
Mizuki smiled. "It was nothing," he said. "But if you want to repay me, take the Chuunin Exams again. You're good enough now, and it's embarrassing for my old teammate to be the same rank as his daughter."
Sakura's father looked down at her. "You know why I haven't," he said.
"I know," was all Mizuki said.
After a moment, her father shrugged. "Maybe next time, if I can find a team, since they'll be at home."
There was a cough, and all three of them turned to the source. Sakura clenched her small fists. What did he, of all people, want now? Why did he want to ruin this day?
"Do you need something, Naruto-kun?" Mizuki asked easily.
"Haruno-san," the blond boy said seriously. Sakura wondered why he was being so formal until she realized he was talking to her father. "My mother asked me to ask you to come speak with her."
Her father's face was hard and expressionless. "All that needs to be said was said years ago," he said. What was this about? Sakura had given up on trying to get him to explain why the Uzumaki family was so awful, or how they'd killed her mother.
Naruto swallowed loudly, unusually nervous. "She said to tell you that… that there were things she needed to tell you, now that Sakura-chan was going to be a genin." He glanced at Sakura curiously. "What's all this about?" he demanded loudly, suddenly much more like himself.
Her father's face didn't soften, but he nodded once. "Go," he said harshly. "I'll be there in a moment."
Naruto looked like he wanted to press for an answer to his question. "Naruto-kun," Mizuki warned, and after a moment the boy raced off.
"I hate to impose, Mizuki," Sakura's father began.
"It's no problem, Takeru," the teacher replied. "I was actually going to ask you if I could borrow Sakura-chan for the afternoon."
Sakura's father blinked once. "Why?"
"I'd like to take her down to the administrative offices, introduce her to some of my friends in Hokage-sama's staff," Mizuki said. "Show her some things she'll need to know. Maybe find out which jounin are applying for teams this year."
"All right," her father agreed. "Thank you."
Mizuki smiled down at Sakura. "Come on, Sakura-chan," he said. "I'll take you to go get some dango, and then we'll head to the Hokage Tower, okay?"
Mizuki had more than kept his word, seemingly trying to pack all the favoritism he hadn't shown Sakura over the last year into one afternoon. The lunch and trip to the administrative offices had turned into a wide-ranging excursion through the village while her former teacher filled her head with enough advice she wished she'd taken notes. He'd shown her everything from the restaurants near the genin training grounds that gave the best discounts to a building hidden in one of the pockets of woods inside the village walls that he claimed was perfect for secret training sessions. They hadn't made it to the Hokage Tower until the sun started setting.
Now Sakura was on her own, nervously standing in front of the closed door of the Hokage's office. The two chuunin standing guard stared back at her. "What do you want?" the one wearing a bandage across his nose asked, sounding like he wanted her to just disappear.
Sakura wanted to disappear too, but this was for Mizuki. She could do this. "I want to see Hokage-sama," she said, trying to keep her voice from breaking. "Any Leaf ninja has the right to present a petition to him." She gestured at her head, feeling the unfamiliar weight of her forehead protector.
"Hokage-sama is in a very important meeting and can't be disturbed," the other guard said.
As if on cue, a very familiar voice came from inside the room. "Come on, old man! You promised you'd take mom and me and Konohamaru out for ramen to celebrate my graduation! Can't that paperwork wait?"
The guards exchanged looks. "You can go right in, Haruno-san," the first said, opening the door.
Sakura scurried inside, the door loudly shutting behind her. The Hokage was seated behind his desk, puffing on a pipe while writing on some papers. Standing on the other side, leaning over the desk, was none other than Uzumaki Naruto. He turned around. "Sakura-chan?" he asked.
"Hmm," the Hokage said, putting his pen down. "And what can I do for you, young lady?"
Sakura took a deep breath. "I have a question for you, Hokage-sama."
The old man smiled gently at her, the same way he did when he took her out for ramen on her birthday. It had been a little surprising to her when she'd learned in her first year at the academy that he didn't do that for everyone. "What do you want to know, Sakura-chan?"
She tried not to let her nervousness show. "Now that I'm a genin," she said, just as Mizuki had instructed her, "I want to know the truth about the Fourth Hokage's legacy."
The Third Hokage's smile faded instantly. Beside him Naruto blinked several times. "Huh?" the boy asked. "What's the Fourth's legacy, old man?"
The Hokage extinguished his pipe and set it down on his desk. "Naruto-kun," he said seriously. "Go find Konohamaru-kun and play with him please. I believe I hear him trying to sneak into the kitchen and steal some cookies."
Naruto glanced between the old man and Sakura, face twisting in confusion. "What the hell is going on?"
"Naruto," the Hokage snapped.
The boy swallowed loudly. "Yes, sir," he said. Sakura shrank away as he passed her, giving her a look she couldn't interpret. The door sounded even louder when it shut this time.
The Hokage gestured, and Sakura heard the door locking. His eyes bored into her, and she stumbled backward. He kept staring, and she almost just fell down and curled into a ball. She wasn't sure why he was mad, but she knew the old man was furious. There was nothing apparent of the kind grandfather and everything of one of the five most powerful people in the world.
"Sakura-chan," he said softly. "I'm not angry with you." He didn't sound like he was lying, but then he wouldn't. He was a ninja. "I'm angry with whoever told you to ask me that."
She couldn't get Mizuki in trouble. "No one told me," she whispered weakly.
"Sakura-chan," the Hokage said, his voice not losing one ounce of gentleness, "if you ever lie to me again, I will become angry with you." One of his hands tapped on his desk. "The mere fact that you used those words tells me someone told you to ask me that question. If you knew enough to think of the Fourth Hokage's legacy as something you should know about, you would already know the answer to your question. Who was it?"
Sakura stared at her feet, her forehead protector seeming to gain weight with every instant. She couldn't lie to the Hokage, but she had to protect Mizuki. Had her teacher not known that this would make the Hokage mad? That must be it.
"Your father wouldn't, not in ten thousand years," the Hokage said. "Iruka? No, he's not so foolish. Hmm." His hand tapped some more. "I saw Mizuki lead you away from the graduation ceremony. Was it him?" Sakura winced involuntarily. "Mizuki, hmm. I'm very disappointed in him."
"Please don't," Sakura began, but then she stopped. She wasn't even sure why what he had done was wrong. How could she plead for mercy?
The Hokage gestured, and the door unlocked loudly. "Kotetsu!" he shouted.
One of the chuunin guards opened the door and stuck his bandaged head inside the room. "Hokage-sama?" he asked.
"Fetch me Umino Iruka and a tracking squad. Get one of the birds ready to send a signal to the patrols. Izumo!" Sakura winced. How could this be so bad? How could a hero like the Fourth Hokage have left a legacy so horrible that mentioning it was this serious? And what did it have to do with her?
The door opened all the way and the other guard replaced Kotetsu. "Sir!"
"Take Sakura-chan here to meeting room three and stand guard."
"Meeting room three? Hokage-sama, that room is in use. You let -"
"Were my instructions somehow unclear, chuunin?" the Hokage asked.
"No, sir." Izumo stepped inside and grabbed Sakura's hand. She knew better than to protest the mild pain of his too-strong grip. "This way, Haruno-san."
A few minutes later, she was roughly shoved into a windowless room, the door slamming shut behind her. The lights were turned down, and it took her a few moments to adjust to the relative dimness. The room was almost entirely filled by a large, wooden table, surrounded by chairs. At the far end of the table from the entrance, a beautiful woman with long red hair was seated, seemingly asleep.
"Pretty," Sakura wasn't able to stop herself from saying softly. She looked like a manga heroine.
The woman's eyes opened, and Sakura flushed, mortified. The redhead touched a button on the table, and the lights returned to full strength, momentarily blinding Sakura. The woman studied the girl for a moment. "You're… you're Haruno Sakura." Her voice didn't match her face. It was an ugly, croaking thing.
"Y… yes, ma'am," Sakura said, staring at her feet. Being recognized by a stranger was never good. Was this woman going to punish her for the Hokage? All she'd wanted to do was help Mizuki. Was that really wrong?
The woman pushed her chair away from the table, and Sakura realized that it was a wheelchair, rather than one of the large wooden chairs surrounding the table. The woman started moving down the side of the table toward Sakura, and the girl shrank back.
The woman stopped. "I… I'm not going to hurt you," she said hoarsely, her voice breaking. "Come -" She cut off in a sudden fit of coughing before continuing. "Come closer. Please."
Sakura hesitated, but took a few halting steps forward. Then she stopped. "You're… you're crying," she said aloud as she noticed the tears on the woman's face. "Did… did I do something -"
"Child," the woman said, sounding angry. Sakura winced, and the woman grimaced. "Child, it's not your fault," she said more gently. With surprising speed, she wheeled herself across the last few feet, and before Sakura could retreat, she leaned forward in her chair, gathering Sakura into an awkward embrace. "Nothing is your fault, do you understand?" she whispered into Sakura's ear. "Don't let anyone tell you otherwise." She paused for a moment. "Oh, child, I'm sorry," she said softly, stifling a sob. "For everything."
Sakura had absolutely no idea what to do. Nothing in her experience had prepared her for this. The other students at the academy cried, but they were children like her. Her father cried sometimes, around October 10th, but not when he knew she watching. No one ever apologized to her for anything. Only her father hugged her. She didn't even know this woman. What was she supposed to do? She just stood there, frozen, strange feelings burning in her chest.
After a while, the woman released Sakura from her embrace and sat back in her seat again. "You look so much like Amaya did," she said, her eyes shining with tears, "but you have your father's eyes."
Sakura swallowed nervously. "You knew my mother?" she asked weakly.
The woman's eyes closed briefly. "Yes," she said when they opened again. "We were… very close friends, your mother and I."
She didn't say anything more, and Sakura shifted uncomfortably under the woman's unwavering gaze. What was she supposed to do? The strange feelings inside her didn't fade, but she slowly calmed enough to think. The Hokage had… he'd clearly wanted her to meet this woman. Why? To answer her question?
"Ma'am," Sakura said nervously, "do you know what the Fourth Hokage's legacy is?"
The woman recoiled like she'd been slapped. "Child," she croaked. "I can't tell you if you don't already know. Please don't make me be the one."
"I want to know!" Sakura almost shouted. "What is it? It has something to do with me and everyone gets mad when I mention it!"
The woman suddenly bent over, one hand pressing over her stomach. She looked up at Sakura, then grabbed her. "Child," she said harshly. "Calm down." Sakura tried, almost instinctively obeying the order, but she couldn't. She looked at the woman's face, and her eyes widened as she watched markings appearing on her cheeks. Three dark lines, almost like whiskers, on each one. Just like -
"You're… you're Naruto's mother," Sakura breathed, and the woman nodded. This was the woman who was responsible for her mother's death. Sakura felt a fury rising inside of her, like nothing she'd felt before. She was mad and she was burning inside and -
The woman roughly lifted up Sakura's red dress, provoking a squeal of rage and embarrassment. "I'm sorry," she said, "but I don't have the strength to do this through clothing."
Sakura gasped as she looked down at her bare stomach, seeing an intricate, spiral pattern on her skin that she'd never seen before. A seal? What the hell was going on? The woman's free hand pressed against Sakura's skin, the cold tips of her fingers tracing the spiral. There was a flash of green light, cool and soothing. "You remember the taste of that chakra, don't you?" the woman gasped out. "Don't you?"
"What?" Sakura asked confusedly, but then the burning was gone, the spiral over her stomach fading rapidly. Her fury suddenly left her, leaving her gasping for breath. Naruto's mother let Sakura's dress drop back down and took a deep breath herself. Her eyes were dryer now, and there was something new in them as they observed Sakura. The whisker-like lines on the woman's face faded away as Sakura watched.
Sakura stepped backward, feeling her own eyes water. Her anger started to build again, but it felt normal. Not like what she had felt before.
That was when the door opened, and Naruto stepped inside. "Mom? Are you okay? We heard shouting… Sakura-chan? What is she doing in here?" The chuunin guard poked his head inside the room, but Sakura had no eyes for him.
"You," she said to Naruto's mother. "You… you killed my mom!"
Naruto growled suddenly. "What? You take that back! My mom wouldn't -"
"Naruto," the woman said, cutting her son off. She slumped in her wheelchair, seeming much older. "She's right. I did."
Naruto stood frozen. "Mom?" he asked, his voice horrified. "That's why -"
"Kushina-san?" the chuunin interrupted.
The woman bent over, coughing and covering her mouth with her fist. Sakura took another step away. When Kushina took her hand away, there was blood on it. She stared at it a moment, then started coughing again, loudly and wetly.
Naruto's eyes widened. "Mom!" he shouted, racing over to her side. "Izumo-san! Get the medics!" The chuunin raced off without a word.
Sakura realized she was crying, and she didn't know whether from rage or guilt. She couldn't take this anymore. She ran out of the room, and no one stopped her as she fled the Hokage Tower.
The ANBU at the Hokage's side tensed in preparation to leap down from the window of his office and intercept the running girl, but Sarutobi stopped her with a gesture.
"Hokage-sama?" the cat-masked woman asked, confusion clear in her voice.
"Let her run. I'll keep an eye on her myself," Sarutobi confirmed. Her chakra was unique enough that it wouldn't be too hard to track with his seeing glass, knowing her starting point. "She might just lead us straight to Mizuki faster than we can find him ourselves. Call Iruka back. I might need to send someone to her in a hurry, and she'll trust him more than an ANBU."
"Sir," the kunoichi said, "I don't understand. Why would this Mizuki tell the girl where he was going if he sent her straight to you?"
The Hokage grunted. "Mizuki picked a distraction that trivially pointed back to him, and guaranteed he'd only have a few hours' head start at most. No one I picked as an academy teacher is so foolish as to do that on accident. There's something more going on here, and I intend to find out."
"Yes, sir," the ANBU replied, and she spoke into her radio for a moment, passing on the orders. Then she hesitated. "If this Mizuki did steal the Fourth's Scroll of Seals, and he wanted Haruno to meet with him afterward… sir, if they're planning to break the seal -"
"It would be a ritual that would take days or weeks," the Hokage finished firmly. "It isn't an immediate concern."
Sakura wanted to go home, but she couldn't. She couldn't tell her father that she'd been tricked into breaking his rule against talking to the Uzumaki. She couldn't tell him that she'd let the woman who had killed her mother hug her. She didn't want to tell him that Mizuki had asked her to do something that had gotten him in trouble. She didn't want to ask him the questions that boiled inside of her. Nothing made any sense. She needed time to think.
She didn't know where else to go. She had no friends whose house she could visit. A restaurant or cafe was too public; she couldn't figure this out there, even if she had known one that would tolerate her loitering there. For lack of a better option, she continued down the familiar streets to her home. She slowed as she got closer, dread growing in her with each step.
That was when she passed alongside the woods where Mizuki had shown her the hidden, abandoned building. With the sun now set, the dark forest looked less inviting than it had in the early afternoon, but she thought she knew the way. If she could just sit down there for a little while and think, maybe things would start making sense again. Maybe Mizuki was hiding there too, and she could just ask him what he was trying to do. She had to have done something wrong; there was no reason for Mizuki to want the Hokage to be mad at the two of them. She still wanted to help him, if she could.
Even in the darkness she easily found the correct path through the woods. She was good at following instructions, even those she had only heard once. When she reached the small clearing containing the wooden building, she was disappointed to find it empty. She had almost convinced herself that she would find Mizuki here. Maybe he was inside?
She hesitatingly tested the door to the wooden building and found it locked, just as they'd left it this afternoon. Sakura pulled the key Mizuki had given her out of the pocket of the shorts she wore under her dress and unlocked the door. The inside was just as she'd remembered it, dusty and empty except for a writing desk in one corner under the dirty window and a broken bed frame in the other. A ladder Sakura didn't trust lead up to the small attic. Sakura wondered idly what purpose this building had served before turning her mind to more pressing matters.
Maybe Mizuki's purpose would become clear if she could figure out what Fourth Hokage's legacy was. That was a good question, safely distant from the emotional turmoil her encounter with Uzumaki Kushina had provoked. What did she know? The Fourth Hokage's legacy was something bad, something that the Hokage did not want anyone asking about. The Fourth Hokage's legacy had something to do with her; the reactions of both the Hokage and Naruto's mother proved that.
Sakura wandered over to the desk and traced a spiral in the thick dust with her finger. Was the seal that had appeared on her stomach related? Was it itself perhaps the Fourth's legacy? Why had she never seen it until today? Why would the Fourth Hokage have placed such a complex seal on some random girl - there was nothing special about her or her parents that she knew of - who was less than a year old when he sacrificed himself to kill the Nine-Tails? It didn't make any sense.
The young girl dithered a moment over taking the next step, but ultimately lifted her dress over her head with a flush of embarrassment. She neatly folded the red fabric and, after wiping off more dust with her hand, placed it on the desk. Only then did she turn her attention to her stomach.
What she saw was the same as what she saw every morning as she dressed: her own slightly pale, unmarked skin. She poked and prodded it for a minute, as though she could coax the spiral pattern out of hiding. Stubbornly, it remained hidden. What had caused it to emerge? Her anger at Naruto's mother? No, it had started when she'd gotten angry about no one telling her what the Fourth Hokage's legacy was. But she'd been angry before, angrier than she'd been at the time… at least until she had learned the woman's identity and that unnatural rage had started rising inside of her.
She tried to recapture how she'd felt in those moments, but failed. Even thinking of Kushina and how she had killed her mother couldn't summon that wrath. Her thoughts shied away from that. She didn't want to think about that. She wanted to figure out this stupid seal.
Could a genjutsu be hiding it? It didn't make much sense, but it wasn't hard to test, at least to the limit of her abilities. If she tried to escape the illusion and failed… well, it wouldn't rule anything out, given that she was only a newly graduated genin and that any such genjutsu must be complex beyond her imagining. It wouldn't hurt to try, though. She locked her hands into a seal and started to draw upon her chakra.
Obligingly, the the spiral pattern appeared almost instantly, long before she could attempt to dispel the theoretical genjutsu. It was pale at first, but rapidly darkened. Shocked, Sakura separated her hands and released her hold on her chakra, and the seal started to fade away. She quickly reformed the hand seal and called up her chakra again, and the fading halted and reversed. Soon, the full pattern she recalled was visible: the spiral surrounded by two semi-circles, both with four prongs jutting outward, away from the spiral.
Could it really be this simple? After a moment's thought, she was forced to conclude that it could be. She didn't practice ninjutsu in her underwear, after all. The seal could have been visible all through her academy classes, and no one would have ever known. But what was its purpose? What was it doing to her?
She studied the pattern, but it might as well have been gibberish to her. The incident on her first day of classes had left her with a distaste for the art, and sealing was one area of study where she hadn't indulged in any recreational reading. That was clearly something she would need to rectify.
She stared at the mysterious pattern a moment longer before letting it fade away again. Despite her discovery, she was as deep in the dark as before. She felt certain that this seal was, or was somehow related to, the Fourth Hokage's legacy, but that put her almost no closer to finding out what that terrible legacy was. Shivering from a suddenly noticed chill, she quickly redressed herself. That was when she heard the voices outside, and froze.
"The scroll is in here? Why didn't you just bring it to our meeting point?"
"Do you have to ask that question, Tsurugi?" Mizuki!
"I suppose trust is a little much to ask for at this point," the other man answered. "But isn't this a little close to the tower?"
"They don't know that I can use shadow replications," Mizuki said. Shadow replications? Sakura had never heard of those. "They've been chasing red herrings all over the village for hours now." What was going on? This didn't make any sense at all!
The handle of the door moved. "Unlocked?" Mizuki asked, and suddenly the door was flung open. "Sakura-chan?" her former teacher asked in shock. He was dressed for battle, she realized, oversized shuriken strapped to his back. Beside him stood a man Sakura didn't recognize, not that she could really tell behind the dark cloth mask that hung over his face or the bandana that covered his head. He was tall, and his thin-rimmed glasses did nothing to hide the cold look in his eyes as he studied Sakura.
She swallowed, not in the least bit comforted by the Leaf forehead protector the strange man wore. "Mizuki-sensei," she said reflexively.
"What are you doing here? Hokage-sama should have -"
Mizuki was interrupted as the man beside him suddenly moved past him. One of his arms twisted and lengthened, and before Sakura could react it had grabbed her by the neck and pinned her against the filthy window. "What have we here?" the man asked.
"Tsurugi," Mizuki said warningly.
The man's free hand reached up to adjust his thin glasses. "It seems we'll be collecting two treasures from the Hokage today," he said. "Our master will be pleased."
"This wasn't part of the agreement!" Mizuki snapped.
"Target of opportunity," Tsurugi said. "Now, unless you want to try renegotiating… fetch the scroll." Mizuki's posture fell, and he slowly walked over to an empty corner and knelt. Suddenly there was a large scroll lying on the floor beside him. Genjutsu!
Sakura's mind was racing with a thousand thoughts, but one forced itself past her panic. This man knew what made her special! "W-why?" she gasped out. For an instant, the man's grip around her neck tightened. "Why do you want me?"
Tsurugi relaxed his grip and laughed. "You don't know? I'll tell you."
Mizuki froze. "Tsurugi…"
"All right, all right," the man said with another laugh. "She can live in ignorance a while longer." He paused, and then his other arm lengthened, grabbing the scroll before retracting to his side. "After you," he said, gesturing with the scroll at the door.
Mizuki nodded and turned to the exit.
"Mizuki-sensei," Sakura whispered, and he stopped as he reached the door. "Why are you doing this?"
He opened the door. "I've told you before," he said. "I'd do anything to protect my precious people."
"And best you remember that," Tsurugi said. The arm holding Sakura shortened, carrying her with it. She struggled briefly, but in a matter of moments she was securely held against the man's chest. Mizuki and him headed outside, and Tsurugi shut to door behind him. He set the scroll and Sakura down, but her kept one of her arms twisted behind her back in secure grip.
"What are you waiting for?" Mizuki asked. "We need to get moving."
"We do," Tsurugi said. "Once you discard your weapons." He chuckled. "I don't trust you either."
Mizuki nodded. "Wise," he said, and then the scroll next to the other man detonated.
Tsurugi was between Sakura and the blast, but it still knocked her against the wall of the building. The log her captor used for the Replacement Technique fell on top of Sakura, knocking the wind out of her.
A half-dozen kunai flew from the cover of the trees, but only one struck Mizuki, scoring a thin slice across his upper arm. He smiled grimly, lifting one massive shuriken off of his back with his other hand. It began to spin rapidly.
"You would risk your precious Tsubaki, for that thing?" Tsurugi's voice came from out of the darkness. "I'm surprised."
"I would," Mizuki replied, "to avoid the certainty of your master hurting my student." He paused. "Sakura, run," he commanded, and then he leapt into the trees.
As soon as she got the log off of her, Sakura obeyed, running in the opposite direction. Less than a minute later, her other teacher Iruka appeared out of the gloom in front of her. "Sakura-chan, stop," he ordered.
Sakura paused for just a moment, then hurled the rock she'd picked up off the ground during her flight at the man as she broke off in another direction. She didn't see if her attack hit, but it didn't do any good. Moments later, Tsurugi, his whole body stretched out like a snake, wrapped around her, pinning her to the ground and twisting her neck painfully.
"How did you know?" he asked.
"Iruka-sensei never calls me Sakura-chan," she managed to gasp out.
"Of course not," the man said. "What an amateur mistake I made. There's no way Iruka would call you that."
"Why?" Sakura asked again. She didn't need to say anything more.
This time Tsurugi answered her. "You know the story of the Fourth Hokage's final battle, don't you?" he asked, his breath warm on Sakura's neck. "What they don't tell you in the academy is that the Fourth couldn't kill the demon. Perhaps no man could.
"They also don't tell you about a special law," he continued, "a law that concerns only you. A law that hides a secret about you."
Sakura was not a slow thinker, and her mind made the connection it hadn't been able to make before. "I'm the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox," she said tonelessly, as her world crashed to pieces around her. It made a terrible sense. A demon that could not be killed was sealed into human form instead, raised as one of the very ninja it had tried to destroy. Her mind raced through implications despite her desire to stop it. Did her father know? Was he her father at all? What did that even mean, if she was the demon fox? Was everything she thought she was nothing but a lie?
Tsurugi just laughed. Then he coughed, and Sakura felt something warm and wet hit her. His grip went slack, and Sakura instinctively freed herself in an instant. She turned around to see one of Mizuki's massive shuriken sticking out of her captor's back.
"How?" Tsurugi asked.
Mizuki standing behind him and holding another shuriken, snorted. "Remedial ninjutsu lesson," he said quietly, fury in his voice. "Shadow replications keep going when the original is unconscious. Idiot." The second shuriken came down and took Tsurugi in the neck.
Sakura stumbled backward, falling to the ground. "Mizuki-sensei," she said, her voice quavering. Did he know the truth about her? Would he hate her now, like everyone else?
Mizuki walked past the still corpse of his opponent and knelt down beside Sakura. She looked away in shame, and he reached out, gently turning her face back to him. "You're not the demon fox," he said softly.
"But it makes sense," Sakura answered. "That's why everyone hates me."
"Listen to me," Mizuki pleaded. "You are Haruno Sakura. You were born on the twenty-eight of March, and I held you in my arms on that day. You are the daughter of Haruno Takeru and Amaya. You are my most wonderful student. You are not the demon, and never will be."
"Then what am I? I've seen the seal!"
"You are the demon's container," Mizuki explained. "Its prison. It was sealed inside of you, but it is not you."
Sakura wondered if that even made a difference. Surely a being so terrible as the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox could not be housed by a baby girl without consequence on her development. Whatever girl Haruno Sakura might have grown into had as good as died on the day the demon was placed inside of her.
There was a soft thud, and Iruka landed on the ground beside Mizuki. "Mizuki," he said, his voice hard.
The silver-haired teacher stood. "I won't ask for mercy," he said. "If he hadn't tried to kidnap Sakura-chan, I would have gone along with him." He sighed. "The scroll is in the hut, under a genjutsu. The real me is about one hundred meters back that way, knocked out." He pointed.
Iruka nodded. "He threatened Tsubaki-chan?"
Mizuki nodded. "When I had second thoughts." He looked down at Sakura. "Sakura-chan, I don't know when or if they'll let the real me speak to you again." He smiled weakly. "But remember what I told you. Don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise."
Sakura nodded stiffly, still trying to absorb everything she had learned.
Mizuki's wan smile faded, and then he vanished in a puff of smoke.
Much later that evening, after a stressful, too-long interrogation from the Hokage, and an even worse, too-short talk with her father, Sakura was sent to her room to sleep. As she undressed for bed, before putting her nightgown on, she stood in front of her mirror and channeled chakra. She stared at the seal that appeared for a long moment, then released her chakra, hiding the marks with her hands until they faded.
Then she walked over to her desk, turned to the eighteenth page in the cute pink notebook her father bought her to celebrate her admission to the Hidden Leaf's ninja academy, and added a fifth rule to her list in her custom cipher.
"No one must learn what you are."
Author's Random Ramblings
1) I first feel compelled to note the debt of inspiration I owe to Avaryan's (sadly unfinished) Soul Voice. While those familiar with that story will note that this one is already quite different, this story wouldn't exist without my having recently reread that one.
2) Unlike my other current story, One Hundred Weeks, Dead Garden is based on something approximating current canon. I won't rule out minor AU elements to make a better story (depending on your interpretation, I've already introduced a few) and don't promise any sort of compliance with future canon revelations.
3) I'm not sure it was wise to start this when I just started another massive story, but muses are fickle creatures. The current plan is for this story to take a back seat to One Hundred Weeks, with its (more reasonably sized) chapters as something I can work on when I'm suffering from writer's block or otherwise uninspired to work on that story. I suppose a sufficiently massive positive reaction to this story could convince me otherwise, though.
4) My thanks go to everyone on The Fanfiction Forum who commented on the partial drafts of this chapter, published under the oh-so-promising title of "An Untitled Kyuubi!Sakura Thing," and to everyone who commented on the complete draft on the FFML.
5) Readers with keen memories of my other stories may notice that I am using the same personal names for Sakura's parents in this story as I did in One Hundred Days/Weeks. This is an artifact of laziness; they do not share any of the backstory introduced in those stories.
Draft Started: June 04, 2011
Draft Finished: June 09, 2011
Draft Released: June 10, 2011
Final Released: July 12, 2011