For those of you who have read Trial by Ninja, this prologue is identical to the epilogue to that story. I'm putting it up simultaneous with the epilogue so that people who want to continue to follow the overall story can do so now instead of waiting for me to finish chapter one.
Also, please be aware that Fuu has been arbitrarily de-aged for the purposes of this story. I try not to do stuff like that too often, I will give you a heads up when it happens.
Konoha's Torture and Interrogation group divided its prisoners into two categories: those they thought might eventually be set free, and those who would only be leaving the building in a funeral urn. The cells meant for the first group usually weren't occupied for long, acting mostly as holding facilities for ninja awaiting judgment from the Hokage. Right now their only "guest" was a young girl who was just finishing her warm-up stretches.
Sakura knew that she was never going to cut an intimidating figure. Standing just a shade over five feet tall with a mop of pink hair, she naturally had a hard time staring anybody down. Now, one week after her fifteenth birthday, she was starting to think that she was never going to develop much of a figure at all. The prison jumpsuit she was wearing wasn't exactly flattering, but Sakura knew that her assets weren't exactly easy to flatter. She wasn't truly unhappy with her lean body structure-any observer who looked past the pink hair would note the subtle muscle tone in her arms and legs, and no kunoichi worth the name had any extra weight around the middle-but she wouldn't have minded carrying just a little bit of excess fat, if it were properly distributed.
Sakura grumbled a bit as she began performing push-ups. There wasn't much to do to pass the time in her cell, and she didn't want to lose the conditioning that she had worked so hard to develop. The exercise helped on both counts. It was hard to believe that she had returned to Konoha only three weeks ago, having succesfully lead her team on a mission (of sorts) that resulted in the death of Orochimaru and the return of Sasuke Uchiha to the village.
Her stay in lock-up hadn't been as bad as it could have been: she had a cell with a window, and hadn't even been tortured once. Still, it wasn't exactly the result she had imagined once she realized that everybody from Team Seven had made it back to Konoha safe and sound.
"Ninety-nine... one-hundred." Sakura said, counting on the final repetitions before standing up.
She let out a mild huff of frustration as she walked over to the window. It had been a long time since she was the dead weight of her team, but she still hated feeling weak. Living without the use of chakra for three weeks had been very frustrating. A lifetime of chakra use did leave behind significant muscular development, but without the use of chakra-prevented by a sealing array built into the prison-she was reduced the the strength level of a civilian. Resisting the urge to punch the wall, Sakura grabbed the bars above her head and began performing pull-ups while pondering her situation.
Like most of Konoha's institutions, the shinobi justice system bore the stamp of Hiruzen Sarutobi. While the First Hokage had been the visionary who founded the village, and the Second Hokage put Konoha on a sound financial footing through skillful negotiation with the Daimyo, it was the Third who transformed a collection of clans into a cohesive village.
In part he did so simply through the length of his reign. A whole generation of ninja were born, served in Konoha's military, retired, started families, grew old, and died, all in a village run by Hiruzen Sarutobi. Having such stability and competence in the head of the village lessened the need for ninja to turn to their own clan leaders.
More than that, though, Sarutobi established institutions that treated shinobi as individuals, not as members of their clan. Though the Third had often complained about the paperwork his reforms generated, the village bureaucracy did go a long way towards convincing shinobi to think of themselves as part of the village first, and members of their clans second.
Of course, many areas of the village still reflected its history as a collection of clans, with the military discipline system being a prominent example. Historically, commanders were in charge of meting out justice in the field, at their sole discretion. As long as they were able to justify their decision to the clan head, there would be no further repercussions. In day to day affairs back home the word of the clan head was law. In Sakura's experience that sort of thing was still around, with the Hokage taking the place of the clan head.
The Third's innovation was the shinobi tribunal system. If somebody had a complaint against an active-duty shinobi, they could request a formal hearing to be held in the village. Allegations of violations of the Shinobi Code were adjudicated by the Jounin Commander with the aid of a panel of disinterested jounin.
The tribunal system was mostly used by civilians to complain about abusive behavior by shinobi in Konoha. It served a valuable role in convincing villagers that protection from misbehaving ninja could be had from the Hokage, and did not require clan intervention. As far as Sakura knew, she was the first ninja to be reported for behavior that had occurred outside the village. Of course, while a part of her had always wanted to be in the history books, this was not exactly how she wanted to get there.
Sakura let out a soft snort as she found herself unable to continue after her twenty-second pull up. She carefully brought her legs up between her arms and hooked them behind the bars in the window. Once she was sure they were secure she leaned back and began a set of inverted sit-ups.
The frustrating part was that she knew that if Tsunade really wanted her to be free, she would be free. Everybody involved in the system served at the pleasure of the Hokage, and if the Hokage ordered that charges be dropped, they would be dropped. Sakura had a feeling that if it were Naruto in her situation, he would never have spent a night in jail. Tsunade had a soft spot for Sakura's teammate that went beyond the respect and affection that the Hokage felt for all active duty ninja. Sakura had passed up a chance to develop that kind of relationship with the Hokage when she turned down her offer of apprenticeship, which was coming back to bite her now.
The problem she had from a more technical legal point of view was that the charges brought against her were, in fact, true. All of the false evidence planted by Kabuto had been unravelled, but Sakura was still facing possible execution because somebody had reported her little run-in with Kurenai.
When she was trying to get Sasuke back, Yuuhi Kurenai had ordered her to return to the village. Sakura had defied that order, and had taken two of Kurenai's genin hostage in order to get her to back down. There were at least five provisions in the Shinobi Code that covered that situation, and four of them carried execution as the recommended punishment.
In the end nobody had been hurt and the mission turned out well. Kakashi had had a talk with Sakura about the appropriate way to handle that type of situation in the future, and Kurenai had seemed content to let the matter go. However, somebody had put a formal complaint in to the Jounin Commander's office. Once the office had the complaint, they had to investigate, and once it looked like the complaint was probably true, they had taken Sakura into custody. The situation was further complicated by the fact that Tsunade had classified everything having to do with Team Seven's actions while they were out of the village, which made it hard for Sakura to tell her side of the story.
Sakura dropped down from the bars and caught herself on the floor, briefly holding herself in a handstand before flipping back to her feet. Taking a deep breath, she started working through the closest thing to a kata that she could manage in the confined space. It was really just a series of transitions from stance to stance, but it at least provided some semblance of a leg workout. Her body moved on autopilot as she continued to try to work out her best move for the future.
Sakura didn't really understand much about the high-level political maneuvering that went on in Konoha other than the fact that it existed. Getting involved in that kind of thing when you weren't a pretty high-level ninja yourself was a messy way to commit suicide. She had always been content to keep her head down, keep training, and let the politics take care of itself. After all, trying to keep up with her teammates was a full time job in itself.
But now somebody had it out for her. There was no other explanation for a complaint being filed by somebody other than the aggrieved party. Sakura knew she probably wasn't the ultimate target of this particular power play-really, it was just an indicator that she was now seen as a sufficiently valuable piece that she was worth removing from the table. The awkward thing was that she didn't even know which political faction she was ostensibly allied with. That was going to have to change.
"Prisoner zero-one-two, assume the position." The familiar voice jolted Sakura out of her thoughts, and she took a moment to wipe the sweat off of her forehead before stepping into the circles that had been laid out on the floor and placing her hands into two matching circles on the cell wall. Shortly after she had assumed the position the circles began to glow, locking her in place. Once she was secure, the cell door swung open to admit the distinctive figure of Anko Mitarashi.
"Today's the big day, pinky," Anko commented, as she walked over to Sakura and began wrapping two strips of paper around her wrists. Anko was not one to observe the formalities when her boss wasn't there to police her behavior.
The markings on the paper around Sakura's wrist began to glow with a soft blue light as the two ends of the paper fused together seamlessly. Anko smiled at the sight and walked over to rap out a complicated pattern on the bars of the cell. When she finished, the restraining circles released Sakura, who responded by shaking the stiffness out of her arms.
"You ready for this?" Anko asked, taking Sakura by the arm and leading her out of the cell.
Sakura smiled when she felt chakra rush through her system for the first time in weeks. The restraining seals around her wrist would have prevented such a thing, had they not been replaced with look-a-likes that were nothing more than fancy night lights.
"Yeah," Sakura said. "I'm ready to get this over with."
Sakura thought that three weeks in a cell and a possible death sentence were pretty poor rewards for the death of Orochimaru. She wasn't the only one to think so.
Deep in the hinterlands of Grass Country, there was a cave. It was not the sort of cave that most people would look twice at, in part because it was truly unremarkable and in part because of the subtle genjutsu encouraging them to stay away. A traveler who shrugged off the genjutsu and entered the cave would have been rewarded with the sight of a magnificent cavern-which would be the last thing the traveler saw, as the S-ranked ninja who occupied the cave were not fond of visitors.
Beyond the cavern there was a maze of hallways that led to temporary living space, storage areas, meeting rooms, and all the other bits and pieces that made up one of Akatsuki's secret bases. Two teenagers were casually making their way down a hallway, walking with a confidence that would have surprised an observer who did not know their identities.
The apparent elder of the two was seventeen, and stood a good few inches taller than his companion. He wore his blonde hair long, with the casual disregard for practicality that one earns by tweaking the nose of a major ninja village and blowing up everybody sent in pursuit. His name was Deidara, and although he knew he wasn't the strongest shinobi in the world, he also knew that the list of men he must fear was short enough that he had learned every name on it.
His companion didn't look any older than fifteen, and his tousled mop of red hair combined with his short stature made him look a little younger. As he walked down the hallway, his face remained perfectly placid, even as he glanced down at the small bundle in his arms. Sasori of the Red Sands never displayed any emotion without a deliberate effort.
"How's the brat?" Deidara asked.
"Yugito is doing well., Sasori said, before placing a hand on the child and focusing briefly. "The seal is functioning within acceptable parameters."
"The name thing still seems creepy to me," Deidara said, "I mean, her body is still cooling off back there-"
"The Leader was originally going to just give them numbers. When I convinced him that names would be useful for their psychological development," Sasori said, "he decided that this system would be easiest for him to keep track of. If you like, I could tell him that you think his decision was wrong..."
"Hey, hey, no need for that," Deidara said, all of his previous composure gone as he lifted his hands in a warding gesture. "I was just talking, you know? You don't need to take everything so seriously, yeah?"
"Our organization is not one for small talk," Sasori replied.
"Yeah, but maybe you should lighten up a little," Deidara said. "I mean, how else are you going to learn to enjoy those moments of genuine artistic beauty?"
"True art is beauty that stands the test of time," Sasori said.
"Yeah, yeah," Deidara said, waving his hand dismissively, before settling down and fixing Sasori with a serious look. "Speaking of the test of time, do you ever worry that we're going to be replaced with the new model, here?"
"I, at least, don't feel threatened by a bunch of children," Sasori replied, shrugging disdainfully.
"They aren't going to stay kids forever," Deidara grumbled. "It's just, this whole plan kind of feels like the Leader is saying we're not good enough."
"The Leader plans for the long term. And in the short term we are denying a weapon to our enemies," Sasori said. "Besides, are you really going to complain about having too many strong shinobi on our side? If their efforts give you a little more free time you may even learn to appreciate actual art."
"Hey, I appreciate art just fine!" Deidara replied. "I'm not some thug that just blows things up at random, you know. There's a lot of planning and consideration that goes into creating just the right explosion at just the right moment..."
"It's not art if there's no lasting legacy for others to admire," Sasori said, then held up his hand to forestall a reply as they stopped in front of a door. "Enough. It's annoying that you continue to try to convince me of your foolish ideas, but I'll not have you providing a bad influence on impressionable young minds."
Sasori glanced over at his companion and, after confirming that he would stay quiet, opened the door and entered the small room carved out of the solid rock. Soon after they entered they were assaulted by a green and white blur, which resolved itself into the form of a young girl clinging to Sasori's legs. It was a testament to his ability as a ninja that he did not rock backwards at all upon impact. His face, however, did soften into a smile as he looked down at the mop of green hair that was all that he could see of Fuu.
"Uncle Sasori! You came!" Fuu said, then looked up, her orange eyes examining him closely. "This is a lot quicker than usual... did you bring me a present?"
"Indeed I did," Sasori said, gently prying Fuu off of his legs before kneeling down and presenting the bundle he was holding for her inspection. "Meet your new sister, Yugito."
"Another one?" Fuu asked, displeased.
"I thought you would be happy to have another playmate," Sasori said, raising an eyebrow. "She's going to look up to you, you know."
"I know," Fuu said, crossing her arms over her chest and looking down at where she was scuffing the ground with her toe. "It's just, you don't visit as much any more... and I like being your favorite niece."
"I love all of my nieces and nephews, Fuu, I don't have a favorite," Sasori said seriously, before reaching out gently with his free hand to place a finger under her chin and raise her gaze to meet his eyes. "But if I did have a favorite, it would be you."
"Really?" Fuu asked, her face breaking into a grin that could light up the room at Sasori's answering nod. "You're the best, Uncle Sasori!"
"Thank you," Sasori said, then stood. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to introduce Yugito to your caretaker."
"'kay," Fuu said, taking a step back and appearing to notice Deidara for the first time. With a happy squeal, she grabbed his arm and began dragging him into the center of the room. "C'mon, let's play ninja!"
Sakura kept her expression neutral as she entered the room where her trial would be held. Looking nervous would have been an embarassment for herself and her instructor, while looking unjustifiably upbeat in a room full of ninja was not a great way to keep secrets.
The room itself was impressive. Usually a meeting room on the ground floor of Hokage Tower, it had undergone a metamorphosis for the occasion. At the front of the room there was a raised platform, atop which was an imposing podium that was currently unoccupied. Off to the side of the podium was a small seating area that contained a small group of ninja, all dressed alike in black robes and blank porcelain masks. The panel of ninja that were to assist that Jonin Commander in deciding the result of the trial were traditionally anonymous, but Sakura could rule out some individuals as she swept her eyes over the other half of the room.
The back of the room had been transformed into a viewing gallery, seating row after row of shinobi. Sakura wasn't sure if they had been sitting quietly before-most ninja weren't particularly chatty by nature-but the room was certainly silent as she walked in. As Sakura scanned the crowd her eyes paused only briefly when she saw Kakashi and received a nod from her sensei that most would take as a simple greeting.
Sakura was also heartened to see Naruto sitting next to Kakashi. Her irrepressible teammate had been troubled by some of her actions on their last mission together, and in the press of events they had never had a chance to talk things over. He hadn't been able to visit her in her cell, and the hurried discussions she had had with Kakashi had not left time to hash out her personal issues. Seeing Naruto here in the audience was a relief. He looked troubled, but it was pretty clear that he had a problem with Sakura's situation rather than with Sakura herself.
Anko lead Sakura across the room to the table set aside for the accused. Sakura held her head high as she felt the weight of the crowd's attention, every eye following her as she walked. She knew that her legal case was hopeless, but that was no reason to look nervous. She was pretty sure that somebody in Konoha's upper echelon would take an interest in her and protect her from the results of this proceeding-she was too valuable of a tool to just throw away. And if nobody showed up to save her, well, she had a plan for that too.
Sitting down, Sakura allowed a tiny trickle of chakra from her feet to mix with the ground beneath the defendant's table. It took considerable effort to keep a smile off her face at the result.
The entire room was covered with a complicated sealing array that protected the integrity of the walls, ceiling, and floor. Sakura herself should be unable to do anything anyway because of the chakra suppressing seals on her wrists, but no ninja worthy of her forehead protector would rely on a security plan with a single point of failure.
Isolating even a small area of the floor from the effects of the array was a difficult assignment. It was the kind of thing that required a ninja with a good working knowledge of seals, the high level of infiltration training necessary to get into the building beforehand, and an in-village information network that would let him know where the hearing was going to take place. It wouldn't hurt to have a Sharingan eye, either, so the chakra flows of the sealing array would be visible while he worked on a counter-seal.
It was a little surprising how many people underestimated Kakashi just because he was a lazy pervert who spent most of his time reading pornography.
Sakura attention was drawn away from her planning when a murmur arose from the crowd. She looked up and saw that Tsunade had just entered the room. The Hokage walked serenely over to the space that had been reserved for her in the observation area and took her seat, observing the crowd with a placid smile on her face that revealed nothing of what she was thinking.
Shortly after the Hokage sat down there was a popping sound at the front of the room, and Jonin Commander Shikaku Nara appeared in a puff of smoke at his podium. He immediately ruined the effect of his dramatic entrance by falling into his habitual slouch.
"All right, let's get this over with," shikaku said visibly stifling a yawn.
Sakura bristled at his casual attitude towards a trial where her life was at least theoretically at stake, but did her best not to show it. At first her restraint was based mostly on pride, but as she caught the glint of a sharp intelligence in Shikaku's gaze, it occurred to her that it was best not to expose too much of what she was thinking to the man who had earned the right to lead Konoha's jonin.
Shikaku began the proceedings by calling Yuuhi Kurenai to testify. The red-eyed kunoichi had traded in her usual field outfit for a rather severe version of the standard jonin uniform. Wearing a flak jacket over a simple combination of dress and shorts, she looked every inch the professional shinobi that she was.
Kurenai first described the efforts of Team Eight in hunting down Sakura and Naruto. Sakura found the glimpse into the work of a tracking team to be fascinating. Of the three genin on the team, Shino had the largest effective range of detecting with his bugs, but the delay involved in reporting results prevented him from giving the team more than just a general direction to go. Once he had guided them to the right area, Kiba and Akamaru were able to follow the trail directly to their quarry. As the team closed in, Hinata's Byakugan was able to precisely pinpoint Sakura and Naruto's location. Sakura was surprised to learn that they had been under observation for almost half an hour before Kurenai had placed a genjutsu on them.
Kurenai smoothly described the first few steps of the capture: the genjutsu, Sakura's escape from it, her neutralization of Kiba and Hinata. She hesitated as she described the standoff between herself and Sakura. Sakura almost smiled as she realized the dilemma Kurenai faced-Sakura had been able to call her bluff in large part because a kunai to the throat wasn't much of a threat to the jinchuuriki carrying the Kyuubi, but Naruto's status was still technically an S-rank secret. Shikaku seemed to realize the problem as well.
"You can skip anything having to do with village secrets," he said, "it would be too troublesome to have to have another trial right after this one."
Kurenai nodded and then explained that she had backed down based on her assessment of the tactical situation. Sakura suppressed a smile at the result-if you didn't know that she had to worry about the prospect of facing an enraged jinchuuriki, it sounded like Kurenai thought that she and Shino together weren't favored in a fight against Sakura.
Kurenai finished her testimony by describing the hour long wait before Sakura's clones had dissolved, releasing their hostages. Shikaku thanked her for her testimony and, once the jounin had returned to the observation area, asked Sakura if she had anything she would like to add. Sakura stood before she replied.
"I would like to," Sakura said, "but I'm afraid everything relevant that I could talk about is classified."
"Well then, unless anybody would like to declassify that information..." Shikaku said, trailing off as every eye turned to Tsunade. The Hokage said nothing, and her small smile may as well have been carved in ivory for all of the emotion it conveyed. "Then I think I've heard enough. We'll take a brief recess and be back with a decision."
Sakura sat back down and watched as Shikaku and the panel filed into a back room where they could discuss the case in private. So much for any surprises going her way during the trial. For the first time she started to feel nervous tension building up in her stomach. It seemed like time was moving unbearably slowly, but somehow also felt like no time at all had passed before Shikaku re-entered the room and Sakura stood to hear the verdict.
"Well, this is a pretty clear cut case of insubordination, as well as assaulting Konoha forces. Usually the penalty for either offense is death." Shikaku said, then paused. Sakura let chakra seep out of her feet, ready to drop into the tunnel beneath the floor on an instant's notice. "However, Lady Hokage is merciful. She has agreed to suspend your sentence if you will agree to two years of confinement to the village, to be supervised by the Hokage herself."
Sakura whirled around to stare at Tsunade, along with most of those present. The Hokage's expression didn't waver, although after a moment she raised an eyebrow at Sakura. Sakura was suddenly certain that she knew exactly what Sakura was thinking.
Sakura was torn. Being stuck in the village would be a big change from the relatively free rein she had had as part of the Jutsu Theft Squad. She thought longingly of the tunnel beneath her feet, the carefully planned escape route, the safe houses scattered around Fire Country... still, it was one thing to go on the run to avoid a death sentence, but quite another to do so just to avoid spending two years in Konohagakure.
"Of course I'll accept," Sakura said, keeping her gaze on the Hokage.
One corner of Tsunade's mouth curled up in a satisfied smile, and Sakura began to wonder exactly what set of forces had scripted this little drama.