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"Sakura?" the voice asked. The voice did not seem overly concerned but she could tell there was a note of worry. For a moment she thought it was the boy...Naruto but that was impossible. She hadn't seem him in years except, she had, just now seen him lying on the ground and she had been cradling his head tears rolling down her face.
The voice called out again and she felt a hand on her arm. The touch brought her back and she saw Sasuke looking at her concerned. In fact, everyone was looking at her as she glanced around the room. Lady Tsunade's face appeared to be a mixture of concern and annoyance. How long had she just been standing there?
"Are you okay Sakura?" she asked?
"Yes My Lady I was just shocked that I knew him I suppose, I mean I haven't thought of him in years but I really remember him from the Academy."
"What do you remember most about him?" the Hokage asked.
"Mostly he was...so...annoying." she said honestly "I remember him always pestering me and pulling pranks. He spent a lot of time trying to impress everyone or trying to show up Sasuke." Sakura glanced over at him. "Remember?"
"I remember him losing."
"It's true." he said defensively.
"That doesn't mean you should still be gloating about it." she turned back to Tsunade. "I guess I knew he was a orphan but I would have never guessed he was the son of a Hokage." She looked down at Naruto's photo again. "I don't remember being very nice to him."
"Most people weren't from what I gather he was close to the village pariah at times."
"He must have been so lonely." she nearly whispered to herself. "I wish I had been a friend to him."
"Sakura," Kakashi interrupted. "You shouldn't let yourself feel responsible, there wouldn't have been much you could have done for Naruto. He could not have been saved after all."
"Weren't you the one who said we should look out for our comrades Kakashi Sensei?"
"Always but Naruto was not one of our comrades."
"He was the Jinchuuriki of the Nine Tails Sakura, that has made him a enemy of the Leaf since the day he was born, someone like that could never be a true comrade or friend."
Sakura took a step back away from Kakashi. She was not used to hearing such callousness from the leader of Team 7 especially about a fellow member of the Leaf. She had seen Kakashi show more compassion toward a mortal enemy that he was showing this poor boy. Sasuke sensed her discomfort and tried to move the briefing along.
"All right so Naruto was the Nine Tails and the son of the Fourth. I guess I can accept that but how did he end up on the run from the Leaf? Last we heard after he flunked the Academy he left the village to try and find some sort of life for himself? If that's not true where has he been all these years?"
"To explain that I need to ask you two something." replied Tsunade. "Do you two remember your teacher Iruka Umino?" Both of the young couple tensed at the name.
"Of course, he was our primary teacher throughout the Academy he died a hero stopping a enemy ninja who had infiltrated the village and stolen the Scroll of Seals." said Sasuke.
"Iruka was killed by Naruto Uzumaki."
"No!" whispered Sakura.
"It's true Sakura," continued the Hokage, "though there is much to explain about that night. There was a enemy ninja that much is true. He was a undercover agent of Orochimaru named Mizuki who had been drawn to Orochimaru for promises of power. When Naruto failed the Academy he was heartbroken and Mizuki preyed on his weakness, Mizuki told Naruto that if manged to steal the Scroll of Seal and learn one of the Forbidden techniques that he would automatically graduate from the Academy."
Sai choose to speak up. "Surely My Lady he could not be so foolish?"
"He was but to be fair he was young by being manipulated by someone he thought he could trust. May Mizuki rot in the deepest hell for the pain he caused that night. Still Naruto actually did manage to break into the Hokage's lodge and take the scroll. It wasn't long until every Shinobi in the village was looking for Naruto including Iruka."
"Iruka must have known his student well because he managed to track Naruto down first and find out about the deception. Unfortunately Mizuki was in waiting and attacked Iruka leaving him severely injured. Naruto did try to stop Mizuki himself but was overpowered. Mizuki pinned him to a tree with a kunai blade lodged in his shoulder. Mizuki mocked Naruto revealing the truth about himself, how he was the Nine Tails and hated by the Village."
"That was his final mistake."
"What Mizuki failed to understand was the the seal that holds the Nine Tails in check can be weakened by Naruto's emotions and he had just made Naruto more angry than he had ever been his life. So the seal weakened and Nine Tails chakra came flowing thru Naruto. He ripped the kunai from his body and attacked Mizuki and while Mizuki may have been a match for Naruto that same could not be said of the Nine Tails . Naruto ripped him apart and if it had ended there I would have called it a good night but Naruto was still a very angry boy and he turned his sights on the only one else who he could take the anger on...Iruka."
"We believe that Iruka tried to reason with Naruto, he probably asked for forgiveness for what the village had done to him but whatever he had said didn't matter because Naruto didn't stop...and Iruka didn't survive."
"I was the first who found him," added Yamato, "being sent by the Third to track Naruto down. He had Iruka's body cradled in his arms and tears were streaming down his face. He didn't fight when I took him into custody."
Tsunade gazed at the younger members of Team 7 her hands arched beneath her chin. "After the death of Iruka the Third could no longer just allow Naruto to run free and the Konoha Council was pressuring him to imprison the Jinchuuriki somewhere far away from the village and the Feudal Lord was even questioning whether or not it would be better to just kill the boy and be done with it."
"Wouldn't it have been better to kill him if he posed a threat to the village?" asked Sai. The calm look on his face disgusted Sakura.
"We don't just kill fellow shinobi Sai!" she exclaimed and then following more softly "No matter what they did."
"That's mostly true Sakura." agreed the Hokage. "Though most of village now believed Naruto was beyond saving, it didn't matter because he still to important to the safety of the village."
"Why?" asked Sasuke.
"Two reasons. First even if Naruto were to be killed that does not guarantee the death of the Nine Tails so we would just have to find someone else to be his Jinchuuriki. Second was he would be a necessary weapon in case another village used it's Jinchuuriki against us. Killing him was never really a option.
"That was when Danzo offered a compromise."
Sai stiffened at the named and glanced at his two teammates who looked back at him. Danzo was a hard memory for all of them. Danzo was the head of the Foundation or Root a secret group that as far as Sakura was concerned was a sickness in the heart of her village, one that she would cure if she only knew how. This group was responsible for multiple unsanctioned missions for the "good of the village" and they answered to none except Danzo. Sai had been added to the team when they had graduated from the Academy. He was added as a new genin from one of the more secretive clans that don't always send their students to the Academy, which in a way was true. He had been sent by Danzo to watch after Sasuke either to protect him as one of the last of the bloodline of the Uchiha or to kill him if he turned out to be following in Itachi's footsteps.
When Danzo had learned just how close Sasuke had come to leaving the village and joining Orochimaru he decided that he now represented a threat to the village and sent Sai to finish him. Sasuke had told her afterward about Sai's trap and how close he had come to fulfilling his mission.
Several years ago...
Sasuke found himself heading east away from the village. In part he wondered at how wise a decision this was given the recent events with Orochimaru but Sai's message had been clear. Kakashi needed him and Sai to scout a potential hideout of rogue ninja in the area, nothing expected to be too dangerous but it was important that it was checked out. Most likely there wouldn't be anyone there but everyone was shorthanded and jumpy after the attack from the Sand Village. Kakashi had been sending him on a lot of busy work lately. It had become known about his involvement with the Sound Ninja four and while the official story was that he had been working undercover to capture the ninja and acquire their intel there were plenty of rumors about him possibly having attempted to betray the village and Sasuke had felt those stares again. The stares of him being guilty even if no one was sure what for and this time he couldn't even get angry because he had almost betrayed the village. If it wasn't for Sakura...
A bird of ink and chakra flew by Sasuke and he followed it toward Sai. This mission was relatively standard but something was still tickling the back of his mind though he didn't know what, possibly just his imagination but he would be wary he thought to himself.
Sai was already partly hidden in some brush relying more on shadows to stay concealed that any true camouflage. He put a finger to his lips indicating silence on Sasuke's part and wordlessly disappeared into the vegetation. Not a man of a lot of words Sasuke thought to himself and he paused in a moment of self reflection before following, Of course most times neither am I. Maybe he would need to work on that.
Sai efficiently lead the way through the woods before stopping at the edge of a clearing. He had chosen a spot next to a old fallen tree. The broken branches and rotting leaves provided excellent cover while giving them good line of sight into the glade. It appeared to be a group of ninja making camp far from the village but not far enough that signs weren't noticed of their presence or they would not have been sent to investigate. They wore Sand headbands but the hourglass resembling symbol had been slashed indicating they were rogue ninja. Of course that didn't mean a thing. On paper the Sand and Leaf were not at war declaring a cease fire after the events of the Chūnin exam but in practice aggressive guerrilla action had started between the two villages. These ninja could be rogues or they could just be acting as rogues to help deny accountability for their village.
Sai lowered his voice to make sure there was no chance of the ninja overhearing him. "So Sasuke how would you like to handle it? Should we report them back at the village or kill them now?" Sai said this with his usual perfect calm and awaited Sasuke's response. He didn't care about either course really, he only wanted to know what orders to follow, such was his nature, he didn't seem to spend to much time on independent thought and once again Sasuke wondered what kind of training he had gone thru before joining Team 7. Putting aside such thoughts until after the mission he called forth his Sharingan and observed the group. There were four shinobi surrounding a small fire, their gear was worn and did not look very well kept. Sasuke could detect no hint of a perimeter guard which disturbed Sasuke in it's casualness though he supposed that it could be they felt safe enough due to their distance from the village. Something did seem off about the group, however Sasuke did not notice anything too threatening from the squad. Nodding to himself he came to a conclusion.
"We will attack them but we are not going in for a kill," ordered Sasuke, "we are going to just hurt them enough to make them move out of our territory...as quickly as possible."
"Is it wise to show mercy on enemies with as weak as the Leaf is at this time?" asked Sai.
"Our battle strength is exactly why I want them to live." Sasuke readied his ninja tools as he responded. "Right now due to our manpower available we can't patrol our territories well enough that these small fry are getting through. If we kill them these enemies might be gone but it will do nothing to deter more enemies later. A little terrorizing," he continued with a smirk, "will make sure they spread plenty of tales about how strong the Leaf is right now."
"There is...wisdom with your strategy Sasuke." commented Sai.
"Glad you think so. Now I'll give you five in order to circumvent the perimeter of their camp. You think you could place a few Beast Scrolls up in advance? I'll lead the attack and focus them on me. You follow with Beasts from all directions. Given their apparent strength they will most likely retreat then."
"And if they do not."
"If they do not then we'll take them down one by one until they see the error of their ways."
Sai nodded, "It will be as you say Sasuke." and with a eyeblink he disappeared.
Sasuke started a countdown in his mind and continued to view the enemy camp. While he didn't suspect a enemy trap something was still off but even with the Sharingan he couldn't quite put his finger on what it was that was bothering him. But time passed quickly on the battlefield and he readied his kunai in preparation. Then the moment came Leaping into the air he ran through handsigns faster than he could think.
"Fireball Jutsu!" he cried above the four ninja and launched it right toward the campfire burning in their midst. In truth there was not a lot of chakra in the attack. Instead he merely caused their own fire to flare and spark obscuring the vision of the enemy. As he fell toward them two of the ninja looked up toward him.
Sasuke knew what it was that had bothered him.
A kunai now in each hand he landed in their midst slashing in a circle to keep them from coming too close. Despite this two of the ninja leap toward him one taking a slash from one of his kunai the second not even bothering to avoid burns from the fire. Each ninja had secured one of his arms. The third came from behind locking him firmly in his arms. The last lunged forward plunging a kunai into his chest. The fourth ninja transformed and it was Sai standing there pushing the kunai in deeper.
The look of shock on Sasuke's face when the fourth ninja had transformed into Sai was reflected, if not mirrored, when a kunai was placed against his own throat.
"A substitution?" he asked and as if in answer the first Sasuke erupted in a puff of smoke the dagger now piercing a dead log.
"I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong with the enemy," Sasuke responded, "not until I attacked and only two of the ninja looked up toward me. I realized the thing that had been bothering me up until now was that at any one moment only two of the ninja would move at a time. It was subtle, since it was not the same pair at any given time and had I not been looking with my Sharingan I might not have noticed at all but when I did I realized it must be trap and that just left one person who could have set it."
"It would have been improved things had you not seen it Sasuke. A quick battle would have been better but there were too many constructs to handle at the same time." as he said this his face began to melt into black ink and the other three "ninja" quickly followed.
Now alone Sasuke spun around trying to see where the real Sai was hiding. "I don't understand Sai we're comrades,why would you try to kill me?"
"It's nothing personal Sasuke. You have been judged a potential threat to the village and as such your death has been ordered." the voice came from all around and Sasuke could not tell Sai's location.
"The Hokage would never order my death, especially like this."
"Your right...the Hokage wouldn't but I don't take my orders from her." His voice came at Sasuke just as calm and polite as it normally was. He could be discussing supplies for a mission as easily as a teammates death. Sasuke noticed one thing though, Sai normally did not talk during battle preferring to go for the kill efficiently as possible. It might be wishful thinking but Sasuke suspected that at least down deep Sai wasn't as committed to this fight as he ordinarily was. Now if only Sasuke could draw him out.
"So who is it that wants me dead?"
"I'm sorry Sasuke but I can't tell you that."
Behind him there was the fainest of rustles and Sasuke flipped in the air now upside down but turned around toward the sound. A pack of Beast Scroll lions were racing toward him, a pair of shuriken dispatched the two closest and Sasuke landed on the ground palm first pushing himself back into the air. As the remaining pack began to surround him he attacked with Taijutsu using each blow to spin himself into position for the next. In moments the pack was a cloud of smoke. Dammit! Sai could have the battlefield covered with Beast scrolls ready to be activated. A pack of that strength was minor for him, just a way to feel out his opponent while he decided on his main strategy.
"Okay Sai, if you can't tell me who wants me dead then can you tell me why? What have I done to make someone think I'm a threat to village."
Sai was clearly a little surprised when he answered, "You really do not understand? After all your brother was already a traitor to the Leaf."
"I'm not my brother Sai you should know that."
"You seem much like Itachi to me Sasuke."
Despite the apparent betrayal this was the first moment Sasuke started to feel true anger toward Sai."
"I am nothing like my brother!" he shouted.
"Your brother did what he did to gain power did he not?"
"My brother killed my entire family for that power I would never do something like that!"
"Did you not think that those in village would be hurt when you decided to join Orochimaru?"
Sasuke paused, he had not known how much Sai (and he supposed whoever had ordered this hit) knew about that night. What he knew was there was truth in how close he had came to being a enemy of the Leaf.
"That was a mistake."
"Yes a mistake that almost put a powerful member of the Uchiha clan into the hands of one of Leaf's most diabolical adversaries. And what was it that stopped you? Sakura? One speech from a girl you had barely acknowledged before that night. Tell me Sasuke will you listen to her plead next time you feel the need for revenge? I'm sure you can see how it's in the Village's best interest if you die before you make that mistake again."
Sai stepped out into view, a few dozen feet away and seemed to be looking at Sasuke expectantly, almost as if thought Sasuke would see his logic and acquiesce to his demands.
"If you think I'm just going to die conveniently for you Sai I'm going to have to disappoint you"
"Of course not Sasuke, you are one of the most capable ninja I know. It would be ridiculous for you to just stay still and let me finish you off. That was why I planned on trapping you first." Sai had started to walk toward him in a all but peaceful way.
Sasuke held a kunai in a defensive stance as he neared. "Well that didn't work out to well."
Sai tilted his head and a dead smile appeared on is face. "I think it worked out fine after all you entered quite nicely into it." his hands showed the signs for a activation on one of his Beast Scrolls.
Sasuke felt the ground ripple underneath his feat. Across the entire clearing a sea of ink seemed be rising from the ground.
"I don't think you understood how much time I had to prepare for your arrival. I think they are very fitting considering whom you almost joined, don't you?"
Sasuke realized it wasn't just a sea of ink that surrounded him. It was snakes. Sai had drawn hundreds of snakes camouflaged into the ground.
In unison they engulfed him.