“I am... so sorry I have to ask this of you. Truthfully, I don't even want to hand you the scroll-”
“It's a mission, Hokage-sama. The details do not matter to me.”
“He was my student... the only one to still live. I will hand it to somebody, anybody else, if only you ask me to-”
“I accept the mission.”
“...very well. Before you go...”
“Make him tell you why he did it. I... I have to know.”
In the darkness of the night, a single shadow sped through the thick forest of its homeland. The moon was covered by clouds, and what little light it shed only barely made it through tall trees and countless leaves. It jumped from one branch to another, a mere blur, gone between one blink and the next. The only splash of colour setting it apart from the surrounding blackness, was a pristine white mask of clay decorated with bright red stripes. Tiger.
“We found them like this... God, why did he do it?”
“Old dog's always been crazy, it was just a matter of- fuck!”
“What the hell, Tiger!”
“Little Rat shouldn't talk of matters it doesn't understand.”
“Look we all know he was your taichou since you were fresh out of the academy but he's a traitor. A criminal, and he's on the run. What are you gonna do if Yondaime-sama assigns you his execution?”
“I will hunt him down. He'd kill any of you.”
“No. I can take him.”
The shadow stopped for a brief moment and dragged its hand over a rough piece of bark. Lifting its mask, it leaned closer and sniffed. Underneath the smell of food and resin hid a tangy note it'd recognise anywhere. Blood, ozone and sweat. Dog. It grinned in satisfaction, readjusted its mask and launched itself off the branch, falling into a quick sprint. Dogs couldn't run from Tigers, no matter how hard they tried. It was closing in to its target and itching for a fight.
“This is your mask. From now on, you will wear it every waking moment. You will never take it off. You will forget your old name. You are Tiger now. Understood?”
“Good. Your captain's behind this door, waiting with his team. Follow his orders and stay alive. Do the corps proud.”
Tiger tracked the scent, never stopping for a break, never pausing its run. Dog wasn't that far ahead, had caused a ruckus during its escape. Clumsy, terribly clumsy and entirely unlike the Dog Tiger had known for years. Almost as it if wanted to be found. It wouldn't leave so many drops of blood otherwise. Tiger growled and quickened its stride. It was a noble beast and wouldn't settle for anything less than its prey's best. If Dog wanted to play, Tiger would show it the error of its ways.
“You're good for a kid.”
“Thank you, taichou.”
“I thought they stopped sending children like lambs to the slaughter.”
“My designation is Tiger, sir. Not lamb.”
“Mouthy too, hm? I can work with that. Welcome to Team Ro.”
“It's an honour, sir.”
The scent grew stronger and stronger and Tiger knew it was only a matter of minutes until it would run into a trap Dog doubtlessly prepared for its pursuers. It was past its prime, but the longer an animal lived, the sharper its mind, the greater its wisdom. Old predators were feared for they had been smart enough to survive for longer than most. Tiger dropped out of the trees and took a sharp right. Dog always did like to attack from the left.
“How'd you end up in ANBU anyway? It's not where civvies tend to go.”
“I'm a shinobi, not a civilian, Owl-san.”
“Sure sure... your parents though?”
“Were killed during the Uchiha revolt.”
“Ah. Shit. Sorry about that, kid. If it helps, Weasel still gets shit from all of us for not stopping them in time.”
“I was a classmate of his younger brother's. I never lost a single spar against him.”
“Ha. Good kid.”
Tiger knew it had made a mistake the second it stepped into that clearing. Dog had been waiting for it, known the identity of its hunter from the get-go. Tiger cursed itself as it backed away and hid in the trees. Dog's smell was strong, surrounded by various fainter fragrances Tiger knew by heart. It had summoned its pack and was now hiding, lying in wait, waiting for Tiger to make the first move. There had never been any doubt as to who they'd send after Dog. Only the best and brightest. Only its own student.
“The only reason I teach you this technique is because we're about to wander into a stronghold of Iwa-nin and our backup won't arrive in time. You have the affinity, and for some reason despite your parentage, you have the chakra.”
“My grandmother was a clan child.”
“I see. Either way, listen and watch closely. It's my original jutsu and if you screw up, it will kill you.”
“Now: Concentrate on your chakra and feel it running through your veins, notice the way it crackles and brims with electricity-”
Only honed reflexes and years of rigorous training supplied Tiger with the speed and reflexes to duck its head and drop low before the lightning hand could pierce its chest. Without pausing, it rolled back to its feet and drew its blade. With a flash of chakra, the metal charged and chirped, and then Tiger was off. It bared its teeth behind its mask as it stabbed at Dog's throat, only to be parried and deflected every time it went close. It growled and sidestepped a lunge from one of Dog's pack, kicked a second out of the way. Gathering and focusing chakra in its left hand, it turned it to lightning and threw itself towards its target.
“You're smart, intelligent, resourceful. I will assign you a new teacher. Crow will instruct you in genjutsu.”
“Sir, Crow is an Uchiha.”
“You have a problem with that?”
“Very much so, sir.”
“That's unfortunate. Now go and report to your new teacher.”
Dog's sword met nothing but air when Tiger burst into a mess of cherry blossoms, then reappeared behind it just a second later. The petals rose from the ground and shot towards Dog's pack, attacking the summons, leaving countless tiny cuts on their skin. Dog growled in fury and renewed its assault. Tiger danced and weaved in and out of its range, leaving one illusion after another, and detonating every clone it left behind. Behind Dog's mask, one red eye spun and whirred to life, and Tiger knew the fight had just begun.
“Sir, you have a Sharingan.”
“I do, Tiger.”
“I want to learn how to defend against it.”
“You should stop your feud with that clan before it comes back to bite you.”
“Then I will simply have to bite harder.”
“You won't drop this, will you?”
“Fine. Truthfully I know of only one technique that stands a decent chance against the Uchiha doujutsu and there's no way the Yondaime would teach you. So we'll have to improve your speed instead.”
They ran at each other from opposite sides of the clearing, swords brandished, teeth bared. Dog threw shuriken, Tiger launched kunai. Their blades met with a loud screech, metal scraping against metal. Dog was stronger so it pushed Tiger backwards. Now that it was on the defensive, Dog pressed its assault, red eye spinning and spinning and spinning. Tiger launched another kunai and just as Dog was about to pierce its sword through Tiger's chest, the feline was gone in a bright white flash.
“They are my family's records. I demand access.”
“Quite rude are you, Tiger?”
“These archives belong to my family, Yondaime-sama. I shouldn't have to ask permission.”
“You're young, still a child. You're a year away from being allowed to claim your inheritance.”
“The head of the clan is missing. I am the only one that's left. Let me see them.”
“You're just as much of a headache as my student was when he was your age. Very well. Here's your key.”
“So you did pick it up eventually. I'd wondered how long it would take you.” Dog's voice sounded as it always did, so familiar and deep, with a bite to it that only increased since Tiger had last seen it. Tiger straightened itself and picked up the marked kunai from where it stuck in the grass.
“Only one way to beat the Sharingan,” it replied, grabbing the kunai tightly as they circled around each other, both waiting for the other to make the first move.
“You never did let go of that feud,” Dog mused as its chakra roiled and crackled beneath the surface of its skin. Tiger summoned its own power and launched the kunai. A white flash later, Dog was the one forced on the defensive.
“You are not happy to serve under me.”
“How astute you are, Weasel.”
“Your lack of respect borders on disobedience.”
“This is my last mission before I resign from squad work and join the solo branch. You can complain all you like. I don't give a shit.”
“It is unseemly to bring personal issues into the team.”
“It was quite unseemly of you to let your family murder mine but you did it anyway so here we fucking are.”
“You've improved much since I last saw you. Unfortunately, you're still not good enough.” Tiger had less than a second to notice the error of its ways. Then, its muscles froze and its body locked up and fell over. Tiger cursed viciously as it struggled to move despite being paralysed from the neck down. Dog had never used poison before but of course it would do something entirely unexpected, pick up a new method just like Tiger had.
“You'll need more than your ancestor's hiraishin to beat the man who taught you almost everything you know.” With those parting words, Dog was gone and Tiger damned its name.
“Tiger? Tiger! Shit, you have to come with me. Now!”
“Why is everyone running around like something's on fire?”
“You didn't hear? Fuck. Look, I'm not sure how to tell you-”
“Just get on with it.”
“It's Dog. He murdered the council, then fled the village.”
Sheer fury fuelled Tiger's every stride as it raced through the dark forests, going South, further and further away from its homeland. It passed the border an hour ago after it spent half the night lying in the grass until the paralytic wore off. It had never failed a mission before, never let a target escape. Dog would not be the first.
She Tiger would get it, sink its teeth into its neck and bite down, crush skin and bone and devour it whole. Nobody ran away from it. Nobody.
“H- Haruno... Sakura.”
“Any other family?”
“Orphanage and academy. Next!”
This time, it was Tiger who got the drop on Dog. It disappeared into a white flash and reappeared directly behind it, one hand resting on the glowing seal tag stuck to Dog's jacket. It cursed and rolled out of the way but Tiger had already forced a kunai into its arm, shredding muscle and flesh before Dog could pull it out with a loud squelch and thick crimson spray of blood. No more chidori for Dog, Tiger thought and grinned viciously. Revenge was ever so sweet.
“What about Haruno? Good grades, above average chakra reserves, very advanced taijutsu...”
“Kid's a civvie. Assign her to the genin corps.”
“Surely that would be a waste of potential...”
“There's lots of clan kids in her year and not enough available squads to assign her to. She's smart enough and will do well behind a desk.”
“I think it's a mistake.”
“You can think all you like, but it's my decision. Haruno?!”
“You passed. Report to the genin office and receive your new assignment.”
“I thought I taught you better than to just blindly follow orders,” Dog growled as it parried Tiger's strike and caught its writs with a strong hand, applying just enough pressure to fracture the bones inside. Tiger grunted in pain and dropped its sword before jumping backwards, and sending an army of senbon at Dog.
“This village is riddled with disease and someone had to cut off the infected limb before it killed the body,” Dog barked out as it hounded Tiger's steps. Tiger ran and dodged while pressing its uninjured hand to its wrist, bathing both in a faint green glow.
“How can you serve a place that kills its own soldiers only to get its hands on those it labels prodigies?!” Tiger stopped and, to its great surprise, so did Dog. Both crouched on branches, one breathing heavily while the other remained calm.
“Those... elders hired foreign nin to kill my genin team mates so I had nobody to stop me from embracing the darkness.” Tiger's hands curled into fists as it stared into Dog's mismatched eyes through the holes of its own mask.
“I want to take the ANBU entry exam.”
“Kid, you're twelve. Go away.”
“Let me take the test!”
“A career genin? In ANBU? Don't make me laugh.”
“I can take it!”
“It was cute but now you're just being irri-”
“She'll either make it or die. Either way she won't be your problem anymore.”
“Why do you think that Uchiha is still allowed to lead his own team? All his clan did was kill some civilians. But at least the Sharingan survived to see another day. Your parents died because they weren't worth being saved!” Tiger howled in fury and launched
her- itself against Dog. Dog grabbed it around the waist and fell backwards, landing on the forest floor with a pained grunt. He- Dog rolled them over and pinned her- Tiger's wrists above its head.
“They indoctrinate you, turn you into mindless little machines, to never question what they make you do.”
“I only report to the Yondaime.”
“You are an asset, Tiger, and will listen when the council assigns you a mission.”
“You want me to assassinate one of our genin teams. The Hokage would never allow that.”
“You will comply, Tiger. Never forget your roots-”
“Wake up, damnit! Think!” Dog punched Tiger in the face and the pain that bloomed in
her face was nothing compared to the sudden searing agony on her tongue.
“You have a name! You are Haruno Sakura, you are twenty-three years old and you forgot who you really are!” He grabbed her head and shook it as his thighs pinned her in place. Everything spun and Tiger thought she might get sick as flashes and images of pink and green entered her mind, so familiar and she still couldn't place them-
“What is your name child?”
“S- Sakura, sir.”
“It says on your file that you're at the top of your class.”
“I work hard, sir.”
“I can see that. I think you could do great things. Perhaps, in a few years, I will come see you again.”
“What... what is your name?”
“I am Danzo, child. Village Elder Danzo.”
Dog tore the mask off her face and she gasped, flailed wildly and desperately clawed at his face to get it back, her mask, tigertigerTIGER-
“Look!” Dog (taichou, leader, captain, Kaka-) thrust a small mirror into Tiger's face but she turned her head away, refused to look or see because this was not her mask, not hers, and whatever was hidden behind it was not for anyone to see, not even herself, and she was terrified-
“I found the mission reports and the shock jogged my memory. I remembered myself and I knew they would send you after me, it was never going to be anyone else and I knew this was my chance to set you free!”
“It is a pity to see your talent wasted like this.
“Ah. You remember me.”
“Yes... you did say you might visit me again.”
“And just in time to see your potential squandered simply due to the nature of your parentage.”
“There is... one option you could still explore.”
“What... what is it?”
“Why, child. ANBU of course.”
Tiger howled and smashed her forehead into Dog's. The
manDog MAN cursed and rolled off her as he clutched his face. Tiger pulled a kunai and pounced. He tried to fight her off, grabbed her wrists and hands, but she spit and hissed, stabbed mindlessly until her weapon finally sunk into his flesh.
“Sakura, stop!” Tiger didn't listen, refused to, and pierced his thigh, hands slick and red with blood, lowered her mouth to his neck and bit, fighting like the animal she was.
“They look at your file, see civilian-born, and suddenly you're little more than a fucking number! Rin was soft and gentle and couldn't weather the storm. So I made you hard, and mean, and cruel,” Dog gasped before finally getting a hold of Tiger and throwing her backwards into a tree.
“And now here we are. My own student here to hunt me down.” He panted and got to his feet, form crouched and one hand pressing down on the gaping hole in his thigh.
“Will you swear to be loyal to me?”
“Will you follow my orders and work in the shadows, become part of Konoha's roots?”
“Will you accept my mark as symbol of your fealty and give your life for the greater good?”
“Very well, child. I am proud of you. Go to the ANBU offices. Your fellow agent will make sure you get to take the entry exams.”
“Look me in the eyes Sakura, and tell me you do not remember me.” Dog tore the clay mask off his face and dropped it to the ground with a quiet thud. Tiger's eyes, wild and wide roamed his face as beads of sweat ran down her forehead. The sudden headache was merciless and her mouth felt like it was on fire, and she stared at black and red, pale skin, white tufts of hair, Dog Dog
Dog Ka Ka Shi-
“This jutsu is called the Chidori-”
“Take a break. You earned it.”
“Well done, Tig-”
“Name? Well, my name is Ha-”
“Go to the damn hospital,
She went down with a cry and cradled her head as she curled up on the ground, world drowned in flames and pain, oh God the pain- Warm hands moved sticky strands of pink hair out of her face and she stared at Kakashi out of green eyes and remembered, remembered, remembered-
“You are no longer Haruno Sakura. You will be Tiger until the day you die. You are now ROOT. You will never be anything else.”
“Here.” She blinked lazily and through her blurry vision saw a canteen of water in front of her face. She reached for it and greedily gulped down the liquid while another hand dabbed the sweat off her forehead.
“What is your name?” She stared at him, mind sluggish and slow, before wetting her lips and croaking:
“Sakura. Haruno... Sakura.” His eyes changed into half-moons as he smiled and gave a single nod. He helped her sit up and lean against a tree. She turned her face upwards and blinked at the first rays of sunlight shining through the canopy above. Streaks of violet and pink disrupted the blackness of the sky and she wondered if the colours had always been this vivid.
“My best friend died because his clan hated him too much to give him proper training. I will tell you everything I know about their eyes. You shouldn't lose your life only because you couldn't defend yourself.”
“I will go back,” she said and he nodded grimly as if he had never expected anything else. There was nothing more to life than her duty. Not for Sakura. Perhaps one day, she might spread her wings and fly away, just like Kakashi. But not today. Not yet.
“I also refuse to fail my mission,” she added, rolled over and lodged her kunai into his body. Shock spread on his features as he stared at her, unable to move or act, do nothing to stop himself from bleeding out.
“I... always did tell them to... watch out... for you,” he coughed until his strength left him and he fell backwards onto the ground, unconscious.
“Perhaps you should have heeded your own advice.” She looked down on his still form, crouched, and picked up his blood-flecked mask from the ground.
She stalked into the Yondaime's office and unceremoniously dropped the bloodied mask on his desk. The blonde man closed his eyes, pained and defeated, and buried his head in his hands. A few drops of blood splashed onto the papers in front of him which were soon joined by salty tears.
“I can't thank you for this...” the male murmured, voice shaky and weak. Broken.
“I'm only doing my duty,” she replied before turning around and leaving the man to his misery.
She stared down on the still form of her old teacher, the two kunai which were lodged into his already injured thigh and left shoulder respectively, then sighed and reached into her satchel. The last thing she did before leaving him behind, was dropping a single roll of bandages on the grass next to his head. Sakura had known Kakashi for eleven years. He'd make do.
She walked away from the tower, face hidden behind her mask, green eyes glowing in victory.