She turned slowly and watched as the ghostly figure reached out a hand. Blond hair snaked through the misty air trying to grab her as well.
"Sakura..." the voice whispered again.
Sakura tried to get close but she still couldn't make out the details. There was blond hair, a white dress and glassy eyes. She heard a voice but there was no mouth on the person in front of her.
"Sakura..." It was pleading now. Sakura reached forward, trying to reach the hand. Suddenly it snapped forward and wrapped itself around her wrist.
"Help me," the ghost cried. Sakura struggled trying to get free. "Help me," it said again. And suddenly, the details of the face became clearer. "Help me, Sakura," the ghostly image of Ino cried.
"Owwww..." she cried softly as she tried to push herself out of the awkward position. The door to her room entered and someone suddenly picked her up.
"That's not very smart, Sakura-chan."
Sakura blinked. "Oto-san," she said before breaking out into a smile. "You're home!"
"Aa," he replied pulling the blankets up to her neck. "Now sleep for a bit longer."
"Your mother and I are just downstairs if you need anything."
Sakura paused and nodded, letting him fluff her pillow before disappearing out the door. She let out a deep breath and lifted the blanket up, looking at her bandaged leg. With a frown she tried to wiggle her toes and found that most of stiffness and pain was already fading.
She let the blanket drop with a puzzled look. Well obviously the injury wasn't that bad so why were both of her parents home and babying her? She could hear their voices downstairs so slowly she crept out of her bed and cracked open the door.
"...just for two more days!"
"No," her father's voice said. "You know that's not a good idea."
"But I just want her to know that she'll be okay," her mother said.
"Sakura-chan is smart. And she is completely different from that young girl. I don't think this affects her as much as you would like."
"As much as I would like?" her mother demanded.
There was a paused before her father started speaking again. "I say that only because I know how you feel. But we can't keep her safe by locking her in the house. We made a decision to let her go the minute we enrolled her in the academy."
Sakura frowned and walked back to the bed, burying herself under the covers. Her father was right. She did realize that she wasn't the same as the victim except maybe for age. And it wasn't as if she hadn't seen dead bodies before. Were her parents worried that she wasn't strong enough to protect herself? It was hard enough to have her teammates think she weak but now even her parents? She closed her eyes and tried to push the thought of her mind but it stuck even as she drifted to sleep again.
Several seconds later (or at least that's how long it felt), the door opened and soft footsteps moved across the floor. The bed dipped a bit as someone placed a hand on her arm.
The blankets were pulled down and Sakura squinted in the light. Her mother was looking at her curiously. "Are you feeling okay?"
Sakura sat up and nodded. "Just sleepy."
"I can't imagine why," her mother smiled, not attempting to hide the sarcasm in her voice. "Possibly though, it could be related to the fact that it is almost 2 in the afternoon."
Sakura shot up and grabbed her clock. "AH! I'm late for practice!"
"No practice today. Just you, me and your father."
Sakura paused and eyed her mother. "Doing what?"
Her mother shrugged. "I don't know. Shopping?"
"Dad would hate that."
"Right... how about a picnic?"
"It's a bit late..."
Her mother took in a deep breath. "I have an idea. So get ready quickly and we'll go."
"Okay..." Sakura agreed still a bit perplexed over why her mother was so insistent they do something together. "I'll be down in a second."
"Dress warmly! It's gotten cold outside."
Sakura moved around mechanically, pulling a pink sweater over head and grabbing some gloves. She trotted down the stairs, finding both her parents waiting for her. Her chest constricted suddenly as if she was waiting for them to tell her something horrible. It was like she was seven again and they found all the cookies had been eaten.
But instead her mother smiled and reached forward. "All right, let's go!" she said cheerfully, grabbing Sakura's hand and pulling her out the door.
Sakura smiled a bit, watching as her father wrapped his hands behind his head, trying to answer the barrage of questions her mother was throwing at him. It had been a while since the three of them were together. When she was still in the academy, there had been more time to have family outings but now... it was so hard to coordinate their schedules.
"Here we are!"
Sakura came to a stop and looked at the tall building, letting her smile deepen. Of course! It wouldn't be a Haruno family outing without a trip to the Konoha Central Library. As soon as they entered, her mother quickly disappeared towards the Ikebana section while her father muttered something about doing research for work despite the fact that he was headed towards the sports area.
Sakura took in a deep breath and let the familiar smells of the library fill her senses. How many hours had she spent her when she was younger, ingesting scrolls and books in a constant pursuit of answers? Sure, that meant she was one of the smartest kids in her class but it didn't make her the best ninja. She probably should have spent some time training herself physically.
Letting out a sigh, Sakura began to walk into the aisles, wondering if maybe she shouldn't pick up a few training manuals to get ideas for practice. She made it about three steps before a scroll on a nearby table caught her eye.
Walking over, she scanned the headline surprised to find that Konoha news service had picked up the story of the dead girl they had found. Sitting down, Sakura picked up the scroll and began to read through the contents.
There was the usual story of how the girl had been missing, some bits about her life before and things like that. But what really caught Sakura's eye was a statement buried at the end of the article.
"What worries town officials the most is that this may be a copy cat killer, mimicking the murder that happened five years ago. The killer in that case was caught, tried for organ trafficking and execute a year ago."
Sakura reread the passage a couple of times before putting the paper down. Something just didn't sit well with her. An organ trafficker would have harvested as many viable organs as possible and then disposed of the body. But as far as Sakura could tell, the young girl she found was only missing her heart. That and the body was too carefully arranged for it to be that sort of a crime.
Standing up quickly, Sakura quickly moved to the back of the library. An elderly woman was there and quickly smiled as she recognized the young gennin approaching.
"Hello there, Sakura-chan! How are you doing?"
"Fine, Tanaka-san," Sakura replied. "And you?"
"Oh, as well as I can be. It's been a while since you've come to the library."
"I've been really busy with work," Sakura replied.
"That's right! Congratulations on that by the way. I always knew a smart girl like you would have no problem passing the academy exams. Now what can I do for you? We've gotten quite a few new novels since you were last here."
"Actually, I was wondering where you archived the news scrolls."
The librarian paused and eyed the young girl. "From how long ago?"
"Ummm, about five years I guess."
"Well, they're all downstairs but there are hundreds of them. Do you know what date you need?"
"Not exactly," Sakura replied, trying to hide her disappointment.
The librarian paused and let out a little sigh. "Well, I suppose for you Sakura-chan, I might something you can use to help. Just wait here a moment."
"Thank you!" Sakura smiled, watching the older woman disappear into the back. Several minutes later she returned, balancing a few heavy binders in her arms. Dropping them on the table, she stepped back and waved away the dust that was already causing Sakura to sneeze.
"The news agencies have records of stories divided into subjects like names and places," the librarian stated. "They usually give us a copy but you have to be very careful, this is our only one." Sakura nodded fervently as she looked at the big binders. "There are from the past five years and here's a scroll to write down which editions you need."
Sakura grabbed the scroll and took the binders in her arm. Her leg protested at the sudden increase in weight but managed to hold together as Sakura hobbled over to a table and deposited the load there.
Taking the binder stamped with the dates from five years ago, Sakura began to flip through the pages. As the librarian said, the articles were all subdivided into several topic headers, including location. Quickly, she located the town she needed and found the title of a story that had been about a murdered young girl. A bit further down the list, there was a headline proclaiming the capture of a known organ trafficker in the area.
Sakura jotted down the date of the article and was about to head over to ask for the copy of the article when she had a minor revelation. If they had caught the trafficker in the area, then there might be other articles that year about other murders. Flipping to the subject heading, Sakura ran her finger down until she found articles listed under organ trafficking.
In addition to several informational ones, there were five murders listed. Sakura frowned a bit. The whole idea of people murdering other people to steal organs seemed so distasteful. But then, she lived in a village with superb medical facilities, at her disposal for free since she was a ninja. Outside the Konoha walls... it was a different world.
Five murders, two referencing the fact that they were young girls. Sakura put down all of them anyway just in case. Looking at the rest of the huge binders, Sakura made a quick decision and started writing down any other article she could find.
Twenty minutes later, she presented her list to the librarian who looked a bit perplexed by the long list.
"I just had a hunch," Sakura shrugged.
"It will take a while to get all of these," the librarian. "Maybe you should just come back later."
Sakura was about to say she'd wait when her mother's voice drifted down the stacks to her. Turning around, she saw her parents waiting for her, arms laden with scrolls. With a final nod to Tanaka, she jogged off and met up with her parents.
"Yeah, all over a lousy pack of cigarettes," he huffed, pulling her hands free.
"So we ended up having to do 20 laps around the village just to make up for it," she sighed. Chouji nodded and continued to ravage the food dish in front of him.
Kiba let out a laugh. "Man, I would have paid to see that. Sounds like the time team 7 burned their sensei's dirty little book." He sat back in his chair, letting Akamaru climb out of his jacket and sit on his lap. "That's why I'm glad Kurenai-sensei doesn't have any useless vices."
Shino and Hinata nodded silently from their seats next to him. Kiba scratched Akamaru's ears thoughtfully. "Except every so often, when it's a new moon, she gets really cranky. Must be the lack of light or something." Hinata blushed and Ino just shook her head.
"So we're stuck doing 'special training tomorrow'," Ino finished. "That's probably why you got stuck with the assignment."
Kiba frowned. "Figures," he picked up Akamaru and let him climb back into his jacket. "Nothing like spending most of tomorrow searching for some old lady's parakeet."
"We should go," Shino said suddenly, standing up and bowing good night to team 10 as he turned away.
"He's right, got to get up at the crack of dawn anyway," Kiba added. "Come on Hinata, I'll walk you home."
Hinata nodded and stood up. "Thank you for letting us join you for dinner," she said politely before trotting after her teammates.
Shikamaru let out a deep breath. "At least we don't have to get up early tomorrow."
Ino frowned. "Yeah, but I would have rather done the mission then deal with whatever Asuma-sensei is cooking up for us."
She leaned forward and stirred her soup absentmindedly. The servers suddenly let out a welcoming greeting to some new arrivals and Ino's ears perked up at the familiar voices. She stood up and walked over to the newcomers.
"Good evening, Haruno family, "she smiled with a bow, blond hair bouncing as she did. She eyed her rival for a bit, looking for any signs of malice but found none. Fighting in front of their parents was something they both avoided.
"Ino-chan," Sakura's mom beamed. "It's been too long! Look at how pretty you've grown!"
"Thank you," Ino smiled. "My mom said to thank you for the desserts last week. They were really good."
"I'll make more then. Actually, why don't you ask your parents to come over for lunch tomorrow? Sakura doesn't have training so maybe you can get away for a few hours yourself."
Ino smiled and nodded. "I'll talk to my sensei."
"Don't you have a mission tomorrow?" Sakura asked suddenly.
Ino balked a bit, frowning as she bit back a retort. Geez, she was just being nice and Sakura had to get all nasty again. "Nope. Team 8 is going to Funari instead."
"Excellent," her mom stated. "We'll see you then! Right?" she said looking down at her daughter. Sakura looked at Ino for a moment and then nodded at her mother.
Late night studying was nothing new for her. The nights she couldn't sleep, she used to spend reading scroll after scroll until dawn. Her parents had caught her once and chastised her for not letting her body rest. So she just learned to block the cracks in her door so they never knew.
Besides, she didn't feel like sleeping any time soon. The nightmare from last night still lingered in the back of her mind, made worse by seeing Ino in person. Sakura fought back an involuntary shiver.
Damnit, she cried internally. This is just stupid. I know that the dream scared me but it was just a dream. It's not like Ino's going to die and turn into a ghost anytime soon. She's too stubborn to do that.
She grabbed the blanket off her bed and wrapped it around her shoulder to avoid feeling cold anymore. As soon as she was comfortable, Sakura got to work.
She had done papers before, researched topics for hours for school but this was different. As she wrote down the fact from each case, she could already see a pattern emerging.
In total, she had pulled twenty seven articles. A few she could knock right off the bat as not what she was looking for. But there were at least a dozen that were eerily similar. Young girls, each with light colored hair, had been found dead in abandoned parts of their home town. The articles varied in the amount of detail but she could skim a few facts that seemed relevant.
There were brief mentions of an organ missing, the more sensational articles actually mentioned the heart by name. Others mentioned the strange white robe they had been dressed in.
Sakura looked over her notes and frowned. This didn't look right at all. Sure, the crimes were several years apart and in different town but someone must have noticed a pattern at some point. How could this go unnoticed?
She walked over to the map of Fire Country hanging on her wall and studied it for a moment. Walking back to her desk, she picked up several thumbtacks. Slowly, she placed a mark in each city where a death had occurred and a piece of paper with the date it was reported. As soon as she was done, she stepped back and looked at her work.
The tacks moved in a spiral, slowly winding around Konoha and coming in closer as the years progressed. She titled her head to one side and placed a finger on the last tack slowly tracing an arc to see what village would be next on the pattern. Her finger landed on a small village not far away from Konoha.
Sakura frowned. Wasn't that where team 8 was going? She paused and tried to remember if Ino had mentioned what they were going there for. When the answer came up as a blank, Sakura frowned. No, it couldn't be another missing girl. It was too soon, right? All the previous murders had had a good amount of time between them.
Sakura paused as she studied the dates. First they were a year apart, then half a year but recently the pace had picked up considerably. Sakura stared at the map and at the date for a few more minutes before turning and jumping out her bedroom window.
Kurenai arrived last and smiled gratefully as Hinata handed her a cup. She took a quick glance at her team, making sure they were all dressed appropriately for the cold morning before walking towards the gate. She paused a few meters from the exit, feeling a familiar presence coming up to them.
Turning, she watched as the pink haired ninja came to a stop in front of them. "Sakura?" she asked.
Sakura took in a few deep breaths and then plastered on a smile. "Ohayo," she said cheerily.
"You should be in bed," Kurenai said firmly. "And most definitely not running on that bad leg of yours."
Sakura nodded. "I know. I just wanted to ask a favor since I know you're going to Funari. That is if your mission isn't too tough."
Kiba let out something that sounded like a snort. "Yeah, finding a bird is real tough."
Sakura's face relaxed and Kurenai watched with hidden suspicion as relief flooded the younger girls face. "That's great. Then, do you mind picking a few sweet rolls from the bakery there? I heard they were extra good."
The team eyed her for a moment before Hinata perked up. "Of course, Sakura-san," she said. "I'll bring them to your house tonight."
Sakura smiled and waved as they continued on their way. As soon as they were out of eye sight, she let her smile falter a bit. It wasn't as bad as she had thought, they were only after a missing bird but things still didn't sit well with her.
She turned her eyes up to Hokage monument and watched as the several small forms climbed across the cliff face, slowly etching out the fifth's profile. She paused for a moment, wondering whether she shouldn't tell someone else about this.
But she wasn't really sure if she had found anything useful. These might all be coincidences. And shouldn't a higher level shinobi then her have seen the pattern first? Maybe she was just overreacting. Her parents seemed to think the whole experience with the dead girl had shaken her. And the dream with Ino didn't exactly help things.
Sakura looked at the rising sun. She hadn't slept at all. And worse, if her parents found out she had snuck out of her bedroom, they would be less then pleased. Torn for a moment, Sakura realized she needed more time to think. If she was seeing things that weren't there, losing sleep and worrying like this would do her no good. She needed to clear her mind and then make a rational decision. Rest now, think things through after a good meal. That was the best thing to do.
"Maybe he smelled some food," Hinata said.
Kiba paused and sniffed the air. "No... but there is something in the air."
Kurenai's eyes moved from her genin student towards the village. She could see Akamaru there, barking at a large group of people who had gathered in town. Sensing no immediate danger, she merely quickened her pace, leading the team towards them.
"What's going on?" she asked, looking for some source of authority.
"You're the Leaf Ninja here to find Tsuka-san's bird," an older man asked approaching them.
"That's correct," Kurenai stated.
"Eesh, this is a lot of people to help us search for a bird," Kiba said.
"I'm afraid the plan has changed," the elder stated. "We need help finding something else first."
Kurenai frowned. She didn't like the way this was going. "I'm not sure that we can alter the agreed upon mission."
The elder's arm shot forward, his hand holding up a picture. "Juri Namaya," he stated, referencing the young blond girl in the picture. "She went missing last night and no one can find any trace of her."
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