Sakura woke up to a midday sun and the smell of lunch wafting through the house. She attempted to curl under her covers but had barely managed to close her eyes when her mother's voice demanded she get up.
With the last bit of energy she could muster, Sakura tumbled from her bed to the shower, tossing off night clothes as she moved before settling down under the hot stream of water and closing her eyes. She must have fallen asleep because suddenly the warm water had turn cold and she was shivering on the floor of the shower. Standing up, she winced as she felt her wounded leg protest to the rough treatment.
She winced at her mother's voice. Padding out to the hallway, she called back that she was almost done.
"Just hurry up, you don't want to keep our guests waiting."
Sakura paused and tried to comprehend what her mother just said. Guests? An image of Ino flashed through her mind and Sakura groaned. That's right, they were all coming over for lunch.
With a sigh, Sakura took out her more formal clothing and started putting them on. Great, a full day of listening to the adults chatter about boring things while she and Ino traded insults. She finished adjusting her obi and placed the clip in her hair just as there was a knock at the door.
"Door!" her mother called out.
"Got it!" Sakura called back, shuffling towards the door. The yukata forced her movement to be slower but at least it wasn't as stuffy as a kimono. She opened the door and bowed deeply preparing to welcome Ino and her family.
"Go...gomen nasai, Sakura-san, for disturbing you."
"Hinata-chan?" Sakura said, straightening up quickly and finding the young Hyuuga bowing in front of her. "What happened? Did you finish the mission that early?"
Hinata shook her head. "No, we... didn't get to do it. Kurenai-sensei brought us home early. Gomen... Sakura... I couldn't get the sweet buns you wanted."
That would explain why Hinata looked so scared and on the verge of tears. Sakura shook her head. "It's okay," Sakura said with a smile. "I just don't understand... your mission was cancelled?"
Hinata nodded slowly. "The village was looking for a missing girl. I don't know anything more, Kurenai-sensei made us wait while she went to look. I don't know what the details..."
Hinata slowly trailed off. The smile on Sakura's face had slowly faded with each word. A dark fog had replaced the bright glow in her green eyes. "Sa... Sakura?"
And then suddenly she disappeared. Hinata looked around and just barely caught sight of a blur of pink on the rooftops.
It can't be... please don't let it be... if I had just gone to the Hokage yesterday maybe...
She finally landed in front of the Hokage's office and ran up the steps. Several of the assembled jounin there eyed her state of disarray but did nothing to stop her until she reached the door of the Hokage.
"Hold on a moment," the dark haired woman there yelled. Shizune stood up from her seat and walked over. "Haruno-san?" she said, recognizing the pink haired kunoichi. "What's the matter?"
Sakura caught her breath and tried to pull herself together. "I need to speak to the Hokage... now."
"Hokage-sama is in a meeting at the moment, you'll have to wait..."
"NO!" Sakura yelled, causing most of the jounin to turn around and stare. "If I wait... if I wait again then..." Sakura paused, trying to stop the knot in her throat from welling over to tears. "I can't wait," she finished firmly.
"I'm sorry but..."
"Let her in Shizune."
Shizune looked at the closed door with a frown before turning back to Sakura. She reached forward and quickly pulled the collar of Sakura's yukata together to make her more presentable.
"Go in then," Shizune said with a nod, satisfied that Sakura's appearance wasn't such a disgrace as before.
Sakura bowed in thanks and ran inside. "Hokage-sama, I need to talk with you about..."
Sakura slowed down, eyeing the Hokage's guest. The crimson eyed jounin looked at her, dirt covering most of the free skin of her body. Kurenai caught her eyes for a moment before looking away, not wanting the younger girl to see the distress they held.
Sakura came to a stop as she saw the Hokage's face. And suddenly she knew. It was too late. On the table, there was a bloodied white robe, a huge circular tear in the center.
Sakura's knee buckled and she fell to the floor, feeling the tightness in her chest unravel and spill over into tears. Kurenai started to advance towards the younger girl but Tsunade held up a hand.
"I knew..." Sakura sobbed. "I knew that it would be Funari next."
"How?" the Hokage demanded.
Sakura looked up and started to tell her everything she had discovered from the day she found the body to the moment Hinata told her that another girl was missing. Tsunade frowned at the end of her story.
"You're too smart for your own good sometimes, Sakura-chan," she finally settled on. "Only a very few people know about what you've just said."
"Then she's telling the truth," Kurenai asked, watching as Sakura wiped away her tears, shock dotting her face.
Tsunade nodded. "As much as she could know, I suppose. The bodies were never given over to public examination though so some of the details could never make it into the open. The hunter-nin saw to that."
"The hunter-nin?" Sakura said softly. "Why would they be involved?"
Tsunade frowned and reached down by her seat pulling a black bag onto her table. "The hole in their chests is what gave it away. Not many would have access to a weapon that could do that and no one outside of a shinobi village would even know what it was."
Tsunade reached in slowly and pulled out the metal cylinder. Sakura quickly stood up and shuffled next to Kurenai to look inside. The cylinder was hollow except for two diagonal leather straps that ran across its middle.
"It's rather gruesome device," Tsunade said softly, slipping her hand into it. She placed it on the edge of her desk, just a few inches away from the edge so it cleared the legs. "It's placed against the victim's chest and the first strap is pulled." There was a grating noise and Sakura jumped back, as six metal spikes jutted from the underside of the desktop.
"Then the second one is pulled," Tsunade said softly as her hand moved again. The spikes turned and then folded upward, coming together in the center. As Tsunade pulled her hand up, a perfect circle of wood was held in place by the device. Sakura edged forward and looked down, eyes opened wide at the huge whole that was now present on the Hokage's desk.
"That's what..." Sakura started, suddenly turning very pale as she realized the meaning behind the hole in the desk.
"We've tried to narrow down the list of targets," Tsunade said. "But there are several missing nin that would have access to this and be... disturbed enough to use it on civilians."
Kurenai frowned. "And you couldn't tell the towns that there was a missing nin on the loose targeting young girls. It would cause panic."
Tsunade nodded. "It happened seldom enough that we could find other explanations and the hunter nin would guard the surrounding areas to prevent further murders. The hunter nin even recognized the pattern and knew that Funari would be next but..."
"They didn't get there in time?" Sakura asked.
Tsunade shook her head. "No, they were there. I don't know how the missing nin evaded them." She sighed. "Now with this murder so close to the other, it will be much harder to keep the real story under wraps."
There was a knock on the door and Shizune stuck her head inside. She locked eyes with her boss and nodded firmly. Tsunade nodded back, watching as the door closed. "They returned with the body. Sakura, you can wait her while we..."
"No," Sakura shook her head. "No, I want to come. Even if you already knew what was going on... I feel a responsibility to help out."
Tsunade looked over at Kurenai but when the other showed no sign of objection, she nodded.
Sakura's hands were clasped at her sides as she eyed the table. Part of her was ready to leave right now. She knew what was under the blanket on that table. She had seen it before.
So why do you have to see it again? Let's just go home.
Sakura's eyes narrowed as her resolve strengthened against the voice of fear in her head. No... I won't. Everyone expects me to be scared. Mom and dad think I should be scared. But I'm not... I mean, I won't be. I can do this. I need to do this. Because I need...
Sakura's feet moved forward. She walked to the table and stood next to the two jounin already there.
Because I need to help stop this.
Tsunade reached forward and pulled the blanket away. The blonde haired girl's eyes were closed, for a moment making it look like she was asleep. Sakura bit her lip at the sight. It was just like before and it was just like her dream.
"Golden hair," Sakura said softly. "And her eyes?"
"Gray," the medical nin said, looking over his clipboard. "She was in perfect health and nothing else was... damaged. Only the wound in her chest."
Tsunade understood the underlying meaning in the man's words. The girl had not been assaulted in anyway, saving the gaping hole that killed her.
"All blonde, all gray eyed," Sakura said softly
"We'll need to send more hunter nin to the next town," Tsunade said. "Whatever made him attack two girls in such a short time span probably won't go away. There's no doubt in my mind that the killer will strike again soon."
"We could assign jounin to watch the roads," Kurenai started. "If so many weren't away at other missions."
Sakura slowly let the words of the two woman fade into the background as her mind digested the facts. A hunter nin... tracking down girls who looked the same. She had read a little bit of psychology on her spare time so she knew that the symbolism couldn't be overlooked.
Blonde hair and gray eyes probably represented someone that the killer knew. But what about the rest? There was the white robe. Had it been present on the scenes of the other murders?
And why the spiral patterns towards the village? Why did the attacks come quicker? There was too much symbolism, too many repeatable details to ignore. And she was sure that the hunter nin had not missed them but maybe... maybe another pair of eyes could help them.
Sakura blinked and looked at her two elders. They had worry in their eyes and she realized she had just been staring at the body.
"I was just thinking," Sakura replied. "When we go on search missions for missing animals, Kakashi-sensei always tells us to start from the place the animal came from since they don't stray far from home."
Tsunade looked at her with surprise and then smiled. "I see. Your sensei can be smart... at times."
Sakura looked at the body and paused. "If there were a D rank mission in Takamizu, I think team seven would volunteer for it."
Tsunade paused as she placed the name. Takamizu was the first place that a murder of this nature had been discovered. She smiled a bit. "Ah, Takamizu... you know I think something may have just come up."
"Ninja don't question their orders." Kakashi stated. "Besides, this comes from Hokage herself."
Naruto brightened considerably. "Then it's got to be important!"
"Dobe," Sasuke muttered. "Everyone knows Takamizu has the best sake in Fire Country."
"Exactly!" Kakashi smiled. "And everyone knows how much Hokage likes her sake."
Naruto's jaw dropped and he was about to go into detail about how little he cared about Hokage's likes when he felt a familiar presence approaching. After debating for a moment, he decided he preferred being happy to being angry. So he immediately placed a huge smile on his face and started waving.
Sakura quickly walked over to the bridge and let out a deep sigh. She had barely gotten any sleep last night again not so much from nightmares but from the fact that her mother had not forgiven her for disappearing from the arranged lunch.
It had taken several hours of being yelled at before Sakura could finally get to bed. Dropping the Hokage's name hadn't helped at all. In fact the only thing that helped was doing all the dishes and penning an apology letter to Ino's family.
Sakura shifted the bag on her shoulders as she returned Naruto's greeting. She smiled over at Sasuke as best as she could and then waited for Kakashi to give them the go ahead.
"Well then, let's..."
There was a plume of smoke and suddenly Sakura found herself face to face with Ino. A very angry looking Ino. The men of her team instinctively backed up, preparing themselves for the brawl that was about to occur.
"What's your problem?" Ino yelled.
Sakura balked a bit before she replied. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"You just ditched lunch yesterday? Do you know how stupid I felt sitting around listening to just our parents."
"I didn't know that you were so keen on having me around," Sakura retorted. "Besides, the Hokage wanted to talk to me."
"No she didn't!" Ino cried. "I talked to Hinata-chan. She said you just ran off when you saw us coming."
Sakura paused for a moment. She hadn't really done that. She hadn't even realized that Ino's family was there. But Hinata must have interpreted her reactions as her getting upset when Ino showed up.
"So what?" Sakura said harshly. "Why would I want to be anywhere near you?"
It was nasty, nastier then most of the things she said. Most of the time, their insults were way out there, things that neither of them would actually believe. But what Sakura had said was real. And Ino's reaction was too.
She looked at Sakura for a moment, her eyes glistening slightly before she disappeared again. Sakura bit her lip too. She really hadn't meant to be that mean. But lately, every time she looked at Ino, she felt like she just wanted to run away.
Sakura turned around and was a bit surprised to see her teammates' expressions. They had seen the girls fight but it didn't usually end up with one of them in tears. Kakashi frowned a bit under his mask before turning around and starting the march again.
Sakura stood up slowly, making sure not to make a noise. She carefully stepped among the sleeping forms on the floor and slid the door open. As soon as she was outside, she closed it firmly, listening by it to make sure that no one inside had woken up. After a few minutes she quickly padded to the bathroom.
Ten minutes later, Sasuke let out a deep sigh from his bed. He never slept well but it didn't help when his female teammate stomped around his head like an elephant. He gave up trying to sleep before she came back since it was likely that she'd wake him up again on her return.
After twenty minutes, his frown deepened. Standing up from his futon, he walked past the other two and opened the door, looking down the hall. The bathroom door was closed and there was light filtering from under it. But as he approached it, he didn't feel anyone inside.
His finger curled on the door, he paused for a moment before deciding that there was no way she was still in there. He slowly slid the door open, giving anyone inside ample opportunity to protest. When he was met with silence, he looked inside.
As expected it was empty. He walked in and glanced around, shivering slightly as something cold dance across his arm. Looking up, he saw the open window and frowned.
The truth? Sakura snorted. Yeah, sorry guys. I keep having dreams about blonde haired Ino look-alikes asking for my help. That would go over great.
She paused for a moment and unrolled the scroll, looking at the information the Hokage had provided. The house should be around here somewhere according to the address. But all the houses her were run down.
She sighed and found the last house that was numbered and slowly counted until she reached the one she needed. She opened the gate, cringing as it creaked in protest. She looked around but no one appeared to have woken up. But then again, it didn't look like there was anything alive in this part of time.
There was a shiver in her back and she yelled at herself for getting worked up over nothing. Whatever evil was here was long gone. She was a trained ninja, she shouldn't get worked up over stupid fears like this.
The house was dusty inside and she had to fight back a sneeze. Retrieving her flashlight from her pack, she started to look around, carefully testing the ground out before stepping forward. She didn't really feel like falling through another fall now that her leg was almost back to normal.
A wind chime sounded somewhere and Sakura jumped in fear. With a frown, she let Inner Sakura firm up her resolve until she felt confident enough to continue. She moved towards the sound of the chime and found herself in the kitchen.
It was the cleanest part of the house, save for a layer of dust, and there were strings surrounded a small square on the side. Walking over, she examined the area, kneeling down to look at the only blotch on the otherwise spotless floor. It was brownish in color and even though it was several years old, Sakura knew what it was right away. Blood. So this was where they had found the first victim.
The chime sounded again and Sakura stood up, tracing the ground with her light. There was a door that must have led outside. Curious, Sakura slid it open and stepped into the garden in the backyard.
In its prime, it must have been beautiful. But now weeds covered the stone lanterns. The bonsai grew out into grotesque shapes. Even the koi pond in the middle was undistinguishable, covered in a thick layer of algae. She walked over and peered in, seeing if any koi had survived but all she saw was the green cover.
Sakura jumped, turning around as her hand gripped a kunai to prepare to attack. She stepped backwards and landed in the pond, the green algae grabbing at her legs. The ground was uneven and she couldn't get her footing until she finally sank to one knee and looked up at her attacker.
"Sasuke-kun?" she cried in surprise. "What are you doing here?"
He frowned at her, arms crossing in front of his chest. "That would be my question."
She frowned and looked around. With a slight smile and a shrug she looked up at him. "Ummm... going for a walk?"
"With a flashlight and scroll with the Hokage's mark?"
Sakura grimaced. He must have been following her the whole time and she didn't even notice. Great shinobi skill there, Sakura, she berated herself.
"I was just...ummm..."
She trailed off, looking up at Sasuke as he stared at the water where her flashlight was still shining. Something white was reflecting off it, still half buried in the mud. Without thinking, Sakura moved towards it, slowly moving her hand against the mud. Sasuke walked around, watching as she continued to disturb the bottom of the koi pond.
Pale white branches were her first guess. But as she started to see the form take shape, she realized what it was. Reaching down, she went to grab a piece and felt her fingers loop around something. She pulled up slowly, watching as the skull came out of the water.
"What..." Sasuke started before stopping short. Something else was pulling out of the water as she moved the skull from its resting place.
"WAIT!" he cried out but it was too late. The wire attached to the skull triggered the trap and the entire pond lit up as the explosion scroll ignited.
The explosion lifted them both backwards but Sakura never felt herself get burned. In fact, as soon as her vision cleared from the blinding explosion, she realized that she wasn't harmed in any way.
Looking up, she recognized the frowning face of her sensei whose quick thinking had obviously pulled her away in time. She looked quickly around until she found Sasuke who was trying to fend off a smirking Naruto who was demanding thanks for saving his hide.
"I think, Sakura-chan, it's time we talked," her sensei voice boomed suddenly bringing her back to reality. Her other teammates stopped bickering and looked at her with the same expression as their sensei.
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