It was not the type of night to be walking home alone. Somewhere, despite the raging anger that clouded her judgment, Fumiko's mind realized this. But after the fight she had with her best friend, she didn't care. She had to get away, even if it was into the pitch cold darkness of the night.
A breeze played across her blond hair and she felt the back of her neck tingle as it did. She pulled the meager jacket around her and tried to quicken her pace but ran into something solid. Fumiko fell back a few steps, muttering under her breath. She looked up to see what she ran into and her gray eyes went wide with surprise.
There was a scream but Fumiko realized it was only in her mind. She didn't even have a chance to react before the darkness of the night seeped into her very being and robbed her of everything.
Uzumaki Naruto has exactly five seconds to live. And with those five seconds, he decided to make sure his death was extraordinarily painful.
"Ne, Sakura-chan… what do you think squirrel ramen would taste like?"
Sakura's last shred of patience faded away and with an internal battle cry she launched herself at him, giving him a solid pummeling to he ground.
"No more stupid questions!" she cried, standing up and brushing her hands on her dress. "I've told you all I know about Hidden Rock village and you're just going to have to wait until we go there for the exam."
The muffled answer she got was something that sounded like an affirmative, so Sakura walked away and retook her spot on the bridge. Tossing a glance to her right, she saw that their third teammate was once again not amused by their antics. With a trademark frown, he quickly turned away, annoyance dotting his brow.
It wasn't like she had meant to break his concentration. But from the moment Naruto had learned that the next chuunin exam would be in the Hidden Rock village, he had been asking any question he could think of, mostly around the subject of food. In the end, Sakura didn't know who was sadder, Naruto for asking the questions or her for actually knowing the answers.
She leaned backwards on the bridge and stared at the water flowing below her hair. She probably knew the answer to that question. It was her, the saddest member of Team 7, always five steps behind her teammates. Still, she was very sure that before the first chuunin exam it was more like twenty steps. She had improved and by the time the next exam arrived, Sakura was sure she would be ready.
A second later, she was hanging upside down, a mere millimeter above the water. Quickly looking up, she recognized the gloved hand holding her ankle and let out a sigh.
"Not paying attention again, Sakura-chan?"
Sakura eyed her sensei unhappily. "You're late," she muttered.
"I was helping an old lady carry her groceries…"
"LIAR!" Sakura yelled, hearing Naruto echo her sentiments from his spot on the floor.
Kakashi sighed and lifted Sakura up a bit before letting go of her foot, sending the young genin towards the water. There was a puff of smoke and Sakura reappeared on the bridge, her hair dripping slightly the front. Inner Sakura was raging but outside she remained calm.
"We have a mission," Kakashi said smoothly.
Naruto and Sakura groaned. "Weeding?" Naruto asked.
"Cleaning?" Sakura ventured.
Kakashi shook his head. "There's a young girl, about your age, missing from a village nearby. It's been about four days and the town decided to pay for some extra help. We'll leave in about two hours. Pack for a day's travel."
He disappeared just as he had arrived, but this time the atmosphere surrounding the team was much more somber.
"It's just for a day so I might make it back for dinner," Sakura told her mother. The older woman moved around the kitchen and collected some items.
"It's fine if your not," she said. "Your father is away so I wouldn't have cooked anyway."
"Another mission?" Sakura asked. "But he's barely been home!"
"Thus is the life of a ninja," her mother replied, somewhat theatrically. "It's something you'll have to get used to. What mission do you have today?"
"We're looking for…" Sakura stopped herself. The girl they were looking for was only thirteen, the same age as she was. She really didn't want her mother to worry about her, especially with her father who knows where.
"A lost cat," Sakura finished.
Sakura's mother quickly put the food into a cloth bag and tied it closed with a bow. "Good luck and be careful," she said, waving as her daughter scampered out the door.
Sakura walked away from her house, swinging the bag lunch back and forth. The row of houses continued well into the distance and was surrounded by a stone wall. She looked around and when she was sure she was alone, Sakura jumped up and landed on the fence, walking carefully on the top.
Five minutes away from the bridge, Sakura sensed someone's presence. She was about to jump down when the young blonde emerged from the corner. Ino looked at her and rolled her eyes.
"Really, Sakura… I thought you outgrew that in the academy."
Sakura frowned and jumped down. "Its practice," she lied. "Balance training."
Ino looked at her with a smirk. "Sure it is."
"Whatever," Sakura replied, waving her off. "I need to go for my mission anyway."
"I know," Ino replied. "I heard you guys would be gone for the day so I brought Sasuke-kun some lunch."
Sakura balked for a moment. She did WHAT?!?! Inner Sakura screamed. But… but… I didn't bring him lunch! And if Ino gets there before I do…
Sakura shifted her weight as she prepared to bolt. "Really, that's so nice of…"
She took off running. But her longtime rival had been ready for the sneaky tactics and was already catching up. The two barreled down the streets of Konoha, kicking up dust in the wake.
On the bridge, Sasuke suddenly sneezed and let out a sigh. He braced himself against the railing just as the two girl came to a screeching halt in front of him, breathing so hard he could barely make out their words. The only thing he could understand was that the packages being held out in front of them were for him.
"Che," he said, turning on his heel and walking away. Naruto watched with a frown as Sasuke ignored the two girls, who currently were leaning on the railing just trying to get their heart rates down.
"Ne, Sakura-chan, why did you try to give Sasuke your lunch?" Naruto asked, looking at the single pink bag Sakura was holding.
Sakura shot him a look to tell him to shut up but it was too late. "He's right Sakura," Ino sang. "Did you forget about Sasuke-kun today?"
Sakura looked at the bag in her hand and frowned. "It's not… it's just… my mom made lunch today and…with talking about missions and…"
And I didn't remember to bring something for Sasuke-kun, she realized internally. Ino was waiting for an answer but before she could start making an even bigger deal about it, Kakashi suddenly arrived with his trademark puff of smoke.
"Good morning, Ino-chan," he smiled as the younger girl. "A lunch? For me? Thank you!"
He plucked the bag out of Ino's hand before she could react. "Let's start walking," he finished turning to his team. They nodded and quickly disappeared into the trees.
Ino blinked as her mind processed what happened. "HEY!" she suddenly screamed out. But by then, they were out of earshot.
Moving through the trees saved the team time but sapped up more energy. By the time they reached the village, Sakura was starving and in desperate need of a rest. Not that she would let the others know. Naruto and Sasuke both looked fine and she was pretty sure that in a few seconds, Naruto would be whining about why they had stopped.
"Wait here," Kakashi ordered, "while I go talk to the village council."
The genins nodded and took a place on the ground. Sakura pulled her lunch out of her pack and opened it up. The three bento trays came apart easily and Sakura was surprised to find that they were filled with the same food.
She smiled a bit, realizing her mother had packed the lunches for her teammates as well. Originally, she had been a bit disturbed by Sakura's teammates, for reasons Sakura herself did not understand. But ever since the incident with Gaara and the Chuunin exams, she had been a bit more open to them. Well, open enough to add two extra scoops of rice and some meat.
Naruto was already hovering around her so Sakura shoved a serving of food at him. She smiled as she walked over to Sasuke. Ha, Ino, take that!
"Ne, Sasuke-kun," Sakura said, holding out the food. "There is enough for everyone."
He eyed the food before nodding and taking it. Sakura let out a little giggle and took a seat next to him, happily munching away on her own food. A moment later, Naruto sat on her other side, with a goofy grin on her face.
"Do you mind?" Sakura asked, her eyebrow starting to twitch. She shifted away from Naruto, which happily pushed her slightly into Sasuke.
"What?" Naruto asked, his mouth full of food.
Sakura cringed at the spectacle and stood up, deciding to sit on the other side of Sasuke. "Really Naruto, try not talking with you mouth full of…"
Sakura hit something solid and spun around quickly. A middle aged woman was staring at her, her eyes red and surrounded by black circles.
"I'm so sorry," Sakura began, bowing in apology for having run into her. But the woman didn't appear to notice. She reached forward and grabbed Sakura by the arms.
"They hired you right?" the woman began. "You'll find her… you'll find my Fumi-chan. Won't you?"
Sakura blinked as her mind put together things. This had to be the missing girl's mother. "We'll do our best," Sakura replied as reassuringly as possible.
"She's just a child," the woman cried, gripping Sakura tighter. "She just went out for a walk. She was upset, she fought with her friend. She's here, they just can't find her." The woman was crying as she dug into Sakura's arms.
Slowly, Sakura tried to twist herself away but the woman's grip wasn't easing up. She didn't want to hurt the other woman but at the same time, it was getting a little scary. She heard shuffling on the ground behind her and knew that Naruto and Sasuke were reacting to her fear.
"Hey," Naruto said, coming up to Sakura's side, "let her…"
"No!" the woman cried. "I won't let her go! She's safe here, she's safe with me and…"
Sakura turned her head and watched as two older men walked towards the distraught woman. Kakashi was there, eyeing the situation warily. As soon as they had pried Yamada off Sakura, he took her arm and pulled her away.
"I am sorry, Hatake-san. Please, conduct your jobs as needed. We will keep Yamada-san safe. Thank you."
They pulled the woman away but her cries still echoed through the town. Sakura shifted behind Kakashi, suddenly glad that he was so much taller then her. As soon as the noises were gone, he turned around and put a hand on her head.
"Let's split up and search the area," he said. "Keep in touch with radios." Sasuke and Naruto nodded and took off but before Sakura had the chance to move, Kakashi caught her arm again.
"You're all right?"
Sakura looked at him and shrugged. "Just a bit weirded out. But… now I want to find the woman's daughter even more."
Kakashi looked at her silently for a moment before letting her go.
Sakura walked through the south end of the town, checking out anything that might look suspicious. After three hours of searching all she had found were several birds, a ton of dust and no signs of the missing girl.
The town looked fairly well maintained and safe, which was probably why the girl's disappearance had hit them hard. It felt so different from Konoha, as if nothing bad could happen here. Only it had and Sakura was determined to help restore the town to its previous state.
She came to a stop in front of an older house, eyeing the slightly ajar sliding door. Carefully she walked up the path and examined the garden. The weeds had overtaken it and the grass was turning brown.
"Kakashi-sensei," she said through her headset, "I think I found an abandoned house. I'm going to go check it out."
"Call back in two minutes then," he replied.
"Sakura-chan, be careful," Naruto's voice chirped in.
Sakura sighed and ignored his warning, walking up the stairs. The wood creaked under her feet and the paper screens in the door fluttered broken in a non-existent wind. Sakura frowned and pulled out a kunai, wondering if maybe she shouldn't call the others for back up.
No way! This is just an empty house. If you freak out now you'll never here that end of it.
Sakura nodded with determination and pushed the door open enough so she could slip inside. A draft of cold air hit her and she ducked in surprise, expecting something to fly over her head. But after a few seconds of silence, she realized nothing was coming.
Still it was strange that the house seemed so much cooler in here then it was outside. Walking across the rotting floor, she called out a few times to see if anyone would answer her.
It hit her then where the cold was coming from. It wasn't from the house but below it. Kneeling down, she rapped her knuckles on the floor and listened as it echoed beneath her. Hollow. Hollow and cold.
Sakura frowned and turned on her radio again. "Kakashi-sensei, there's something strange about this house."
"Where are you?" he asked.
"On the south edge of town," she started walking towards the mirror. "Right next to an ice cream sta…"
She barely had time to react as the sound of snapping wood filled the house. The floor beneath her disappeared and her hands weren't fast enough to make the hand signs she needed to escape the free fall into darkness.
Three second later, she was on hard ground again, her leg throbbing in pain and several voices screaming in her ear. Slowly, she put her hand on the leg, watching with disdain as it came back red with blood. Looking up, she saw the hole in the floor was several feet above her. The jagged edges had scrapped her leg on the way down, deeply enough that she was guessing it would require stitches.
She gripped her arms realizing how cold it was. Her breath was appearing in front of her face in tiny white clouds. She reached down and quickly turned her radio on to answer the frantic calls.
"I'm all right," she said slowly. "Sort of anyway. The floor was rotted and I didn't realize how badly until…"
Sakura trailed off. The dust was settling and sunlight was filtering from upstairs, illuminating the underground storage area. The source of cold was immediately apparent as a machine hummed in the background, pumping out plumes of cold smoke.
"Sakura?" Kakashi demanded on the other end.
Sakura stood up, her head well below the ceiling. Walking cautiously with a limp towards the other end of the room, she noticed that her breath was coming faster now.
"Sakura, are you still there?" Kakashi asked.
"Shit, where the hell is that house?" Naruto yelled through the radio
"I'm there, look to your right," Sasuke replied, calmly.
Sakura heard footsteps above her but didn't react to their calls. She was no longer mystified by the cold machine but instead in the white sheet that lay next to it. It was obviously covering it something and her mind had already made the connection, screaming at her to back away.
With one quick movement, she pulled the sheet away.
She paused for a moment and quickly turned on her headset. "Kakashi-sensei… can you come down here, please."
"Hang on Sakura-chan," Naruto broke in, "I'll help you…"
"NO!" Sakura yelled. "No, just stay up there."
"Stay here Naruto." Kakashi said, his voice filtering in from upstairs, not through the headset. There was a thump behind her and Sakura waited until Kakashi was next to her.
She heard him curse but it was barely audible above the noise of the machine. A machine which obviously had been placed her to preserve things as long as possible. It would explain why the villagers hadn't thought to look here. No visible signs, no smells.
Until now that is. There lying on the ground was Yamada Fumiko, her long blonde hair carefully arranged in a circle around her head. Her gray eyes were open and there was a slight smile on her face. She was dressed in a white robe, her hands carefully placed on stomach just below the gaping hole where her heart used to be.