The pace of her movements was stealing her breath and making her dizzy. But she fought the urge and continued to run. Sakura ran faster then she ever had before, taking every short cut, jumping fences and never pausing to check if she was being followed. She had a single thought in her mind and it drove her to speeds she could never acquire under normal circumstances.
Then, in the distance, she could make out the familiar shape of Ino's home. She jumped off the ground and ricocheted off the walls of neighboring buildings, reaching Ino's bedroom window without stopping.
The window was still closed and from behind the pink sheer curtains she could see the form of her sleeping friend. Relief flooded her instantly. She had made it before Kanaye.
There was movement at the end of the block and Sakura watched as several jounin took off, chasing what seemed to be a completely random assortment of people that disappeared suddenly.
Illusions, Sakura realized. Kanaye was approaching and she was running out of time. She turned back to the window and looked for a way in. Pulling a kunai from her pocket, she slipped it between the cracks of the window and tossed up the latch.
As she pushed the glass open and the noise startled Ino out of her sleep. The blonde ninja was suddenly fully alert, grabbing a kunai from under the pillow and preparing to defend herself. But she lowered it as soon as she made out the familiar shape in her room.
"Sakura?" Ino said, lowering the kunai. "What are you doing here?"
"Ino-chan," Sakura said softly. "We don't have a lot of time so I…"
"What's that smell?" Ino interrupted, crinkling her nose at the noxious odor. Before Sakura could stop her, Ino flipped on bed lamp. The kunai in her hand clattered to the floor.
"Your… hair... " Ino cried, pointing at Sakura.
Sakura ran a hand through it feeling the liquid still clinging to it. When a strand came across her face, she realized that it had worked.
"I always wanted to try being blonde," Sakura shrugged.
"What are you…"
"Ino," Sakura said, trying to hide the trembling in her voice. "I'm sorry we couldn't have lunch before. Maybe after we can try again."
"After?" Ino cried. "After what? What's going on??"
"Gomen Ino," Sakura replied. Before the other girl could react, Sakura swung her arm, connecting perfectly with Ino's temple, crumpling her to the floor. Sakura quickly grabbed her under the shoulders and dragged her to the closet. She deposited the sheet from Kanaye's room and the empty bottle of concentrated peroxide. Hopefully, that was enough for them to understand.
She looked around, trying to find something to cover up the smell of her hair. She grabbed the bottle of water on Ino's desk and quickly rinsed it. Then she took the bottle of Ino's perfume and quickly sprayed it over herself.
The smell no longer as bad, Sakura stripped off her red jacket and deposited it on the floor. She crawled into Ino's bed, pulling the comforter up to cover her face, allowing for only the blonde hair to show.
She closed her eyes and slowly began to count, working to calm her pounded heart. It would be all right. She just had to stall Kanaye and they would find her. They had to find her.
The air suddenly got cold around her and Sakura shifted slightly under the blankets. By the time she realized that the strong breeze meant Kanaye was here, it was too late.
Inoshi held his daughter, slowly trying to bring her back to consciousness. The young girl's face crinkled slightly and she slowly opened her eyes, big gray ones that locked on her father instantly.
"Ino," he smiled.
Ino blinked and looked around, suddenly realizing how many people we crammed into her room. But there was one person obviously missing.
"Sakura?" Ino said.
Inoshi's face reacted with surprise. He started to work through all the previous conversations over the radio. Sakura had been the one to warn them that Ino was the target. Sakura had said she would delay the killer. As the pieces came together, suddenly someone else joined the cramped group. Inoshi looked up and locked eyes with the new arrival.
"Haruno," Inoshi said softly, watching the man's frantic eyes search the room.
Inoshi's eyes softened and Haruno suddenly realized the same thing that Inoshi had. Sakura had been here but she was here no longer. The jounin shook his head in disbelief. Shikato leaned down to the ground and retrieved the red garment left there. It fluttered in the breeze, the white circle all too visible.
"Sakura," Haruno whispered. And then he ran to the window, leaning out to bellow the name of his daughter again.
Across town, Sakura's mother jumped slightly, feeling something prickle against her skin and causing it to goose bump. She glanced around cautiously, looking for an open window but she soon realized something deeper then a cool breeze has caused her reaction.
Mother's intuition, she thought as she stood up and carefully walked towards her daughter's room. She hadn't heard a peep from Sakura since she was brought home but she had just assumed Sakura had fallen asleep.
Standing in front of the bedroom door, the feeling of discomfort suddenly increased and she found she could barely raise her hand to open it. In swift motion, she flung the door open.
The room was empty as she walked inside, looking for any trace of Sakura. The window was open and she realized that Sakura had not been asleep at all. Sitting down on her bed, she picked up a stuffed animal and clutched it to her chest.
She didn't look up. She knew that it was a jounin messenger. She knew what he had come to tell her. So instead of answering, she clutched the animal to her chest and started to cry.
"Explain to me how it happened," Tsunade yelled. "Explain to me how we missed him again."
The jounins there shuffled their feet. What could they say? Chasing all those illusions had confused them? They hadn't been able to find the real one among the fakes? Nothing they said would matter.
"Find her," Tsunade yelled. "If you have to tear this town apart, find her!"
The jounins took that as a dismissal and quickly disappeared. Shizune frowned as she watched Tsunade almost crack her desk in half.
"Hoka… Tsunade," Shizune said. "Please, just…"
"Bring her teammates here," Tsunade interrupted. "If they find out, I have no doubt in my mind they'll try something as stupid as she did. The entire team is made of completely irrational and irresponsible and…"
"Tsunade," Shizune said, stepping forward and grabbing her mentor by the shoulder.
Tsunade sank in her seat, tears already forming on her eyes. "I should have realized it. But I never stopped to think that she was too young for this. She was a ninja, she was useful but she was never someone's child. She was just…" Tsunade's knuckles cracked. "I never thought that she would…"
"And neither did Sandaime when he sent Nozomi on her mission," Shizune said. "But that's what a Hokage has to do. She makes the choices other would not. She protects the village first and then she protects the ninja within." Shizune took in a deep breath. "It's not too late to do that second part, Hokage."
Tsunade blinked the tears away and slowly nodded. "You're right. We still have time." She paused. "The Inuzuka clan. They have the best noses in this village. They might be able to track her down." Tsunade stood up. "And get Kakashi here. His summoned dogs should be able to help as well."
"I'll send the message," Shizune replied. "And I'll send someone to get her parents and team mates as well."
Tsunade nodded in agreement. She looked at the two items that had been retrieved from Ino's room. "I need to talk to Ibiki."
Naruto was not happy. It was bad enough they had inflicted this horrible curfew on him but now to drag him out of bed without a reason was too much! What the hell could the old hag want this late at night? The whole place was insane with activity as he was ushered through. Naruto barely recognized anyone until he caught sight of a familiar red and white pattern.
"Oi, Sasuke," Naruto called out.
The other boy turned, his face impassive as he watched his teammate come up to him. "You're here too."
Naruto nodded. "Think Hokage has a mission for us or something?"
Sasuke paused and looked around. Slowly he shook his head. "No, there's something else."
"Yo! Naruto, Sasuke!" The two boys turned and watched as Kiba bounded up them, Akamaru running at his feet.
"Kiba," Naruto said looking at him. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm here to help search. All the Inuzuka clan is," he said.
Before they could ask, a tall woman who bore the same markings as him called out his name.
"Yeah, coming!" he yelled back. He turned back to them. "Anyway, just wanted to tell you have nothing to worry about. We'll find her."
"Her?" Naruto asked. But Kiba was gone. "What do they mean, her, Sasuke?"
Sasuke didn't reply. Instead he was watching the Inuzuka clan with their dogs huddling around a crumpled item.
"Sasuke," Naruto said, his attention suddenly elsewhere. Sasuke followed his gaze and saw the source of Naruto's attention. Two older people were huddled in a corner, each with very familiar traits.
The dogs were whining in the background. The red dress they had been brought was tainted with something and it was hurting their noses. Naruto's eye widened at the sight of the familiar piece of clothing.
He went to ask Sasuke for confirmation but the other boy was gone, already heading towards the door. Naruto didn't have to ask what was going on. Obviously Sasuke had realized the same thing and come to the same conclusion. They weren't going to let the Inuzuka clan be the only one's searching.
But something barred their way. Even with angry glares Sasuke was throwing, he refused to move.
"You should stay here," Kakashi stated firmly.
"Just like we should stay at home, right?" Sasuke replied bitterly.
"There is no questioning this," Kakashi replied. "This is an order."
Sasuke's eyes flared crimson. Even Naruto tensed up. "She's our teammate," Sasuke said simply.
"Please, just stay." Both young boys paused at the feminine voice. The room had fallen silent.
"I know that you want to go," Sakura's mother said softly. "But, I know that she would want you to stay. She was always so sad when you got hurt trying to help her. So please, just stay."
Naruto looked confused while Sasuke looked torn. Kakashi knew they were wavering. Naruto would not understand why he suddenly wanted to listen to what Sakura's mother said but Sasuke would remember what a mother's words could do. In the end, no matter how much they wanted to help, Kakashi knew that he couldn't allow them.
"You'd be too distracted," Kakashi finished, ending the argument just once and for all. "And the Haruno's could use the support."
Sasuke's hands slowly relaxed, allowing Sakura's mother to pull him away from the door. Naruto walked slowly behind him, a bit unsure of what to do. Sakura's mother nodded slowly in thanks, while her father put a strong hand on his shoulder.
"We can't track her," the Inuzuka clan head said. "There's a chemical on it that's masking the smell."
"It's peroxide," Ibiki said walking in, Tsunade closely behind him. "It will make it difficult to find her. So instead, she left us this." He brought up the bed sheet. "They should get a scent off this."
As the Inuzuka clan huddled around the new item, Kakashi quickly walked outside. His hands moved in an intricate pattern before slamming into the ground. A moment later, the ground rumbled in response and his summoned companions emerged from the dirt.
He motioned them inside and they followed obediently. Noticing the other dogs and what they were doing, they quickly ran up to the bed sheet.
"Ugh, it smells of death," one of them complained.
"I know it smells bad," Kakashi said, patting it on the head. "But you think that you can find the source."
"Of course," the pug replied.
"Do you want him alive?" one of them asked.
Kakashi hesitated. "There's a girl with him."
"Your girl," the pug interrupted. "The pink haired one." Kakashi nodded and his companions understood what he meant.
"Let's head out," Inuzuka called out. And suddenly the room was empty again.
Sakura's eyes cracked open a bit as she tried to make out where she was. She moved a hand to wipe away the blurriness of her eyes but it refused to budge. She looked down and saw her hands were held in place behind her back with a rope. She slowly began to work at it, trying to ignore the unfamiliar white sleeve that was around her arm.
"Awake I see."
Sakura ignored the voice. She knew who it was.
"Come on," Kanaye said. "Open your eyes."
Sakura's heart jumped. She had managed to cover up her hair color by bleaching it. But as soon as Kanaye got a look at her eyes, her cover would be blown. Not gray eyes, but green ones would stare at him.
"Stubborn eh?" he said. Sakura felt a weight on her stomach as he sat on her. Cold hands pressed against her cheek and she felt her eyes being forced open.
There was a moment of silence as Sakura's eyes locked on Kanaye. Then he screamed out in rage.
"You're not her!" he screamed. "Who are you? Why did you..." He paused and looked at her closely. "You're the girl from this morning."
Sakura looked at him and nodded. Stall him, Sakura. Stall him as long as you can. "Yeah, that's me. When you told your story," she continued slowly, "I realized something. We had found a body in Takamizu."
"Kin," Kanaye said, a smirk on his face. "After all these years someone finally found him."
Sakura nodded. "The explosion note was well done."
Kanaye waved a hand in thanks. "I was always the smart one. Kin was the idiot." His face darkened. "He didn't see things they way I did."
"But he was your teammate," Sakura said, slowly trying to prompt him.
Kanaye snorted. "He was a coward. I knew what we had to do. I told him we had to get even somehow. To make sure they never forgot what they did."
Sakura watched him. "But he didn't want to do that," she said. "So you killed him."
Kanaye frowned. "It was self defense. He was going to tell them about my plan."
"Your plan?" Sakura asked.
"To make them remember," he whispered, his eyes suddenly misting over. "To never forget her. To remind them of what they did to us."
"What did they do to you?" Sakura asked softly.
His face changed as he looked at her. "What did they do? WHAT DID THEY DO?" He screamed making Sakura flinch. "They destroyed us, took away the one thing we loved. They took our only reason for living!"
He looked at her, malice bubbling over. "So I took them, each like her, and showed them what they did." He laughed a bit. "And they never knew. They kept looking for Kin."
He placed his hands on Sakura's throat. "But now they know, don't they. They figured it out and thought they could stop me by sending you." His hand tightened and Sakura lost all ability to breath. "But it won't matter. I'll just kill you and find another. And after that I'll keep going. So they never forget."
Sakura's eyes began to water as her air supply ran out. With a last bit of effort, she pulled up her arm, feeling the rope burn against her as it came free. She hit him hard, sending him off her body and onto to floor.
Gasping for breath, Sakura struggled to free the rest of her bonds. But he was back before she could, one hand tucked in the cylindrical weapon. It moved towards her but Sakura shifted at the last moment, forcing it to hit the ground instead. Kanaye followed downward and Sakura lashed out, nailing him with her elbow.
The blow stunned him and he backed off, letting the weapon clatter the ground as he stumbled backwards. Sakura picked it up and slipped it on, remembering the demonstration the Hokage had given her. The needles shot out and Sakura slipped a few of them around the rope on her leg before pulling the other string.
Kanaye regained his balance and charged, but Sakura jumped out of the way, quickly spinning around to face him. He was faster and his fist connected, forcing her vision to suddenly go black as she hit the wall. She fought against losing consciousness, watching as his blurry figure approached her, the weapon clattering to the floor.
"That's all you have?" he demanded. "That's all a great ninja of Konoha has to offer." He laughed. "She was better then you'll ever be."
Sakura barely registered his hand movements but quickly caught the sequence. Ox, tiger, boar, snake. She repeated them to herself as she tried to hear his words. Times like this she would have killed for a Sharigian.
"Keika no jutsu."
Several forms suddenly appeared in front of her, little spots of light that grew into full sized people. Sakura looked around, trying to pinpoint Kanaye's location. But the throngs of people made it hard. They moved around her, passing through things like ghosts.
Sakura turned and blocked the attack, causing Kanaye to jump backwards and disappear into the background of people. She tried to find him again but it was to no avail.
A genjutsu, she realized, should be able to be dispelled right? She clapped her hands together in tiger.
"Dispel," she called.
The forms flickered but remained intact. She could hear Kanaye laughing at her. Knowing the mechanics of a technique and knowing how to use them are two entirely different things. Come on Sakura, think this through.
Sakura flipped backwards avoided the wave of kunai that landed at her feet.
"Weak," Kanaye's voice filtered.
Inner Sakura's voice screamed out in protest. And on the outside, Sakura was already putting her hands together in tiger. Remembering the first time she had used it in the coliseum to wake up Naruto, Sakura concentrated on the illusions. Kanaye had called them Keika, firefly light. So if Sakura wanted to dispel them, she needed to the opposite.
Sakura's mind went blank, her essence filled with darkness and she softly whispered the jutsu. The forms around her shuddered and disappeared, leaving only one form remaining.
Kanaye reacted quickly as Sakura lashed back. Weaponless she could only rely on her taijutsu techniques and it was her weak skill. She blocked effectively and her blows were solid but she lacked strength and speed. Even if Kanaye had been locked up in an asylum for several years, she was clearly outmatched.
She needed to do something else. The Keika no Jutsu came to mind but she still didn't understand it enough to know how to use it effectively. Instead, she watched helplessly as Kanaye repeated the technique and flooded the room again.
She knelt down trying to disappear in the crowd. He obviously wouldn't have done the technique again, knowing she could dispel it now, without having a plan. But what was he after?
She scanned the area, looking at the people floating around when it finally hit her. She recognized a few of them. There was the nurse from Yasumi Dokoro. That was the town leader they had met in Mizuno. He was using actual people as a base of the images.
Which meant that's how this jutsu worked. You expelled small amounts of charka and then concentrated on images to make them into a specific person. Now that she knew how the technique worked, Sakura was confident that she could use it herself.
What good would it do just creating more people? She needed to use this somehow to stop his attacks. Sakura tried to concentrate but she heard something metallic in the background and suddenly Kanaye's plan was apparent.
"DISPEL!" she screamed, clearing the illusions just in time to see Kanaye charging her with the weapon. She swerved, feeling the needles graze her arm. Pain shot through her arm and she realized he had closed the device, removing a slim portion of her skin.
There was too little contact with her to stop his momentum and Kanaye stumbled as his motion carried him past her. Sakura kicked hard, landing as solid blow on his back. It wasn't strong enough to do any damage but it kept him moving away from her, giving her time to react.
Her hands moved fluidly, repeating the sequence that she had watched him perform. Ox, tiger, boar, snake. She completed them and then spoke the words.
"Keika no jutsu," she whispered, feeling the chakra leave her and form tiny blobs of light around her. She held her hands in snake and slowly concentrated, finally realizing the one thing that might phase him.
The lights flickered and grew, slowly taking the form of several adult sized ninja, wearing long black cloaks and each wearing an animal mask.
"Anbu," Kanaye scowled. "You bastards."
Sakura watched as he attacked them, realizing he hadn't seen her perform the jutsu. He thought they were real.
Suddenly, a howl filled the air. Sakura heart skipped a beat as she started looking around for the source. It was echoed several times and before she could react the ceiling above them exploded into a rain of wooden splinters.
The dogs hit the ground first, wasting no time in heading right towards him. Their owners followed quickly, seeing Sakura and quickly moving towards her. Kanaye fought back but they were obviously stronger then him.
His blood was flowing freely now. He was light headed, his vision was clouded. There were Anbu around him and animals ripping at his skin. And then suddenly he saw her.
"Nozomi," he said, pushing one of his attackers. They were taking her away again. "NOZOMI!" he screamed, watching as they carried her away, the white funeral robe already around her.
Last time, he had let them without stopping them. But now, he was going to fight them with everything he had. He screamed out in rage and attacked, no longer caring that he was half dead already. The only though in his mind was Nozomi.
Sakura watched him, heard him call out for Nozomi as he pointed towards her. Then she watched as he was lost beneath the attack of dogs. And then everything went black.
Sakura smiled as she opened her eyes. She could hear the sounds of the machines and knew where she was. There was some pain in her arms and neck. But she was alive.
The smile started to slip as she remembered the last moments of consciousness. Kanaye. Had he survived the fight? The way he screamed, the way he was fighting, Sakura wasn't sure he wanted to.
"You don't look good blonde."
Sakura's smile returned a bit as she turned around. "I think there should be only one blonde in the group, Naruto."
The fox boy frowned as he crossed her arms and nodded. "Sakura-chan doesn't look like Sakura-chan like this."
Sakura smiled. "I'm a mess aren't I?"
Naruto's nose scrunched up, like he was torn between two differing opinions. Finally he just settled on his frown. "The whole thing is a mess."
"What happened?" Sakura asked softly.
Naruto tapped his feet as he tried to straighten things out in his mind. "They tried to capture the guy but he kind of went insane and they had to…" Naruto trailed off.
Sakura turned away and looked out the window. She didn't know why but for whatever reason, she felt like she wanted to cry. Cry over someone that had tried to kill her.
Naruto sensed the impending deluge of tears and quickly changed the subject. "Ino's been bringing you flowers, new ones, three times a day since you got here."
Sakura blinked and looked at the elaborate arrangement that was at her side. She picked out a few flowers, most of them meant to symbolize health. But if she wasn't mistaken, a few there were for friendship and thanks.
"Eh… Sasuke came by once or twice," Naruto added, knowing that she would want to hear that.
"Yeah. And then he took out half a public park, trying to strengthen his Chidori. You know Sasuke, the more belligerent is, the more worried he is."
Sakura giggled a bit. "I guess so."
"Kakashi-sensei's been on special training missions for the past couple of days," Naruto said. "Shizune's been filling in for him. She's not as good as Kakashi-sensei but she taught us some medical stuff."
"Really, I can't wait to…"
Naruto turned around after Sakura stopped talking. In the doorway was the unmistakable mass of scars known as torture master Ibiki. Naruto shot a look at Sakura and quickly scurried away.
Ibiki walked in and stared at her for a few moments. Sakura twiddled with her blanket as he stared at her.
"The bed sheet and the peroxide," Ibiki said. "Those were smart."
Sakura brightened a bit. "Thank y…"
"The rest," Ibiki interrupted, "was incredibly stupid." Sakura faltered. "Attempting to overtake a known murderer. Using yourself as bait. Walking into a dangerous situation unarmed."
"Quiet!" he yelled. Sakura sank down into the bed. She could feel the tears about to flow but she bit them back. If he was going to dump her as a student then she wouldn't cry. She still managed to save Ino and if that's all she could walk away with, that's fine.
"This is why genin are restricted to low level missions. Not a drop of common sense in any of them," Ibiki sighed. "At least now I understand why you're assigned to jounin teachers. Maybe we stand a chance of beating some sense into you."
Sakura blinked. "We?"
"Starting tomorrow," Ibiki said. "Every morning at 5:30am you will be at my office. You will train with me in the morning and then train with Kakashi in the afternoon."
Sakura smiled. "Hai sensei."
"Don't smile at me," Ibiki frowned. "If you think I'm upset, wait until you see Kakashi." Sakura's smile faltered a bit. She didn't want to even imagine what that would be like. "So rest up. Tsunade says you'll be out of here by the evening."
Ibiki frowned and walked out of the door. Damn girl was way too perky for his line of work. He paused, looking at Tsunade coming down the hall and nodded. Tsunade smiled, something in the way she did almost singing out an 'I told you so'.
He muttered something in response and walked outside, taking in a breath of a fresh air. He knew he'd have to get back to his office soon and start to plan for the torture, er training, of his new student. He hated to admit it but it was somewhat exciting. After hearing reports from the rescue squad, he knew Sakura was already learning. She had stalled Kanaye in the end by summoning the one thing he feared the most.
As he crossed the street, he had to sidestep another bundle of energy. "Watch where you're going!" he yelled.
"Sorry Ibiki-sensei!" Ino called, clutching the flowers to her chest as she raced by him. She ran up the stairs and headed straight for the room. If Naruto had been lying, she'd kill him herself.
Ino almost collided with Tsunade as the other woman left. She bowed politely and waited for her to leave. As soon as it was clear, Ino peeked inside the room and saw Sakura sitting up in the bed. She walked in and watched as her best friend looked at her.
"You look like crap," Ino stated. "So don't think I'm going to let you stay with that horrible hair job. You give the rest of us a bad name," she said, flicking her hair a bit.
Sakura sighed, hiding her smile. "I suppose I could let you try to help."
"You will let me help," Ino replied. "And you will take me out to lunch just like you promised."
"Yes. And it will be to a nice place. And you will pay."
"I'm not your boyfriend!" Sakura cried.
"No, its worse then that," Ino replied. "You're my best friend, "said softening a bit. "My idiotic, unthinking, completely stupid best friend," she said raising her voice but the same time, it was clear she was about to start crying.
"Ino," Sakura said, frowning and trying to not cry herself.
"Please," she said softly. "Don't ever do something like that again. When Papa told me what you did…" She tightened her grip on the flowers. "I don't… want to lose you…"
Sakura leaned forward and hugged her, feeling the flowers crush against her. "I didn't want to lose you either," she said softly. Ino nodded and they stood like that for a minute before Ino stepped back whipping away the tears.
She eyed Sakura wearily and then resumed her normal appearance. "And don't you even think for a moment that this means I'm giving up on Sasuke-kun. You still don't stand a chance, big forehead girl."
"Feh," Sakura said, crossing her arms. "Whatever Ino-pig." But even as the words escaped her mouth she realized she was smiling. Things were slowly falling back to normal and she couldn't have been happier.
releases huge breath
Finally! I promised myself when writing this that no author notes would be key since I didn't want to drop any hints or ruin any surprises. But now that this story is over I can say this:
Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
It has been amazing reading the reviews. I've read everyone that's come in and smiled at everyone. It took the ones with suggestions and criticisms to heart and modified the story accordingly (except for the typo point outs... those are a bit hard to change one the story is posted).
I'm so happy that people like the Ibiki spin. In fact, I'm already planning out the next story but as you can tell, it take a bit of planning to make a mystery work. Plus, considering the response to this fic, I'm a little nervous to try to repeat the success of it. I just hope I can continue to live up to your expectations and that you can continue to enjoy my work.
That said, thank you again for taking time to read this. Thank you for the wonderful reviews. And I hope to hear from you again soon.