Chapter 44 Preview

Sakura quickly changed out of her shinobi clothes and into a civilian skirt and side-zipped vest, then left for her childhood home.

She may have looked like she was a civilian but she was more alert than ever to being noticed. She watched for Sasuke down the dark lanes of the shinobi district. She didn’t want to have to explain what she was doing….

Hours after dark, hours after she’d promised, Sakura showed up at her family home. 

It was a plain-fronted square of a building, not new but modern by Konoha standards, built for a family to live above and run a business below. It was squeezed in between two small apartment buildings. The civilian quadrant of Konoha was all built the same way, business and residence mixed in the same pattern.

When she was young, younger than she could remember, they moved from a tiny apartment a few blocks over when this building opened up. It didn’t look much like a home, it lacked something like warmth, and it didn’t have an overly large storefront like most shops. So it wasn’t as desirable either as a home or a business.

It wasn’t at all like Ino’s family home. She lived in a multi-story traditional wooden building on a busy corner at the nicest edge of the shinobi district, in a house that doubled as a flower shop. It had elegant rooflines and lanterns and flags and flowers at each honey-brown ledge so that every level looked charming and bursting with life.

Sakura’s building was a narrow grey box. No one would ever call it charming. But for Sakura, it was home.

From the street, it was just a grey front door to a grey building. A smaller sibling to the ones on either side. It had no frills. Just a single light and a door number and a potted plant on the stoop. A tiled roof overhung the door, and from the left corner hung a single chain. Its rusty S-shaped end swung empty. On the right side of the door nails were hammered directly into the stuccoed wall for a vertical fabric banner identifying her father’s business, but the banner had been taken down for the night.

Sakura took a breath, straightened her vest, smoothed back her flyaway hair and poked the loose pieces back into her braid before opening the door. The smell of cooked vegetables wafted out.

This was the smell of her house before a festival, with special items her mother had bought at market just for this day. Her mother always cooked a meal to leave in part as an offering. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell, although a little woodsy…. But it reminded her of activity. It meant there was work to be done.

She ducked in, slid off her shoes beside by the door and stepped up onto the small platform. Ahead of her were a set of stairs going up to where she had lived most of her life. On either side were sliding doors that opened to large square rooms.

Voice were drifting out from the half-open door on the right. This was the room that housed her father’s business.

A friendly good-natured man, Sakura’s father made connections wherever he went, and before she was born, he had turned it into a profitable import business. Now he was asked by many people in the civilian district to order their fabric from his contacts in other villages and nations. He delivered them to local kimono sellers, civilian families, or, on a rare occasions, even a few clans. This time of year was very busy for him. New kimonos for the parade were very popular.

Through the crack in the door, Sakura could see her father speaking to someone, bowing often. He was being overly polite, so it was an important customer. Must be a large order…. She could hear him agreeing, reassuring, saying yes, he could make some last minute repairs. It would be no problem, no problem at all….

Sakura turned to the closed doors on the left. Both her parents would say this was for her mother’s “hobby” but in truth, this was where a lot of the real work happened. Her mother sewed embellishments to order. There were fine embroideries for the edge of women’s kimonos, family crests for the backs of men’s. Handwoven cords for obi belts. Tassel ends for family scrolls. She had a keen memory for patterns, and could perfectly recreate the tattered, faded, sometimes even unraveling designs on family heirlooms that the were brought to her.

It was beautiful work— Back-stiffening, finger-aching, eye-straining work. And this was where the rest of Sakura’s responsibilities were waiting for her.

She slid open the door to find her mother already bent over the low round table. Her mother was diligent, focused, and though just as loving as her father, she was the more serious of the two. She worked hard to get things right, and she expected the same from those around her. Her father and his goofy jokes were endlessly annoying her, which Sakura thought was endlessly funny. More funny than her father’s terrible sense of humor.

But on nights like this, even his easy-going nature couldn’t lighten the mood. Her mother was focused completely on the task ahead of her. And Sakura’s spot at the table was already set with work tools, untouched, making it look even more conspicuous than if it were empty.

“I’m here now, mother,” Sakura said softly.

She had been trying to decide whether to apologize first or just start to work, thus letting her mother know that she understood that this was important to her family.

Her mother had not been happy when Sakura said she was on duty the night of the festival, during the parade. But Sakura had never been able to talk to them about her shinobi life. They wouldn’t understand it. And what they might have understood, they didn’t want to hear. It was an old argument that Sakura had long ago given up on.

Her mother acknowledged her with a slight tip of her head. Sakura sighed inwardly and slid the door closed behind her.

She turned back, but not before seeing her mother’s gaze sweep over her clothes, making sure she didn’t look the part of her “other” life, as her mother once called it. Sakura knew she didn’t. She made sure every trace of her shinobi life was scrubbed from her clothes and her bearing. She walked across the tatami mat softly in her socks and kneeled at the little place at the low table where she’d always sat when she helped her mother. She relaxed her shoulders, folded her hands in her lap and spoke softly.

“I told you I would help you get ready.” Her mother was busy snipping more threads, but Sakura knew where the source of her anger was. “And I will be here for every part of the festival. Just not the parade. That’s all.”

She continued, veering into territory that was off-limits in their house. “I had work to do today. For the Kage.” Sakura glanced over, hoping her mother would understand. “I couldn’t leave any sooner.”

Her mother was setting out supplies on the table. Sakura waited, watching her hands adjust the scissors, the thick white string, the paper wrapping, and the long paper lists of orders.

“I hoped that ‘job’ wouldn’t interfere with your life. These traditions are important you know, just as important as anything else in this village—“

Sakura placed her hand over her mothers, stilling it and her words. “Mom, I told you I would be here, and I am. This is important to me too.”

Her mother was placated. She nodded once, then patted her daughters hand and returned to weaving elaborate bows in the end of a tassel.

Sakura picked up the long list and read through it, recognizing only a few last names. These were civilian families. She realized she was growing to know more clans in Konoha than civilians. She would never admit that to her mother though. It would just be another strike against her career path.

“Wow, there’s a lot this year,” Sakura said. Her mother nodded. Outside a sliding door opened, goodbyes were made, and then the front door closed.

“Ah! Hello Sakura,” her father said from the doorway. ‘I thought I heard you. Our dutiful daughter has returned to us!”

“Of course, father,” Sakura said lightly.

He stepped inside and slid the door closed behind him. He inspected their work, bending over and keeping his hands folded behind his back.

“Good, good,” he said, smiling and looking from mother to daughter. “I love seeing you home, and helping your mother like this—“

Sakura wished she saw the picture her father did. One happy little family, all content to do the same thing. But even on the surface it didn’t look right. Her mother and father, with their dark hair and dark eyes, couldn’t look more different than her. She stuck out, in appearance and in livelihood.

She looked down, unable to weather her father’s beaming pride. It was like this every time. Her mother banked her disappointment, while her father hoped Sakura would one day see how much better their life was than hers. It was futile though, Sakura had made her choice long ago. Or rather…it had chosen her. And after that, there was just no going back.

And the tight smile on her mother’s face showed that she knew it. But neither of them gave up hope that one day she’d change her mind.

Sakura’s mother suddenly focused on something behind her father’s back. “What’s that?”

He produced a folded parcel of fabric, turning it in his hand as if he’d forgotten it. “Oh this? Just a last minute repair of—“

“What?! I don’t have time for another—“

“—a clan flag.”

Her mother frowned. “Can’t you see how much there is to do already— Besides they don’t need me to sew for them. Whoever it is, send it back.” She turned her chin away. “Those people have plenty of women in their own families to mend flags—“

“It’s not for the clan. Well, not exactly,” he said, lowering his voice and letting the fabric unfurl from his fingers.

Sakura recognized the Hyuuga clan seal in the middle. She arched an eyebrow at her father. Her mother was right, there were plenty of non-shinobi women in that clan to do their own mending.

“Okay, I mean, it is. But it’s for one of the young men making preparations for the parade float—“ He lowered his voice another notch, as if their shinobi powers meant they would somehow hear him. “He stepped on it and tore it. And he doesn’t—” he dropped to a whisper, “he doesn’t want anyone to know.” He smiled then, proudly. “One of our neighbors saw it happen and told him to bring to me. Said that we could fix it for him and have it done by morning. And his family higher-ups would never know.”

Sakura’s mother frowned, not swayed by the compliment. Sakura’s father was ready for this too. “Poor boy put on a brave face, but you could see he was scared to death….”

Her mother sighed. Her shoulders drooped slightly. She opened her hand for the flag to inspect the damage, and her father passed it over with a wink at Sakura. “Everyone knows your mother does the best work in Konoha,” he said in an overly loud whisper.

“Tch,” her mother said, but didn’t look up from the new task at hand. It was an enormous tear around the round clan insignia in the center. At the edge of the tear was a dusty bootprint.

Sakura shook her head. The kid had put his foot right through the middle of his family flag. No wonder he didn’t want to tell them.

Her father rubbed his stomach thoughtfully, considering their good luck, “If we do a good enough job, he might remember and come back for more business. Or send us more clan accounts!”

But Sakura thought differently. From what she knew of the Hyuuga shinobi, he was right to be scared. They did not seem a very forgiving type. And the kid would probably never mention his error — or who mended it — again.

“Oh, and…I told him I’d leave it outside for him to pick up in the morning…?” Her mother didn’t answer. “But hopefully it won’t take too long….”

Her mother didn’t look up. “Dinner is wrapped up for you, on the table. I’ll be up in a little while.”

Having thrown over her mother’s meticulously laid plans, he knew better than to hang around. He gave a little wave at Sakura, then quietly backed out. Sakura smiled at him and shook her head.

Her mother was already clearing a space and reorganizing their work in her mind. Sakura could feel it without her saying it. She was glad she was here. Their work just doubled, and her mother could really use her help tonight.