44 – Two Worlds, Part 3 – The Red Thread

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, with lanterns and flags and flowerboxes 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.

Her father’s praise was not misguided. Her mother was as exceptionally good at mending as she was at embroidering delicate designs. Sakura didn’t seem to have a knack for either.

Thankfully, the rest of the work required a bit of muscle and a firm grip, not fine precision.

Each year, Sakura’s mother made small braids of rice straw for the festival. They were decorations to be hung on doorways, windows, or wherever a person needed one. She made piles and piles of them. And each year, as many people came by to pick one up.

Sakura had helped her mother every year since she was a child. First piling up straw, then tying knots and cutting threads, and finally graduating to braiding the hunks of stiff straw together. Her mother showed her how to tie a knot that wouldn’t slip, and when they discovered Sakura was quite good at it — her younger hands were not as bothered by the tight grip required to hold the straw in place while tying — Sakura took over for her mother completely in this part.

Spread out on the far side of the tatami mat were neatly arranged piles of yellow straw. It was about the length of her arm, cut cleanly at the bottom of the stalk with a tufted head of leaves left at the other end. On the table in front of her was a big ball of coarse white twine, and hanks of finer threads, laid out in a rainbow of colors.

Sakura started on the first braid, only half paying attention while she worked.

This was not venerated shinobi work. These were not secret techniques or ancient jutsus. In fact, it had nothing to do with their village. These talismans were country traditions that predated the walls of Konoha themselves. Sakura’s mother and father both had family traditions of hanging a wreath of twisted rope outside and leaving plates of offerings on auspicious days, even though it had been several generations ago that either of their families had lived outside some village or another.

Sakura’s mother was one of the few who still knew how to make them. And she was quite good. She knew could make complicated shapes, knew what they meant and how to twist them, and which color went with which order. Sakura just read the notes and made simple braids. No one ever complained, so she guessed she did okay. It was just part of the preparation for the festival day—

Sakura looked at the braid in her hand. It looked…awful. Lumpy and weird, with way too much of the ragged leaf end puffing out the bottom. She forgot it would take her a few times to get the hang of it again, to make each segment balanced and with the right amount left over for the tassel end. She frowned at it, deciding it was serviceable enough and not worth re-doing, then tied the knot tight — even it was off-center. She pitched it under the table and started on another.

This time, she’d pay closer attention. Sakura looped thick white twine several times around the top of a fistful of yellow straw and tied it in a tight knot. Then she divided three equal segments of straw and overlapped them over and over before pinching the bottom and tying another segment of twine tight around the bottom. An equal amount of foliage sprayed out at the end. All the edges were tucked in nicely and the overall effect was balanced and even. It looked pretty, respectable…and not at all like her flyaway hair braid on most days.

“Much better,” she said under her breath. She reached for another handful of straw and fell into the steady rhythm of weaving together segments and tying knots.

All the requests were for this shape now. The irony wasn’t lost on Sakura that she was the one making talismans for a tradition that seemed old-fashioned to her. She knew it was a symbol of protection…or something. And that it was to be hung outside the house.

Her mother had told her it was how the priests knew where to come and deliver a blessing on the house. And Sakura would never have believed her if she hadn’t seen it herself.

Or, at least, dreamed it.

The very last rite of the festival was a visit from temple priests. They came to houses observed the old traditions of a hanging talisman or a plate of food. Houses the observed the ‘old ways’. Sakura never knew from what temple, and she wondered if they came from outside the village just like the tradition of decorations because these people always just showed up in the village around festival days.

After the end of the parade, a group of men and a few women in long white robes would drift through the village, stopping at houses with decorations hung outside. Sometimes you could hear the soft tinkling of bells, or the gentle woosh of a sacred tree limb being rattled over a doorway. Or sometimes you would catch the smoky sweet scent of incense that accompanied them. Then they would move on, a cloud of smoke and ghostly shapes and otherworldly sounds drifting away into darkness.

If adults were lucky they might catch a glimpse, but never children. Her mother had said it would bring them bad luck. Sakura realized now that it was probably because it was far too late for a child stay up.

Especially an inquisitive child with an already overactive imagination—

One night Sakura dreamed she’d woken and peered down into the street. A cluster of strange people stood in the smoke from the incense, looking like they were floating in front of her house. A man bowed at their doorway, shook leaves and chanted something she didn’t understand. The strange looking men and women around him rang bells and began to leave, walking with sticks with antlers and amulets and ribbons tied to them.

Sakura moved forward, putting her little fingers against the window and feeling the cold pane. Her breath fogged up the glass. She squinted through it, then wiped it quickly, not meaning to but bringing chakra to her hand in a green swipe on the glass. When she peered again, some of the women in the back were looking up at her. Sakura had been seen. In her memory the woman who looked up had strangely exaggerated features. A too-long neck. A pointed chin and pointed fingers. A column of black hair that hung down far past her back and curled up on the end, flipping independently as she moved. She tipped her head inquisitively, eyes reflecting a shine when they locked with Sakura’s overly wide green ones—

In her dream she dashed from the window in a single leap and dove into her bed, hiding there and waiting for her parents to scold her for disobeying. But they never did. And in what felt like a moment later she was blinking her eyes and it was daylight. She looked out slowly from the front door. But no one was there. Nothing had changed.

The intricately woven braid swung from the hook outside. The plate of food beside the door was gone, picked clean.

Sakura chuckled at the memory. A lot of things scared her back then. Most of them imagined. The priests did visit houses, but the ones she’d seen didn’t looked like her dream. And she’d never heard of spirits coming back to eat the food, but she was pretty sure a few stray animals were getting a free meal on those nights.

Sakura stretched her neck and her fingers. Around her were piles and piles of braids. She was still only half finished, but she needed a break.

She picked up the list and thought about the work to come. After the braids were finished, then she had to wrap the white twine above the tassel with a several loops of colored thread, according to who had ordered them.

Sakura went down the list. Most of them were red, so that made it easy. But there were at least a couple from each color. And then there were scribbled notes that Sakura had no idea about. She decided to leave those for last.

Sakura looked over the table. “Is that all the red…?”

The few strands of deep crimson thread weren’t nearly enough.

Her mother stood, stretching for a moment, then retrieved a large hank of bright red thread, wrapped in fabric, from a basket on the other side of the table. “It’s been blessed. At the little temple down by the river.”

“Oh,” Sakura said, blinking. She had no idea that there was a temple down at the river. She looked at the colors. “Are all of them blessed?”

Her mother resettled herself at her work, shaking her head. “No, just the red.” She picked up her needle and pulled it through again, focusing on the next stitch. “The different colors are for thanks — for a bountiful harvest or a baby born. Others are to bless a wedding, and others are to ask for a favor, from a certain spirit or to help with improved health…or in finding love….”

“Huh,” Sakura said, ignoring the last remark. She pulled off the right length of red and cut it. Her mother long ago showed her how to wrap the white thread so it disappeared, then tie the knot and tuck it in. Eventually, the red dye would run out, either with rain or bleached by sun. The whole bundle of thread would end up looking pink or pale grey, after a few weeks outside.

“Red must be for luck then, not love.” she said as she tied it, adding, more to herself, “Eh, I bet no one even remembers why—“

Her mother laughed softly. “Well, that may be true. But I do.” Sakura put the braid down and looked over at her. “It’s for remembrance.”

Sakura’s mother took the braid out of her hands and finished tucking in the ends of the knot as she continued.

“You hang it outside, and it says to the spirit world that you still remember. The priests come around, bless your house and help get your message there. But even if they don’t, or it’s the wrong time of year, you can hang it outside as a way of saying you still keep the connection. You say their name and then, with any luck,” she smiled at her little joke, and Sakura smiled back, “they will get the message.”

Her mother smoothed down the sides, tucked the stray pieces gently back in, then passed the braid back to Sakura.

“Yes, the red is for luck. And for love. But mostly, it’s for remembrance.”

Sakura picked up the list again. There were so many red ones. She looked at it with a little more sympathy then. There must be a lot of people separated from a loved one….

But some quick math showed the total number of red braids was much higher than the amount requested.

“Why so many more? Just to have some extra on hand?”

Her mother smiled. “There are always more people who need them. They just don’t know it yet. You’ll see.”

Sakura cracked a smile at her mother’s weird, whimsical nature. It was late, and she was acting more like her father now.

Sakura ran her finger down the list, looking at the color selections. There were sketches beside some of them. A few were recognizable as a leaf or a flower or a rice sheaf, but the rest made no sense to Sakura.

She knew sometimes the requests made no sense to her mother either. She would occasionally find her mother consulting one of her old books of embroidery patterns, comparing the sketch to some ancient design. She wondered why her mother even took the time. No one could read these or even remember why they were significant. They asked, and her mother just filled the order.

She may have known what a color stood for, but surely she couldn’t know what they all meant. But she guessed that’s what the old books were for. They had been passed down through some old family member or another. Another old relative in the fabric business hoping to pass on what they knew. And they ended up with her mother. Now people brought her old strange books they found. But she couldn’t tell them what was in them, not even if they paid her.

Which she wouldn’t have accepted anyway. Sakura’s mother did keep to “the old ways,” as Tsunade had called it, in that regard too. She accepted payment for things like wedding embroideries, and rope belts for kimonos. But for traditional items for festival days, like straw braids, you didn’t pay. You traded. It’s how it’s always been done. Sakura remembered the basket beside the door from her childhood. People came in, talked to her mother about what they wanted, then left an item in the basket in trade.

Sakura’s mother explained one time that it would bring bad luck on them to profit from blessings from the spirit world, as much as it would bring bad luck on the asker if the spirits found out they paid for it. The spirits were grumpy and liked to be flattered. So humans were wise to not make trouble. They had to ask for their blessing in the most honest way possible. It used to be that all families knew how to make the twisted ropes in all sorts of shapes. Not just braids. But families moved, and traditions were lost. And only a few did now. And if you wanted to appease the spirits, then you had to seek them out.

If the clans honored these old ways then Sakura didn’t know. Her mother almost never filled requests for them.

The hours slid by. Her mother worked ceaselessly, matching the thread and the stitches of the Hyuuga seamstress so exactly that anyone would have a hard time finding where one woman’s stitches ended and another’s began.

Her mother sat up, stretched, held her fingers for a moment, and sat back to inspect her work. Sakura could find not a single fault. Not a stitch out of place. It was like it never happened.

“W-wow— It’s amazing. I can’t tell at all!”

“Thank you Sakura, I hope this young man appreciates it. Even if the rest of them never know—“

“I’m sure he will.”

Her mother folded it gingerly, and stopped to rub her fingers. Her face was drawn and Sakura could see the pain her mother was in. Sewing like that, such close stitches so late at night was taxing for anyone. Sakura bit the corner of her lip. She didn’t like to see anyone in pain, most of all her mother. She knew her mother’s disappointment with her career path may not ever fade, but it was from a place of love. She only wanted her daughter to be safe.

Sakura wished she could return to her some of what she’d learned. Help her, ease her pain, just a little. But her mother would never accept her healing. Her chakra had been off limits in their house since she was a child.

But perhaps…if her mother didn’t know….

“It’s perfect, mom.” Sakura took her mother’s hands and looked earnestly up into her eyes. “Really, I’m sure he will appreciate it. And I’m so glad I was here to help you tonight.” She smiled, and held her mother’s hands — and attention — for another long moment.

Sakura sent a layer of chakra so thin, so transparent, there was nothing to see. So that instead of a large charge of healing energy at the beginning, it was a slow layer of healing, moving over and over itself like a gentle wave. The hoped-for result was a slow ebbing of the pain. And the longer she kept her mother’s attention, and her hands in her grasp, the greater the cumulative effect.

Her experiment worked.

She’d never been taught it. Never even heard of it. But she could feel it working as she hoped it would. She smiled into her mother’s face, looking for any signs that she noticed. She didn’t.

Sakura’s mother began to blush, “Well, it’s nothing— You know— But still — Thank you, Sakura-chan.”

She squeezed her hands back. “I’m glad you were here too.” And she leaned forward and kissed her daughter’s forehead, surprising Sakura, who let go when her mother pulled back.

But it worked. Her mother flexed her hands, looking at them for a moment in surprise, then returned to her list. She felt better, even though she’d never know what Sakura had done.

Sakura smiled at her new accomplishment before turning back to the list. “I couldn’t figure out a few of them. But the rest I finished up—“

Her mother looked at the sparse piles left on the floor. On the other side of the table was a large stack of braided talismans. “Oh my— you have been working hard—“

“Why don’t you go on up to bed and I’ll finish up,” Sakura said. “I’ll put the flag out too, for the clan boy to pick up in the morning.”

Her mother yawned suddenly. Sakura stifled a yawn too.

Her mother looked down the list one last time. Sakura pointed to one of the strange symbols beside a name—

“I don’t understand those. I don’t know if they are meant to be in shapes, or some sort of amulet added later—“

“Oh! Those are to be tied on top. Like a special knot.” She pointed to the sketch. “This one is for a leaf. This one is for a flower. It’s for making a special request from their ancestors.”

She tied a hank of green floss quickly around the base of a braid, covering the white cord that was holding it in place. Her hands flew quickly, effortlessly, and when she moved back the bow had been transformed into the sharp points of a maple leaf.

“Oh I see!” She looked down the list again. There were a list of elaborate ones at the bottom. Now she looked at the jotted notes beside them, catching on. “So these might be where their ancestors came from?”

Her mother nodded. “So this one, wants a bow with a series of knots, representing rice. So I guess they’re from the Rice territory.” Her mother looked at the list. “Many I have never heard of. But I fill their requests just the same. There’s no one else to do it!”

“I will finish these elaborate ones in the morning,” her mother said and stood.

Sakura nodded, “I’ll just finish these up, then go—“

“You are always welcome to stay, you know. Your bed is always here.” Sakura smiled. It was tempting, but she had to get home. There were things she needed to do tomorrow morning— shinobi errands. She didn’t want to have to explain—

“Um, thanks mom. Maybe next time—“

Her mother smiled tiredly. “Ok, next time…. Thank you for your help,” she patted her cheek, then went quietly upstairs.

Sakura finished, taking longer than she thought. She must have even drifted off, because when she roused herself to leave and and put the flag outside on the doorstep, the sky was already lit with a predawn glow. She closed the door quietly and turned to place the parcel on the step when she heard footsteps approaching.

A dark-haired young man was walking nervously up the street, glancing at houses, reading numbers on doors. He was a Hyuuga shinobi, a few years older than her.

Sakura smirked. So this was who had ripped the flag so terribly. She would never have guessed it was a shinobi who did it.

He saw her and stopped in his tracks. He looked from the parcel to her, to the address back to her, piecing it all together. “You…. W-What are you doing here?”

“I live here,” Sakura said flatly. She knew where this was going, she could see it breaking over his face.

“But— Aren’t you a shinobi…?”

Sakura was too tired to be patient. She didn’t care how scared he was. “Yes. I’m a shinobi from a civilian family. And you—“ she shook the paper-wrapped bundle at him, “are a shinobi who’s too clumsy too avoid stepping on his own clan banner.” He cringed. She held out the parcel. “I won’t tell if you won’t,” she said tartly.

Whatever he thought, he didn’t say. He gulped, quickly took the package, nodded thanks and took off, as if he couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Sakura rolled her eyes, then went home to crash into her own bed for a few hours before she had to get up and help her mother fulfill her orders.


Sakura stood at the front door for most of the day, greeting their old friends and neighbors, wishing them well, then digging through the basket and checking off the list to make sure they got the right one. While Sakura worked, her mother and father visited with their friends and neighbors.

Her mother tried to help her, but really, chatting and keeping everything running smoothly was just too hard. So Sakura shooed her away and checked off the list, while listening to her neighbors fuss over her mother’s fine work and chat about which fabrics her father sold for the festival and who might be wearing them.

Sakura tucked away a smile. Secretly, she always liked this part of the day. She liked seeing her parents happy after all their hard work. So it was an easy job to match up which order went to which person, or give them out to those who didn’t make an order but her mother somehow knew would be around anyway.

But she was surprised to discover that this year, a great many visitors wanted to speak to her as well. They ask her how the hospital work was or commented on how grown up she’d become. They ribbed her about how they never saw her anymore, and asked with a sly wink if she’d found a nice young man. A few of them pointedly mention her childhood friend Takumi, the blacksmith’s apprentice. “He’s also grown up so a good and responsible. And so handsome….”

Sakura would ignore their winks and hints, and smile while she pushed the order into their hands, saying she “just couldn’t find the time, what with all the hospital work and all!”

That was always the right answer, because they would pat her hand and tell her what a hard worker, just like her mother…and then moving right along to bestow their gratitude on her mother.

Some of the visitors though, the old neighborhood grannies — they called themselves healers or herbalists, but they were mostly known as the local busy-bodies looked up at her curiously. They whispered to her, when they thought no one is looking.

“There are things I know—“ They would cut their eyes back and forth, and drop their voice even more. “Things I could pass on to you….”

Then they would rattle on about mushrooms and potions, herbal teas and tinctures. They would push little ointments or bundles of herbs or into her hands (Sakura put those immediately into the basket), and they’d look around to make sure no one saw them. Then they’d tell her to come by and see them. At their house, or their garden. Or at the weekend market.

“I’ll look for you sweetie,” they’d say, patting her hand again. Then they’d bustle off to whisper to her mother. Sakura would nod and smile, al the while thinking, “Not a chance.”

They were like an extremely comical version of Tsunade — which would be funnier if Tsunade hadn’t just asked her the same sorts of things.

She had wondered how people from her civilian life, the ones who watched her grow up, saw her now. She had wondered how her mother explained her absence from their day-to-day lives. Now she knew.

The last one came through the door, their next-door neighbor who really had been like a sweet little grandmother to her. She patted Sakura’s hand, “Oh we know how busy you are. Working in…in…. Well, I can’t remember. But in some other part of the village.”

Sakura smiled. “I spend a lot of time at the hospital these days,” she said, continuing the lie. It was harmless. The woman smiled back, “Oh yes! That was it. I know your parents are so proud!”

Sakura’s smile slipped a notch. The woman never saw, she was already moving on.

Sakura let her stiff shoulders drop and turned back to the empty basket. Job done. She had given out every single braided talisman she’d made, just like her mother said she would.

The basket on the other side was full of little tokens of appreciation: envelopes, handmade items, baked goods and small crocks of pickled vegetables or preserved fruit. Even a few sprigs of twigs and dried flowers, tied together with colorful ribbon that Sakura now understood held some kind of meaning to the giver or recipient.

The bundles of dried herbs from the batty old grandmothers were quite…stinky, and Sakura understood why her mother insisted on hanging them outside ‘where everyone could enjoy them.’ Sakura thought the sooner the better.

She collected the bunches and held them at arms length, while she went out to hang them on the long chain outside the door. But the sight of the empty swinging hook reminded her— her mother had asked her to save one for their house.

She forgot.

She went back in, hoping she was wrong. But she shook the basket and looked around the floor, and there were none.

She scanned the room and got excited when she saw an overly large puff of rice straw on the ground beyond the work table. One had been forgotten—

She cringed when she pulled it out into the light. The only one left was her first braid. Lumpy, bumpy and sticking out at the edges. But it would have to do—

Her mother was walking down the stairs.

Sakura quickly shoved the edges back in as best as she could, but stopped at the white string hanging out. There was no more blessed red thread either.

She grabbed a length of her mother’s fine embroidery floss — a deep shade of crimson red — and tied it around the bottom, wrapping it more thickly then the others because there was too much thread. But it hid the white twine, and the knot was neatly centered. Done.

She ran out ahead of her mother and plunked the braid on the hook at the corner of their stoop. Then she turned and straightened the offering plate as her mother stepped out, moving around a little vase of flowers, poking at the rice balls, steamed vegetables and cut orange slices as if that’s what she came out to do.

Her mother stepped out, looked over the tray and plate and nodded approvingly. But when she moved to take a closer look at the braid, Sakura stepped quickly in front of it. She pointed to the basket just inside the door.

“Did you see the nice things people brought?” Her mother smiled and turned back to look at the tokens and gifts.

While her mother was distracted, Sakura scooped up the strong-smelling herbs, hung them outside, and closed the door. She sagged her back against it, thinking that finally, everything was done.

Her mother sighed, clearly feeling the same way, then smiled at her warmly. “Dinner?” Sakura smiled back and nodded. “I wouldn’t miss it.”

She followed her mother upstairs for a family meal before the parade. And when her parents rose to get ready, Sakura kissed them both and left.

She had to get ready too, but not in a new kimono. Just her shinobi fatigues. She was watching the parade with her team this year.