Preview – Chapter 52

The sun was warm in Tsunade’s office. Everything looked familiar, felt familiar, smelled familiar. It was comfortable…and deceptive. It kept playing tricks on Sakura’s mind. It felt like nothing had changed. 

But Sakura new, standing in this office, she had to confront the truth she’d avoiding for days. Everything was different for her.

Despite her vow to tell Sasuke what had happened to her in that cavern with Chiyo and Sasori, she found she didn’t want to talk about it. Not the next day. Nor the next. She hadn’t given any extra details, and her team hadn’t asked. Maybe they didn’t suspect it of her, to omit crucial details when she never had before. Or maybe, like her, they were just glad to be on their way home.

So when Team 7 waited in the hall outside the Hokage’s office immediately after returning, she knew couldn’t avoid it any longer. She would need to explain herself. Tell the whole story and lay bare everything she’d done.

It made her queasy thinking about it. 

Kakashi went in first, telling them to wait till he summoned them, then closed the door firmly behind him. But they could still hear Tsunade’s raised angry voice ricocheting around the room.

For a moment Sakura thought something had happened. Maybe Gaara had died. Maybe the monster inside him had broken free. 

But it was not about the Sand Kage. 

Tsunade was furious at Kakashi for taking them out. Several fragments made it crystal clear just how mad she was at him: He twisted her request to take his team into the desert on what was beyond an S-class mission…. Even he shouldn’t have been on it…. She asked him to look into it, not go there…. And imagine how many things could have gone wrong….

Kakashi’s responses were soft and indistinguishable, but apparently contained apologies enough to satisfy her. After another few tense moments, Kakashi popped his head outside, gave them an unrepentant grimace, then ushered them inside.

Tsunade asked several questions of each of them. The anger aimed at Kakashi had mostly melted from her voice, and the questions were standard of Konoha mission debriefs. When she was satisfied, Sai and Sasuke were dismissed.

“Sakura, please stay a moment.”

Sakura nodded and didn’t move. 

Standing in the sunny office, Sakura felt more comfortable than she had in days. Exhaustion was blooming in the aches in her muscles and joints. They had come straight to the Kage tower without stopping. And in that moment of normalcy — the warm sun, the pleasant smell of fresh scrolls — she felt that everything might be okay again. 

It was a mission. It was over. She would file her report. And maybe she could unburden herself of what happened.

She might never be able tell Sasuke. But perhaps Tsunade would understand.

The warmth lulled her into believing this would work. That there was a path forward for her—

The door closed quietly. Kakashi walked back into the room and stood beside her.

Tsunade looked at Sakura. “Kakashi tells me you defeated Sasori to save the Sand Kage.”

Sakura nodded. 


“No, I partnered with Lady Chiyo of the Sand. It was her chakra that brought back the Kage.”

Tsunade leaned on the arm of her chair, looking relaxed, but she didn’t move. Her eyes were watching everything Sakura did. “And how did that work?”

Sakura knew she should answer, reveal what Chiyo told her, what the old woman made her do— But the words wouldn’t come.

Maybe it was cowardice. Maybe it was weakness. But she couldn’t make voice work, she couldn’t find the energy to explain what happened, to relive one single moment of it. So Sakura took the easy way out. 

With the same fake smile, she repeated the same lie she’d been telling since she walked out of the cave. 

“Lady Chiyo told me what to do, and I did it. I fought off Sasori while she healed the Kage.” 

Tsunade didn’t move. She just looked at her.

In the silence, Sakura felt the weight of the lie. The longer Tsunade sat, watching her, the heavier it was getting. Sakura forced herself not to look away or fidget nervously. 

It was as if Tsunade could see right through her. A if she already knew the things Sakura was didn’t want to say….

So perhaps even though she didn’t want to admit to any of — expose just how broken she was inside, even to herself — maybe it was time. And if she didn’t do it now, she might never do it. The lie might sit there, inside her, getting darker and heavier, consuming more and more of her. Like Gaara’s monster….

So maybe it was time. Sakura blew out a low breath and parted her lips to speak…but that’s when she saw it—

A single look. Between Tsunade and Kakashi. Her hawk eyes flashed her eyes at him, and he cleared his throat softly in acknowledgement.

And that was all it took to change Sakura’s fate.

By the time Tsunade was shifting her eyes back to Sakura, cold clarity was washing over her.

Some message had been exchanged between them. Something they knew, about her

The lulling comfort of a moment before gone, wiped away. 

Nothing was the same, she thought bitterly. It may never be the same again.

She grit her teeth and forced her limbs to hang loosely at her sides. To not let her body slide into a defensive pose like it so desperately wanted to.

If she told them, she’d have to reveal what she’d done, to herself and to Gaara. If she let anyone even see her healing chakra now, they’d know she was different.

Just the fact that she had actually changed her chakra form…. She didn’t even know that was possible. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe that was Chiyo’s poison….

Sakura let herself grow cold inside, let it harden her.

She told herself to remember, to never forget: They knew things about her. Perhaps they all did. And they didn’t tell her. She had to find it out from an enemy. 

Something inside her shifted, her resolve turned to steel. It was hard and unbreakable as the rope of chakra that coiled now just below the surface.

She didn’t know who she could trust. She was on her own side now. She vowed to herself, no matter what was at stake, no one would ever know what happened until she had her answers first. 

Finally, Sakura felt protected. In control. She raised and lowered her shoulders with a cleansing breath. 

There was a detail she would tell them though. A fragment of information that she’d held back for entirely different reasons.

Sasori’s parting information had been about Itachi, thus it effected Sasuke. She didn’t tell Kakashi on the way back because she didn’t want to risk Sasuke overhearing.

But now, this scrap of information seemed like the perfect thing to shift attention away from her. At least for a little while…. At least until she figured some things out for herself….

Sakura cleared her throat. “Sasori did say something, at the end. Something that didn’t make any sense…. It was about Itachi and Sasuke….”

Tsunade leaned forward, eyes sharp. Kakashi’s body went rigid, alert.

“Sasori was dying.” She stopped. “No not really dying. Unwinding.” 

Beside her, Kakashi tipped his head, nodding once.

“He said Itachi had already caught something.” She looked from Kakashi to Tsunade and back again for clarification. They had none.

“He said ‘Itachi has already caught his….’

Tsunade was so still she looked frozen. Her knuckles were white where her fingers curled around the arm of her chair.

Kakashi looked pained. He rubbed a hand down his face. He swore under his breath. When he finally spoke, his voice was choked with emotion. “And that’s it? Nothing else?”

Sakura shook her head. “Sasori’s voice stopped working on the last word.”

She looked back to Tsunade. This time, her expression was hard. A mix of anger…and fear. 

She tore off a piece of scroll and wrote down Sasori’s words in fast, slashing strokes.

Sakura added, less sure of herself now, “I assumed it had something to do with Sasuke.” She glanced at Kakashi. “I didn’t want to reveal it in front of him. In case, you know….” 

She didn’t fill in the rest. She knew they understood. In case he took off to hunt down Itachi. Keeping Sasuke safe and protected by village had always been the number one priority where Itachi was concerned.

But Tsunade and Kakashi looked like that was the farthest thing from their minds at the moment.

Kakashi was grim. Sakura thought she’d never seen him look so anguished. He tipped his head at Tsunade, almost as if he was silently pleading with her. 

Again, another silent communication passed between them. 

“Yes, you should go,” Tsunade said “Update the others. Maybe there’s still some hope,” but she shook her head as if even she didn’t believe what she was saying. She dismissed him with a single nod, then he was gone in a swirl of leaves. 

Sakura was confused. But delivering Sasori’s message had the unexpected side-effect of relieving her guilt. Now she could leave too—

However Tsunade surprised her.

“Sakura, I’m glad we have a moment alone.” She shifted some scrolls around on her desk, looking for the right ones. “Even in light of this new information,” she said, more to herself. Then she found what she was looking for. 

She came around the desk and stood in front of Sakura. Two slims scrolls were in her hand. One was old, with yellowing paper. But the other was very old, with crumbling wax seals at the ends stuck with a few remaining threads of what must have once been a tassel.

“Had I known what you were facing, where you were going,” Tsunade began, but stopped herself. “Well, first, I never would have let Kakashi take you if I’d known. But he is your sensei. And he knows your capabilities far better than I. And he was not wrong.” She smiled briefly and Sakura bowed her head at the compliment.

“But teaming up with a woman like that,” she growled the words, “then fighting against a shinobi like Sasori…” Her voice trailed into a long exhale. She looked down at the scroll. “You should have been better prepared. And I blame myself for that.”

Sakura looked at her feet. For a brief moment Sakura wondered if maybe Tsunade would explain some of her history with Chiyo. She couldn’t deny that relief flooded her at even some small part of her questions being answered—

“I’d like to officially make you my apprentice.” 

Sakura blinked in shock.

Tsunade thumbed open the first scroll, the newer of the two. It was a contract. She continued speaking as her eyes skimmed over it. 

“There are different medical practices in the world. Different,” she paused, “attitudes about what constitutes healing. And encountering another medic is not always advantageous as it apparently was this time. There are many things I could teach you—“

Tsunade looked up but was startled to find Sakura wide-eyed and shaking her head. 

“No,” she said breathlessly. “No, no, no—“

Tsunade’s expression slipped from disbelief to something like betrayal. 

Sakura bowed deeply to avoid seeing it. “I mean, no thank you, Tsunade-sama. It is a great honor but….” She raised her eyes, but only looked as high as the contract in her hands. It seemed so flimsy where the old paper draped over outstretched fingers. “I do not wish to continue on as a medic,” Sakura continued, voice was barely above a whisper. “In any capacity.”

“I see,” Tsunade said quietly. She the old yellow paper back up onto itself and pressed the wax seal holding it back together. 

Sakura closed her eyes, wishing she didn’t hear the pain her voice. Wishing she hadn’t asked. Wishing she wasn’t forced to say no. 

But here Sakura was in no doubt. She did not want use her chakra to heal anyone else. Ever again. And until she learned more about herself and what Chiyo had done to her, she didn’t want anyone else to see her chakra either. 

“It is your choice, of course,” Tsunade said. There was disappointment in her tone, but her words were without malice. 

She placed the contract scroll on the desk behind her, turned back and straightened. Sunlight poured in through the window behind her. It lined her shoulders and made her hair look nearly golden.

“Then there is only one thing left I can give you.” The clipped tones of the village leader were back in her voice. This was not a request. 

Tsunade unrolled the second scroll. It was indeed much, much older. Long flowing rows of writing circled around and around themselves on the brown-edged parchment. It was in a language Sakura had never seen before. In the center of the rings of writing, four slashes of ink formed a diamond.

Tsunade put her fingertips on writing and spoke softly and pushed her energy down into the paper until the writing glowed with her chakra. Then the rings of text began to move on the page. They swirled around and around like a luminous whirlpool. In the center, the glow slowly spread to the diamond. The four lines became so bright it looked as if they might burn through the page. 

Tsunade lifted her fingertips off the page, very slowly, so as not to sever the chakra connecting to the writing. Beneath her palm, the glow began to lift off the paper too. It hovered there, filling the space like a tiny star had just been born from the churning circle of text.

The drawn shape had transformed into a perfect four-sided crystal. It rotated slowly above the scroll. The edges shimmered with pale purple chakra and the center was translucent, refracting light through it like a prism. 

Tsunade lifted her hand away and the crystal traveled with her, turning gently in the center of her cupped hand. 

When Sakura saw the diamond on Tsunade’s forehead glowing with the same purple chakra that glistened along the edges of the shape — as as if she was charging it, controlling it — she realized what she was seeing.

Sakura, this seal marks the top of a storage point for your chakra. Think of it like the tip of an iceberg. Or the opening of a well. It is just like mine.” Sakura looked at the purple diamond on her Tsunade’s forehead. “It will only take up that much space on your skin. But behind it is a vast space. As much as you need or want. So you will never run out again.”

“It is an ancient seal, created before there were countries and villages, back when there was a need to control the elemental energy existed freely in the world. It takes a powerful chakra wielder to fill it and maintain it, because it requires both a small amount of chakra at all times to hold it in place. Plus supporting the ocean of chakra that can be stored behind it over the course of your lifetime.”

“I have no doubt that you will manage both easily. In my life I have seen few others with the level of chakra control you have.” 

Sakura looked away, feeling suddenly ashamed of herself. Tsunade didn’t miss her change in expression. 

“This seal is a gift. From me to you. Nothing more. I give it freely, with no expectations in return….”

There was no reason to refuse, and Tsunade did not expect her to. So Sakura lowered her chin to accept it.

Sakura noticed the swirling pattern that moved with the crystal. Like a whirlpool.

“It is not from Konoha, as you may have guessed. It was retrieved from another country that perfected these types of sealing techniques. A country that long ago disappeared beneath the waves.”

Tsunade gathered her fingers together, pushing the crystal out in front of them. Energy spiraled all around her hand. She concentrated the diamond shape at the tip of her index finger, then pressed her finger slowly into the center of Sakura’s forehead. The crystalline diamond sank into her skin like it was being pushed into water. Ripples of energy spiraled around and around above her skin, following the diamond where it had sunk down in the center like a whirlpool.

The spot tingled slightly on Sakura’s forehead with the not-unpleasant feeling over over-warmed chakra. The air smelled pleasantly singed.

“This is a well of chakra for you to always be able to draw from. No matter who you encounter in life. No matter what path you find yourself on.”

She pressed her other fingers gently against her forehead, and Sakura felt the tingle of chakra from those too. 

“Your chakra is dangerously low,” Tsunade said quietly, and Sakura instantly knew she was reading her energy levels. “This will prevent that from happening in the future.”

And then it was done. Tsunade lifted her fingers and inspected the mark. 

When the glow disappeared, all that was left was a tiny diamond shape, the size of a fingertip, in the center of Sakura’s forehead. It was the same color purple as the one on Tsunade’s head.

Already Sakura could feel the skin on her forehead beginning to cool. 

Tsunade rerolled the scroll, placed it with the other — the unused apprentice contract — and placed them on the side of the desk nearest the scroll room.

She returned to her seat. “Right now, your diamond is purple, identical to mine. But my chakra is only there to hold its shape.” Her voice had the clinical tone of a doctor telling a patient about aftercare. “Once you begin to fill it, my chakra will disappear and it will become completely your own.” 

Sakura bowed. “Thank you, Tsunade-sama.”

“And Sakura,” she began, but stopped herself. “Are you— Are you certain this is what you want?”

Sakura held Tsunade’s gaze for a single moment. There was nothing calculated there. But it still seemed like it pained her. And Sakura didn’t feel good about that. 

But she was certain. She nodded once. 

Tsunade didn’t let any expression show. She simply scribbled a note to herself to change Sakura’s status.

And Sakura had no doubt she would. Above all, Tsunade honored people’s requests. Even when it disappointed her, as she knew this must. 

But Sakura felt deeply — deeper than her distorted chakra form, deeper than all the unanswered questions, deeper even than whatever Chiyo had poisoned her with – that she no longer wanted her energy to be used by other people.

“I will strike your name from the roster, and you will not be called up as a medic, in any capacity, unless you ask to be.” Tsunade finished scribbling and looked up at her, tipping her head to inspect the seal.

“Once it has completely cooled you should hide it with an appearance-shifting jutsu. It is a mark of power. And though very few people would even know what it is, it could still be used against you.”

Sakura looked at Tsunade’s forehead. Tsunade nodded along with her. “I kept mine masked for many years, but as a Kage it sends a bit of a different message.” She smiled briefly, acknowledging the ocean of power that she held at the ready, all the time. All in that little mark.

“Do you know how to apply an appearance-shifting jutsu? You learned should have learned it in one of your academy classes.”

Sakura nodded, a little confused. It was simple, one of the first justus the learned. It didn’t seem like something that would hide such a powerful mark.

“Good. This is a little different. Instead of disguising your whole shape, or a single aspect like your face, concentrate the jutsu right onto the edges of the diamond. As thin as you can getter. Thinner, even. Imagine it attaching to the very cells. Just that line around the edge.

Then that little pool of chakra that’s left inside, imagine it flattening inward. Just a bit, until it no longer sits on the surface. Until the diamond feels like it’s made the tiniest depression in your forehead. Then release your normal chakra to cover it up. It will slip over and sit right on the surface. And no one will ever be able to detect it. Not unless they are extraordinarily proficient, and know exactly where to look.”

While Tsunade was speaking, Sakura remembered what it was like to be her student. To feel capable and be amazed by what she learned she could do. It seemed effortless, like she could just reach out and grasp her life before, step back into the way things had been.

She didn’t feel that way after Chiyo. She had learned a lot there too. But she also had been used. Chiyo was right after all. In a sick way she had become that old woman’s student too. Whether she wanted to or not.

So even this gift, something that would have made her former self feel so proud and accomplished…revealed that there was so much she didn’t know. 

Chiyo had used that against her. Had broken her and used her as a weapon. And there was no way to go back to who she had been before.

Sakura cleared her throat and told herself again this was the right thing to do. “Thank you Tsunade-sama,” she said.

“If there’s nothing else,” Tsunade said softly, looking up at her. Sakura hesitated, then shook her head. Tsunade shifted two ancient scrolls on her desk. The hush of paper on paper almost sounded like a sigh. “Then you’re dismissed.”