52 – Who to Trust

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

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

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 to survive.

It made her queasy just 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 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. Angrier than Sakura had ever heard her before. 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 several more 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 was mostly gone 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 relaxed than she had in days. Exhaustion was blooming from her aching muscles and joints, finally pushing out the tension that had weighed on her each step of the way home. 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 like 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 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 her voice work, she couldn’t find the energy to explain what happened…or the courage 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. As 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 — to 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….

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. She flashed her amber 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 had washed over her.

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

The lulling comfort of a moment before was wiped away. 

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

Gritting her teeth, Sakura forced her limbs to hang loosely at her sides. She did not let her body slide into the defensive pose that it so desperately wanted to.

If she told them, then 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 how different she was.

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. She let the memories harden her.

She told herself to remember, to never, ever forget: They knew things about her. Perhaps they all did, even back to her teachers at the academy. 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 as 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 one 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 herself. 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. His puppet body was failing.” 

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 and 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 the 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.

Tsunade’s face was drawn and colorless, as if she’d just received the news of someone’s death. 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 unspoken communication passed between them. 

“Yes, you should go,” Tsunade said quietly. “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 much older, with crumbling wax seals at the ends stuck with a few remaining threads of what must have once been a tassel.

“Had I known who you were facing or 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 as 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 Tsunade’s hands. It seemed so flimsy where the old paper draped over outstretched fingers and glossy red nails. “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 rolled the yellowing 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 former master’s voice. Wishing Tsunade 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, 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. Speaking softly, she pushed her energy down into the paper until the writing glowed with her chakra. Then rings of text began to move…. They swirled around and around, faster and faster, until the it looked 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 ancient scroll. 

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, in the space above the scroll, like a tiny star had just been born from the churning circle of text.

The hand-drawn shape had transformed in mid-air into a perfect four-sided crystal. It rotated slowly above the scroll. The edges shimmered with Tsunade’s 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,” Tsunade began. “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.”

Tsuande’s eyes shined with reflected purple light, and they both looked at the spinning diamond she held between them.

“It is an ancient seal,” she continued, “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.”

Tsunade moved the hand with the diamond closer to Sakura, as if to pass it to her.

“I have no doubt that you will manage both easily. In my whole life I have seen very 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.

Tsunade brought her hand closer, and it was then Sakura noticed the swirling pattern that moved with the panes of the crystal. Like a whirlpool.

Tsunade paused. 

“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 continued, gathering her fingers together, and pushed the crystal out to the tips of her fingers. Energy spiraled all around her hand. One by one, she pulled the rest of her fingers away, leaving the spinning diamond at the top of her index finger. Then she pressed her finger slowly into the center of Sakura’s forehead. 

The 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 dropping into a whirlpool of chakra. 

The spot tingled slightly on Sakura’s forehead with the not-unpleasant feeling over over-warmed chakra. The stray hairs that had fallen out of Sakura’s bun swayed with the force of the energy that was still moving around her. 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.”

Tsunade 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 beside the other on her desk — the unused apprentice contract — then 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. Not even to heal. Not until she learned how to use it first. 

“I’ll 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.” She shifted her gaze back to Sakura’s face and her tone changed to one of warning. “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 couldn’t stop herself— Her eyes went right to Tsunade’s forehead, to the diamond so prominent there, and was already wondering why, if that was true, didn’t she hide hers? 

Tsunade nodded along with her. “I kept mine masked for many years, but as a Kage…well, it sends a bit of a different message.” Her lips curved up into knowing smile, acknowledging the ocean of power that she held at the ready, all the time. All in that little mark. Displaying it would impress their allies and threaten their enemies. 

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

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

“Good. This is a little different, but I have no doubt you can manage it. Instead of disguising your whole shape or a single aspect like your face, like you normally would with those types of disguises, just concentrate this jutsu right onto the edges of the diamond. As thin as you can getter. Thinner, even. Imagine it only to that line around the edge.”

Sakura nodded, listening, already trying to feel it out.

Tsunade continued. “And 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. 

Through those memories, the life she had before seemed to hover there before her. It felt like she could just reach out and grasp it, and step back into the way things had been.

She certainly didn’t feel that way after seeing all the powerful things Chiyo could do with her chakra. Sakura admitted had learned a lot there too. And in a twisted way, Chiyo had been right after all. She had become that old woman’s student too. Whether Sakura 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 still 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. She banished the memories of her life before, imagining them disappearing into the air like dispelling a jutsu.

Sakura cleared her throat and told herself again this was the right choice. The only choice. She bowed deeply. “Thank you Tsunade-sama.”

Tsunade looked across the desk at her, reading her face. “If there’s nothing else,” she said softly, letting the question hang in the air. Sakura hesitated, then shook her head. Tsunade shifted the two ancient scrolls to the far edge of her desk, ready to be returned to the darkness of the scroll room. The hush of paper on paper almost sounded like a sigh. “Then, you’re dismissed.”

Outside the door, Shizune was just coming up with tea and a pile of new scrolls. 

They all knew the tea was just to soften the blow of what was sure to be hours of more work for Tsunade. But Shizune brought it, just the same.

Sakura flashed a quick smile as she ducked past, anxious to get away. But Shizune’s sharp eyes landed on her forehead—

Her normally warm smile grew wide.

“So it’s official,” she said, beaming. “Tsunade named you as her apprentice! Congratulations—”

Sakura suddenly remembered the diamond on her forehead was still visible. “No,” she said emphatically, pressing her fingers over the middle of her forehead, covering it.

Confusion clouded Shizune’s face. “But she gave you the seal—“

Sakura dragged her fingers over the spot on her forehead. It had cooled completely. “It’s just a storage point for chakra,” she said quickly. “Nothing more.”

Shizune’s brows raised, a skeptical frown forming. “Oh it’s much more than that, Sakura. It means she selected you as her apprentice. Her one and only. That diamond is a once-in-a-lifetime gift—“

Sakura cut her off with an emphatic shake of her head. “No, it’s because I was careless with my chakra this last mission.” She let out a self-conscious laugh. “This is just so I can be a better shinobi in the future.”

Shizune was quiet. Deep disappointment settled on her face. 

Sakura looked away. She’d never known anything but positive support from Shizune. Of course, she would have known immediately that Sakura was lying. Rattled, Sakura tried to clarify.

“I mean, she did ask me if I wanted to be her apprentice,” Sakura stammered. “But I told her I no longer wanted to be one—“ Shizune’s eyebrows rose even higher. “—A medic, I mean.”

Sakura felt like she’d only made things worse. But she realized her mistake. She was so focused on her conversation with Tsunade that she’d forgotten that she’d have to explain herself to other people as well. And even confront their disappointment. 

Sakura scolded herself inwardly. She should have been better prepared. 

Sakura calmed herself, repeating to herself that this what she chose, then let her voice slip to an emotionless monotone. “I am not her apprentice. I told Tsunade-sama I no longer wanted to be a medic. She accepted my decision.”

The hallway was silent. Shizune was so still it was like she was frozen. And when Sakura dared to glance at her, her face had gone pale…with anger.

Sakura didn’t expect the stab of pain at seeing her this way. She’d never known anything but warmth and kindness and support from Shizune. 

Sakura gulped, resolve shaken to the core. “She told me to using an altering jutsu to disguise it. I just…forgot.”

This stumbling answer didn’t make anything better. 

If Tsunade had felt the same, then she guarded her response. But Shizune was no village leader. She had no reason to to hide it.

When she looked back at her friend, Shizune’s face was cold. Closed off. Her mouth was a tight line. Her eyes were dark and hard. Everything about her said that Sakura had betrayed her. Had betrayed them.

Without a word, Shizune turned, walked into the Kage’s office and closed the door firmly behind her, leaving Sakura standing alone in the echoing silence of the hallway.

Sakura blinked once at the closed door.

Her eyes burned. Her chin began to crumple. 

She was trapped in an unfair situation. Of course people would think the worst of her because of her decisions. Shizune would certainly not be the last one. 

Emotion clawed at her throat. It felt unstoppable, like if she let it pour out she might not ever be able to get it to stop—

Sakura swallowed once, forced it back, and steeled her resolve.

Sakura ran her fingers around the edges of the diamond-shaped seal, then lifted her fingers as Tsunade had instructed her, and felt her own chakra flooding in over the depression, hiding it. The mark disappeared completely.

She took a shaky breath. It was gone. No one else would ever know. She could go on like it never happened.

She buried her emotions. And closed her eyes on the memory of Tsunade’s voice, Shizune’s face. Both felt betrayed. 

But hadn’t they betrayed her first?

She let the cold answer rush in and settle between her bones so she wouldn’t forget if it happened again. 

They would never understand. But she needed answers. And she would be hard and calculating until she got them.

Sakura turned, squared her shoulders and left the Kage tower.

Shizune’s anger only increased when she saw Tsunade standing at the window, looking out, standing with back to her.

Shizune put the tea tray down hard, rattling the cups together. She grabbed the pile of scrolls off the tray and smashed them into the already full basket for incoming work.

She was so angry, she dropped her hands to her hips, shook her head, then opened and closed her mouth a few times, grasping for the right words to let Tsunade know just what she thought—

But Tsunade put up a hand to silence her. “It’s okay,” she said quietly. “It was her choice, and I will honor that. No matter how much I wish it was otherwise.” 

Tsunade wiped something that might have been a tear from her face. 

“But that doesn’t make it right,” Shizune pleaded. “She has no idea what it means or how important it is—

Tsunade said nothing. Shizune slammed her hand on the desk, making everything jump.

“You gave her your seal! She doesn’t even understand! That can only be given once! Passed down from teacher to student—“ 

Tsunade didn’t argue so Shizune continued from a different angle. “You know, if she’s lost her way, then you could just make her accept it. Order her to begin training—

Tsunade voice was soft but clear. “No. I would never force her—” 

Shizune swept aside that line of reasoning. “I know how you feel about letting people have a ‘choice,’ but this…. This is different!”

Tsunade still just shook her head. 

Exasperated, Shizune looked over the desk as if somewhere there would be an answer.

“Are you even sure it’s her? Maybe you could still find another one…. Another chakra-wielder…. An even more-talented med-nin than Sakura—“

“No. There won’t be another one. It was meant for her.” 

Tsunade blew out her breath. It fogged the window for a moment. Finally, she looked back over her shoulder.

“And as for her being my apprentice…. It appears I was too late. Again—” 

“No!” Shizune’s voice was a half-cry. “This is not the same as that time.” Her voice was suddenly thick with emotion. “When Dan died—” Shizune’s voice closed up on the name of her brother and Tsunade’s long-lost fiance. 

Tsunade sighed. “I know.” She glanced at Shizune with sisterly tenderness. She poured them both cups of tea and nodded thanks. “I just had no idea Kakashi would take them. They’re kids. Well…I guess they aren’t kids anymore. But had I known what they were doing, I would have given her the seal before she left, made it official—“

Shizune sipped once on the cooling tea and considered everything. “Did something happen to Sakura on the trip?”

Tsunade shook her head “Not that she will tell me. I checked her chakra while I applied the seal. She was clean. No traces that I could detect.” She sighed. “But they did relay one piece of good news. Chiyo is dead.”

Shizune looked at her stunned. “Are they certain?” 

Tsunade nodded. 

Eyes never leaving Tsunade’s face, Shizune set the cup back on the tray. Her voice dropped to a low whisper. “Do you think Sakura found out about what happened….” 

She leaned closer, as if she didn’t even want the walls to hear her. “Between you and Chiyo—“

Tsunade cut her off sharply. “Don’t say it! Not even in here!” Tsunade looked around the room warily too, as if the walls really might be listening. 

After a moment, she returned to the firm controlled tone of the Kage.

“I have no way of knowing anything that woman said, if Sakura won’t tell me.” 

“But it doesn’t matter. If she’s finally dead than that history is buried with her. There’s no one left who even remembers.” She smiled briefly, a flicker of triumph in her face. “It’s like it never happened.”

Unconvinced, Shizune nodded slowly.

Tsunade looked over her desk at the note reminded herself to strike Sakura from the med-nin roster. 

“So…I accepted that she did not want to be my apprentice and gave her the seal as a gift. Nothing more. I hope she never has to use it.”

Tsunade’s gaze caught on the note where she had written the words Itachi said.

Itachi has already caught his—

If it was about who she thought it was — the boy, the supposed Kage’s son, stolen by Itachi years ago — then it might just prove to be another time she was too late. 

She swore under her breath. 

If the boy was still alive, however, then there was still hope. But for how much longer….

She crumpled the note in her fist. Shizune looked like she might have said more, but Tsunade stopped her with a raise of her fingers.

“There is no sense in dwelling in the past. Not when there is still so much to be done in the here and now.” 

She pulled her chair back, sat down, and reached deep under her desk into a hidden compartment. After a few moments, she fished out a slim scroll. 

The scroll was housed in an intricately carved case, with red tassels on either end. A fat jade frog squatted in the center, forming the closing mechanism. It looked like an ancient treasure that would have been better suited to a museum display than being shoved in an over-stuffed desk.

But Tsunade didn’t seem to care. Without even looking at it, she flicked back the carved frog and flattened the parchment with one hand. She began writing, not with the practiced hand of a Kage, but in a fast, sloppy, sideways scrawl of a personal note.

When she was done, she snapped it closed again, laid her hand over the jade frog and murmured a few words. The frog’s deep green eyes seemed to shine before the whole thing disappeared in a puff of smoke.

“Let’s get back to work,” she said. 

The weeks after her return, Sakura settled into a very different rhythm. Different than she’d ever experienced before. 

She fully recovered her strength. That was the easiest part. But she discovered she could no longer bear to be in places that were dark or closed up. She needed a window open. Just a crack, enough to feel a breeze on her skin or hear voices from outside. And she needed lights on. All the time.

Sleeping without lights had proved to be impossible. Every time she closed her eyes, the dark walls of the cavern were closing in on her. Those flashbacks hadn’t ceased, even after returning to her own bed, in her own apartment.

So she turned on all the lights in her apartment. Then when she woke up, cold sweat on her brow, blinking into the space and not remembering where she was, it took less time to gasp for air and remember that she made it. She survived. She wasn’t lost to the darkness with no hope of ever being found.

Sasuke was supportive and he gave her space to let her work it out. She knew he wouldn’t pressure her for answers. He wasn’t like that. She knew that about him now and was grateful for it.

That reason alone should have encouraged her to share her burden with him. It was an invitation to trust him, to deepen their bond. After all, by giving her space to talk about it when she was ready, Sasuke was proving how well he knew her too.  

But every time she thought of confessing the truth about what happened — that she was controlled and used, she might have irrevocably hurt someone else and she might have destroyed part of herself to do it — all she could think about was how much closer they’d become over the years. And telling him the truth might destroy that as well.

She’d have to admit she wasn’t as strong as he believed. She’d have to admit that there was something different about her. That he got it right when they were kids, when he was cruel and hateful. That maybe there was something wrong with her. And that she really didn’t know what she was doing.

And maybe she didn’t. None of this would have happened if she did.

So every time she began to speak to him, those thoughts raced through her mind. Her breathing hitched, her throat closed up and it felt like walls were closing in. Her mistakes were becoming the cavern she was trapped in. And telling him would only make it worse—

Sakura liked where they were…. As friends. As teammates. As something more…. It had taken a long time to get there. And she didn’t want Chiyo to take that too. Not when that woman had already taken so much. 

Sasuke would scan her face, ask a few questions about how she was, if she needed anything. And Sakura would smile back and say she was fine. 

And if Sasuke saw an unreadable emotion flicker across her face as she turned away — a slip of the mask she so carefully crafted these days — then he never said anything.

In her darkest moments, Sakura didn’t know which would break her first: The secret itself or the guilt of keeping it from the one who knew her best in the village. And if she couldn’t tell him, then she could never tell anyone.

So she continued on, sleeping in small, fitful bursts at night. Avoiding questions during the day.

Each morning she scrubbed her face, ignored the circles under her eyes, and tucked her hair into a loose, messy bun at the nape of her neck. It was the same hairstyle as when she left the cavern and came back into the light. She couldn’t bring herself to braid her hair into a single uniform strand, the way she did when she was on active duty. 

She didn’t know why. And she didn’t want to find out. Maybe it was because she didn’t want to look in the mirror and see the girl who nearly lost herself to the Sand looking back. It didn’t matter, she told herself, because she avoided looking in the mirror these days anyway.

When she first returned, Sakura thought she could slip back into her daily life unnoticed. Since it was a secret mission, she told herself, no one would know about it. So she wouldn’t have to talk to anyone else about it….

She couldn’t have been more wrong. Word traveled fast that a few Konoha nins had executed a secret, daring mission. And that Sakura had killed an Akatsuki and saved a Kage.

Everybody wanted to talk with her. There were head nods and shoulder pats of shinobi passing by on the street. Several of Kakashi’s friends made approving comments.

“Good job, Haruno-san,” Genma, the famed shinobi guard said as he passed by. His companions, each one a shinobi luminary in their own right, nodded sagely. They had formed the Fourth Kage’s inner circle. His personal guard. 

But Genma grinned around the toothpick cocked at the edge of his mouth, eyes twinkling, as if killing an Akatsuki was some kind of great prank. For him, maybe, she thought as she nodded back to them. She was just shocked that he even knew her name.

“Heard you and your teammates are going after the Akatsuki. Good,” Ino’s father Inoichi said quietly as he walked beside them for a moment. He was already moving away before Sakura registered his last words. “Keep it up.”

Younger nins were less discreet. “I heard she crushed the puppet guy with her bare hands!!”

After a few weeks, Sakura was getting good at ignoring the running comments. She wondered if this was the way it had been for Sasuke growing up in the village. She guessed it was, but she didn’t want to ask in case it lead to more personal line of questioning. So she let the seemingly endless commentary roll off her.

However, she got a very different response from the Anbu agents she encountered. 

Sometimes she felt their eyes, watching her through their masks as they passed. There were no congratulations from them. 

She pretended she didn’t see them, didn’t notice their frosty behavior. But she was pretty sure her stiffening spine and her gaze darting anywhere but on them gave her away anyway.

She wondered if they were suspicious of her. Killing an Akatsuki and saving a Kage were both incredible displays of power. Especially coming from a single person. Whatever file they kept on her, she was sure they’d had to amend it.

Or maybe they were resentful that they had been passed over. After all, Kakashi had taken their team on a mission that should have rightfully gone to the Anbu. Maybe even to Root, the secretive group within Anbu rumored to be filled with assassins and those with unusual powers. 

She felt their heavy gazes as they passed. They didn’t have to speak. She could hear the questions in her head as if they’d spoken them aloud.

What else is she hiding? Her story doesn’t make sense. 

And it didn’t. But she never changed a single word of it.

It was the same story she’d told every single person since the first shaft of light fell across her in the cavern.

She never gave a hint of her true worries: That she’d put a monster into a foreign leader. That she replaced his entire life force with someone else’s. That she herself had become the next puppet master by losing control of her chakra. Or that she might be dying of a poison that she had no hope of figuring out until it was too late….

She needed answers. But before she spoke the first word of her problems to anyone else, she’d find those answers for herself. 

Sakura used her time off to search for anything that might help her understand what happened, what she was forced to do. Under the guise of running errands, she stopped by the library for a little while each day. The grocery trips, weapons sharpening, taking laundry to all be washed, every bit of that normal life she once had was now a cover so she could research things like poisons, puppet-master techniques and chakra devouring monsters.

It would have been funny if the truth in what she was looking for wasn’t so terrifying. Pouring through old books and scrolls at least let her mind focus on something other than flashbacks and empty worries for a little while.

As a child in academy, the library had been a safe haven for Sakura. She made up for not being born into a shinobi family by studying harder than anyone else.

So it wasn’t completely out-of-the-ordinary that she was stopping by the library now. She made her visits brief — long enough to do research, but short enough to not draw any notice.

She selected texts with seemingly disconnected titles. But hidden within each armful of books and scrolls were the documents she really wanted to see. A book on the history of the Sand. An essay about the origins of the puppet-master technique. A scroll about the most lethal poisons and their antidotes.

She didn’t check anything out, so there was no record of what she was reading except for the scrapes through the thin coating of dust that coated the shelves. She laughed to herself when she saw them. If she needed proof she was safe there, then it was written in those clean lines. No one ever looked at these old texts.

But she still wiped her hand down the dusty shelves anyway before she turned away, covering any trace she’d been there. 

The one thing she most wanted an answer about was the one thing she had no words to describe. The monster trapped inside Gaara. She didn’t know what it was. She didn’t know how she had ever trapped it again. 

Sasori was trying to say something to her at the end, when his voice dwindled down to nothing. 

“Gee— Joon— Jin….” 

But she couldn’t remember. It was useless to try. The library’s extent of knowledge on the subject of chakra-devouring monsters was sorely lacking. Mostly they had ghost stories.


She did find one scrap of information on Chiyo, in an old book titled “The Sand and its Resources,” printed well before Sakura was born. A grainy photo showed Chiyo standing among several rows of the Sand’s “brightest and finest.” Sakura found one sentence about her in the lengthy caption:

“Next in the row is Chiyo-san, who has studied the best healing methods abroad and brought them home to the Sand to enrich another generation of students. Beside her is…”

Sakura squinted at the photo. Chiyo was younger, with darker upswept hair. The only similarity was the tunic. But then, they all wore the same tunics. 

If she and Tsunade had the same teacher, then perhaps it was during her time abroad.

She looked back at the photo, staring as if she might have been trying to burn a hole in the page. She wondered if Chiyo was still a healer then. Or was she already using the puppet master technique.

Were her children still alive….or had she already turned their bodies into puppets? 

Just how much of a monster was she there, in that grainy photo? Did she even know yet what she capable of?

Sakura couldn’t stop the slide of her thoughts into comparison. Could Sakura say the same thing about herself? She didn’t know what she was capable. But others did…. Other who could use her as Chiyo had….

The air in the room suddenly felt like it going thin. Like she couldn’t get enough in her lungs. The shadows on the walls seemed like they were growing closer, pushing in— 

All too familiar tendrils of panic were beginning to wash over her. She often woke in a cold sweat, but the flashbacks didn’t bother her too much during the daytime. At least, not when she didn’t intentionally think about them— 

Sakura closed her eyes against the feelings and snapped the book shut. Time to go.

She took a calming breath — in through the mouth, out through the nose — then gathered her things to leave. 

Seeing one of the little old women who staffed the library walking up, Sakura shoved her small stack of books to the end of the table. Just this once she’d let someone else re-shelve them. She needed to get out of there, quickly.

The woman picked up the book the top book. Thankfully she never once looked at titles, especially the one hidden in the middle — “Poisons of the Five Great Nations.”

“Since you’ve been coming here,” she said, pointing at her with the top-most book. “We’ve had more shinobi dropping by than we’ve had all year!” She grinned, sending her wrinkles rippling almost up to her white hairline. 

Sakura froze. The woman didn’t notice. She laughed merrily and scooped up the rest of the decoy books. 

“Well, at least, since the last academy exam! They all think they can come in here and cram at the last minute….” She kept chuckling to herself as she carried the books away, snug in her arms as if they were a baby.

Sakura narrowed her eyes and looked around. She thought she’d been discreet and that her research trips had gone unnoticed. But what if she was wrong?

Stepping outside, Sakura stopped a moment and pretended to adjust her shoe. The angle of the sun cast shadows of the buildings in criss-crossing lines down the street. But there against the blue was the round outline of a body. She stood. The curving shadow was gone. Just the straight edges picked out the noon sun. 

She frowned at the space. It could be nothing, just a guard off duty. Or it could be someone following her, watching what she was doing in her time off. 

Whoever it was might even be going in afterward to see what she was reading.

She snorted a humorless laugh. Good luck to them if they were. Maybe they’d have better luck finding information.

Walking back, she passed a shortcut to the Kage’s tower. She glanced down it longingly. There were undoubtedly more documents in the scroll room there…. Perhaps even ancient ones, in the farthest stacks. They might have all the answers she needed….

Sakura sighed. Her green eyes scanned the curved yellow stones of the tower, going to the picture window at the top where the Kage’s office was. Just beyond that window the slim door in the wall that led to the scroll room.

All the answers she needed might be just beyond that door.

But to get there, she’d have to explain what happened. And why she needed to know. 

She tapped a finger to her chin. Or I could just wait until no one was there…. Then sneak in….

She shook her head, clearing the thought.

Neither option was appealing. And breaking in to the Hokage’s office was a line she was not yet prepared to cross.

Shrugging off the thoughts, she resumed her walk back to her apartment, taking more back roads and shortcuts now that she would never have taken before. 

Lots of things that were once normal felt off-limits to her now.

She had a recurring fear that something would happen, a wounded shinobi would suddenly fall across her path, and she’d be forced to heal them. That her altered chakra would be somehow be revealed, and then everyone would see just how much she’d been forced to change.

She shook her head again. It wouldn’t happen. It was just a ridiculous situation she kept replaying in her mind to torture herself, apparently.

But it exposed a deeper problem. 

She was bound to encounter someone, someday who needed to be healed. 

She blinked, forgetting her surroundings and seeing only a battlefield in her mind. Someone falling right in front of her. Did she push on, like the rest of her teammates, continuing the fight? Or did she stop and try to heal him?

She blinked again. The mindscape of a littered battlefield was gone. The clear lines of the street returned.

She wouldn’t heal him, this imaginary soldier in her mind. Not on Konoha’s streets. Not on the battlefield. She would let someone else do it. She’d send him to the hospital. Or she’d pass him off to the medic team that always came in at the end. She was just another shinobi. She was no longer a healer.

And if she ever, ever found herself in a situation where she absolutely had to heal someone, then she swore to herself that she’d do it in secret. She’d disguise her chakra so completely that there was no more color to it. She’d work to make it so thin that was just was an invisible layer between her skin and injured person. So that she could do what she needed with just a touch.

Then she could heal instantly. Sakura narrowed her eyes. Or she could harm if she needed to. Whatever the situation needed. 

The image of a young Chiyo flashed through her mind. The comparison rose unbidden.

Sakura swept it away. She’d never be like her. She’d use her abilities only as she saw fit.

And to do that, she’d never let anyone know again that she had the power to control her chakra. Not that it mattered much anyway, she thought with a small quirk of her lips. 

Most people knew her as having med-nin training, like all other nins. So few people knew about her real healing prowess. Hardly anyone outside of her team…. Just a few of their classmates. Ino, of course. And Shikamaru…. Maybe. 

So all she had to do was keep it hidden for a little longer. Then no one would even remember that she had anything other than standard medic training. She would be nothing special. No one would expect her to heal. And the questions about what happened in the Sand would eventually fade away. 

Sakura glanced up, suddenly realizing she was back at her apartment building. She scanned the sunny angles of the buildings around her. Everything looked cheerful and normal. 

But it didn’t make her feel better. Nothing did these days.

But another week later, the feeling of being followed became too intense to dismiss.

It was as if the confirmation she got at the library that someone was watching her had only made everything worse. Now she felt that suffocating feeling all the time. Not just in dark rooms, closed-in spaces or late at night when she was trying to grasp the fleeting threads of sleep.

Whether it was real or not, the ominous feeling shadowed her all the time now. Every dark corner became a hiding place. Her shortcuts became minefields. 

Sakura told herself that it couldn’t be real. Or at least, it couldn’t be happening all the time. That her mind was playing tricks on her. 

And though she could hide the slight tremble in her fingers from everyone else, the telltale signs of sleep deprivation were beginning to show on in the lines on her face, in the deepening circles under her eyes.

Sakura knew she had to get this under control. At least until she could find out what was really going on.

If she wanted to continue her research — she’d expanded to scouring the old temples around the village and even out-of-the-way junk shops for old scrolls — then her options were few. Either stick to the alleyways and let fear gnaw at her. Or go right down the center of Konoha’s busiest streets, plaster on a smile and speak to everyone that passed.

Sakura was desperate to make it stop. And that desperation drove her back out into the open. 

Employing Kakashi’s strategy to hide in plain sight, Sakura timed it so that she was out on the streets when they were the busiest. And for a few days, it seemed like it might work….

But she realized later she shouldn’t have let her guard down. Not even in the middle of Konoha. Because there were many ways a ninja could strike you in a crowd. If they were talented enough.

And the one that materialized in front of her one morning on her way to an old temple library was certainly talented enough.

A lean Anbu agent appeared directly in her path, as if he’d materialized straight up out of the ground. He was waiting for her, black eyes gleaming at her through the milk-white hawk mask. His body had the casual stance of someone with power. Someone who knew how to use it.

On either side of them, the crowd was splitting and moving around him. It was as if they were suddenly on an island in the center of a river of villagers. Not a single person noticed them. They just slipped by.

Sakura narrowed her eyes at the Anbu agent. He had trapped her in plain sight.

Sakura’s palms started sweating, even as ice slid through her veins. Her heart was pounding. Blood roared in her ears, blocking out all other sound. Her hands started shaking, just before the all-too-familiar feeling of invisible walls started pushing in on her, stealing her air. She was going to have a full-blown panic attack right there on the street—

“Interesting mark you have there.”

Sakura’s breathing hitched. Her eyes widened. The Anbu noticed. He was trained to look for those tells. And she knew she’d given him the confirmation he’d been hoping for.

Adrenaline-fueled anger slipped in, displacing the chokehold of fear. She glared at him, or what she could see of him, through the around the mask. She’d reveal nothing else to someone like him. It was only then that she realized her hands had stopped shaking. 

The Anbu’s shoulders bounced once with a silent laugh.

He continued on as if she hadn’t just given herself away. As if they both already knew what she was hiding.

“A gift. From the Hokage, of course.” His voice was light and conversational, a ploy to make her feel comfortable. “And with no strings attached? I saw no change of status for you in the roster. In fact,” he tipped his head, “you went down a step. You are no longer listed as a medic. Just a shinobi….”

Sakura was dead silent. She should have expected Anbu to take an interest in her. Sniffing out anomalies in power was their specialty. 

“Interesting,” he said, as if she’d answered him. He looked her up and down again, and then at her forehead before continuing with a conspiratorial grin, as if this was a friendly conversation. “And don’t worry. No one else can see it. I am Hawk. And I’m an expert in seals very much like yours.”

She could hear the smile in his voice. She was cornered. She couldn’t outright deny him. Lying to an Anbu, in certain settings, could be seen as treason.

Sakura turned her head, looking bored by his line of questioning. “It’s nothing. Just a fail-safe against running out of chakra.”

“It is. And yet, it is so much more,” he said smoothly taking a step towards her. “It’s very useful. An empty chamber. To be filled with power. Your own…. Or someone else’s.” He tipped his head so his eyes looked straight out at her, glittering as if he shared a secret with her. “It is a very powerful tool, in the right hands.”

Irritation sparked in her expression. “And in the wrong hands?”

The smile returned to his voice. “We are both on the same side Haruno-san. Anbu has many more resources to someone of your skillset than just delivering scrolls.”

Sakura wanted to growl back at him. This was why he cornered her in the street and threw up some kind of disguising jutsu around them both. It was just another ploy to try to get her to join Anbu.

She glanced around, wondering if they were being observed by the rest of his Anbu squad. But no one saw them. It was just a blur of people walking past, faces moving but none of seeing—

All except one. At the edge of the lane, one face looked in their direction. Kakashi.

Hawk’s voice brought her attention back. “The Kage who gave you that gift, she knows. She was in Anbu. As well as your sensei,” he said, nodding with a jerk of his head over to where Kakashi stood. 

Kakashi was watching them with unwavering certainty.

This time when Sakura glanced over, she understood how he’d detected them. His headband was square across his forehead, exposing the sharingan eye that never stopped whirling. He had seen through whatever jutsu this was. Hawk didn’t seem to care.

“What do you want,” Sakura snapped. “I’ve already told Anbu I’m not interested. As for my seal,” she looked at him suspiciously, “unless you’ve been eavesdropping on the Kage, then you shouldn’t be able to detect it. I know enough about it to know that.”

“Oh I’m not here for Anbu,” Hawk replied pleasantly. “Not officially. I’m simply offering you an invitation to find out a little more about the new capabilities you’ve been gifted with. If you’d like to, that is.”

She looked like she didn’t believe him.

“As for your seal,” he continued, voice still light, “it is admirably hidden. No one can see it.”

“Then how did you—“

“I am studying the seal-craft of the late Kage. The Fourth. That one was created by the Yondaime to help hold immense power.” Hawk let the statement hang in there as if she should somehow understand something he wanted her to know from it….

He stepped closer, peering at her through that eerie mask.

“Like the type of power you experienced in the Sand…?”

He watched her, reading her for confirmation. She froze instinctively, trying not to reveal anything. Which was probably also revealing. She gave up and glared back at him.

He laughed softly behind his mask. “It’s okay Haruno-san, keep your secrets. I know you have them. We all do. Incidentally, that level of distrust would also make you well suited to being an Anbu. Instead, I come with another gift. Like the one on your forehead, with no strings attached….”

Sakura was suspicious but listening. Hawk seemed pleased.

“You have questions. The answers you’re seeking will not be found in libraries or temple scroll rooms.”

She knew then that he was the one following her.

“If I had to guess you encountered something you don’t have a name for.” 

She blinked, an involuntary but affirmative response. He nodded and took another step closer. When he spoke again, his voice was lower, more serious. 

“You will not hear it spoken, nor read it on a page. The same Kage that first made that seal forbid it from being recorded. If you want answers within Konoha’s walls, you will have to come to us. We can tell you what you want to know…about what you’re seeking…and about your own abilities….”

Sakura narrowed her eyes. “At what cost.”

“No cost. But Anbu does not share their secrets with outsiders.”

Tsunade always offered choice. But there was a chill in Hawk’s words. Sakura knew this divide. And she had always stayed on the shinobi side. In Anbu, there was no choice. You were a weapon, a tool to be used how they saw fit.

“Consider it an open invitation, Haruno-san,” his voice was light and friendly again, “should you ever want to learn more about your rather unique abilities. I can help.”

She stared at him, suspicion and curiosity warring inside. But she didn’t want to show her interest. So she said instead, “How would I ever find you?”

“You won’t.” He tapped his hawk-shaped mask. “I’ll find you.”

He stepped back from her and the air shifted around him as if it was enveloping him. The light slanted, and he had disappeared into it. 

“Oh and don’t worry,” his voice sounded from behind her, entirely too close. She had to stop herself from jumping. “You can tell your sensei your secret is safe with me.” 

It didn’t make Sakura feel any better.

He laughed and was gone. Villagers flooded back around her. 

She stood unmoving. She glanced over and saw Kakashi cutting across the river of traffic and making his way to her.

But it was another familiar voice that boomed beside her. “Ohayo Sakura!”


Sakura wished she could get away, but she couldn’t. A fresh wave of guilt washed over her.

“Sakura, I’m glad I caught you!” Iruka said, beaming. Sakura tried not to cringe. “We’ve heard all about your successful mission. Congratulations! Do you think you’d have time to stop by and talk to some of the academy classes? I know they’d love to hear first-hand about your experiences. Especially how you saved the Sand Kage!”

His voice was so full of enthusiasm it was as if he were imagining himself as another student. 

Sakura could feel herself shrinking back in response. She couldn’t tell her old teacher that it sounded like a nightmare—

Thankfully, Kakashi stepped reached them just at that moment. “Maybe another time,” he said firmly. “Haruno has a mission, per the Kage’s request.”

Sakura’s relief evaporated. She stared at him, certain he was lying, but then was even more shocked when Kakashi produced a scroll from the Kage. It was a formal Konoha mission scroll. He wasn’t lying

She looked at the scroll, uncertain if she should be happy about this, but if it got her out of lying to academy kids….

“Ah! Another time then, Sakura!” Iruka hurried off among the crowd.

Once they were alone, Kakashi continued, lowering his voice a notch. “Let me guess. Anbu extended a friendly offer to come have tea?”

Sakura laughed in spite of herself. But she stilled it. She noticed he still held the scroll but hadn’t yet given it to her. Maybe it was just a ruse after all. She took the opportunity to ask him something else.

“Kakashi, you were in Anbu—“

He shrugged. “I was in it and left it. I think I make a better teacher than tool.”

His eye scanned the rooflines out of habit, looking for the people he was speaking of.

“But they are like all things in life. Good and bad. It’s what you make of it. I honed many of my sharpest skills in anbu. I am grateful for that. But I lost my taste for being someone else’s weapon.”

Sakura said nothing. 

“They are interested because they want to find out what you know. And want to put that to their advantage. The interest will die down. Give it some time.” He cut his gaze back at her. “Unless you are interested in joining—“

She shook her head quickly. He smiled at her then. “I didn’t think so.”

The whole interaction felt so normal. But she didn’t think Anbu’s interest was just going to go away. Not after this.

Kakashi looked at her face for a moment, then held the scroll back out to her. She tried not to grimace. 

“I took the liberty of getting you an assignment. You know, in case you needed to get some fresh air. Get out of the village.” She nodded wordlessly. “I thought you might need a break,” he waved his hand lazily. ”You know, from all this!” 

She lifted her hand, fingers open, but she didn’t take the scroll, not yet. He understood.

“It’s was an easy walk out and back, through allied territories, just to deliver a few scrolls and supplies.” He smiled gently. “I promise you, nothing interesting will happen.” He added with a wink, “And there will be no one to stopping you to talk about your last mission!”

“Thanks, Kakashi-sensei,” she said quietly, and accepted the scroll without looking up. “I uh… I really appreciate it.” 

Her eyes were suddenly burning. She didn’t know if it was because his unquestioning support made her feel slightly less alone. Or because it was the first honest thing she’d said to anyone in weeks.

Kakashi was right. It was a beautiful trek through the Fire Country. Maybe it was just what she needed to clear her head and get back on track. 

But when she got past the borders of her own country and saw her path through their allies’ lands, she realized the path would take her directly through a few larger towns that were popular with shinobi. A knot formed in her stomach. She did not want to get caught up answering questions.

So she slipped over to the smaller byways, taking a more quiet route through the strip of territories that ran beside her original route.

These were sleepy hamlets, farms and forests. More creatures than trees. And their proximity to two allies meant they were safe to travel through.

Out there, she could think. Be alone, take a breath. 

Golden afternoon sunlit streamed down through the trees. Wind rolled through the canopy, leaves fell lazily around her. The open feeling that the breeze across her skin brought was the balm she had been yearning for since she escaped the cavern.

It should have been a complete relief. But she still carried a burden she couldn’t put down…. In the beautiful silence, more thoughts intruded. Thoughts she had been able to hide from in the village. 

She carried an immense amount of guilt for not telling Sasuke. And it wasn’t just the caprices of their schedules that made her miss him. She admitted to herself that she had been actively avoiding him. 

Sakura kicked a rock down the path. She didn’t really understand why, but even though she tried, she just couldn’t bring herself to share what happened in the Sand with him. 

She looked around. The sun was shimmering behind the trees. A bird settled on a branch behind her, cracking it loudly. She sighed and kept walking.

Her relationship with Sasuke was a partnership of strengths. They never spoke about the things that were terrifying. They never spoke about the moments where they felt weak or vulnerable.

She wouldn’t even know where to start to tell him about what she’d done. What she’d been forced to do….

She rubbed her hand over the back of her neck. Her palm was clammy. She wished it was from a sheen of sweat from exertion. She knew it wasn’t. The signs of panic were showing themselves anytime she thought about what happened. If she had hoped she could contain it to nighttime hours, then she was failing.

She took a few deep breaths, wiggled her fingers, rolled her shoulders trying to shake the clamp of stress that was beginning to take hold and kept walking. 

At this point, she didn’t think anyone would understand her.

A pair of brown eyes flashed in her memory. Fierce and unyielding. Pushing her on, never letting her give up.

Biting her lip, Sakura looked down and considered kicking the small stone in her path. But she sighed instead, stepped over the rock and kept walking. 

She was wrong. There was one person who would understand, she admitted to herself.

The full figure of Katsuro materialized out the darkness of her mind. His memory stood there, arms folded, watching her in the cavern. The tension she’d been carrying in her neck unhitched a bit just thinking about him.

Katsuro wouldn’t look at her as a healer who was able to save a Kage. Or as a powerful shinobi who took down an Akatsuki. Or as an anomaly or an assassin or a puppet master or worse.

He would just see her. She was sure of it.

Birds shot out in unison from the canopy behind her. Sakura turned her head at the sound automatically, not really disturbed by it. It was the same sound she’d been hearing all afternoon in these woods—

But something flickered at the edge of her vision. A pebble flew past her, then bounced down the road. 

She blinked at it, startled. It was the small round stone she’d stepped over. But she didn’t kick it. It was as if someone threw it at her.

She stopped in the middle of the road. Her blood slowed in her veins. The sounds. Someone had been following her—

Some part of her panic-addled brain screamed that she’d let her guard down. She’d been stupid enough to think that everything could go back to normal. So she’d left herself open. 

Her palms were clammy again, fingers starting to tremble.

This is it, she thought breathlessly. Someone from the Sand tracked her down. Somehow, they’d found out what she’d done—

Another pebble flew past, accompanied by a soft chuckle from somewhere in the woods behind her….

Sakura blinked at the golden road as it wound through the woods. She only knew one person who would do such a ridiculously stupid thing as sneak up on a shinobi and throw things at them.

Tears sprang to her eyes, and she could barely keep her watery smile down. Wasn’t this exactly what she was thinking? 

In the breath of time it took her to tip her face up toward the tree limbs and begin scanning for his hiding spot, she had already decided she’d forgive him for whatever it was that kept him away.

That golden feeling of being around him rushed through her. She wanted to see him. Needed to see him. Katsuro….

She tucked back the loose strands that had slipped from her bun and started to turn in a slow circle. She could already hear the excuses, see him pleading earnestly for her to believe him that he couldn’t get away until it was safe, and then begging her to tell him everything. And it felt right. So right. Like throwing open long-shuttered windows and letting light into the darkness. 

And maybe she would…maybe she would tell him everything….

So when she heard the voice, she was already grinning wide, cheeks flushed, eyes shining with unshed tears as she turned back—

“Sakura Haruno…. I have been looking for you everywhere.”