The soft glow of a crescent moon simmered through a haze of clouds, casting long shadows on abandoned roads and alleys. Enclosed in a forest of trees was Konoha, the Village Hidden in the Leaves, where a medley of civilians and ninjas resided. An uncharacteristic eeriness had swept through the village. The shops were closed down. The doors bolted shut.
Darkness. Emptiness. Not a soul stirred tonight.
Except for one.
As a result of years spent training in the art of survival, Sakura effortlessly concealed the sound of her sandals padding against the surface of the dirt road. She moved swiftly and purposefully, sparing only a glance or two over her shoulder at the empty streets behind her. There was no wind to tug at her pale, pink, shoulder-length hair or light to highlight the emotion brimming behind her emerald green eyes.
She arrived at the base of a flight of stairs leading into the tower at the heart of the village and she began to climb them. Her legs quivered in the icy air and her stomach clenched in anticipation. When she reached the top, she hesitated for a moment before disappearing behind a set of doors.
“You summoned me?” Sakura asked once the door to the Hokage's office was securely closed behind her. The dimly lit office was cluttered with stacks of dusty books, scrolls, and ninja tools. At the largest desk in the center of the room sat a beautiful middle-aged woman with blonde hair parted in two low ponytails.
“You know why you are here, Sakura,” Tsunade replied briskly and beckoning to the chair facing her desk with a wave of her hand. “Please sit down.” Sakura obeyed and took a seat facing the village's Hokage and stared expectantly at her mentor's face. Tsunade was so self-assured that even during times of total confusion and chaos, she always knew just what to do. The flicker of doubt that crossed Tsunade's features must have been in Sakura’s imagination.
The blonde woman rose from her chair and walked to the floor-length window behind the desk, gazing out at her village. “War is upon us,” she muttered gravely. The edges of Sakura's ears prickled. This was not news to her, but that sure didn't make the information any easier to digest. The village was on a high security emergency lockdown and Orochimaru was at large so it made sense that something terrible was brewing. Tsunade's eyes darted back in Sakura's direction.
“Sound Village spies were detected in the forest on the village's outskirts. After capturing and interrogating one, an ANBU team confirmed that he will strike tonight.”
Sakura's chest tightened. Hearing the words spoken aloud made the reality of the situation really sink in. The war on Konoha was at its inception. Her nightmares would soon be realized. “Tsunade-sama, how many villagers know? Have you started warning the people of Konoha?” Sakura asked, feeling a wave of panic come over her. Hundreds of helpless families were locked in their homes across the village.
Including her own.
“I intend to in an hour or so... If I have to,” Tsunade muttered, returning to the desk and rifling through a stack of papers distractedly.
Confused by her response, Sakura asked, “You mean... you've planned a pre-emptive attack?”
Tsunade lifted her head and gazed directly at Sakura's face. “Something like that,” she said flatly, her eyes twinkling. Sakura was baffled by her mentor's calm facade. Tsunade dropped the stack of papers on the desk with a dismissive air. “I'm afraid we're greatly outnumbered, Sakura. Our troops will stand no chance if this war carries out. It must be stopped.”
Sakura nodded, unsure what to make of Tsunade's comment. The Hokage was right, of course. The ninjas of Konoha rarely fought as a single unit and were anything but ready to assemble against a threat like this. In fact, most of the village’s ninjas were currently hiding with their families under the false impression that the lockdown was happening because of a prison breakout. Very few had the faintest idea that Orochimaru was planning to attack, let alone launch the attack today. Sakura, being the Hokage's apprentice and confidante, tended to have the upper hand in learning important information in a timely manner. A part of her had known from the moment the lockdown was announced that this was no ordinary procedure. The climate in the Hokage Tower over the past several weeks had told her as much.
“Tsunade-sama, may I ask what your plan is?” Sakura asked hesitantly. She had a nagging feeling that her mentor was withholding a crucial piece of information.
Tsunade lowered her eyes to the desk and paused before answering. “Sakura, in the years I have known you, you have flourished not only as my apprentice, but as an independent and determined warrior. You have demonstrated fierce loyalty to my village and most importantly of all… I trust you.”
Sakura stared on blankly. This is hardly a time for flattery. What is she getting at?
Lacing her fingers together, Tsunade's expression hardened. “You are a perfect candidate for this mission. It'll be a huge wager but I've got a good feeling about it. You see, I would go on the mission myself, but the years have worn my abilities thin.”
Sakura was perched on the edge of her seat and her mind was reeling. What...?
“Sakura, I am assigning you the mission of stopping Orochimaru in his tracks.”
Sakura's jaw dropped.
“-To the best of your ability, of course,” Tsunade added with a smile, as if that would somehow take the edge off her loaded declaration.
Sakura was dumbstruck. “Tsunade-sama, I'm not sure what you're planning, but I… I'm a medical ninja,” she stammered through the growing dryness in her throat. “I’m trained to support powerful ninjas – not to be one. Sure, I've grown a lot in the past few years, but I'm not nearly qualified to stop a Sanin on my own!” Sakura had risen to her feet and found that her palms were clammy and her breathing had quickened. But her green eyes held traces of steadfast defiance. Whatever Tsunade was plotting sounded like complete insanity.
But Tsunade's determination did not waver either. Acknowledging Sakura’s emotional spiral, she got to her feet and approached the spot where her prized student was standing. “I'll get to the point then,” she said. “So there's this forbidden scroll I never told you about. Opening it comes at great cost, but as it stands, the potential gains outweigh it.” Tsunade placed a hand on her apprentice's shoulder and guided her back into the chair.
“What?” Sakura asked. “What scroll?” Her heart was pounding.
“Listen to me carefully now, Sakura. Should you accept this mission, your life will never be the same. And if you play your cards right, neither will mine. The powers in this scroll will give you a chance to change our fates. And rewrite the past.”
Sakura's mind was racing. Rewrite the past?
Could she mean...?
“Time travel,” Sakura whispered, her eyes glazing over with realization.
Tsunade smirked. “Precisely.”
It was at that very moment that a resonating bang sounded through the village. An explosion. Both women raced to the window and spotted in the distance, along the wall near the village gates, an enormous cloud of smoke and flames.
“Come with me, quickly,” Tsunade hissed, traces of panic appearing in her voice. She led Sakura to a staircase that descended to the lower floors of the tower.
“Time travel?” Sakura repeated, her body growing numb with shock and confusion. “This scroll will send me back in time?”
“We don't have long to discuss the details,” Tsunade called over her shoulder. “But yes. If you agree to this mission, you will devote the remainder of your life to it. And sacrifice your entire existence up until this day. The bonds you have made will disappear and must be rebuilt... or not.” Tsunade paused when they reached a door, which she unlocked and opened. Behind the door was another flight of stairs leading them down into the dark, lower chambers of the tower.
This was all too much to take in. Time travel! Sakura was trying to wrap her head around the very concept that a scroll containing such powers existed. “What about you? What will happen to you?” Sakura asked hurriedly.
“Well, I don't know. If you fail the mission, I’ll end up right here, I suppose,” she said as they neared the bottom of the staircase. “I’d much rather be retired, honestly. My hope would be that you find a way to make that happen sooner.”
The gears were spinning wildly in Sakura's head.
This world would literally be erased.
As they neared a door at the end of the dark hallway, another explosion sounded, even larger than the last. It was as though an earthquake struck and Sakura pressed her hand to the wall for support. The attack is real, Sakura realized as fear started coursing through her. The village really could perish.
Tsunade placed her palm on the door and raised her other hand to perform hand seals while muttering words under her breath. Sakura recognized the jutsu as an unlocking seal. The door opened. “Quickly, inside.” Tsunade prodded it open and guided Sakura through the entrance.
Once the door was bolted shut behind them, Tsunade spoke again, a grim expression settling on her face. “The fate of our world will be resting on your shoulders. It's quite a burden to bear, but I have faith in you.” She turned to the shelves and cabinets lining the concrete walls of the dark room and began rifling through them. “And, I believe that given the opportunity to alter the past, there is someone dear to you who you would save. Am I right?”
Sakura’s heart clenched. Him. Why did Tsunade have to bring that up at a time like this?
Now her thoughts were growing foggy. Sakura opened her mouth but immediately closed it because she didn't know what to say.
Tsunade returned to Sakura with a box, a vile of liquid and a scroll. The time travel scroll, Sakura presumed.
Is this actually happening?
“Events will play out as they were meant to until you intervene. You may discover that you don't have to change much. Set objectives for yourself and stick to them. Consider what aspects of your past life could mend the present,” Tsunade said while rummaging through the medical supply box and pulling out a syringe.
Sakura's mouth was parched. The stress of re-entering her past life would be unbearable. How would she know what to change? How would she decide what objectives to prioritize? But on the other hand, what would become of her if she refused this opportunity altogether?
Just then, another earthquake-like force swept through the village. This time, however, the earthquake wasn't accompanied by an explosion. And this time, it was more vicious and prominent than the last. Sakura struggled to keep her balance and Tsunade held tightly to the items she had brought forward. “Earth style!” Tsunade snarled, and Sakura realized immediately that Tsunade was referring to one of Orochimaru's signature styles of attack. He was using ninjutsu to tunnel through the earth and enter the village from the ground beneath it
“Keep in mind!” Tsunade continued over the violent shaking and the crashing as items tumbled from the shelves and onto the concrete floor. “Keep in mind that each and every decision you make will have a lasting impact on the world as we know it. Do you understand?”
“Yes!” Sakura called over the maddening sounds of glass shattering and the ground rumbling. It was hard to take in the immensity of Tsunade's words, or even focus on her at all. Sakura was now clutching the wall to steady herself.
Tsunade filled the syringe with a pale, blue liquid. And then, with the needle in one hand and the scroll in the other, she turned to face Sakura fully. “Sakura Haruno,” she said, her expression grim but stern. “Do you accept this mission?”
“I -,” Sakura began. She was struggling to form coherent sentences. What should she say? With all the noise and reverberating explosions, it was hard to even form a coherent thought...
And it was that very realization that prodded Sakura to answer, while shoving aside her internal screams of protest. “...I accept, Tsunade-sama.”
Next thing she knew, Sakura was on her knees facing her mentor, the scroll placed in her lap and the syringe poised in Tsunade's hand. "You must understand, before you go, that when you begin your new life, this life will freeze. However, if you die in your new life before it reaches this present day, the power of the scroll will be undone. And this life will resume - except that you will be dead," Tsunade explained.
The wheels were turning in Sakura's mind. “But if I do make it to this day in my new life –”
“Your connection to the scroll will be severed. You, and the rest of the new world, will be free to carry on with life as if this one never existed.”
Sakura gulped. She had to survive up until this day in her new life. Three days before her eighteenth birthday.
“And Sakura, the scroll must not fall into the wrong hands. Certain individuals hold the power to undo the spell and likely at the expense of your life.”
Sakura nodded stiffly. It was as though her ability to feel emotions was switched off. “Yes, Tsunade-sama,” was all she could muster.
The floor continued to shake violently beneath them. “Now, right after I inject you with this syringe, you will open the scroll. Got it?” Sakura dipped her head in understanding, her hands trembling with panic and confusion. Is this the right choice?
“There is something special about you, Sakura,” Tsunade said. “I'm sure I'll take you as an apprentice in your new life.” She gripped Sakura's forearm with her free hand just as the black criss-crossing marks of the Creation Rebirth technique spiraled down her own arm. Sakura felt a stream of calming, regenerative chakra enter her body.
A sharp, tingling pain spread through her neck.
Tsunade injected the liquid. Instinctively, Sakura pulled open the scroll. Very quickly, the room started melting away. Black spots appeared at the corners of her eyes and the walls caved in and twisted out of proportion as if the natural properties of space and time no longer existed. The ceiling was getting lower and lower, the shelves and cabinets shrinking and dissolving.
And through all this, Sakura’s mind was wandering. Where was Orochimaru now? Where were her family and friends?
“Sakura,” came Tsunade’s distant, hazy voice.
What about him?
Sakura used all of her energy to focus on the face of her mentor, which was being obscured by rapidly expanding black spots. “You might not create a perfect world, Sakura. But whatever you create, I'm betting that it will sure as hell be better than the one we’ve got now.”
Sakura felt a sudden, manic urge to laugh. Tsunade Senju, famously regarded in casinos across the ninja world as the biggest loser, was betting on Sakura to save the world.
What on earth did she get herself into?
“Good luck, Sakura.”
Everything went black.