It's here! Sakura's Big Birthday Spectacular! Fun fact: technically Sakura was already 18, thanks to March having come and gone in her own time-period. Also, I imagine this chapter to match up with In the Stars by Jess Penner. It really captures the headspace I've been writing Sakura in for a while, especially throughout this chapter's events.

There was hardly time to take it in. Sakura would have been rooted to the spot, still stupefied by the fact that everyone had done all this for her, if not for her friends tugging her along. By now she was accepting that there was nothing to question.

In time, their intentions would reveal themselves. And in the meantime, there were so many sights, sounds and smells to be immersed in. The pinkette had attended many a Konoha festival in her own time—not that any of them knew that. She could remember being small and shy, clutching onto her parents and trying not to stumble in her sandals or dirty her brand new yukata.

Sakura also had gone to them with some of her friends, or watched fireworks from the balcony of the Godaime's office with Tsunade and Shizune. Never had she imagined there would be a festival held in her honor, on her birthday. The kunoichi had to hand it to them, they had really gone all out too. There were paper lanterns festooned from every building in sight, giving the village a warm glow as the sun sank below the horizon. The smoky scent of grilling meat wafted into her nose, and the sticky aroma of festival sweets had her stomach growling.

She and her friends moved with the crowd, droves of people heading up through the colorfully decorated districts with couples wearing complimentary yukata and some children already dawning festival masks on their foreheads. There was a giddy thrum of anticipation running through her body like a live wire; the mood truly was perfect for a festival, and she hadn't even gotten to explore yet!

Although she was like a wide-eyed child with ceaseless curiosity and wonder on the inside, Sakura managed to reign it all in. The least she could do was see whatever the others wanted to show her first. She owed them that much.

The murmurs of mixing conversation filtered out to a dull hum around her, a wooden stage in front of the Hokage Tower coming into view up ahead. Sakura surmised that must be where they were going, given how everyone else was gathering there too. She even spotted a few familiar faces; children she knew from the academy, Sasuke Sarutobi with his wife and Hiruzen, among others from their clan, her neighbors, and fleetingly, she thought she caught a flash of white hair.

Unfortunately the density of the crowd stopped her from moving closer, her friends bunching up around her as everyone's focus turned toward the figure of the Hokage climbing onto the stage. Standing tall, Sakura let her eyes rove up and down the smooth lines of his clothes. His kimono shirt started maroon at the collar and across the shoulders, a dotted cream pattern forming leaves contrasting nicely against the darker color. The sleeves also flowed into the same crisp shade of cream, and complimented the slate gray that transitioned into a lighter shade around his pants legs. There were whispers and giggles from a few women standing nearby in the crowd who were drinking him in as well, and Sakura tried to hide the twitch of a scowl.

"We made it just in time for Lord Hokage's commencement speech," she heard Susumu saying. "That's a relief."

"No surprise there," Yurine replied, "Toka's time management is impeccable."

Toka hid the small smile that appeared on her lips behind the sleeve of her yukata. "It's nothing. A minor skill any shinobi should have." She murmured. "Anyway, I believe Hashirama is about to speak."

"Can everyone hear me well enough?" he asked, chakra amplifying his booming voice to carry even further than usual. Hearing the shouts of agreement, he smiled, nodding in satisfaction. "Good! I know you're all ready to enjoy the festivities, so I'll do my best to be brief. Thank you everyone for your hard work in preparing for this, and welcome to the village's very first Cherry Blossom Festival." Cheers rose up from all around them, and Sakura wished she could thank everyone too. Strangers she didn't even know had banded together to make it possible. "Spring's always been a beautiful season to me. Seeing the way nature wakes up to transform itself and grow again reminds me that each of us are constantly growing and changing too. It's inspiring! And there's nothing more inspiring than the blooming of the cherry blossoms." Hashirama gushed. "It's such a quintessential part of spring."

The crowd whooped a few times, clapping enthusiastically at the mention of Sakura's namesake.

"Being with all of you has taught me so much in such a short amount of time." Sakura's breath came out in a small hiccuped gasp, Hashirama staring in her direction with a twinkle in his eyes and a sweet smile. "And thank you to the cherry blossom for being a flower that represents the radiance and splendor of a meaningful life. That might be why they're so easy for all of us to adore. I'm sure that Konoha's cherry blossoms will always bloom more resiliently than the ones anywhere else," The pinkette blushed, shyly dropping her gaze. Despite all the people surrounding her, she could have forgotten everyone else but the two of them were there if not for Yurine playfully elbowing her. "Alright, I think that'll do it. Let's get the festival started everyone!" he cheered, throwing his arms above his head.

Screeches of excitement rang out in the evening air, people already beginning to disperse, presumably ready to do just that. "Wow, that actually got me really pumped up!" Yurine spoke above the din, "Where should we take Sakura first?! We could all play some of the games, or share sweets," she listed on her fingers. "Oh, or if you want to, how about waiting for the fireworks show to sta—"

"Actually," Naoko cut in smoothly, placing the hand not holding Usamaro to her bosom on Yurine's shoulder, "I think we'll have to wait our turns." The group followed where her finger was pointing, only to see Hashirama hastily making his way towards them. Rather, he was attempting to, his eyes glancing at them while villagers stopped him in his tracks to chat.

"Oh," Yurine pouted, wrapping her arms around Sakura's bicep and leaning into her shoulder, "But…"

"To be fair, we have spent time with Sakura for most of the day." Toka said reasonably. "The night is young, so I'm certain we'll have the opportunity to regroup and resume where we left off."

"Yeah," Shikamarin agreed in her signature drawl, adopting a slouch as she leaned against Susumu, "Plus, I think your presence might be wanted elsewhere." Visibly confused, Yurine whirled around to see where the Nara was tilting her chin.

The easily identifiable height of Goemon Hatake made him stand out in the crowd, his shoulders back confidently as he approached. Yurine sidled up behind Sakura and shrunk down, peeking from around her shoulder. "Hide me!" she squeaked.

Given the way Goemon waved pleasantly at them, wearing an eye-smile she had gotten accustomed to seeing on another Hatake, Sakura would say it was too late.

"Oh, don't be like that." Naoko chuckled, effortlessly peeling Yurine away from her back with impressive one-handed strength. "Isn't this exactly the kind of scenario you've been dreaming of? Being approached by a stud like him at a festival where you can connect under the cherry blossoms. Sounds enchanting, no?"

"No!" Yurine protested.

"That was rhetorical." Naoko smiled wryly.

"Besides that, I thought you said you had decided to give Hatake a chance." Toka added, tilting her head, "I would have assumed that meant you were done avoiding him."

Sakura arched her brow at this information, peering back at Yurine who was pink-faced and sheepish. "W-well yes, maybe…but I didn't mean that he could…b-because I'm not trying to…and y-you see I…I'm not going to kiss him!" She blurted out, instantly regretting it and clamping her hand over her mouth at the sight of Goemon towering over all of them, grinning indulgently.

Judging by the expression he wore, there was no way he hadn't caught that. For Yurine's sake, she just hoped he didn't realize they were talking about them.

"Hello, Lady Yurine and company."

"H-Hi…" the blonde stammered, still holding the pinkette like a safety blanket. Sakura simply waved, gleeful not to be the one put on the spot about matters of the heart for a change.

"Is it possible for me to borrow milady for some of the evening?" Goemon's eyes widened innocently. "I wouldn't want to interrupt anything important."

"Oh, you certainly wouldn't be," Naoko purred, hip-checking Yurine so that she stumbled. Goemon caught her flailing arms as she fell into him, a scathing look directed at the Uchiha that was somewhat undercut by her flushed complexion. "We've spent the day together already, so take all the time you need."

"B-But it's Sakura's birthday and she's…"

"Going to be okay for a while," Sakura reassured. She knew that deep down, though she tried to resist and deny, Yurine did want to go. As much as the Yuhi kunoichi had been dreaming of being swept off her feet since knowing her, Sakura wasn't going to let her miss out. She was sure that Yurine would thank them later (once she stopped sulking).

"Splendid," Goemon shot them a charming grin, which was only accentuated by his fangs. What irony, for him to carry himself with so much swagger and roguish sensuality while being a self-proclaimed gentleman thief. "I promise she'll be in the best of hands this evening." Looking down at the blonde, who had finally leapt away from his chest, he offered his arm. "Shall we go, Lady Yurine?"

Hesitantly, as if she was still considering declining, Yurine loosely held onto it. "F-fine, alright…"

Sakura felt a small prick of envy as she watched them go. Goemon just looked so proud to have Yurine on his arm, the crowd parting for them thanks to his impressive stature. Mostly, she was happy her friend was giving herself a chance to possibly experience something she had wanted for so long.

"I'm hungry." Shikamarin announced abruptly, turning to hold tight to Susumu's arms and peer into the herbalist's face.

Predictably, their skittish friend jumped. "W-What? Why're you staring at me so intensely?"

Amusingly, Shikamarin appeared oblivious to how much she was unnerving poor Susumu, leaning in so that their faces were an inch or so apart. "Come with me?"

"I-If that's all you wanted, you didn't need to be so cryptic about it!" Ignoring the protest, Shikamarin grabbed their purple-haired friend by the wrist.

"Don't take it personally, Sakura," Shikamarin told her, "It's just…" Sakura grinned at the wistful look in her eyes.

"I know, I know. There's a lot of festival food to sample, right?" Her Nara friend was, in one word, predictable. Though it was better for her to eat until her heart's content than startle some poor stranger passing by, dropping 'dead' in the street due to hunger. "You should go before the line gets too long."

A lazy but sincere smile appeared across Shikamarin's face. "I knew there was a reason I've always found you to be one of the least bothersome people I know." Seeing an opening through the thinning crowd, she began to tow Susumu along before stopping to wave. "Happy birthday, Sakura."

"Have fu—oomph!" She stumbled just a half step, wondering how she hadn't sensed the person who had bumped into her from behind.

Whirling around brought her face to face with a man who looked instantly remorseful. At least Sakura assumed he did. There was a little frown on his lips but the mess of soft curls all but hiding his eyes made it difficult to gauge his full expression. "I…I apologize. I noticed a bug at my feet, and was trying to avoid trampling it. But on closer inspection I saw it was merely a stray pebble…the…the fading light makes it difficult to see and…" Sakura felt her face soften with sympathy as the flustered man pressed his hands over his eyes. Clearly, he was an awkward one, and she doubted he meant any harm.

"Tomoya…san…?" Toka muttered.

His head shot up instantly, blinking behind the hair in his face, "T-Toka-san, we meet again."

So, he was an acquaintance of Toka's. He certainly seemed slightly more at ease addressing her than he had been trying to explain himself to the pinkette.

Naoko moved like a cat slinking through shadows, the actual feline among them perched on her shoulders as she leaned into Toka's. "I don't believe we've been introduced. Naoko Uchiha, charmed I'm sure." She said, flashing him a dazzling smile.

Sakura swore she heard an audible gulp as he stammered out his name. "Hello. I'm..I'm Tomoya Aburame."

Sakura supposed that would explain the design of his yukata—which she could now see were golden beetles and butterflies covering the entirety of the black fabric—and his great concern for the life of an insect.

Sensing that he was feeling far out of his element, the youngest kunoichi decided to introduce herself as another friendly face. "I'm Sakura Haruno, another one of Toka's friends."

Naoko took him in, and her eyes lit up tellingly. Unfortunately for Tomoya, she had found someone new to tease, and that didn't bode well for his peace in the future. At least the nature of Naoko's ribbing was generally harmless…for the most part.

"Well, Tomoya-kun, given that you're clearly an acquaintance of our dear Toka, what say the three of us take in the sights of the festival together? Get to know each other better."

Given the surprised reaction, he hadn't been expecting that anymore than Sakura had. Naoko was as undeterred as ever, laying on the charm and patting at his arm. "What's wrong? Afraid it'll leave you stuck in the middle? You know, sometimes that's the best place to be." She bumped his shoulder with a wink, and though he appeared perplexed, the poor Aburame's face turned carnation red.

"Naoko," Toka cleared her throat. "Tomoya-san is far from used to your antics. Save your 'special' sense of humor for the time being."

"Oh no," the Uchiha giggled, not at all remorseful if Sakura knew her at all, "Was I too aggressive? Sorry, Tomoya-san. Though my offer still stands, hm?"

Tomoya remained rooted to the spot unsurely. "I…I wouldn't want to get in the way of your merrime—"

"Don't feel obligated to join in if you'd rather not," Toka assured him.

"It isn't that, but," he sighed, "You might guess I'm not the best with…new people. I'm liable to needlessly spout off insect information at the first social blunder. That would be embarrassing for you, and um…"

"Oh you're such a cute one." Naoko cooed, "Embarrassment is a state of mind I'm unfamiliar with."

"That's true." Sakura and Toka deadpanned.

Naoko continued on, "You might even say I'm immune. That being the case I now insist you join us."

Shedding the last bit of reluctance at Toka's calm nod of agreement, Tomoya's shoulders loosened, and he bashfully accepted the invitation.

Naoko spun around, wiggling her fingers in a cute wave and blowing Sakura a kiss. "Have fun, but don't do anything I wouldn't."

"So…do everything." Sakura sassed teasingly.

"Precisely." The Uchiha smiled in pride. "They learn so quickly." She told Toka, "Don't worry about this darling." Usamaro was lifted up and held out, blinking lazily. "We'll have him back to you by the end of the night, but for now, I'll gladly take him off your hands. You're going to need both for what's coming next anyhow."

Then, Naoko whisked Tomoya and Toka away before Sakura could properly question her on her mysterious declaration. Though, the distracting tingle that went up her spine had her shuffling her attention to a new presence standing close in the next second. One she had grown to know and recognize quite well.

"Sakura-chan," he breathed as she twirled, the smile reaching her lips instantaneous. As of late the Hokage had that effect on her. It was only the unsteady rhythm of her heartbeat and the fluttering sensation in her stomach that made it concerning.

"How long did you know?" She asked, pinning him with a look.

"Not long at all." Hashirama grinned, "Which makes it even more of a miracle everything came together so swiftly."

"You're all so sneaky," she huffed, crossing her arms and closing her eyes. There was a palpable silence in which she could feel his imploring pout. "But," Cracking an eye open, she peeked at him from over her shoulder. "I have to admit, this is one of the most thoughtful birthday gestures anyone's ever done for me."

"It was a team effort, that's for sure." said Hashirama, "Who knew the uniting force to get such different personalities to come together was you."

There was a moment of shyness, a comment on her lips she knew he wouldn't appreciate about how they had done so much for such little payoff on her behalf. But, wanting to savor the feeling of acceptance that made her consider that she could be worthy of so much attention, Sakura let it die.

"Uniting force, huh?" She rolled her eyes. "You make it sound like I glue people to my side."

Hashirama gave her a look with so much meaning, his words coming out as if each was carefully considered, as though he was worried about spooking her. "Actually, so many of us wanted to spend time with you this…almost came to blows." Sakura's brow rose, not believing that a group of adults would get into a petty squabble…over her time and attention, of all things.

Hashirama's earlier bubbly grin had grown wry, "You look like you can't believe that."

Sakura shrugged, not denying it.

Taking her hand, Hashirama studied her nails, so shiny and perfectly colored. "And here I was hoping this was the one time you wouldn't sell yourself short." He explained, though he sounded like he had half-expected it anyway. "What would make your birthday special to us is being able to spend it with you."

This time, Sakura's brain short-circuited over his usual sweet, bluntly spoken cadence, and her cheeks blossomed in vibrant color as the shyness won out. "Um, thank you?" she squeaked, "For this," she gestured around them, "And for thinking of me, and just…everything."

And just like that, the Hokage got his second wind. Her words evidently had him fired up, if the way he began leading her along was anything to go off. "If you like this, then you're going to love what's next, Sakura-chan."

"I thought you just said everyone wanted a chance to spend time with me," Sakura said, trying to keep up with Hashirama's big steps. "Should you really be—"

"Don't worry." His deep laugh managed to put her at ease in record time, "We knew that was something that'd have to be resolved before tonight, so we drew lots. I won the right to spend time with you first." It wasn't often that the Senju sounded truly smug, but in the moment he was absolutely basking in his superior luck.

And, despite his choice of words, she found she did not feel objectified, but celebrated and desired. It was why Sakura was reluctant to try and put voice to her emotions. What if something embarrassingly mushy came out? Not that Hashirama would think less of her for it, knowing him.

"Okay then," the pinkette finally said, "I'm guessing you had something in mind?"

He craned his head, looking up at the sky before replying. Sakura followed his example, but couldn't spot anything out of the ordinary, just what promised to be a clear and hopefully starry night. Whatever he'd observed about the condition of the heavens pleased the Hokage, his face all aglow with heavy anticipation when he tilted it down to her.

"Yes, and it's finally the perfect time."

This time it came as no surprise when he took the lead, but Sakura had to laugh when he suddenly broke into a run. "Ha-Hashirama?!" Faces whizzed by as they sprinted hand in hand, many of them smiling happily, and a few watching in envy.

The Senju was tunnel-vision, neither stopping nor slowing down. Knowing how fast his long legs could carry him off thanks to their excursion in Tanzaku, Sakura put her efforts into keeping up instead of pleading with him to slow down. "Sorry, did I startle you?" He laughed along with her, "I've worked on this for a while, so you might say I'm a little excited for your reaction."

That instantly drew her curiosity, Sakura's mind whirling with all the possibilities. She knew him for his extravagant but sincere gestures, which meant that it could be anything. "You can't just say that and leave me in suspense." What was the point in needlessly guessing when she could just see it for herself? "Let's go!"

Hashirama sighed contentedly, placing a hand over his heart. "Have I ever told you how much I love seeing you so enthused?"

"Don't you start," Sakura wrinkled her nose playfully, secretly fighting down a blush. Hashirama wouldn't be Hashirama without his penchant for these doting compliments. "Just keep leading the way."

"That, I can do." He promised with a wink.

At a glance, the spot he had eagerly dragged her to wasn't much to behold. Hashirama could hardly blame her for the halting skepticism he could all but feel radiating from her. They stood on a recently paved, secluded path on either side of the land he had so carefully cultivated for just this occasion. "It's…" Sakura turned her head from this way or that, perhaps waiting for something unusual to happen. "It's this…field?" she guessed weakly.

Hashirama smiled all the fonder, knowing she was doing her best to be polite in spite of her obvious doubts. "Yes, but not quite." he replied cryptically, drawing a suspicious squint from her.

Reluctantly, he let go of her hand, forming the seals he had made countless times before, and calling forth the Mokuton. The ground rumbled, Sakura's head flying to the side as she watched trees push their way up through the fertile ground. The deep sense of oneness the Senju always felt began to take the shape, nature bending to his request, new growth coaxed to emerge. It was for this reason that Hashirama often felt a great and weighty responsibility came with using the Mokuton. Shinobi pushed the limits of what was possible for human beings often, every generation unlocking more powerful and destructive jutsu.

He, the one chosen at birth to carry on the Senju's sacred gift, commune with the earth and grow forests, was more aware of that than most. Yes, his gift was something unnatural, even among the countless unusual and miraculous kekkei genkai in the world. If he was going to make use of it, he would much rather it be for pursuits such as this than adding to the carnage of a battlefield.

It took seconds for them to be standing deep within a new cherry blossom orchard, all the trees heavily dotted in tight buds waiting to unfold. Sakura left his side, wandering closer and touching her fingertips to the bark of the nearest tree. "Wow," The hushed reverence of her voice was nothing new. Far and wide, his Wood Style was regarded as a marvel. Still, when it was her, the awe of her tone meant something. "You made years of growth in seconds!" The pinkette tilted her head curiously, knuckles to her chin. "I don't think I've ever seen you use the Mokuton before."

Wait until she saw what came next! "Have you ever been to a hanami at night?" He asked, joining her.

Sakura thought about it, slowly shaking her head. "You know…now that I think about it, no."

"Then, would you let me give you this experience, Sakura-chan?" Hashirama held out his hand, palm up, listening with baited breath for her reply. Flushing, the pink-haired kunoichi looked down, studying the lines of his big hand, and then delicately laying hers atop it. His chest sang with contentment, and the trees echoed his joy, bursting into bloom all at once, the fragrance of the flowers suddenly thick in the air all around them. Of course, adding something special that would truly stand out in her mind as memorable had been the goal. And so, in true Hashirama fashion, he'd gone the extra step. Tobirama had remarked that he just couldn't seem to help himself, that perhaps his gesture was a bit too…flashy.

But looking into Sakura's face, her soft features so full of wonder and illuminated by the light of the blossoms, the Hokage felt wholly vindicated.

"They're…they're glowing!" She exclaimed, hand still in his, the other lifting up to catch a petal that came fluttering down. As if he wouldn't believe her, she held the petal up for him to view, big green eyes reflecting the wondrous shine from the trees around them.

"They are," he agreed, melting with affection in that moment.

"How? There's not a species of cherry blossom I know of that has bioluminescent traits," she murmured, brain no doubt already in research mode. "I mean it's most common in fungi, but there are some trees out there who also glow for various reasons. Nothing like this though." The pinkette gestured around them, "It's…it's so bright and fascinating."

Hashirama slowly began to walk, enjoying the way her face grew more animated every second they strolled through the twinkling cherry blossom orchard. The girls had outdone themselves too. Sakura very seldom wore makeup, but when she did, it highlighted her natural attractiveness in such an eye-catching way. Her hair, the soft pastel shade of pink he had come to admire so much, was pinned intricately, the kanzashi he had gifted her with holding the style together. It was her slender figure, well flattered by the colors and pattern of her yukata, that held the entire ensemble together. Bright and fascinating. …What had they been talking about again?

"How you got the trees to glow." Sakura sighed.

Hashirama blushed, hoping that the trees' brightness didn't make it evident. Should he tell her that getting caught up admiring her beauty had completely taken all of his attention?

"Well, you're correct that it's not naturally occurring. I did a little experimentation to isolate the right genes, then spliced them with seedlings I had on hand from last season. After I got that right, the only thing left to do was replicate the process with my Mokuton, which was a first for me, believe it or not."

Some people would have tuned out over that lengthy explanation, but Sakura hung on his every word as if the conversation couldn't possibly get more interesting. "So, you'd never tried it before, but still managed to get it right in the time leading up to my birthday?"

There was a moment's pause, the slightest shift in the air. Hashirama could feel something inside urging him on. It could have been any number of things: the mood, the pleasant breeze helping keep the back of his neck cool, or the lovely company.

Whatever it was, by the way her breath hitched, Sakura felt it too. Hoping it was the right time to follow his intuition, he allowed himself to release her hand yet again, instead joining his fingertips until they formed a complete circle. "I never had much reason to try before now. All that mattered for so long was the victories using the Mokuton could bring us in battle." The circle his hands made hovered just above the kunoichi. "It's nice to be able to explore other things with it, and even nicer that I get to do it for you." Puzzled, Sakura stared upward at what he was doing above her head. The bloodline running through his veins hardened his digits, making them sturdy and wooden until what remained was a smooth crown of twisted wood, tiny pink flowers decorating its surface.

The circlet snapped free, his hands flesh and bone again as he bestowed her with the organic crown. In their retelling of events in the valley, Tobirama had brought up that Sakura's deeds had earned her a new title from locals. Goddess of the Valley. In the exact moment her power had saved them all from the goddess of iron's explosive, every living individual within miles of the battle was psionically linked, however temporarily, to Sakura. They had all seen what she had done for them, and in turn now regarded her as a living deity, champion of humanity.

Hashirama could understand why they would be so taken with her might and mercy, the lengths she would go to protect strangers who couldn't protect themselves, couldn't possibly stand against the gods that would callously eradicate them all. They saw their savior in her.

"You've done a lot for me." Sakura whispered. "You all have."

What he saw in that moment was…his future. One he was only too aware of his selfishness in hoping for, given circumstances. Sliding a hand to the smooth skin of her cheek, he cradled her jaw while brushing a tendril of hair away. Leaning in, the Senju planted a sweet kiss to the opposite side of her face. "I'd do anything for you, Sakura-chan." Hashirama meant it so much that it hurt. He would even stuff down that idealistic longing for the future—their future—if it meant aiding her in taking the fight to the gods so she wouldn't be tempted to do it alone. Tonight, though..he could permit himself to enjoy tonight, couldn't he?

No doubt intuitive enough to sense the somber direction of his thoughts, Sakura gave him a look full of cheer. "I'm scared to know what the extent of 'anything' is. The last time all the furniture in my house got an upgrade, this time it's creating a brand new species of cherry blossom, what's next? Wrangling the stars into a new constellation?"

"You'd only get flustered and tell me I'd gone too far." Hashirama reached into his pants pocket. "How about a smaller gesture for a change?"

Sakura peered at the small bundles in his palm, eyes laser focused on the contents of the translucent wrapping he had done his best not to squish. "Snacks?"

Feigning nonchalance, he shrugged. "Only mochi, if you're interested." Quick as a hungry woodland creature, Sakura pounced, snatching one of the round little treats from him.

"Only? This is limited edition sakuramochi." She corrected him, "Of course I'm interested." Sakura set about unwrapping the pink rice cake. Hashirama waited patiently for her to do so, then plucked it up before her hand could make contact with its chewy surface. "H-Hey!"

"Let me," he suggested, already guiding it to her lips. "Your nails are too pretty to accidentally get bean paste on."

"This is starting to seem like Tanzaku all over again. Any excuse at this point…" Sakura said wryly. "Don't think I don't know what you're doing."

Undeterred by her half-hearted suspicion, Hashirama raised the mochi in his palm a little higher. "Offering to help you eat a snack?"

Rolling her eyes, Sakura brushed and held a piece of hair from her face, leaning in and enveloping the entirety of the mochi without preamble—leaving Hashirama stunned in the process. Sakuramochi weren't overly large. It was a simple enough matter for an adult to eat one in a single bite, but she…she had…

Did she have to make the act so…alluring? It was all worsened by the fact that she maintained unbroken eye contact, staring at him from beneath her lashes. Pulling away, she began to chew, hand covering her lips as she hummed in satisfaction. "It's really been too long."

Try as he might, the Hokage was only a man. So he wasn't completely unaffected. Had she…was that on purpose? Had he finally gone too far in teasing her? The faint stirring in his pants had him turning away instinctively, though the chances she noticed anything were slim to none.

Noticing his stiff posture, Sakura jolted, seeming to realize her forwardness too little too late. "I…oh, s-sorry." She blurted out. "You know the last time we did this, it was for show. And that girl Mara was there…so I was trying to keep up the act and…"

Unbidden, her clumsy explanation drew a snicker. "For a minute, I thought Naoko was rubbing off on you."

Huffing, the pinkette snatched the mochi he was still holding, standing on tiptoes and attempting to cram it into his giggling mouth. "Oh, be quiet!" Still, his considerable height prevented her from getting close enough to complete the task. Taking pity, he leaned in, wrapping a hand around her wrist and tugging her up so that she could dump the mochi past his lips.

"It really is like being back in Tanzaku, isn't it?"

"Sure, with some notable differences." Sakura grumbled, stepping back.

"Which are?"

"I don't think I need to spell it out." She surveyed the sway of the cherry blossom trees idly, more bioluminescent petals falling all around them.

Hashirama watched them too. He'd made them beautiful—more beautiful—but like the future he saw in that moment of realization, they were fleeting. "Do I?"

"No," The pained edge to his voice was also fleeting, replaced with mirth once again, "You don't. But it's just us here," The wind ran through the branches around them, and a trickle of protest filtered into him from the trees that weren't done being appreciated. "And obviously the trees. Who would know?"

Sakura cupped her hands together, catching a few more petals that had fallen to earth. When enough had drifted into her palms to make a small mound, she glanced at him from over her shoulder, a sudden impish grin appearing as she tossed them directly into his face with a short giggle.

Stunned, Hashirama could only guffaw as she took off, before his brain restarted, urging him to give chase. In childhood, he had often run through the forest, hunting down his younger brothers and wrestling them into submission when he caught them with a few well-placed tickles. He was equally adept at being chased when Tobirama's ire reached its peak.

One would think his long legs would give him a clear advantage, but that was only because Sakura evidently hadn't been trying to evade capture before. Now, she darted nimbly through the trees, flurries of falling petals only partially obscuring his vision. Although the Hokage wasn't really sure what had put her in a playful mood, he wasn't complaining. Instead of growing tired the longer they ran around, each puff of air filled his lungs with life, and some of the weight began to lift from his shoulders.

The implications of the future could wait. They were together here in the moment.

The crisp spring air was alive with laughter and Sakura's kittenish taunts of 'almost!' whenever he came close to catching her. Eventually they were nearing the edge of the orchard, the lit path back to the rest of the village—back to the festival— visible in the distance. Hashirama waited for his opening, having studied Sakura's pattern of evasion. When she feinted, he pretended to fall for it, a wood clone emerging from the trunk of a tree just behind her and ensnaring the kunoichi.

She yelped through a laugh, struggling as he approached with a triumphant smile in place. "I caught you, Sakura-chan." he declared, taking her from the arms of his clone, who returned to the bark that had birthed it.

"By cheating." She countered, hands on his shoulders as Hashirama held her aloft.

"By being strategic." he beamed.

"Strategically cheating." The pinkette stuck out her tongue defiantly.

"Maybe a little," he agreed. Time froze, their eyes drinking each other in, their lips parting in unison as if they both had something begging to be said. All it took to break the cocoon of tranquility was his best friend's throat clearing. Why did Madara pick now of all times to be punctual, he lamented, slowly helping Sakura down from his arms. "It looks like your next date's waiting." he joked, much to her chagrin.

"Don't call it a date." Sakura hissed. "Who knows what ideas he'll get in his head."

"Your next engagement of the evening awaits." Hashirama corrected himself.

"Better," Sakura turned to take in Madara, who was dressed rather dashingly in a bold, cardinal red yukata. The design alternating between a pattern of elaborate gold and white links across the shoulders, sleeves and chest. The Uchiha had opted to tie back his raven hair, leaving it to cascade down his back in a low ponytail gathered from the nape of his neck. Cherry blossoms carried on the wind landed in his hair and brushed his shoulders as he arched an impatient brow, inclining his head to underscore he was eager for his turn.

The man could certainly clean up nicely when he wanted to—this being a prime example. It stood to reason he wouldn't leave his house on a night like tonight until he was positively swoonworthy. Judging by the way Sakura discreetly checked him out, she approved. Not that it was something she was likely to admit, given their complicated dynamic.

"I was informed this was your birthday, Haruno." Madara's voice dripped with promise as he extended a hand in her direction. "Care to find out what I have in store?"

Pursing her mouth, the pinkette crossed her arms, muttering about how she would see one way or another. A ghost of a smile lifted the Senju's lips, sure that with her insatiable curiosity bubbling under the surface, she actually wanted to go with Madara far more than she let on. Likewise, his friend was anxious, that much was obvious to him after years of knowing him.

He wanted Sakura to be wowed by his present, as much as Hashirama had wanted her to like his. Two stubborn people that in time might find their way to fully understanding each other as he had come to understand them. Perhaps the thought should have made him gloomy. But, truthfully he could only muster up relief at the notion. For all his shortcomings, Madara was a good man.

Sakura drifted further from him, closer to where the Uchiha was rooted at the end of the path. Then, she froze, both he and Madara staring at her in bemusement. Hashirama watched her do an about face, walking back up to him with an expression of shyness and determination. No words left her lips, her hands landing lightly on his chest as she leaned into him, stretching her height to its limits and brushing a kiss to his cheek not unlike the one he had given her earlier. Hashirama blinked, Sakura slunk away, waving and telling him she would see him later. Thanking him for everything for the umpteenth time.

"If earning your affection is as simple as playing the part of the jolly buffoon for a while, Haruno, you could have said so earlier and saved me the suspense."

"Shut up!" Hashirama vaguely heard Sakura bark at him. "Do you want me to come with you or not?"

Madara's response was lost on him, the Senju doing his best to process what he was feeling. Yes, they had shared kisses before in Tanzaku. But this felt a bit more charged in spite of its innocent, chaste nature.

Sakura and Madara were nearly out of sight before he realized that it wasn't just a small kiss of gratitude. No, it was truly his unraveling.

The pinkette had known she was going to give Madara a piece of her mind the next time she saw him—Izuna too—but it was…unexpectedly distracting when he looked that good. "So," Sakura glared up at the Uchiha, hoping looking annoyed would help her stay annoyed. "The errand to Mount Moya was just a diversion."

Madara strutted by her side, arm brushing hers, looking for all the world like a young emperor making a grand entrance. "Hm? I allowed you to take part in the time-honored tradition of my clan, and that's what you think?"

The confidence Sakura had at her assertion wavered. It was that big of a deal among the Uchiha? Not done correcting her, he added, "I'll have you know that The Sky Ridge Run is an Uchiha rite of passage. As much as mastering a Gōkakyū."

"Okay, I understand." Sakura fully deflated; no point in posturing when she was more intrigued than upset at the inconvenience she had gone through. "It's important, but then why include an outsider? Wouldn't any distraction be as good as the next?"

"It would depend on who you ask," he replied, onyx eyes flashing even in the dark. "Did you actually manage to survey all the nests? You appear relatively…unmaimed."

"Actually, I did. I've got all the feathers to prove it." Sakura resisted the urge to gloat in his face, but just barely.

Madara's countenance looked at once consternated and openly impressed. "And my half-crazed Summon? He's known to be…temperamental at best. He doesn't take to just any handler."

"Shinta," she nodded, "I agree that he's cunning, unpredictable…kind of like someone else I know." Madara scoffed at the implication, "But we were actually able to work as a team."

"Tch…interesting." What kind of tone was that?

"Are you disappointed?!" Sakura balled up a fist, holding it threateningly under his chin. If anyone around was alarmed by her raised voice or violent gesture, they chose to keep it to themselves. Madara only chuckled, lowering her fist.

"Hardly," he smirked. "You're exquisite tonight, Haruno. A feast for the eyes that wouldn't be half as sumptuous if you were missing both ears and a nose." An arm snaked around her waist, drawing her closer without preamble.

'I hope he doesn't consider that shitty backhanded compliment charming.' Sakura reeled in offense at the notion, removing his arm from her person with a tight squeeze.

Not offended in the least, Madara kept on talking. "Although, given your power, I can't imagine that task doing you in so easily. I fully expected you'd prevail."

"Uh-huh," Sakura crossed her arms, wondering why she hadn't just stayed with Hashirama. The thought of the man and his painfully sweet gesture made her heart throb.

Ino might have compared her to the beauty of the cosmos, but he had taken it a step further, creating a whole new kind of cherry blossom tree for her. Though, there had been something different than usual…off. Hashirama had seemed so…torn for a minute, as if it was a farewell.

Needless to say, that sort of melancholy didn't suit him at all, which had spurred Sakura to try to do something about it. Frolicking through a path of phosphorescent petals under the starlit sky was exhilarating and frankly, pretty romantic when she gave it some thought.

Had he thought so too? The kunoichi blushed. Leave it to her to accidentally create an intimate mood. Maybe that was why they both had gotten so lost towards the end of their time together. Why kissing his cheek without prompting, without acting, felt so natural. Sakura had told herself that when her friends had gone so far to make her birthday this memorable, the least she could do was let her guard down.

She owed it to them, and a little to herself, to stop overthinking. The pinkette had promised herself to go with the flow, live in the moment with no regrets. What was the worst that could happen, letting herself get swept up in the magic of an evening created all for her sake?

"Haruno." The gruff voice of the man she was with preceded the pincering grip of Madara's fingers pressing into her cheeks. "Focus." She blinked, his face suddenly invading her vision, "You're with me, which means your attention should be mine." he asserted, nipping once at her lips and then drawing away equally as fast.

Walking in the opposite direction, two girls around her age gasped over the act, one of them visibly swooning into her friend's side. Sakura had half the urge to scrub at her mouth if it wouldn't disrupt the lip paint, instead focusing all her energy into glowering at Madara. It wouldn't deter him, because nothing short of a right hook ever did—and even that only did so much. "Let's get something straight," she growled, watching him bite his thumb and study the thick drop of blood in boredom. "Just because I'm with you, it doesn't mean my attention belongs to you. You don't have the right to—ohhh!"

It all happened so fast, the sequence of events that found her swept off her feet and sitting behind Madara on the familiar feathered back of an entirely too large eagle. The bird's call pierced the air, making more than one passerby jump, and all of them gape.

Sakura could have hidden her face in horror. It felt like the entirety of the village spotted her on a huge, prideful Summon with an equally prideful lunatic. Shinta craned his neck around and squawked a greeting, which Sakura returned with a sheepish wave. Satisfied at having been acknowledged, he spread his considerable wingspan. They blasted off from the ground with a gust that threatened to topple anyone in the vicinity off their feet.

Try as she might to clutch onto Shinta's feathers, it wasn't easy to do when she wasn't the only passenger, especially when she didn't want to rip any out. It only took her nearly sliding from the harness for Madara to reach behind him, palm to her forehead, and direct her to lean back. "You're going to fall spectacularly if you don't hang on, Haruno." He informed her casually, most of his focus on steering. "And in case I wasn't clear, I meant to me."

Sakura briefly deliberated the possibility of falling and the choice to cling to Madara Uchiha for balance, grudgingly scooting closer to his back. Her arms hovered in place, the next logical step of wrapping her arms around him still not seeming appealing enough to take. Impatiently, he fixed that for her, taking both hands off the reins of Shinta's harness to arrange her limbs on his torso. "What happened to holding on?" Sakura balked, grabbing him all the tighter as he took his time gathering the strap of leather again. He was a furnace, windchill hardly touching her as they coasted through the air thanks to her body wrapped snugly around his. Was there any chance he could feel her thudding heartbeat against his back? There was no way to avoid that from such close proximity, Madara smelled amazing, and it was doing things to her head. "You're supposed to be the one steering!"

"You've surely realized by now my Summon is a menace of the highest caliber, hardly docile or cooperative." Sakura bit her tongue from adding in a comparison neither bird nor man would appreciate. "If he wanted to shake us loose, this," he shook the reins, "would hardly stop him. Evidently he's decided he likes you, Haruno."

Shinta shrieked in confirmation. "Huh," Sakura blinked. "O-Oh well, thank you…? I like…you too." She patted his side a bit stiffly. The bird had an attitude problem, but he wasn't so bad. And even if she did take issue with the avian summon, a mile in the air didn't feel like a particularly good time to voice it.

"Naturally." Madara replied, pleased with himself for whatever reason.

"I was definitely talking to the bird."

Shinta snickered, gliding over the village with his impressive wingspan. Sakura took the chance to peer over Madara's shoulder, nearly gasping at the sight of the festival from above. The village really did shine, so inviting and eye-catching, the colorful cloth of the stalls and the crowded streets filled with cheerful people bringing a smile to her face. "This is actually pretty neat." she admitted, "The view I mean."

"Hold on tight, Haruno," Madara threw a devil-may-care grin over his shoulder. "It gets better."

They had been gently coasting, not much higher than the Hokage Tower's rooftop, but Shinta suddenly shot up so swiftly it had her neck clicking. All of Sakura's angry protests died in the volume of Madara's hair as she was forced to bury her face into his back against the whipping wind. She should've known! Letting her guard down around this duo was submitting to their brand of insanity.

"It's not that I mind this. On the contrary…" She felt the rumble of his laugh more than heard it. "But, I thought you were interested in the view."

"That was before I realized you and your murder bird tricked me." Sakura replied, aware of how petulant and grumpy she sounded.

"I…wouldn't actually let you fall." he said quietly, almost so quietly that the breeze in her ears threatened to snatch his words away. "Stop being such a child and look."

Sakura removed her face, but only to give him a piece of her mind. Initially. Then her eyes caught on the black powder whizzing up through the air, climbing higher than where they hovered. Sakura watched it burst, dazzling hues popping in front of her eyes in the shape of a flower. The next one came in short succession: another flower, and another. Soon there was an exploding garden painting the sky in a bouquet of light that illuminated the awe on her face. Never had she had the opportunity to watch a firework display from so high, almost able to smell the exploding powder.

Shinta zipped through the sky, agile and skilled, darting between the bursts as easily as she had darted away from Hashirama earlier. She wasn't even sure Madara was doing much with the reins. The fearless eagle seemed to have an innate sense of how to maneuver without so much as singing a feather, and in turn, they had the most stunning, up-close view."Given that it rendered you speechless, I take it you appreciate the display."

The pinkette swallowed, attempting to unstick the words from her throat. "It's so…it's just so…I've never seen a firework show this impressive."

Trilling happily, the summon angled his right wing downward, causing them to descend once again. Sakura held her breath momentarily, but they maintained a reasonable speed, and she began relaxing a little. The village wasn't far underneath them, the cheers from down below drifting to them. Shinta flew them to a very familiar compound, the red and white uchiwa banners standing out even in the dark. Bemusement began filtering into her thoughts, wondering what Madara could be up to. The streets of the compound were dark and empty, everyone undoubtedly enjoying the festivities. But, Shinta soared right past the quiet grounds, heading for the back of it, where she knew the Uchiha's impressive lake to be.

Sakura stared down at the dock, the water black and still. Another firework went off in the distance, this time the light creating a perfect mirror image on the surface of the water. Dancing across the sky's reflection was the silvery body of a majestic dragon, its talons opening and its neck stretching. Sakura was transfixed as the maw opened, red fireworks sparking as its 'flames' licked the air. "Let me guess," Sakura sighed, though even she could hear the smile in her voice. "Your idea?"

His side profile was so striking, switching between roguish and aristocratic as the firework flare highlighted the angles of his countenance. A fascinating dichotomy that drew her in all the more at the indulgent laugh that warmed her ears. "Hashirama was adamant that the night's theme should fit you. Our eternal cherry blossom." Sakura wasn't prepared for the ache his voice invoked in her when coupled with the teasing emphasis of his tone. Our. It lingered in her head far longer than rational. Madara's advances were really nothing new, of course. They shouldn't be affecting her when she had heard him try to lure her in with intoxicating sensuality one too many times, right?

Except that Sakura was smart enough to know if there was one person she couldn't bury the truth from forever, it was herself. Secretly indulging in the attention, so long as she didn't cave in to what followed, was alright. It had to be, at least on her birthday. Magical orchards made to bloom in the blink of an eye, exhilarating rides soaring through the night sky—was this what it was like to be treated like she was 'theirs'?

"And you had other ideas?" she guessed, watching another dragon glitter into existence, flying gracefully between more flowers before they all exploded magnificently.

"You and I both know that unlike your namesake, Haruno, your fragility doesn't extend past appearances. Inside, you're fiery and stubborn. As untameable a creature as the dragon that wench's power helped you become."

Shinta, feeling spirited, began to ascend again, breaking through some thin clouds with a flashy twirl. Just enough to leave her light-headed.

Instinctively, she squeezed Madara again, though for once he didn't take the chance to make a suggestive remark. The light of the moon shimmered down on them as the loud bursts of the fireworks and their enchanting images decorated the sky like an ever-changing tapestry."Are you…is that your awkward way of saying you think I'm powerful?"

Madara tilted his head back, silently watching it unfold as she had been. Sakura thought after a span of several minutes that he would pretend he hadn't heard her, until his rich timber graced her ears again, "Of course you are, but that isn't the point."

Nothing but the steady flaps of Shinta's wings reached her ears, even the fireworks which had been so loud only seconds ago were nothing but distant white noise.

"Hmm? Are you taking it back?" Sakura goaded.

The grunt he made sounded faintly amused. "As you already know by now, I'm anything but coy. Hedging around what I want to say isn't my style. I've already been as bare as possible in expressing my interest, but as I recall, you ran."

Sakura cringed, her arms loosening considerably as she leaned away from his back. Talk about splashing cold water over what had been simmering. "What did you expect me to do? I can't even tell if you're being serious half the time."

Such a gorgeous night, and yet again things had taken a sobering turn. Why did Madara insist on pushing this when she was doing all she could to keep the notion of entertaining more than a passing attraction at bay.

"The alternative is that deep down, you already know I am, and it's what scares you." Sakura scoffed, momentarily forgetting herself and folding her arms as Shinta caught an updraft, the sudden increase in speed making her tilt dangerously to the right. She grasped for Madara, fingers touching him but ultimately failing to find purchase.

For one gloriously terrifying moment she was falling through the stars, the very same extravagant colors that had marked a celebration of her life, ironically about to become the beacons flashing as she fell to her death.

Stupidly, all she could do was hold the crown down with both hands as the battering gust caused her eyes to water and whipped her hair into disarray. 'Wait,' she gasped, 'I can just fly!' Funny how that thought hadn't come to her first… Though in all fairness to herself, she thought, it wasn't exactly an ability she had been using all her life. Closing her eyes, Sakura stretched her arms out to the sides, legs tucked up so that her heels nearly touched her butt.

The dragon's spark that dwelled within hardly had time to ignite before the pinkette found herself tugged into a solid form, borrowed heat encasing her. Startled, she coughed hard, the suddenness knocking the breath from her lungs.

Shinta had swooped down in the knick of time, the bird giving a series of raucous caws that somehow struck her as chastising. Dazed orbs found the face of her savior staring down into hers, Madara Uchiha in all his glory looking like an exalted prince. His bottomless eyes appeared unamused, one brow raised to underscore the expression. "Honestly, Haruno," he said dryly. "I thought I told you to hold on."

"That time I didn't let go on purpose!" She protested, pink surging to her cheeks in spite of herself. Okay. That was a little embarrassing, admittedly. Sakura didn't even have it in her to tell him she didn't need the rescue, curling up in his arms as meekly as a kitten.

It was hard to be anything else when she was situated so snugly in his arms. Madara held her around the shoulders and under her thighs, maneuvering her so that she was leaning heavily against him, legs dangling over the side of Shinta's saddle. "If I can't trust that you'll hold onto me, I suppose there's nothing for it except to keep hold of you."

While Sakura was certain she could break free, doing so would only put her back in the same predicament she had just been 'saved' from. Instead, not sure what to do with the arm trapped between their bodies, she wiggled it free to place lightly against his chest, only thinking better of it when she felt it jump under her fingertips.

Initiating physical touch with someone like Madara was probably only asking for things to be misconstrued. As the kunoichi began to withdraw her palm to rest in her lap, he made a short, low noise of dissent. Sakura craned her head back and found dark eyes lit by smouldering promises. Now she'd done it. The Uchiha drew her even closer, something reminiscent of a hug, if not a little more possessive than sweet. "I've never been the kind of man who believes in a fate I can't mold with my own hands, but it's undeniable that ours are intertwined. Whether you choose to keep running from that or not…that truth remains the same."

"How are you so sure?" Sakura relaxed her fingers so that her hand laid flat, feeling the steady rise and fall of each breath.

"How could I not be," he replied, the quiet conviction sending an interesting shiver skittering down her back. He talked about ideas of interlocked destinies as if he knew. Sakura could see the forested land down below, their winged steed having flown them from the compound's lake, through the scenic natural beauty surrounding the village. "I know you're more than meets the eye. More than anyone else could have guessed." The peaceful lull was broken, alarm blaring through her system.

…As if he knew.

"What are you talking about?" Sakura knew it wasn't the time for her voice to shake. Not the time to sound as if she was panicking as much as she was. "I'm who I've always been."

"Yes…" Madara agreed after a pause. "That's what appeals to me most."

Sakura was too stunned to speak, and Madara didn't seem inclined to elaborate whatsoever. A thousand thoughts raced through her head, a thousand questions, frustratingly all without answers.

Strong wing beats had them smoothly stopping at Konoha's gates, finally back on earth after a high-flying excursion. Madara hopped down from the eagle's back, not bothering to release her until his feet touched the ground. Sakura stood on legs made of jelly, hardly registering that he was speaking, offering her something. "Hashirama's running out of ideas if this is his idea of a memorable present." The Uchiha's finger flicked the crooked wooden crown miraculously still on her head, straightening it. Sakura clutched it protectively with one hand and smoothed down her tussled hair with the other.

"I think it's thoughtful," she defended, "And beautiful." The delicate-looking little blooms all over the crown didn't have a petal out of place, despite all they had gone through.

"Mm, only because it came from that sentimental fool. Who else could make a woman appreciative about having twigs placed on her head." Sakura glared, Madara chuckling as he showed her a small, average box. "Allow me to give you my gift, Haruno."

"You mean it wasn't that?" She pointed upward.

Madara shook his head, "That was only a small part of the experience, decorative toppings to the evening I could give you…" Her legs felt weak for a reason that had nothing to do with the flight, avoiding the returning gleam of sensuality in his eyes by focusing on his hands. Without further preamble, he opened the box, a white, hand-carved necklace resting inside.


"Certainly not for him." Madara nodded at his Summon, who squawked something she was sure was rude. "You're dismissed now, in case you were waiting for permission to leave." Shinta leaned over and screamed into Madara's face, causing Sakura to cover her ears against the auditory assault. The pinkette was positive that was meant to be rude.

She flinched when the bird leaned his big head down to eye her, the wickedly sharp point of his beak evident even in the dark. But, in a far less abrasive manner, Shinta only tapped the bottom of his head against the crown of hers, a gentle, harmless weight. Stepping back, the bird spread his massive wings and took to the air again, rapidly disappearing on the horizon.

Clearing his throat, Madara took the necklace from the box, unfazed. "As I was saying…" When he lifted it up, Sakura could see the intricate details. The circular pendant was a cherry blossom, smooth and carved from white jade, a misty green streaked design at its center. One that upon closer inspection Sakura could see was a dragon curled with its wings tucked and its neck bent and lowered, resting, lying in wait… The strong beast hiding inside the delicate casing of the flower. Madara reached for her as he unclasped the necklace, the thin chain leading to the jewelry's masterpiece cool against her throat. "This is the kind of gift that suits you."

Sakura gently cupped the pendant in her palm, studying it solemnly. She wasn't who she had been before getting thrown into the past. The cherry blossom meant to wilt away that others saw in their youth. A girl to sit back and be protected. She hadn't been that for a long while, but the adventures through time had made her even more. She was Sakura, but she was also a godslayer with a mission. Both the dragon and the blossom.

"Maybe you're right…" she conceded, "but so does the crown."

Giving her a lingering once over from top to toe, Madara seemed to have a change of heart. "On second thought, Haruno, I agree." The faint smirk on his lips could only mean trouble, a point that was proven correct when he tipped her face up, fingers under her chin. "It's true that you're always a treat for the eyes," His thumb edged closer to her mouth, tapping the flesh of her bottom lip contemplatively, "Tonight you look rather sumptuous even…" Sakura fell into the magnetic pull of his voice, his heat, his everything. Denying the spell was no longer an option, but there had to be some way to release the shackles of it, right? Her mind raced as fast as it floundered, absently wondering how the Uchiha's eyes could be bright with heat when they were as dark as they always were. "But if I had my way, you'd look less prim and more…" Her hands came to rest on his chest again, heart frozen in her own, awaiting whatever happened next in unsure rapture.

"Shinobi are supposed to be able to keep their wits about them, even when subjected to the most excruciating torture." Sakura whispered, "So whatever this is…it's nothing I can't handle."

"Is that what you consider this?" His lips brushed the shell of her ear as pulled her closer. "Torture?"

Sakura turned her face, feigning loftiness. If she acted like she was in control, she would be. It was all mind games with him. Always mind games. "It barely registers as a temptation." A bold bluff, and Madara Uchiha was the wrong person to make it to.

"Oh?" The pinkette heard him lick his lips, the part of the seam they made to allow his tongue to swipe across them wetly. "And giving yourself over to a certain amount of temptation is irreconcilable with whatever narrative you've spun that allows you to keep denying this."

"Yes," Sakura answered readily, "In more ways than you could imagine."

The gruff noise of a throat clearing was the only thing that saved her. Their heads swiveled in unison, finding a grave-faced Tobirama standing against the village gate, one foot propped on the painted wood, and arms tightly folded. He hadn't been there before, and she had been so caught up in Madara that Sakura couldn't even say she sensed a flickering trace of him. How much had he seen? Undoubtedly he had heard enough to prompt him to intervene. How mortifying.

Sakura hopped away while Madara remained unmoved, only canting his head in the Senju's direction. "Impeccably terrible timing as always, though I can't say I'm surprised."

Sakura fidgeted awkwardly, in no mood to intervene in their heated exchange when her heart was still palpitating at the speed of light, her mind racing over the sultrily crooned words from seconds ago. Seriously, what was the deal? How many men had she rebuffed over the years? Enough to know how to handle herself.

While she didn't consider herself any sort of rare and exquisite beauty, there were plenty of interested parties that the kunoichi found it prudent to reject. Then there was Madara, a man who used to set her blood boiling at the very sight of him. What had changed…? Sakura fully checked back into the conversation in time to hear the raven-haired man throw out a barb about how she was going to go and spend a portion of her evening in lesser company.

"Yours is so much more stimulating, hm?" Tobirama drawled acerbically. For the first time that evening, Sakura got a good look at him, a sense of familiar vexation over how many good-looking male specimens Konoha had. The Senju's complexion was brought out by the lucent moon, a regal vision in silver and blue fabrics.

Those lambent scarlet eyes that missed nothing caught hers, and unexplained hotness rushed through her stomach. On the surface, Tobirama was so coldly beautiful. And yet, Sakura knew better than to assume that the iciness of his appearance extended to his core. The knowledge of his layers brought on the trust and fondness the pinkette couldn't help but think of him with.

Madara nodded, speaking matter-of-factly, "My presence is a prize compared to whatever dull conversation Haruno has to pretend to find interest in when she's with you."

In true Tobirama fashion, no matter what sort of insult was flung, he could instantly think of a notably hard-hitting counter. "If you're the prize at the end of the race I'll walk it backwards. Whatever it takes to come in last."

Ah, a fond farewell if ever there was one. No longer bothering to lob insults at his foe, Tobirama took her wrist in a grip that was neither loose nor particularly harsh.

Sakura would have peeked back at the Uchiha he was leading her away from, but there was no time. He was a man on a mission to put as much distance as possible between them and the spot where Madara probably still stood.

Although not normally one for fanfare, Tobirama couldn't have envisioned the ambitious planning for Sakura's birthday going off any more smoothly. The road to execution had been fraught with squabbles, competing egos, and a great many other hiccups. And yet, when he had glimpsed her coming through the village gates, floating in like a petal on a warm spring breeze, all of the aggravations had evaporated. He was just content she had arrived and that the festival could commence.

Children played with sparklers and stuffed their faces with fairy floss. Men threw their heads back with raucous laughter, drunk on wine and revelry. Couples and contented loners alike loaded up on tasty foods from the various stalls, and vendors busily sold their commemorative festival goods. His eyes fell on two people, a man holding out a ring with trembling hands and a woman close to tears offering up her finger delicately with a watery smile. After he slipped it on the distance closed rapidly, and they kissed passionately as onlookers clapped and cheered. Tobirama turned away to give them their privacy—not that they cared for such a thing when they made such a public display.

His eyes connected with the beryl green pair of the girl walking next to him, a gentle smile for the newly engaged couple softening her visage as it lingered on her face. It dropped, an unsure frown replacing it as she preoccupied herself with staring at her clasped hands. Tobirama sighed under his breath. Perhaps he deserved this for making the atmosphere between them awkward in the first place.

They walked in silence, the unfortunate sight he had witnessed burned into his retinas. It was hard to engage Sakura in conversation, or look at her directly, when all he could see was the way Madara had been aggressively pawing at her. He also couldn't let go of her, the skin to skin contact making the anxiety crackling around her all the more obvious.

It would probably be a good time to address it, somehow. At least open his mouth and tell her he wasn't angry, not at her. On the same note, Tobirama wasn't jealous. He found it to be, on the whole, a largely impractical emotion. This didn't stir any rare bout of envy in him, but he was self-aware enough to know that he also didn't like it. Most men were wolves, and a great many hid it well. Madara did not. The beast and the man were impossible to tell apart, as far as he was concerned. "If you've got something to say," Sakura spoke up, "then go ahead and get it out. I'm a big girl. I can take it."

Tobirama felt a small smirk coming on. She had an emotional bravery that he admired. Where he had kept quite a few of his hidden away in the deepest, darkest recesses of himself until recently, Sakura wore hers like armor. The vulnerability ironically made her all the stronger, no one able to brandish them as a weapon against her the way Sanna had done to his.

"Right to it, hm?"

Sensing the amusement in his voice, the pinkette's body language slightly relaxed. "You weren't saying anything. Just walking with that brooding look on your face," Sakura furthered her point by trying to imitate him, even standing taller to adopt his posture.

Tobirama cracked. "I won't pretend to glean whatever it is you see in…him."

Guileless eyes stared up at him, waiting for him to continue. "But I suppose it doesn't matter. I would advise caution though."

From somewhere not far off, they heard merry singing, though it was a little off key. The all-encompassing good mood in the air around them made Tobirama wonder if he should have simply kept his observation to himself. Although, Sakura was a bit too headstrong not to press the issue. If it hadn't been for her, would he ever have found the courage to face himself, face Sanna and the past without being dredged in guilt and self-loathing?

"I'm using caution now, you know. It's not like Madara has me wrapped around his finger."

No, she had him wrapped around hers, which was actually worse.


"What's that supposed to mean?" she challenged, "because it sounds like you don't believe me. I'm not…" she rubbed her arm, "hiding anything."

"I'm a sensor-type, Sakura." he said calmly. "You'd find it difficult to fool me if you tried."

"Well when you put it that way…" she rolled her eyes.

"It's nothing to do with doubting the nature of your involvement with Madara, however ill-advised I find it." he grumbled. "I only bring it up at all because…" Tobirama stopped, mentally berated himself for faltering, and then pressed on anyway. "…I care about you." There. He had said it. Was that so hard? He had never thought to put himself out there and try forming friendly attachments. There were those within his clan he was on good terms with. However, while Hashirama thrived on being sociable, easily making connections, Tobirama was mostly content in quiet, solitary environments. It wasn't that he didn't care for others at all, but he'd found that people had their assumptions about someone like him. And he never cared enough to bother taking the time to correct them. "I consider us on good enough terms to admit that, for what it's worth."

"You're saying you consider us friends," Sakura teased, sounding as if she was prodding him to use the correct word.

"Friends," he repeated. Tobirama didn't have an overabundance of experience in that department, but he knew that he did enjoy working beside her on research, talking out some of his more complicated scientific theories. He had gotten used to the calm silences they could share, finding that he appreciated the level of trust they'd established more than he imagined he would. The Senju didn't even mind her bossy nature from time to time, her insistence to do things her way when they cooked together. "Yes, that's accurate."

"Considering I thought we already were friends, I'd be insulted if it wasn't." She laughed, and he found himself starting to smile. "Wait, what're we doing at the canal?" They weren't the only ones, of course. More people than he anticipated had gathered, excitement rolling through the masses as they ordered themselves into a line.

"Not very observant of you," he remarked lightly, but she only stared at him in confusion, prompting him to elaborate. "Tell me Sakura, have you ever heard of a water lantern festival?"

She furrowed her brow, a memory apparently clicking in place as she nodded excitedly. "Yeah! When I was younger, there was one in a place I traveled to with some teammates. But…we ended up having to leave before the night it was scheduled for."

"Well…" Tobirama watched as the line began to move, lanterns constructed out of chakra absorbent paper passed out to the sizable crowd by volunteers, "It seems you'll have another chance to take part in one." It didn't take long for their turns to arrive, and the look on the pinkette's face when she was given a lantern was full of unbridled wonder. Everyone else's faces were much the same as they followed the instructions of those handing out lanterns, applying a small amount of chakra into them. As designed, the closed 'petals' of the paper unfurled when activated, turning each into a lit lotus that bloomed before their eyes.

"Whoa," she yelped, "Th-the chakra lit the paper! All the different colors…It's almost like anodizing metal." Somehow, Tobirama had known the process would get her rambling, and it almost made him chuckle. "I'm guessing in accordance to each person's chakra signature?"

The Senju didn't think he would ever grow tired of how easily Sakura followed along with concepts that would go over many other's heads. "You'd guess correctly."

She held hers level with his, a fuschia that complimented the starlight silver of his lotus. "But how?"

"A simple application of chakra theory to mimic the process of instant dyeing. Completely aesthetic for the most part."

The line was progressing again, this time ushering them to the water's edge, the lowest embankment of the canal. "Are you telling me you designed these?"

He lifted one shoulder, "Is that so unbelievable?"

"N-No," she flustered a bit, finding a spot and carefully bending down as everyone held their flowers above the surface of the water, waiting for the signal. Tobirama settled beside her. "I mean yes, a little. But only because it's brilliant, but you're normally more for…practicality."

"As a principle, yes. Normally," Tobirama agreed, studying their hands and the lanterns held side by side. "But every now and again scientific exploration does leave room for a bit of…frivolous creativity. I thought if there was ever going to be a time, it might be now." If there was ever going to be an occasion special enough for Tobirama to try his hand at creating something simply because it was pretty and not because it served any greater purpose, it would be for her birthday. However, that was hardly a sentiment he could voice aloud. It felt like the sort of thing to express privately. Sakura seemed to understand the inferred message nonetheless, her grin growing recklessly joyful as the volunteers shouted for everyone to release their lanterns. All at once the paper garden was afloat, drifting away slowly to the cheers of those at the bank. For a second they all collectively stopped to admire them, flowers carrying the hopes and wishes—and perhaps even released doubts and fears—of hundreds, a full spectrum of colors twinkling brightly on the inky water.

As they continued their charted course, some knocking gently together, many villagers up. Sakura glanced around, standing when everyone around her did. "Huh? Is it over already?" She wondered, sounding a bit disappointed.

"No," Tobirama reassured, "Though we should hurry."

He offered his hand, vaguely thinking they could be separated. The man inwardly jolted, wondering what had possessed him to casually extend the unspoken invitation for skinship and almost retracting his hand, until smaller fingers gripped his tightly.

Sakura appeared shy for a second, as if questioning it herself. Strange, how they sometimes still lapsed into uncertainty with each other considering the level of intimacy that had been shared out of necessity while in The Under and even beyond.

Deciding it was best not to give either of them a chance to question it, Tobirama began walking, and Sakura matched his pace after a beat. The procession slunk along through the night as one, hurrying to follow the lotuses. The lanterns were a near perfect mirror of the stars scattered across the night sky, save the myriad of hues they happened to come in. "Where do you think they'll end up?" Sakura whispered, gaze held by the glow of the paper blooms.

"Are we speaking logically or wishfully?"

Sakura cut him a pointed side-eye, and Tobirama huffed. "It was a valid question," he said.

"Only you would ask that." She muttered, though there wasn't any annoyance present in her tone. Staring out over the bridge they had all gathered on to watch the lanterns disappearing down the canal, the luminous green of her eyes rivaled the lights on the water. "It's customary for people to make wishes and prayers on paper lanterns before releasing them, right? I think it's most important that those reach their destinations."

"I take it you made a wish of your own."

Sakura turned, staring up at him. "Not a wish, really. It was more of a…promise. To keep protecting moments like this, and the future too."

How very like her, he thought, to spend her birthday wish promising to continue giving her all against the rogue gods that threatened them all.

"Sakura…" He reached into his pocket, the same discreet one he had sewn in all his yukata—because he never went anywhere without some type of weapon concealed on his person—and pulled forth the small object he had been waiting to present to her. Now seemed as suitable a time as any, before he could turn the decision over in his head too many times, give it a chance to sound too presumptuous and inappropriate.

Unaware of the mental battle he wanted to avoid waging with himself, she turned her attention to him with hardly a blink. "Hm? What's tha—oh…" Unceremoniously, Tobirama picked up her hand and dropped his gift in her palm. As usual, her expressions weren't masked at all, surprise and then curiosity filling her face as she lifted her hand level to her eyes. In the dark, she was bound to have trouble seeing clearly, so he waited patiently. "Is this a pearl?" Her thumb rubbed over the opalescent surface of the dazzling blue pearl set into the simple silver band.

Tobirama had been skeptical about the nature of the gift being something that could so easily be taken as…intimate instead of innocent. Then again, nothing was more intimate than some of the experiences they had already shared. Nevertheless, it was the otters that coaxed him into picking out a pearl jewelry merchants would consider rare and priceless from the innumerable stash they kept in The Couch. When they heard Sakura's birthday was approaching, they offered to let him take as many as they wished, but Tobirama followed his intuition and stuck to his minimalist roots. He couldn't see Sakura caring overly much for anything as opulent as a pearl-encrusted brooch with a thousand of the tiny treasures crafted in. Based on the way she took in the singular gleaming gem, the Senju felt he had made the correct choice. "Courtesy of the otters," he explained simply.

Sakura's beautiful features reflected a touch of disappointment in the moonlight. "Oh, that's very sweet of them. I just… I thought it was from you."

Floundering inwardly, Tobirama cleared his throat, "Yes, me as well." It had been his idea to set the pearl into a ring. The otters were only too happy to provide the materials and craft the jewelry the kunoichi now held pinched between her fingers.

The momentary dimness to her visage faded, Sakura slipping the ring onto her right index finger after some consideration. It looked like it belonged there, perfectly at home on her pale, slender hand, all the more captivating when her nails were so vibrantly painted. "I've never seen one that isn't white." she told him.

"The otters have them in every color imaginable. According to them, colors have their own meanings, which is why when they use them for currency they have different monetary amounts."

"Thank you," Sakura smiled shyly, wrapping her left hand around the one with the ring and placing both near her heart. "I'll take good care of this."

A tranquil stillness enveloped them, no words exchanged as they stood huddled close long after the lanterns were out of sight and the people around them had started to leave the bridge. Sakura had begun to lean into him at some point. Their hands had even found each other again, pulsing hotly. Or maybe it just seemed so because he was hyperaware of her palm in his. This really wasn't so bad.

People took in his stern demeanor, pragmatism and penchant for seclusion, and they thought they knew all there was to know about him. And that was fine. They probably did not realize that the bloody, tragic times they lived in wore him down as much as anyone else. It was for this reason that he took what reprieves life offered when he was able. Tobirama grounded himself in the small things; quiet afternoons spent fishing, reaching a difficult breakthrough in research, tending to his koi pond, or soaking by himself at the hot spring. Now, he had this too. Spending time in Sakura's company under the stars. Dangers lying beyond them could wait.

Still, if there was one thing Tobirama knew…all good things had to end. He knew their time together for the night had concluded the moment he made out the shape of something bobbing down the canal, headed towards them. Sakura spotted it too, mumbling in speculation about what it could be. There wasn't a need to take too many guesses; otters weren't too common a sight in Fire Country outside their ancestral home in the valley. Chuya, ever chatty and amiable, had told him that they knew every otter clan from Choshu to the far eastern coast. There weren't many on the whole, some having been absorbed into bigger clans over the generations, killed off by too many changes caused by human expansion, or moved on, far beyond the sea. The otters of Choshu's Neck were the biggest and strongest group to be found.

In short, seeing a large brown otter within the village could only mean one thing. "It's Noburu!" Sakura exclaimed as the semi-aquatic mammal shot from the canal, far higher than any average otter would be capable of.

He landed smoothly on the railing of the bridge, steadying himself before rising to stand on his back feet. "Ah, a human who thinks I bear remembering. I think my opinion of you has improved by a considerable margin." Nose twitching, he studied Tobirama from the corner of his eye, "You on the other hand…"

"You're hardly the most agreeable messenger," Tobirama closed his eyes and waited for the grumpy otter to wind himself down.

"After spending more time than I care to away from the Neck on your reconnaissance assignment, I feel I have the right to—"

"The sooner you relay your findings, the sooner you're free to return."

That bit of truth stopped Noburu from a no doubt long and winding rant.

Sakura cast a strange look between them, "Um…"

"Hm?" The animal cocked his head, his furry brow raised. "Interrupting time with your mate, am I?"

"I'm…not really clear on what it is you need to discuss, but if it's private I'll just excuse myself." Sakura intoned with strained politeness. Had it been another day, Tobirama might have told her it wasn't necessary. They were beyond issues of trust. But, it wasn't any other day. It was her birthday, and Sakura was…Sakura. She would take on any problem of the nature he was dealing with as her own. The pinkette wouldn't remain in the mood for festivities if she caught wind of the conspiracy he'd had Noburu investigate. Thus, the Sakura Festival would come to an early close—there was no festival to be had without the one it was in honor of—and he would be pinned as solely responsible. Yes, best to let her carry on enjoying her evening.

"Aa," he nodded quietly, "Happy birthday, Sakura."

She waved sweetly, wandering off down the bridge.

The otter jumped from his perch, staring him down in boredom. "Sending your mate away so suddenly? A bit crass."

"Come with me," Tobirama grunted, "The information should be passed along in a secure location."

A light breeze caressed the back of her neck, Sakura drawing her arms around herself as she wandered through the festival. The pinkette found herself alone for the first time all day, and as much as she had been cherishing all the time with her friends, a moment to herself was nice as well. They truly had gone all out to create a birthday worth remembering. Everything was perfect…

The thought trailed off on a long sigh, one that had her breathing in the night air, smoky with the scent from a nearby food stall. Lured in by the phantom taste of takoyaki, Sakura moved in a direct path straight for the vendor. The line was blessedly short, and the team of three operating the stall moved quickly to give people their orders.

The man wearing an apron and flipping the octopus balls on the griddle dabbed at his brow with a small towel and smiled at her. Sakura smiled back, "One please."

"Hmm…that does look tasty. Why not make it two?"

If she wasn't so used to surprise pop ins by now, Sakura would have fallen over. Instead, she settled for placing a hand over her heart, eyes disbelieving as she whirled around to meet the golden-green gaze she hadn't seen in a while.

"Mizuchi," she whispered, the dragon goddess standing there in the flesh. The woman behind the takoyaki stall timidly calling for her attention hardly registered. In her normal blasé manner, Mizuchi gently swept her out of the way, paying for both of them and accepting the two orders. Where did she even get the money?

"Ah, a human festival," her eyes squinted happily as she looked at the lanterns carefully strung up everywhere, the colorful clothing everyone was wearing, down to the hot food in her hand. Sakura was too busy questioning the deity's appearance. Tonight of all nights. Problems of the divine nature never occurred conveniently, but this was a bit too much.

"Don't fret," Mizuchi tutted, beginning to munch on her takoyaki with relish. Unsurprisingly, she was gorgeous, and had the good grace to appear in her human form, free of horns. But the supernaturally charged aura radiating around her that marked her as something other than the average (stunning) woman was hard to ignore. "This is a time for celebration. Walk with me? I'd like to get a better look at this splendid revelry."

Sakura tilted her head, tentatively taking her first bite of the snack. It was an explosion of flavor from the moment it touched her tongue, possibly the best takoyaki she had ever had the pleasure to eat. "Uh, okay…"

Mizuchi attracted stares immediately, people fawning as they stared openly, several men even offering flowers. The goddess was all cool acceptance, letting the unsuspecting mortals gush over her as though it were just another duty of being a heavenly being. Then again… Sakura considered it was, wasn't it? Gods had once fought over the idolatry of humans.

She pointed out anything that caught her eye, talking about the traditions used to honor gods in festivals thousands of years before the girl existed.

"Oh, forgive me!" Mizuchi clucked after rambling for a few minutes. The admirers had finally given them some breathing room after the deity grew bored and dismissed them. "You must be wondering why I've appeared so abruptly. You're only too easy to read, after all."

"Isn't it about…some new trouble on the horizon?" Sakura ventured a guess, though she truly didn't want to be right.

"There's always some new trouble on the horizon." Mizuchi sighed wistfully. "However, that's not the reason I've come. This day marks another year for you, does it not? Well, at least in this time."

Sakura nodded slowly, "I guess it does." So the dragoness had only shown herself…to wish her a happy birthday?

"Good!" Mizuchi nodded in satisfaction, using her thumb to wipe sauce from the corner of her lips, then popping the digit in her mouth. "I wish we deities could experience something so novel as a 'birthday', but our existences are so long it hardly matters."

"So, how old are you, Mizuchi?" Sakura finished the last of her takoyaki, tempted to lick her fingers.

"Old enough to remember when the stars were new, see the rise and fall of countless flimsy empires humans thought they built to last." She scoffed. "Though their assumptions that if they only create something big enough that perhaps one day they'll supersede the need for gods is, in its own hubris way, charming."

"Uh-huh…" Sakura side-eyed her. "Are you sure this isn't god-business?"

"If it was, I would have no trouble telling you." Mizuchi's dark hair rippled as she moved, each strand luminous and silky. Not that Sakura expected to see a speck of gray. She certainly didn't look millennia old. How old did a god need to be before they began to show signs of aging? "Relax, put your busy mind to rest with the knowledge that these remaining hours of moonlit fun belong to you. I assure you any quests for vengeance and god-hunting can wait."

The twinkle in her unusual eyes said 'trust me' and in spite of everything, these days Sakura did, for the most part. It was just an odd little feeling she couldn't shake. Something in the air.


"Ohh," The goddess' hum was a song as she placed a hand on her shoulder, directing her attention to a man standing across the straight. "Look who it is. My preferred Uchiha."

Through the many people on the streets, Sakura spotted Izuna, standing and talking near a ramen shop with another man from the Uchiha clan she vaguely remembered seeing several times during visits to the compound. "You should go to him," Mizuchi gave her a prodding shove. "He looks a bit…nettled."

"You came to see me, now you want me to…" When she turned, Sakura rolled her eyes to find she was talking to empty air. "You vanished. Of course you vanished."

It wasn't anything that was going to stupefy her at this point though; Mizuchi was acting well within her nature, being a flippant immortal being and all. Not to mention that she hadn't had the chance to speak with Izuna at all since getting back. She'd wanted to give him a little piece of her mind over the trip to Mount Moya and the fact that he hadn't warned her, but laying eyes on him softened that ire. And Mizuchi was right. He looked annoyed enough. Hoping she wasn't about to interrupt something he would rather continue, Sakura stealthily made her way over to the conversing pair.

Given the nature of this night, the last place Izuna wanted to find himself was in a bad mood. He had been hoping to spot Sakura, having traded with Madara since his brother had drawn the last lot.

He had taken great issue with getting to see Sakura last out of everyone that night, and insisted vehemently they needed to do several rounds of draws before a final order could be decided upon. No one else agreed, content with their orders. To avoid tensions worsening, Izuna simply volunteered to trade with him. Not that the younger Uchiha minded. Going last meant that he would get to spend more time with her unrushed.

He wondered why none of the others realized that…although it was to his good fortune that they hadn't. At present, she was probably still with Tobirama, and Izuna was a touch smug inside that he would get to go and cut in. Yes, the two of them had agreed on a truce, realizing that it was for the best if they both intended to keep orbiting around the same pink-haired woman. That didn't stop the desire for her undivided attention from edging into his brain.

It was a bit hard for an Uchiha to want to share, except with perhaps another Uchiha. Madara already filled that slot. Besides, he wasn't going to be able to pry his brother away from Sakura if he cut off his legs and arms.

Sharing with a Senju in any capacity, on the other hand, was something he was still adjusting to the idea of… Being lost in his thoughts caused him to bump shoulders with someone walking in the opposite direction, and Izuna started to apologize automatically.

Instead, they clutched onto him before he could brush past, and he found himself staring into cousin's face. "Izuna, it's you!" Hikaku exclaimed.

"It's me," he repeated, confused.

That was how he found himself beginning a lengthy conversation with his clansman, in which Hikaku explained that he had actually been looking for Madara, but literally bumped into him first. Hikaku's younger brother Yugo had overheard a conversation he likely hadn't been meant to, rumblings about Maro looking for allies in some of the villages other clans he assumed were discontented. The Shimura being a prime candidate. More of Maro's escalations. Still, they bared consideration given what they could mean. The only issue was having to speculate on what he was up to. That game had long since grown old. Maybe it was time to bring in a spy of his own…


He and Hikaku paused in their hushed deliberating, finding Sakura cautiously standing there. His heart leapt to his throat, her appearance calling to mind a benevolent nature spirit. It could have been the flowering crown atop her head (no doubt courtesy of Hashirama) or the way the makeup really brought out the green of her eyes, but Izuna could only stare mindlessly.

"Is this a bad time?" she asked.

"Not at all," Hikaku spoke first. "In fact, Izuna would probably much rather entertain the company of a pretty lady than my own." He nudged him with a grin, and that was when he remembered to close his mouth.

"Your timing is perfect as always, Sakura." he told her sincerely. Hikaku said something about leaving them 'to it' and slipped off into the night, Izuna extending a hand toward the pinkette, who took his in return. "You look amazing."

She blushed, barking a short laugh. "Really? Not bad for a girl who spent most of last night climbing a mountain in a lightning storm, huh?"

Izuna rubbed his neck guiltily, turning away from her accusatory gaze. "About…that…I mean, I should have told you. Of course I should have. I'm sorry, we were just trying to keep you from figuring out the surprise—"

She leaned up, placing a finger softly to his lips. "I get it." she grinned teasingly. "Well…now, anyway. I'll have you know I passed the rite. I'll show you all the feathers later."

Izuna was definitely going to make sure the clan elders were conveniently around when she did. It would send them into a conniption. Most of them had children and grandchildren who had attempted the Sky Ridge Run and failed. "That can be arranged," he agreed, "But first…"

"But first, you should probably make it up to me." she suggested, brow arched expectantly.

"I should, shouldn't I?" Izuna took her hand, already having the perfect idea in mind.


His heartbeat sunk into the rhythm of the drumbeats, the melodious chords being plucked on a string instrument infusing the dance with an upbeat tune. All around them, people sang as one to a song many shinobi families knew, both heart-pounding and uplifting. He hummed along under his breath, beaming as Sakura managed to pick up the steps she told him she had never done before. Izuna had endured far more awkward dances with far clumsier partners, but even if she had been two left feet, he still would be having the time of his life.

"Here comes the chorus!" He shouted over the noises of the dance, guiding Sakura through another step, then a half twirl.

"I guess it's a good thing I didn't load up on snacks then," she giggled, a cheery flush to her face and excitement in her eyes. Her hairstyle was holding well, but what had been left to hang fanned behind her as they moved. The Uchiha was sure his was in much the same state, at the mercy of the breeze they generated. "But this is fun,"

"I'm glad," he replied, "You said you weren't much of a dancer, but I'm starting to think you were just being humble." They had been poking around vendors, chatting amicably, when the sound of a dance in progress caught his ear. Suddenly, he remembered the drums he had procured in Sora-ku, and dragged her off to see. What festival was complete without dancing? The people in the middle of their spirited steps certainly agreed, and for a while they watched together. Izuna had suggested they join on the next dance, and Sakura had mumbled that she had only ever danced in her bedroom. A little more coaxing and perhaps the unfair use of a sad, puppy dog face, and they were joining the forming crowd.

Sakura's moves were stiff in the beginning as she focused on keeping pace with him, but Izuna was a patient teacher, and it was easy to tell that she was gaining confidence the longer the dance went on. Perhaps to be expected from someone with her ability to pick things up swiftly, it wasn't long before the young woman matched him perfectly. Izuna mused that it was almost like she had the Sharingan. "It's just beginner's luck." she panted, leaning on him as the dance ended.

A different melody began to play, and a woman with a beautiful singing voice started the next song, one about love through all the seasons. "Oh! Okay, I think I'm ready this time," Sakura's face was so adorably determined, Izuna could do nothing but oblige.

He couldn't really bring himself to tell her they were dancing a couple's dance, but she had to have noticed many of the moves required them to stay pressed close to each other. When his eyes dipped down, her cheeks were warm, but he didn't think physical exertion was the only reason why. Izuna could feel the increase in her heartbeat as they leaned in, chest to chest. She had to have been able to feel his as well, which was in no better shape. The simple fact was that being this close, inhaling her scent, holding her in his arms, always drove him crazy. It had for a long time. Yearning cut through him like a lightning jutsu, and he had to rein it in or risk her discovering just how badly she affected him.

Some of the other couples were kissing as they dipped and swayed, defiantly choosing to remain attached to each other's mouths over their need for air.

"Oh, um…" It seemed to be dawning, and Sakura winced. "Sorry, I got a little carried away there."

"It's alright," he replied, tone calm. She had gotten carried away, and maybe he just liked to pretend. "The song's almost over now."

When it did end, it felt too soon. Izuna guided her over to some seating for spectators where they could catch their breath. Truthfully, he had the stamina for another ten dances before he'd begin to feel winded. His clan always had very rigorous dances at their festivals. Sakura had a light sheen of sweat on her face, but didn't look totally exhausted either.

"This seems like the perfect chance for a cool down period." Sakura wiped at her brow. "That was really great. I never knew I could move like that in a yukata."

"You were a natural," he commended, "You'll have to stop by one of the Uchiha festivals in the future."

"Is there lots of dancing at those?" She watched as some couples returned to the dance square and new ones joined in.

"A fair bit," he answered honestly. No sooner had he said that than a handsome man with short, black hair swaggered his way over to the singers, whispering something to them and motioning to the woman waiting for him amongst the other couples. The woman who had sung the last song bowed, Izuna reading her lips as she replied, 'I'll do my best,'

"What's Kazunari up to?" he wondered.

Sakura stared as if she could determine that at a glance. "Do you know him?"

"My cousin." Izuna chuckled, " He's right between Madara and I in age. Definitely wasn't Madara's favorite relative growing up, either. Kazunari can be a bit of a braggart, and has a tendency to inflame tempers. The pissing contests they'd get into were legendary." That often left he and Sanna to try mediating when cooler heads did not prevail without intervention. "That woman he's approaching is Teijo. They've been courting for a while. I'm sure they'll be marrying soon."

"Ohh," Sakura hummed, satisfied with being brought up to speed.

The next sound that reached their ears was deep, rich, and heavy. The presence of drums was at the forefront of the song, and then the alluring cadence of a flute joined in.

Evidently, Kazunari had requested a song, and not just any song. A song that adults never let the children join whenever it was played. It was only for married couples or those seriously courting. Some people declared their intentions of marriage to their partner through the performance of the dance.

Right from the start, onlookers were held captivated. It was hard to focus anywhere else when this dance took place. It was always so high-energy, raw and sensual. The woman's honeyed singing voice began the throaty lyrics that accompanied the dance, Teijo and Kazunari lost in each other as they moved. At times it was hard to tell where one began and the other ended, their hands roving each other's body, as was customary for this dance. Sakura gulped, clenching her thigh tightly as she turned to him helplessly. "This almost feels too intimate to watch, it's like…"

"They're making love with their clothes on?" Izuna smirked. "That's the intention. You're laying a claim and declaring the intimacy of your love for the world to see. Kazunari must not have been able to wait for the next Uchiha gathering for this. I wouldn't expect anything less from such a show off."

He followed the point where Sakura's gaze was locked, on the bruising grip Kazunari had on Teijo's hips. He dipped her as she lay bonelessly against him, her back to his chest, and he sucked at a spot behind her ear.

A breathy groan rasped from her lips, and Sakura squirmed. "It's…it's kind of sweet to have that." She finally said quietly. "I mean, a love so full of passion that it's practically boiling over. They don't mind the world seeing how deeply they belong to each other."

"Love and the Uchiha go hand in hand." Izuna was brought back to his childhood, to seeing some couples who had truly found love he dared not even hope for. His parents were among the couples he had always thought truly seemed to meld well together. "My mother gathered all of us together and told us an Uchiha's greatest weapon would always be love, not the Sharingan."

"Those are very powerful words," Sakura mused. "And very wise."

"They are," Izuna sighed, "but at the time I just didn't understand. She went on to tell us there are two types of love our clan holds dear…love you'd kill for, and love you'd die for."

A pang of sorrow nearly made his eyes water. In the end, his mother's love had been the latter. She had died saving them, so profoundly did she love her children and value their lives. "I didn't have any reason to think any differently. Killing and dying aren't just a ninja's sole purpose in this world, it's their birthright. At least that's what I thought for so long."

Sakura leaned in so that she was peering gently into his eyes, hanging off his every word. Her hand hovered above his, as if she was hesitant to place it down. "And now?"

"Things have changed." Izuna laughed a little, then paused. "I don't even know where to start with how different my life is now. But, the way time flows is a mysterious thing, and it's gotten me thinking…" Taking the initiative, the Uchiha let his hand rest on top of hers instead. "Sakura, I want to walk a new path. I want to walk a path paved by the kind of love…I can live for." he confessed. That was the kind of love he only saw when he looked into her eyes and saw his reflection staring back. A future unmarred by the expectations he had dealt with since birth, being a son of the Uchiha clan. Instead, he was just Izuna to her, first and foremost, and that was something he cherished above all else.

All the happenings around them faded away completely. Teijo and Kazunari's scorching dance moves, the music, all the people. All except her. So many emotions normally played across her face at any given time, and now it was…blank. What was that, shock? Izuna's heart flipped in terror, wondering if he had just made the greatest mistake of his life. Some secrets were best taken to the grave.

"Sakura?" he called gently.

She blinked, long and slow. "I-I'm here," The cute answer brought a smile to his lips, in spite of his own anxiety.

Izuna absently brushed a thumb over her cheek. "I'm not looking for any sort of commitment from you, you know. You don't even have to respond. Nothing has to change. I just…I've carried this inside for so long at this point."

Sakura's face was brighter than a burning candle, red to her roots, green eyes shimmering and cycling rapidly through a number of emotions. "It's okay, I just can't believe you…you really feel that way. About me."

"Why wouldn't I?" Izuna rasped. "Give me one reason why I'd be able to stop myself from falling in love with you."

"It's…it's me. I'm just Sakura. But you're Izuna. If I hadn't met you when I got here, I don't know what I'd do…you're kind, patient, supportive, pretty…" Izuna burst out laughing, placing a palm to her mouth so he could take a minute.

"I'm flattered, but I could say those very same things about you, and a lot more."

Glaring, Sakura muttered something muffled by his hand, before plucking it away from her lips. "There's no need to lay it on thick. That's embarrassing. Plus, I want to get back to—"

Izuna jolted, watching as her eyes glazed, "Sakura…? What's wrong?"

She shook, teeth chattering and all.

"What's happening? Please, talk to me," he pleaded. The confession. This couldn't be about the confession. It was too abrupt. Something else was affecting her, and he was terrified about the possibilities of what it was.

Her hands flew to her ears, a deafening scream that stopped the world making him physically sick. "Where's that pressure coming from?!" she cried. Stumbling to her feet, she began to sway away from him, everyone looking on in apparent shock. He attempted to catch her, seeing that her body was on the verge of collapse, but the unsteadiness passed as quickly as it came, and that worried him even more. "Something's happening…" she said urgently, her eyes no longer hazy. She was back with him, but it wasn't enough. He had to know what was going on and how he could help. "I have to go!"

She would have tried to run, if not for him snagging her hand. "Sakura, wait! If you're telling me there's danger, then you can't expect me to let you go alone. Remember what I just told you. You mean everything to me."

When he cupped her face between his palms, she leaned into his touch, eyes fluttering shut momentarily. "…You mean a lot to me too," she whispered. "…This whole world does. Maybe too much…that's why I have to see what just happened."

He stepped away from her, unsure what she meant, his mind stretching to its limits to grasp the hidden meaning he was sure was there in her words. "I know you're not going to back down, but I'm not either. We go together."

Several dozen fireworks rocketed up into the air, exploding brilliantly in dazzling patterns. Yurine smiled up at the sky, then caught eyes with the giant of a man next to her. Their slate hue shimmered, liquid mercury in a bottomless gaze trained so intensely on her.

All night, the blonde had been doing her best to ignore the thudding of her heart every time he stood close. She didn't want to admit how easily he made her laugh, or how intrigued she still was with his roguish gentleman routine. The attentiveness Goemon showed her was something she had never gotten from a man before, as much as she had wished for it. Now it was happening so naturally, and while part of her heart was singing the sweetest melody, an overwhelming majority was…anxious. Scared, even.

The lopsided grin he'd been sporting fell into a concerned frown, and Yurine understood her apprehension must have been showing. "Not sure what's happening up there," he tapped his temple, "but anything I can do to help? If nothing else, I'm a good listener."

Guilt stabbed at her insides, twisting her stomach into an uneasy knot. He really hadn't given her any reason to feel this much wariness about letting her guard down with him. On the contrary, everything about the Hatake told her he was safe. "Mm…" Yurine cast her gaze out over the water, pops of breviloquent bursts making the canal beautiful. The thought of playing off her feelings did occur, what with the nervousness that he would take it the wrong way. But…at some point or another, it would have to be addressed if his intentions were what she thought them to be. They were alone at present; it was a golden opportunity. "Hey…could you answer me honestly?" She peeked at him in the dark, seeing the way he tensed before nodding once, solemn.

"For you Lady Yurine? Always." He placed a hand over his heart, and she took a deep breath, prepping herself.

"You…you've seemed really interested in me since we met. And I'm flattered," she mumbled, "But the more I get to know you, the more it sets my head in a spin." Goemon listened to her confession without once interrupting, giving her the courage to finish speaking.

"I've spent my whole life hoping for some fairytale, but the older I got the more I realized…why everyone would look at me with so much pity. I'm a kunoichi, so everything's always going to be complicated." Yurine gulped down her nerves, which were fighting full force to make her clam up. "But I never cared. I want to find someone who'll understand my dreams, reassure me through my fears, push me to be stronger. I want to fall in love, and…" Similar to her attempt to confess to Izuna months ago, Yurine found she just couldn't do it. Her red face found a home in the curve of her palms. Almost instantly, a big hand wrapped consolingly around her shoulder.

"Are you waiting for me to brush you off?" Goemon asked, tone managing the right balance of sympathetic without being mocking. "It's exactly because the world isn't always the kindest to dreamers that I think you're brave for doing it anyway." A rough hand slid around her wrist, tugging one of her hands down and then holding it between both of his. "Your dreams are safe with me, Yurine. On my honor as a gentleman thief."

Stunned, Yurine could only stare, trying to gauge his seriousness. "You…you do realize what that sounds like, right?" she croaked. "I don't want to get the wrong idea."

"You don't have the wrong idea," Goemon's laugh was warm and indulgent, a shiver running through her. Was this really happening? "Is that so hard to believe?"

Yurine nodded rapidly, on the verge of spilling every insecurity she had been concealing. She wasn't much of a gambler, but as far as making wages, this must have been what it meant to go all-in. Let the chips fall where they may after everything was laid out on the table. How to best go about explaining that she was a mess without scaring him away? "Um, if that's the case, then I need to be honest with you…" she twisted her fingers together, biting at her lip. "I've never really been courted before, so I'm not sure how it's supposed to go. You're…you. I'm sure you've been pursued by plenty of women, s-so I understand if I'm plain in comparison once you really get to know me."

"I could never think of you as anything less than captivating. And, it doesn't matter what you don't know," A gentle thumb under her chin directed her to look up at him again. "What matters is paying attention to how you feel. Your heart can't steer you wrong."

Except that emotion was the weakest asset a shinobi could possess. Though he was a samurai, so maybe no one had ever told him that. Not that she ever subscribed to that popular opinion being correct anyway. Shinobi were just humans with extraordinary abilities. And all humans had the capacity for feeling.

"Do you always know just what to say?" she giggled.

"My ma would disagree," he winked. "It's trial and error."

"Huh, and here I thought you practiced charming lines in a mirror," she teased, her chest feeling lighter already.

"Ah, so you take me for a man of vanity." His hand slipped away from her face, and she was embarrassed to admit she already missed it. "Well I'll have you know—"

Yurine felt the heat before she saw anything, her pulse accelerating as if her heart was doing its level best to imitate the fireworks they had been watching. Clutching her chest, the kunoichi leaned weakly against the rail. Something magnificent and terrifying streaked across the sky, something that was going in the wrong direction to be a firework. For a fraction of a second, Yurine was positive it was a falling star. Crying out, she turned away and shielded her eyes, although the vague, superlit shape was seared on the backs of her eyelids.

"Look out, it's coming this way!" Goemon snatched her hand more roughly than he probably intended, barreling down the bridge and away from danger as the fiery piece of heaven made impact with the water. The stone foundation of the structure they stood on rocked, and Yurine screamed, sure they would go crashing into the water. A plume of water shot as tall as some of the buildings in the village, Goemon getting behind her to tuck her protectively into his chest, back to the threat.

Clenching his arm for dear life, Yurine squeezed her eyes shut, the immediate thoughts racing through her mind behind that this close to the village, she hoped her brother and friends were alright. Hell, any and everyone in Konoha!

"Hey, hey…we're okay." A voice rasped into her ear, Goemon comically doubled over so that his considerable height could fold in around her. "I think…that it's over."

"What was it?" Yurine turned in his arms, not protesting over the arm still banded tightly around her middle. She tried peering around the edge of his broad body. There was nothing but calm out on the water from what she could tell.

"Dunno, but let's not stick around. This might be something that needs to be reported to the big boss." Goemon said gravely, and she couldn't find it in herself to argue.

"Y-Yeah," Realizing the closeness of the position they maintained, Yurine blushed, attempting to leap away. "I-I think it's safe to let go now, don't you?"

"Never can be too careful." He said simply.

Considering the sound of someone or something breaking above the surface, and the splashing that followed, Yurine had a sick feeling he was very, very right.

He found everyone exactly as he expected to find them, stone-faced and strung tight like a bowstring before release of an arrow. Given the amount of room they needed, the team met at a pre-cleared section of the Nara Forest. One would have thought that Shikamaru would be a bit more concerned about using his clan's ancestral forest for such a potent, dangerous jutsu. However, Naruto casually explained that the body of an Akatsuki member was fertilizing the soil, and Sasuke said no more about it.

"Alright," Shikamaru assumed his usual slouch, standing beside Lady Hokage, the bulge of eye bags visible on his tired face. The slacker had actually been putting in some effort, in large part because Ino wasn't afraid to put a little pressure on his neck if he didn't. "So we've got our team heading into the past, and the one staying here to monitor and get 'em out fast if it comes to that. Remember the objective is clear—we'll go in and locate Sakura, then it's back home. There's no need to linger or interact with anyone in that timeline more than necessary. Who knows what kind of grave consequences it'll have if we're careless."

"Right!" Everyone exclaimed.

"We've already discussed it, but unfortunately you'll be working under the constraints of a time limit I'm afraid." Orochimaru informed them, the eerie mirth of his grin making it hard to imagine he found it unfortunate. This was nothing more than an extended trial of experimentation for the disgraced sanin. Sasuke monitored his every move during the preparation, wondering when the ulterior motives for his cooperation would begin to show. The Hokage keeping him on a tight chain—figuratively and literally—were all that kept him from causing issues. But he had spent three years in close quarters with the man. He knew he was more prone to survival than a rat on a sinking ship.

"So that means no wasted time if you can help it," Tsunade added, clenching the chain tethered to her former teammate a bit tighter. "The longer you stay there the more difficult it could be to pull you back through the time stream. It wouldn't do me any good to lose all of you."

Naruto, who had been soaking it all in, shifted his pack, cocking his head with a boyish grin and a determination more powerful than any Sasuke had ever seen in his eyes. "Don't worry baa-chan. We'll be back soon with Sakura. Count on it!"

The Hokage lowered her head, closing her eyes. After a minute's pause, she released a long sigh, staring the blonde down with a small smile. "I'd come too if I could, but Shizune tells me that's ill-advised." She rolled her eyes, and the dark-haired woman he knew to be the Hokage's right-hand woman scoffed. "Just remember, you can't save anyone if you don't prioritize your own safety. If there's a tough situation you can't handle, get out of there."

"Hey, what're you saying?" Naruto grumbled, "We beat Madara during the war, so we can handle anything we find in the past just fine…"

Sasuke almost spoke up to warn Naruto about hubris coming before the fall, but Kakashi laid a hand on his shoulder, speaking before Naruto could piss off the Hokage. "I'll see to it that this knucklehead doesn't do anything too reckless." he vowed.

Naruto's cheeks puffed, transparently petulant now. "Kakashi-sensei," he groaned. "You're supposed to be on my side."

"I'm on the side of us getting home in one piece with the timeline intact." The jounin responded matter-of-factly, "Now come on."

"Said your final goodbyes?" Kabuto smirked, adjusting his glasses with a chuckle. "Then it seems the only thing left to do is begin. Sage, if you will?"

Hagoromo flickered into existence, patiently floating there as they braced for the strain of being flung into the far past. Each of them stood positioned in a 'power node' similar to the seal work he had laid down during the war to draw Team Seven back from Kaguya's dimension. Thanks to the modifications Orochimaru had helped with, it now transported individuals through time…hypothetically. Sending rats five minutes into the past and back was far different than sending human beings eighty-years, and yet, here they all were risking it.

But Sasuke had come to realize after much reflection that Team Seven was it. He had no clan, he had no goal to seat himself at the precipice of the world, having seen the mighty falls of Uchiha before him that had tried just that. What he did have was them, the ones who had chased after and cried for him. Rescuing Sakura was the least he could do to begin to make amends for all she had gone through on his behalf. Then maybe in the distant future, there could be a reconciliation after he had further atoned to the world.

"Initiating the seal in five…four…three…" Shikamaru began to count, crouched in the dirt and pouring all of his focus into stabilizing the jutsu on the ground that would become their gateway.

Glancing across the large oval, he saw Ino clasping her hands together, her waterfall of lemon blonde hair tumbling into her face as she bowed it. Was she saying one last prayer in case this all went wrong?


The Uchiha gasped, finding that falling through time was akin to having a hard uppercut driven deep into your gut until it knocked every single speck of air from your lungs.

He could distantly hear a scream, maybe Karin's. It certainly wasn't a smooth process, which told him they were sure to be in for a bumpy arrival. Colors rushed around them, impossible to tell them distinctly from one another, only that the tunnel shuttling them towards their harrowing adventure was brightly lit like refracted light through a prism.

Kakashi grunted, tumbling and butting his head with the former ROOT boy that was coming with them for some reason. Then the force with which they were sucked through time ripped them apart and Sasuke's body felt immensely heavy.

"Is it…supposed to be like this?" Naruto cried out, his face pinched.

"How's anybody supposed to know how it feels to time travel?" He heard himself answering waspishly.

"Oh no, oh no, I think I've caught some interlopers in my net."

"Sasuke!" Naruto and Karin both screamed, seconds before he felt the impact of something smacking into him hard, sending him careening through light and sound and the passage of time.

He grit his teeth against the pain, squeezed like a diamond being shaped into existence by the earth. Just when he thought his organs would rupture and his head would pop, the atmosphere suddenly became…more breathable. Sasuke's eyes fluttered open to see that he was falling through what appeared to be a calm night sky. If he didn't know any better he would say he heard fireworks far in the distance and tasted smoke on the wind.

The most pressing matter, however, was to prevent himself from crashing into the mountain peaks he was hurtling towards. The familiar pulse of chakra rippling behind his eyes alerted him to the successful activation of his Sharingan. He was too drained to keep himself from falling but at least he could slow his descent. Susano'o's ribcage wrapped around him protectively, then its arms materialized. The mountains were directly underneath him now, their craggily protrusions the last sight he held onto before the inevitable contact.

This was a lot of fun, eh? I think so anyway. Just a few traces of angst, but mostly fun times. However… Sakura's birthday ends, and with it, the bubble of happy times in this filler arc. Back to business. In case there was any doubt, yes, with Team 7's reunion things will definitely proceed to fall apart now. There have been quite a few readers who have been kind of insistent about Team 7 or "moving the plot" (the latter was a bit...pushy imo). And now I wonder if those readers will come to regret it—I did warn to be very careful about what you asked for. I apologize in advance to those readers who were not pushing for this and were just happy to be along for the ride. Everyone is going to suffer equally here for a while. But we march bravely onward.

Btw, hanami are flower viewing events. Very popular during cherry blossom season. And yes, they can and do also take place at night in some places. Sakuramochi are also a particular variety of mochi that are, as you can probably already guess, pink. The ones from the Kansai region are well known, and on top of their color, they have a pickled sakura leaf on the bottom. Some people eat the leaf and some people do not. It's down to preference. The sakuramochi are often available in the spring season of March, and of course at hanami.

Since the last update I have gotten some great news and will be heading to college this fall. This of course means between working and school, time for fics may be limited but just know I will update when I'm motivated and able. In the meantime, feel free to chat with me on tumblr if you would like or check out any of my other stories, and comments keep me happy and well-fed as a writer, too. Always glad to return to a story with engagement. :) Food for thought. Anyway, hope everyone enjoyed this update.