A/N: This fic takes place about three years after Sasuke joined Orochimaru.

Withered Petal
Part 1

Orochimaru's second attack was timed so conveniently…

There had been issues with the Hidden Stone that needed the Hokage's direct attention; failure in resolving these peacefully could result in a full-scale war between the two shinobi countries. So upon receiving the news that Stone 'requested' her presence to discuss the problems at hand, Tsunade immediately took off to the Hidden Stone, bringing with her quite a number of Anbu's top officers as the Hokage's escort.

Tsunade could not afford another war. Not when Leaf was on the brink of recovery from the devastating aftermath of Orochimaru's invasion three years before, when there was still the matter concerning Akatsuki that had sent Jiraiya out of the country to investigate it.

Little did she know that the deranged one of the Sannin would use just that opportunity to attack Leaf for the second time…

Poised in battle stance, Ino and Sakura stood back-to-back amidst the bodies of fallen Sound nins. Fresh blood mingled together with dried blood smeared all over their faces and clothes. Bruises and scraps blemished their otherwise soft skin. They were holding on pretty well, but it was far from over. There were still about ten enemies standing around them.

Lunging forward and slashing a Sound nin with the kunai in her right hand, Ino quickly performed a few hand seals. "Shinranshin no jutsu!" The unfortunate target was coming onto them, but he ended up attacking his own comrades, resulting in temporary disorder among her foes. She didn't have time to gloat, though. The air at her left shifted, signaling the coming of another nin.

Behind her, Sakura had her own enemies to deal with as well. Her hands glowed with soft blue light that became her chakra scalpel, the kunoichi aimed for her enemies' vital muscles and blood vessels, effectively cutting down the number of Sound nins one by one.

A little while later Sakura found herself standing back-to-back again with Ino. The number of their opponents had somewhat lessened, but they were still outnumbered by many.

"Damn…" Ino swore under her breath as she wiped the blood trickling at the corners of her mouth. "They're good."

Sakura nodded and slammed her heel hard on the ground, ripping it apart as the rift spread rapidly toward the Sound nins in front of her. In the split second that her opponents lost their balance, she charged at the one closest to her and aimed for his heart muscle.

Another one down.

The Sound nin fell down gagging blood. With his heart muscle completely severed, the blood flow to his heart had stopped. He had only minutes to live. Still, the counterattack of his comrade forced Sakura to leap backward lest she'd get skewered by his sword.

"Where is Kakashi-san?" Ino sidestepped a blow and retaliated with a stab of her kunai. She missed.

Sakura neatly dodged the Sound nin's sword. Gathering as much chakra as possible in her fist, the girl delivered a vicious punch to his abdomen, sending him flying backward 50 meters away. 'That should at least damage his internal organs seriously…'

The last attack left her wide-open, though. At the moment she landed the punch on the ill-fated nin, another enemy was already on her heels. His sword was poised above her head, ready to slice her in half…

Fortunately for her, Ino was there in an instant. The Sound nin was about to swing his sword downward when the blond kunoichi suddenly appeared behind him and slit his throat ruthlessly, sending him to the afterlife as well.

"Kakashi went after Kabuto." Sakura replied to Ino's earlier question shortly. Getting ready for the remaining nins, she added, "By the way, thanks."

"We're even." Ino answered back shortly.

Another bout of fight ensued.

The next time they found themselves back-to-back yet again, there were only four Sound nins left.

Suddenly an extremely loud explosion was heard.

Sakura tensed up instantly when she realized where the sound came from. Two huge chakra masses collided with each other just now, and the resulting impact was powerful enough for her to be able to sense it despite the distance. One of them she recognized as Naruto's. The other one was somehow unfamiliar, but she had a strong hunch of who it was.

Ino felt her friend's agitation, and her eyebrows creased with worry. "Sakura?"

"Naruto…" Their enemies moving onto them forced Sakura to focus her mind on the problems at hand. Soon both kunoichi were engaged in 2-on-1 taijutsu combats.

"Sakura!" Ino yelled while parrying her opponent's kunai with her own. She fended off her attacker and managed to cut him on his abdomen, but the wound was too shallow; it wasn't enough to bring him down. "Isn't it the direction where Naruto ran after Sasuke-kun?"

No answer came from Sakura, but Ino knew that the explosion must have come from where Naruto and Sasuke were right now. It had already been a while since Naruto had gone after his long-lost rival. It was about time for their fight to conclude. 'Sakura must be worried about them…' Her mind set, she shouted again, "You go there!"

"Are you crazy!" Sakura received a cut on her cheek, but she got back at her attacker by severing his biceps and abdomen muscles, rendering him unable to utilize his full strength.

"Don't argue!" Ino retorted as she landed a kick on her opponent. "You worrying about them here won't help me at all. Just go! I'll make way for you."


"Forehead-girl, I'm a capable chuunin. I can handle them." Ino smirked haughtily as she managed to slash the Sound nin deeply on his chest. "Besides, you said that you'd get Sasuke-kun back yourself…" Performing her Body Traitor Technique once again, she managed to gain control of the enemy's mind and used him against his comrades to create a diversion. "Now is your chance. GO!"

Sakura finally nodded in acquiescence, grateful for Ino's understanding. But she never intended to leave just like that. While the remaining Sound nins were trying to take care of their possessed comrade, she gathered chakra in both her hands and jumped over the two of them. Hitting a pressure point at the back of their necks, she landed several meters away and broke into a run. "Ino-pig, just be careful!"

Apparently the medic nin had left a 'present' for the mind-controlling jutsu user. The two nins that just took a hit from Sakura were sprawled on the ground, trying to understand why their shoulders moved when they actually wanted to move their legs. 'So this is the messed-up central nervous system she told me about…'

Their enemies, though strong and skilled, did not have any knowledge whatsoever about medical jutsu. They couldn't for the life of them figure out that their nervous system had been tampered with. If not for the gravity of the situation, Ino would've laughed at their baffled expressions. 'Sakura, you so owe me for this…'

"Sasuke… you…," Naruto groaned and coughed blood. He was barely able to move, "strong…" Sakura-chan, I'm sorry… I can't defeat him… I fail again…

Lying several meters away from Naruto, Sasuke's condition wasn't in the slightest bit better than that of his ex-teammate. Neither had any strength left. They had put all of their strength in the last bout of their most powerful jutsu. They bet their lives on that one last attack, their dreams, their future…

Yet the fight ended without an absolute winner: both were losers in this.

"Why…," Sasuke clenched his fists in anger, "…am I still so… weak…? Even after all this time… How can I ever defeat him?"

The Uchiha boy's desperation was not ungrounded. For the sake of revenge he had chosen his current path fully knowing that he had made a bargain with the devil. He had purposely betrayed his friends and his heart so that he could gain power to surpass Itachi. He had given up his future to live in his past, the place where his dreams were.

But what good did it do? He couldn't even win against the dead last of the academy. Three years ago he had been able to drive Naruto back; now they ended in a draw. Had Naruto gotten a lot stronger, or was it he who was just simply not strong enough?

Footsteps and the telltale chuckle. "Kukuku…"

From his lying position of the ground, Sasuke raised his head with great difficulty and laid eyes on Orochimaru's approaching figure. "You…" His voice was laced with venom as he snarled at his unofficial tutor. "You said that you'd give me power!"

"Kuku…" Orochimaru laughed maniacally. "Are you that eager to get my power, Sasuke-kun?"

"Shut up! Just give me---" The outburst aggravated his already-grave condition. Coughing blood, his head fell back to the ground.

"Well," Orochimaru stepped in between the boys, "If you are that impatient, I can give you what you want… now."

Orochimaru's announcement and its implication took Sasuke by surprise. The boy just didn't expect the older shinobi to fulfill his promise of giving him power now of all times, especially when they were in the middle of a battle to obliterate the Hidden Leaf.

"No…" A third voice joined the talk.

"Hmm? Interesting…" Orochimaru raised his eyebrows in mockery. "What do we have here?" Looking down, his eyes fell on Naruto's battered form. The bright-haired Leaf nin somehow managed to crawl over the distance and grabbed at his ankle.

"Bastard…" Naruto almost had no strength left, but that didn't stop his eyes from flashing angrily. "I won't let you do that…"

Orochimaru was really amused now. "Kuku, I'd like to see you try, Naruto-kun."

'Damn it… stupid fox, just lend me your power… please… this one last time!' Unfortunately for Naruto, his fight with Sasuke had cost him all his chakra, and that included the fox-demon's also. Even the strongest of evil spirits still had its limit.

A sadistic smile appeared on Orochimaru's face. With his free leg he stepped on Naruto's arm, crushing his bone. "It was good that Tsunade didn't let you die at that time, Naruto-kun, because you proved to be useful." He kicked Naruto's stomach hard then, sending him rolling over the ground a few times.

Gritting his teeth to suppress the urge to scream, Naruto couldn't help but wonder what he ever did to merit such approval from the psycho nin.

"As a payment, I think I'll let you live this time. It won't be difficult to kill you after this anyway." Turning his attention back to the soon-to-be container of his soul, Orochimaru's eyes gleamed in excitement of finally being able to acquire the body he desired so much. "Now, are you---"

"I won't let you!" Refusing to give up even with a broken arm, Naruto inched closer to Orochimaru. "As long as I'm still---"

"Stay out of this, Naruto." Sasuke's face was devoid of any emotion. "Did I not make it clear to you that my childish games with you Leafs were over?"


"Don't interfere." Sasuke gazed coldly at Naruto. "I've chosen this path a long time ago. Even if I wanted to, it's too late to turn back now."

"No, it's not! It's never---"

A loud bang. A cloud of smoke. Then Sasuke saw Naruto's bloodied form landing several paces away from him.

"He's annoying, isn't he, Sasuke-kun?" Orochimaru stepped out from the cloud of smoke. "Now let me grant your wish!"

"Sasuke…" Naruto opened his eyes, revealing dull blue color in there. There was pain in those usually-crystal-clear eyes. His whole body was, and his injuries were quite serious too; bodily harm was something he was accustomed to. But not this…

Knowing that he was failing Sakura for the second time and that he was going to lose a comrade hurt him more than all those wounds could ever do. Naruto would never be accustomed to the feeling that he might have to take back his words. So even with the last bit of consciousness ebbing from him, the boy stubbornly clung onto the hope that somehow his onetime best friend would take his words to heart. "Don't… give in… You are… strong enough… as it is---"

Sasuke scoffed angrily. "What do you know about it! If I didn't do this, I'd never be able to surpass my brother!" Hatred flashed in his black orbs, and he met Orochimaru's yellow eyes squarely. "Do it, Orochimaru! Give me power and then I can finally avenge my family and kill that cursed man!"

Suddenly a shape of snake made of chakra appeared behind Orochimaru. It wrapped itself around Sasuke's limbs, rendering him completely immobile before he even realized what came onto him.

"As you wish, Sasuke-kun…"

Ever since Orochimaru announced out of the blue that he was going to grant his wish, there had been growing wariness on Sasuke's part. He tried to ignore it, blaming it on his paranoia, but it wouldn't go away. Why now? Why not back then when they had been at the Hidden Sound village? He had always known that Orochimaru was sly as a fox. Did the man have hidden agenda when he said that they were going to annihilate Leaf and that Sasuke was to be his third in command after Kabuto?

You think he's just gonna give you some power for free! He just wants your body to use as his container!

Naruto's words from three years before suddenly came to his mind. But Sasuke's thought was still the same as it had been. 'I don't care… All I care about is that I can accomplish my objective. As long as I can kill Itachi, I'm willing to---'

"Kuku… Who says that you'll be killing Itachi?"

'What…?' Sasuke blinked repeatedly and voiced his question aloud, "What did you… just say?"

Orochimaru's grin was unnerving as he strolled over to his prey. "Because, Sasuke-kun, you will not exist anymore after this." He crouched beside Sasuke and tapped his forehead in a patronizing gesture, cruelly taunting the misguided boy. "Your brother is far too strong. I might someday kill him, but who knows? Your objective is not necessarily mine… Besides, he will die sooner or later, while my soul remains immortal. I will still win in the end."

"You…" Sasuke tried in vain to struggle against the chakra binding Orochimaru put on him. Never did it occur to him that giving his body to the man also meant giving up his soul. He had always assumed that it would be like the time when he had his curse level increased to level 2: to die once and live again. But it was his desire for revenge that clouded his common sense. He knew that Orochimaru was a devious person.

Perplexity turned into rage as realization finally dawned on his mind. "Bastard! You've planned this from the very beginning! If I had known, I wouldn't have…" Sasuke couldn't even finish his sentence. There was no use in wondering what ifs. He stared at the grey sky dejectedly.

"Isn't it a bit too late for that?" Orochimaru smiled in mockery and readied his hand to begin the sequence of seals. "Since you have practically no strength left, things will be easier for me. That way, your soul wouldn't be able to put up a fight. Kuku… the fox-boy is useful indeed!"

'It was all for nothing… It was all for NOTHING!' His mind screamed the very thing his heart had been trying to tell him. 'I betrayed people who call me a comrade, I betrayed myself, I betrayed my closest friend… for what?' Sasuke was trembling, his fist clenching tightly. Whether it was because of anger or despair, no one knew. 'In the end, my life is still in vain…'

There was a flash of pink. And then Orochimaru wasn't standing in front of him anymore; the man's body was smashed into a giant oak tree not far from him.


In front of him stood Sakura, her green eyes blazing with determination. The kunoichi was a far cry from the girl who had tried to stop him from leaving that fateful night. Back then she had been all teary-eyed, too ready to throw away her dignity and betray her village just for him. Now her whole demeanor radiated strength, and this was the Sakura that Sasuke had never seen before.

"Damn it…" For the nth time that day, Ino cursed while she desperately tried to hold her defense. 'I can't keep this up anymore…'

The blond Leaf nin had finished off the remaining Sounds easily since most of them were either injured or having a severe case of central nervous system disorder. She was on her way to catch up with Sakura when five Sound nins ambushed her. She could tell that they were strong, stronger than the bunch of ninjas she had faced with Sakura just earlier this day. And that was where things started to go downhill.

"Argh!" One of the Sound nins managed to slash her thigh. The wound was not fatal, but it slowed down her movement considerably. And she already had her other leg wounded before this.

A powerful kick from the enemy sent her crashing through thorny bushes. She was about to get up, but one of the five quickly rushed to her and brutally slammed his foot on her stomach, breaking several of her ribs. She coughed blood. "Ugh…"

Another nin drew his sword.

'I'm sorry, Sakura… I'm afraid this is it for me…' Ino closed her eyes in resignation. It was futile to struggle. Besides, she almost had no chakra left.

She waited, but the killing blow never came. Instead, a loud thump signaling the five Sound nins hitting the ground was heard. Ino opened her eyes and saw someone hovering protectively over her.

Silver hair. Green vest. A pair of mismatched eyes. Sharingan…


"Ino, are you all right?" Kakashi took in Ino's condition with his normal eye, keeping the Sharingan focused on the five enemies.

The girl winced slightly. "Some cuts and broken ribs, but nothing that I can't manage."

Kakashi nodded in relief. Stepping forward to confront the Sound nins, he said, "Stay like that for a while. I'll take care of them."

The jounin wasn't uninjured either; it was almost impossible to survive a fight with Yakushi Kabuto unscathed. But even with his movements slowed down a little bit, the Leaf's Copy Ninja was still no match for the five Sound nins.

A moment later Kakashi found himself checking over Ino's wounds, giving her the necessary first aid. "We need to take you to the sick bay. Your injuries are not that fatal, but it still needs treatment. Unfortunately, I'm not a medic nin." He chuckled softly, melting the battle tension Ino had been feeling since Sound's second invasion began. "If only Sakura were here. She would've done a much better job."

"Speaking of Sakura," Kakashi stood up and held out his hand to Ino, "I thought she was with you."

"She was." Ino took the jounin's hand and tried to get on her feet also. "But she---"

There was a deep rumble coming from a place not very far from them. Then a pillar of fire shot up to the sky.

"What the…" Kakashi stared at rapidly dispersing pillar of fire. Furrowing his eyebrows, he remembered the loud explosion from a while before and the massive amount of chakra he had also sensed then. "Someone has gone pretty wild there. Ino, let's g---" He looked at her face, and his heart stopped beating.

Ino was terrified; that much was evident from her face. Her blue eyes were wide in fear, but it wasn't for herself she feared. Given their current situation, there could only be one person for whom she would so openly display such a degree of concern.


"Ugh…" Sakura coughed blood, her breathing irregular. Mustering her remaining strength, she pulled out the sword that impaled her body to the tree and threw it aside. Fresh blood immediately gushed out from the deep wound, staining her clothes and the soil.

'Damn that Orochimaru…' Leaning her head back against the tree, she tried to steady her breathing while her brain appraised the situation. 'He's too strong… My internal organs are damaged severely. Healing would consume too much chakra. There's no other way… It looks like that I'll have to use that jutsu...'

A small diamond shape on her forehead came alight then, followed by strange markings that grew out of the diamond. Her hands forming the release seal, she opened the seal on her forehead, "Haa! Ninpou Genesis Rebirth!" Activating the jutsu invented by Tsunade herself, Sakura used the chakra on the seal to accelerate her cell duplication rate for rapid restoration. The deep cuts began to close immediately, and soon the burn wounds and bruises were nowhere to be seen on her pale skin.

Sakura was back on her feet when suddenly she vomited blood. An excruciating pain came from her left side where Orochimaru's sword had impaled her just a few minutes before.

'Just as I thought…' She thought bitterly as she rummaged through the pouch at her left waist. 'The chakra on my seal is only worth two years of gathering. It's not enough to fully regenerate physical damage at this extent. My internal organs aren't completely recovered.' When she withdrew her hand, there was a black pill in it. 'I hope it helps to lessen the pain…'

Staggering a little bit, the medic nin looked around. 'Now where did Orochi---'

The said person stood several paces away from Sasuke. Sakura could tell that something invisible was holding the Uchiha in his place. It was probably done with chakra, but only someone with Sharingan or Byakugan could assert to that. Either way, she had no idea how to free him.

The demented leader of the Hidden Sound didn't seem to be aware of his surrounding. His eyes were closed, his brows furrowed in deep concentration. Sakura approached the pair, but Orochimaru paid no heed to her at all, if he even realized in the first place that she was there.

Sakura concluded that whatever he was doing, it required his full concentration. It must have been the reason why there was a sphere-like barrier around the man: to prevent unwanted interruption. Somehow her gut feeling told her that she could never breach the barrier no matter what she tried to do. And then Orochimaru's body began to emit smoke-like substance.

It unnerved her.

The girl was well aware of Orochimaru's purpose concerning the Uchiha. The whole concept of taking over somebody else's body in order to attain immortality sickened her. And she was about to witness just that.

Sakura was not Sakura if she let it happen without doing anything. Her affection for Sasuke might have waned over the years, but she still harbored strong feelings toward her old teammate. She still cared about him.

Unfortunately, the one standing in her way was Orochimaru, one of the legendary Sannin. Her arsenal was of no help. Every kunai she threw at him turned into dust the moment it touched the cursed barrier. Just as she thought, there was no way she could get through it, especially if it was anything like the one Orochimaru had had when he had fought the Third Hokage. Standing at arm's length from the barrier, she reached out to it and touched the barrier, only to withdraw her hand immediately after. It was like touching hot iron.

While her mind raced frantically to think of something, Sakura's eyes wandered to Sasuke who was lying on the ground helplessly. Three long years did nothing to diminish his attractiveness; though battered and bruised, the Uchiha was still as handsome as when she had last seen her, if not more. Her gaze traveled up to his face.

Bright green met jaded black, and her fate was sealed.

There was despair underneath the resentment in those dark orbs. It wasn't totally unfamiliar to her; she had seen it before in the eyes of men who realized that their life was forfeit. But the despair she saw in Sasuke's eyes had more edge to it. She couldn't quite place a finger on what it was though.

A frown marred her face when she realized that Sasuke was trying to mouth something to her. His voice didn't come out at all, but she recognized the words he was trying to articulate.

I'm sorry…

It struck her then, what she really was seeing in his eyes. Regret. And it wasn't just because he was about to die and fail in his quest of seeking revenge. There were many things that the boy was regretting, but above all, he regretted having hurt Naruto and her the most.

And it was enough reason for her to act.

Tearing her gaze away from his face, she looked at Orochimaru and was startled to find the smoke-like substance beginning to take the form of a snake's head. She could only guess that it was the materialization of his soul, meaning that the man was ready to transfer his soul.

Sakura was bracing herself for what was about to come when a movement entered her peripheral vision. Turning her head to check at the new arrival, she found herself staring into a pair of mismatched eyes. And she froze.

Ino wasn't by any means stupid. Her grades in the academy weren't exceptional, but still above average. And it didn't take an overly smart person to figure out what Sakura was about to do. One look at the situation and at her friend's face was all she needed to come up with the dreadful conclusion.

"Sakura…" A whisper escaped her lips as Ino slowly slid down from Kakashi's back.

In her eyes Ino saw Sakura's determination. It was the same fierce determination she had been showing since the day she promised Naruto that they would bring Sasuke back together. But there was also a bit of sadness in there. It was as if she was almost reluctant to give up her life. Something was holding her back.

Ino knew what that was.

Seeing Kakashi standing there with eyes wide in fear tore Sakura's heart into pieces. There had been no qualms from her part; she had been so sure… until a certain silver-haired jounin showed up. Slowly her resolve crumbled as he looked at her in the eye with such a pleading gaze.

For a split second Sakura hesitated. Visions of a life she could have had flooded her mind, coaxing her into reconsidering her decision. It was so overwhelming, and she wanted so much to succumb to it. Why shouldn't she? It was her dream, this life she had always wanted…

Kakashi's words from years before rang in her ears then.

I don't let my comrades die.

Sakura had echoed that promise with one of her own, albeit hers was not as strong as his.

I don't want to let my comrades die either.

In her vision she caught a glimpse of what might have been. She knew she would have been happy, because he would have been there.

But she remembered Sasuke's eyes. Those were the eyes of a man who thought that he had lived his life in vain. His regret was genuine. And to that Sakura could not turn a blind eye.

Her eyes were brimming with tears as her gaze at Kakashi softened. The corners of her lips curved slightly upward then. Her resolve was returning, and in the very short time that she still had, she apologized to him wordlessly for what she was about to do and for what she was about to make him do.

From the corner of her eyes Sakura saw the snake head – Orochimaru's soul – shot out from his body, aiming for Sasuke's heart.

'Kakashi, I'm sorry… and goodbye…'

She threw herself in the path between Sasuke and Orochimaru.

Sasuke's eyes went wide in shock as he saw Sakura moving to stand before him. She was facing him, and then her body swayed forward a little bit when the snake head hit her in her right shoulder. Trails of tears stained her pretty face, but she was smiling as she gazed down at him fondly.

"It's alright…," was all Sakura managed to say before she toppled over, losing her balance.

Kakashi was there in an instant. He caught her before she hit the ground, cradling her body in his arms. "Sakura…"

The minute he had laid his eyes on her, Kakashi had known what she was planning. He had caught the look in her eyes and realized what she wanted him to do. It turned the inside of his stomach upside down…

Sakura let out an ear-splitting scream as she thrashed violently in Kakashi's arms. Her soul was fighting Orochimaru's for control of her body and she was losing.

Not knowing what to do, Kakashi pulled her lithe form into his embrace, hoping to no avail that it would somehow lessen her suffering. His heart was breaking.

Her scream finally died down after a while, the thrashing grew weaker until it stopped at all. Loosening his hold on her, he tucked a few strands of pink hair behind her ear. "Sakura…"

"Kaka… shi…" Sweat drenched her forehead, her breathing was heavy. Stretching her right arm slowly to reach Kakashi's pouch, Sakura took out a kunai and held it up to him.

His throat went dry straight away. Kakashi had understood what she had asked of him. Knowing didn't make it any easier though. He wanted so much to tell her that she could ask him anything and he would willingly do it as long as it was within his power. But she could not ask him this.

Her eyes grew insistent, and despite his reluctance, his hand moved slowly as it hovered above the kunai in Sakura's hand.

While Kakashi was hesitating, Sakura's eyes turned completely gold. With Orochimaru having complete control over her body now, slender fingers curled around the kunai and swung the object, aiming for Kakashi's heart.

Kakashi's mind was a jumble, still trying to sort out what had just happened, but fortunately, his natural reflex honed by years of training did not fail him. Springing backward as to avoid being stabbed in the heart, the jounin managed to escape death by a hair's breadth. Still, the kunai managed to tore the flesh on his left side. It aggravated the wound that Kabuto had given him earlier that day even more. Grunting in pain, Kakashi watched Orochimaru warily.

The said person was flexing his muscle. It seemed that he was getting himself used to his new body. "The cursed girl…," Orochimaru snarled in anger, "I thought I had taken care of her."

A chill went up Kakashi's spine. The one standing in front of him looked like Sakura, but the voice that came out of her mouth was that of Orochimaru. It frightened and angered him at the same time.

He could only watch as her face twisted in wrath. He could only listen as Orochimaru uttered a string of profanity at how he gained such a weak body, how just a mere girl managed to foil his plan to acquire Sharingan. And then Kakashi couldn't take it anymore. Despite the throbbing wound on his left side, his movement was still fast.

"… damn you…," Orochimaru was still ranting, "now I have to---"

The punch Kakashi delivered straight to Sakura's jaw would have brought Orochimaru down, but his free hand grabbed her collar, holding her in place. Vaguely he heard Ino's panicked scream, but it went in one ear and out the other. Shaking her body violently, he growled, "You bastard… Get out of her! NOW!"

"Kukuku…" Orochimaru's chuckle was disturbing. "I'm afraid that's not possible, Kakashi-kun. Once I transfer my soul to a body, there is no way you can---"

"YOU'RE LYING!" Crazed with rage, Kakashi didn't even realize that he was shouting at her. The man rarely lost his composure, if ever, and it was something he took pride in. But this was Sakura, the person he cared for more than anything in life... "LET HER GO, YOU BASTARD! GET OUT NOW! Or I'll---"

"Or you'll what?" Orochimaru taunted the distraught jounin. "Are you going to kill me?"

Kakashi's fist hit Sakura's jaw for the second time, this time sending the Sound leader crashing to the ground violently as he let go of her collar. Some measure of his composure began to return as he gazed coldly at Orochimaru. "If I must."

Orochimaru wasn't fazed at all. Wiping the blood at the corner of Sakura's mouth, he rose to his feet slowly. "I've been wondering, Kakashi-kun… Why are you so worked up about her? About such a weak girl?"

"Shut up." Kakashi dared not to say more, afraid that it would betray his inner conflict even more. Orochimaru just hit a nerve there, and the cursed man knew it.

"Are you that worried about her safety, hmm?" The corners of Sakura's mouth curved upward into a cruel smile. "Do you care about her that much?"

Cold sweat broke out along Kakashi's forehead, his fists clenching tightly. "Just shut up."

"Kuku, is she that special to you, Kakashi-kun?"

It was the last strain; he wouldn't let Orochimaru disgrace her body any longer. His hand poised in chidori's stance, blue chakra glowed brightly, making the noise of a thousand birds. Kakashi lunged toward his opponent at blinding speed, all set to kill him in one stab.

Orochimaru didn't budge from his position though. His smile turned even crueler. And then…

"Kakashi-kun, please help me."

Her voice reached his ears, and his chakra-laden palm froze in midair just at an arm's length from Sakura's chest. It was her voice; there was no mistaken it.

"Please don't kill me."

Kakashi looked into her eyes and it was green that he saw there. Those were her eyes and the voice speaking to him was really her voice. He knew that it couldn't have been the real Sakura, but somehow the man couldn't bring himself to go through with his original intention. His resolve was crumbling fast at the sight of those pleading eyes. The blue chakra on his hand abated, the noise died down.

"You won't kill me, will you, Kakashi-kun?" Sakura's hand went up to his face, caressing his cheek with the gentleness of a lover. Hidden behind her back, her other hand clutched a shiny pointy object. "Help me."

Kakashi jumped slightly at her touch, but made no attempt to recoil. It was as if his feet were rooted to the ground.

"Kakashi-san!" Ino cried as she saw the kunai in Sakura's hand, realizing Orochimaru's intention. "That is not Sakura anymore!"

There was really no need for Ino to tell him that. Kakashi was well aware that the person standing in front of him wasn't really Sakura even if she had her voice and eyes down to a T. Because the real Sakura was no longer a selfish girl. Because the real Sakura was a dedicated Leaf nin who would give up anything – including her own life – for the sake of her village and her comrades.

It was just that hearing her voice and looking into her eyes reminded him of everything they could have had but would never have. And it weighed down a lot on him.

The kunai whizzed toward him as Orochimaru struck.

She was the one person he wanted to protect the most. He had said that he would protect her even if it killed him. He had said that he didn't let his comrades die. But he was about to make a spectacular mockery of that promise.

For now, it seemed that he had to settle with being a liar. And for all of his failures to keep his promises – to Obito, to Rin, to his sensei, to Sakura… – maybe a liar was what he really was.

Orochimaru's kunai pierced the left palm Kakashi had raised to block the attack. Despite the pain, he willed his fingers to close around her small hand, seizing it in his firm grasp. Once again his right hand flared with the blue chakra along with the deafening noise.

A look of panic flashed across Sakura's feature. This time, Orochimaru did not bother to impersonate her voice. "Wait, you're not going to kill her, a---"

Kakashi's voice was ice-cold as he cut Orochimaru short. "I won't let the likes of you defile her body in such manner." His face was devoid of any emotion as he slammed the Chidori into her stomach.

The mass of chakra tore through her flesh with sickening sound. Red blood was all over him as Kakashi withdrew his hand. Cradling her frail form in his arms, the man fell on his knees.


Kakashi had known many hardships throughout his life. He had grown up during the times of war and lived in a long, hard era. His childhood had been anything but normal.

When Hatake Sakumo committed suicide, Kakashi lost the person he respected the most; he lost a father.

When Uchiha Obito died, Kakashi lost a true friend he didn't knew he had until it was too late.

When the fourth Hokage sacrificed himself during the fight against the nine-tail demon, Kakashi lost the person who had taught him the way of shinobi; he lost a sensei.

When Sasuke left Konoha, Kakashi lost a student, another comrade...

Yes, Kakashi certainly knew what true loss and pain were. But as important as those people had been to him, it didn't compare to what he was going through right now. Their blood was not upon him. Sakura… he killed her with his own hand. Her blood would forever stain his soul.


His blood-soaked hand went up to her face, caressing her cheek gently. A single tear escaped his eye and landed on her face. Sakura's eyelids fluttered open then. Upon gazing at those green orbs, Kakashi knew that it was really her this time.

"Sakura…" Blinking his eyes as to clear his blurred vision, several more droplets trickled down his cheek. The feeling was so foreign to him. Kakashi couldn't recall the last time he had shed a tear. It was probably when he had lost the lasts of his precious companions long time ago.

His eyes must have reflected all of the why's that had been running through his mind, because as Sakura was teetering on the border of life and death, she managed to smile a little. Her voice weak, she said, "He regrets it… and I… I couldn't let him die…" Her body jolted slightly as she spitted blood. "I don't let my comrades die…, ne Kakashi?"

"Ssh…" Kakashi hushed her softly. There were still so many things left unsaid between them. Sadly, it would now stay that way forever. He knew she wouldn't last long. Her demise was inevitable and she herself realized the futility of wrestling against Death's grip. Even so, she still refused to give up without a fight. She cared about him that much. It touched his heart and at the same time tore it into pieces. "Don't say anything… just stay still."

Sakura didn't seem to hear him though. "But you… I made you break your promise… I'm sorry… for that… and for everything…"

"No…" More tears formed at the corner of his eyes. His voice shaky, Kakashi murmured softly, "What good is Hatake Kakashi… What good is the Copy Ninja… I couldn't even protect the one person I treasure the most…" Pulling her closer that her head was leaned against his shoulder, he rocked her body back and forth slowly."If anyone should die, it should've been me… I, the one who couldn't even keep a single promise… why you… Sakura…"

"Kakashi…," Sakura did not have the strength to make her voice louder than a mere whisper, "…thank you for everything…" Tears from her eyes dampened his shoulder. "I wish… I wish I could stay with you… forever…"

Shifting her body slightly so he could take a look at her face, Kakashi saw regret in her eyes, something akin to a wistful longing. She did not regret giving up her life for Sasuke; that much he knew. Rather, it was him that the girl regretted. Her strength was fading away from her fast, but she still clung stubbornly to life, not willing to let him go just yet.

Sakura regretted giving up a life together with him. She regretted not having said all that was in her heart. But above all, she regretted making him break the one promise he never wanted to break. Kakashi only needed one look at her eyes to understand all she wanted to tell him. He understood her; he always had…

And so, even when his mind knew not what to say, his heart did.

"Sakura, I wish I could stay with you forever too…" Taking her hands in his, he squeezed it gently, as if trying to assure her.

"It's a promise?" Sakura looked at his grief-stricken eyes, and understood all he wanted to tell her. She understood him; she always had…

"It's a promise."

With the remaining of her life ebbed away from her, she gave him one last smile and shut her eyes. Her body went limp then, a genuine smile on her face.

"Sa.. ku.. ra… SAKURAAA!" Hugging Sakura's lifeless form tightly, Kakashi buried his face on her pink tresses and finally wept.

Ino fell on her knees as the tragic scene played out before her eyes, her mouth gaping in mixture of shock and terror, tears streaming down her face. It went so fast that it felt almost unreal to her. Sakura jumping in between Sasuke and Orochimaru, Sakura trying to kill her sensei, and finally Sakura being impaled by Kakashi's chidori… Her mind still had difficulty in comprehending what had just happened. Had Sakura really been possessed by Orochimaru? Did her friend really die? Was it just a dream?

But Kakashi's anguished cry was real, driving home the cruel reality. Ino was trembling as she sobbed uncontrollably. It wasn't fair… She didn't even have the chance to say goodbye. Ino didn't plan to lose her best friend so soon. Not like this…

Sasuke thought that his life was forfeit. The realization that he had lived his whole life for nothing put him under the heavy burden of remorse. For all the pain and sorrow he had caused his comrades, he knew that he didn't deserve a peaceful death. So in what he believed were the last moments of his life, he had tried to apologize to Sakura.

One word of apology could never erase a lifetime of wrongdoings and undo all his mistakes, but at least he wanted her to know that if he had had a second chance, he would have chosen a different path. He only hoped that Sakura would relay the message to Naruto, if the boy was even alive in the first place.

Never did he suspect that Sakura would do what she had just done.

His eyes went wide in horror as he watched her meeting her demise in Kakashi's hand. No, it wasn't supposed to be this way… He didn't plan to involve any of his old comrades; it was supposed to be just Itachi and him! Wasn't it why he had decided to leave the village behind? So that none of the people dear to him would get tangled in his quest of seeking revenge?

But his plan backfired to the most extreme extent. First Naruto, now Sakura… 'I am a fool…'

Consumed by self-guilt and shame, Sasuke didn't even realize that a single drop of tear had escaped his eye.

Contrary to what Sasuke thought, Naruto was very much alive. Barely holding on to his consciousness, he could only watch as Kakashi's hand ripped through Sakura's stomach. She looked even more fragile to him then.

Naruto had always liked Sakura.

As a child, he was in awe of her for being the smartest (and the cutest) in class. As a teenager at the border of adolescence, he admired her for the determination and perseverance she was capable of showing while she grew in strength.

He wasn't sure if he still had a crush on her like he had had during their genin days, but he knew enough to know that he wanted to protect her from harm's way, at all cost if need be.

He failed.

Her lifeless body in Kakashi's arms was the testimony of that failure. Naruto didn't plan to be Hokage with one comrade less; he wanted all of them to be there when he would finally achieve his dream.

Tears from his eyes left trails on his face as Naruto closed his eyes and cried.

Shinobi-rule #25:
A shinobi must keep emotions on the inside. A shinobi must make the mission his/her top priority. And a shinobi must possess a heart that never shows tears.

Today, five people broke the rule.

- End of Part 1 -

Author's Note:

o- This fic is based on a lot of assumptions; Orochimaru's immortality jutsu is one of them. That was how I imagine Orochimaru would perform the soul transfer.

o- Anyone recognized the Bleach- and RK-inspired scenes?

o- If you're interested in reading my further thoughts about this chapter, you can do so here (get rid of the blank spaces of course... ffnet is putting too many restrictions on how you format your text...): kaijou1. livejournal. com/9937.html

o- By far the most angst-filled fic I've ever written, I really hope that it turned out okay. I'd appreciate it if you'd leave a review... ;-)

o- The epilogue chapter is currently under editing; expect it to be released in a week or two. Till then!