Comes The Dawn
When Sakura's mind swam back into full awareness, she realised she was sprawled on something that felt like grass and staring at a blue sky streaked with clouds.
For a moment, her exhausted mind wondered dizzily what had happened, and then she remembered. The struggle with Itachi/Skwall, feeling her essence stretched too thin, knowing her body was changing...
'I must have changed into a tree,' she told herself. 'But I've changed back again.'
At least she still had her clothes on this time.
Sakura slowly rolled over and tried to stand up. Her movements were a little jerky, as though her mind had almost forgotten how to work her arms and legs.
She realised she was still in the grounds of the Uchiha estate, but the garden looked like it had been through a hurricane while she was gone. Had there been some sort of bad storm?
For that matter, how long had she been gone? Sakura felt a slight shiver of fear when she realised she could have been a tree for years. Her mother had been a human for over a decade...how long had she been held in the form of a sakura tree?
Carefully stretching out her limbs – not stiff or sore but still feeling strange and new – she made her way to the house and rapped on the back door.
There was no answer. Sakura knocked again, louder this time.
Assuming Sasuke was on a mission or otherwise absent, Sakura decided to go to her house and see if her father was home, trying to ignore the insidious, slimy voice in the back of her mind hissing that her father might be dead.
She leapt across the rooftops, noting that all the buildings were repaired from the Daemons' last attack, and jumped down to land lightly on her own doorstep.
Taking a deep breath to prepare herself to face...whatever she was about to face, Sakura rapped sharply on the door.
There were a few moments of silence. Then she heard footsteps as someone moved through the hall, and the door opened to reveal a very haggard-looking Sotaro, his eyes widening as he took in the person standing on his front step.
Sakura smiled tremulously. "Hi, Dad."
"Five months?" she choked out. "I was gone for five months?"
Sotaro nodded. Sakura and her father were sitting at the table, both clutching mugs of tea. Sakura's ribs still ached a little from the constricting hug he had delivered when he'd realised she was standing on the doorstep. Even now, his hand kept drifting to her shoulder or her hair, as though trying to reassure himself his daughter was really sitting in their kitchen once more.
"Wow..." she whispered, stunned at the idea that such a large piece of her life could have been consumed so ruthlessly.
No sooner had she considered that then she realised what her friends must be going through. "I have to see the others!" she blurted, abandoning her tea and rising from her chair.
Sotaro blinked, and though he nodded in understanding, Sakura could see a hint of fear enter his eyes.
"I'll be back tonight, Dad," she assured him, squeezing his shoulder briefly before tearing out the door and down the road.
Sotaro watched her go, trying to quell the worry that snaked into his heart as she disappeared around the corner.
Sakura skidded to a halt near the Sacred Sakura and stretched out her hands to rest her palms on the trunk.
There was a pause, as though of shock. And then...
"Yeah, Mum – I'm back."
Sakura! When did you come back? Are you alright? Did you change back without any side-effects? Have you been to see your father?
The half-nymph laughed at the barrage of questions only she could hear. "I just came back a little while ago, I'm fine, no side-effects that I've noticed, and yes, I've been to see Dad. He was...he was very relieved."
She knew that was a definite understatement – relieved didn't even begin to describe the expression that had crossed her father's face when he'd opened the door to find her standing in front of him.
"Back for good, yeah."
Thank the gods! I was so afraid...I thought you'd be in that state for years!
"I might have been," Sakura admitted. "But I could hear my friends talking around me, and I could tell they were upset, so I tried to pull myself back."
Yes, your friends – have you spoken to them yet?
Mikiko was sounding a little overwhelmed, and Sakura couldn't help but smile. "I'm headed to Tsunade's office now, Mum – I figure she can call everyone else there, instead of me just trotting around the village and meeting people at random. But don't worry – I'll be coming to the Otherworld soon through the Deepest Well to visit you."
Will the Gate Keeper let you in? Sometimes he refuses-
"Well, I've just fought Skwall as Haevyn's vessel and managed to end the cycle once and for all – I think he owes me."
Tsunade jerked up from the reports her head had begun to droop over. Shizune was standing in the doorway, looking as though one of the Hokage's bets had paid out for the first time and they'd won a million dollars. A strange mixture of disbelief, joy, and sheer exultation painted her features.
"What is it, Shizune?"
As an answer, her assistant stepped aside.
And for a moment, Tsunade thought her heart had stopped in her chest. Sakura stood in the doorway, a slightly shy smile on her face, as though she wasn't sure of her welcome.
In a daze, the Hokage stood and made her way to the door. It was only when her fingers had hesitantly combed through the fringe of Sakura's distinctive hair that she could finally believe that this was real, not some sort of sake-induced daydream.
"You're back," was all Tsunade could manage.
Sakura nodded, tears filling her eyes as though Tsunade's emotional turmoil was being passed to her via osmosis. Then she launched herself at her mentor, her arms winding around Tsunade's waist as she hugged the blonde woman desperately.
Strangely, Tsunade wanted to laugh. Sakura had always been demonstrative of her affection.
The sudden, dizzying relief that swamped the Hokage in that moment left her clinging to the pink-haired medic just as fiercely as Sakura was to her. The two women stayed like that for several long moments, just holding each other, breathing deeply and evenly.
Then Sakura drew back, wrinkling her nose a little. "You smell like sake."
And Tsunade laughed.
Sakura's ears still rang from Ino's delighted shriek. Her ribs and back still stung from Naruto's hug. Her side throbbed from where Hatchling had knocked her over with an affectionate butt.
She didn't think she'd ever been this happy in her life.
Sakura couldn't help staring at Hinata's swollen stomach. The newlywed was only five months along, so she was nowhere near as big as she was going to get, but some part of Sakura's mind simply couldn't get over the fact that a baby – Naruto's baby – was growing inside her.
"Do you know the gender yet?" she asked.
"Yeah – we're going to have a girl!" Naruto proclaimed. "We're going to call her Hisae!"
He patted Hinata's abdomen in the same way Sakura imagined he'd pat his daughter's head one day. "And she's going to be as beautiful as her Mummy."
Sakura laughed and stretched out a hand to pat Naruto's shoulder. "You're going to be a great dad, Naruto."
The blonde beamed.
"And you're going to be a great mum, Hinata," the medic told the expectant mother.
Hinata blushed and gave an embarrassed sort of smile.
Sakura couldn't wipe the grin off her face.
When Tsunade had called everyone into her office, Sakura had been practically tackled to the floor by Ino and Naruto. Naruto had kept hugging her until suffocation became a serious issue, while Ino had attempted to shout everything that had happened since she had transformed in one breath.
Lee had hovered over her like an overprotective mother-hen, as though worried she'd disappear the moment he took his eyes off her. Shikamaru had simply smiled quietly and patted her on the shoulder, saying that he was glad she was back. Chouji's reaction had been much the same, though he had tacked on the statement that Ino had been driving him up the wall when she had no girlfriend to gossip with.
Hinata had beamed and hugged her for a brief moment before guiding Sakura's hand to her belly to feel the baby kick. Tenten had caught her around the waist and actually swung her into the air – Sakura was always surprised by how physically strong the brunette was, especially given that she couldn't use chakra the way the half-nymph and Tsunade did.
Kiba had grinned wolfishly as Akamaru knocked her down to sniff her all over. Shino had just nodded and rested his hand on her shoulder for a moment, and she guessed his rather reserved attitude wouldn't allow him to do any more. Neji hadn't exactly smiled, but his smirk had been a lot softer than usual.
Sasuke was away on a lengthy mission to Earth Country, so he wasn't at the pseudo-celebration, but Sakura was determined to see him as soon as he got back.
Kakashi had been late in responding to Tsunade's summons, and eventually Sakura had left the gathering to try to find him. He'd been at the monument, and when she called his name and he turned around to see her standing behind him...well, the look in his visible eye in that moment would be forever seared into her memory.
She'd dragged him back to the tower, and Tsunade's office had become immersed in something of an unofficial party as everyone celebrated her return.
Eventually, as the party wound down, Hinata and Naruto had managed to persuade her to come with them to see their new house.
Which was why Sakura was sitting in a small but homey kitchen, unable to stop grinning at the newlyweds.
"So...how was the wedding?" she asked.
To her surprise, both Naruto and Hinata suddenly looked guilty.
"We...we really wanted you to be there, Sakura..." Hinata started, and the medic immediately saw where the conversation was going and cut in, rolling her eyes.
"Oh, for god's sake, don't start on that – I'm glad you guys got hitched! Besides, you didn't know how long I was going to be a tree, and I think four months was more than enough time spent waiting on me."
Their nagging consciences apparently mollified, Hinata and Naruto began describing their wedding, everything from the sake they ordered to the speeches people gave.
And Sakura still couldn't wipe the smile off her face.
Sakura made her way through the forest, heading unerringly for the Deepest Well, determined to visit her mother.
She ran lightly through the branches of the trees, urging the boughs to bend together to form a bridge for her passing with barely more effort than a thought.
Her Faerie magic was still within her, but her powers were not as...intense as they had been, though they were still a far cry from the usual nymph powers. Her strange 'land sense' was weaker but still in play, and she still had that peculiar hold over animals as well as plants. She didn't know if it was because Haevyn's presence within her had forever altered her powers, or if Mikiko was right: combining human chakra and Faerie magic simply enhanced those individual powers.
But she couldn't walk around barefoot anymore – that was gone, as was her ability to command the land itself. The power that had been cloistered within her had vanished, and some part of Sakura was rather relieved.
Her ultimate power was gone, yes, and she supposed she'd mourn its loss every time a patient died in her care...but now she could look at herself and know that this was who she was, and not an attribute of some goddess.
And she had retained one rather interesting and useful power. Sakura was able to move through a forest undetected.
It didn't work in any other landscape, but in the forest...if Sakura wanted to leave no trace, there was no one who could track her. No dog could pick up her scent, and not even the best tracker could discern where she stepped.
In a forest, Sakura was like a soft breath of air. Passing swiftly, invisibly, without a sound and without a trace.
The half-nymph predicted a lot of stealth missions in her future.
She stepped into the clearing, not surprised to find the white stag already waiting for her.
"Hey, Gate Keeper," she greeted softly.
He dipped his head to her briefly, a remnant of the bow he had offered her the first time she entered the Deepest Well. "Daughter of the Land."
"Did you know?" Sakura had to ask. "Did you know what was going to happen?"
"I knew what was supposed to happen," the Gate Keeper admitted softly. "But I didn't know if it would."
Sakura nodded and just watched him pace out the gateway to the Deepest Well in silence.
He never asked her for a reason for her visit.
The medic leapt into the Deepest Well as soon as it opened. She passed the stone altar in the middle of the bridge, noting that there was now no tree growing on it, and allowed herself a self-satisfied smirk at the idea that Haevyn and Skwall were finally gone for good.
She emerged in the Otherworld with that smirk still on her face.
And was immediately engulfed in a smothering hug by Mikiko.
"Thanks the gods," her mother whispered. "Thank the gods..."
"I'm okay, Mum," she told Mikiko, patting the sakura nymph gently on the back. "I'm okay."
"Of course, of course," Mikiko murmured, drawing back and wiping at her eyes surreptitiously. "Tell me, what's been happening in Konoha? How are your friends? And...your father?"
"Dad's fine," Sakura told her. "And I told you about Naruto and Hinata asking me to be godmother to their baby. Sasuke's still on a mission to Earth Country, but he's coming back tomorrow..."
Sakura sat on the edge of the dock, idly kicking her feet in the water.
Sasuke was due to be back from his mission that day, and Sakura had decided to wait in the Uchiha compound for him, largely because Naruto had told her he often stopped by her tree before he even made his report to the Hokage, and she didn't want him to be met with an empty garden and think she'd been cut down or uprooted or something equally disastrous.
So she was dabbling her bare feet in the lake as she waited, kicking her legs to see the droplets of water spray through the air, catching the light and shining like sprays of tiny jewels.
Sakura sensed a flare of chakra approaching rapidly and stood, shaking water from her toes and slipping her shoes back on before trotting up to the house.
Sasuke appeared around the corner of the house. He hadn't noticed her yet, which made her wonder about his state of mind, that he was ignoring such a blatant chakra signature in his garden. Naruto and Kakashi had both warned her that Sasuke hadn't taken her transformation well, but the man in front of her barely looked like the Sasuke she remembered. Defeat was written in every line of his posture, and he held his half-hunched body as though he were concealing some kind of hidden injury, even though her 'land sense' told her he was uninjured.
"S-Sasuke?" she stuttered out, reaching out to him.
She could see in his eyes the moment her presence registered. For a moment, he looked dazed, shocked...and then fury lit an inferno in his dark eyes.
Sakura found herself slammed against the wall of the house, his grip frighteningly tight on her arms.
"Change back!" he told her quietly, his voice trembling with suppressed emotion. Like a piece of glass spiderwebbed with cracks and one inch from shattering completely.
"Change back or I'll kill you!" he hissed, punctuating his words with a vicious shake.
At that moment, Sakura realised Sasuke thought someone had transformed into her and was playing some kind of cruel joke on him.
"It's me," she protested, but his low snarl interrupted her.
"Don't! Don't you dare use her voice!"
Sakura blinked. Apparently, Sasuke was taking this much harder than she'd thought he would. Enough so that he couldn't let himself believe this was really her, because if it wasn't, it would hurt him far too much.
She didn't know what to say, but she had to address the grip on her upper arms that was rapidly turning from tight to painful. "Sasuke, if you don't loosen your grip on me, I'll make you, and believe me, that will hurt you more than it will hurt me."
His hands loosened a little in response to her usual brand of ordering someone around – an instruction combined with a threat. As though hearing her say something so typical of her introduced the idea that he could be talking to Sakura more strongly than simply seeing her could ever do.
"It's me," she said, rather belatedly, her hand half-rising to point to where she guessed her tree had been. "No tree...I came back."
Sasuke blinked and slowly let his eyes follow her finger. The garden was bare of any sakura tree; the space where it had stood was just a blank expanse of grass, as though nothing else had ever grown there.
He blinked again, barely able to believe that it might be true, that Sakura had returned and was right in front of him, her arms clenched in his hands, her voice telling him that his grip was getting tight again, and if she had to extract herself she'd heal the broken wrists that would result, but it would still hurt like hell to get them...
And something in Sasuke snapped. He didn't realise how it happened, but he was suddenly clutching her to him, his cheek pressed against hers and his panicked breath dancing across her neck. He held her tightly, reveling in the feel of her; alive and warm and human. He could feel her pulse fluttering against the side of his jaw, the arteries distending her pale skin with the force of her heart's contractions.
Sasuke didn't think about it. He didn't wonder if he did it because their recent experiences had shown him just how short life was, didn't wonder if this sudden burst of courage and hope had come because he knew what life would be like without her. He didn't analyse it, he didn't second guess it, he didn't plan it.
He just did it.
Sasuke drew back a little, enough to see the tentative smile on Sakura's face and the hint of confusion in her eyes, before he dipped his head and pressed his lips against hers.
It was far from perfect. He had very little experience in kissing, so he wasn't quite sure how to align his mouth with hers. She wasn't helping either – she'd gone completely stiff with what he hoped was shock and not revulsion. Sakura didn't even seem to be blinking.
Just when Sasuke started to think about stopping – that Sakura's frozen state was polite refusal of what he was offering – her lips softened beneath his, and she tilted her head a little to the side so their noses were no longer bumping against each other.
Sakura blinked, vaguely aware Sasuke had spoken practically against her mouth, but couldn't make that single word fit into any sort of meaning, and eventually settled for an ineloquent, "What?"
"You asked me a question a while ago," he said quietly. "Remember? In the forest, with Hatchling? And now I'm answering – everything."
Sakura's brows drew together as she wondered what he was talking about, but then memory flashed through her mind and realisation hit her like a sledgehammer. She thought she actually felt the world spin around her a little as she remembered the question she'd asked that day in the forest.
What am I to you?
That realisation was swiftly followed by an even bigger one – Sasuke would never have said something like that unless he meant it. And he would never have meant something like that unless...
Unless he loved her.
It hadn't been said, but she could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice, feel it in the way he touched her – urgently but reverently.
Sasuke had not moved while she came to these realisations, and Sakura realised he was waiting for some sign from her, some indication of either acceptance or rejection.
In answer, she leaned forward and gently kissed him again.
He hadn't said he loved her. Some part of Sakura acknowledged that he might never say it. But she knew he did, and maybe that was enough. And if one day it wasn't, then they'd deal with it then.
But for now, there was just them, and the road ahead of them.
Sakura held no illusions. She knew it would be hard to make this work. There were still demons and darkness inside Sasuke that she hadn't even brushed the surface of. It would be difficult to be both teammates and lovers, just as it was difficult to find time in a ninja's life for their partner. If there was one thing she'd learned in this life, it was that love didn't conquer all.
But she had to admit it was a damn good start.
Sakura closed her eyes, rested her head against Sasuke's chest, and listened to the hum of the trees.
AN: Thanks to both justcallmefaye and my brother, who beta-d various parts of this story for me. Considering that this was my first Naruto fic, I never expected the overwhelmingly positive response I received. I mean, I got over five hundred reviews! I never expected anything like that!
Just to say thanks to everyone who reviewed – feedback is always appreciated, especially when plunging into new and uncharted territory.
Also, justcallmefaye and Pensulliwen have drawn a wonderful fanarts for this fic – check out my profile for the links!