Disclaimer: Nope, I don't own Naruto.

Chapter 16

Sakura's mind began to stir, hazily; her eyes remained closed as her body shifted slightly, fingers dragging over soft fabric. There was warmth, too, and the smell of earth and blood.

With a barely controlled start, she realized her head was nestled on Sasuke's shoulder, her arm resting on his chest. She opened her eyes to find herself gazing at his neck, the gentle pulse at the base of it visible.

Is he awake?

The rise and fall of his chest continued unabated, rhythmic and calm. She sighed lightly, sinking back into him, his heartbeat thudding softly in ear.

For just this one moment, I can stay here and pretend that everything is okay. That we're back home, where we belong.

The tempo of his heart increased then, but he didn't move.

Ah… not long enough…

She debated how long she might remain here, pretending to sleep; but the awkwardness would gnaw at her, if only for his sake. Surely he was uncomfortable waking this way, even if he had opened up to her, just a little.

Lifting her body carefully, she hoisted herself up, still dizzy and somewhat weak. But it was an improvement to be able to get upright.

She sighed. "Sorry, Sasuke. I must've just been cold."

He watched her, still on his back, and eventually propped himself onto his elbow. "Youwere cold." The expression he wore was difficult to read. "Are you feeling up to travel now?"

A slight frown tugged at the corners of her lips. "I don't know, Sasuke. Where are we going?"

"Home." His brow creased the moment he spoke the word, and he hastily rose from the ground to stand, nearly hitting the cavern's ceiling, running his hand through his hair. "I'm going to get you back to the village."

She watched him; like so many times before, he looked as if his thoughts were battling, confusion and irritation chasing across his features. "And you…? Are you coming home, too?"

He glared at her briefly before he began gathering up what little they had on them; pouches and weapons. Looking at the floor of the cavern, beside the cooling embers of the fire pit, she spied the ripped remains of her Akatsuki cloak. It was completely ruined. She reached for it, dragging it across the cavern floor, her fingers shaking a little. It seemed such a foreign thing, all of a sudden. Talking of home, of Konoha, and then to see this… the contrast of feelings was stark. And yet, she had learned something there. She had learned a great deal there.

There was companionship to be had in the strangest places. Back when Itachi had found her in Rain, Sakura was sure that there could not possibly be any greater darkness in the world than that in her own mind. It had changed her.

What had become of Deidara? He was a good person. Although it was sure he was a criminal, and perhaps he'd done terrible things before… she simply couldn't see him as a one-dimensional evil image anymore. He'd sparred with her, and made her breakfast, and shared sake. And in the end, he was one of the reasons she was alive.

Deidara… please be well, somewhere.

And what might have happened had Sasuke not appeared in the village in Rain when he had? She had surrendered to something with Itachi, something desperate and needy, wanting so much to fill a gap in her heart, seeing things in him that were maybe never there. She'd always been told she had too tender a heart. Sakura knew this to be true when her thoughts meandered to the minute evidences that maybe, just maybe, there was still a shred of humanity left in Itachi. Despite all the horrid things he'd put her through. Still.

She had told Sasuke that home wasn't the same thing it once was. Home was, perhaps, no longer a place, but just a feeling. A safe harbor. Though she knew she didn't belong with Akatsuki, she wasn't sure she was quiteready to go back to Konoha, just yet.

If she went back without Sasuke, it wouldn't be home.

"Are you ready?" Sasuke asked quietly, extending a hand her.

She shook her head, his choice of words echoing and ironic, and smiled up at him. Accepting his hand, she felt his fingers curl around hers and grip them firmly. She looked up and finally took in his appearance; he was covered in what she presumed was her blood, dried and cracking on his clothes. His arms were now bandaged to the elbows.

The burns!

"Sasuke, your arms… I'd forgotten! Are they all right?"


"Let me look…"

"No." He pulled back, tying his cloak together at the neck. "They're fine. Let's go."

She nodded in silent resignation. There wasn't much she could say or do, even now. Walking carefully, she moved past him, to the mouth of the cave, peering out.

She turned to look at him over her shoulder, her face lowered toward the ground. "Let's go home." She didn't wait for his response. Stepping out into the cool morning air, she braced herself for the journey.

Traveling in her condition was slow going, and done mostly in silence. She couldn't use much chakra; her body was still weak, and what she needed most was just to rest. But Sasuke urged her on, gently, picking her up when she stumbled. He was so quiet.

What could he be thinking about? The closer we get to Konoha, the more troubled he seems. He never did answer my question…

Judging by how long they'd been traveling, she estimated that they must be close now. Sasuke's steps seemed to slow more and more, the closer they got. At first, he had kept some distance between them, and she had watched his back. Now, he stayed at her side.

The silence was starting to make Sakura a little crazy.

She smiled brightly. "I wonder if Naruto's gotten taller."

Sasuke looked at her for a moment, one eyebrow rising. "I'm sure he's not taller than me."

Sakura laughed, a true laugh, bright. "Actually, I think he was taller than you already…"

Nothing but a dismissive grunt this time.

The laughter faded as her thoughts turned now in earnest, thinking of all the people she'd be reuniting with. "I wonder what Tsunade-shishou will say. I've been gone so long now. I… I don't know if she'll believe me…" She thought that they had to forgive her, that they had to understand…

He looked at her seriously. As they walked, he came closer to her, perhaps unconsciously. "You were used, Sakura. There's no question about that. They'll know that there's no way you would have done…"

"Done what? What I did to Naruto? Joined with the enemy?" She shook her head. "I don't know if they'll forgive me. Even still."

Her doubts had plagued her for miles as they walked. But, she had always thought that Sasuke would be taken back, that he would be forgiven. No matter what he had done, he was still a comrade; she had simply assumed that they would accept him again. Their situations weren't so very different, were they?

Considering it more deeply, the similarities were striking.

She watched him; his eyes traced the ground, his brows knit. Perhaps he was considering her words. They had both done harm to a comrade… both left the village and ended up in the arms of the enemy. And their motivation? Revenge, love… did it matter why?

"You have valuable information about Akatsuki. Use that." The words he spoke didn't match his tone, forced and edged with anger. She couldn't help but wonder if he was thinking about himself too, just a little. Indeed, what would they do if he returned?

She realized now that it was pointless to fight it. Seeing her own predicament so sharply, she understood his a little more.

It was getting close to sunset now, the sky washed in watercolors as the sun began its descent. And she began, slowly, to recognize small landmarks they passed; a certain copse of trees, the layout of rock formations, the occasional hut tucked into the forest, and now they neared farmlands, the forest opening into fields.

Her breath started to come just a little faster with each step.

She had to know if he was coming with her. If he was coming home.

Judging by the way his footsteps slowed, it seemed he was already uncomfortable about how close they were. But she chose to take it as a good sign that they had come this far, together. That he had not simply abandoned her earlier.

Why didn't he?

His voice was quiet. "Let's skirt around this field. Head southeast." He switched direction then, somewhat abruptly. Pushing her confusion aside, and trying to judge their approximate location, she guessed that the route Sasuke was taking them on was sending them in a circle around Konoha.

"Sasuke… are you… do you not want to go back?"

He stayed quiet, his hands shoved into the pockets of his cloak, a breeze ruffling his hair.

They walked in silence then, for a while. The crickets had begun their songs, though the sun was just setting.

Despite her trepidation, her fear for what was to come, this place still feltright.

Her memory began tugging at her then as they came to the top of a small hill, emerging from a knot of trees onto an open plain, a scent borne on the breeze; soft, green…


Sasuke looked at her then, almost gauging her reaction. The ever present wariness, the seemingly inborn desire to flee was in his eyes, but mingled now with a strange softness. He stopped walking, waiting for something, looking at her.

"Oh… this is…" Her words were nearly breathless, as she realized where they were.

It was from her dreams. No, from her childhood. A quiet laugh escaped her as she walked down the hill, Sasuke following slowly. The wildflowers were crowded here, pink and yellow and white and blue, up to her knees and waving gently.

She drank it all in. A warmth suffused her as she let it flood back over her.

Somehow, he knew. It was just what she needed.

"No matter what happens… I have to protect this. And the people who are important to me."

Turning, she looked to Sasuke, her expression resolute and determined. He just watched her, eyes never leaving hers.

Does he understand what I'm saying? Will he accept what is given?

Smiling, she began picking a few delicate stems. "I was always so terrible at flower arranging. Ino teased me about it…" Gathering the flowers in her hands, she ran her thumb along the petals of a plain white daisy. "Hunh. Maybe… maybe it's all in the wrist." She popped the daisy's head off its stem, and with a wicked grin looked up at Sasuke.

"Huh?" He asked, a split second before something soft lapped his cheek, and a tiny puff of yellow pollen stained his face. "Sakura, what the…"

She simply couldn't help but laugh like a fool as she watched Sasuke dodge all her daisy shuriken with ease. "Hmm, looks like these do make decent shuriken after all!" She continued the volley of projectiles, watching him close in on her now and making no move to dodge.

The ground met her back with a light thud as he tackled her, her hair catching in the flattened flowers as Sasuke fell beside her, smirking.

"Fine, you win," Sakura said, her laughter still touching the words. Her smile faded as she looked at him, so near, and so close to a real smile now. "Thank you for bringing me here."

His breathing was a little more rapid now, the smirk fading.

The words came slowly. "Sakura… I can't go with you." He looked down at her, taking a deep breath. "It's because I have to protect you, that I have to go. He might target you again."

There was hesitance though; and he had brought her closer to the village than she ever thought he would…

She reached out then, grabbing his shirt in her fist, long held desperation seizing her. "You can't do this alone. You just can't!" Swallowing, she pulled him in closer, her voice low. "I'm prepared to fight you if I have to."

A smile. "You're in no condition to fight." Close enough now for her to feel his breath on her cheek.

The tears she'd been fighting came now, ever since… "I can't go with you…"

He was right. She couldn't fight him now, not effectively. But what else could she do? "It doesn't matter. I'll fight you anyway, with whatever I have left. Konoha is home, Sasuke, all the people who care about you…"

"Home..." He reached out then, his fingers dashing a tear from her cheek. A look of questioning crossed over his features.

What else can I do?

Desperation makes a fool of everyone, sometimes.

Before she could think twice, Sakura pulled him down to her quickly, one hand fisted in his shirt, the other reaching out and curling gently around his neck. Their noses brushed, and she lifted her chin, swallowing hard before their lips met, so softly.

He took in a sharp breath. He was trembling. His eyes closed then, and she closed her own as he deepened the kiss and leaned in to her; her entire body rang with warmth and her heart pounded, emitting a soft sound as she felt his fingers twining in her hair, his other arm wrapping gripping her shoulder tightly. It was as if she could simply melt into him. He pulled her closer still, their bodies flush now as they lay side by side in the field. They kissed, their tongues playing and searching, hands gripping as if they simply couldn't get close enough. She poured all her love into that kiss, every moment of lost time, everything that was warm and soft and human, as the salt of her tears mingled on their lips. Sakura knew, finally; he needed to understand the depth of what she felt, how important closeness was, and words did not suffice. They remained that way, locked tightly, the outside world shut out completely for these few stolen minutes.

He pulled back finally, catching his breath, touching his forehead to hers.

Their breaths were heavy as they looked at each other, the shock still not quite absorbed. The first stars had come out.

"Sasuke, I…"

He shook his head slightly against hers. "You don't need to say anything." His fingers ran through her hair.

Quietly, she did the same, smoothing the short hairs at the nape of his neck. Their bodies were still flush against one another, their chests rising and falling together.

"Are you coming, Sasuke? Or will I go with you?" Quiet.

Unexpectedly, a smirk formed on his lips. "Well, I don't think that's up to me anymore. I can't decide if you're really that devious or if you didn't notice."

Her brows knit. "What? What are you talking about?"

She felt it then. Chakra signatures. Close.

Oh, kami… I was so focused on Sasuke…

Her heart raced again, and she flinched backward, but Sasuke pulled her back in to him. "I don't want to become… like him." His jaw clenched. "I did choose to bring you here. I knew there was a risk. I took it."

They stared into each others eyes as the signatures came closer. The footsteps were clearly audible. There had to be at least ten people.

So much unspoken. But she watched him, and his eyes told her what she needed to know.

He rose then, pulling her up with him.

Steeling herself, and taking Sasuke by the hand, Sakura stood her ground as she finally recognized the leader of the group; Kakashi, followed by a troop of masked ANBU.

She looked at Sasuke, seeking courage.

He looked back. "I don't regret it, Sakura."

She would face anything as long as he was with her.

In a dark room, a man sat at a table, waiting. His fingers stroked slowly over a silver ring on his finger.

He raised his eyes to the center of the table, slowly, as the familiar holographic figure flickered into view.

The vaguely male image spoke. "You've failed again, Itachi. I'm beginning to sense a pattern here."

"He no longer has the curse seal. His power is reduced." The words were flat, his expression blank.

"We could have accomplished that alone much more simply. We need three, Uchiha. Three Mangekyou to break the final seal." Static laced through his words, inflection somewhat lost.

"We will have to find another way."

A pause. "What about Deidara? How did he get away?"

Obsidian eyes cast to the table, Itachi looking almost as if he was bored with the conversation. "It couldn't be helped. Deidara was unnecessary in any case."

"And what if Sasuke returns to Konoha now? The Hokage may be inclined toward leniency; in their eyes, he is the last of the Uchiha bloodline. What if he returns to us next time with companions?"

Itachi did not answer. He raised his eyes to the window, observing the darkness and what few stars he could see through the veil of mist.

His thoughts wandered then to a certain green-eyed woman; he wondered what she was dreaming.

A/N: Well, that's all she wrote folks. To everyone who stuck with me to the end, and reviewed, and faved and alerted – thank you, thank you, a thousand times over. There were many times when I struggled with this, and while I know it's not perfect (I need to get a beta next time), I hope you still think it was worth reading. To those of you who read anyway, despite not much caring for one or the other pairings, the biggest thank you of all; I don't know if people were turned off by that, or if they just thought it sucked, but I am grateful to you all for sticking with me.

Some of the plot was inspired by a massive theory (not my own); I will post a link to it on my LiveJournal if people are interested in reading. As of Chapter 386, it seems like it won't come true, but I don't care ;) If you want more of my blah blah blah (rofl) or just want to say "hi", drop on by.

I am not sure what I'll do next. I don't know about a sequel; perhaps. Maybe I should try something a little lighter next time. Dunno :)

Thank you again.