i. The End

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It is mid-afternoon. Mountains of white clouds wade through the cobalt summer sky, and the hot sun hangs at its zenith in blue space, beating relentlessly down upon them from high above. Just a short while ago they had been standing in a meadow overflowing with sprays of wild flowers that had slowly swayed and nodded in the tepid afternoon breeze; now, it is pockmarked by craters made by her fists, the flowers crushed beneath the dark red rubble of upturned earth.

In a patch of poppies Sakura stands on trembling legs and drenched in sweat as she takes in loud, ragged breaths, her chest furiously pumping up and down, up and down. She has an arm wrapped around her waist, trying to ease the massive stitch at her side. It has been almost forty minutes into the fight and she is beginning to near the end of her endurance. Her cuts and scrape glow vibrantly as they well with blood, and the burn from them ebbs and flows as she struggles to keep the pain out of her mind.

She can feel the rest of her body slowly falling apart. Her legs are growing weak, her breathing is growing hard, but her green eyes remain rock steady, fixed on Uchiha Sasuke. In sharp contrast to the fire roiling in her eyes, Sasuke regards her with a cool disinterest, as if she were no more than a passing irritation he'd rather not deal with. He stands a stone's throw away, still as a statue and not a speck of dirt or sweat on his flawless, alabaster skin. His hair is the only thing out of place as it flutters in the light breeze. A sense of black despair begins to slowly raise its head within Sakura, but she furiously stomps down on it before it can grow into panic.

She could. She is a pupil of the Fifth Hokage and a monstrously strong kunoichi. She can tear the Earth asunder and bring buildings crumbling to their knees with her bare fists. Sakura digs her heels into the ground. She is no longer the longhaired, soft-skinned thirteen year old struck by puppy love. She is eighteen and a hardened veteran who is on a mission. She takes in a deep breath to even out her breathing and clear her head of doubt. She could do this.

There is a long, drawn out pause. Sakura can hear the blood rushing in her ears as her heart knocks loudly against her chest. As a medic nin, she's better suited to counter moves rather than be the first to assault. So she watches Sasuke intently, her body coiled and ready to snap into action at the first twitch of his fingers. Indifferent to her scrutiny, he stands with his weight on one foot, knowing that every second that ticks by cranks the tension even tighter.

A wayward gust of wind tumbles by them, hissing through the grass as it furiously rattles the wildflowers against her ankle. A massive cloud slides overhead them and a shadow passes over the land.

A rasp of metal rings out through emptiness between them as Sasuke draws his sword and snaps forward like a whip. Her body moves instinctively, twisting away from an attack she can't see. She feels the pull of his slipstream as he rips by her. There is a cold kiss on her shoulder. It's all too sudden, too abrupt to follow, like thumbing through a flipbook that's had too many pages torn out.

Her thoughts scramble to get back into the fight. She whirls around to face him panting loudly and heart thundering in her chest from the adrenaline because it had been a close call, and her legs won't stop shaking, and, and gods that was too close. He is frighteningly fast and for the first time in that fight, she is afraid.

The world brightens as the cloud moves on, and the returning sunlight licks the edge of the blade hanging at Sasuke's side. The sudden flash catches Sakura's eye, but that is not what keeps her transfixed on the metal. The edge is tinted red, slowly weeping blood from its tip.

Wondering if he had nicked her, she begins to examine herself, starting at her legs. Something white in the grass grabs her attention and she stares at it in morbid fascination. It is grotesque, turned upward and exposed like the pale of belly of a dead fish. Gray fingers claw at the skies as blood drains out of the other, gored end. An arm—it is a dismembered arm. But who's?

She looks up, and Sasuke has both limbs attached as they hang idly at his side. She looks back down at the thing in confusion. It can't be hers because she had avoided that last blow, she is sure of it.

It is then she realizes that her shirt feels wet against her skin. Something warm is dripping onto her leg, and she can't move the fingers in her left hand. Slowly, Sakura turns to look and for a long moment, she is confused by what she sees. There is a pause as her mind tries put together what she's putting together as if struggling with jigsaw pieces that just won't fit. Then time catches up, reality crashes into her, and her heart is thrown against her ribs. Horror lunges to the surface, shattering the thin glass of calm she had placed over her panic.

Her head wildly swings back to look at the arm on the ground—her arm. That is her arm.

The truth she had been trying so hard to stretch snaps back together, and the sting of reality slaps her brain out of its shock. Her flesh is suddenly on fire. She inhales sharply and claps her remaining hand over the wound, and she wants to scream bloody murder. Instead, she grits her teeth so hard that it feels as if they might sink back into her gums.

Sakura pushes a huge wave of molded chakra into the area, killing off the nerves and deadening them to the pain. She ignores that strange, airy sensation of critical chakra levels, more focused on reliving her own suffering, and for a moment there is sweet relief as the angry blaze at her side smolders down into a dull, red throb. Then the world spins crazily around her and she slams against the earth, crushing grass and wildflowers beneath her dead weight. White spots dance across her vision like swarms of gnats, and she is churning beneath a sea of disorientation.

Sasuke approaches her slowly—casually, like a hunter approaching the hare in his steel jaw trap. His cold shadow falls over her shuddering, panting form and Sakura's heart flutters with hummingbird wing beats. While they had been exchanging blows earlier, she was confident, not in her skills, but in him. The certainty that he wouldn't—couldn't— kill her had swaddled her in a blanket of security, had kept her calm—almost reckless— despite the relentless ferocity behind his attacks.

But Sakura has lost her arm, and the blanket has been ripped away from her. It occurs to her then that she had never been fighting to bring him home; she had been fighting for her life.

Her pathetic wheezing and the grass rattling in the wind fill the long silence.

"You're naiive Sakura," he says at length. His voice is flat, lacking the necessary spite to make it an insult. For some reason that makes it all the worse.

The smell of dark earth fills her nose as she shifts slightly to lock gazes with him. When she sees those blank, dispassionate eyes, Sakura is gripped by the urge to scream at him in frustration, to get a rise out of him, to make him care.

Because how did he do that? How did he raise a blade at her without even so much as hesitating? How does he have the gall to just stand there shamelessly after dismembering her? She knew Team Seven still meant something to him. It had to. That last "thank you" hadn't been hollow words. He had meant it. She damn well knew he meant it, and those two words were what had been stoking her hopes all these years.

He places his feet by her head and raises the sword with both hands over her. A burst of blue sparks erupts along the blade—Chidori.

"Sasuke-kun," she says hoarsely, trying to find purchase in his heart.

He doesn't give any indication that he's heard her. She closes her eyes and her breathing grows quicker. She can see the electricity flash and dance behind her closed lids. This has got to be a joke. This can't be it, she thinks. It is a foolish hope, but she clings to the possibility that he may remember.

Remember the afternoons they spent laying on hilltops, the grass tickling their skin as they watched the clouds race by. Remember the bento her mother would pack for the three of them after a long day of training. Remember runaway cats and his stupid tomato garden that they still took care of. Remember watching spring come under the falling cherry blossoms. Remember Kakashi-sensei's lame excuses, Naruto's idiot laugh, and his own quiet smile.

Remember their bonds.

"Sasuke-kun!" She screams, this time desperate and fearful, but the cry is lost amongst the shrill cries of a thousand chirping birds.

The blade plunges down.

Black out.

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Sakura jerked violently awake and threw herself into a sitting position, panting hard for the in-black air. Her heart galloped in her chest, and despite the deep darkness, the room felt like it was titillating madly around her. Blood pounded in her ears as she half-crawled, half-stumbled out of the futon,. Her entire body shook uncontrollably and she knew nothing save the save the fear that raged through her. An involuntary sob bubbled out of her. Suddenly the image of a white arm lying in the tall grass flashed in her head. Red blood was everywhere and chidori screeched in her ear. Fear exploded into full-blown terror.

She gripped her arm and screamed.

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"…ra…kura! Hey! Sakura!" Someone grabbed Sakura's shoulder.

Blindly she knocked it away and retched air and saliva. She was on her knees, shuddering with head in her hands, her thoughts swinging chaotically between the darkness and a sunlight field.

The hands locked around her arms again. She tried to shake them off, but they were iron-tight. Panic surged inside of her and she thrashed wildly like a trapped animal. Hysteria seeped into her voice. "No! Let me go!"

"Sakura! Calm down! Ow! Hey! Sakura!" The hands gave her a hard shake, "Look at me!"

The command pierced through her blind panic and clarity was forced back into her eyes. The blurry face before her came into focus and she froze.

Uchiha Sasuke.

Her arms shot out to shove him away and he fell back with a shout. Reflexively she reached down for a kunai, but her legs were bare. Desperate for a weapon, she groped frantically behind her, closing her hand around the first thing she touched. She flung it forward without hesitation.

"The hell Sakura—" Sasuke was cut off as the pillow struck his head with a loud whump. He angrily snatched the fluffy projectile off of his face with a few choice words already in mind. The first syllable of his oath was just beginning to roll off his tongue when a fist caught him square in the jaw.

Pain exploded where the blow had landed, but he didn't have the time to dwell upon it. The right hook sent him tumbling head-over-heels across the room until he crashed to a backbreaking halt against the opposing wall. Thoroughly stunned, all he could manage was a low groan as he lied in a boneless heap.

Still reeling, he didn't even have the time to catch his breath when he was heaved up and slammed against the wall. Stars sprang out before his vision and he gagged as an iron grip clamped around his throat. He struggled to break free but the hands' vice-like hold held fast.

Closing his eyes he waited for the nauseating moment to pass and blearily reopened them. His eyebrows furrowed as his rattled thoughts grappled to make sense of what he was seeing: Sakura.

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Sakura didn't know how she had survived the deathblow, but she was alive, somehow. She tightened her hold around Sasuke's neck, "I can't believe you tried to kill me," she snarled. She was still trembling, but whether it was in fear or anger, she couldn't tell.

Sasuke choked out an unintelligible response, but Sakura didn't care to hear it. "You tried to kill me," she repeated angrily. Her eyes grew hot with tears. She pulled back a clenched fist packed with chakra, the same amount she used to level mountains and blow open holes through steel. At point blank rage the force of this punch would send him through the wall and shatter his skull. It was certain death. Her lips formed a grim line.

'Do it! Kill him,' the voice in her head screamed. She wanted to be as strong as him, strong enough to break those bonds and kill him mercilessly. 'Come on Sakura,' she urged herself, 'He cut off your arm and drove a sword through your head. He tried to kill you—"

Her thoughts fell apart as her eyes lowered from Sasuke's face to the hand pinning him against the wall. She brought her fisted hand in front of her and she looked back and forth between the two libms.

He had cut her arm off. She had two arms.

"What...?"

The lapse in her concentration caused the chakra broiling in her right fist to quickly break apart and disperse.

Someone pulled her hand off of Sasuke's neck. "That's enough Sakura," a familiar voice said. Sakura didn't resist; still dumbfounded that her dismembered arm had somehow reattached itself.

Sasuke fell to his knees, coughing and sputtering. "Sakura… you… shit…" he cursed furiously between gulps of hair.

"Sakura?" The voice prodded behind her.

She started and turned her head in surprise. Her silver-haired teacher towered above her, and for a moment she wondered if he had grown.

"Kakashi-sensei?" He was supposed to be away on an S-Class mission with Naruto. They had told her it would be months before they were expected to return.

"Yo." The man raised his free hand in a lazy greeting, but he didn't release her wrist; his wariness was not lost upon her.

"Sensei? You—what're you doing here? Is Naruto, back too?" She looked around for the blonde and noticed her surroundings for the first time: wooden floorboards, a sleeping pallet, windows, ceilings…when had she gotten into a room?

Kakashi cocked an eyebrow. "Naruto's asleep. I'm here because I heard some shouting and banging from my student's room and decided to come see what all the excitement was all about. And, well…" His eyebrows furrowed as he looked back and forth between Sasuke and her. "I think one of you needs to explain the rest."

"I..." She glanced at the dark haired boy and bit her lower lip, tortured by her own confusion. There was something off about this entire picture.

The door slid open with a bang. Naruto stepped into the room, rubbing his eyes sleepily. "What's going on?" He caught Sasuke still on his knees, breathing hard, and Sakura standing over him with her hands still fisted. A grin split across his face.

"Ehhh? Sasuke you pervy bastard, you said you were just going to the bathroom. Hah! Good job, Sakura-chan! Beat that idiot to a bloody pulp!" He punched his fist encouragingly into the air.

Sasuke snarled, his voice still raw, "Shut up, dumbass."

"Naruto?" Now Sakura was utterly lost. "I thought you were—wait…" She struggled to fit the two pieces together. It was hard to see in the dark, but the blonde looked shorter, scrawnier. And when had his voice returned to that annoying, high-pitched, pre-pubescent—click.

Sakura felt her stomach drop. Her attention flicked back Kakashi, who wasn't taller; she had shrunk.

She must have had a wild look in her eye because her teacher's hard expression softened into worry. "Sakura?"

She ignored him as her eyes slid back to the other boy before her. She had not been mistaken; it was Uchiha Sasuke. But what she had missed was his rounder face and how he seemed smaller, younger. And his eyes—he was giving her one of the blackest looks in his repertoire, but they lacked the emptiness, the indifference, of that cold-hearted killer in the meadow.

The weight of reality brought her crashing to her knees. This was insane.

Startled, Kakashi let go of her wrist and stepped towards her. "Sakura!"

The grin was wiped off of Naruto's face as he finally realized the gravity of the situation. He jogged over to his teammates, but before he could ask what was wrong, Sakura suddenly launched herself at Sasuke, wrapping her arms tightly around his neck.

Sasuke stiffened, ready to counter what he thought was a chokehold, when he heard her muffled voice in his ears. "This…I must be dreaming." She burrowed her head deeper into the crook of his neck and a hot breath whispered across the hollow of his throat; she was hugging him. He placed a hand on her arm to try and wrench her arm, but she only tightened her grip. He winced as she unwittingly crushed his windpipe again.

Sasuke ground his teeth together impatiently. "Sakura," he began, but his words were overtaken by her voice.

"I'm dreaming," she shakily said again and Sasuke felt his shirt dampen. Then in a louder voice, "This is a dream…it must be a dream." Her voice broke over the last word and a sob scraped out of her throat. It struck the three males silent.

Sasuke's hands hovered by the mess of pink hair, afraid to touch her. He looked at his teacher pointedly: 'Do something!'

Kakashi crouched before his two students. "Sakura, is everything alright?"

She didn't turn to face her teacher and just shook her head, shuddering violently against Sasuke's chest. The wet patch on his shirt grew larger and Sasuke grimaced, wishing Kakashi would hurry up and just rip the girl off of him.

Naruto stood by, feeling awkward and helpless in the face of Sakura's muted tears. "Hey Sakura-chan," he tried hesitantly, clearly unnerved, "uhm, you okay?"

Another muted sob broke out against Sasuke's neck, and the three males cringed. Kakashi wanted to know what was going on, but he had a sneaking suspicion using ANBU interrogation techniques on his own students wouldn't go over well with the Third, and it was clear she didn't want to talk about it just yet. Going by how closely this followed on the heels of their fight against Zabuza and Co., he even suspected that she just had a nightmare, post-trauma and all that; the kind of stuff that he himself had little license to deal with. His own mental health wasn't exactly a walk in the park, if the psych exams were anything to go by.

Either way it didn't seem like she was hurt anywhere, which was a relief. If the situation remained the same by tomorrow, well… then he had tomorrow morning to deal with it, and if she needed, they could get her a nice psychologist back at the village. Until then, hopefully the two could sort out the issue amongst themselves. As the responsible adult in this situation he took the most logical and levelheaded course of action: he left.

As he shepherded a protesting Naruto out of the room, he turned and looked at Sasuke: 'Fix it.'

Sasuke glared back: 'The hell am I supposed to do?'

The door slid shut in answer and Sasuke fumed, grinding his teeth together in irritation. 'That good for nothing scarecrow…'

It hadn't even been twenty-four hours since he had been turned into a giant pincushion by Haku, and now he had an emotionally wrecked girl hanging off of his neck. There were worse things in life, but that didn't make him any more willing to bear this. His aching jaw and sore throat only worsened his mood.

Despite his irritation, Sasuke couldn't bring himself to pry Sakura off and abandon her in the room. He didn't know what had shaken the girl so badly, but she clung to him with the desperate grip of the drowning, and he had never forgotten that feeling of raw terror. He rummaged within himself but couldn't find the coldness in his heart to leave her alone.

Instead he tipped his head back against the wall with resignation and stared up at the ceiling, listening blankly to the frightened girl crying into his shoulders. He hesitantly placed a hand on the back of her head, gently pressing her shaking form closer to his chest.

It was a comforting act, a very human gesture.

It made Sakura cry all the harder.