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Cherry Bridge

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Summary Chapter 22

An intense, staggering battle takes place between the Konoha shinobi and the two Uchiha. After Sakura is saved from Sasuke by Kakashi, she realizes that the most logical path to take would be to kill the young Uchiha – however, her Inner, her second mind, resurfaces and angrily reminds her that such an act would be very unlike the real Sakura. In the ensuing clash between Sakura and Madara, Sakura gathers everybody's minds – minus Madara's – to connect with hers, thus protecting them from the mental battle. When she gets distracted by Naruto and Sasuke, Madara seizes her and would have overwhelmed her, had not a star intervened and deterred the elder Uchiha. After the masked man is forced away, the star announces that Sakura's time on earth is up, and that the Heavens are waiting for her to pay the price of having a second mind. The Konoha shinobi depart, leaving Sasuke to figure out his next step. He chooses to retreat somewhere in hiding, alone.

XxXxX

A/N

My goodness, you guys are my favorite people! Many thanks to all who offered their condolences; it was a comfort to read every single review that you left for me. You all have my sincere gratitude for sticking around. ^_^

Anyways, Merry Christmas! This is my present to you guys ;) Enjoy!

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East or west – home is still best.

XxXxX

XxXxX

Chapter 23

There were several moments of Haruno—no, Rokukan Sakura's life that she could easily define as 'indescribable'. For example, that heart-stopping moment where Kakashi accepted Team 7 as his students – moments after threatening to murder them for disobeying him. Another example would definitely be where Sakura first felt Sasuke's evil curse mark flood his skin and heart, setting his eyes ablaze with bloody light. It had been terrifying and definitely an unforgettable moment.

The list of gut-wrenching, jaw-dropping, heart-pounding events could go on for miles… And the feeling of stepping through Konoha's newly rebuilt gate fell into that category.

Blinking at the proud red pillars through watering eyes, she hiccupped once strangely, drawing the eyes of her companions to herself.

"Sakura-chan?" Naruto inquired hesitantly.

Something inside of her snapped.

A strangled choke escaped her lips. As the other shinobi stared at her with concern, the choke evolved into a giggle. More and more hysterical giggles worked their way out of her throat, soon turning into full-blown laughter.

Bent nearly double, Rokukan Sakura laughed. She laughed to see her beloved home. She laughed because she had been through so damn much. She laughed because everything was the same, and yet everything was completely different. She laughed because… she was so relieved.

Wiping tears of mirth away, she spun on her heel to face her companions just as Kakashi murmured with amusement:

"Oh, well… Let her have her happiness."

All of them were watching her as if she had suddenly sprouted a second – and third – head but she couldn't care less. Smiling so hard that her cheeks hurt, she suddenly flung her arms heavenward and proclaimed:

"I'm back! I'm home!"

Weeks of training new, shocking techniques, fighting a psychopath, living next door with an ex-teammate… it all was being soothed away by the beautiful sight of her home. Her village.

'Home,' she savored the word, rolling it around in her mind, 'There is nothing better than home.'

Excitement cleared all inhibitions. Splitting a piece of her consciousness into her second mind, she launched herself from the confines of her body to soar around her beloved village. She flew past constructions sites, past newly painted buildings, past laughing civilians in the bustling marketplace, past the Hokage Tower, past—

Her mind screeched to a stop. The Hokage Tower!

Scanning the infrastructure in her mind, she took note of Tsunade's absence. Worry niggled into her thoughts. Sakura frowned, turning to Kakashi.

"Kaka-sensei," she asked anxiously, "How is Tsunade-shishou doing?"

The copy nin met her gaze evenly.

"She's in coma, Sakura," he replied as gently as possible. Warily, he watched as she gazed in the direction of the Hokage Tower, her eyes fearful.

Unlike the rest of the shinobi present, Kakashi had enough experience to see what was going through Sakura's head. He couldn't even fathom how much the young kunoichi had been through in a matter of weeks whereas other people had experienced the same amount of stress during their whole lifetime. Those brief moments where Uchiha Madara had crushed her in his grip… Kakashi knew that he would never forget the brush of a foreign mind inside his own. And he knew he would also never feel the insane terror that Sakura had exuded during those moments.

She was exhausted, both in mind and body. He could see that. Slowly, he approached her and laid a sympathetic hand on her shoulder.

"Sakura," he intoned firmly, but gently, "Go home and rest. You really need it."

She shook her head at him.

"I can't," she answered just as softly, "Sensei, this is my last day in Konohagakure. I can't spend it sleeping."

"Ah, I see… Then what do you plan on doing?"

Sakura fell silent, contemplating. A plan began to form in her mind. With a spark of mischief in her emerald eyes, she whipped around to face Naruto.

"Naruto!" she called, her voice suddenly brimming with excitement.

"Huh?" the blond returned, sounding utterly clueless.

"We're going out tonight!"

"Of course, Sakura-chan, you know you can always count on m—WAIT, WHAT? HOLY CRAP!"

The pinkette giggled as the Number One Surprise Ninja flailed and sputtered in shock. Grabbing one of his arms, she steadied him and cheerfully clarified:

"Not that way, baka. We're all going out! Get everybody and we'll spend the evening together!" With 'everybody', she meant all of the Rookie Nine. Understanding dawned in Naruto's eyes and a huge grin split his face.

"Alright! Uzumaki Naruto's in the house! Let's PARTY-! Oof!" Naruto's jubilant cry was cut short when Sakura gave him a not-so-gentle punch in the stomach.

"No, you idiot!" she chastised him. Rubbing his midsection tenderly, the blond stared at her in confusion. She was grinning, he realized with a jolt of happiness. She was beaming bright enough to rival the sun.

Rising to her toes, she bellowed:

"Rokukan Sakura's in the house! Shannaro!"

XxXxX

The air was getting too thin to breathe in. Narrowing his eyes against the fierce, cold air of the upper atmosphere, Sasuke silently commanded his eagle summon to begin its descent. It obeyed willingly, its wings straining in the high altitude, gratefully dropping into a shallow dive.

Wisps of cloud raced past him, dragging their thin, moist fingers along his skin. He shivered but refused to pull up the high collar of his cloak. Intently, he gazed ahead.

Gradually, vague figures formed in the distance. Squinting, he realized with a jolt of irritation that the blurriness of the faraway forms was not due to the distance that lay between himself and the objects of interest.

He still remembered the screaming pain in his eyes during the recent battle. He knew that he had strained them beyond belief, and he also knew he deserved the throbbing ache seated deep behind his eye sockets. If he continued forcing his eyes with the Mangekyou, he would go blind. Sasuke was no idiot, even if he was slightly mad at this point.

Tiredly, he swiped a hand across his face. When he returned his gaze into the distance, he focused hard on the approaching landscape. Finally, finally, he got close enough to lay his eyes on what he longed to see.

The remains of the Uchiha hideout.

The sight made him grind his teeth together in an uncharacteristic wave of sadness and hurt. It had taken him a while to overcome the warring fear and anguish and then finally set out for this place. This place that had cost Itachi his life.

The eagle landed amidst the rubble with a solid thud. Sasuke slid off its back in a single movement, absentmindedly dismissing it. With a curt bow, the bird of prey dispelled in a burst of smoke.

Unreadable onyx eyes swept across the ruined stone. Noiselessly, the young Uchiha stepped across the uneven surface surveying the damage. Memories rushed forth, unbidden, and Sasuke stiffened as he remembered every blow, every wound he had received and inflicted in this place. Instinctively, his hand came up to brush the skin under his eye. He recalled how Itachi had cast a genjutsu about how he would gouge his younger brother's eyes out.

Sasuke's heart increased a notch as he immersed himself in the past shock. He had been afraid, he remembered, afraid of his psychopathic older brother.

But now… looking at it in hindsight, he only felt a deep, lingering hurt and plenty of regret. His jaw clenched tight as he struggled with himself for a moment, wallowing in guilt and shame.

He had, after all, murdered his own brother.

'Itachi…' he thought, turning his gaze up to the cloudy sky. He remembered how dark the heavens had been during their clash in this very spot.

'Aniki… What were you thinking? Are you still watching me from somewhere?' Swallowing the lump that had lodged itself in his throat, he tried to regain a shred of calmness.

Turning, he caught sight of the last standing slab of stone, protruding from the ruined landscape, thrusting upward symbolically. Automatically, his feet carried him to it in a heartbeat and he stood there, staring at the worn Uchiha crest painted onto the rock.

'What are we now, Itachi?' he thought bitterly, 'What are the Uchiha now? We are but a mere shadow of a past glory…'

Miserably, he kicked a small pebble aside, watching it arc into the air. It fell out of sight at the edge of the rubble, and suddenly, he noticed the collapsed doorway that he had entered through at the beginning of the fight. Moving towards it hesitantly, he flipped a piece of stone over. It used to be the crosspiece of the doorway, and it still held the same words from back then. How the worn letters had survived the battle, he would never know.

His dark eyes scanned the words inscribed there once more.

To all who do not know the sign of the Fan and the Red Crescent Moon, then behold: We are the Uchiha.

Confusion bled past the dull pain in his heart. He still didn't understand what the cryptic message meant. What was the Red Crescent Moon? His curiosity got the better of him and, despite his aching eyes, he activated his Sharingan, only to receive a shock.

The words were laced with an ancient, foreign chakra. Alarm instantly lanced through his head and he leapt back as if scalded, his own chakra swirling threateningly. When nothing happened, he warily crept back, examining the chakra once again.

It was very, very old, he could tell. The longer he looked at it, the more certain he became of the fact that he had never encountered such peculiar chakra before. It was difficult for him to describe what was so abnormal about the energy glimmering in the stone, but he concluded that it was too vibrant, too intense to be normal human chakra.

A scowl slipped over his face. Reaching out, he tentatively laid a hand across the stone. He concentrated, brow furrowing, and slowly drew a minute amount of chakra into his own body.

A searing blaze set his blood on fire. Gasping, he felt the foreign chakra race through him, burning unbearably hot. Sasuke growled to himself, stemming his own energy against the flow. The next surprise hit him abruptly.

His head snapped around as the rest of the chakra embedded in the stone leapt up, surrounding him in a stormy halo. A multitude of voices echoed through his mind, creating a cacophony of murmured words. Sharingan blazing crimson, Sasuke whipped his head from one side to the other, adrenaline making his hands shake. His heart was pounding now, completely out of control.

"Whatever you are, show yourself." He demanded viciously. When no answer came, and the chaotic hurricane of chakra around him only quickened its whirring, he readied himself to fight his way out of the mess.

Out of the hundreds of voice, a single one suddenly rang forth to his inner ears, shocking him and making him jump.

"Thou hast the blood of the Moon," the slow, drawling tone raised the hairs on the back of Sasuke's neck.

"Speak, O bitter one," the voice continued. It was hard to tell whether it was male or female. "Who art thou? Why has this holy place been destroyed?"

Sasuke unclenched his jaw with difficulty. He was used to ignoring orders, but somehow, he sensed it would be unwise to deny this voice an answer.

"My name is Uchiha Sasuke," he responded, his own voice even. "I came here recently to fight my brother—" here he swallowed thickly, "—and decimated the building with my last attack."

"Ah… I see." The voice paused and Sasuke fought the urge to fidget uncomfortably. While he was no stranger to power, the raw strength that the voice exuded was slowly, but surely, pressing him into submission.

"It is a pity," the voice finally said, "This place was a sanctuary for those who wished to be saved. At times, we even chose to step in and shield them. Yet, this place fell into ruin a while ago and nobody ever came here again. We stopped coming here eventually."

"We?" Sasuke's eyes narrowed. He did not like this whole situation. He did not enjoy feeling helpless before the sheer might of the strange speaker.

"My sons and daughters and I," the voice responded. "We abandoned this place. Now thou hast revived the crest. Art thou seeking sanctuary, young one?"

"No," he answered immediately, tone flat. But that foreign chakra flared strongly and spun faster, streaking through his veins in a jarring shock.

When the voice spoke again, it sounded amused.

"Thy heart betrays thy thoughts, human. Thou art running away from something… What art thou running from?"

Without his permission, a flood of memories were pulled from Sasuke's mind. Flashes of anger, burning heat of hate, dark tides of misery. All the past emotions spun through his head, leaving him breathless and disoriented. Finally, two faces appeared in his head.

One was Madara, the sight of his spiralled mask raising a surprising stab of fury. He did not know why, but everything about the man screamed 'danger'. You could not trust the man, that much was undeniably true.

And the other face… was Sakura. Green eyes alight with an unfathomable peace, a gentleness and understanding like no other radiating from her earnest face. He found himself unable to place what was so different about her expression from anybody else's he had ever seen.

"Thy fears are justified," the invisible speaker mused thoughtfully, "Fear of Madara, fear for you Clan's future, and fear of a girl with mysterious powers," the voice took an amused twist as it added, "Although, perhaps you fear the girl herself and not her powers."

The remark stung Sasuke's pride. Eyes narrowing into a fierce glare, he snapped:

"I fear no one and nothing."

"Is that so?" more amusement colored the voice. "Foolish boy, thou hast only begun to scratch the surface of life. Should thou know life better, thou would fear many things."

The chakra's whirling dance spun faster, tighter, as the voice started once more.

"There is something that thou must see, young Uchiha. Turn thy steps towards Konoha, and wait on top of the Hokage Mountain by sunset."

If possible, Sasuke's glare became more intense.

"Why should I?" he asked, irritated. "I refuse to get close to that damn place."

The voice lashed out with a sharpness that made Sasuke's mental ears cringe.

"Insolence! Thou will go. That is an order, human."

But the Uchiha heir wouldn't give up that easily. Ire leaking into his voice, he replied in a cutting tone:

"By whose orders, then? Yours?"

"Yes, mine. He who holds up the Sky commands you. Now go, before I decide to let you be swallowed by your stubborn stupidity."

Irked, Sasuke opened his mouth to retort, but the voice retreated from his mind. The fierce coils of chakra dropped from around his body, dissipating into thin air. All Sasuke could do was watch in mystified silence as every trace of the strange conversation disappeared.

For a few moments, he simply stood there, staring blankly over the heaps of rubble.

He knew he had two choices now. One, he could ignore and defy the strange voice's order and proceed northward, as he had originally planned. Or two, he could head into the Land of Fire, and go to the Hokage Mountain as he had been told.

An indecisive snort escaped his lips as he abruptly decided, turning to face the direction of his next destination.

It seemed he was going to pay Konohagakure a visit after all.

XxXxX

"Yes."

"No!"

"Yes!"

"No!"

"YES!" Ino shrieked.

Sakura winced, her ears ringing. Placing her fingers at her temples and rubbing circles soothingly to herself, she attempted to calm herself.

"For the last time, pig… No."

They had been at this torture for almost an hour. After making sure Naruto remembered the rendezvous time with all the other Rookie Nine, Sakura had headed over to her apartment. Deftly unlocking the almost rusted lock, she had stepped into a bare, dusty room that resembled a cell in its emptiness. Thereupon she had remembered that she had moved all her belongings to her best friend's place before she had left for the Rokukan Temple.

Her so-called best friend.

Squeezing her eyes shut, Sakura exhaled slowly.

"Ino…" she began, teeth grinding, "I. Am. Not. Wearing. That."

"But what's wrong with this?!" Ino demanded, flourishing the tiny scrap of material. "If you wear this with that thong over there," she pointed at one of the many articles of clothing strewn over her bed, "it'll be a perfect ensemble!"

When Sakura didn't respond, baby blue eyes softened. Gently, she grasped her friend's hands and pulled them away from their massaging.

"Listen, forehead," she said earnestly, "You won't ever be coming back… this is the last time I'll ever be able to hang out with you." She sniffled, tears already beginning to brim in her bright, bright blue eyes.

"So please, Sakura… Please?"

The pinkette sighed noisily. She made sure to look away from those pleading puppy-dog eyes as she thought the matter through.

Originally, she had told Ino that she wanted a 'quiet, personal gathering' for her last evening in Konoha. But the blonde had immediately insisted that, after the 'quiet, personal gathering', they go to a 'loud, impersonal party place', namely a club. After much nagging on Ino's part, Sakura had reluctantly agreed. But she was balking at the apparel that the other kunoichi was trying to get her to wear.

"Come on, forehead… for me?" Ino begged.

Sakura frantically cast her eyes around the blonde's flamboyant room. Her desperate gaze lit on a particular item of clothing hanging haphazardly from one shoulder in the large walk-in closet.

"Ino, what's that?" she pointed, not caring whether it was a rude gesture or not.

"Hm?" the blonde followed her line of sight and ambled over, proceeding to pull out a beautiful dress.

Bottle green eyes widened.

"Ino! Why didn't you tell me you had such a gorgeous dress?"

"This?" the blue-eyed kunoichi grinned sheepishly. "I forgot about this one… I received it for a mission, but never got to wear it, because it was too small for me. But, say…" her eyes lit up. "Try it on!" Eagerly, she shoved it into Sakura's arms and urged her into the bathroom.

"And no dawdling, forehead!" she shouted through the closed door.

"Hai, hai," the pinkette grumbled, struggling to pull the silky material over her head. "Easy, pig, I won't take ages… like… you…" her voice trailed off as she caught sight of herself in Ino's floor-length mirror.

Sakura stared in shock. Reaching up, she pinched her arm, watching as the young woman in the mirror before her mimicked the movement perfectly, her apple green eyes wide and her mouth agape.

Loud pounding made the door quiver in its frame, making both Sakura and her reflection jump.

"Oi, forehead! Did you drown in the toilet or something?"

Shaking herself, the pinkette absentmindedly crossed the room to open the door, her eyes not leaving the woman in the mirror. She hardly noticed Ino's wild squeal of delight as the blonde grabbed her hands to spin her in a circle.

"This dress was made for you!" Ino proclaimed enthusiastically, orbiting Sakura's still form with almost burning intensity.

"And if I lend you my pair of shoes… the golden ones, don't you think? Yes, those will be perfect! I'll do your hair, maybe put some curls in… Oh, and that adorable pink lip gloss that I have will match so well! What do you think, forehead?" She turned to her stunned friend and finally took note of her silence.

"Hello? Earth to Haruno!"

The name snapped Sakura out of her stupor.

"Rokukan."

"Hmm?" Ino hummed distractedly as she tugged on Sakura's shoulder length hair, eyeing it speculatively.

"My name is Rokukan, not Haruno," she repeated, swallowing. She felt, rather than saw, how the blonde froze, turning to give her her undivided attention.

"Why?" Ino demanded, before realization hit her. As Sakura's best friend since childhood, she knew very well that the medic had never had a father growing up. How many times had Ino wondered where and who the pinkette's father was? Gasping, she gushed in excitement:

"Did you find out who your father is?"

"Was," Sakura corrected her, her tone unintentionally sharp. But her voice softened apologetically as she added:

"Yeah, I did."

Ino was silent for a moment, digesting the new information. In a surprisingly even and serious tone for the blonde, she said:

"Ok. From the beginning. I'll do your hair in the meantime."

XxXxX

"There she is! She made it!" the bellow shook the club to its foundations, turning heads.

Ino, who had her arm looped through Sakura's as she literally dragged the other kunoichi into the club, rolled her eyes at the exuberant speaker.

"Naruto, get off the table now!" she screeched back, her voice shrill. Startled, the Jinchuriki took a step back, tripped over a glass, and tumbled gracelessly off the table top. The resulting laughter was drowned out by thumping beat blasting from the speakers situating throughout the room.

By the time Naruto had scrambled to his feet, the two girls had reached the table. Warmth rushed through Sakura as she was the recipient of many a smile.

"You had us so worried, Sakura!" Tenten called, her reprimand softened by her easy smile. Beside her, Neji nodded his agreement, his pale eyes not holding its usual icy edge.

"Konoha was not the same without your radiance, my cherry blossom!" Lee added from next to Neji, glaring light reflecting off of his pristine white teeth. Sakura winced, but couldn't hold back a giggle at his antics. Her mirth only increased when Naruto protested loudly, pretending to shield his eyes.

"Turn off the disco ball, you freak!" he complained in mock anger as the group laughed. Hinata moved back slightly to allow the pinkette to slide into their cramped booth.

"W…Welcome back, S-Sakura-chan," the shy Hyuuga heiress greeted, a soft smile on her face. Kiba leaned around Hinata and grinned, adding:

"Sakura! It's good to have you back!"

"Thanks, Kiba," the medic replied, her eyes moving to the fanged boy's silent companion.

"Hello, Shino," she greeted. Light glinted off of the strange shinobi's glasses as he dipped his head once in acknowledgement.

"Sakura, welcome back," he drawled.

Sai, seated next to Naruto, gave her a bland smile and said:

"Took you long enough to get back, Ugly. Dickless was shitting his pants with worry."

Ignoring Naruto's enraged squawk, Sakura grinned and leaned across the table, whacking the pale artist none too gently.

"Only Naruto?" she asked, her voice dangerously sweet. Fortunately, Sai knew that particular tone and swiftly backpedalled.

"I suppose I was worried too," he spoke, his face completely blank. Sakura sighed – his social skills really hadn't improved – but still smiled at him.

"Why, thank you, Sai!"

Ino shrieked suddenly, shifting everybody's focus to the blonde where she was wedged between Shikamaru and Tenten.

"You absolutely useless human being!" she snarled, bringing her fist down on top of Shikamaru's unfortunate head repeatedly. He winced, ducking down, trying to avoid the blows raining down on him.

"Troublesome," he muttered gloomily. Raising his gaze to Sakura's, he lifted a hand and gave her a halfhearted wave.

"Yo."

"Is that the best you can do?!" Ino snapped. Without awaiting an answer, she turned to Sakura and simultaneously slapped her lazy teammate across his lazy face with her golden ponytail.

"Never mind him, the ass," she grumbled. "He's actually happy to have you back too, forehead."

The pinkette bit back a laugh and nodded at the poor Nara who was rubbing his skull with a quiet 'troublesome woman'. Beside him, Choji munched noisily on his customary chips, bobbing his head at Sakura.

Naruto interrupted then, his voice loud enough to be heard over the throbbing music.

"Alright! Now that our main person is here," he gestured wildly at Sakura, "We can finally get down to business!" His palm smacked the tabletop as he bellowed:

"Waiter, drinks all around!"

'Ohh, Kami,' Sakura couldn't help giggling nervously they began handing glasses around. 'This was definitely a bad idea…'

XxXxX

'Cha! Best idea ever!' Sakura drunkenly cheered in her mind. As her vision sharpened and blurred unnaturally, she stumbled, nearly dropping the glass in her hand. Her hips swayed to the pounding bass, vibrating through her ribcage as she danced. She laughed as Ino whistled at her, her call of 'Damn, girl!' drowned out by the droning music.

She tipped more of the drink – what was it again? – down her throat, tilting her head back to savor the taste. Swallowing, she spun and handed the drink to a random person standing at the edge of the dance floor, her petite figure already whirling away with as much grace as a drunken kunoichi could afford.

She continued to dance the evening away. Laughing, she found herself recalling and retelling stories and tales with the Rookie Nine, sharing old jokes and bathing in the glow of their company and the delightful fuzziness in her head. She danced with almost everybody, whether they could actually dance or not. The point was to share this last evening with her friends, even if it was Lee who couldn't dance for shit.

Eventually, though, her feet grew sore. Excusing herself, she made her way back to their empty booth, fully intent on removing her shoes and giving herself a foot massage. Just as she reached for one shoe, she suddenly had the distinct feeling of eyes on her. Turning her face over a shoulder, she gazed out of one of the windows situated in the far wall. But it was too dark to discern anybody outside. Subtly, she flared her chakra, trying to sense if there was anybody there, but her drunken, wavering concentration hindered her efforts.

Fear was easily brushed away by the alcohol in her system. Instead, she rose, curiosity urging her towards the exit. Casting one last glance at her friends, she giggled. A wasted Ino was sprawled over an equally inebriated Shikamaru, poking his cheek repeatedly. The Nara boy didn't seem annoyed in the least; in fact, he was smirking at the blonde's antics. Naruto was in the middle of the process of punching Sai, effectively sending the former Root member flying back before knocking over a couple making out, and, goodness, was that Tenten and Neji?

'I have the best friends in the world.' Sakura's grin had a slightly loopy quality as she slipped out of the club. Nobody noticed her silent departure, the music blaring on.

It was quiet outside. Sakura followed the street, the thumping bass fading away in the distance. As she walked onwards, the fog in her head slowly dissipated, leaving a slight headache behind. With a pained groan, Sakura stopped, her hands coming up to form seals. Her mentor's cheeky smile appeared in her mind as she performed a jutsu that erased a hangover within a second.

'Thanks, shishou!' she sighed with relief as the throbbing in her head abated, leaving her completely sober. Cheering the Godaime's brilliance, she continued her walk down the street.

Minutes slipped by as the pinkette ambled down the road. Pavement gave way to gravel, and then dirt. Blinking, she realized that she had reached the foot of the Hokage Mountain.

'Huh? How did I end up here?' She knew that the club had been situated at the edge of the village, but she still didn't expect to be so close to the historical site. Shrugging, she was about to turn away when an insistent tug jerked at her second mind.

"Nani?" she gasped. Stubbornly, her second mind pulled and pulled. Sakura grimaced, trying to wrestle it into submission. Why was it acting up now?

A presence hit her then, setting her senses on fire and making her nerves tingle. Her eyes whipped up towards the peak of the Hokage Mountain, widening.

'Sasuke?'

What was he doing here? Breathlessly, she crouched and sprang, ignoring the way her stiletto-clad feet protested. In her haste to ascend straight up the face of the Hokage Mountain, she nearly lost her footing twice as she leapt up the craggy recesses.

After what seemed like an eternity, she landed on the top of the mountain. Her searching eyes immediately fell on the figure standing regally at the edge of the cliff, staring down at the village. Her heart went into a frenzy, beating up a storm in her chest.

For a single second, her control slipped. One second was all it took for her squirming mind to escape her grasp and race over to the silent young man. One second, and her second mind was enveloping him in a warm embrace, her traitorous thoughts calling out to him.

"Sasuke-kun!"

Her already racing heart fluttered as dark, inscrutable eyes fell on her. She forgot how to breathe as she watched something flicker in those eyes, his bottomless black gaze paralyzing her, drawing her in.

"… Sakura."

XxXxX

He didn't know what he had expected. He had followed the invisible speaker's order, yes, but he hadn't given any thought to what exactly would happen upon arriving at the Hokage Mountain.

So, he really didn't know what to expect…

'… but definitely not this,' he thought, swallowing hard as he tore his eyes off of those long, shapely legs.

After meeting Sakura's emerald green eyes, his gaze had dropped, automatically fulfilling the very obvious purpose of the dress. He just couldn't look away.

She looked like an angel. Soft waves of pink curls swept to one side, tumbling down a pale, bare shoulder. Loose strands corkscrewed beautifully, framing her face in a halo of pink. His eyes trailed from the graceful arch of her bare shoulders to the sweetheart neckline of the snow white dress she wore. Curling golden embroideries of vines and leaves adorned the hem and accentuated her trim figure, the snowy fabric hugging her waist snugly all the way down to her hips, where the skirt flared out. The front ended around mid-thigh, while the back was a mass of voluminous ruffles, swaying an inch above the ground. Gold trimmed the skirt's edge, matching the pair of strappy, five-inch stilettos that drew his eyes to those silky, creamy legs.

He couldn't move, couldn't think. A voice echoing through his head made him, the Uchiha Sasuke, flinch and jerk his gaze back to those jade irises that stared back at him with piercing intensity.

"Sasuke-kun!"

For a moment, he couldn't even remember how to speak. At last, he managed to gather his scattered thoughts enough to rasp:

"Sakura."

He watched, fascinated, how her eyes fluttered closed for a second, those long, dark lashed brushing her cheekbones.

Sakura, on the other hand, was struggling with the wave of emotions threatening to overwhelm her. He didn't seem hostile; his posture was relaxed and calm. But still… just that morning, he had tried to kill her with a chidori.

Silence fell like a thick, suffocating blanket as they stared at each other. As the pause lengthened, Sakura finally drew enough courage to speak.

"What are you doing here?"

Her voice was soft, barely over a whisper, drifted over the distance to his ears. He considered not answering her at all, but those brilliant green eyes pulled unbidden words from his mouth.

"I was sent here."

Silent fear stole across her features and she took a step away. Seeing her retreat like that, so frightened and vulnerable, triggered an instinctual need to explain himself, to bring her back.

"Madara didn't send me, Sakura." He marveled at how those few words could change the whole situation. The pinkette stopped, her head tilting to one side as she digested his statement slowly. Hesitantly, she took a step forward. And another.

Sasuke watched as she came forth towards him. Her advance was nervous and halting, but finally, she stood a mere five feet away from him. Her proximity raised his heartbeat a notch and he took a steadying breath. The scent of cherry blossoms and spring invaded his senses and for a moment, he was dazed.

"Who sent you, if not Madara?" he heard her inquire, sounding puzzled. As he opened his mouth, a voice not his own interrupted their moment, shattering whatever it was that they had had.

"Rokukan-san, it was my Master who requested that Uchiha-san be brought here."

Sakura gasped, recognizing the voice. It was the same star that had spoken to her earlier that day. The same one that had driven Madara off before informing her of her spent time.

Her second mind, still dwelling around Sasuke's thoughts, allowed him to hear the star as well. A scowl marred his handsome face as he asked:

"I was not commanded by you." Suspicion laced his tone.

"And rightly so, young Uchiha," the voice replied, "I do not operate under the Red Moon's orders."

Sakura glanced at Sasuke, meeting his gaze. She knew that the star had lost them both. As if sensing their confusion, the star went on:

"Now is not the time to clarify rights of birth, young ones. Rokukan-san, you must hurry. You will be late otherwise." Without giving her a chance to protest, the voice addressed Sasuke.

"You were brought here, Uchiha-san, for the purpose of guarding Rokukan-san."

"Guarding…?" his eyes slipped to Sakura's again, seeing her incredulous expression.

"Yes, guarding. You are charged with the care of Sakura-san's body when her mind and spirit leave this world."

Sakura choked.

"Hold on!" she directed her mental voice at the star. "Why was he chosen to guard my body? And guard it for what?"

"Rokukan-san," the star intoned firmly, "I do not have the answers you seek. You are being called to the Heavens, and I am but a messenger to my Master's wishes. You will find your answers in the Heavens. All I can tell is that you have a key role in this world's future, and that the Heavens aren't willing to risk your safety. So," the star turned to Sasuke again.

"Will you fulfill your role as Rokukan-san's protector?"

Sakura swallowed, her eyes so wide she was sure they were going to pop out of her skull. Time seemed to slow down as Sasuke's dark gaze slid over to meet her eyes, holding them. As he hesitated, her heart slammed against her ribs and she found herself hyperventilating by the time his lips parted and he finally spoke.

"Aa, I will."

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A/N

Et voilà, Chapter 23! Sooooo…. What's gonna happen next? Did you guys like Sakura's goodbye party? And Sasuke in charge of Sakura's body when her consciousness leaves… *le gasp!* Anyways, I almost didn't finish this chapter in time, but yeah, I made it somehow! It probably has tons and tons of rough edges and typos, so please forgive me.

Reviews? *puppy eyes*

And Merry Christmas again! Hugs and cookies to you all, you guys are all the best!

Ja ne!

EbonyEye

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