Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto. I DO, however, own the Great Fire, and all the religious things that go with it for my Konohanians.

And when she has the time, Sakura prays.

Over the bodies of bleeding men, at the bedsides of injured women, as each torn up, broken, mangled body is thrust before her with little more than an order that is a plea ("Fix this." The please goes unspoken and unneeded.), Sakura gathers her chakra, thinks of home, and prays to a god she sometimes doubts is listening.

(And sometimes, she's surer of Its attention than anything. The dead and the dying surround her, and the scent of blood is so thick in the air she's surprised that the wind doesn't blow red, but still, her chakra doesn't run dry and her hands don't tremble and for every corpse hastily buried and privately mourned for, there are two more shinobi slowly rising from their bed, staring at their gasping chests like they can't believe it's really happening. For every second of bleak despair that settles in around them, there is another or determined hope, because losing isn't the same as lost, and by the Mother and her Kin, as long as there's something to fight for, they'll fight.)

(for every time it feels like they're going under, there is a promise in the air; Naruto is coming. Naruto is coming, he's the one that her that difference with blazing eyes and words like steel.)

Konohanians pray with their fists; they always have. Their bodies are temples, their chakra, offerings. Every move they make in battle is a way to honour the spark within their bodies, placed there by the Great Fire so long ago. Every inch of Sakura burns with exhaustion as she stitches an arm back together, but she ignores the sleep itching at her eyes and drags up more chakra from a pit inside of her that must eventually run dry, and in her mind, recites the Second of the Burning Words.

Let my body not fade in times of great need. And if I should flounder in my duty, if my spirit fall short, let my will demand that I carry on; let the spark given unto me burn brighter. Should this weak vessel of flesh yield when it is needed most, then through my will and the spark that feeds it, let the Great Fire replenish my body and make me strong again.

Sakura thinks of the word strength, and wonders if maybe, she means more than just in the physical sense. Her body is not weak. She can shatter boulders with her fists and tear down cliffs with one hand and she can pull a soul back from the edge of death. She meant what she said to Sasori in that cave. With the ring of steel in her ears and a fire she hadn't felt in what felt like years alight in her belly, Sakura knew the truth of her words that day: She would've held the puppet master there, an inch from death, his heart beating solely by the grace of her chakra pumping through his system, and she would've extracted every bit of information he had about Orochimaru. She would've torn the tongue from his mouth and then reattached it before he could bleed out.

(Not that she needed to. Sakura can still feel the emptiness of his body against her fist, the instant before it shattered into limbs and torso and nothing else. His body was as empty as his eyes. Or maybe that's a lie, she thinks, because she remembers the look in his eyes, the anger, the surprise, the respect, as he slid the cloak off his shoulders. Enemy or not, there is a glow of fondness for Sasori that still creeps into her memories. Her first really good fight, the kind of fight Naruto lives for and has taught her to live for too. Her first brush with death, and how beautiful and precious life seemed after it, how hard she'd pushed herself with her patients afterwards, because if a lowly, unincredible girl like her deserved to see the sunrise again, so did they. Her first, true sense of pride. He'd acknowledged her. She'd seen it in his eyes. Akasuna no Sasori, deadly and cruel and something of a legend, had looked into the eyes of a newly minted chuunin kunoichi, and acknowledged her.)

(it's the first time sakura's ever felt so proud. it's the first time she's felt so scared. it's the first time she's felt so determined to win, because her enemy's eyes tell her that he's expecting something from her, something amazing, something incredible, and the Naruto in her refuses to back down.)

When Sakura prays, she wishes to be strong inside. Let the Great Fire replenish my body and make me strong again. Let It burn from my soul the wickedness and weakness that threaten to break me. And she latches onto these words because for so long, they didn't make sense to her. Wickedness? Weakness? Sure she's shrill, but she isn't mean (not really. Not to everyone. Naruto is an idiot, he doesn't count!). And later, maybe they made a little more sense (she can't catch up, she just can't! Naruto and Sasuke-kun are so strong, it isn't fair! She's trying, can't anyone see that? It isn't her fault she got put on the team with such powerhouses! Sasuke-kun is a given, but suddenly, falling behind Naruto doesn't seem like such a shameful thing anymore.). But now, now she can see exactly what they mean (and there's a part of her, loud and reckless, but good and strong, and she calls it Naruto, because he's in her mind, and under her skin, and he's her new goal; everything she's ever wanted to be and more. Uzumaki Naruto is her inspiration and her rock, and the words she want to hear more than anything are: " I'm proud to call you my teammate.").

She wishes she could love Naruto. Not that she doesn't. She does. Dearly. To cut him out of her life wouldn't be like cutting off her own hand (That is reserved for Kakashi. That is reserved for Sai, and dear Sparks, when did he become so important?). No, to cut Naruto out of her life would be like tearing her chakra, all of it, every last single flicker, from her chest. It would be cutting herself off from the life she's built up for herself. It would be living without truly being alive. It would be abandoning her dreams and toppling everything she's worked so hard for. Cutting Naruto out of her life would like calling it quits, and there's nothing and no one who hates quitting more than Sakura.

(She broke her hand the first time she tried to use Tsunade's Tembatsuken. The Hokage told her to go home, wrap the hand up, and take some time off until it healed. Sakura arrived at the training ground the next day, hand wrapped, and punched the tree until she was half delirious with pain. Kakashi tried to drag her away. He got as far as the Market District before Sakura squirmed away from him, gritted her teeth, and put her bones back in working order right in front of him. Kakashi never bothered her at the training ground ever again.)

If Sakura could, she would take a kunai and carve it from her chest. She would reach inside and dislodge that traitorous bit of her heart and then hurl it as far from her as she strength would allow. She isn't stupid. It's foolish to love him, and she knows it. It's more than foolish, it's dangerous. It's dangerous to love Uchiha Sasuke and if Sakura could, she would banish the feeling from herself, body, mind , and soul. And heart. Especially heart.

Her love isn't a pretty thing. It hasn't been for a long time. She remembers days coloured in blushes and the wind whispering sweetly through the leaves. She remembers the roots of her infatuation; she remembers when it could still be called infatuation. A crush, she thinks, and laughs bitterly at how appropriate it is. Her feelings crush her, like a bug. They gut her. They rip her open and tear her down and run her through, a thousand times deeper than Sasori's blades.

Her love is ugly, has been for a very long time. It's been ugly, impure, since the day he left. It's been ugly since she begged Naruto (sweet Naruto, hopeful Naruto, brave and strong and good Naruto. Why, oh sweet Fire, why couldn't she have loved him instead? Sakura would give anything to be in love with Naruto.) to bring him back to her. It's been ugly since she saw Naruto, swathed in bandages and broken in that hospital bed (a scar over his chest; he won't talk and his eyes beg her not to ask, but Sakura's a medic, and she knows. Part of her feels sick at the thought. The Sasuke in her whispers, vengeance.), staring blankly at that ruined hitai-ate.

Sakura is repulsed by her own heart, traitorous thing that it is. It disgusts her, and she hates herself both for being disgusted, and for hating herself for being disgusted. She understands that she should recoil in horror at what sleeps deep inside of her, and at the same time, she can't bring herself to destroy it. It' love; impure and ugly as it is, it is still a force capable of moving mountains and parting seas. She can no more turn it off then she can change the past.

So, when she has time, Sakura prays. She prays for the Great Fire to surge up within her, and wash this impure love from her being. She prays to be cleansed, reborn in the same body, free and unshackled by feelings that make her sick. And when that fails, because it always does, because it's Love, Sakura prays for the strength to overcome it a little, everyday.

She prays to keep fighting, even though she knows he is out there, waiting on the other side of the battlefield, her enemy and her shame embodied in the twisted vessel of one very sad, very lonely, very, very weak-minded little boy. She prays not to falter when she hears his name, to keep her chakra steady and her patients alive and her duty clear in her mind. She prays to keep standing, to keep walking, to one day be able to pass by him without a second glance, loving him so deeply that it cuts her to the bone, but not acknowledging him.

(She prays for the chance to prove herself, to stand between him and Naruto and whisper, "No. Not him. You can't have my teammate.")

(and sakura knows about choices; she's made them before. in the land of iron, so far from home, surrounded by snowy trees and bitter cold, sakura made her choice. Naruto's feelings, Naruto's heart, Naruto are all that matter. she thought she could do it, she really did. with all her heart, she believed she could kill sasuke-kun right there, because it would've meant Naruto would never have to feel that pain. she prays for the strength to preserve her from such foolishness. Naruto will fight sasuke-kun because he is Naruto; by pure virtue of being himself, Naruto will fight and save sasuke-kun or die trying. and for once, sakura is going to see his wishes are followed.)

She knows better than to interfere, no matter how badly she wants to. The spark in her belly crackles and claws at her insides, begging to fight, but Sakura forces it down. It kills her, but she forces it down, because this is not her fight; this has never been her fight. This is about more than just Sasuke-kun – it's Sasuke-kun and Naruto, and if Neji-san ever said something useful about destiny, then Sakura knows it has its hand in this. Sasuke and Naruto must fight. The sixteen years of their lives have all been leading up to this fight, and while Sakura knows she is many, many things (some good, some bad. Strong and helpful and pretty and kind, but weak and selfish and stupid and unbelievably hopeless at the same time.), cruel is not one of them, and she will never allow her own fears and doubts to take away what both of them need so badly.

(Naruto will save sasuke-kun. this isn't up for debate. this is absolute. this is what will happen, and there is no one who can say different. sakura will see to that.)

So, when the promise is finally made good, and her boys meet in battle (are they still her boys? Can she ever truly forgive Sasuke-kun? Will she ever be able to look at him without thinking, Traitor, Monster, Destroyer of my heart, you hurt my Naruto!), Sakura knows where she will be. Off to the side, hidden in the tree line, watching and waiting and knowing exactly what to do.

The second Naruto is down, Sakura will be there, and what the Kyuubi can't heal, she will, and where Naruto's chakra fails, she will supplement it with her own. Maybe she can't kill Sasuke-kun, and maybe she can't even fight him, but one good punch will send him back and that's enough time for her to get the job done. She is the best student Tsunade has ever had, and she's going to surpass her teacher very soon. On the field, there's no medic anyone wants at their side more than Haruno Sakura.

So Sakura rolls her eyes, slams the bastard pretending to be Neji to the ground, and softly whispers the Fourth of the Burning Words (how appropriate.)

Give unto me more than strength. Give to me the courage to use that strength. Give to that which is more precious than any on this earth: Give me brothers and sisters at my side. Give me comrades in battle. Give me those who are worthy of my fists and my death. I offer my body as a temple to the Great Fire, and ask that I be blessed with what all people, shinobi and not alike, require: Give me those whom I may love, and be loved by.

And sometimes, Sakura thinks as Neji's face morphs beneath her, it really does seem like her god is listening.

I don't care what any Naruto fan says; Sakura has done NOTHING wrong by loving Sasuke. She isn't stupid, she doesn't deserve to die, and she certainly is not one of those women who would defend their abuser.

Let me tell you a little story. I go onto Mangastream ever so often, and catch up on Naruto updates when they happen. Once the chapter is read, I like to mosie on over to OneManga, and read the forums, just to see what other people thought of the chapter. For the most recent Naruto one, Chapter 540 I believe (on an unrelated note, 540 chapters! That's impressive!), most of the comments were, predictably, about Sakura's return to badassery, and her quick and very awesome take-down of the Zetsu posing as Neji. There were a few arguments about whether or not Sakura should be congradulated for quick thinking (which I think she should be. While she might not have planned it out, and she might've gotten lucky with the subject of Tonton, she was still able to deduce very quickly that this was not Neji she as talking to, and then luring him into thinking she'd dropped her guard only to give him an epic ELBOW SMACKDOWN.), but what really struck me was all the hate coming her way for admitting (to herself, not to anyone else, might I add) that she was still very much in love with Sasuke. And I don't think that she deserves even HALF of all that.

Now, I started out the series a Sakura Hater. I fell utterly in love with Naruto from the get-go, because I'm a sucker for underdog characters, and there were moments when he was so charming, and so wonderfully honest that I couldn't help myself. So, I loved Naruto, and despised Sakura not so much for her weakness, but because she was so cruel to him when he really hadn't done anything to warrant it. I hated her right up until her epic hair cutting in the Forest of Death. What I loved the most about that moment was, besides the utter COOLNESS of it, was the fact that she included Naruto in her thoughts as one of her 'teachers'. Naruto was no longer below her in her mind. She'd acknowledged him as someone to try and be like. It was the first time I'd ever really felt proud of Sakura, and been drawn into her character.

After that, I grew to be a Sakura fangirl in leaps and bounds. Her rivarly with Ino being less about Sasuke, and more about stepping out of the shadows, the fact that she loudly cheered Naruto on, complete with that wonderful inner monologue while everyone else thought he'd been taken out by one hit( " That's right...I remember...I used to mock those words too...Thinking that Naruto was just a swaggering fool, full of hot air...But...I was wrong! You show 'em...Naruto!), it made her character so much stronger and so muc more relatable to me. She saw what I saw when I looked at Naruto: Potential. Strength. A heart purer than gold. And when she promised to get stronger, I was totally in love with her.

So now, I love Sakura. I adore her. I don't blame her for not being an, as TVTropes puts it, Action Girl for a while now. I blame the writer, not Sakura. And I don't mind the focus beign shifted towards Naruto and his growth. Sakura, in my humble opinion, has shown a tremendous amount of growth.

The thing is, she doesn't need to be punching down buildings to show it off.

I'm talking, of course, about her love confession to Naruto. She's gotten a lot of hate for that too, but let me tell you something: I have never been prouder of her than I was in that moment. Think about it. Sakura had just seen her village razed the ground with almost no effort at all. Her mentor was in a coma. Many of her people had been killed, only to be confusingly brought back to life. She just witnessed Naruto get the smackdown of his life, and she couldn't lift a finger to help him. She had to rely on someone else (Hinata, who was so beautiful and so wonderful in that scene that it moved me to tears) to save someone Sakura clearly loves very much.

Yes, Sakura loves Naruto. Of course she loves Naruto. Naruto is EVERYTHING to her. He is her rock, her stablizer. He is her inspiration, a goal she sets for herself. She wants to be strong enough to help HIM. He is her teammate, her best friend, and her family. Sakura loves Naruto very, very deeply.

And that's why her lying to him made me so proud. She chose him. She did the wrong thing, I'll admit that. I'll admit that her actions were incredibly stupid. But, at the very least, she did it all for the right reasons. Face, Sakura was running scared. Her entire world was on the verge to falliing apart, and what did she do? She chose to try and protect Naruto. She was willing to sacrifice her own future, her own happiness, in order to try and keep Naruto smiling. I have no doubt in my mind that if Naruto had accepted her confession, she would've married him, had children with him, lived a long life with him. But she probably would never have been as in love with him as she was with Sasuke. In saying 'I love you' to Naruto, Sakura let go of any chance she'd ever have of being with Sasuke, or being true to her own heart. She just wanted so badly for Naruto to be happy.

Her actions were totally stupid, of course, but can you imagine Twelve Year Old Sakura even considering doing that? She was willing to give up everything so that Naruto wouldn't be hurt when he found out that Sasuke needed to die. She wanted him to give up on his promise to her because she couldn't BEAR to cause him anymore pain. And when that failed, Sakura made what I consider to be the most character defining decision she has ever had.

She chose to kill Sasuke herself, in order to spare Naruto the pain of having to do it. Sakura, who begged Naruto to bring Sasuke back to her, chose to go and KILL that same man, because she didn't want Naruto to be hurt.

To any Naruto fan, NaruSaku or otherwise, I would like to say this: THAT is love.

I know Sakura didn't manage to do it. I know she faltered. But she THOUGHT she could do it. In her mind, right up unitl the last second, she thought she could do it. She actually believed that she could murder the man she loved in cold blood, her own broken heart aside, if it meant that Naruto would be okay. She really believed she could go through with it, because her own pain would be nothing if she could see Naruto smiling. Her faltering wasn't voluntary. She didn't stop because she wanted to. From the look on her face, I think that she probably WANTED to be able to. With that choice, Sakura proved what I have believed about her once and for all:

She is in love with Sasuke, but the person she loves the most in the world is Naruto. Sakura will always chose Naruto if she has to.

Her being in love with Sasuke doesn't hinder anything. She will not go to him, she will not refuse to fight him. Just because she can't kill him doesn't mean that she won't step up to defend her friends and comrades on the battlefield if he threatens them. And just look at her face when she thinks of Sasuke as 'the man she loves'. She clearly hates herself. She doesn't WANT to love him. She won't defend him, or excuse his actions. She verbally ripped him a new one when he scoffed at Naruto's promise to save him. Sakura still being in love with Sasuke will no hinder her as a character or as a fighter. She has made it very clear where she believes her place is: At Naruto's side, protecting him the best she can, because that's what a sister does.

So, please, don't hate Sakura for loving Sasuke. She's done nothing wrong. And, as I've tried to illustrate in this fanfic, she is clearly repulsed by her own feelings. Loving Sasuke both hurts and disgusts her. I doubt you can tell her anything that she hasn't already told herself. You can't hate her anymore than she hates herself. But I want you to remember her confession to Naruto. She meant it, in a way. She does love him, totally and completely. Like I said above, cutting Naruto out of her life would be like ripping every last bit of chakra from her body; Naruto has helped her define who she is. She has made a name for herself because of him, directly or indirectly. Naruto has that affect on people.

To any NaruSaku fan who is reading this, I want you to know that I'm sorry. I'm sorry Sakura can't love Naruto like that. But please take comfort in the fact that she DOES love him, more than anyone else in the world. She does love Naruto more than Sasuke, it's just in a different way. But it is no less powerful, no less moving, and no less capable of changing the world. Also, to any NaruSaku fan who has decided to call it quits on their pairing because they feel 'Sakura is stupid': Don't. That is an insult to your pairing and an insult to your understanding of Sakura. Don't call it quits for such a petty reason. If you must give up on your OTP, let it be for something much stronger. Let it be because you feel Naruto and Sakura just couldn't work out, the way they are now; let it be because you feel them falling in love would hinder, not help, them as characters and as people; let it be because the love Sakura has for Sasuke, while heartbreaking and tragic, is also beautiful and epic; let it be because you feel, maybe, that Sakura's feelings for him stand a slim chance of helping to redeem Sasuke; let it be because you respect Sakura enough to understand that while she doesn't WANT to, she loves Sasuke very deeply, and she is strong enough to deal with those feelings without letting them destroy her. Don't give up on NaruSaku because you feel that 'Sakura is too stupid to see Naruto.' She's not. Believe me, she's not. I truly believe that Sakura would give anything to be in love with Naruto, but she can't just switch off he feelings for Sasuke. Don't give up on NaruSaku for any petty or weak reason, or I, as a NaruHina fan, will never forgive any of you.

This fanfic is for the NaruSaku fans, and the Sakura fans, who are turning their backs on our girl simply for being in love. I'm asking you all right now to please think about what you're doing, and give her actions another look. Strength isn't always about punching down mountains, although she can do that to. Sakura is stronger on a more human level. Just because she loves Sasuke doesn't mean she'll choose him.

Thank you all for reading this, and pass on my request to all NaruSaku fans who are thinking of call it quits; I want them to know that they, of any Naruto fan, have earned the right to keep on fighting right until the end. Naruto wouldn't give up, and neither shoud they.