Edited 16/10/11. This story was written for the Girl Saves Boy ficathon over at livejournal (community: girlsavesboyfic) and we all know how very capable Sakura is, don't we? For anyone who is interested, most of my Sasuke/Sakura stories are on my livejournal, and not posted on this fanfiction account.

Warnings: major spoilers for recent chapters (& speculation after), violence, mentioned and onscreen character death.


No Such Thing As Weakness
By icecreamlova

- : -

The Epic Battle way

When she opened her eyes again, the forest around her was burning.

Flames arched above her head, surging and fading in ribbons of orange and blue. The radiant heat struck her like a slap in the face. Running her tongue over parched lips, Haruno Sakura tasted copper, so the sharp sting when she grimaced wasn't a complete surprise.

Still.

Pain just meant that she was alive.

She waited for a few heartbeats - nowhere near long enough to make the prospect of returning to the fight feel logical - before rolling onto her hands and knees. At once, her palms screamed out in protest, and her breath caught. If she had any sense at all, she would leave, but Sakura wasn't about to leave Naruto and Sasuke alone to keep Madara from charging into Konoha.

The moment her breathing returned to normal, she leapt to her feet and began running, a thin layer of chakra beneath her sandals to keep the soles of her feet from burning. Her breath puffed out before her as she sped up in preparation to dive between the roaring fire.

This wasn't going to be fun.

Heat rushed across her, the world twisting into blazing shapes-

She landed in between two collapsed trees in what had once been a section of Konoha's forest The landscape, or the thirty metres she could see through the smoke hanging thickly in the air, was filled with stumps, trees snapped off at the trunk, and broken boughs. Sakura had been trapped in an unnatural ring of fire that faded once its prisoner escaped.

She was barely upright when a body slammed into the waist-high stump beside her. Uchiha Sasuke dropped with a thud onto the ground. Sakura whipped around in the direction he'd come from, gathering chakra into her fists.

She dodged the first three shuriken that whistled out of the smoke, and reached to catch the fourth before letting it fly past. Glancing back, Sakura saw the dull grey spreading rapidly from where the shuriken was embedded into the stump: poison.

Below it, Sasuke was motionless on the ground, paler than she'd ever seen him, and it wasn't difficult to figure out why.

She dashed towards his side, Alliance be damned, because in the forest thirty minutes ago he'd heard Itachi's second final words and hadn't mentioned anything other than killing Uchiha Madara since. She had only gone a few steps when fingers from a disembodied hand closed around her ankle, sending her sprawling. Sakura kicked out with a chakra-enhanced heel, which Madara deflected so contemptuously she could feel it, though his masked face was still on the other side of the his portal. She lashed out again, grazed his wrist, and the fingers opened with an eerie shout.

'TAKE THAT!'

Her triumph faded as the situation's reality occurred to her. Damn it. She couldn't properly tend to Sasuke with Madara just a portal away, and Naruto's status still unknown. There was only one option.

Sakura leaned over Sasuke, hissed, "If you die, Naruto and I will never forgive you," and secured him on her back with a long strip of medical bandage. After adjusting the wet cloth over her mouth and nose she darted through the wall of smoke obscuring the rest of the world.

They were in the clearing their summons had made earlier in the battle, the only stretch of ground relatively free of toppled trees. Madara no longer looked as fresh and pristine as a man-eating daisy, with his mask dangling and eyes flashing; Naruto was barely conscious. She started towards them, then paused, keenly aware of the weight on her shoulder.

Madara's attention whipped to her, a sneer curling his upper lip. "Give him to me."

"No," Sakura said, feeling a vein throb in her forehead at his tone of voice. "He doesn't belong with you."

"Just TO me," Madara agreed. "After some... re-education." He flicked a glance at Naruto, to her relief dismissed the blond, and returned to watch her. "A Senju's apprentice," he spat, "has no reason to touch an Uchiha."

Sasuke's voice rasped unexpectedly against her ear. "Let me go."

"No, Sasuke-kun," Sakura informed him, "this is the one and only time I agree with your quest for revenge. You're not going with him."

Sasuke's voice could have sliced rock. "Don't be stupid. Let me go so I can vaporize his face."

"Before or after you collapse from the poison in your system?" retorted Sakura, but she undid the bandages. Sasuke slid off her shoulder.

Madara smirked triumphantly at her.

"You're just getting in the way," Sasuke hissed under his breath, rubbing his shoulder.

"You didn't say that when you were unconscious across my shoulder," Sakura pointed out, trying to suppress her misgivings. "Hey -"

Sasuke grunted and didn't argue. He simply darted straight towards Madara, already forming seals, ignoring her angry shout.

Nearly yelling in frustration, Sakura was about to join them before remembering their Sharingan. She needed a weapon, and looking around, she found several.

Grunting, Sakura clamped her arms around the nearest tree trunk, and rose with it. She swung her battering ram awkwardly, daring Madara to find meaningful intent in the arcs her weapon made, and threw. "SASUKE!"

Sasuke dropped to the ground, narrowly avoiding decapitation. From there, a twisting, flaming dragon burst from his lips, hiding in the shadow of the log. Madara avoided the first just in time to meet the dragon with an explosion that left him reeling. They both took advantage of it.

Somewhere in the blur of limbs and electric metal, Sakura caught Naruto stirring. She skidded to the other side of the clearing, and flung a handful of kunai in Madara's direction. He had to be getting tired, because he faced her - turning away from Naruto in the process - rather than let them pass harmlessly through the portals. Or maybe it was because Sasuke was engaging him with the Sharingan again. Could Sasuke's Sharingan be countering his?

The tide of the battle seemed to change when Naruto re-joined it. Slowly, they were wearing Madara down!

"Why isn't he leaving?" she gasped, when blood had begun staining the skin of her arms. Sometime during the fight, she'd lost the cloth over her mouth.

Sasuke said, "He's a coward that needs other people to do his massacres for him." Itachi had been very firm about that point. "He's not going to face an army by himself."

In response, the world around them began to melt in a genjutsu that seemed to fill her arms with enough lead to make her collapse. Naruto fell to his knees beside her, but Sasuke... Sasuke's eyes were red and black and he wasn't affected. She saw Sasuke hesitate, glancing at them. Sakura made a grab for his arm as he turned away. Naruto said, mouth stretched into a feral, tense, grin, "If you leave us here, if you don't use those cheating eyes to break us out, it only means you were afraid we'd kill him first."

There was a moment of stillness. Sakura held her breath, wondering if Uchiha Sasuke would finally, finally take Naruto's offered excuse to stop breaking his bonds behind him. Sasuke was a study in sullen pride, more than her and Naruto combined. He normally wouldn't accept, but Naruto was giving him a way to justify himself. What was he thinking, in that instant that seemed to stretch into forever, in that instant while he stared intently at Naruto?

His eyes flicked to her. Some decision formed, he turned away, and Sakura's heart sank...

Sasuke's hand closed around her arm; his other had already held onto Naruto. There was a jerk in her navel, her head spun again, but when she regained her balance, the world had returned to normal, albeit with the fires dying out, and smoke disappearing.

"You need to learn to stop hallucinating," Sasuke said, smirking. "There's no way you'd beat him first. Don't interrupt," Sasuke ordered, imperiously, but he looked like he knew exactly how well his former team-mates would take his orders, and he didn't seem displeased about it. "I don't want to track him down again."

"Are you kidding?" Naruto said to his face, and Sakura hadn't seen him grin like that for years. "He's one hundred. No one over fifty seems to be able to leave you alone without possessing your body." Sakura bit back a laugh, though more seemed to be bubbling out of somewhere deep inside her, because Sasuke hadn't just left them, he was still there, and hope could be a very giddy thing. "He's not leaving without you, Sasuke. I'm sort of glad that's the only thing he has in common with me and Sakura-chan, since it makes it easier to pummel him."

The thought returned to Sakura, suddenly. "Maybe we're doing this the wrong way. He can predict my movements until I can't get close, and he can shut Kyuubi down and take you with it. Maybe it should just be Sasuke that attacks him."

Of course, it was when they were implementing the plan that things went wrong. Ten Narutos and Sakura hounded Madara into a corner, focusing on distraction to keep him from teleporting. Sasuke was supposed to step in and engage Madara in a Sharingan-battle. Sakura had noticed, earlier, that Madara couldn't seem to... shift... his body to avoid injury, whenever he had Sasuke's final form of Mangekyou to contend with. She and Naruto would use the most destructive jutsu they knew to take Madara down. "And yes, Sasuke-kun," she sighed, "you can strike the last blow."

Naruto shot her a betrayed look that somehow lacked any conviction behind it.

But they'd underestimated Madara's hatred for Konoha, and overestimated his devotion to keeping Uchiha Sasuke as a tool. As Sasuke's eyes sought his ancestor's... Madara gave up on the tame jutsu he'd been using to try and fail to take the three down. When their eyes met, Madara was already halfway through his second-favourite technique (his favourite jutsu involved the Moon, and Itachi had stopped it with his life) of making the world, or simply their sixteen-kilometre-squared area of it, disintegrate. It would crush Konoha and all the people in it.

The two Uchiha froze, staring at each other across three metres of weapons-laced ground. It took Sakura a moment to register what was going on. Ice shot through her veins, and a cold hand gripped her heart.

Madara was vulnerable while he performed it, but so was Sasuke, fighting to keep Madara from finishing, to keep Madara trapped.

"Sasuke!" Naruto.

The edges of Sasuke's body were beginning to crumble, like an old scroll exposed to oxygen again.

Naruto dashed for Madara, but was halted by an odd force-field around the man - Madara knew very well he was vulnerable.

Sakura had run towards Sasuke. It was like struggling through molasses, but she broke through. The moment she laid her hands on Sasuke, she knew. "The poison's catching up with him," she shouted. "Get over here, Naruto!" When he'd crouched beside her, she snatched his hand, held it in her grip, and prayed that she knew what she was doing.

There was no time for fear or regret. She simply did it, because there was no time for waiting.

Uchiha Sasuke's final evolution of the Sharingan made him nearly immortal - like Madara's Sharingan had done for himself. But he simply did not have the resources to resist everything at once. He'd die, she'd die, Naruto and her family and friends would disappear.

Naruto's internal passenger had plenty of reserves to spare, now that Madara's influence on the seal was gone. The answer was obvious.

Unfortunately, he didn't have the experience of funnelling chakra into another body.

She'd have to do it.

A terrible sensation blazed from palm to palm, running through her chest and barely avoiding her heart. Fire that burned more powerfully than fire, a miasma that filled her with more revulsion than smoke had. She couldn't scream, the muscles of her jaw were locked too tightly. And horribly, Sakura couldn't even tell if it was working. The Kyuubi's chakra blazed through her system, burning in its wake, and Sasuke's disintegration ceased... reversed... but there he kneeled and glared. She couldn't tell who was winning inside that world, only that the battle raged on, and if she didn't save him here, he would lose inside there.

The world faded in and out of focus, darkness creeping over her vision. Flickers of red streamed past before disappearing into the crawling black. She wasn't going to be able to stay away much longer, before her body rejected the burning, choking, cancerous chakra-presence.

Then: a miracle.

Sasuke murmured beneath her grip. Sakura had to be losing her sight, because she could have sworn Madara was crumbling out of existence like Sasuke had been.

"Sasuke-kun," she murmured, and the darkness closed above her head just as he turned to look.

- : -

The Medic way:

When she opened her eyes again, there was no one beside her bed.

Sakura struggled into a sitting position, then looked around, wincing as her head pounded in protest. She was in Konoha's hospital; she'd spent enough time among its bland, uniform rooms to recognise it in an instant. As she was smoothing the crease of her green coverlet, making sure not to jar the tube that was delivering her opiates, she noticed there were still burns on her hand, treated but not healed.

Her arm shook as she raised it to get a better look at her palm. She could see glistening white bone in one location. The back of her hand was burned just as deeply, in the same location, contrasting oddly with the peach of her uninjured fingers. She jerked her other hand up; it wasn't as badly burned, no bone, but she wouldn't be fighting with it any time soon.

"I'd ask you how you got those," said Tsunade's wonderfully familiar voice, "but I already know more than I want to." The clack of her heels heralded the presence of her down-turned mouth and tired eyes. She was carrying a clipboard, and looked like she meant business. "I already know that you and Naruto are worse together, because I don't understand HOW ELSE YOU TWO COULD BE SO IDIOTIC!"

Sakura opened her mouth to say she was sorry, closed it again when she realized it would be a lie, and then urgency seized her by the throat. "Is he all right?"

"Naruto's already up," Tsunade said, folding her arms over her generous bosom. She placed an odd emphasis on his name.

"And Sasuke?" she asked, putting two and two together and assuming Naruto was haunting his bedside. When Tsunade didn't answer, Sakura dragged the drip out of her left arm, braced herself for pain, and gingerly swivelled to slide off the bed.

Tsunade snorted, and finally replied. "He's not getting up again if I can help it."

"I can't let him die, Shishou," Sakura said, standing up. She jerked as Tsunade slammed her clipboard on the bedside table. The Hokage was furious.

"I'm not having this argument with you two again!"

"But-"

"You seem to be under the impression that this is a democracy," Tsunade seethed. It obviously wasn't the first time she'd argued about this exact issue in the past few days. "It's not. I give orders, and you, Sakura, carry them out."

Sakura felt tears gathering in the corner of her eyes. She blinked furiously to hide them. "I can't let him die, Tsunade-sama," she repeated. "I just can't. Naruto and I would have died against Madara, if he weren't there."

"The two of you wouldn't have been facing Madara, if your Uchiha hadn't been there," Tsunade corrected anger dying down a little; she was quick-tempered that way.

"We'd have found a way," Sakura said, with quiet conviction. "Even if Naruto and I hadn't been heading to stop Madara, we'd have met him. Madara planned to take down Itachi on the way, which by the way wasn't very smart of him, and you ordered us not to leave his sight." Tsunade's face had been so pale and cold, but not surprised, when she heard Itachi's story in its entirety; Sakura had been the one shocked by the flood of information, the sudden realisation of Sasuke's motivation. She added, "Itachi died for Sasuke again, Tsunade-sama."

The Hokage waved away the title, now that she wasn't reminding Sakura of her place. "Itachi was already a dead man walking." Then she sighed. "And you're not in any shape to help him, Sakura. If you were Naruto, I'd tie you to your bed." From the way Tsunade was eying her, she still found it tempting.

"If I were Naruto, I wouldn't need to spend time in bed," Sakura said. "Besides, I know to come back once I've seen Sasuke." A beat. "I can at least see him, can't I?"

After a long moment, Tsunade gave her the room number, and Sakura scurried off. She arrived before the opiates still circling in her system wore off completely. Naruto leapt up, teeth bared and whisker marks prominent, as though prepared to battle whoever it was he'd been expecting. He calmed when he saw her face.

"Sakura-chan! You're awake!"

"And a fine welcome I got, too," Sakura said lightly. "Alone and wondering if the two of you were alive."

Naruto gestured rudely behind her. Sakura turned to see a lone ANBU standing in the doorway, just for an instant, to alert Sakura of his presence. "I couldn't leave Sasuke alone with them. And Obaa-chan-" His fist tightened, and jaw clenched. "Granny Tsunade is being stubborn."

Stubborn. That was one way to put it.

Once Sakura had thrown her arms around Naruto, wincing at the warning throb in her palms, she turned her attention on Sasuke. He was hooked up to a bundle of bags much like she had been - Sakura wondered how hard Naruto had to work to get even this much done - but there were chains around his ankles and knees. The strongest precaution against him, though, was the seal encircling his neck that Sakura recognised from her lessons with Tsunade.

"Shishou said he still hasn't woken up," Sakura said.

"And he used to call me tardy," Naruto jested weakly, "as if ANYONE can be tardy compared to Kakashi-sensei. He's actually the last one to open his eyes."

Sakura rolled her eyes. "He was always that." She and Naruto shared smiles, because they were the only ones allowed to insult their team-mate. "Do you think he'll be all right?"

"He'll be fine," Naruto said confidently. "By the time he wakes up, he'll be fine enough I won't feel sorry about dragging him outside and punching his sorry ass into the ground."

Sakura sniffed. "Not if I get him first."

The brief instant of levity passed. Sakura swallowed, glancing nervously at her hands.

"I should probably-" she gestured at Sasuke.

"Yeah."

But Tsunade had been economical, when she hadn't bothered preventing Sakura's visit. Though there was no corresponding seal around Sakura's neck to tuck away her chakra, she couldn't have healed Sasuke even if her vision didn't start blacking out. Naruto looked momentarily nervous when Sakura admitted this, before confidence returned.

"Sasuke can wait," Naruto declared. He didn't show how much she knew it had to be costing him, to say that, but then, Sakura was still getting used to the idea that Naruto had, not so long ago, given up on dragging Sasuke back with them. "You need to rest, Sakura-chan. You look tired."

She rapped him half-heartedly across his forehead, not enough to hurt, and returned to her room to sleep. Just in time for her palms to really begin to try to make her scream.

She visited Sasuke, and various patients on the same floor, over the next few days, with the same result. Naruto eyed her nervously each time she arrived, asking if she felt up to it, but Sakura insisted on trying. On the fourth day, Tsunade gave her answers. Sakura had had Kyuubi's toxic chakra running through her. It was a miracle that her chakra coils were still intact - she had her previous exposure to Kyuubi's chakra to thank for that. Sasuke also had boosted resistance from once being under the Cursed Seal, but there'd been some strange fight for dominance between his Sharingan and the Kyuubi's chakra, and Tsunade wasn't about to risk any of her medics while the Kyuubi's chakra ran rampant in his system.

Sakura thought that the Uchiha's legacy seemed determined to rail against everything it possibly could. Then she returned to her room and cried, because in the wake of her battle, in the wonderful awful peace, she could almost forgive herself for it.

The entire scenario underlined a past lesson from Tsunade, she thought. The medic was not to be a fighter because she could heal others, but others could not heal her. Sakura had wanted to be strong enough to do both.

It took a visit from Rock Lee, of all people, to remind her of what she needed. He came with news that Konoha's Eastern wall had collapsed during the battle with Madara's last army, but it hadn't actually been breached. There were surprisingly few deaths - as if the various groups of undead Uchiha had been holding back. Sakura already knew that much, but Lee also brought the happy report that none of her year-mates were seriously injured.

"Did you know Sasuke's in the hospital?" Sakura said dully.

Lee's bright smile faded a little. "I did not, Sakura-san." He looked uncertainly at her. "Is it safe?"

"He's comatose," Sakura said. "He also killed Madara, Lee-kun. Just so you know."

Lee looked at her more closely. She waited, uncertain of his reaction.

"What's bothering you?"

"Other than being a medic stuck in a hospital bed while people I care about are being treated on other floors?"

Lee hesitated. Fortunately, frustration was something he had a great deal of experience with. "You never gave up on him in the past four years, even during our most unyouthful assassination attempt. And you were right to be patient." Lee, she noticed, didn't doubt her claim at all. "It's a difficult technique to master, but one I know pays well in the end."

The mega-watt grin flashed. Sakura returned it with one of her own. After he left, she sat on her bed with her legs crossed, and began to meditate, the way Iruka-sensei had taught her so long ago.

The moment her Kyuubi-burned hands were scabbed over, Sakura dragged Naruto out to train. They left a Shadow Clone guarding Sasuke that glared so wildly at three nurses, they filed urgent requests for transfers; Naruto might have been a village hero since he defeated Pain, but he could still be terrifying. It was unspeakably frustrating, the way she could feel chakra circulating beneath her skin, but couldn't actually shape it.

Her improvement crawled at a snail's pace, but she improved.

It was a bit trickier than Lee might have imagined, but two weeks after his visit, Sakura healed the wounds across her hands. After getting Tsunade's reluctant consent by pointing out that it wouldn't be nearly as satisfying to subject an unconscious Uchiha Sasuke to trial - she suspected Naruto had been working on the Hokage, too - she began work on Sasuke.

If Sakura had thought the difficult part was already over, then she'd have been bitterly disappointed.

Carefully, painstakingly, Sakura began disentangling Sasuke's knots of chakra away from the Kyuubi's. Now that she had experience healing burns from the Kyuubi's fire, her fingers didn't even seem hot afterwards. It was slow work, though Hyuuga Hinata dropping by one afternoon, stuttering and offering her help, sped it up considerably. Unfortunately, Sakura had to do all the work, because the Sharingan fought everyone except her.

If she were younger, Sakura might have been pleased. Instead, she found it tiring, because it wasn't a reflection on him trusting her - but rather, pointed to Sasuke blocking out everyone else. She said to Sasuke's motionless face, "I'm not smiling, Sasuke-kun."

Night after night passed without success. Naruto finally left Sasuke's side without a shadow clone, given Tsunade's promise that Sasuke would be brought to trial. Ino dropped in a few times, in between restocking her flower shop and attending to her increased workload, now that many ninja were out of commission. Sakura continued to siphon the Kyuubi's chakra away.

Then, on the night before the final funeral rites were to be performed, Uchiha Sasuke opened his eyes. He blinked, rasping, "Mom?"

'Mom?' she repeated in her head. How old did she look!

"You're not in Heaven, Sasuke," Sakura said, with a tired smile. Would a Uchiha traitor be in heaven? "Sorry. I couldn't let you die."

- : -

The Hokage's Respected Apprentice way

When she opened her eyes again, the audience was staring.

Sakura forced down the flush threatening to creep up her throat, and weaved between the ranks of jounin gathered in the Hokage's circular office. They were still dressed for that day's funerals, so it was like crossing a sea of black. Tsunade hadn't waited to sentence the Uchiha traitor.

Naruto had already spoken. He'd then taken off, with a dark glare at Kakashi, before he "got pissed off enough to do something stupid." He inspired. His speeches weren't always eloquent, exactly, but something about what he said, and the way he said it, could reverse invasions and make the most insane enemies think twice about attacking. He'd swayed most of their hearts to his side, and now it was up to her to finish off the job. (Kakashi had abstained from adding anything.)

"Chunin Haruno Sakura," said the Hokage, for the benefit of anyone who didn't know her, once Sakura stopped in front of her. She was scowling. "You're here to vouch for the prisoner?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama," Sakura said, bowing briefly.

"To re-cap: Uchiha Sasuke defected to Sound four years ago," Tsunade said. "He almost killed the five ninja sent to retrieve him - your year-mates." Tsunade didn't actually look at her when she said this, and it was very obvious that she was, in fact, addressing the jounin relatives of those five ninja. "That alone would merit execution. After Orochimaru's death last year, the Uchiha promptly joined the Akatsuki and worked under Uchiha Madara. They acted against the Alliance. That is another offence punishable by interrogation followed by death. Just one month ago, Uchiha Sasuke assisted in Madara's battle against Konoha, indirectly causing the deaths of the Elders Council. All together, Uchiha Sasuke deserves to be killed three times over if it were possible, even disregarding his crimes against the other nations who are howling for his blood. You know all this?"

After the long list of charges, Sakura's response sounded feeble. "I know."

"What possible reason do I have to pardon him ANY of the crimes?"

Sakura took a deep breath, and angled herself so that most of the rest of the room could also see her face.

Tsunade had surprised them. She'd said - mostly to Naruto - that she would pardon Uchiha Sasuke the day Naruto and Sakura got two thirds of the jounin to agree to it, and convinced the final third not to oppose. Sakura nearly chewed her lip off to keep from asking about Tsunade's sudden reversal ("You seem to be under the impression that this is a democracy," Tsunade seethed.) Taking in the faces of the thirty-odd jounin, who'd recently held off Madara's army of reanimated Uchiha, Sakura knew she wouldn't have an easy task.

"Because he's no longer a danger to Konoha."

Tsunade arched an eyebrow. "Explain."

"As you know, Tsunade-sama," Sakura said, "sixth months ago, my year-mates and I attempted to assassinate Uchiha Sasuke. I believed he was a major threat to Konoha. It made sense to me at the time. Like you said, Tsunade-sama, Sasuke defected. At the time, I blamed Orochimaru for seducing" -the word had such terrible-slash-amusing connotations that Sakura didn't want to think about it, but she couldn't find another- "him away. The Cursed Seal was already doing terrible things to his head, and his encounter with Uchiha Itachi tripped him over the edge."

Tsunade, uncharacteristically, let Sakura talk. There was a thoughtful gleam in her eyes. Behind Sakura, the Jounin listened: some attentive, others looking slightly bored now that she didn't appear to be expanding on why she'd tried to assassinate Uchiha Sasuke.

"The excuse failed when I tried to apply it to what he did after killing Orochimaru, of course. The Cursed Seal certainly wasn't what made him join the Akatsuki. Actively working against Konoha - when he was under Orochimaru, he barely came in contact with us at all - wasn't someone else's master plan, I thought. No, that was Sasuke acting under the thrall of his own insanity. He was an enemy, and he wasn't quite stable. The Sasuke I knew... he'd have hated to be out of control that way. He had to be taken care of. And I knew I wouldn't be able to rest if someone else administered the killing blow, so my year-mates and I came up with the plan to kill him. This, by the way," she added as a side note, "was the first time I understood what it meant to NEED to be the one to kill someone. I failed, but I can't bring myself to regret it."

That was one way of putting it. Better not to mention that she'd failed despite first-hand confirmation that he was insane and dangerous.

"Because a month ago, I spoke with Uchiha Itachi." There was an audible stirring among the jounin, but they didn't look too surprised: dealing with an undead army of Uchiha advancing towards Konoha tended to make you re-evaluate what you knew. "And things began making sense again." She glanced at Tsunade, who merely raised her eyebrow again without censoring her. "The late Elders Council had a direct hand in the massacre. The Uchiha had great power, as I'm sure you can understand, and they were dangerous." She sensed assent from the various injured jounin, though none of them nodded. "When Sasuke learned of this, I see why he saw Konoha as an enemy. He was deranged to see us ALL that way, but given Uchiha Madara told him this, given that he'd just learned that the Elders ordered Itachi to kill his entire clan, and Itachi had died not half an hour ago... I still see why."

Sakura paused. Tsunade said, "And for the rest of us who don't see it? You have kindly informed us that the Uchiha was easily manipulated, disloyal, and susceptible to insanity, but not why you think he isn't a threat."

There was no avoiding the direct question. The interest from the jounin spiked, and Sakura knew she would have to choose her next words carefully.

"Because Sasuke never killed anyone without a reason, and often the reason was more morally decent than 'for money,'" Sakura said finally. "And those shinobi didn't belong to Konoha. Even when he went over the edge, he didn't." She braced herself for the backlash.

More audible stirring from the thirty-odd jounin. She turned just as one, who she'd treated in the hospital in between healing Sasuke, stepped forward. "Permission to speak, Hokage-sama?"

"Granted."

"We just returned from a series of funerals, Sakura-san!" the ninja said. He was tall and sinewy, with the telltale red stripes of an Inuzuka clan member running down his cheeks. "You and your team-mate weren't on the battleground but you know how many corpses there were. How could you possibly say that?"

Sakura closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. "Inuzuka-san," Sakura said, "how many people have you killed?" Silence fell like a curtain at the taboo of a question. Sakura didn't let it last. "It's probably higher than you think. When I fought Sasori of the Red Sand, my ally Chiyo died. Was her death my fault?" Maybe, if Sakura had been stronger, but she needed to let go of the guilt for this. "If it was, then my killing count would be higher than what it's listed as, but it isn't. So why would the deaths of the Uchiha, who were already zombies, be Sasuke's fault? And Uchiha Madara instigated the invasion. He would have - DID - attack without Sasuke's help, because Itachi convinced Sasuke to turn against him. It is Madara you should blame for the deaths on the battlefield - and my team-mates and I," -she placed an emphasis on the plural- "were the ones who kept him from actually reaching Konoha."

"And your point?" drawled another, and this one Sakura did recognize: Nara Shikaku.

"For a defector, he seemed rather reluctant to do anything that actually acted against us," Sakura said. "And he was very eager to do many things that benefited us."

"Such as?" Shikaku prodded.

"He destroyed Orochimaru, mostly, and scattered the army cooped up in Orochimaru's labs before Kabuto could find everyone. His presence at the Summit exposed Danzo's facade of harmless, benign Elder and helped alert us to the power plays among the Alliance. And," Sakura said, "he helped take down Uchiha Madara, nearly at the cost of his life."

There was a snort from Yamanaka Inoichi, who Sakura had come to know during her friendship with Ino. "Nearly at the cost of YOUR life, you mean."

"He's the one who can barely walk around yet on his own," Sakura reminded him. "It's definitely Sasuke."

Inuzuka Tsume was the one who stepped forward. "So he decided to turn traitor once again at the Eleventh Hour. That only makes him twice a traitor. He defected, Haruno, and my son was nearly killed during the mission to bring him back! Twice! So was another among our ranks." Tsume nodded to Hyuuga Neji, who was standing near the back. "Tell me why I shouldn't try to assassinate him."

A vein throbbed in Sakura's head. Objectively, Sakura knew that it wasn't surprising that Tsume would be the one to question Sasuke's loyalty, but, 'Because it's not exactly your choice,' Sakura didn't say. Instead, she asked Tsume, "Temari of the Sand saved Kiba, didn't he?"

"Yes," Tsume said warily.

"Sand, a village that had, less than a month ago, just invaded Konoha along with Sound?"

There was audible murmuring from the audience. Sakura dared to hope it might be in approval at her point.

"That's right."

"You didn't seem to have any problems accepting her help when she was going to save your son, even though you could argue that her entire village broke the treaty - like Sasuke broke his contract - and killed a great number of Konoha ninja. We're even allies with Sand now, and they hadn't even killed our enemies for us."

"Madara and Orochimaru were our common enemies," Tsume said dismissively.

"Wasn't that the basis of the entire Shinobi Alliance?" Sakura pointed out. "A common enemy, the Akatsuki, that we were going to stop?"

"So we just ignore his defection?" demanded Tsume, not quite baring her teeth.

Sakura shook her head. "All I'm saying is that there are precedents for mitigating the punishment. Sasuke never sold us out. He even killed Orochimaru and Madara, who were major problems. Now that they're dead, it's unlikely he's going to turn against Konoha again. And Inuzuka-san," Sakura said, quirking her lips, "if you're going to take vengeance on everyone who ever tried to kill Kiba - a group that doesn't actually include Sasuke, but rather the Sound Ninja holding him in a barrel - you're going to have to hunt down half of Konoha."

She did bare her teeth this time, but it was in a reluctant smile. "Starting with my own clan members, no doubt. All right, Haruno, I have no more questions."

Tsume's influence was obvious. The moment she decided not to oppose Sakura, at least half the room, already swayed by Naruto, began to waver. Sakura's heart leapt into her throat as she realised all thirty pairs of eyes were fixed on her face, and not a single pair looked bored.

"You said the Uchiha wouldn't have a reason to attack Konoha again," Hyuuga Neji said quietly, from the back of the room. His voice was low, but it carried so she had no trouble hearing it.

"I did," Sakura agreed warily.

"But he shouldn't have had a reason to join Akatsuki either. It was not logical, so the Uchiha was either insane or easily manipulated. In light of the revelation of the Council members' plans, how can you guarantee his insanity won't overcome him again, or that he won't be manipulated?"

Sakura had to think long and hard about this. It was a good question, but she hardly expected anything less from the Hyuuga who'd helped her plan her Let's Kill Sasuke mission. "Can I guarantee Sasuke won't snap again? No. No more than I can guarantee that any jounin in this room won't be pushed too far, even though I've examined some of you before."

"The Uchiha is the only one with a proven track record of turning murderous traitor when put under too much psychological distress," Neji pointed out.

"The distress being that he'd lost his family, and was about to lose his new family again." The words made Sakura stand straighter: the reminder that Team Seven had been Sasuke's second family. Which only made Kakashi's silence more bewildering, but she dismissed the betrayal for the moment. "It's not exactly going to happen a second time. Now all he has is his team, and Konoha. He won't snap unless he loses us. If he snaps after we're gone, then it's a moot point isn't it?"

Sighing, Sakura turned back to Tsunade. "I won't argue that he defected, Shishou, or that he joined the Akatsuki afterwards. I can only say that it's my opinion that there were mitigating circumstances, and I think pardoning him is the right choice. You can either consider my advice or not."

Tsunade had remained silent throughout most of the discussion. When she next spoke, Sakura wondered if it had been because she was hoarding her last point until the moment it made the maximum impact. "How can we trust anything you say when you were in love with Uchiha Sasuke?"

There was a hush - an unexpected hush. Not a single whisper. All the jounin were listening intently to the affairs of Sakura's heart! This time, Sakura didn't turn around to address it, but she could feel the mood of the room shifting to curious, wary. An unreliable witness was a deal-breaker after all.

"I did love Sasuke," Sakura agreed. She pushed down the question of whether she still did, because now was not the time. "He, Naruto and Kakashi-sensei were like my second family. But the question you should be asking is how much you trust the love Naruto and I have for Leaf. Little enough to let Sasuke cloud our judgement and want a pardon for him? Or do we love Leaf strongly enough to see Sasuke as what he is, and still ask for one?"

Sakura bowed, accepted Tsunade's dismissal, and made it to the corridor outside the Hokage's office just in time to collapse against the wall. Sweat made her red tunic cling to the back of her shoulders, and her legs were shaking with adrenaline and fear. Her hands, she noticed, were trembling like she had palsy. She hadn't realised until she left their presence just how... overwhelming she'd found speaking to Leaf's jounin. Especially knowing they were about to vote on Sasuke's fate. She could only hope she (and Naruto) had been sufficiently convincing.

Her eyes jerked up as footsteps sounded in the corridor leading to the current one. It was a group of ANBU announcing their arrival. Standing between them, chakra-collar very apparent, was Sasuke. He looked tired, but otherwise she couldn't read him.

"We're here for the Uchiha hearing."

"Just a moment," the receptionist said. He was staring at Sasuke. "The Hokage will let you know when she wants you to go in."

Sakura ignored the ANBU. She hadn't seen Sasuke since he woke the day before, when he was taken away. "Sasuke-kun."

His gaze swept to her, the black as expressionless as the pallor of his face. He glanced minutely at his captors, as though expecting them to step in, but, perhaps out of respect for Sakura, they allowed her the moment. "Sakura. You're not allowed in the hearing."

"How would you know?" Sakura demanded instantly. "You haven't attended one... ever, actually."

Sasuke shrugged, glancing again at the ANBU. And that was all the answer she was going to receive.

Well that was all right. Sakura had more to say, than to listen to.

"If you die," she said quietly, "we are going to drag you back from the afterlife and keep you horribly alive ourselves."

There was a flash of red in his eyes, and the ANBU stiffened, but Sasuke got himself under control. Sakura couldn't quite make out his tone of voice. "I already heard you say you wouldn't let me die." Was he pleased? Or annoyed?

"You still haven't fought Naruto," Sakura said to him. She felt like a dog-trainer holding out a tennis ball. "And you haven't fought against me."

For the first time, there wasn't fury or emptiness in his eyes. Was that a hint of interest?

"I just thought I'd remind you of that."

Sasuke nodded, minutely. Sakura sighed: she'd done all she could. Now she just needed Sasuke not to wreck all of her work, because Sasuke had always been better at breaking things than fixing them, hadn't he? Oh, and while he was at it, work hard enough to convince the jounin that not only was he not a threat, but that he was worth keeping.

"I remember," Sasuke said, causing a hopeful flutter somewhere in the vicinity of her heart. He didn't sound like he was reassuring her, but then, Sasuke never did. Maybe he had a reason to fight for his survival, too.

The next instant, Tsunade's voice called out from her office, and the ANBU whisked him inside. Sakura stared intently at the closed door, weighing how long the receptionist would let her loiter outside while she waited for the verdict. Maybe she and Naruto could take turns...

There was a puff of smoke, and her former sensei stood by her side. Just looking at him brought back a surge of memory about the trial, and what he had refused to do. Furious, Sakura turned away from him.

"I need to talk to you."

"What, you have something to say now?" Sakura demanded. Naruto had stormed off when Kakashi refused to speak on Sasuke's behalf, and she was inclined to follow his example.

"I was forbidden to before, you know," Kakashi informed her. "Hokage-sama ordered me not to."

Sakura stared at the door. Then she started striding towards it, a hand reaching out to tear it open- or she would have, if Kakashi's hand hadn't been on her arm.

"Sakura," Kakashi said very patiently, "it wasn't about Sasuke at all."

Sakura stopped. "What?" She'd struggled that long and that hard to answer the questions, and it hadn't been...? All right, who had been responsible and how was she going to maim him or her?

"It was a real hearing. You saved him," Kakashi assured her, "though he'll never thank you for it. No, the test was for you and Naruto." There was something very significant about that, but Sakura was still caught on his, 'you saved him.' "I'm glad to say you've passed. Despite all my expectations to the contrary."

They had voted yes!

"I'm glad you had such faith in us, Kakashi-sensei," Sakura dead-panned.

Kakashi's eye curved; he was smiling. "Oh, but the three of you will always be those bratty young genin I was assigned five years ago..."

Um... right.

"Unless Sasuke does something stupid," Kakashi said cheerfully, "he's going to stay alive. Or, if you do something stupid, like tearing open the door again." Sakura scowled, but stepped away from the door. "Good night, Sakura."

With a glance back at Kakashi, Sakura slipped out of the Hokage's Tower and walked into the welcoming shadows.

- : -

The Friend way

Sakura waited for him on the bridge.

He arrived quietly, just his footsteps and the presence of his one ANBU guard. He'd been assigned the guard for the past year, during which he'd also been under house arrest. He could only leave the house under special dispensation from the Hokage, or to do community service. Though it prickled his pride, Uchiha Sasuke had been forced to acknowledge that menial jobs weren't as bad as they could have been. (It was, he was very aware, not something his sixteen-year-old self would have thought, but with his future empty in front of him, he was beginning to see things in a different light.) There hadn't actually been any assassination attempts, after all, despite Inuzuka Tsume's unveiled threats. And he had managed to convince the Hokage not to throw him in jail.

"You might even be reinstated as a ninja," Sakura said, as they strode along the banks of the Nanako River. Lanterns swayed above her head, casting Sakura's skin in a faint red glow.

"Go on missions outside of Konoha? I doubt it," Sasuke countered, hands in pockets.

Sakura's eyes flicked to him, and under her long lashes, they looked as amused as the curve of her mouth. "You're whining, Sasuke-kun."

There were surprisingly flew people on the riverside - no doubt the ninja, retired or otherwise, were in town celebrating one year of peace - so they had no trouble keeping Sasuke's guard within view.

"A Uchiha does not whinge," Sasuke said loftily.

"Itachi didn't whinge," Sakura corrected. "You and Madara did. Do."

As Sasuke was about to turn his head away, unwilling to acknowledge the idea of defeat, he paused. He watched Sakura stride to a stand selling baked chestnuts, grinning childishly as each nut popped into the bag. This was the woman who could topple chestnut trees by nudging them. The pair of hands that had, once upon a time, been strangers to work, were now equally at home holding kunai, running down his body to heal injuries, and cracking the ground. Sasuke wondered again how they'd become conversation partners. That he remembered the events didn't actually lead to understanding, but, ever-mulish, he tried again, recalling the series of conversations:

She had showed up at his house (paid for by the considerable Uchiha estate, at an exorbitant price) a week after he'd been put under arrest. At that point, Sasuke still hadn't known why Sakura and Naruto pleaded for his life. He'd known that they would (despite Sakura's botched assassination attempt), but not the motivations behind them.

"Well," Sakura had said, "it's because I love Naruto, and I love you, and your death would have hurt both."

His eyes had widened. An inexplicable wave of fury tightened his throat, and he'd surged forward. Sakura hadn't moved, though she did raise a hand to block. It wasn't necessary. Sasuke stopped himself before the ANBU guard interrupted, and stepped back. "Even after four years?"

"If you could be obsessed with revenge for a decade," Sakura said, "then I can be obsessed with my team. Caring for the two of you, and beating you into the ground." Her mouth stretched into a grin of unholy glee that Sasuke still wasn't used to, despite the extended battle against Madara.

"Aren't the two mutually exclusive?" Sasuke felt obliged to point out.

Sakura shrugged. "If you and Naruto can get into brawls despite being team-mates, then why not?"

"We're not team-mates."

"What else do you call fighting as a team?" Sakura raised an eyebrow.

"No," Sasuke said, "I beat Madara. You two were just there as well." He felt that that fact was very important.

"You keep telling yourself that," Sakura said, rolling her eyes.

To Sasuke's surprise, he found himself relenting. "All right, so I beat Madara and you two beat him too."

"And we did it together," said Sakura. "You even pulled us out of the genjutsu. I healed you while Madara's jutsu was tearing you apart. Naruto crushed his limbs and supplied the chakra."

Sasuke had turned away, feigning losing interest when he realised he wasn't going to win the argument. It was a tactic that had served him well in the past.

But he hadn't been able to turn away and lose interest. Weakness always haunted Sasuke; the reminder he couldn't defeat Madara on his own ate at his mind until he saw shadows in the corners, and malicious intent behind Naruto's every word. It was oddly familiar to the time period when Itachi was newly dead, Madara had all the answers, and all the answers pointed to burning Konoha to the ground.

"She can't do this to me," Sasuke had seethed, unable to stop the words from escaping.

Sakura closed her eyes. "She's the Hokage." She didn't even need to ask to whom he referred. "She can do what she damn well wants."

"Tsunade wanted to kill me," said Sasuke. The ANBU stiffened at his disrespect; Sasuke ignored the implied threat.

"Tsunade-SAMA," Sakura corrected, earning herself a glare from her former team-mate, "wasn't the only one. She got over it."

"I didn't," Sasuke said.

"You never do," Sakura said, snorting.

Sasuke told her, "I got over invading Konoha, didn't I?"

Sakura actually took a step towards him, eating into the metre of so of space between them. "Only because Itachi reminded you that no, Ayame's sixth-month-old son probably didn't deserve to die for the Uchiha Massacre."

Sasuke felt his eyes flashing. The ANBU guard had nothing on Sasuke's speed. If he wanted to, he could - and she was one of the people who'd argued for keeping him trapped in this room -

Sakura glared back at him. There wasn't a hint of fear on her face, but he could almost see something like sorrow. It only infuriated Sasuke more (and anger was familiar and easy.)

"Don't you dare talk about him," Sasuke snarled.

"What?" Sakura demanded. Another step forward, and she cracked her knuckles. "That he gave his life for peace, twice, and you would have given yours so that you could destroy it?"

"Konoha didn't deserve peace!" Sasuke shouted. It was one of the few subjects that could elicit a powerful response from him.

"Yes, it does!" Sakura yelled in response, looking like she wanted to pummel him in response. For an instant, Sasuke felt like he was thirteen and facing Itachi again: milder, but the same. Suddenly, her voice quietened. "Maybe you don't."

"Maybe I don't," Sasuke agreed. She left on that note.

She was right, though Sasuke was at loathe to admit it. He did not deserve peace, and he did not want peace. He did not deserve Kakashi's reluctant hope, or Konoha's quiet, or Sakura's and Naruto's love, though Sasuke wasn't sure if it was because it was too much of a blessing, or a curse. In his current state of mind, Sasuke decided to go with curse.

The next time he spoke to Sakura, it was with his fists as they demolished a training ground, the seal around his neck momentarily disabled. His ANBU guard stayed well back, Tsunade's special dispensation tucked into a discrete pocket. Afterwards, Sakura asked, "Feel better?"

He shrugged. "All right."

"I'll take that as a yes, then," she said. "Naruto will be pleased his idea worked. And annoyed I used it first."

"There's a first for anything," Sasuke mocked.

"Like how I kicked your butt?" Sakura said wickedly. The light breeze made locks of her silky hair dance along the line of her jaw.

Then their conversation was relegated again to the blur of arms and legs. It was somewhere around then, in between Sakura's visits and Naruto's... 'drop-ins' was perhaps a better word, Sasuke felt his bonds forming again. It was horrifying. He refused to see either of them, and just to spite him, the ANBU member made a point of letting them in.

Sakura took in the scene at a glance: Sasuke on the patch of floor he used to meditate, the ANBU guard hovering in the shadows. Something passed between her and the ANBU member, and wordlessly, the ANBU member left: she had authority now. Respect. It was in the lines of her body when she stood straight and tall, brimming with confidence. He liked it (had always liked it enough to try and bring it out again when she became uncertain) and didn't want to.

Sakura's voice was quiet and steady. Her hands were clasped loosely in front of her, but she didn't fidget, and her gaze met his directly. "You asked me once why I vouched for you. I think I should explain it."

"Because you love me," Sasuke said, before she could go further. There was the promise of too much information in her determined green eyes.

"Yes," Sakura answered evenly. "Maybe I'm even still in love with you." There wasn't even a falter when she said it, like it wasn't a secret she felt ashamed about. "I knew for certain, a year ago, but I'm not sure now. Now, all I can say is that I love you."

"It's a weakness," Sasuke muttered, again feeling the need to prevent her from continuing. He'd always run before someone talked sense, had never wanted to hear it unless he was tied to a tree, or too weak to move. He wasn't afraid, exactly, that he might have to listen this time, but the notion made him... uncomfortable.

Sakura sat on the floor in front of him. It would be a sign of weakness to stand up to move away, so Sasuke didn't. "Maybe. But you know, Lee-kun was born without chakra. It's a deadly weakness that he made his strength."

Sasuke blinked warily. He didn't like where this was going.

"Maybe there's really no such thing as 'weakness'," Sakura said quietly. "Maybe there are only character traits that people let become their weaknesses."

The Uchiha let his eyes convey just how idiotic he found that notion.

"Besides, I'm trying to deal with the weakness. You and Naruto aren't letting me." Sasuke was aware he sounded petulant. He wasn't sure what horrified him more: that he sounded like he was whinging, or that he was aware of it.

"By covering it up?" said Sakura, amused. "Running away from it, Sasuke-kun? I thought you were past that."

"I never ran away," Sasuke hissed, leaping to his feet. He stayed still for a few moments, regaining control over himself: aware of Sakura's eyes on him. "I was always running towards something."

"And that was a strength. Or it would be if you weren't running towards a creepy fifty-year-old man who wanted your body, and his dodgy pet scientist, but I digress."

Sasuke ignored this, used to Sakura's odd remarks.

"And you?" he demanded cruelly, her thrust at his vulnerable point still ringing. "How many people did your weak chakra reserves kill?"

After a frozen moment, Sakura got up and left the room. Outside, he saw her dent the lone oak in his tiny yard with a single punch and gesture rudely in his direction. She glanced towards him, returned, and told him in a ringing voice exactly what she thought of his comments. The room was practically blue by the time she left, and Sasuke hadn't been able to tear his incredulous eyes from her form.

The argument continued until her next visit. She'd regained her composure (though Sasuke had a nasty suspicion it was a matter of time; Naruto had dropped in, in between her two visits, and when Sasuke let it slip what he'd said, the blond almost laughed himself sick in anticipation of Sakura's retaliation.)

She dragged him to a spar again and showed him exactly how she'd made it into a strength.

"I have to thank you, actually, Sasuke-kun," Sakura shouted across the wind. "I knew. I hadn't thought about it before, but because I don't have much chakra, I almost never waste it. I learned to plan and strategize."

It was a clear taunt. For once, Sasuke didn't rise to it. "That's compensating."

"And I have better control than you and Naruto ever will, even with your Sharingan."

Sasuke nodded his assent, then somersaulted back to avoid the chasm in the ground from Sakura's heel. She stopped behind the crack she had made, arms crossed in front of her chest.

"I made love a strength," Sakura said. "If I can, then it shouldn't be hard for the Last Uchiha."

"That's idiotic," muttered Sasuke, rising from his crouch.

"It's a choice between being an idiot," Sakura agreed, "or letting it become a weakness. NOW STAND STILL SO I CAN POUND YOU FOR INSULTING ME."

"Want one?" Sakura's voice beside him reeled Sasuke back to the present, where he was slouching by the Nanako River and watching her. She nudged her bag of baked chestnuts.

Sasuke shook his head. He still hadn't acquired a taste for fattening sweets.

"Sakura," he said after a moment, watching her dig in.

"Hm?"

"A great deal of what you told the Council was private information."

"Are you complaining? It saved your life, and I kept quiet about, well, your family's secret."

Sasuke said, "It's not a complaint if I want to know why Itachi told you so much about us."

Sakura was quiet. She chewed, swallowed, and they walked wordlessly along the bank of the river as she composed a reply in her head. Sasuke had noticed months ago that she tilted her head at an odd angle when she thought, and gently chewed her bottom lip. He'd come to look for it, though he couldn't really say why.

"Because we needed to know," she finally answered. "We were facing Madara, and Itachi hated Madara for his influence on you. We wouldn't win with incomplete information."

Sasuke could understand that. Itachi had kept his secrets close until the end, but he had also been too intelligent to continue when it would harm his cause.

"As for why Itachi chose to tell me as well, despite redefining the meaning of 'secrecy'," Sakura continued, "he did it for you. There were only two things he would have done anything for, and they were peace, Sasuke-kun, and you. Naruto and I were your team-mates, so there wasn't exactly anyone else better qualified to use the information. Besides, I don't think he liked Zetsu much either."

"Zetsu," Sasuke repeated incredulously.

"I took care of him during the war," Sakura dismissed, like it was nothing that she'd taken down three Akatsuki members. "He did it, Sasuke-kun, so that you would have a chance at life in Konoha again. Or maybe life somewhere else."

"I highly doubt he supported my defection."

"Well, that's because you were becoming Orochimaru's puppet."

"I killed Orochimaru."

"And he helped you seal away the piece of the snake that was in your mind," Sakura agreed. "So I think he knew when you cut your strings. I think he'd be glad that you're out of Madara's control."

All to save his life. Sasuke had thought deeply, what others would call obsessively, on the bonds of loyalty between people who loved one another. Had Itachi lost in the end, because his sense of love and duty betrayed him into setting himself such difficult goals? Or had Itachi won because he achieved what he set out to do, despite dying to do it? He knew what Naruto and Sakura would say. And hadn't he, Sasuke, thought that there were things worth dying for?

Sasuke agreed with a slight nod: he still wasn't quite ready to verbalise his thoughts. They stopped in front of a meander in the river, and switched directions to crest a hill. It was a fine night, with a warm breeze that made willow trees whisper their secrets, and the lanterns dance and flare over the Nanako River. An expectant hush was falling among the crowd of watchers. Sasuke turned to Sakura, puzzled. She just smiled, and nodded upwards.

Somewhere above the main town area, fireworks shot into the atmosphere, tracing a path that left lines in his eyes. They exploded in bright pinwheels, casting purple and gold light across the face of watchers.

Sakura's skin was painted deep blue one instant, violet the next, gold, blue, red, green. She'd let the hand carrying her chestnuts drop to the side, and her eyes were wide with delight at the little bit of sparkle. She'd been delighted, Sasuke thought, with many little things; he was glad he'd figured it out, because he wasn't about to ask. Sakura's gaze swivelled to meet his, and Sasuke wondered fleetingly if Sakura hadn't meant to let him know.

A handful of green and red stars burst overhead. Sakura didn't look away, and in their light, Sasuke could make out each individual eyelash.

"Sakura," he said quietly, a hand on her shoulder. She glanced at it, and then back to his face. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

It was Sakura who'd leaned in first, a guiding hand by his jaw. Sasuke hadn't thought about others in that way for a long time, if ever; it was only in the quiet of the past year that he stopped long enough for hormones to catch up with him. The touch of her lips was... odd, but nice. Her lips tasted slightly of butter and chestnut, and they shifted beneath his to a different angle, the side of her nose brushing his. He panicked momentarily, certain there was more he was supposed to be doing instead of light brushes but otherwise holding still, but what? In the end, he compensated for it by pulling her closer with a hand on the small of her back. Her hand left his jaw, and glided lightly to the nape of his neck, and Sasuke couldn't help but feel like this had happened before.

It didn't seem very long before she drew back and their slightly awkward kiss changed into a slightly awkward embrace, but then, Sasuke didn't know what constituted a long time, and most of his embraces for the past few years had been part of a fight. Maybe THAT was why Sakura's hug felt familiar. She was smiling, though, and Sasuke felt the corners of his mouth turning up in response, so he ignored the puzzle.

Above their heads, the fireworks faded away, leaving behind an inky black sky and the odd familiarity of the hug.

- : -

The Sakura way

When he opened his eyes again, the forest around him was burning.

Or maybe it was just his eyes, because no smoke accompanied the red tinting the edges of his vision. In fact, Sasuke had never before seen so clearly.

(Had never shattered someone's bones like they were twigs, so easily. Had never found it so enticing to keep going, until the genin who'd hurt Sakura was nothing but a spatter on the ground - blood so dark it looked almost black. Had never prepared to deliver the last blow with that surge of power singing in his veins...)

"SASUKE! Stop!"

Shock stilled him. There were soft arms around him in an awkward restraint, soft arms that he half-wanted to break, because that was the right, POWERFUL thing to-

"Please, stop!"

That voice. Small, quiet, sobbing.

Wrapped in her awkward hug, Sasuke stopped.

The inky splashes across his skin were withdrawing. The darkness was receding.

- : -

Well?