She felt thick-headed and slow, but Tsunade's shout set off alarm bells in her brain, shifting the fuzziness aside, compelling her to respond. Sakura tried to stand, but couldn't. The muscles in her neck tightened in expectation of her mentor's wrath.

"What is the prime directive for a combat medical ninja? Do you know? I don't think you do. Look at you," Tsunade mocked.

Sakura strained against her paralysis. She wanted to scream out the right answer—the prime directive for a combat med-nin is defense first. Stay alive to keep your team alive.

"How can you fight like that? How can you heal like that? Sakura!" Tsunade grabbed her chin and looked hard into her eyes. "How can you help your teammate like that? Get up! Get up now!"

With a desperate effort, Sakura rolled to the side and swung up into a ready stance as a kunai thunked into the ground where she'd just been laying. The world flooded back with the acrid smell of smoke, the clang of blades, and red eyes.

"Genjutsu," she murmured, glad the memory of Tsunade stirred her to break its hold. She scanned what had been the festival grounds and what was now, clearly, a battlefield with the Uchiha brothers at the heart of it. Blood dappled the back of Sasuke's shirt and streamed from a newly-opened gash on his thigh. As he struggled to his feet, Sakura saw Itachi flip through hand signs—Sasuke wouldn't be able to defend himself.

With a swiftness born of panic, Sakura yanked a long, ivory hairpin from her head and, with a pinpoint of chakra, flung it at Itachi's wrist. Her stomach sank when his Sharingan detected it and he jumped away. At least you stopped his jutsu, she thought, glancing back at Sasuke.

In that unguarded moment, Itachi flickered in front of her. Faster than his brother, Sasuke materialized behind Itachi with a handful of crackling lightning.

What a powerful Shunshin. Sasuke was ready for this—he was strong enough. Her heart swelled as she broke from Itachi's hold, but not fast enough to avoid the edge of Sasuke's Chidori. One of her kimono's long sleeves withered and blackened. She shrugged off the restrictive dress as she ran to safety, touching her head when she smelled burned hair. No injuries. Stay alert. She looked at Sasuke. Your teammate needs you. This is what you trained for.

The uchiwa on his shirt fluttering like a flag from the speed of his body flicker, Sasuke appeared in front of her, breathing hard.

Head wound…minor. Leg wound needs immediate attention. Sakura's hands were on him, already repairing the damage, before she finished her thought. Pinning his katana between his arm and his body, Sasuke's hands flipped through an inordinate amount of signs. With her chakra still winding through his body, Sakura felt the energy build up in his system—this jutsu would be immense.

He'll be spent after this, she thought, panic rising. What if this doesn't finish Itachi?

When Sasuke brought a fist to his lips and blew, she shielded herself from the glare and heat with one hand while supporting him with a steady flow of her own chakra through the other hand. Not having mastered the fire element, she'd never before felt the power of performing a Katon—especially one of this level. Her breath caught as she felt her chakra convert to flame.

Sakura moved closer, pressing herself against Sasuke's back in fear and awe as the flames towered above them, swirling and twisting into an enormous dragon. It flew on blazing wings above the clouds, sucking all of the air up with it, turning the sky a dark, ominous gray. Then, with an ear-splitting bellow, the fire dragon dived, its jaws spread wide as it swallowed Itachi whole.

Sasuke's hand dropped from his mouth and he leaned on his knees, panting. In that moment, Sakura saw it—a colossal being of chakra enveloping Itachi. It shuddered as Sasuke's dragon crashed into its shield and fizzled out. The next moment, Itachi was hacking into his hand as the protective energy around him dissipated.

"Sasuke-kun? Did you see—"

He glanced over his shoulder at her, her heart skipping. "The daimyo's tent is on fire."

For a moment, she wanted to protest. She was here to protect and support her teammate…but she was also here in service to the daimyo. Indecision rooted her to the spot. When Sasuke wrapped his katana with lightning, she knew he'd be fine. Impulsively, she flung her arms around his chest.

"Sakura," he said quietly. "Go."

With a squeeze and a final gift of her chakra, Sakura scurried under the flap.

"Nakamura-sama, you need to get out of here right now." She pushed him toward the exit as she gestured to the captain of the guards.

"S-Sachi-chan?" he stuttered, clearly dismayed by her dropped disguise—her makeup was smeared, her undersilks were charred, ripped, and dirty, and her expensive kimono lay forgotten in a burned heap outside.

She conveyed the peril the lord and his guests were in to the samurai captain, who began shouting orders and organizing their escape. "Please, Nakamura-sama. Come with me."

Surrounded by a phalanx of guards, the confused civilians were shuffled out of the tent and into waiting wagons to be raced back to the safety of the castle. As the first wagon was about to pull away, Itachi skidded into the clearing, hands weaving seals.

The air was filled with a cacophony of screams as Itachi's Phoenix Flowers danced around the lords and ladies—the fireballs exploded when they hit the ground, bursting and spreading when they hit the tents. Sakura slammed her fist into the ground, raising a stone wall to shield the terrified crowd behind her. It shuddered with each thundering blast.

"Get to the wagon!" she yelled, knowing her identity as the demure princess of Hot Springs had just been shattered in front of the daimyo's entire entourage. The stone wall teetered, so she channeled chakra to her arms to hold it in place. "Move it!" she growled at the frightened, straggling civilians.

Sweat dripped down her forehead, burning her eyes as she thought of Sasuke. What was happening on the other side of this wall? Finally, as the last wagon clattered out of the festival grounds, she allowed the stones to crumble.

Choking on the rising dust, she was blinded as a ray of bright blue light cut through the haze. When her vision cleared, Sakura's heart leaped. Sasuke had pinned Itachi to the ground with a flickering Chidori Blade.

That's a vital point. He won't survive that. She wanted to whoop and holler for Sasuke's success—his all-consuming goal was completed—but she could barely move. Sakura managed a smile as she leaned against the remnants of her rock wall, legs shaking with exhaustion. She watched the dying Itachi beckon his brother closer to hear his final words. Sasuke leaned in, still looking grimly determined, as if his goal was not yet done.

With a shock that rocketed Sakura to her feet, Itachi grinned and vanished, leaving nothing behind but echoing caws and black feathers.

A clone. All this time, Itachi was just a clone.

Sasuke had yet to move. He leaned heavily against his sword, exhausted and breathless, staring at the patch of ground where his brother had been. Sakura's hand reached toward him.


Before she could finish, the samurai captain touched her shoulder and she turned.

"The daimyo would like to speak to you."

She nodded and, in that instant, Sasuke disappeared. Branches quivered on the edge of the forest. She knew he wouldn't be back.

Still in her tattered silks, Sakura stood, weary and numb, in the center of the daimyo's private office. He leaned against his desk for support.

"H-Haruno-san, who were those men?"

She looked at the trembling man—he seemed less like a lord now, weak and unsure. "One was a member of the Akatsuki, my lord."

"Akatsuki!" He blanched. "Why?" He sounded terrified, incredulous that his tiny nation would become the target of such a formidable group.

Fatigue seeped into every corner of her body. "He wanted Sachi."

He stared at his hands, the information sinking in. "You protected me. You protected all of us from an Akatsuki." He looked up at Sakura, his face and voice grave and heavy with emotion. "The Leaf is an ally of enormous value if all of its shinobi are as skilled as you, Haruno-san. The Land of Hot Springs owes you debt of gratitude."

The words seemed to give him strength and he called to his aide. "Assemble my guests for dinner. I will close the festival and celebrate our good fortune. We are all still alive."

Sakura's pack slid down her shoulder, hitting the floor with a gentle thud.

Home. Finally.

She was tired deep down in her bones. The journey back from Hot Springs was uneventful, but somehow it felt much longer than the trip there. Shedding her clothes in a trail to the bathroom, Sakura stood motionless in the stream of hot water.

I wonder if he's okay. Stupid. How could he possibly be okay after that battle? To have it end like that... She swiped a hand across her face, hoping Sasuke wasn't being too hard on himself—he'd put up an amazing fight. Does he know that I think about him? She sank to the floor of the shower, hugging her knees until the water went cold.

Burrowing into her bed, familiarity holding her in its cocoon, Sakura wondered where Sasuke was sleeping tonight. She suppressed the urge to check the end of her bed. He's back in Oto. You won't find him sprawled out on a futon on your floor. She sighed, sadness pulling her down into a depressive mire. Does he know how much I miss him?

Sakura shifted and found herself face-to-face with her team photo. Naruto, I'm sorry I couldn't bring him home. Her nose burned with oncoming tears. As she dabbed at her eyes with the edge of the blanket, young Sasuke grimaced back at her. Does he know how much I still love him? A sob pushed up her throat and she shook her head, determined not to cry.

Flinging aside her covers, she stood, scanning the room for something to do, something to occupy her until morning when she'd have to tell Tsunade everything. Sakura dumped the contents of her pack on the floor, sorting through clothes, weapons, scrolls, and gifts from the daimyo.

As she arranged piles, sniffing and wiping her nose with the back of her hand, she spied something odd—a piece of cloth, soft and black. That's not mine. Even as she reached out for it, a spark of recognition flickered. She lifted it, holding it open with two hands. It's…Sasuke's. Sakura clutched it to her heart. It's Sasuke-kun's samurai mask. Giggling, she buried her face in it, his distinctive scent still lingering in the folds.

When she closed her eyes, she was dancing on the balcony in his arms, her cheek pressed against his. She was squeezing in beside him at the puppet show, feeling him startle when the gods clashed, but not letting on. She was dipping her head as he tied a square of silk over her hair, his fingers smoothing wayward strands. She was winding her chakra around his, feeling his fear and determination as fire erupted from his mouth.

Contentment spread through Sakura as she ran her fingers across the scrap of fabric. She smiled, remembering her samurai guard's knuckles caressing her cheek. He knows.

Snuggling back in her bed, sleep pulled her eyes closed. Still clutching the mask in her hand, she thought of that night in the teahouse when she asked Seiya what he'd do once he avenged his family.

And Sasuke answered.

"I'll go home."

And so ends my second chaptered fic. I really hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed exploring the emotions of Sasuke and Sakura on the cusp of Shippuden. I want to thank everyone who took the time to write to me. I can't tell you how much I grin and giggle, reading your comments...the looks I get. Anyway, now that it's all done, tell me what you liked, so I can do more of those things...favorite moment, favorite line, whatever. I just want to hear what's in your head.

None of this fun would've ever come to be if not for the guidance of Unicorn Paige. She deserves a medal made out of cake (and some earplugs) for listening to me constantly whine. The unicorn herd is busy constructing the Unicorn Paige Honorary Modestly Naked Sasuke Sacrificial Room (or the UPMNSSR as we've come to know it as) and I have been chiseling away at your fifty-foot head that I've carved into the side of Bacon Mountain. I hope these small tokens appease the mighty overlord because I can't thank you enough for all your help, encouragement, cheerleading, and smacks with the fish.

Please let me know what you think of Daimyo's Daughter. You know I love to hear from you. Thanks for reading, everyone!