Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or its characters.
Author's Note: I wrote this a while back and figured I'd post it now that I've retired from writing fan fiction.
From the memoirs of Haruno Sakura
We never think that our children will make the same mistakes that we did. We believe we can teach them better, show them our lives as warnings. Then we wait, and we hope and we pray, oh how we pray! That they don't make the same mistakes we did. Sometimes we get lucky. Sometimes we get to watch them stand up to the trials and life and we get to be proud of them. Other times they disappoint us.
I used to think my daughter was going to be one of the ones who were going to outshine me. I had had such high hopes for her. For the longest time, through her schooling and Academy years, she seemed to be destined for great things. She looked so much like me and sounded like me, it was easy to forget that I wasn't watching myself grow up all over again. It was easy to forget that part of her that wasn't mine, that wasn't even from her father, my late husband. It was that part of her I, almost tragically, oversaw until it was too late.
She was such a sweet child, but again aren't they all like that? Young, innocent, full of smiles and laughter, as if the whole world existed to make life one big party. Then the realities of life the ninja consume them. They become different people then. Strangers.
If I had known what the realities of the kunoichi lifestyle were going to do to my daughter, I would have encouraged her to take a closer look around the world for something else to do with her life.
It wasn't as if she was a horrible ninja. Contrarily, my child was one of the rising stars of the Academy of her year. She held her own with the boys and she was close to her teammates, the pride of her sensei, the pride of Konoha. She flew through those Chuunin Exams on her first attempt. I was so proud, I cried. I don't think I ever cried as many tears of happiness in my whole life as I did watching her put on that Chuunin vest.
Then, when she was fourteen, she met a sixteen-year-old shinobi at the Jounin Exams. I could tell from the first day she came home that my little girl had fallen in love with him. I remember the conversation so well…
"Oh Mom, you should have seen him! He defeated his opponent in twenty seconds. I've never seen anything like him in my whole life!"
"You've plenty of time to see more, sweetheart," I teased her, smiling at the rosy glow in her cheeks. "Have you been able to talk to him?"
She blushed crimson and shook her head. "No, oh no. I'm way out of his league. I don't think he'd notice someone like me."
But he did. If I could have wished for one thing in my whole life was that he had not noticed my little girl's adoring gaze. For the longest time, I didn't know if that boy had truly loved her and was so misguided about it he simply didn't have the common sense to take the consequences into account, or he was only using her for his own ends. So many of my friends and acquaintances have had their own opinions about what that boy really was, it was hard for me to know what to think.
The only thing I remembered was how much my daughter had loved him. The most painful part of it was, when things finally became so bad I had to tell her to stay away from him, and she screamed I didn't understand it was the worst blow to our relationship there ever was. The worst blow because I understood exactly how badly she was hurting. I had been in her place once before in my life. I wanted to share with her my own secrets, to show her my own scars… But she had long ceased to listen to me by then. By that time it was too late and there was nothing that I could have been said that would have changed anything.
Official documents declared that the boy was a traitor and a murderer. A year after he'd made Jounin, he joined a powerful anarchist cell somewhere in Fire Country. To earn his superiors' trust, he'd killed whom he was told to kill, and he stole what he was told to steal. After his family publicly disowned him, he was driven to become a fugitive from Konoha, and his face was added to the bingo book's top targets. He was incredibly dangerous, on the level of S-class, even at such a young age. Not even Naruto, who was Hokage at the time, wanted anyone going after him. He was strictly a 'kill on sight' target for the more powerful Konoha shinobi. All Genin and Chuunin in Fire Country were under strict, expressed orders to retreat if they encountered him.
At first, I thought he had broken off all ties with my daughter. For a long time, regretfully, I suspected nothing was off about my daughter's habits. Most days I came home from the hospital, she wasn't home. She'd leave notes saying she was on a mission, sparring with her team, training with her sensei, so of course I had no clue anything was wrong. She seemed happy enough when we spent time with each other, having dinner, sparring together. Nothing abnormal. She assured me when he had defected that it was over with him; he was no more to her now but a target and a traitor.
"Trust me, Mom, there's no love lost between us. He's an ass and I don't ever want to see him again."
She had lied through her teeth at me. I should have seen it, should have known better, but I didn't. I trusted my girl and I loved her, of course I believed her. I knew that I had no right to feel guilty about regretting trusting her, because I shouldn't have had any reason to not to. We were family. I was supposed to trust her.
When she committed treason for him, she shocked the whole village. I was part of the team sent to hunt them down, partly because of the widely held belief he had manipulated her into betraying the village. Naruto was sure enough of it to send me to talk some sense into her, not that that would have stopped me from going anyway even if he hadn't sent me.
I wish I could erase what I saw that night from my memory.
I was hiding in a tree, my chakra carefully suppressed, when I spotted them crossing across a field. They were holding hands, him in the lead, her behind him. Suddenly, they stopped.
"What's wrong?" my daughter asked, sounding terrified.
"We're being pursued. Your people," he added in an afterthought. He turned to her, his dark eyes cold, unreadable. "You can't be seen with me. You need to leave."
"But what about this?" My daughter held out the scroll she had stolen. The precious burden contained village secrets that no enemy had the right to possess. I remembered how it took all of my self-control to remain concealed when I saw it. That fool girl!
He reached out to take it, hesitated, closed his fist, and then pushed it back at her. "I should not have brought you into this," he muttered, scanning the darkness with his eyes. Finally, he returned his gaze to her. "I need you to do something for me. One last thing."
"Anything." I winced at the desperate need in her voice, the longing on every syllable she spoke.
"Take this scroll back to your people, tell them I threatened to kill you if you didn't steal it. They'll believe that."
She shook her head. "No they won't! And I won't lie! I'm in this as deeply as you are, and I don't care!"
He stared at her, silently.
"I love you! I tell you that all the time and I do enough to show you I do. Look, I don't care about everyone else, okay? I want to be with you. Please. If I leave now, I'll never see you again."
"You'll become a fugitive."
"I already am! Take me with you."
"What about your mother?"
"Mine didn't, and I had thought she would. What makes you think yours is going to be any different?" I shivered then, realizing something about the young man, something about him that told me my daughter had inherited something from me… and it was making me remember things about my own youth, seeing it with new eyes.
"She is!" she insisted passionately. "She will, believe me, she'll understand." She took his hand, interlocked her fingers with his, holding it up between them. "Take me with you," she repeated fervently. "I know you don't want to leave me. You told me you couldn't stand having left me, that that's why you came back into the village when you knew it wasn't safe or smart. You don't have to leave me! You can have me. You can always have me. Everyone turned against you but I never did. I never will. You know that."
She closed her mouth, tears streaking her face, green eyes wide and shining.
I shivered again.
"Your loyalty to me is undeserved and unearned," he spoke lowly, almost humbly. He kissed her, and for a few precious seconds, they remained in that intimate embrace. I should have accosted them then but I didn't. I couldn't.
When they parted, he spoke. "I'm going to ask you one more time."
"My answer is the same."
He sighed, and then held her one last time in a fierce embrace. "You are the only one. There will be no other."
Then, bless that bastard, he knocked my baby out and left her there. When I appeared to retrieve her, we held gazes him and I. He lowered his from mine and bowed his head, in apology to me, before fleeing into the darkness.
It was the last time I saw him alive.
He was killed by a member of the Akatsuki six years later. His remains were found by an ally of Konoha's and respectfully returned to our village. A book found on him contained letters he had written over the years to my daughter that he never sent. I wanted to give them to her but by that time she had retired from the shinobi life due to a back injury and was enthusiastically pursuing a teaching career at the Academy. She had so successfully moved on, I didn't want to burden her with these new memories. The chapter containing that tragic part of my daughter's past was finally over. And I intended to keep it that way.
There was another reason why I never showed her those letters. It was not my right, but I had to know… I had to know what made someone like him do the things he did. Maybe in his words, he could tell me why such horrible, singular ambitions made men like him desert the people who loved them. So I read them. Every single one.
I had only read three of them and I began to cry. To learn he had still loved her with all of the passion he could have had in his life for one woman, I admit I secretly envied my daughter. He had been a murderer, a traitor, a man wanted by every village for his crimes, loved by no one, and there was no one he loved. Except my daughter.
You made me wish I were something greater than I was, he wrote, you made me see all the things I could have been. A better man would have given up this life for you. A better man wouldn't have done to his family what I did to them. I don't know how things got out of control the way they did. If I had known then what I know now, I would have told that bastard that convinced me to join that anarchist cell to go fuck himself, gone home and married you instead. God, I wish I had done that…
But there was one letter in which I discovered something I should never have expected. Something that I thought I would not have gotten in all of the years that had passed, how far into the past those memories of mine had been. I couldn't keep it to myself, this one letter, and with the book in my hand, I ran to the Hokage office.
"Naruto!" I told him when I opened the door. "There's something you need to see." My hands were shaking I was trembling so badly.
Naruto looked up from his desk. He saw the book in my hand and frowned. "What is it?"
I shoved the book in his hand. "Just read it." I was almost in tears. "It's the book of letters that kid wrote to my daughter. Read the second to last entry. Mid paragraph."
Slowly, he took the book from me, frowning strangely at me.
"I fought a man today who claimed to be Uchiha Sasuke. Remember when we used to flip through the bingo book and you got mad at me for making fun of that one nin you said you thought was cute? He definitely looked like the guy, give or take fifteen years. Used some of the most advanced genjutsu techniques I had ever seen. He managed to rip through my memories and replayed the worst parts of them as if they were happening all over again! The bastard nearly killed me! I only barely managed to get away. He tracked me for a day before I doubled back and caught up with him. I had no idea what he wanted with me so I confronted him. He said it was because he'd seen someone he'd known in my memories. Apparently he had known your mother when he was a kid. When I couldn't answer him, he got real quiet. For some strange reason, he thanked me. I asked him, for what, but he never answered me. Then he left."
Naruto closed the book and put it down. He said nothing for a long time.
"That entry was dated three days before he died," I pointed out. I moved over to the map on the wall behind his desk. "Which means he encountered Sasuke between here," I jabbed my finger on the map, "and here."
Naruto nodded over the top of his folded hands. There was fresh pain in his eyes. "Let it go," he finally said, quietly.
My hand fell. I blinked. "What?"
"I said, let it go." He turned and looked at me, still looking sad, and older than I'd ever seen him. He stared at me for a long time. "If Sasuke wanted anything to do with us, we'd have known a long time ago. This letter," he gestured to the book lying between his hands, "means nothing."
I knew he was right. I left his office that day feeling foolish. Naruto had moved on with his life years ago, and for so many of them, I had as well. We'd grown up, gotten married, and had children. Naruto was still with his sweet wife and had had two wonderful sons, both of them as loud, idiotic and powerful as he was. He had allowed the pain to ease into a dull ache he could live with and still find room for happiness. There were some days I envied him, because for all that, my own fulfillment faded in comparison.
My job at the hospital didn't leave me much in the way of a social life so there had been little opportunity for dating. At eighteen, I met a young man, a rookie med nin with a smart mouth, a sexy smirk and a wink that could melt my bones when I looked at him. I admit, he had done all the pursuing, and I was so astonished, at first I rebuffed his advances thinking he wasn't being serious. But he worked me over diligently to the point where I just up and finally gave in. He was a wonderful catch, everyone said so, and I agreed with them. We married two years after we first met. I gave birth to our daughter five months after the wedding.
But as it usually goes in the way things go for the former Team Kakashi, it wasn't to last very long.
My husband was killed on a mission less than a month after our child was born. Needless to say, our poor daughter never got to know him. It was years later she revealed to me that her sensei had been like a father to her, which made me happy to hear. At least she had had someone to be what I couldn't.
But there was no one to be what I had lost. I was ashamed to learn that day, that one day I read that damn letter that there were some things that never got easier with time.
Though I had given up loving Uchiha Sasuke a decade ago, the very sight of his name in the clumsy handwriting of that young man had given me chills. And hope. Hope I didn't need because it was impossible. Impossible. So I buried that moment, that day, and the words of that letter in the back of my mind. I took the book, put it in a trunk in my attic, and resolved to forget it again. My daughter would find and read the book long after I was dead, hate me for a little while, forgive me to my grave, and then move on with her life again. It was the way I wanted it.
For a while, I was able to put it behind me. After all, I had had years of practice of putting painful memories behind me. They always surfaced in my dreams at night, plagued my nightmares and stung me, but they were only phantoms. They couldn't hurt me the way they used to anymore.
Then, in the funny way of life, it chose to turn my own back on its head again.
In addition to my duties at the hospital, I was also a part time ANBU hunter nin. I was wearing my ANBU fatigues that one fine day when life decided to change irreparably for me. I was coming back from a solo mission. I was in my early forties then, and nearly walking on water. The mission had been a lark and the day was beautiful. I'd stopped by a stream to splash water on my face and clean my gear. I was so distracted by my chore I completely failed to sense the presence of the nin camping by the water a few feet downstream.
"Wow, check this out. Looks like we've got company."
I looked up, startled. A man about my age with gray hair, fierce eyes, sharp teeth and a large broadsword, was watching me.
"Hey!" the gray haired man called over into his shoulder into the woods. "You've got to see the hot number that just showed up. Maybe you know her, she's from your village."
It was nice to know my trim figure was still good enough to attract male attention. But right now I had no time to deal with that. I narrowed my eyes and stood up, my hand closing around my sword behind my back. This looked like trouble, and the prospect of two against one wasn't a desirable one.
"What is it, Suigetsu?" When he stepped out from the trees and we saw each other and I saw the Uchiha fan on his person, my whole world exploded inside of my head. I knew him. He was older, harder, colder, but none of that prevented us from staring at each other in shock. I knew then from the look on his face that he knew me too.
The man with the sharp teeth took note of our combined stunned silence and grinned.
Sasuke cast his gaze to the other man. "Leave us."
He did, surprisingly. Suigetsu grinned again and went off into the woods.
When they were gone, to my surprise, Sasuke made his way over to my side of the shore. I quickly drew my sword and placed it between us.
"Stay where you are." My expression was a careful blank slate. "By order of the Hokage of Konoha, you are a wanted S-class criminal. I am obligated by my loyalty to my village to bring you in or kill you if you resist." I was so proud that my voice stayed as toneless and steady as I did because my heart was pounding so furiously I heard it in my ears.
Sasuke smirked. The way he expressed himself certainly hadn't changed, that was for damn sure. "You've grown out your hair again. It looks nice, but to tell you the truth, you've always looked better with short hair."
I glared at him piqued he would ignore what I said so casually. "You waited that long to finally tell me?" I lowered the sword, since he didn't seem intent on fighting me, and I wasn't up to it anyway. "Almost two decades no one can find you and here I am practically tripping over you on my way home. If I had known we'd find you by not actually looking for you, I would have tried it a long time ago."
Sasuke just smiled, resting one hand on his hip. I could never remember having seen him smile in my life and the affect was almost breathtaking. I took this opportunity to take in the details of his features. It had been a long time since anyone had updated his photo in the bingo book. I wanted to make sure I gave them a good description.
Like what all the years do to us, he had aged. His once beautiful, black-blue hair had gray in it, and grown down to his shoulders. His face had hard lines, with a scar on his lower right cheek. His eyes were as narrow and distrusting as they'd always been. His right eye was cloudy and unfocused; my medic's mind told me it was mostly likely blind. In his youth, he'd been driven, cold, his entire being taut with barely restrained anger. Here he seemed relaxed, tired, almost sad, but uncaring of his own woes at the same time. Sasuke had grown out of his hate, I realized. He had grown out of a lot of things. And gone on.
So I was surprised he seemed almost… glad to see me. Tentatively, I found myself nearly returning his smile. I couldn't. I didn't feel, after what he had done to us, that he deserved a smile from me. But that wound was old, long scarred over, dealt with and put aside. I had no more anger, no more tears, and no more resentment for the man standing in front of me now. I felt… nothing.
Instead I felt an old affection rise up in me. It was so strange. One moment I was ready to battle him to the death, the next I just desperately wanted to grab what I could of this encounter, make it good, heal those damned scars once and for all and finally, finally move the hell on with that part of my life. I needed closure and I needed it while Sasuke was standing in front of me. Wanted it.
So I took him in my arms, held him tightly, and I hugged that sorry son of a bitch.
And he hugged me back.
I nearly cried. That he was still able to weaken my defenses so quickly was astonishing. That this man still had managed, after so long, to keep a tiny portion of my heart alive - I just had no words to express it.
We wound up talking that day. Sat on the bank of that small river and we talked about everything. I told him everything… and when I say I told him everything, I mean exactly that. The short versions, the long versions, and even the secrets of my heart that I didn't dare ever tell another single soul. I did that day exactly what I had wanted to have done all of our lives. All the things I would have told him had he stayed in Konoha had he accepted what I had offered him that night. I even told him about the book of letters and the unfortunate young man who had written them.
And Sasuke listened. He watched me the whole time and he just listened. He asked questions here and there but for the most part he just listened to me. Maybe he did it because he felt he owed me, maybe he was just indulging me because it was one of his infamous whims. Or maybe… maybe he did it because he wanted the same thing I wanted: Closure. Reconciliation. A second chance.
When I was all talked out, as I was wiping the tears from my face, he returned the favor. At first I was astonished, completely taken aback. Quickly I smothered it, just to listen to him speak, to take what I could of what he was choosing to give me.
I won't speak a word of the things he told me on that riverside that day. They were for me only, only me and no one else, and he expressed a desire for me never to repeat a word, as a courtesy. He told me things he said he had not been able to tell anyone else for years.
"Why are you telling me?" I implored, frowning.
He gazed across the river, into the woods. "I don't make a habit of it to harbor any regrets, Sakura," he said then, quietly. "I feel… I owe you. You gave me something at a time when I had needed it most, which made living those tormenting days until the night I left easier to bear. I was much too much of a stupid kid then to appreciate what you had offered me. I've been stupid for years. But," he smirked, "I'm sure I don't need to tell you that."
I smiled. No, he didn't.
"Sakura." He turned and looked at me. "I…" He stopped, checked himself and then spoke again. "The reason you ran into me today was no accident. I knew you were coming home through this way so I chose to wait for you here."
I did not react. Somehow, for some reason, that did not entirely shock me.
"I need to come home."
I need to come home. Not, I want to come home, but I need to come home. "Why?"
He looked away from me then. "I'm… I've been… ill. That's why I asked Suigetsu to come with me. Just far enough to get me here."
Ah. So when he sent him away, he sent him away for good. Suigetsu was not coming back.
"Do you know what's wrong? Or is that why you've…" I didn't need to finish that sentence and he didn't need to answer. "You knew I would help you, didn't you."
"No. I am… surprised you…" Sasuke looked young then, and guilty, and at the same time just so old. His expression looked shuttered, pained. He looked as if he had heard the undeniable truth of what he had always suspected about me and was damning himself fiercely for it. For abandoning it, for letting it go out of his grasp, for all of the years he could have had.
"Sasuke," I said softly, interrupting him. "You can come home. I'll find out what's wrong. You can stay with my daughter and I; it'll be fine."
"Naruto…?" Just saying his name made Sasuke appear fragile.
"I don't know." I sighed. "I want to tell he'd be happy to see you but I don't know anymore. He may not feel as he used to about you. In fact, I know he doesn't. He's ordered enough manhunts to not care whether or not they bring you home alive. He's got the whole village to worry about and his own family."
"And you?" Sasuke gazed at me steadily. "Why is it different with you?"
I smiled at him then, kindly, simply. "I'm a doctor, Sasuke-kun. I won't tell a sick man no. I never have… and I never will."
I kept my promise. We took an alternate route to Konoha to get home faster and entered the village through a hidden entrance to avoid public scrutiny. Regretfully, I had to put restraints on him, which he accepted without complaint. It was the only way that Naruto's ANBU guards would allow me to escort him up to his office.
Naruto's reaction to seeing Sasuke was understated. He murmured to his assistant to cancel all of his appointments for the day and ordered everyone but myself and Sasuke out his office. I stayed in the background without a word. The strife between the two had always remained between them and only the both of them could deal with it. I'd always been peripheral to their personal problems with each other.
Naruto didn't speak for a very long time, just kind of moving things around on top of his desk before folding his hands in front of him. "You look terrible," he began finally, simply, unsympathetically. "You haven't been taking care of yourself have you?"
"No." Sasuke kept his eyes lowered. "That's… why I'm here."
"Really? Not to destroy the inner working power of our village's government? Not to rekindle your revenge?" Naruto's eyes were like ice. "Everyone who was directly responsible for that has been dead for a long time now."
"Yes. I know."
"Do you still hate the village?"
"It doesn't matter whether or not I hate it. I can't be loyal to it and I don't care about it either."
At least he was honest. I could tell from the expression on Naruto's face, while it wasn't the answer he liked, he appreciated that it was honest. But Sasuke had always been brutally honest about what he thought, and that hadn't changed with the passage of time.
Naruto studied him carefully. "Yet you expect to walk into my office here to ask me, to ask me, to help you. After all the shit you put me through, put us all through. That's pretty goddamn selfish. Where do you get the nerve?" But he didn't sound angry, and he didn't even sound resentful. He was honestly asking Sasuke a question.
"If you won't help me," Sasuke spoke at length, quietly, "and you want me gone, I'll go. If you want me arrested and tried for my defection, I won't fight it. I'm tired, Naruto. I'm tired of pretending…" he faltered. "I'm… tired of the pain."
Naruto seemed moved but I couldn't blame him for still appearing skeptical. "Sasuke," he began at length, with almost amusement, a near smile twitching his lips. "I am not going to send you away and I'm not going to arrest you. The outside may have gotten older and, yes, you wore me down enough to admit when to go on with my life, but I never stopped thinking of you as my brother. Don't apologize for your life, because I won't forgive you if you do. You did what you did, that's the end of it." Naruto smiled at Sasuke's eyes closing against his words. "It's not easy, is it?" Sasuke opened his eyes again. "To be who you are, and what you've been, expecting retribution, and getting forgiveness instead."
"You forgive me?" Sasuke was having a hard time grasping this.
Naruto looked like he wanted to roll his eyes. "Idiot, I forgave you a long time ago. I had you removed from the bingo book three years ago when it became apparent, you'd decided just to wander around aimlessly. That got old, didn't it?" He didn't bother waiting for a reply. "Look, I'll make you a deal. You say you're sick, fine, Sakura is officially in charge of you. If I hear from her you're causing trouble, I will not hesitate to exile you from Konoha. There will be no going back from that, you understand?"
"All right. You're going to be watched by ANBU night and day so don't be surprised if you happen to spot one – though I doubt you will, since they are the best at what they do." Naruto chuckled.
"I understand." Sasuke moved to go. I came to life and moved to open the door.
"There's one more thing."
Sasuke looked back and waited. I did too.
Naruto's face gentled. "If you can, come by and see me. There's a lot we need to talk about, and I'm not about to let you get out of it. You owe me big time."
Sasuke gave an incline of his head to acknowledge he'd heard and walked out the office door. "Whatever you say… dobe."
Behind him, Naruto laughed, and even though I was the only one who saw it, Sasuke gave a little smile.
Sasuke looked so uncomfortable sitting on that examination table. He hadn't had a medical exam since he was a Genin, so the prospect of getting poked and prodded probably embarrassed the heck out of him. He was so used to not trusting anyone getting within inches of him, I had to stop doing something several times just because he'd lean away, or grab my wrist with his lightening fast reflexes. He'd apologize at the same time I would apologize, which made me laugh several times.
I finished my cursory examinations, the same standards I gave each patient for their standard check-ups, and then sat in a chair across from him.
"Everything seems fine," I reported from my findings on my clipboard. "Respiration and heart rate are normal. Hearing is good. Reflexes are good. Your weight is normal of a man your age and physical health. I'm not a professional optician but my professional opinion is you are legally blind in that eye of yours. I would need to perform a more intensive examination to see whether or not it's treatable." I glanced up. "Would you like to pursue a course of treatment?"
Sasuke shook his head. "That's… it's fine." He looked at me. "It took me five years to adjust to it. I don't need to see out of it."
I nodded and accepted this. The condition was all right if left alone and if he wanted to live that way, well, that was his choice. I had learned a long time ago as a med nin that if someone doesn't wanted to be cured of a minor deformity, I had no right to push it on them.
I waited for him to tell me. I had learned all I could learn from my physical examination.
"After I've been through a battle," he began slowly, "I've started… throwing up blood. It's been going on for two months now. It doesn't get any worse but it hasn't gotten any better." A shadow passed over his face. "I think it may be whatever it was that was killing my brother. It was what I think did him in when we fought."
I frowned, concerned. That didn't sound right… but throwing up blood for no apparent reason was never normal. I had a sneaking suspicion of what it was he was describing but I would need to perform some tests to confirm it. I stood up from my chair, letting the chakra swirl around my hand. "Hold still," I murmured, holding it over his stomach, passing it northward up to his throat area. I nodded to myself, made a note on my chart and then put the clipboard down on the counter, my back to Sasuke.
"What?" Sasuke pressed, narrowing his eyes at me. "You know what it is. I know it's bad and I've accepted that it's probably fatal."
"It is bad," I began, turning back to face him, trying to keep my face and tone neutral. "But it doesn't have to be fatal. I've seen this before. We don't know what it is or what causes it but it's been discovered that those who have quit the life of a shinobi have lived well into old age with this disease. Patients who have refused to retire from the shinobi life, their condition tends to worsen. They develop cardiac problems later and most die of heart attacks or massive blood loss within a few years of diagnosis." My mouth tightened to a thin, grim line. "It's… up to you."
Sasuke noticed the way I was glaring at him, daring him to challenge me. I was advising him to quit being what he'd been trained to be from birth. Most people I know never took well to being told what they felt they were born to do they had to stop being. To me surprise, he only nodded, his face its continual blank. "I understand."
I nipped the bottom corner of one lip. "Will you?"
Sasuke's eyes connected with mine. "Order it, and I'll do it."
I was perplexed. "Do what?"
"Tell me it's not possible, and I'll believe you. I need to know. I need a reason. Give me one, Sakura."
I stared at him. Then I knew what he was saying. He wanted someone to take over and give him limits. He wanted to hear it from someone he, I knew now, trusted. He was too proud to outwardly make the decision himself because it would be admitting he'd failed. Failed whatever it was he was living up to, trying to live up to.
Fighting a grin, I put one hand on my hip. "Uchiha Sasuke, as your physician, I order you for the sake of your health to retire from the life of a shinobi. You are not able to fulfill the requirements expected of a ninja. It's over." I paused, watching the as amusement and relief appeared in the eye that could still see. "How's that?"
He smirked before closing his eyes, his whole body visibly screaming with relief. His shoulder set sagged and he, very softly, began to laugh. He laughed so hard he put his face in his hands, leaned forward and just gave in completely to his mirth. I smiled and folded my arms over my chest, listening to the beautiful sound of Sasuke laughing.
I realized he needed someone to say it. Tell him he couldn't do it anymore. Tell him to stop. He wanted an out, wanted it desperately, but he wasn't strong enough to just stop of his own volition, so he made someone else do it for him. So he made me stop him. Asked me to stop him. And I did.
My daughter was quite surprised when I arrived home that evening with a new housemate. When I introduced him to her and told her who he was, she beamed, and enthusiastically shook his hand. "I've heard so much about you!" she gushed, her green eyes bright. "Wow, you're a lot cuter for an older man than I thought you'd be."
I flushed slightly and snapped my daughter's name in outrage.
She played innocent, that wily young thing. She may have grown up but she hadn't lost that spunkiness that either worked for or against her depending on the situation. "What? Truth is truth. Oh, I've got the itch to cook! Mom, take a load off, Uchiha-san…"
The girl didn't skip a beat. "Sasuke. Just explore the house to your heart's content. I'll call you both when the food's ready." She ran into the kitchen.
Sasuke glanced at me, appearing a bit overwhelmed, which I didn't blame him one little bit for. I chuckled, leading him to sit in the living room. "She's always had too much energy for her own good. Her former teammates always complained she used to run them right to death. Now that she's a teacher, she runs her students to death. At this rate, the Academy isn't going to have any new Genins graduating this year. They'll all be dead!"
Sasuke made his first remark since he entered our home. "I wonder where she gets that from."
I shrugged. "Not me. I put all that expectation on myself, not anyone else. Would you like some tea?"
When I returned with it, he was studying a picture. I recognized from the frame and from where it was missing which one he was holding. Nonchalantly I set the tea tray down on the coffee table and began arranging the items around. "That's my husband." I sat beside Sasuke and gave him his teacup. I took the photo from him and studied it with a little, nostalgic smile. "He used made me laugh," I murmured, unconsciously touching the face of the young groom standing beside his rain-soaked bride. "He was a bit of a fool but he was an amazing med nin. I don't think there had ever been anyone like him." I reached across and replaced it. "He died soon after our child was born," I added softly. "She never knew him."
Sasuke stared at me blankly, silently. Then, for a moment, he touched my arm, squeezed it gently, and let go. It was his way, as I came to learn, of offering comfort. I touched his hand in return.
My daughter appeared in the living room at that moment, poking just her head in. "Sorry to interrupt, but I need to ask you a question." She was speaking to Sasuke. "Would it be okay if I put tomato sauce on your spaghetti? It's all we have," she added with an apologetic wince. "Sorry."
Sasuke gave her a small smile. "I like tomatoes."
"Stellar." She beamed and her head disappeared into the kitchen again.
The simple joy of having Sasuke back in our lives wasn't without its inevitable hitches. No matter how many times I told him he was a part of the family, not a roommate paying rent, he insisted on it. It took me a while to finally get the point across that he was hurting my feelings by offering me money. But he found other ways to pay me back. He couldn't accept me playing breadwinner solo, so he joined the police force. They were delighted to have him. Sasuke was amazed the police station still bore the Uchiha fan on the outside. The chief in turn was surprised that Sasuke bothered to ask why it still did. "Your family founded it, didn't they?" he replied, eyebrows jumping up. "My dad knew your father, actually. I met him a few times when I was a kid myself. If you want to, you can talk to my father. Has he got stories to tell!"
Since I was out on far more missions than my daughter or Sasuke, I wasn't home most of the time, but I discovered another way Sasuke was earning his keep. The house was always clean and he had hot tea ready for me on the nights I came home late from the hospital. He rarely spoke to either my daughter or myself but it wasn't because he didn't have anything to say.
"I like listening to you talk," he admitted from where he was sitting on the porch. He'd gotten a haircut that day, which shaved off years from his appearance.
"Oh?" I teased, hanging up the laundry on the line. "I thought I was annoying you."
"You are." But his eyes had fixed on mine unwaveringly. I felt an uncharacteristic heat in my face and I quickly turned around to hide it.
My daughter and I were training together one day, as we usually did, when she made a remark that made me nearly made me slip off the branch I was on.
"I think he's in love with you."
I stabbed a kunai in the bark to keep from falling and arched an eyebrow at my wayward prodigy. "Who?"
She gave me an 'you oughta know' look. "Sasuke."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"Me? Come on, I know you carried a torch for him once. I read your old diaries."
"You what?" I almost sputtered but I didn't because adults don't sputter. "What gives you the right to go through my private things?"
"What gave you the right to go through mine?" she shot back.
"I'm your mother."
"Right." She waved that away. "Anyway, I've been watching you both. You guys may be old but all the classic signs are there. He watches you when you walk around the house. When you guys have any kind of social interaction with each other, I swear I could cut the tension with a kunai. I mean, do you think he fixes your tea every night just for kicks? I've even caught him cleaning your weapons for you the nights before your missions!"
I frowned. "I thought that it was you."
She nodded. "I usually clean your stuff but he's since taken over doing that, I haven't bothered. I'm actually glad he has, it gives me more time to grade homework." She made her way to land on the branch I was on and crouched beside me. "I've seen the way you look at him too," she continued, her voice lowered. "Even Naruto's noticed, and that guy doesn't notice much. Of course, it's because he's probably known it all along." My daughter was a cheeky young woman… I was so glad I loved her so much because it took the heart of a saint to deal with her sometimes.
"No, just observant." She flipped a lock of her pink hair over her shoulder, assured in her 'expert' opinion and 'superior' expertise. "Look, I'm not confronting you with this because I disapprove. Just the opposite, actually." Her expression softened and she touched my shoulder. "I really think you ought to give it another try."
I couldn't look at her. "It's been too long," I murmured. "We're so different now."
"You were so different before too. As I see it, nothing's changed, besides the number of gray hairs that have appeared. HEY! It was a joke!" I eased off, removing my kunai from her throat, though she was laughing. "Besides, didn't you once used to tell me love is love? I know you, Mom, once you love someone you always love them."
I gave her a warning glare. "Exactly how long have you been reading my diaries?"
"I only read it up to your teen years, I swear."
I flipped my kunai into a position for use. "For that, I'm kicking up this spar a notch. You have twenty seconds to get as far away from me as you can."
My daughter laughed but heeded my warning.
But what she said resonated inside of me for the rest of the day. I had always carried my memories and thoughts of Sasuke with affection, even in those moments in the past where we had stood before one another as enemies. I had almost hated him then – for breaking my heart, Naruto's heart, Kakashi's heart. I hurt for all the pain he'd had to endure, and resented him for the pain he felt he had to cause, for what he himself had been unable to reconcile with in his own heart.
When I brought him home with him, I had never thought to rekindle anything but friendship with him. I had always wanted that, even back when I had been an ignorant love struck child. Simply to be acknowledged as one of those he numbered among his precious people… to me that would have been enough. And now I had that, and I had him home. Naruto was happier than I'd seen him for years. Watching them spar recreationally and joke afterwards was beautiful, and sad, because I know if Kakashi had lived longer he would have loved to see us like this again.
"I always wanted to share this with him," Naruto told me, as he and I watched Sasuke have a conversation with Naruto's wife, who was giving him a verbal lesson on the finer points of her clan's techniques. Both of his adult sons were standing together at the edge of the training field, occasionally wrestling with each other when the older one sought to prove a point to the younger. "Anything I wanted to achieve, I wanted him to have too, and if he couldn't have it, I wanted to share it with him." He sighed and gave me a sad smile. "I wish I could make him see what he's meant to me."
"You have, Naruto," I reassured him. "I don't think he'll ever tell you in words but I think he knows."
"Yeah. I don't think I'll be able to know him completely, and I don't think I'm supposed to. We talk for hours and… he thinks so differently about things, Sakura, he sees the world in this darkness I don't see. But then…" Naruto's confusion faded to contentment. "Then he smiles and says 'If someone like you is still alive, you've got to be doing something right.'"
"Sasuke said that?"
"Eh, not in so many words. He called me living proof of the Butterfly Effect because, as he said, 'Somebody's got to be paying for your good luck somewhere. You do a good deed and something drops dead on the other side of the planet.'"
I don't think I laughed so hard in all of my life.
So to imagine anything beyond gaining importance in Sasuke's life, to me, was ridiculous. My daughter had to be wrong… even though, girlishly, childishly, I wanted her to be right. It was too late to start anything now, I argued with myself. I had finally gotten Sasuke's acknowledgement and friendship… he probably would meet any overture from me as a ridiculous throwback from the past he wanted to forget. So I put it from my mind, again, and continued with my work. This was how things were going to stay, and that's how I wanted it. Or so I thought.
I arrived home one night tired and content. The second I stepped across the threshold and closed the door, I felt all of the day's tension bleed from me. A bliss-filled smile curled across my face.
Home. I was home.
Barefoot, I padded through the house, intending to hit the hay and concern myself with the matters of bath and food for the next day. I realized the back door was opened and moved toward it to close it, when I saw through the sliver, that Sasuke was sitting out on the back porch. I stepped out quietly and observed his back for several minutes.
He spoke. "You're late."
I moved to sit beside him. "No more than I usually am."
Neither one of us said anything more after that. We watched the stars, silently appreciating the bright moon above. The flowers from the garden perfumed the air with its sweet, heavy scent. I inhaled slowly, loving the smell. It was heady and made me feel good and warm all over.
I felt something brush against my hand. I glanced down and saw that Sasuke's hand had brushed against mine as he shifted his position slightly. It had not been deliberate, and he didn't seem to notice. Boldly, I gently slid my hand over the top of his, letting my fingers caress his. When I finally curled my hand around his, I was a little surprised when he let his own fingers curl around mine.
Gradually we separated and went our own ways to bed. But that was not the last time we would find ourselves alone together… and it was not the last time our fingers would touch.
From that moment onward, Sasuke began to open up a bit more around me. He no longer needed me to solicit a touch between us, or at least, let me end our contact without letting his hand linger on my hand, my arm, or my shoulder. Some days, when the hospital would become too much, and I simply needed the warmth of his body to lean against, he let me.
Then, finally, one night he held me a little longer and wasn't so eager to let go. He touched my face and tilted my chin up to his. I stared up into his eyes, wondering why he wasn't just putting both of us out of our miseries already. And then he did.
He had a wonderful mouth. Where he had learned to kiss like that, I didn't care to know, and maybe I was glad I hadn't had to experience his amateur beginnings. I wouldn't have traded this for anything. After a minute, he became restless, his hands wandering, searching. He was doing a good job of waking up parts of me that had been too long neglected over the years. I was surprised how what I had thought was a doused fire within me was roaring back to life.
"Sakura," Sasuke spoke into my neck, "if you don't want this, I'll stop."
"Mmm." I loved the way his hands were moving under my shirt, massaging, inducing a drug-like sensation over my mind. Then suddenly he stopped. I opened my eyes and looked into his face, which was hovering close to mine. He looked withdrawn. "I've regretted not seeing you for what you are, for what you were. I've forfeited the right to touch you." He was ashamed of his feelings for me.
"Sasuke-kun, shut up." I told him gently, kissing his mouth between each sentence. I firmly pressed our hips together and wrapped my arms around his neck. "Make love to me," I murmured into his ear, mouthing it.
And he did. Oh how he did. We rediscovered and reawakened our physical longings with one another that night. It had been a long time for both of us, so we were somewhat restrained at first. Sasuke was an attentive lover, and generous as hell. Happily, I'm proud to say I was even a little sore afterward. There were just some things I didn't do every day – however thanks to my first night with Sasuke, I knew I would be doing this a lot more often.
"I think we should move our beds to the same room," he suggested after two weeks.
"So I can't hide from you? I don't think so."
"Why would you hide from me? How long has it been since you've screamed like that?"
"Oh god, you're disgusting." I put both hands over my ears, biting back bright peals of laughter. "I need to sleep sometime, and you wear me out."
"Don't pull that 'old lady' card, Sakura. You have the body and the energy of a woman ten years younger."
"Oh?" I raised my eyebrows. "How would you know?"
Sasuke's mouth became a grim line. I knew I wasn't going to get an answer. Not that I wanted one. Or cared. I knew then, as I know now, that I was going to be the last woman to occupy Sasuke's bed. He gave what was left of himself to me, the last thing he felt was of any use to both of us. I loved him with everything I had, with everything I promised, and he returned it by letting me. He never told me with words that he loved me but in his touches, in the way he regarded me, and in his presence, I knew that he did.
"I should have given you this years ago," he told me once, as we lay together in our bed, his arms around me.
"You weren't ready years ago," I told him, smoothing his hair back from his brow. "If it meant choosing between the you I love now for the you who couldn't see me then, I'd take the man you are now over that foolish boy again and again."
Sasuke kissed my ear and tucked his head between my shoulder and my neck. "You're so annoying," he breathed.
In the darkness, I smiled. I knew he wouldn't have wanted me any other way.