AN: Since this is the last chapter I'll do the AN here. Thank you to everyone who stuck with this story, and I hope you are satisfied with the ending. This chapter and the last were editted while I listened to "peach plum pear" covered by Owen Pallet on repeat, and I think it suits the feel of the story very well. Thank you to ButterCat for introducing it to me. Try listening while reading, if you like.
The cherry blossoms were in bloom and as he stepped out from his car, a breeze swept through them, causing a handful to float to the ground. Naruto watched for a second, breathing in the lightly scented air, before walking towards the stone building. It was early still, as he walked up the drive, gravel crunching beneath his shoes, and the air still held a chill in the shadows. He took the walk slow, enjoying the fresh air that he missed now that he lived in the city.
Ahead, near the entrance, a few pupils were loitering, no doubt on their way back from breakfast. The uniform hadn't changed and Naruto felt a pang of nostalgia and a strange compassion for the students. They were so young. He probably seemed impossibly old to them.
The steps seemed shallower than they had been, and it made Naruto smile as he went up. At the front entrance he rang the bell, waiting for a few minutes before being buzzed in through the wooden doors.
A strong scent of flowers filled the waiting room, originating from a vase filled with tulips in the corner. Opposite a few chairs and a low table was a window to the office which Naruto headed to, smiling as he caught the attention of the lady working there.
"Hi, I'm here for the alumni talk?"
"Oh yes. Mr Uzumaki." She produced a piece of paper and ticked his name off, before glancing at the computer. "Oh, it seems we haven't got a current address for you, but that can't be right, since you received the letter."
"Actually, I got the letter from a friend." He withdrew it from his pocket but didn't hand it over. "So the computer is right." He leaned towards the window, lowering his voice. "The machines... they know."
"Ah, in that case, can you remember to update your details with us before you leave." Giggling a little , the receptionist slid a name tag across to him, which he pinned to his shirt while she exited the office to join him. "You're a little early, only one other alumnus has arrived," she said, ushering him through into the main school building. "You could wait, or I could call one of the prefects to give you a tour?"
"Would it be okay if I took a look around on my own?" He added a bright smile to tip the scale.
"Of course, you remember your way around, I'm sure." Naruto reassured her that he did. "Here's a map in case you forget. There's been some recent refurbishments to the school, particularly the sports facilities and the library which you might be interested in seeing."
"I'll make sure to stop by," he said as he left, pocketing the map with no real intention of taking her advice. The hallways were foreign, different work and photographs lining the walls, different coloured carpet and walls. It gave him a hollow feeling, and he had no desire to have it intensified by seeing the library. Instead, he passed straight through the empty hallways and out again towards the sports pitches.
He felt less nervous than he had thought he would be. The night before he'd hardly slept, imagining a million different scenarios that blended into dreams and nightmares that left him gasping. Now he felt calm. Light. As though he had all the time in the world, all of the panic he had felt on the drive down as gone. He paused in his walking, withdrew the letter from his pocket and read it for the umpteenth time, though he'd memorised it long ago.
Momentarily reassured by the tangible mixture of ink and paper, the familiar words, he refolded the letter, creases soft from use, and carried on walking.
Here there was little change; a few trees had been cut down and the sports hall seemed to have been remodelled, but if he squinted he could imagine himself practicing drills late in the evening, or cutting across on his way to class.
As he walked across the grass, towards the trees that hadn't altered after all these years, he felt younger and younger, the years slipping away. Birds called to each other overhead and there were fresh green leaves hanging heavy on the branches, dewy surfaces glinting in the sun.
He reached the fringes of the trees and paused. Behind him, the school receded. The woods looked welcoming, promising a pleasant walk full of warm reminiscing. He felt lighter than he had in months, years, even.
For a time, he stood at the edge, eyes closed, enjoying the feel of the sunshine on his back, the whisper of leaves on the breeze and the still, timeless nature of his surroundings.
Eventually, reality returned in gradual waves. There were footsteps behind him, coming closer. The wet sound of grass blades of grass bending and breaking. They stopped a few feet away, and Naruto smiled.
"Tell me, Sasuke," he asked without turning, eyes still closed. "Do these woods have a name?"