Tying Up Loose Ends

by DreamCharmer


The Past and Present here unite

Beneath Time's flowing tide;

Like footprints hidden by a brook.

But seen from other side.

-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "A Gleam of Sunshine"


When Sakura encounters him again, the time does not stand still.

It's been ten years since she last saw him, panting and furious, all covered in blood, sweat and dirt, back in the day when he tried, and failed to wipe them from the face of the earth forever. But it was raining then, she remembers; an angry avalanche of water coming down on them with a crushing force, as if the sky had been slashed open with a giant knife. It took them several spinning moments, punctuated by the roaring of thunder and flashes of lightning, to realize that Sasuke was no longer there. After all, they never expected him to turn and flee. But he did; and though they looked for him seemingly everywhere, it was a summer storm, merciless and uncompromising, and it didn't spare his trail.

It's raining now too, here over the Land of Grass, where she has stopped for rest on her way back home. Her mission was a long affair, and it seems to have accomplished nothing; and she feels wearier than ever, because it's not only her muscles that ache. It may be autumn, which she doesn't like nowadays, as it makes her think of dying and old age and uselessness, three things that hopefully won't happen to her for at least forty years. She thinks of them anyway, because she is a ninja and a medic, and her patients die more often when the cycle is nearing its end. Their deaths and their lives all pile up on top of one another, and she drags them behind her wherever she goes, letting them mingle and blend together and gather dust until she can't tell which is which anymore.

Sakura enters the little inn, tired and drenched to the bone, closing the door behind her to ward off the cold drafts. She wrings water out of her hair, absent-mindedly enjoying the hollow sound the droplets make as they drum a shamanic rhythm on the wooden floor, and pays for the room and a cup of hot tea.

She buries herself deep into the sheets, which are surprisingly clean and fresh, and when she sleeps, she dreams of fallen leaves floating on dark water.

In the morning, she wakes up to more rain, feeling suspended in time, like an old house, that the previous owner has already left for good and the next one has yet to move in. There is a past behind her, and a future lies ahead, but the present is missing, as if she were on standby, not living, but waiting for a chance to live.

She goes down the creaking stairs into the common room, where she pays for more tea, and as she turns around with a steaming mug in her hands, she sees Sasuke at a table near the far wall.

She finds it mildly interesting, that her heart does not skip a beat at the sight of him, nor does the time stop to let her rejoice and celebrate. She is older now, and wiser, or so she hopes, replete with memories that have no place for him, and the fatigue has made her placid and immune to the past howling at the backdoor of her mind.

Sakura hesitates only for a moment, before heading over to sit across the table from him, both hands still on her mug, absorbing the heat the autumn winds robbed her of. Her footsteps are light, as she crosses the room, but the floorboards are old and squeaky, and have seen better days; so that when she settles into the chair, she knows there is no way he didn't notice her presence.

He must have arrived only a while ago, as his black hair, which is longer than she remembers from before, is still slightly damp from the rain. A long travelling cloak is flung over the back of another chair, on his left, either black or dark blue, but she cannot tell for sure in the dim light. It's soaked through, and water is dripping happily from its hem and collar, creating the same sound as it did when she wrung her hair yesterday.

His face is harder, all sharp lines and angles, but the expression is calm, almost serene, and it makes her wonder if he has finally found the elusive balance that is the one thing keeping most shinobi from going irrevocably insane. He seems to be in perfect health; no scars are visible, no traces of injuries, no clue to what he has been doing in all these years. It means nothing, of course. Sasuke, she remembers, has always healed fast.

He raises his gaze from his own tea cup, and gives her an indecipherable look. He says nothing, but that's no news, as Sasuke never saw any point in talking to her when they were kids either. What puzzles Sakura is that she herself doesn't start babbling incoherently the way she used to.

It's so strange, because there are hundreds of questions she should ask him; like why he is here; if he has given up on revenge completely; why he ran away on the day of the last battle; and many others. They are all good and ready, not one forgotten, because during the last ten years she kept them hidden inside her own head, just in case she needed them, in case she met him again. She cared for them in the way most people care for potted plants; watering them just enough to prevent wilting. But she kept them nevertheless; and they nagged her, and dreamed themselves into her dreams, and made her restless.

The only thing to do is blow away dust and cobwebs, and, who knows, Sasuke may even answer, and then she can finally air the closet and sweep out the dried leaves.

"The roads here are awful," she says instead, and these are the first words that pass between them since they fought on the ruins of the Hidden Leaf a frozen decade ago; and it can't be enough.

Sakura brings the cup to her lips and inhales the herbal scent. The rain and the wind have snatched proper words away from her and hid them under the dying yellowish grass, for mice and foxes to feast on. In her mind's eye, she sees their carcasses, all the beautiful things she could have said and never will now, all the happy to see you's and where have you been's, half buried in the liquid dirt by the changing of seasons.

These are the ones she is left with, tasteless, awkward things, and she fits them together mechanically like pieces of a puzzle.

They hang in the air helplessly, unable to leap across the gaping chasm, until at last Sasuke replies. "Indeed."

His voice has changed little, retaining its characteristic smooth tone, with a barely-noticeable drawl to back it up. A voice of a man who doesn't need to say much to make others listen; who knows better even when he doesn't know better; who runs his own life and takes orders from no one.

She thinks of the endless time stretching between this day and their last meeting; time that for her was filled with treating illnesses or doing research in the hospital, dining out with Naruto or Ino or going out on missions and coming back for more. Suddenly, she feels it's a rather ordinary life, a monotonous and repetitive litany of the same things done again and again; quite banal perhaps, if viewed from a certain point.

She wonders how Sasuke used this last decade. She can't even say what someone like him might do in his free time – train, read, take walks? Sleep, maybe? Has he, perhaps, been to lands and towns she doesn't even know the names of, or spent these years in hiding, watching even his own shadow?And what does he do for living, being a famous criminal and exile? Doesn't he get lonely, if only sometimes?

"Stop that."

She gives a start at the sound of his sharp voice and finds him looking at her, an ominous shadow of irritation in his black eyes. His mouth twists in disgust.

"Stop pitying me. It's annoying, and I don't need it."

All of a sudden, the past is back in a tidal wave, filling her lungs with wet sand and fish bones, pinning her to the shore and then dragging her out into the open sea, into places she has no desire to visit. Once again she is banging on the gates of a fortress, begging to let her in, shouting until her throat is raw, and her voice is a croak; but behind the great walls all is silent and unmoving, stones swallowing up her cries so that not even an echo survives.

"Really. You haven't changed at all, Sakura." The disgust is gone from his voice, but the drawling undertones are back, because he is amused now, one corner of the mouth quirking up slightly in the mockery of a smile.

She can sense his benevolent indifference, his lazy dismissal of her – not a threat, not even a hindrance, not worth dealing with, end of story – and all the memories of him that she stored in her heart begin to leak out and unfold inside her, spilling into her blood and creeping into every living cell of her body like poison ivy. She is sure that if at that moment Sasuke chose to cut her open, he would be treated to an inglorious view of all the things unsaid and undone, and maybe they would bury and suffocate him too, just like he deserves for escaping this burden, for wandering free when she has to feed his hungry ghost every day, and it's never truly sated.

But his eyes are full of blackness, and his sword remains sheathed, leaning against the shabby wall behind him. She bites back the bitterness crawling up her throat and says.

"You are in no place to judge whether I have changed or not, Sasuke. You weren't there for the last ten years, remember?"

The voice that comes out of her mouth is steady and almost casual, betraying nothing of her inner chaos. It is the voice of the woman she has almost become in his absence, in his silence; the woman waiting for her on the other side of the endless suspended moment she seems to inhabit; the woman whose face she might see in the mirror if she can cross over to the future.

"Hm," says Sasuke with his usual eloquence, his smirk a little wider now, and razor sharp. "And what exactly happened during the last ten years?"

She pauses before answering because–

(and what happened?

what happened is that the life rolled on, without pausing for break; and she went along with its continuous flow. Some currents are too strong to fight, and future is the only direction to move in, after all.

what happened is that people came and went, in and out of her life, and sometimes they came back again eventually, but more often they didn't, and she learned to live with it and cherish every moment.

what happened is that the village was rebuilt, and it became different, but remained the same, like the surface of a lake; and children were born; and people grew up or old; and some of it was bad, but there were a lot of good things too.

what happened is that they all managed to survive somehow, and prevented two wars and a handful of smaller skirmishes, and, she hopes, changed the world for the better, if only a little.

what happened is that he was not there with them to see any of it, but, in the end, it didn't make a difference, as they once feared it would.)

"Nothing, really," she shrugs. "Just life, I guess."

The answer is not what he's been waiting for; and she can see it clearly from the way his smirk falters and slips. His eyes become sharp and icy.

"Hm. Just life." He is studying her, expression as unreadable as ever; and she wonders what he wanted to hear, but she has other questions to ask.

"Why are you here, Sasuke?"

"I''m going elsewhere. It has nothing to do with you."

She nods, because she knew it all along. "How does it feel then?"

"How does what feel?" He's frowning slightly, not understanding what she's talking about.

"Living on your own. Is that what you wanted? You've got to know by now, right? I mean, it's been ten years."

He is surprised again, but answers nevertheless. Perhaps, he only answers because he is surprised. "It's interesting, Sakura. Much better than rotting away in a village and waiting for some retarded old geezer to give me orders."

"So you're happy, aren't you?" she persists.

She's been meaning to ask more – how he managed to evade hunters, and whether he works for someone in particular or not – but then she realizes that it doesn't matter. He is not coming back, and deep in her heart, she always knew it. But she has to make sure she's not mistaken, because if she doesn't, it will continue to nag her, and she will never be free from his shadow.

"I am quite happy," he says slowly, peering at her. "I'm not going back to the Leaf, if that's what you're hinting at." His face tightens briefly, a testament to his feelings towards the village he once called home. "And I would advise you against any foolish attempts to drag me there by force." He sneers at her, all contempt and superiority.

"I wasn't going to drag you anywhere," Sakura replies simply. "I know you will never return."

"Oh?" He doesn't believe her words, which is hardly surprising, given the number of times they tried to bring him back.

"Activate your Sharingan if you think I'm lying," she suggests mildly, but he only brushes the comment off arrogantly.

"So, you're saying that you're only here by accident?"

"I am." And the rain has stopped outside. "Actually, I'd better set out right now before the weather goes to the dogs again." She stands up, feeling very light, almost giddy. "But I'm glad I met you," she says, and she means it.

Sasuke is still sitting there, wearing that twisted half-smirk of his, but Sakura doesn't mind. She feels as if a terrible weight was removed from her shoulders, and she can finally straighten up and breathe, really breathe, for the first time in a very long while. At long last, she has crossed over into the future. She had to meet him again, the only way to break the circle. It makes sense.

She beams down at him. She is certain – although it's nothing more than intuition – that their paths will never cross again. It seems right. She also knows that by the time she gets back home he will be another face in the very long row of faces that she keeps safe in her memory. She will not forget him completely, of course, but there will be no rattling of chains anymore.

Without saying a word, she bends down and kisses him on the lips. It's quick and gentle, and it hides no passion, no second layer of meaning. It is a kiss of gratitude, not love. A farewell kiss. If she is not going to see him again, she wants her last memory of him to be a happy one. When she thinks of him in the future, she wants to remember this little inn, and this last conversation when he actually talked to her instead of turning away, and his shocked face when she closed the distance between them.

"Thank you, Sasuke," she says, pulling the cloak, now dry and comfortable, over her shoulders. "And wherever you go, good luck."

She leaves before he has a chance to respond, and she doesn't look back. The sun is not exactly shining, it being autumn after all, but she knows that it's there, behind the low gray clouds, and she can almost feel its warmth.

There is a whole new life ahead of her, and it has just begun.

A/N: No, I will never be able to write fluff.

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