dedication: for everyone who has followed The Butterfly Effect from its very beginning. I can never thank you enough.
"It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly's wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world." – Chaos Theory
Sasuke saw them the same moment they saw him; as their gazes locked, all three of them came to an abrupt halt on opposite sides of the path. Naruto and Sakura's outlines were haloed by the golden glow from the restaurant behind them and it turned their features softer, younger. For just a second, despite the fact that Naruto was now a head taller than Sakura, he could almost believe no time had passed. But then Sakura's face shuttered closed and he knew that there was no lying to himself anymore. Three years had passed and all of them had come out on the other side of them changed.
Unsurprisingly, it was the blond who took the first step forward, Sakura following hesitantly – and Sasuke found the courage to take a step forward of his own.
The evening air was cooling softly around them and the street was full of the smell of ramen and sticky rice and the hissing steam that came off the woks. The upper floors of shop buildings where their owners resided were lit with yellow light and the low hum of voices – children, parents, families, lovers – made the village seem alive somehow, even as the day drew to a close.
Sasuke perceived all of this and it began to warm something inside him, to soothe his tired, ragged edges. Every nerve in his body knew it, recognised it – began to lay a tentative claim on it once more.
His mind tried out the word gingerly, shaped his thoughts around it: home? It came out as a question; one he did not know how to answer. Even when he was at his darkest and planned to move against the village as a whole, Konoha had still been the closest thing he had to a home. It would always be the place where he grew up; it would always hold the memory of his clan. How long could he carry on denying that? He'd tried to erase his bonds with Team Seven and it hadn't worked. When it came down to it, even with black, burning hatred in his heart for what Konoha had done to his family, he'd still chosen to save Naruto from Madara.
"Hey," the blond in question said, as if nothing was wrong – as if he hadn't punched Sasuke in the face the previous evening. "Whatcha doing out here by yourself, Sasuke?"
"Walking," Sasuke replied tersely. His nose still felt tender, despite Yamanaka's healing. He noticed Sakura watching him with still eyes.
"Your face looks better," was all she said in response to his raised brow – an observation that was pointlessly aired, in his opinion. About to make a snide remark, it occurred to Sasuke that in the few times they'd encountered each other since their return to Konoha, the only words she had given him were those of necessity. Until now.
"They still love you," Kakashi's voice crept up on him, a soft whisper in the back of his mind that Sasuke could not ignore. Yes, little brother, they still love you. They still love you, so what are you going to do about it?
"Aa," he agreed. "It feels better."
"Couldn't deal with the pain, bastard?" Naruto asked slyly. "I never took you for such a wuss."
Sasuke barely opened his mouth to argue, when Sakura spoke.
"Like you can talk," she said. "Whenever you're not taking advantage of my free healing, you've got the Nine-Tails patching you up."
Naruto pouted. "Sakura-chaaaaan! So cold!"
She shrugged, a tiny smile lingering about her mouth. It was affection, Sasuke realised dimly. In all the years he'd spent alone, he'd almost forgotten what it looked like.
Seeing them together, it felt suddenly as if a line had sprung up between them and he was watching from the other side – from the outside, even. It wasn't a pleasant sensation. Involuntarily, he took a step back.
"Bah!" Naruto scoffed, brushing away the accusation and slinging an arm carelessly over Sasuke's shoulder. "Sakura-chan and I were gonna go look 'round the market, Sasuke-teme."
He found himself analysing their expressions very carefully. Naruto's eyes were bright and welcoming, his other arm thrown back behind his head as if nothing had changed since their genin days. Sakura was different, harder to read than her companion. Since the previous evening and the trial, it seemed as if the icy disregard she'd treated him with had thawed into neutral stoicism. He still found it disconcerting.
Raising her eyes to meet his probing gaze, Sakura's face softened the tiniest bit towards him.
"The stalls have changed in the last few years," she said. "There's one particular vendor who stocks the most wonderful kind of tea. Maybe you could come, too. With us. I mean, if you want."
Both boys stared at her in surprise for several long moments and then, realising what they were doing, abruptly tried to hide it. Sasuke hesitated before answering, feeling strangely as though he was teetering on the brink of something too precious and insubstantial to put into words.
"Tea," he repeated, and was rewarded by two vastly different smiles; one was a beaming grin, the other a gentle curve of lips sweeping upward. Both made him feel that the line was wavering.
"Tea," Sakura said.
In all the times she'd imagined Sasuke returning to the village, this was what Sakura had wished for most. She'd wanted him safe and happy, of course – that had always been her first priority – but there was a deeper, more selfish part of her that had wanted this. More than anything, she missed his quiet presence by her side, the pleasure of his company.
So much had happened between this evening and those simple dreams, yet here they were, the three of them, together and not trying to kill each other for the first time in years.
The weight of that reality settled on her so heavily, she felt like her legs might give way beneath her – and yet, at the same time, there was a part of her that felt like she was walking on air.
Sasuke is home, she thought, sneaking a glance at the dark-haired boy walking on Naruto's other side. Sasuke is home. She'd thought the only way for him to come back was in a body-bag, but he'd chosen to return. He'd laid aside revenge for a justice that was both fair and legal.
The boy who'd stared across the ravine at her with cold, crazed eyes seemed like a terrible waking-dream as she considered the boy before her, pausing to examine a stack of scrolls on one of the stands.
Fighting the urge to smile, she turned away to peruse a collection of exquisitely coloured kimonos. There were ribbons, too, lying in long lines across a small table. Somewhere to her left, she could hear Naruto enthusiastically haggling over the price of a new shuriken set.
They were barely talking to each other, their attention more focused on the stalls and the items they held, but it was a start. Sakura glanced again at the original members of Team Seven, unable to help herself. Sasuke had moved to stand a little behind Naruto, his hands shoved deeply into his pockets and wearing an exasperated frown at the blond's wild gesturing.
It was a scene taken directly from her memories – watching them, it was so easy to see the twelve-year-old boys who had been her teammates.
"Do you see anything you like, little one?" the old woman who owned the stand asked, lined face creasing with a genial smile. Sakura turned back to the collection of pretty ribbons before her and picked out a simple strip of ivory silk with nimble fingers. It had been so long since she'd bought herself something just because it was pretty. Her whole apartment, she now realised, was practically bare – she'd lost almost everything she owned when Pein flattened the village.
"This," she said, handing the ribbon over and fishing some money out of her wallet.
The proprietor beamed as she wrapped Sakura's purchase in delicate, blue tissue paper. "A beautiful ribbon for a beautiful girl," she said.
Sakura blushed as she took the prettily packed ribbon. "Thank you," she said sincerely.
"HEY, SAKURA-CHAN!" Naruto's call distracted her and she hastily followed the sound of the blond's voice.
He grinned at her, whisker marks stretched tight over his cheeks. "I thought you wanted to go get some tea?"
"Oh, right," she recalled her awkward invitation for Sasuke to join them. She wondered if he regretted coming with them; his face was unreadable. "Uh, the stand is somewhere up ahead."
They walked together through the stalls until she spotted the one in question. It was a modest booth, but Sakura liked it.
She recognised the face of the vendor. "Hello, Mauyu-san."
"Haruno-san," he replied, obviously pleased. "I haven't had the pleasure of your patronage for a while." He squinted at her companions good-naturedly.
"Uzumaki Naruto, I assume? And you…I recognise your face. Am I correct in addressing Uchiha Sasuke? You boys stopped a war, if I have my facts right."
Naruto waved a dismissive hand, but his blue eyes were lit up with something like pride. "It was nothing."
Sakura despaired a little when Sasuke gave one of the non-committal grunts he was famous for, but otherwise pushed down the old feelings of inadequacy. It was always like this, she thought, and it probably always would be. Naruto and Sasuke were famous, world-class ninja and nothing would change that. She'd fought her battles and come out of them alive, first with Sasori and then with Kabuto. She supposed she couldn't ask for more than that, not when everyone she loved was safe at last. Not when Sasuke was finally home, where he belonged. She knew this, and yet it didn't stop the little twinge of resentment in her chest.
"So what can I do for you?" the vendor asked, wrenching Sakura from her distracted thoughts. Naruto had disappeared, she realised, glancing around and finding only the Uchiha by her side, tall and silent and utterly impossible for her to read.
"Umm," she stalled for time, moving closer to the table and examining the little packets of flavoured tea. She usually went for green tea, but the jasmine caught her eye.
"I think… jasmine tea," she ventured, reaching for her purse, but the friendly-faced vendor shook his head.
"I know who you are, Haruno-san, and what you've done. This one is for free."
The little package was handed over and Sakura took it, gaping. "Sorry?"
"My son is a Jounin," was the succinct reply. "I know what you did during the war. Take the tea. And you too, Uchiha-san. It's on the house."
Understanding blossomed suddenly and she stuttered incoherently, still trying to hand some kind of payment over. The faint jealousy that stirred in her chest suddenly evaporated.
"Nonsense." He shooed her back into the melee of stalls and people with good- tempered grace. "I insist."
Sakura looked down at the gift in her hands, stunned. Sasuke followed as silently as a ghost, an identical parcel of tea in his slender hands.
"That…was nice of him," she said, glancing at Sasuke unsurely. "Don't you think?"
For the first time since he'd accepted her invitation to accompany them to the market, Sasuke looked directly at her. His dark eyes were scorching and for a moment, she almost thought he looked troubled.
"S'up, Sakura-chan?" a voice said in her ear. She faced Naruto as he reappeared, sliding an arm over her shoulder.
"Hey," she said softly, stowing the tea in her pocket with her wallet. "Where did you go?"
He beamed, crowing like the boy who would never grow up. "To get this, of course! No one turns me down."
He held up a toad-shaped alarm clock. "It was a tough bargain, but I won out in the end, Sakura-chan!"
"Dobe," Sasuke sighed, staring off into the distance. "He gave in just to shut you up."
"Doesn't make it less of a victory," Naruto brushed the words aside with a wave of his hand. He stretched and broke off into a monstrous yawn. "Man, I'm beat!"
Sakura felt tired, too. The last seventy-two hours had been both emotionally and physically exhausting; all the weeks leading up to now were just as draining. She felt about ready to crash and burn.
"I think I'm going to go home," she said, "I feel pretty tired."
She ignored the probing look Naruto shot her way, grateful when he chose to keep his fretting to himself. Everything Inoichi confirmed for her that morning was too much to handle right now.
"Okay," Naruto said as Sasuke grunted. "You want me to walk you home, Sakura-chan?"
"Thanks," she replied, "I think I'll be alright, though."
"What about you, Sasuke? You need walking home like a little girl?"
Sasuke looked mildly irritated, but didn't rise to the bait as Sakura half-expected.
"I have stuff to do," was all he said, before abruptly departing. The two of them watched his retreating back for a moment in silence before exchanging a glance.
"Where's the bastard going?" he asked, curiosity evident in his voice.
"I don't know. I'll see you tomorrow, Naruto," Sakura said, tired and a little unsettled, though she didn't know why. She turned away as Sasuke's figure was swallowed up by the night.
"It'll all be better in the morning," he replied, as if he could see the confusion she felt. "You'll see."
Nodding, she waved half-heartedly and walked back to her apartment block. The night was pleasantly cool and the stars shone brightly down on the path, the air smelling sweet and strangely fragrant. Like summer, she thought distractedly, automatically heading for the window – and then pausing.
That was a habit born out of avoiding Sasuke. If she ever wanted to fix their friendship, maybe she should stop doing that.
For the first time in weeks, Sakura entered her apartment through the front door.
She closed it quietly shut behind her, thinking of births and healing and circles that were broken. While she waited for the kettle to boil, her mind could not help drifting back to the evening she'd spent in Sasuke and Naruto's company.
"It's not a big deal," she muttered to her empty living room. "It was just a walk among the stalls."
Just a walk…but didn't that mark a change? Around two months ago, as Sakura prepared for war and the possibility that she may have to face Sasuke on the battlefield, she'd never dared to dream that the three of them would ever be able to do anything so simple as take a walk together again. She'd resigned herself to the fact that the future she and Naruto had spent so long working towards was forever closed to her, and yet…
That very future seemed to be opening up again before her very eyes, the impossible made possible once more.
Sakura sighed and poured herself some jasmine tea to soothe her tired mind. Drifting towards her bedroom, she was unable to stop herself from recalling the look in Sasuke's eyes as he'd thanked her only twenty-four hours ago.
She was certain that he would always, to some extent, be angry. But since the trial, when he had shown he was capable of restraint even in the face of terrifying fury, a small crack had appeared in the armour she'd formed around her heart - and something she had not allowed herself for months was beginning to creep back in.
Sakura set her tea down on the desk and fished through the drawer, pulling out scrolls, hairbands, and her medic pouch until she found what she was looking for, buried at the very bottom. It was right where she'd left it the day she and Kakashi departed her apartment together, heading out to war.
She unfolded the battered photograph and stared at it in silence for a moment, before propping it against the wall on her chest of drawers.
Team Seven's innocent faces watched over her in sleep.
The night was dark and peaceful.
Sasuke walked slowly through the village, remembering another calm night. Konoha had slept obliviously on as his entire clan was massacred by one of their own. As he chased his brother through the streets, he felt terrified and so, so foolish. Like something from a nightmare, he thought now, except even he'd never feared something so awful. It'd never occurred to him to fear the very thing which had so unexpectedly become his waking reality.
Sasuke involuntarily started to recall the very specific way the blood had stuck to the soles of his shoes, wet and sticky, before he forcibly pushed the memories away. He would never forget the fate of his family, nor forgive the elders for ruthlessly, needlessly, destroying the lives of so many – but neither did he want to torture himself by dwelling on it every waking minute.
He'd done what was best for the clan his entire life, but now, as he walked the newly-built roads that ran through Konoha, he thought of his brother. He remembered Itachi – both the kind older brother who'd always made the time for him and tried to make him feel special, and the red-eyed shinobi who'd donned the cloak of Akatsuki. He remembered the way Itachi lurched towards him, blood dribbling from the corners of his mouth as he smiled.
A piercing sadness engulfed him then and Sasuke stopped, unable to go on. Silvery moonlight washed everything stark and pale, the road clear before him. He followed it with his eyes and found the village gates looming before him, wide open and ready for him.
I could leave right now, he thought, and no one could stop me. If I wanted to, I could leave Konoha far behind and never come back.
Sasuke knew how to evade those who would come searching for him, whether to plead with him or to kill him. He could do it. For a long moment, he stood frozen in the face of this possibility, Itachi's smiling face still stuck behind his eyelids.
But the thought of Naruto, of Sakura, and even Kakashi, made him hesitate. On another moonlit night, oh-so-many years ago now, he'd left them all behind…
"I love you with all my heart….!" Sakura's confession rang in his ears, a ghostly echo he'd never been able to shake. It had stayed in the furthest corner of his mind, along with Naruto's unshakable conviction in the bonds they shared. "I'm going to knock some sense into you and bring you back to the village!"
And then, Kakashi's voice from that very morning replayed in his head; "I don't think they'd be able to survive you leaving a second time."
"What am I supposed to do?" The words escaped him before Sasuke could hold them back, a question that reverberated on the cool night air. He inhaled deeply, trying to shut the world out as though an answer might come to him if he just listened hard enough.
Everything in his mind was stripped away until he hit one solid, immovable truth – that sad, blood-stained smile of Itachi's and what it meant. He felt a ghostly presence behind him, heard a whisper in his ear, a hand on his shoulder…
"Be happy, little brother."
He whipped around, heart beating fit to burst beneath his ribcage, but there was no one there. Sasuke stared at the deserted road behind him for many long moments, trying to make his heart be still – wondering if he'd only imagined Itachi's presence there. At last, when his body was calm again, he took one last look over his shoulder at the towering gates that led out into the wide world. The path disappeared there, swallowed up by shadows. But before him, the village was lit with the soft, gold glow of paper lanterns, and light that escaped the windows of hundreds of homes. Somewhere, there was music playing, the notes hovering sweetly on the air and making the night alive.
If Sasuke was anyone else, he would have smiled. In despair, he'd asked the night for answers - and the dead he loved had answered him.
Tsunade was leaning back in her chair, cradling a cup of sake in her hand and ignoring the gigantic stack of paperwork on her desk, when the door to her office quietly opened. Pale moonlight was beginning to spill through the windows as night settled in comfortably. Under the cover of darkness, she was drowning her various sorrows.
"Come in," she said softly, as a shadowed silhouette stepped across the threshold. On any other day, she would have barked acerbically at the rudeness of barging into the Hokage's office unannounced, but today was not like other days. Sakura's pale face flitted across her eyelids.
Oh, Sakura, she thought, the urge to bury her head in her hands stronger than ever, you've gotten yourself into such a mess.
"Hokage-sama," Uchiha Sasuke murmured coming to a halt before her desk, tall and undeniably handsome. One look at his face made her put the sake cup firmly down.
The few times she'd seen him in person, the boy had been an almost otherworldly figure – pale, expressionless, and somehow…cold. Almost wraith-like. Now, he looked much more human; his dark eyes were unreadable, but she could tell by the twist of his mouth that he was undergoing some sort of painful internal struggle. For the first time, she felt like she was looking at Sasuke – Team Seven's Sasuke, the Sasuke that Sakura had fallen in love with – and not at the Avenger persona he'd so carefully cultivated for years.
It was this that made her voice gentler than it otherwise might have been. "What can I do for you, Sasuke?" she asked.
As her mouth shaped his name, his eyes flickered to her face, the small frown between his brows deepening.
"I've considered your offer," he said quietly. "And I've come to a decision."
Tsunade found her hands clenching into tense fists under the desk, full of a sudden dread on behalf of her student and the boisterous blond she was so fond of. If Sasuke left them again, she did not think they would ever really recover from it…
But surely if he was going to leave, he wouldn't take the trouble to inform her?
"And that is?"
He seemed to hesitate for a long moment, as though teetering on a brink from which there could be no return. Her nails bit into the palms of her hands hard as she waited for his answer.
"I would like to be…reinstated as a shinobi of Konohagakure," he told her, head bowed. Inky strands of hair fell into his dark eyes and she remembered the comatose boy in the hospital bed, the way he'd looked at Sakura as she threw her arms around him. She remembered Sakura's determined gaze as she asked Tsunade to take her on as an apprentice and Naruto sitting forlornly at a ramen stand, still covered in gauze and bandages.
"I take it," she said, "that this means you've decided to stay? Are you certain that this is what you want?"
He was silent for a moment, more boy than anything else, and she could almost see what it was that made Team Seven so drawn to him. "You would allow me to leave?"
Tsunade folded her arms. "Yes," she said. "I can't say how long you'd last outside Konohagakure after what you did in the Land of Lightning, but I would never force you to stay here, Sasuke. Not after…"
To live in the place that had ordered the murder of everyone he'd loved was almost more than she expected of him. Dan had died in battle, but still, for years she could not bear to stay within the walls of the village he'd died for. She'd run as far and for as long as she could. A part of her wouldn't blame the boy if he tried to do the same.
But, as he seemed to have a knack for doing, he surprised her. "Konoha has always been home to the Uchiha clan," he murmured. "And being shinobi is all I know, Hokage-sama. I choose to stay."
She watched his face intently for many long heartbeats of silence, before nodding brusquely.
"Very well," she replied, folding her hands together and watching him over her pointed fingertips. "But do not forget that you are still on probation, Uchiha Sasuke. It'll be some time before I can put you on active duty again; you understand that, I'm sure."
Tsunade felt a smile flicker at the corners of her mouth, a wry expression that surely betrayed her age. The events of the past six months made her feel tired and suddenly very old. She opened the drawer of her desk and fished through it for a new hitai-ate. As she handed it to him, the leaf symbol engraved on the metal plate flashed in the moonlight streaming through the windows.
"Then welcome back to the Village Hidden in the Leaves, Sasuke," she said. "I think you'll find you've been missed."
He bowed stiffly, obviously taking that as a dismissal. As he turned back to the door, she found herself thinking of all the people she loved – the dead and the living. They loved the village fiercely when, for a long time, she hadn't. But as Hokage, she'd made a choice to return in order to serve the dreams of those she loved; both those who'd died in the village's name and those who still strived to protect it. Sasuke's loved ones were cold in the ground. For whom then, had he made this decision?
He turned slowly at the sound of his name, a shadowy figure stood in the doorway with dark eyes and an ethereal beauty born from the cracks, the fissures tragedy had wrought in him. He was a beautiful, broken thing, she thought sadly. She wondered if this brokenness would cut all those who came near him, like so many shards of glass – lovely in pieces, but shaped to hurt – or if he wasn't beyond some measure of healing.
"Why?" she asked, and he needed no further elaboration to understand what it was she was really asking. He dipped his head forward so that his bangs fell into his eyes, hiding whatever expression might lie there.
"Goodnight, Hokage-sama," Sasuke said quietly – and then he was gone.
Tsunade stared after him for a moment, eyes sharp and narrow. Then she sighed, very quietly and turned back to the cup of sake on her desk. It hit the back of her throat, making it burn. She thought of Dan and Nawaki – and then of Uchiha Itachi. But as she placed the empty cup back on her desk, it was Naruto and Sakura who surfaced in her mind. Though Sasuke hadn't acknowledged the question, she had a feeling she already knew the answer.
notes: well, guys, it's been a long journey but one I've thoroughly enjoyed making with you.
notes2: I have to give a special mention to Sakura's Unicorn for sticking with me through this fic from its start to the end, with wise words and lots of giggling along the way. Also, for being pretty darn super with a marker pen. Thanks C! You made these fifteen months and twenty one chapters a lot more fun than they would have otherwise been :)
a third and final note: I'm tempted to go cry in a corner because it's been a long journey to this point and I'm going to miss writing this…but just because The Butterfly Effect is finished, it doesn't mean the story is over. Keep a weathered eye on the horizon. The promise of a lifetime has been fulfilled, but we all want to know what happens next…
AN EDIT TO END THE CONFUSION: Yes. That there was a hint because sometimes I try to be subtle. But yes. Right now, I fully intend on continuing the story in an as-of-yet unnamed sequel. I haven't started it yet - there is another rather monstrous fic in the works right now which I think you will also enjoy - but at some point in the future YES. There will be more of this particular fic!verse. That's why it's so open ended.
And since it's my last chapter...please be extra good and review!