note: Adding an extra a/n to fix ffn's line breaks.

The Long Way Home

(for Unicorn Paige)

Part I

"We all have our time machines. Some take us back, they're called memories. Some take us forward, they're called dreams."

Haruno Sakura sees Uchiha Sasuke again in Wind Country five years after the war.

She is sitting alone in a crowded teashop, back to the wall in the corner, enjoying a stick of dango after a successful mission to heal some lord or another. The treat is sticky in her mouth and she is down to the last green ball when he enters.

He is older and taller, and just as beautiful as she remembers. But it can't be him, absolutely cannot be Uchiha Sasuke because he is supposed to have died five years ago. And it also cannot be him because the boy-the man that has just walked through the door is smiling and laughing and god, she has never seen him so relaxed before, never seen the perpetual wards he threw around himself obliterated quite like this.

Maybe this is just a cruel coincidence. Maybe Uchiha Sasuke had a twin. Maybe this is a hallucination brought on by chakra depletion or genjutsu aimed at reopening old wounds that'd never really healed.

But no, that is Uchiha Sasuke striding up to the counter to order and that innate grace, that fluidity of movement, it is all as she remembers. But then the cook slides him a plate of tempura and another of dango and it cannot be Sasuke because he'd never liked sweets. It isn't for him though, instead he hands the plate to someone else, someone that she hadn't noticed until now because when Uchiha Sasuke walks into a room without any regard for the fact that he's supposed to be dead, her attention has no room for anything else.

It's a girl, petite and soft and obviously civilian with hair the lightest shade of brown—and she is smiling at him, smiling at Team Seven's Sasuke-kun. The thought startles her enough that the already lax grip she has on her dango loosens, the entire stick falling to the ground.

Sakura has not used that name—has not uttered that name in conjunction with that suffix in many years.

The food lies forgotten on the floor as Sakura gets up, rising from the table with a rattle and a scrape loud enough to dampen the conversation around her, but she doesn't care, can't care about things like public propriety when Sasuke, when Sasuke-kun is alive and well and in the same room as she and he is laughing with some stranger that is not them and it hurts. It hurts because it's apparent that he's finally found happiness and it is not with herself or Naruto or Kakashi-sensei and definitely not within the walls of their respective home.

She stands there, over her table, and soon the entire room is silent, the people eyeing her first strangely, then expectantly because they can see the headband and they know that shinobi are prone to snapping. He is the last to turn, only noticing when the girl he is with—and her chest tightens at this—stills and tugs on his sleeve.

And then her surprise slowly turns into anger. Because this is a reminder that he'd abandoned them all a second time, in the worst possible way. He'd left them all to think him dead, left Naruto to think that for five years his best friend—the closest thing to a brother he'd ever had—had died because of a blow meant for him. The anger is strong and biting and crushes the surprise. For a second, all she can see is the red of indignation and wounded hearts, then Sakura's fury whittles to a razor sharp edge. Her green eyes narrowing, she waits, anticipating the recognition that would flash across his eyes when their gazes finally meet.

She hopes, for his sake, that she will be able to find even the barest hint of remorse or regret.

(Maybe, even of warmth.)

But Sasuke is achingly slow to turn around, and when he finally does, his eyes slide, slow and languid, from the tips of her toes to the pink of her hair. She would have blushed, except, except—

(Her breath quickens and her fingers clutch at wood of the table.)

When she looks into limpid dark eyes for the first time in five years, Sakura nearly breaks, there is nothing in them but blank curiosity.

And Sakura won't have that; she refuses this disregard that is worse than his familiar brand of apathy; refuses to fade into the non-specificity of the strangers around her because—

(Because she is not a stranger. Will never be no matter how hard he tries. Because she has knotted the breaks in their bonds over and over again, weaved in new pieces of herself so that it will become something nobody can unbind.)

Her steps are light and quick, maybe even as fast as he used to be the last she'd seen him in battle, and her grasp on the front of his plain black shirt rough as she yanks him up by the collar. The girl screams a little in fear, and Sakura is shocked to find no sword suddenly pressed at her throat, no chidori sparking blue in his fist. Instead Sasuke looks alarmed, like he actually has something to be afraid of, like he has no idea how to fight back.

Sakura cannot believe, will not believe in this Sasuke unguarded enough to be caught, this Sasuke that would allow his emotions to play so clearly across his eyes.

"Goddammit," she spits into the quiet. "You are not, you are not—who the fuck are you and what the hell have you done with Sasuke-kun?"

Sakura usually doesn't abuse profanity; she is usually the calmest member of her squad, the rational one, the one who looks whomever Naruto offended in the eye to offer polite, meaningless apologies.

This raw, snarling woman—this isn't her.

"Let Kun-chan go! Just because you're some high and mighty ninja doesn't mean you can harass anyone you want!"

Sakura's eyes flicker away from Sasuke's face at the girl's outburst, eyebrows furrowing at the name. She expects Sasuke to scoff, to scowl at the honorific, but instead all he does is shove at her arms. There is strength in his push but it isn't nearly enough. Nonetheless, she lets go, stepping back and looking over his body with critical eyes.

He is wearing loose fitting pants tucked into well-worn boots with the plain black t-shirt. There is no kunai holster or shuriken pack strapped around his thigh or tied around his waist, no sword resting against his back. For all intents and purposes, he looks like a civilian.

Instinctively, her senses expand and reach out for his chakra, probing for the dark, dense coils of power that'd always been his signature, but what she encounters is nothing like what she expects. Yes, the distinctive feel of Sasuke's chakra is there, but it's muffled and dulled, layered so deep within him that she can only detect the faintest tendrils, feel the most tentative touches of strength.

When he speaks, his voice is the same rich timber that she sometimes still dreams of: "Who are you?"

Sakura can't help but fidget in the surrealism of the moment. She is sitting underneath a blooming apple tree, legs primly tucked under her skirt with Sasuke not two feet away and he is smiling at her. And even though the smile is polite and distant and the exact same one she gives to acquaintances on the street, Sakura is fascinated, is thrilled and devastated at this change in his personality.

The man next to her is still cool and reserved, but it's as if all the sharp edges and hurtful corners he'd gained throughout his life had been smoothed over by sandpaper. The change is unnerving, terrifying, and almost bittersweet because this is Sasuke as he could've, as he should've been. The Sasuke that might have existed if a certain mission had never been given many years before or they'd been strong enough to keep him in Konoha.

Instead, she has to sit underneath falling white petals as her first love recounts how he'd woken up in a small hospital in a no-name village with no memories of his previous life. She watches him as he speaks and picks out his tells; the way his head cocks slightly to the left when recounting something especially difficult or the way his lips tighten into a thin line if he has a particularly hard time remembering something. She can tell when he's frustrated by the set of his shoulders and when he is amused by the quirk of his eyebrow. All of these little fragments of the Sasuke-That-Was reassure her that this is the real thing, that even if he remembers nothing of her she can still recognize these small pieces of him.

That on some innate level she still knows him.

"Amaya and her family found me in a ditch in Fire Country. According to her I was in pretty bad shape. They took me to the clinic in a nearby village and the doctors managed to patch me up."

"After that Kun-chan came home with us," the girl, Amaya, interrupts. Sakura blinks, pausing in her pursuit of Sasuke to take in the girl sprawled on the ground on the other side of the man. She is evidently a civilian: a feminine, outspoken slip of a girl that sat far too close to Sasuke for Sakura's liking. Pretty, but Sakura recalls all too well how little beauty is worth in this world.

(It is not, she says firmly to herself, the jealousy speaking. He is safe and alive and unscarred and that, she pointedly reminds herself, is the only thing that matters.)

Sasuke only looks slightly perturbed by the interruption, eyes flickering over to the girl in mild amusement. "Aa. I had nowhere to go, and the Endo family was kind enough to take me in. I do the fieldwork and help with any other odds and ends that I can take care of."

"I'm sorry for what happened in the teahouse back there," Sakura apologizes, "I was…surprised."

"I'll say," Amaya scoffs, and Sakura does not miss the way Sasuke's mouth twitches in restrained laughter.

Laughter. This girl has heard Sasuke-kun laugh, has seen sides of him that she and Naruto had fought tooth and nail to try and revive. Sakura is grateful that Endo Amaya saved Uchiha Sasuke's life, but she cannot deny the twinge of jealousy reverberating in her chest.

(The only person she cannot lie to is herself.)

"Did you," he pauses, and she can see that he is choosing his words carefully. "Do you recognize me?"

Sakura blinks, and her instinct, that age old need, is pushing her to shout yes, yes I do you are Uchiha Sasuke and you belong to Team Seven, you belong in Konoha with us—home home home please come home.

But this is the Sasuke-That-Should've-Could've-Been, and he is happy. This Sasuke can laugh at jokes and smile at strangers. This Sasuke knows nothing of betrayal and heartbreak and the warm blood of his slaughtered parents staining his living room walls.

This Sasuke would want to stay.

She is taking too long, Sakura realizes, so she makes a decision.

Smiling wanly, she levels grass-green eyes at this Sasuke she no longer knows and shakes her head slowly, "I don't think so."


a/n: Part one of...something. Part one of definitely no more than five. This was originally supposed to be a 500 word drabble for Paige's prompt ("I've got dust in my mouth and a sting in my chest.") on the SasuSaku Month LJ comm (for a link, click my homepage, the event's open to non-LJ participants too!), but it just kept...growing on me. This will be updated almost daily until it's done. The idea might seem to be overdone, but I promise I'll try to take it in a newer direction.

And YES, Endo Amaya is an OC, and because I usually despise OC's I can safely say that she's not going to star in any large capacity other than a plot device nudge here and there. I hope you enjoyed it, and don't forget to leave a review with suggestions and concrit after you're done. :)

9/16/16: A very random update. I was rereading the first chapter and some things really bothered me, so I went ahead and did the most minimal edits I could in order to preserve the integrity of the story while still fixing the most obvious grammatical errors (tense agreement, typos, run-on's etc.).