chapter title: echoes from the other side

summary: There are three years and a war between the Sakura he remembers and the Sakura he's returned to. Six weeks after the trial the dust has yet to settle and regarding their shattered bond, Sasuke begins to understand that he is the one who must start picking up the pieces.

dedication: freshly baked pretzels because they are great and also the bicarbonate bath they have to dunk in is wild. you guys i love baking.


Sempiternal


Her heart was thumping so loudly Sakura could have sworn he would be able to hear it.

Her front door clicked softly closed behind her and she sagged against it, one hand rubbing over that familiar ache in her chest that only ever manifested for Sasuke. All these years since her doomed moonlit confession and nothing had changed at all – there was just something about him that called her in, made her ache for him, for his suffering and loneliness.

"I thought you would stay together," he'd murmured, as if he'd thought about it at all. Maybe he had – how would Sakura know? He'd shut himself off so thoroughly the night he left that the boy who'd returned felt distant and unknowable, not the angrily burning child in her memories. That Sasuke was gone for good – she would never get him back. The tall, dark young man who had come back to Konoha was a startlingly familiar stranger.

Had he missed them, in the long days and years when he was gone? Had he lain awake in the dark bowels of Sound and tried to picture their faces behind his closed eyelids, the same way she had tried to picture his? So often Sakura had assumed he'd simply shaken them off as carelessly as one shook dust from their clothes – a thoughtless action requiring little effort. Certainly no regret.

But that look he'd given her as they said goodnight…

She'd thought he remembered them – Team Seven – only when they were right in front of him, when their presence couldn't be banished or ignored. It had been like that, hadn't it? First at that awful base of Orochimaru's and then again, in the Land of Iron; that black look in his eyes like he'd forgotten her completely up until that moment, when he suddenly remembered she existed only because she was standing before him.

Now he looked at her with dark charcoal eyes that were not his own and she didn't know how to name the emotion in them. It had been so long since Sasuke had looked at her like that; like she was someone he…someone he cared about.

Did he? Had he ever?

You sound like a lovesick pre-teen, she thought, stepping away from the door. Absolutely pathetic, Sakura.

She moved deeper into her sparse apartment and boiled the kettle, wanting the comfort of jasmine tea to carry her through the hours before bed. It was something she'd started drinking after Sasuke left, something just hers, that didn't carry the wistful, yearning memories of her genin days. Her mother had prepared it for her – something calming to drink before bed, she said – on those long evenings when Sakura staggered home from a brutal day of training, exhausted but happy.

Sakura let the tea leaves brew and wondered. Why had her mother made a show of supporting Sakura's training if she never intended for her to become a proper ninja? That was what she'd said, last time they came face to face; You were never supposed to be a ninja. Not a proper one.

Weeks and weeks had passed, but Sakura still didn't understand it. She wanted to mend that bridge, but she didn't know how. For as long as her chosen career remained a point of discord between them, it felt sometimes like the entire relationship was beyond salvaging; another sadness to nurse under her breastbone.

She drank her tea in silence and left the cup in the sink before climbing into bed, the comforting darkness of her bedroom wrapped around her like a blanket. She could hear pipes gurgling in the walls and the occasional creak of a floorboard above her head. She could imagine Sasuke, staring at the ceiling in the room just below hers, one arm behind his head, quiet and restless – just like she was.

The thought came quietly, hesitant in the hushed darkness. He's really back.

Of course, he'd been back for months now, but there had been the trial and the dusting off period and her many, many shifts at the hospital – Sasuke had been in the village, but he hadn't felt…settled. Not to her. Not in any meaningful way. But now he was reinstated and she could finally stop pretending that some part of her wasn't waiting for him to disappear once the execution was over with.

Privately, in the darkness of her room and away from her teammates, Sakura let herself finally cry.


That night she dreamed of a stone bench under the stars.

It loomed towards her out of the dark; there was no moon. Sakura looked at it for a moment before raising her empty fist and punching it to rubble. It didn't matter how many times she destroyed it in her dreams. She always ended up back here in the end.


Tsunade's office was quiet, but he was not surprised to find his Hokage still at her desk, nursing a bottle of sake in the dark. She raised one challenging eyebrow at him as Kakashi stepped in through the window.

"That's rude," she barked. "Underlings are supposed to knock, you annoying child."

He shoved his hands in his pockets. "Where would be the fun in that?" he said blandly. "Besides, I'm not here to see my Hokage."

"Oh?"

He smiled at her. "I'm here as one teacher to another, of course. We need to talk about our shared student and her schedule."

Tsunade sighed and retrieved another cup from her desk drawer. "Sit," she ordered. "Drink. This is my time Kakashi, so if you're here you drink with me."

"I'm honoured."

She snorted and leaned back in her chair, looking at him with great amusement. "Such a smooth- talker. It's a shame you didn't pass that quality on to either of your boys, I'd have much less of a headache every time I had to deal with them if you had."

"Well, there's time yet," Kakashi drawled, not touching the sake. "They are still genin after all."

Tsunade's laugh was mean, but he counted it as a victory; as far as he could tell there were few people who could make her laugh at all.

"They are, aren't they?" she cackled. "Oh, I can't wait to make those brats sit through the chunnin exams! This is going to be fun."

"Your amusement aside," Kakashi said, "that is also partly why I'm here. I assume Sasuke will need to take on a certain number of missions before he will be allowed to take the exam. It would be best if we can get him incorporated back into the team as soon as possible. It's fine getting he and Naruto together to train, but Sakura has other responsibilities to balance. I was hoping to work out a schedule that will allow her to continue her training with both of us and spend some time as part of Team Seven."

"I need her at the hospital as well. Don't give me that look – Sakura is talented and what's more, she is needed there. I don't have the time to devote to running it that I used to and Shizune is already split as much as she can between helping me and assisting at the hospital."

He knew that already – of course he did. That was why he'd come directly to Tsunade instead of relying on Sakura to sort it out herself; she would stretch herself too thin in an effort to accommodate everyone. Had she always been heedlessly self-sacrificial, Kakashi wondered, or was he to blame for the fact that Sakura never asked for help?

She felt like a burden and I didn't do anything about it, he thought and the guilt sitting in his stomach was not new, but it was sharp. I made her feel overlooked.

He hadn't meant to; the boys had needed so much from him that he'd lost sight of her. Team Seven had been full of echoes; he saw too much of himself and Obito and Rin in them – and Rin had always been so quietly confident. She'd had a self-assurance that the younger Sakura had lacked, but he hadn't seen that at the time.

It was his fault.

"I am aware of how important Sakura is to the hospital," he said, after a moment. "I was hoping you'd have some idea of how to resource everything so that Sakura doesn't overstretch herself."

Tsunade set the sake down on the desk and contemplated him over steepled hands, her expression thoughtful. "If I could spare Shizune more often the hospital wouldn't be as much of a problem. Or even if we could send some of our injured allies home earlier it would take the pressure off – but we don't have enough mednin to speed up recovery time."

"There are never enough mednin," Kakashi muttered.

"Another sin you can lay at the Council's feet," she remarked, eyes darkening. "When I was young there used to be a mednin on every team, but they cut it from the Academy curriculum years ago."

If he knew his Hokage at all she'd be overturning that decision as soon as she could. There was no longer a council to battle on such matters and after the war they'd just been through, Kakashi couldn't imagine anyone would object to more ninja having the capability to treat the wounded, even if it just started with them knowing the basics.

"They were short sighted," he said at last.

Tsunade sighed. "In many, many ways," she agreed. "Yes. They were a product of their time."

They both considered this for a moment; how even people with the best of intentions could spread corruption and rot behind them purely because they were set in their ways, unable to think outside their limited understanding.

My team won't be like that, he thought, with some semblance of pride. They'll lead Konoha in a better direction, all of them.

But they needed to progress up the ranks to do that – which led them back to square one. To appease his Hokage, Kakashi took a generous sip of sake.

Tsunade smiled at him, sharp and victorious. She raised her own cup in his direction and downed it.

"Leave it with me," she said, when the bottle was empty. He was impressed that even now, she didn't slur her words. Her alcohol tolerance was much more impressive than her gambling ability. "And I'll get back to you when I have a solution, Kakashi."

"Thank you Tsunade-sama."

"Suck up," she muttered, as he left the office the same way he'd come. Beneath his mask, Kakashi smiled.


There was no official training over the next few days, but Sasuke found himself at the training grounds nonetheless. It was habit; routine. For so many years the whole of his life had consisted only of this; his breathing in the quiet, the movement of his body as he practised his kata.

What, he wondered, did people do with their time? There were so many hours in the day; he had no idea how to fill them without this.

At some point, he heard giggling behind him – insipid, female laughter, the kind that had followed him through the halls of the Academy, whether he wanted it or not. Sasuke sighed.

So much for a peaceful existence, he thought petulantly.

He collected his weapons and left the clearing, intent on getting well away from his unwanted crowd of voyeurs. Giggling was just the start of it. Soon they would be following him, invading his personal space and – kami help him – inviting him on ridiculous dates. Even in Sound there had been women fawning over him.

"There he is!" a blonde girl pointed and a fresh round of giggling broke out. It was a group of girls between the ages of fourteen and nineteen if he had to guess at their ages and curiously, it seemed to be made up of both ninja (who should have known better, he thought) and civilians who knew nothing about him or his life.

"He just looked at me!"

"Let's follow him," someone else stage-whispered.

Not in the mood at all, Sasuke whipped his head back around and moved hastily into the trees. He had no intention at all of being stalked by a bunch of idiotic fangirls all day. He was so focused on getting away from his unwanted admirers that he didn't pay much attention to where he was going – just lost himself in his reckless speed. It had been a lot harder to shake girls off when he was younger.

The ground suddenly shook beneath him, the whole forest shuddering. Sasuke stilled on a high up branch, snapping to attention.

What was that?

It felt like an explosion. An earthquake. As he waited, another tremendous crash shook the ground below and he pinpointed the source easily; it was coming from up ahead.

Sasuke only hesitated for a split second; he was bored, he was curious and he wanted something to distract him from the way things had and hadn't stayed so obviously the same since his defection. In only moments he was on the edge of another training ground – a private one, by the look of it – his chakra suppressed to almost nothing so he could watch without being seen.

At first he couldn't see anything at all, even with the Sharingan. There was a thick layer of dust and debris in the air obscuring the match below and he had to wait for it to clear before he made out the proud back of his Hokage in the middle of the field, arms crossed as she scanned the distant tree line.

The earth beneath her feet was shattered, practically a crater – Sasuke looked up as the smoke cleared and saw pink hair on the other side of the training grounds. There was a frown on Sakura's face that he hadn't seen in years – the look she got when she was working out a problem in her head, her thoughts moving faster than he could track them across her face.

She'd always been good at problem solving. He hadn't even realised he'd forgotten that particular expression until now.

I should leave.

It was clear this was a private training session between mentor and student; Sakura hadn't signed up to be spied on by an invisible audience any more than Sasuke had signed up to be followed by twittering little girls who only cared about his looks. It wasn't fair on her to watch like this –

But then Sakura moved.

She was faster than he had expected – faster than he remembered – and her body moved with a grace she hadn't yet achieved in their genin days, a mix of speed and self-assurance. He couldn't draw his eyes away as she charged Tsunade fearlessly, as they ducked and weaved around each other in a sequence of attack and defend that was so seamless it looked like a dance. If he hadn't already known Sakura was Tsunade's prize pupil, he would have known it after seeing them fight each other.

"Too slow!" the Hokage taunted as Sakura aimed a kick at her head and missed by a split second. "I taught you better than that, Sakura!"

Sakura didn't respond, just brought her heel down sharply and the earth exploded so violently he was almost knocked off his perch high up in the trees. In the ensuring chaos, he picked out Sakura's pink hair blurring towards the trees and the chakra in her hands – what was she going to do? he wondered.

Tsunade came running out of the smoke just as Sakura reached out, picked up a tree and swung it at the intimidating figure of the Hokage. Sasuke's jaw dropped despite himself.

"You also taught me to use my environment to my advantage," Sakura called, as Tsunade went flying through the air.

She lunged after her mentor with the beginnings of a smirk on her mouth and the fight moved away from him. The desperation with which he wanted to see the outcome of this fight took him by surprise. He'd always known Sakura had potential; seeing the results of that potential made his breath catch in his throat. Goosepimples erupted along his sweat-soaked skin as he clung to his high branch, waiting out the trembling of the earth below.

She could have killed me.

If she'd come at him with that chakra-enhanced strength that day in the Land of Iron, she could have done it. It only would have taken one direct hit. When she'd called his name he'd already been battle-weary and injured; slower than his usual standards, with fading vision and a severe slip in sanity.

It wouldn't have been an easy kill, but she could have done it. Why had she come at him with a poisoned kunai when she had such raw power in her fists? It was a bad plan – she was too smart not to see that from the start.

He took off in the direction of the village, unsettled and strangely dissatisfied. He had once understood Sakura so clearly and known exactly where they stood with each other, but around him now she was painfully careful, always hesitant and unsure. He didn't like it. He wanted the Sakura he'd seen in the clearing with Tsunade, the bones of the girl she'd been before he left; someone whose smiles always reached her eyes.

That girl had loved him though. Maybe that was the difference.

Sasuke was not so foolish as to think the candle-flame of her affection for him had survived his defection and the ensuing destruction of Team Seven. And if it had…he was sure he had killed whatever small remnants were left the moment when, half-blind and riding the razor edge of his sanity, he had chosen to aim the chidori at her turned back.


Sakura collapsed flat on her back, all her muscles screaming with exertion. It had been so long since she'd got to do this – Tsunade's training sessions were always brutal, unforgiving. She attacked without mercy. After years of this she was more or less used to it…or had been until a hiatus that had lasted months.

Tsunade had not beaten her but it had been a protracted and challenging fight, to which they were only now calling a stalemate three hours after it began. The ground beneath her was thoroughly pulverised. More than one tree had been torn up in the fight. Her hands were bleeding; her gloves were old and torn and Sakura felt like she'd been run over by a herd of wild buffalo.

And it felt incredible.

Exhilarated, she started to laugh as Tsunade sunk next to her a little more gracefully. She was proud to note that her mentor was breathing hard, a faint sheen of perspiration on her face.

"Shishou," she teased, "are you out of shape?"

"Brat," her mentor muttered out the corner of her mouth. "I can still break every bone in your body."

"Only if you can catch me."

The last three hours had rather proven that Tsunade couldn't. It was this that kept the shit-eating smile on her mouth as Tsunade flipped her off and started to heal her injuries. With a shake of the head, Sakura did the same and a peaceable silence settled over the clearing.

"Kakashi came to see me," Tsunade said, after a moment. "He has some concerns about your schedule."

It was about the other day and the training session she'd missed. Of course. Sakura cursed her short-sightedness, wondering how she could talk her way around this, if she could even put into words exactly how she felt.

"What did he say, exactly?"

Tsunade's amber eyes were knowing, but then she'd always been able to see right through her even from the start. "Sakura," she started in an uncharacteristically gentle voice, "Do you even want to rejoin Team Seven? Be honest."

"I – of course! Of course I do, it's all I wanted for years."

"But at the start of those years, you were a little girl whose team had left and you needed a goal to work towards. You've been my apprentice for longer than you were ever part of Team Seven, Sakura. You've grown up since then. It's okay if you've outgrown the original goal."

There was a lump growing in her throat. Tsunade could be kind, but sometimes it was the kindness of a scalpel slicing open the skin, letting an infection bleed out into the open air. Sakura's voice shook as she asked, "Why are you saying this?"

"Because you and I both know you could have changed your shift the other day. Shizune was actually at the hospital, she could have covered for you if you'd asked."

"It didn't seem fair without notice," she protested, but even to her own ears it sounded like an excuse. She swallowed, staring at the fine layer of dirt ground into the skin of her knees. "How long has Sasuke been reinstated for, Shishou?"

"Six weeks, give or take."

She nodded, unsurprised. "He didn't tell me. Neither of them tell me anything, Shishou. But they still expect I'll drop everything to go and train with them at a moment's notice, like I'm still – like I'm still exactly who I was when they left. Like time hasn't moved on at all for me just because I stayed and they left. They didn't even ask me when they arranged the training."

"So you punished them." There was no judgement in Tsunade's voice, but Sakura felt ashamed anyway. It sounded unbelievably petty when put like that.

"I just refused to set a precedence," she said. "Alright, I could have changed my shift, but why should I make everything go around them? I'm not leaving the hospital anytime soon, so maybe…maybe I just wanted to make them go around me for the first time ever. Just once. Before it goes back to how it always was."

The boys had already fallen back into their old patterns with each other. Every moment they spent together she could see it coming back – and while once that was everything she would have wanted, Sakura couldn't pretend she hadn't changed while they were gone. She wasn't content with her old place in their dynamic anymore.

She didn't want to go backwards, but it already felt like there was nowhere else to go. The only room in the group was for a thirteen-year-old girl who was already gone.

"You know," Tsunade said conversationally. "Kakashi is looking to put you forward for the Jonin exams when they come around."

Sakura turned to look at her so fast her neck cracked. "What?"

She gave Sakura a look that made it clear she was not about to repeat herself. "The only way things will go back to how they always were," she said slowly and clearly, "is if you let them. You're too old, too talented and too practised at dealing with stupid men to let anyone put you in a corner like that without a fight. So I ask you again, do you want to be on Team Seven or not? Bearing all that in mind?"

"Yes," she admitted in a small voice. "I do."

Tsunade's sudden grin was fierce, as she stood and pulled Sakura to her feet. "Good. Leave your schedule to me, then. I'll make it work for all of us."

"All of us?"

"You didn't think you were getting off the hook with me so easily did you? You might be a million times stronger than you were when you started as my apprentice Sakura, but I think you'll find I still have a few things left to teach you."

She couldn't help the bright smile that crept over her lips, crinkling the corner of her eyes. In the old days she'd always felt a little unwanted and more than a little useless. She was the one Kakashi never bothered to teach, the one Sasuke ignored, the one Naruto never saw clearly.

Tsunade had always been able to see her clearly. It was nice, she reflected, to feel wanted – not for nostalgia, or a misplaced sense of guilt – but for her own battered, stubborn, striving self. It was nice to feel worthy.

"Yes Shishou."


"Ino-chan," Hinata said uncertainly, her lavender eyes wider than usual. "Are – are you sure this is a good idea?"

"One hundred percent," the blonde replied airily, ignoring the synchronised groaning of the boys at the table.

Chouji was inhaling barbecue at his usual indecent rate, but Shikamaru had slouched as low in his seat as he could go without disappearing beneath the table and Kiba looked like he wanted to make a run for the nearest exit. Only Shino seemed sanguine as usual, but it was hard to tell when so much of his face was hidden. It was not, Ino was prepared to admit, the stellar response she'd expected to her plan – but she only Hinata needed convincing really. She was more than capable of flirting, cajoling and outright bullying the rest into action if she needed to.

"They've had a tough time," Ino continued, in her same breezy voice. "In fact, we've all had a tough time, but at least none of us ran off to learn from a snake man with questionable motives and then got manipulated into joining a criminal organisation bent on world-domination."

"Here,here," Choiji muttered around a mouthful of pork.

"Uchiha made his choices," Kiba tried to interrupt, but Ino silenced him with one raised hand and a fierce glare.

"Team Seven is a mess, you guys. You know that. You've seen it first-hand, remember?"

They could all remember with perfect clarity the failed retrieval mission, how Naruto had been brought back half-dead in Kakashi's arms. They could recall Sakura's pale face in the two years she was left essentially teamless in Konoha; the sadness she carried with her in the streets, in the halls of the hospital, on the missions she carried out with them.

They could recall the day Shikamaru took Sakura aside and asked for permission to kill Sasuke. The last three years, she reflected, had not been their finest.

"Ino," Shikamaru sighed, looking like he wanted to slink quietly out the back door and in the direction of home, "don't you think meddling is just going to make things worse?"

"Absolutely not," she said, affronted at his lack of faith. "This is a fantastic idea and you should be jealous you didn't think of it first. You're supposed to be the genius aren't you? A party is just what the doctor ordered to break the ice and bring Sasuke back into the fold – we have to make him socialise this time!"

Hinata still looked uneasy, twisting her hands together beneath the table. "But what if –"

"No if's and no but's," Ino said. "They did it, don't you see? He came back, they're going to be a team again and this is something to celebrate! This is a – a new beginning! Not just for Team Seven and for Sasuke, but for all of us. The war is over. The Council is dead. We deserve this!"

"Yeah, but a party Ino?"

She blew her hair out of her face, exasperated. "Well, what the hell do you suggest then?"

Shikamaru raised an eyebrow at her, an expression she was so familiar with she could probably draw it in her sleep. She'd seen it all her life, the look which meant he thought she was being ridiculous.

Rude, she told herself, ignoring the small pang in her chest. He'd been causing a lot of them lately.

"Maybe leaving them alone to sort things out themselves?"

"I think Ino's right," Kiba said, leaning back against the booth. "Naruto's an idiot and you know he loves a party, so he'd be down with it. And you know what Sakura's like. If it's awkward or she's got any kind of issue she'll just bury it and smile and they're all so dumb they'll just swallow it and they'll be just as dysfunctional as they always were."

"Exactly!" Honestly, it was due to Sakura's hesitation that she was having to resort to this in the first place.

If forehead thinks she's going to tiptoe around Sasuke for the rest of time, she's got another thing coming.

"Well," Hinata murmured, glancing around the table nervously. "Naruto-kun will be happy we've thought of them won't he?"

"Of course he will," Ino said, talking over Shikamaru's muttered protest. "And he'll be even happier if we make it a surprise event!"

"We should hold it at Ichiraku's," Chouji said, but she wasn't having that. There were several obvious flaws in that idea which she had already considered, the first of which was that Naruto, ramen-obsessed idiot that he was, was always there. How did Chouji expect they would be able to set up a surprise party without him noticing, if they picked the beloved ramen house? No, Ino mused, it was just as well they had her to think about these things properly.

Kiba, however, had already started on a ranting spiel, "Are you kidding? He'll just spent the whole time stuffing his face and expecting someone else to pay –"

"We're not doing Ichiraku's," she began, but the two boys were already gearing up for a fight over the merits of the place and were no longer listening.

"Sasuke will hate it," Shino said quietly. It was impossible to tell, but she thought there might be a smirk hidden beneath the collar of his coat – she'd always wondered if he was a bit of a secret sadist. You had to be, she thought, to set chakra bugs on people like that.

"Probably," Ino acknowledged, "but who cares about that? He's earned a painful social experience or two after all the shit he's put us through!"

Kiba and Chouji continued to argue, brandishing barbecue threateningly in each other's direction as Shino took a shot of sake and tipped it in her direction. Hinata was too preoccupied trying to calm her teammate to notice as Shikamaru folded forwards and banged his head on the table – his usual sign of defeat.

Ino grinned and toasted Shino with a cup of her own. The sake burned as it went down, but it warmed something inside her, a shot of fire to spur her on the path to reconciliation and a damn good celebration. Tilting her head back, she imagined the look on Sakura's face when Ino's plan came to fruition – it would be priceless. She'd have to bring a camera and capture it for all time.

"You are such a troublesome woman," Shikamaru groaned, peeking up at her from his flat position on the table. There was such a look of fond resignation on his face that Ino couldn't help laughing at him, even as something swooped low in her belly at the sight. The morning she'd awoke, hungover and regretful in his bed was never far from her mind these days.

"You know I'm right."

Shikamaru just groaned again, lower and deeper this time. Ino smirked; it sounded like a victory.


tbc


notes: you know i only had to write one version of this chapter (a minor miracle) i don't love it, but i do love ino's scheming. like she's going to let sakura get away with hiding from sasuke for long.

notes2: having real trouble with the next chapter of dead end street ugh why

notes3: is anyone watching the reboot of fruits basket? i ship kyo and tohru so much more this time around, it's actually painful how sweet it is. i am so excited to see tohru dig her heels in and learn to be a little more selfish. yes bitch.

notes4: just to remind everyone and anyone new, this is not canon-compliant. i started writing this fic-verse well before neji died, just to give you a sense of how balls old this is. cheers.