Retreating Haze

Chapter 1

Some nights she woke up in cold sweat, vivid images from her passing nightmare still fresh in her mind. Those dreams were always of him, him getting brutally hurt: fractured ribs, punctured lungs, crushed skull.

Sometimes, he would die in front of her, once in a while, by her bloody hands.

During those nights she would stare until dawn, wide-eyed, at the shadows projected onto the ceiling by pale moonlight. No matter how hard she tried she could never fall back into peaceful sleep.

He dreamt of that day often when he was younger. In his dreams a triumphant grin always lit his face as he watched his brother, face forever petrified in the expression of death, fall to his knees and then to the floor. In his dreams he had always felt satisfied. He found out they were, nothing more, nothing less, exactly that: dreams, fragments conjured by his wishful mind, something that was never meant to be true. In reality, his brother's final demise only left him feeling empty and numb, just as Kakashi had once warned him, just as she had once predicted.

When he woke up, when he finally had time to really look at his brother's ash, he felt no triumph. No, all he experienced was dissatisfaction and the most heart wrenching sensation of loss and loneliness – Because just when it was all too late, he found out his brother was a twisted misunderstood hero all along.

Because now – even if it was necessary, even if it was justified – he was finally, truly alone.

The consequences of that mission were pivotal, and the battles they fought during that month would no doubt be studied by generations after them. Yet what she would remember most vividly, was not the widely reported outcomes – Danzo's death, Madara's death, or the return of peace to Konoha – but the fact that Sasuke stepped in, risked his life, and battled the immortal Uchiha when Madara attacked Naruto.

Perhaps she interpreted his actions all wrong, perhaps he did everything out of a whim, but she liked to believe otherwise. She liked to believe that he felt something for the past, for Team Seven; that he could not kill his old friend like he thought he could; that when Madara attacked, he would not, could not stand to watch his old friend get killed.

As a result of his bravery (she knew better than to called it that in front of him), Sasuke suffered major trauma. His pulse was weak, his breathing shallow, but to her greatest relief Sasuke was, somehow, alive.

It took all of her self-constraint to keep from tearing up when he woke. It took even more conscious effort to leave after she finished his daily medical check-up in the month following. He needed space, she told herself, trying to shut out her desperate craving to see him to make sure he was really there. In any case, she reminded herself, she have no rights to care for him anymore, not after how she gave up on him, not after how earnestly she tried to make Naruto give up too.

Lying in the whitewashed room, unable to move, unable to sleep, he felt the same chest-tightening helplessness he experienced when he watched his parents take their final breaths: too weak to save them, too weak to die with them.

Naruto and Sakura revived him, and carried him back to Konoha. They thought they had done a good deed, they thought they have saved him.

He wished they had left him behind instead.

It would have been better, he thought - at least that way his outside would match his inside: dead.

The media hungrily put Sasuke on the front page.

In spite of his defection to Sound and reputation for being one of the most insufferable young men in the world, news of the last Uchiha never failed to spark interest in the village. No one could quite resist a story like his: a tragic survivor of a massacre conducted by his own brother; a callous avenger so determined he literally turned himself into a demon; a prodigy who betrayed his village to become the pupil of a twisted man who tried to destroy Konoha. His life was nothing short of extraordinary, the make-up of epics. His story sold.

So it was little wonder, when he recovered enough to appear in court, that his trial would become one of the highest-profile cases in Konoha's history.

There were two distinctive minds on the highly anticipated case: one, that Sasuke should be executed, and two, that Sasuke should be forgiven. It surprised no one that the other members of the long disbanded Team 7 eagerly advocated the second cause.

The following winter, the arduous trial ended in Sasuke's favor. That night, Naruto half led, half dragged a reluctant Sasuke to Konoha's best restaurant in celebration of his court victory.

Sakura watched with a small smile a few steps behind. It felt so wrong, enjoying the fruits of Naruto's faith. Sometimes, she wished Naruto would just tell everyone that it was all him, not her. She thought, that would make her feel better, less guilty. He never did, and she wondered if the knowledge of her weakness would ever stop haunting her.

Sasuke Uchiha never regretted killing Madara or his brother. His innate sense of justice would give him no rest while the two breathed. The co-murderers of a clan (even if Itachi was only trying to protect Konoha and him as Madara had once said) were still the killers of his parents. For that act of atrocity, they must die, but that did not stop his heart from withering whenever memories of Itachi's death surfaced in his mind.

Once upon a time, that same man showed him kindness and affection. Once, he proudly called him his older brother.

Perhaps, if he had allowed himself the luxury of white lies he could have been spared the pain - but an Uchiha never makes excuses for his failures or lies for his mistakes. Blissful ignorance is for the weak and painful truths are necessary for one to grow stronger… Sasuke Uchiha wished to grow stronger twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, and fifty-two weeks a year. So, he took the harrowing truth head on:

Less than a life time ago, he loved Itachi with all his heart.

One day, she heard murmurs along the hospital grapevine about the Uchiha's latest exploit; something about barging into the Hokage's office and demanding for a mission. The next day, Naruto ran into her office with a blank envelope in his hands. She took the envelope and pulled out the plain A4 sheet within. It was a note in tight, neat printing.

It read:

Naruto and Sakura,

I am going on a month long mission.


On further investigation, which comprised of stomping into the reinstated Hokage's office with Naruto, much shouting, and threatening to disclose the Hokage's real age to the rest of the village, it was revealed that the Uchiha did not go on any old mission; he went on a Dead-man's Mission.

The first three weeks after this incident passed by relatively painlessly. Disastrous Anbu missions filled the hospital with enough critically hurt patients to distract her from more worrisome issues, say, Sasuke's well being. However, when the rush ended and the month drew to a close without any news of her old teammate, her days became unbearably long. She began to find herself loitering outsider of the ANBU office, making excuses to visit Tsunade, going out of her way to listen in on the gossipers down the hall, compulsively checking her inbox at the hospital.

I am going insane, she kidded to Naruto as she checked her inbox for the fourth time in the past hour.

Naruto could not tell if she was telling a joke or the truth.

Five months after his official release and three months after his first A rank mission, Sasuke Uchiha began volunteering himself for suicidal missions. Dead-man's Missions, they called them; missions so dangerous they were not assigned but granted on request. At first, he simply sought escapism, a way to cope, a way to retain the little sanity he still held. He reasoned mortal dangers would detain his mind from further exploring the treacherous turf of memory… and if he dies in the process? Then he would cease to exist and everything would happily end. It would be a good death too, no one would call him weak if he died in a battle, no one could say he was pitifully submitting to fate.

Once, only once, the possibility of Itachi joining Akatsuki for the exact reason crossed his mind.

Around him, people speculated. They demanded reasons, coherent motives, logical explanations as to why a man who had so narrowly escaped death would put himself in even more danger for seemingly no incentives. When he supplied none, they formulated their own theories. Some took his involvements in Dead-man Missions as reparation for his sin, his way to repay to village for all the trouble he had caused. The more cynical ones took his indifferent attitude toward danger as death wish, evidence of lacking amour-propre, possibly psychological illness. The conspiracies theorists thought the last Uchiha took the missions to impress the high-ups in Konoha, gain their approval, infiltrate the central governing system, and eventually take over Leaf...

A few times, when the whispering became unbearably loud at a certain restaurant he left without finishing his meal. Mostly though, Sasuke only listened and stayed absolutely silent.

Sasuke stumbled into the village one night with a broken arm, multiple fractured ribs, internally bleeding lungs, and poison in his blood. Registered into the hospital at 3:00 am, he caused massive chaos within the emergency room. Haruno Sakura, head medic extraordinaire, was ironically absent. She took the day off, her first vacation day in over a month, a well deserved break.

A messenger was promptly sent for her.

She arrived ten minutes later, a perfect blend of confidence and authority, alert and ready. There was no trace of her abrupt awakening just minutes before. He is going to die, they told her. Again, but they wisely kept the offending word silent. She rolled up her sleeves and declared in an eerily calm voice, Not if I can help it. Then, in front of their disbelieving eyes, she gathered chakra in her hands and began, single-handedly, the healing.

By the next morning, news of Uchiha's return would reach every ear in the village. By the next afternoon, Sasuke's infirmary would no doubt be filled with chocolates and flowers from his continually growing list of admirers. By the next night, the villagers would have engaged in at least one debate on the last Uchiha. And then the next day would pass and another cycle would begin.

He was never surprised when he jolted awake at night from dreams, nightmares, sometimes of his time with Orochimaru, other times of Madara and his maddening stare, but mostly of his childhood, of his parents, and of course, of Itachi. He could never remember the exact content of those dreams, only that they leave him feeling vulnerable, useless, and weak. So in the days that followed, he would push his body to a new limit and engage himself in decidedly reckless battles in hopes of convincing himself otherwise. He would succeed. For a short time he would find peace, but the nightmares, accompanied by a distinct sense of deja-vu, would always pay him another visit.

He stayed in this cycle, this routine, because adrenaline from deadly combats helped. In his mind, Dead-man's Missions were an anaesthetic, painkiller of sort, that numbed his emotional wounds with more bearable physical ones. He knew from the start it was an imperfect solution, that like all drugs, the effectiveness of this sedative would decrease with usage.

It happened five years after his homecoming. A vivid vision of Itachi hit him while he knelt bleeding and panting next to his prey, a once much feared S-rank criminal. He watched in horror as the dying man morphed into his brother right in front of his eyes, smiling the same detached smile, collected even when he took his last breath. Bravo, Sasuke, Madara's deep voice came off Itachi's lips, his words reverberated through his core, now what can you live for?

In a cathartic moment, he hugged his head and screamed.

He needed to prove Itachi-Madara wrong, he thought, his vision blurring, his mind hazy. He could not let taunting phantoms defeat him. He must find purpose again. Before he succumbed to unconsciousness near Konoha's outer gate, he remembered an old ambition he had long forgotten. Once, he had an ambition beyond revenge.

It was like seeing shadows of land against the horizon after months of drifting on a lonely raft. That wisp of hope, fragile, almost nonexistent, brought motion back into his life. He thought at the time, maybe, just maybe, this goal would make him feel whole once more.

He proposed, if you could call what he did that, to her on a cloudy day.

There was no courtship, no romance, no warning, he just appeared at her office unannounced, shut the door with a quiet click, and inquired if she had ever consider marriage. His tone was perfectly calm, unemotional, as if he was simply asking about the weather. She was so thoroughly surprised that she attributed the line to pure delusion brought upon by the lack of sleep. That was, until he repeated the question in the same dispassionate voice a second time.

I suppose so, she admitted, finding no reason to lie. Ninjas, jounins especially, live accelerated lives; they grow up early, they die early. So naturally, if they want a family, they also marry early. At twenty five, Sakura, jounin, apprentice of the Fifth, decidedly single, was already becoming an anomaly. Why did you ask?

What if...

Others might have missed the signs – how his hands dug deeper into the pockets, that subtle movement of his eyes toward the left – but she did not. Sasuke Uchiha was unnaturally nervous; she had little doubt of the fact, she only wondered why. Was he caught a flu? Did she fail to fully heal his concussion from last mission? And the most worrisome possibility of all: was he planning to leave the village again for another one of those impossible missions?

What if I were to ask for your hand in marriage?

She wanted to wave him off but something in his eyes (Fear? Desperation?) made her seriously reconsider his question. When she recognized that, for all practical purposes, Sasuke had just proposed, her heart skipped a beat.

She ought to say no, she reasoned, because she believed, knew, the most probable objective of his proposal was heirs, not love. Obvious reasons aside, an unrequited relationship would hardly create a suitable environment to raise the said children. No hovered on the tip of her tongue but the one syllable word never materialized.

I imagine, she heard herself say, I would say yes.

It was somewhat impulsive, she would admit to Naruto later, I am not even really sure why I said yes. Yet, when he suggested she should break it off if she was not sure, she could not do it.

She secretly justify to herself that she was doing everything to free Naruto from the responsibility of caring for Sasuke. But perhaps, had she been truly honest with herself, she would have realized that despite her losing faith once, she could never lose faith in him again.

He concluded at a young age that human actions are never purely altruistic. You help others because you want them to like you. You make friends because you do not want to be alone. You kill your enemies because deep inside you are still scared of death...You marry someone because you think that person is your best chance to something like happiness.

That was why he fully expected Sakura to say no. She had to – There was nothing in the marriage for her – but she did not, and it scared him.

Forget what I said, he wanted to say when he heard her shocking answer but the words died in his throat when he saw her pensive eyes. It dawned on him that she had seen through his intentions. It made him speechless. It made him want to ask her, how can you agree to marry a man that cannot love you back with a smile?

He wished he could wave her reply off as simple foolishness like once upon a time. That way, he would feel less queasy in the stomach, less disgusted, about their engagement. But he couldn't convince himself, not after witnessing her perform those complicated medical jutsus, not after watching her, twice, amended Shikamaru's battle plans.

Being engaged to her, someone with such a bright future on the horizon, someone who could and should be marrying a better man that loves her, felt like a crime. The more he thought about the situation, the more he was sure that marrying Sakura would be murder in disguise. What kind of man would destroy a life for his own selfish ambition? The question repeatedly surfaced in his mind. Monsters like Orochimaru. Liars like Madara. Killers like Itachi.

The answer drove him mad.

I have to call it off, he told himself, but every time he tried to bring up the topic, Sakura would smile, or offer him a bento, or look at him in a soft (he refused to call it loving) manner. And he just couldn't, couldn't, bring himself to say…

He would marry her, he would ruin her life, but in turn, in some sort of twisted secret compromise, something like self-punishment, he would abandon his original intentions. He would not use her, he would not even touch her.

Disclaimer: I do not own any Naruto characters.