Retreating Haze

Chapter 2

Sasuke liked ceremonies and customs. He always had. They reminded him of the past, when words like chivalry and honor meant something, when people were worth trusting, when he was still living. So when Sakura's father made "grand traditional wedding" a condition to his consent, he made no attempt to bargain.

It did not matter. Rites and rituals were in his power to perform. These did not involve matters of the heart, only clearly outlined rules and set procedures. As for the cost of a wedding at Konoha's most prestigious Shinto shrine, or the extravagant hamayome that Sakura shined in, or the reception for two hundred guests that followed the wedding? Well, those fell into the realm of materialism which he was more than capable to provide. He was, after all, the sole inheritor of an entire clan.

Providing for her emotionally; however, was out of his capability.

Everyone knew that it seemed – there were shaking heads and disapproving - borderline pitying – looks that people bestowed her during their engagement. There were pointing fingers and accusing glares too, but those were only directed at him. Sakura stubbornly disregarded the warnings, even those from his loving, wise, mother. If he was a better man, someone more like Naruto, he would have gathered his courage and stopped all this. Listen to your mother, he would say while shaking Sakura by the shoulders with his two hands, I can't love you. I can't love anyone.

During a mission, Kakashi asked him why he wanted to marry Sakura.

It's none of your business, he almost said out of habit, but he didn't, because Kakashi cared for Sakura so much (he was not so bold as to assume he still cared about him the same way) it made their engagement his business. It is not for reviving the clan, he said finally, a truthful answer ever since he made his resolution.

I am glad to hear that, Kakashi sighed, but that wasn't my question.

Sasuke stayed silent. It occurred to him then that although he knew what the reason was not, he did not know what the reason was. In truth, there were no logical reasons, no ulterior motives that should stop him from putting an end to this madness, and yet, he wouldn't, he couldn't... He wondered why breaking this engagement was so impossible when he had broken so many other ties before.

The wedding was everything Sakura had dreamt of when she was a young girl. The dress, the people, the place, the food – at a glance, everything was perfect.

But Sakura knew the wedding was far from perfect. She was fully aware of the tension, of the fact her mother never smiled, of the fact that other than Kakashi and Naruto, everyone else came only for her (many out of curiosity, a few out of morbid fascination). She tried her best to ignore all of that, acted like she did not notice, and gave the biggest smile while she entertained her guests. She did not want anyone's pity. She chose this, she reminded herself, she wanted this.

At the end of the night she waved good bye to her drunken guests and exited the elegant reception hall with her husband. Sasuke, her husband - those words sounded so strange in her head even after being engaged to him for almost a year. It all felt like a dream; neither good nor bad, just surreal: because once upon a time, this was a dream.

He remembered a time when he lied about a broken vase. That night, his mother cooked his favorite dishes and made him watch as the rest of his family ate. His hands were unbound but he could not eat, that was the unsaid punishment, he knew. In the same way, Sakura's presence would be his punishment for all the suffering he would put her through, perhaps, for the rest of her life. She would live under the same roof, shining with her pretty smiles and attractive curves, but he would not touch her, could not touch her.

After a quick tour of his home, he slid open the door of one of the larger bedrooms and turned on the light. This is your room, he told her without turning toward her. She looked so beautiful he did not dare to look at her more than necessary. Retreating back into the hallway, he pointed at a door in the far end of the hallway, That is mine.

Three years before their marriage, Sasuke surprised the village by buying a mansion. The estate was previously owned by a wealthy businessman notorious for being a recluse. The likeness of the two owners caught the attention of the media and instantly the story of his new home became Konoha's hottest story of the week. Sakura remembered being surprised by the purchase. It was too extravagant, she thought, it did not fit him. The truth was the opposite, because really, what was more fitting to Sasuke than a lonely house on top of a lonely hill? The more she saw of the house, the more she was convinced that Sasuke bought the mansion because it reminded him of the long demolished Uchiha complex: large, quiet, uninhabited, a little dead.

This is your room, her husband told her, his voice so soft she almost missed the words. Her first thought: what a nice room, floor to ceiling windows, stylish and matching wooden furniture, walk-in closet, private bathroom. Her second: What? My room? As if answering her thought, Sasuke took a step out of the room and pointed down the hallway, That is mine.

The last time he lived with people (with, not just around, not just near), he was part of a family. He had a brother, a father, and a mother. The few foggy memories he managed to retain from before he turned five told him they were all living happily enough together then.

It was unfortunate the only vivid memories he had of his family were those leading to the fateful night. He remembered them clearly because he had reviewed them often in his mind when he was young, trying to fit those disjointed events in his mind into something meaningful, a silver bullet that could make sense of everything. They were generally unhappy memories, and the methodical way of which he dissected them only made them cold and impersonal.

He wondered if remembering only how his parents died and not how they lived made him a bad son. He felt especially guilty about his mother because he never doubted her love. Yet, all he could remember of her (other than her lifeless form) was that she packed lunches and bandaged his knees.

Sakura, like his mother, also packed him lunches and patched up his wounds. But she was beginning to mean more to him than the ghosts of his past. Unlike his mother, Sakura was deceptively strong, and she could heal the deepest of wounds, and she was alive, so very alive…

In essence, life after marriage did not change for Sakura. She never expected everything to change, but she expected something would. A heir was Sasuke's intention, she had always thought, but it did not take long for her to doubt. A year into the marriage, they still slept on different beds, in fact, Sasuke never touched her, not even something as innocent as holding her hands. When they were in the same room, he would look through her, as if looking at her was hard, even painful. Maybe he hated her, but could that really explain everything?

Sasuke was like a ghost, making apparition as he pleased before disappearing again. Sometimes she would not see him for days, the only sign of him being his shoes on the shoe rack. On the days when he was feeling particularly sociable, they would eat meals together, and sometimes even cook together. Mostly though, aside from healing the more serious wounds after his missions, their only interactions were quiet hellos when they unavoidably bumped into each other in the house and short notes they left on the fridge when one of them was urgently called away.

If Sasuke was simply her roommate, she could not complain. He was incredibly easy to live with because he was so neat and so non-intrusive, but as it was… They were married but they did not live like husband and wife. It was not necessarily a bad thing, she knew, but she could not quite convince herself it was a good thing either.

It was his first s-ranked mission after the wedding, the first mission that lasted for over a week. On the sixth day, sometime after he had sent his team to their tents for the night, he took out a calendar and counted the days to the end of the mission. It surprised him when he realized what he was doing: Sakura, it seemed, had transformed his mansion into something more.

He lived in many places in his life: the abandoned Uchiha Complex, the underground tunnels in Orichimaru's lair, the forest where Madara lived, his many apartments, and finally his empty mansion. They were points on a map, places of residence, but never a home. What made a location a home? The people who lived there, the sounds they made, the life they brought to an otherwise lifeless building. For the first time in a long time he had a home to return to; someone to return to.

He would not call it love, but he was ready to admit he felt something for her, and he knew he wanted to do more for her, if he knew how.

She was unhappy – not all the time, of course, her life was bigger than Sasuke, but being married to him inevitable meant a good part of her life was tied to him. Maybe, if she had never loved him the arrangement would be easier to bear. But as it was... it was unfortunate that she did loved him once upon a time, troubling that the fondness never completely went away, and absolutely tragic that there were never a shortage of reminders of what their relationship missed. To her credit, she was able to hide her pain relatively well. For the most part, she could sit next to Naruto while he called wife just to ask about her morning, watch bouquets being sent to Tenten from Neji, and listen to Ino talk animatedly about her wild sex life all with a straight face. Pity was not something she sought – and she knew there would be no shortage of that if she was vocal.

There was a part of her (the better part) that reminded herself she did not marry Sasuke to be loved, but to love. That part of her also rationalized that sweet talks were superficial, roses died in a week, sex was totally over-rated, and she could talk enough for both of them…

But the truth was: everything did matter, and every reminder was like salt on fresh wound.

He thought, whenever Sakura gave him silent treatment, knocked chairs over, slammed doors shut, or when hot tears streamed down her face when she thought he was not home, that she would leave him. But she never did, not even when she had the perfect chance. There was a doctor once, handsome, rich, and not screwed up. He loved her enough to ask her to divorce her husband and marry him.

Sakura never told him about the doctor. He found out only because he overheard two gossiping guards at the village gate when he arrived back from a mission a day early. They stopped talking when he made his presence known, and even had the decency to look embarrassed. He returned to an empty house that night. A quick check of the calendar on the fridge door told him Sakura was on night duty, but despite the reassurance he could not sleep. As he paced around his living room contemplating on what he heard, he felt something akin to resignation, and maybe fear mixed with regrets. He pushed those feelings away and told himself that it was all for the greater good, that life would go on, and that the inevitability of Sakura leaving would not affect him… no, no, would not affect him.

The next day he went to the hospital to catch a glimpse of his wife's suitor out of morbid curiosity. He had no desire to confront anyone, so he simply hid when he found them. Sakura was in the middle of an animated conversation with another doctor, and he knew right away from the way the man looked at his wife that this was the man in the rumor. She was smiling, laughing, and unlike the conversations she had at home, this one went two ways. He might have grimaced, because at that instant his inability to converse with his wife became blatantly obvious. two years into their marriage, he still did not know what to say when she asked a question, still did not know how to act when she was around, still could not let his eyes linger on her because he knew one thing could lead to another… and he simply could not take the risk.

Had she filed for divorce, he would have quietly let her leave, because he couldn't blame her for the affair. Sometimes he wondered what would have happened had he confronted her: Would that have given her enough encouragement to leave? But he never did, she never mentioned anything, and so they stayed together.

There was something like a secret affair with a visiting doctor who tried to woo her. She let him flirt, sometimes even encouraged him. The doctor proposed at the end of his term and that was where she drew the line. I am a married woman, she told him, I have vowed to stay by his side. The doctor accused her of leading him on. The next day, he was gone.

The weeks after, in spite of the guilt that always followed, she day-dreamed about an alternate reality of what could have been. In her mind's eyes she could see another life, a comfortable but uneventful life where she would feel secured and loved. She could have been content, she knew; no one would blame her had she chosen that path, she also knew – but she stayed, and whether it was simply out of loyalty, she did not know.

She was frustrated, at Sasuke for being so distant, and at herself for being so needy. There were nights when she felt angry at everything: angry at the way Sasuke looked through her like she was not there; angry at how he never asked about her day and when she asked about his, his answers would always be so short; angry at the way he avoided any physical contact, how he flinched away from her touch; angry at how he sometimes closed doors in her face. During those nights, she would cook only for herself to make a point, and she would eat her dinner in silence, vowing to never talk to him again unless he spoke first. Sometimes she would walk through the house carelessly like a storm, making an effort to leave a mess behind her, and occasionally breaking things. Sometimes she would cry.

He took in everything silently, never angry, never cease to surprise her with his patience for her bad behavior. He would cook his own dinner, clean up after her, and fix whatever she damaged. When she woke up the next morning the house would look as perfectly as it did the morning before. He would be gone, but breakfast would be waiting for her. It was as if he was apologizing, except she should be the one apologizing instead.

His team-mates called him brave. He did not deserve such a title as he did not even know why he did what he did. He supposed, if he must call it something, he would call it repaying a debt. To whom? Perhaps to the village, but more likely, to the world. When he was younger, he had always thought his own vengeance would affect little other than the target of his wrath and himself. That was a fantasy, he knew now. On leaving the village and on starting a war, he affected so many innocent bystanders along the way. It suddenly became clear to him when the burning beam came down and he was the only one who could save the man, that maybe this was the reason why he was still alive. It made sense. His team-mate had a family: a wife and three children. Logically, it was a fair trade, and if he died a painful death in the process it would only be justified retribution...

But there were still so many debts unpaid, and then there was Sakura, his wife.

Sakura, whom he married but never touched... He was indebted to her, for making his life so undeniably better, for giving him something to come home to, and maybe something to live for. If he was willing to save a team-mate without a second thought, why hadn't he done anything for her? Was he really protecting her when he kept her at arm's length? Or was he simply too scared of being hurt again to do anything else? There was nothing to lose if there was nothing to begin with... but shouldn't Sakura be worth the risk? Was not knowing what to say or how to act around her simply poor excuses for not trying at all?

He gasped for air and opened his eyes.

He could see silhouettes of people moving, sense the commotion around him. Pain hit him like waves hitting the foot of a rocky cliff during a storm - relentless, strong pulses that surged, receded a little, then just when he began to forget the intensity, surged forward again in full force. Suddenly he was pulled up, pulled to the left, before being sat down again. The pain that came along with the movement was so sharp, he could hear himself scream. Sakura, he hoped was not there to see him die, not today, not on her birthday.

There was a jab on his side, and almost instantly he could feel the grips of pain medication. The pain began to dull, the sound began to jumble, and darkness began to spread from the corner of his eyes. Would she finally be free of him if he dies? The last he saw of her, so long ago, she cooked breakfast for him, she asked him to come back home safely. She was smiling then, not a happy smile, he thought, but one of resignation and disappointment, perhaps. It was the smile of a woman who kept giving but was offered nothing in return.

He lifted his arm to grab onto one of the moving shadows in front of him, sheer will momentarily overcame the immobilizing drug induced haze. Don't call Sakura here, he heard himself say, Don't call my wife on her birthday.

Sasuke was absent most of the following March because of a four days mission that turned complicated. It pushed her further into an abyss of dark emotions. When her birthday approached with him still absent, Sakura replaced the more sophisticated wines from her previous birthday parties with spiked punch and hard shots. She wanted to drink her sorrows away, and what better excuse was there than drinking games at her own birthday party?

As it turned out, depression was a poor drinking company. When the distractions (her party, her friends) were gone, the fleeting oblivion gave way to an intense headache that kept her curled up in bed and awake. She found herself drowning, all her loneliness, sorrows, and self pity brought to the forefront, magnified, like water pounding out of a broken dam. No, no, no, stop thinking, shut up, SHUT UP, but it was too late.

I hate you, she said into the darkness, to herself, to Sasuke, to the world.

When she heard knocking in the morning she thought nothing of it. A medic, she assumed, watching the ceiling spin above her, it was not the first time the hospital called for her assistance during an off day. But that was not it. Naruto was at the door, looking so solemn he did not look himself. Sasuke was in an accident. And just like that, she sobered.

Uchiha Sasuke in Critical Condition after Heroic Act

Konoha, Land of Fire – It is the latest chapter of a story of redemption, Uchiha Sasuke, the sole survivor of the Uchiha Massacre, and one time enemy of the state, is credited for using himself as a shield to save his team-mate from a falling block of concrete in a burning outpost near the border of Land of Fire. The two were brought to Konoha Hospital early yesterday night by the a rescue team sent in response to an emergency report. The teammate, name still unreleased to protect his privacy, is in fair condition this morning but Uchiha remains in critical condition.

The incident happened at the end of a grueling four weeks mission. The fire at the outpost is still under investigation, but one informant had told Konoha Daily that initial analysis points to a targeted attack against the last Uchiha. It is not known who initiated the attack, but according to the informant, the attack may be initiated by remnants of Danzo's sympathizers, or an individual who felt Uchiha's sentencing six years ago was too lenient.

"I hope one day everyone will realize as I do that [Sasuke] is a changed man. I think this incident is further proof of his transformation," said Uzumaki Naruto, head of Department of Defense and long time friend of Uchiha.

Mankind strives on Eureka moments, ever since the first caveman that invented fire, to Thomas Edison when he invented the light bulb, to Sakura whom one day realized that Sasuke really did care in some convoluted way. The moment did not come easily (Eureka moments never do), but at the price of Sasuke's near death experience, it came.

Don't call Sakura here, he had said, Don't call my wife on her birthday.

With a collapsed chest and his rib cage broken in twenty-eight places, she could only imagine the pain he felt when he gained consciousness momentarily. There was something tender, something heartbreaking in knowing that even in his suffering, even though he knew she was the best healer in Konoha, he did not want them to call her because he did not want to ruin her birthday. She wondered if she would do the same if she was in his situation, and the guilty answer came back: no, probably not. And yet, the man whom everyone thought incapable of love did exactly that. What else were they wrong about him? What else was she wrong about him?

She vowed, as she watched her unconscious husband outside the ICU, that if he survived she would make an effort to really know him.

There was a sense of déjà-vu when he found himself lying in the whitewashed room attached to an assortment of machines. As the haze of unconsciousness slowly lifted he began to register the sound of pen on paper. He turned slightly to see Sakura sitting near his bed writing on a clipboard and he reached out to touched the back of her hand: she was really there.

He was alive and he was grateful.

She looked up, her eyes widened before they began to tear. Her arms surrounded him a moment later, her face buried in his chest. He almost flinched out of habit but forced himself to stay still: no more cowardice, no more pushing her away. He hesitated before gingerly placing a hand on her back.

It was a first step.

Fin (because now there is hope)