Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto, its characters, its storyline, or any related trademarks.

Warnings: Lots of potty mouth, very angsty, no real spoilers
Author's note: I did this as a kind of character piece on Sasuke. I challenged myself to try and capture the emotional catharsis Sasuke would go through upon his return to Konoha and how he could change for the better because of it.
EDIT: Made some minor edits

After the War
by: theevilmuffin

x-x-x-x

Stage 1 – Denial

x-x-x-x

Despite the chakra seal and shackles, four ANBU guards still surrounded S-rank criminal Uchiha Sasuke as the Hokage read him his charges and his sentencing. Her voice droned over the silence of the room and Sasuke had to scoff at the ridiculousness of it all. Four guards even when he was shackled to a chair and had no access to his chakra? Not to mention, other than the Hokage and himself, the four guards were the only ones present in the room – an interrogation room.

Talk about a fair trial, he jeered mentally.

Tsunade's voice leaked into his awareness. "…jail sentence, pending the completion – and passing – of a full psychiatric review."

"I'm not crazy," Sasuke growled.

Tsunade paused in her recitation of his sentencing and stared at him over the top of the document in her hand. "Is that so? I don't recall you having training in advanced psychology, Uchiha. So for now, I think it's safe to say that your judgment is not as accurate as someone else who does have that training."

"There is nothing wrong with me," Sasuke said coldly. "I'm perfectly sane."

Tsunade emitted a sharp laugh at this. "Even you can't believe that, Uchiha. No one who has seen what you have and done what you've done is perfectly sane."

"Then you deny your own sanity," Sasuke argued. "Every shinobi has killed and have seen loved ones be killed."

"And yet I'm not a rampaging, genocidal rogue ninja who committed fratricide," Tsunade bit back. Sasuke snarled at that, but before he could retaliate, Tsunade continued. "You've carried a heavy burden Sasuke, and you carried it by yourself. Not only that, but you were used by the people you trusted. Now that the war is over, you've lost your burden, and without direction, you've become lost. I know it may not seem like it, but you're grieving, Sasuke."

Sasuke sat, quiet and seething, and was unable to meet Tsunade's gaze.

Tsunade nodded at the guards and they began the awkward process of taking him to his cell. Two guards held an arm on either side while another unshackled him from the chair. All the while, the fourth guard watched him intently.

Sasuke stared back up at the fourth guard, but made no move to go against his captors. He only broke eye contact when he was pulled up from the chair. He glared at Tsunade as the guards roughly guided him out the door.

"I'm not grieving," Sasuke bit out, just as the guards pulled him out of the interrogation room and shut the door behind them.

"Yes, you are," Tsunade murmured to herself. "And your denial is only the first stage."

Shaking her head, Tsunade sighed and sat down. She rubbed her temples and gazed at the open page in the bingo book, and a photo of a twelve year-old Sasuke gazed right back.

x-x-x-x

Sasuke tensed against the rough grip of the ANBU guards, but without his chakra, it would be futile to resist them or even try to shrug them off. His biceps ached from the tight clinch. His arms would surely be bruised tomorrow.

As the ANBU put him in his cell, a patrol guard passed by on his daily route. He stopped when he saw Sasuke and a cruel smile crept up his face. "Well, well, well. What do we have here?"

The ANBU snorted and shackled Sasuke into a bolt on the floor so he could barely move more than two feet in any direction. The guards made sure the shackles were secure and then left the cell. The metal door closed with a slam and the guards outside began to speak.

"Don't even try with him, Tetsuo. He's one crazy fuck, that's for sure."

"Crazy bastard should be in a straightjacket and a muzzle."

"No shit. If you'd seen him on the battlefield, Tetsuo, you would know. The guy's a fucking animal."

Sasuke, very aware of the conversation outside his cell, sat in the corner and stewed. Turbulent emotions coiled inside of him. They rampaged and writhed, making his chest heavy and jaw tense.

"There is NOTHING wrong with me."

But the seed of doubt had already begun to grow.

x-x-x-x

Stage 2 – Anger

x-x-x-x

As the days passed, rage began to rattle in his chest like a caged beast. Each breath was heavy and fought against the chains on his inner rage. His mind raced, but time moved far too slow.

This inaction – this solitude – would kill him. The shackles, the chakra seal, the interrogations, the "therapy sessions" – it was all a way to break him.

They were trying to break him. He knew, though. He knew their schemes – knew their feigned ignorance, knew their true ignorance.

But they had no idea.

They had no right.

There were hands on, vice grips on his arms, squeezing and pulling. He knew where they would take him.

But not this time.

He would not break for them – he refused to play their game anymore.

They unshackled him from the floor and the beast broke free. He leapt at them, his tense muscles found relief in the action – in the motion, the collision, the release.

Sasuke roared as the anger overflowed. He clawed and thrashed and kicked – he was a vessel of wrath, of rage.

He was a vessel of desperation.

He was thrown back and his skull cracked against the steel wall of the cell. Stunned, he sat, slumped, and choked on his rage. Dimly, he could hear voices.

"Fucking hell! He bit me!"

"I told you he was a fucking psycho!"

"He's a fucking animal is what he is! They should put him down, just like the rabid animal he is."

"…crazy motherfucker."

Time passed, but Sasuke was unaware, light fluttered in and out of his vision.

"Shit. Tetsuo, he's bleeding."

"Do I look like a give a fuck? He bit me!"

"Yeah, but Tsunade will be pissed. They can't heal him with chakra while he has his seal on."

"You have to be fucking kidding me... FUCK!"

There was a crash.

"Whatever, let's just get him to his interrogation."

"Fuck, I forgot about that. Don't want Tsunade to be doubly pissed for him being injured AND late."

Hands gripped Sasuke's arms. Sluggishly, he was moved to a standing position. Light headed and dizzy, he fell over the moment they eased their grip.

"Shit!"

Hands caught him, yanked him up. Still, his legs would not cooperate. They collapsed under him, and the two ANBU were left to drag him by his arms. His knees dragged against the cold, metal floor.

As they hauled him to the interrogation room, stunned and hair matted with blood, Sasuke slowly and quietly realized something.

He had already broken.

x-x-x-x

Stage 3 – Bargaining

x-x-x-x

Two weeks later, in their usual interrogation room, Tsunade glared at the young man – no, boy – who sat across from her. His wrists and ankles chained together, to his chair, and to the floor. He was slumped, content to stare at his bound wrists and ignored her completely.

He sported a shaved head and twelve staples curved around the back of his skull on the left side – the result of his confrontation with two of his ANBU guards… and a result of the incompetence of said ANBU guards.

Her eyes softened a bit at the defeated posture Sasuke had chosen. She had not known the boy for long, had not had the chance to know him like Naruto and Sakura had, but she knew that if Sasuke was anything, he was proud.

Right now, his pride was gone, broken, and all that was left was a shell of a boy that she hardly recognized to begin with.

At the same time, there was something very frightening about him right now.

He looked… human.

"How are you feeling?"

Sasuke's gaze darted to her for a moment – he had heard her – but they quickly resumed his downward stare immediately afterwards.

He remained silent.

The questions continued, but no answers came.

It wasn't just Tsunade's questions that kept him quiet, though. Questions of his own raced through his mind.

What if, what if, what if… his mind repeated.

He clenched his jaw – he didn't want to play that game.

But the questions didn't stop.

What do you want, Sasuke-kun? What if you hadn't screwed everything up back there? What would you do to get that chance at revenge back? What would you do to be free? What would you do to be sane?

Finally, something snapped.

"If you won't answer any other question I have, Uchiha, then how about a bargain: what do you want? What would give me for that want?"

What do you want, Sasuke-kun? What would you give up to have it, Sasuke-kun?

Sasuke squeezed his eyes shut and tried to will the voices away, but his heart gave away the answer he wouldn't admit to.

I would give anything to stop feeling empty.

Outside, he said, "I'll accept responsibility for the war… just tell them I'm sane."

x-x-x-x

Stage 4 – Depression

x-x-x-x

Tsunade hadn't bought his bargain – had scoffed him at first because she thought he was giving her lip. When she realized he was serious, she had yelled at him – told him that no sane man would want to claim responsibility for a world war, no matter what they would get in return.

Then she sent him back to the cold steel box – his cell.

His cell, where he would be alone, where the demons of the past were free to torment him – to rise out from the shadows and haunt him.

They whispered paranoid and malevolent thoughts in his ears as the days passed.

Five days in, a ruckus of shinobi and equipment could be heard outside… and then nothing.

No guard on patrol, no screaming prisoners being escorted down the halls – just the gruff man who shoved his meal through a slot in the door twice a day and the ghosts of his past that whispered in his ear.

No one came for him on the seventh day.

Failure, the voices hissed. Traitor. They hate you. They leave you here to rot. Don't you see? They've abandoned you. And who wouldn't? You're worthless – a worthless excuse for a shinobi. You can't do anything right. Everything you touch is tainted by you. Fugaku would be ashamed of you… and your mother, what would she think?

They didn't come the second week, either, and Sasuke stopped eating.

By the third week, Sasuke's body had been reduced to nothing more than an sad, emaciated lump of a human being. His lips were dry and cracked; his cheeks hollow. His eyes were dark and sunken from insomnia. He was oblivious to the outside world, oblivious to the demons whispering in his ears and trying to weave that hatred back into his heart.

He was too tired to hate anymore.

He was too tired to live.

He just wanted to die – to finally rest.

"What do you mean he hasn't been eating?"

The voice was distant, familiar but not. Sasuke barely acknowledged it because he was so lost in his own mind.

"I don't care what you think! Tsunade's orders were very clear!"

The door creaked open, but Sasuke didn't notice it. He was tired.

…so tired.

"Sasuke!" a desperate voice hissed. A hand grasped his shoulder and jarred his body. The sudden movement made him nauseous and he began to dry heave.

Steady, gentle hands eased him into a position that helped him breathe.

Something wet touched his lips. Something soft brushed his cheek. He lulled under it.

"Sasuke?"

His dry tongue darted out to gather the water that had been placed on his lips. His awareness cost him, however, as the voices he had struggled to shut out suddenly came back, bearing down on him like a roaring waterfall. He couldn't focus on anything but the hateful chorus of voices.

Throat painfully dry, Sasuke could barely acknowledge the hand on his shoulder as the voices overpowered him. Whoever it was in front of him, they couldn't save him – no one could.

He was too tired to be saved, anyway.

He just wanted the voices to stop.

"Just…leave me alone… to die."

In Uchiha Sasuke's stark, bright cell, Haruno Sakura let her hand curl into a fist until her knuckles were bone white and her fingernails bit into her palms.

Sasuke remained motionless on the floor. His blank gazed locked on the wall. His cracked lips moved to form silent words.

This was not Sasuke.

She squeezed back tears and let herself lean over him. Her hair tickled her cheeks and fell onto his shoulder, brushed his ear and neck. He didn't notice.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm so sorry, Sasuke. I knew your return would be hard, but I didn't think…" She cut herself off with a swift shake of her head. "I'm sorry, but I'm guess I'm just not cut out to be what you want – to do what you want."

Her heart thundered in her chest and each breath sent tremors through her body. She focused on her breathing, on the weak but steady rise and fall of Sasuke's chest, and regained a firm handle on her wavering faith.

She sat back and stared straight into Sasuke's blank gaze. Her green eyes burned with a fierce determination – a fierce sadness.

"I don't care what you think, Sasuke. I won't do what you want, because there is no way in hell I'm going to let you die!"

Somewhere in the recesses of Sasuke's mind, the voices stopped. They faded away as slowly being drowned out by something heavier, something stronger. Sasuke simply reveled in the silence.

Finally, he thought as he closed his eyes and let himself rest.

x-x-x-x

Stage 5 – Acceptance

x-x-x-x

Waking up was like being in a dream. The world fluttered before him, strange but familiar. He could only catch a glimpse of it before he fell back into a mindless sleep.

His heavy eyelids could no longer stay closed. They slowly lifted, but remained unable to fully open. The room was dim and a clocked ticked persistently from the wall. Everything felt foggy.

He licked his lips and wished for water, but his whole body felt like lead. Even his lips could barely move to form words.

His brain was too fuzzy, too muddled, to contemplate the situation.

He flexed his finger, but found that even that small movement tired him immensely.

"Sasuke?"

Something warm enclosed his hand, and a face appeared in his blurred line of vision.

Tired and lost as he was, Sasuke would never forget the face of a teammate.

"Sakura?" he said, or he tried to say, but what came out was hardly intelligible. His throat burned from dryness.

Sakura's head left his field of vision, but the warmth didn't leave his hand. A sound tickled his senses.

…water?

He swallowed thickly at the thought.

Sakura reappeared in front of him and she held something up to his lips. "Here," she said gently.

He greedily drank the small amount of water, and relief briefly spread down his throat, but it wasn't enough. There was a tickle at the back of his throat. He coughed roughly. "More," he whispered, voice scratched.

"I can't," she murmured. "Too much might upset your stomach."

Sasuke grumbled but found his eyes would no longer stay open. Something soft brushed his cheek. It was Sakura's hand, he realized as he struggled against the pull of sleep.

"It's alright, Sasuke. It'll be a while before the sedatives wear off completely. So, just go back to sleep, okay? I'll be here for you."

Sasuke slipped back into sleep with Sakura's last words stuck in his mind.

x-x-x-x

When Sasuke awoke the second time, he was more aware, and his mind jumped as the jumbled pieces of his memory began to fit themselves together.

He was in the hospital.

He was alive.

Still, he wondered if what he remembered was real, or just a dream. Sakura's words haunted his mind. "I'll be here for you."

Had that all been a dream?

Remembering the warmth on his hand, Sasuke flexed his fingers… and the tips came in contact with smooth, warm skin. Sasuke looked down and saw the pale hand resting on the bed in front of his hand. His eyes quickly, painfully, darted over to the owner of the hand.

Sakura sat in a plastic chair next to his bed. Her head hung in an awkward slump and Sasuke could tell she was asleep. The dozen empty ramen cups on the table behind her told Sasuke that Naruto had been by recently, too.

Sasuke swallowed thickly and let his eyes go back to her hand, next to his. He stretched his fingers out to pull her hand under his. He paused as his hand closed over hers. His hand was skeletal and emaciated. His bony knuckles jutted out on each digit and his veins stood out, a stark and ugly green-blue-purple, from underneath his pallid skin.

He flexed his thumb, unable to believe that he was staring at his own hand – unable to comprehend that his entire body was in the same condition.

His skin suddenly felt tight around his ribs. His stomach felt hollow. His legs felt weak.

He curled his fingers around Sakura's hand, desperately seeking that warmth, that comfort, again.

The slight squeeze of his grip was enough to jerk Sakura from her doze.

"Sasuke! You're awake!"

His gaze locked onto her and didn't falter. Sakura fumbled under the intensity of it. It didn't seem angry, just… sad, almost.

He remained silent, and she wondered if he was waiting for her to speak.

"We, uh, we took the staples out. They were supposed to be removed weeks ago, so they were all infected and –"

"What happened?" Sasuke croaked, cutting her off. "Why was I…?" He trailed off, afraid to voice the rest of his question – afraid to admit to his deepest fear.

Why was I left alone?

Sakura looked down at her lap and spoke quietly. "There was an insurgency within Konoha. The last loyal members of Danzo's Root staged a coup. Konoha was in a state of emergency for almost three weeks."

You weren't supposed to be left alone.

She placed her free hand over his (which was covering her other hand) and looked up at him, pushing a somber smile to her face. She felt sadness wash over her as she took in Sasuke's gaunt face and felt the jutting bones of his fingers and wrist.

She focused her gaze back on their hands, still unable to meet Sasuke's powerful gaze. Her eyes felt glassy and she knew she was probably going to cry, but there was just something she had to know.

"Did you…?" She licked her lips, her throat suddenly tight. "Did you mean it? When… when you said… you wanted to… to die?"

The clock on the wall ticked the seconds by loudly and made the silence between them more and more apparent.

After almost a minute without a reply, Sakura looked up and found Sasuke had turned his gaze to the ceiling.

/"Just… leave me alone… to die."/

The weight of those words, of that want, of that tiredness, crushed his chest and made his lungs fight for each breath. It made his jaw tight and his Adam's apple bob painfully with each thick swallow.

The war was over and his revenge, his truth, the very basis of his life had been ripped from him and he was left empty. There was no redemption, no glory, no fulfillment – just loss, just grief.

It was too much grief for one person.

Long ago, he had lost himself to dark thoughts and heavy ambitions, and now he knew he'd never get himself back. But, somewhere in the depths of that darkness, between the painful memories of his family's death and the dim memories of a hate filled war, there was a bright spot. There was one small section of his life that existed as if lit by the sun – a section of his life that he could still recall with perfect clarity.

He could remember the frustration at not understanding the basics of chakra control as a genin. He could remember the wonder of seeing a young girl with bright hair grasp the concept so easily, the pride that would not allow him to admit he needed her help until long after she had left, and the innocent awe on the face of a young boy with bright hair when Sasuke asked for his help.

He remembered a young boy and a young girl, both with ridiculously bright hair, and how they made him believe in something other than revenge.

In the hospital room, the silence had dragged on unbearably. Sakura couldn't bear the weight of what Sasuke's silence meant. She lowered her head and tried to will away the tears, but that only made them worse.

Sasuke's hand tightened around hers and she froze, unsure of what Sasuke's sudden action meant – scared of what his reply would be. Sakura shakily inhaled and held her breath for his response.

Quietly, like a whispered plea, Sasuke spoke.

"I don't want to be alone anymore."

x-x-x-x

END