The Atrophy and Redemption of Uchiha Sasuke

Prologue: Funeral of War

There was no doubt in Haruno Sakura's mind that life would never be the same following the end of the Fourth Great Ninja War. Every building panel, every clearing, and every mountainside would echo the gruesome battles for years to come. Every image would seem as a reminder of the blood spilt and the lives lost. Or, perhaps, it was simply the people themselves that would change, that would become jaded at the memories of violence and turmoil and stolen incorruption. Of bloody shuriken and impact-damaged katana.

Pale fingers shook as they were woven shakily through matted and sweaty pink hair; Sakura witnessed the grand red pillars of Konoha's entrance grow nearer with every step taken closer to home. She, Shizune, and the other medics aided the wounded shinobi along the tree trunk riddled path and arrived under dreary cover of night, remaining cautious despite the official end of the fighting only three days prior. The trembling ache in Sakura's muscles intensified with every step, most of her chakra reserves having been exhausted on healing the injured during the last stages of battle. Darkness eclipsed the surrounding forest leading up to the impressive gates of Konoha, the forest floor transforming into a collage of milky, haphazard stains of moonlight.

In wake of the chilly night air the crickets crooned a welcome-home dirge.

It was a comforting sight, but Sakura couldn't help but think how unbefitting the peaceful setting was for the eve of war. The fighting had ended and the shinobi were returning home, but the emotional sting and pain of war still burned like coals glowing at the base of a doused campfire. The flames were gone, but the threat remained, still dangerous and with the potential to scar and inflict great damage.

Shizune led the injured group past the village gates, ushering the patients inside and barking orders at the exhausted field medics. Sakura trailed behind and distractedly glanced back at the forest with anxious eyes. Shizune sighed, reached up a strained hand to rub her neck with a faint blue-green glow of chakra, and allowed the other medics to walk past her. She noticed her fellow apprentice straying near the overhang of tree branches.

"Sakura, are you alright?"

The pink-haired medic seemed to just realize that she was being spoken to. She started and spun back to face her sempai sheepishly.

"I'm fine, Shizune-sempai. Just waiting for Kakashi-sensei."

Shizune nodded and turned to follow the other medics back into the village just when the Copy-Nin himself leaped down from the wind-swept tree line, all lackadaisical and silent power. His silver hair seemed to droop more dramatically onto the crown of his head, his hitai-ate having been shredded almost beyond the point of wear during battle. The coils of exhaustion seemed to wind tightly around him, gripping and draining until he could stumble home and collapse in a boneless heap onto the shuriken print of his comforter.

Kakashi propped a hand on his right hip and took in the sight of the two medics before him. Sakura smiled at the sight of him, and Shizune just glanced nervously between the teacher and student expectantly. The Copy Ninja frowned in Shizune's direction, the crease between his brows saying it all.

The brunette sighed when she saw that Kakashi was only accompanied by Sai and a worn out Yamato, who had an unconscious Naruto slung onto his back. All four of the men were covered in dirt, their gear falling apart and their clothing and armor torn from overuse and injury.

The light that had made Sakura's verdant eyes glow upon sighting her teammates slowly seeped out and away like drained chakra. Shizune made brief eye contact with Kakashi, who could only shake his head solemnly and turn to face his only female student. Noticing the serious look on the face of his superior, Yamato decided to leave Sakura alone with her teacher and hefted his obnoxious load higher onto his back before following Shizune, who was quietly murmuring some reassuring medical jargon about the Kyuubi healing Naruto with its chakra.

Only Kakashi, Sai, and Sakura remained in the clearing. Sakura hadn't moved from her initial spot and kept her confused gaze fixed on Kakashi, with her large green eyes dull but expectant.

The Copy-Ninja's heart clenched.

As ecstatic as he was to have survived yet another war and return home, he had also dreaded this inevitable confrontation.

It was Sai that moved first, stiffly—for the sake of awkwardness or the obvious pain in his left leg, Kakashi did not know—giving Sakura a brotherly one-armed embrace. Sakura's head snapped up to look at her taller teammate in shock. He wore a sympathetic smile, which was surprisingly sincere.

Terribly, horribly sincere.

Sai, the infamously ignorant ex-ROOT member, the one who could not handle emotions since helplessly witnessing the demise of his adoptive brother, barely managed to catch his pink-haired friend as she seemed to crumble in on herself.

She had remained so consistently, so admirably strong during the motions of the war. Yet now, the young woman could only drop gracelessly to her knees and clutch onto Sai's midriff shirt. Trying to remember everything he had ever read about comfort and friendship, Sai slowly placed his pale arms completely around Sakura's heaving shoulders. He moved his hand over her back rhythmically, his comforting tendencies somehow coming more naturally with every coax of his gloved and ink-stained hand.

The seemingly unbreakable pinkette yielded and clung weakly to her teammate and sobbed like she had never cried before in her life. Brows creased and troubled, Sai looked up at his sempai without ceasing the gentle rocking and patting of his now treasured teammate. Kakashi walked towards them and slouched over the two shinobi hunched on the forest floor. He placed a calloused hand on the girl's head and ruffled the soft tendrils dampened by sweat, just like he did when she was younger. However, it only seemed to make Sakura cry harder.

And if there was ever a more appropriate time to cry, it was then.

Haruno Sakura never doubted that the war would change everything, but she had never, ever imagined this. Such heartbreak. No matter how much everyone should have seen it coming.

The last Uchiha would not be returning to Konoha.

He and Naruto, best friends with a bond that could never be broken by time, by distance, by influences of evil . . .

They had fought side by side. The sight had been legendary, a magnificent demonstration of the power and destruction of two warriors as different as night and day. Darkness and light. Ebony eves and bright dawning. The bonds of friendship had never been so beautiful, so victorious.

The enemy was defeated. The war was won.

And Uchiha Sasuke was not coming home. All they knew, all they could report, was that he was just gone.

Sharingan Kakashi peeled his torn gloves from his forever-marred hands and allowed them to fall unceremoniously to the ground with a dull clunk.

As tenderly as he had ever been capable, Kakashi took his student from Sai and adjusted her comfortably into his arms. Sai took the lead and Kakashi followed, carrying Sakura back to the village. The two men were silent, feeling almost swallowed up by the eerily starless night sky.

Kakashi looked up.

A breeze had danced in unheard, its drafts swirling tauntingly around the deep green leaves of the trees, never to be caught, never to be stopped. If only mankind could afford to be so carefree.

The harsh winds kicked up again, carrying a peaceful, steady drone over the mountain peaks and endless sand dunes of Suna. But to a jaded man like the legendary Copy-Nin, all that could be heard were the cries of battle and the harsh, piercing clang of metal weapons. Misty fog blocked out the stars, and the usually bright Konohagakure moon seemed to be eclipsed by a mask of darkness darker than night itself. Only the faint outline of branches could be seen through the smothering haze.

Kakashi sighed deeply in his chest and allowed his one visible eye to drop shut to join its Sharingan counterpart.

Sakura's gasping cries finally began to soften and die down.

"S-Sasuke," she whispered, a cry following that made Kakashi's heart bleed. How she so reminded him of Rin.

Another sigh.

Surely this night was far too peaceful to be the funeral of war.

A/N: This is an overly ponderous piece I wrote on a whim (Sasuke-style, haha). I know, I know; it's ridiculously melodramatic but I just needed a piece that would set the mood for this story.

Please, do review.