There is a funeral.
It is a small one, with several figures dressed in dark robes, all facing a single headstone. Naruto stands straight even as his shoulders shake uncontrollably, like a tree at the mercy of a storm. Tears stream down his face in rivulets. Next to him, Sai is weeping openly, grief carved into every part of his being, heartbreak curling his back into a crescent moon and rendering the features across his face unrecognisable. Hatake Kakashi stands behind the two, and the only time he moves is to place one hand on Naruto and Sai’s back, resting on the dark fabric of their mourning garbs for a fraction of a second before allowing his hand to fall away.
Sasuke’s hearing is magnified, and everything sounds clearer than it should: the shift of fabric as Hatake’s hand drops, the whispering wind, Sai’s discomforting cries. From his position, Sasuke watches as Sai’s knees abruptly give way. As his body shifts and falls onto the ground, he finally catches sight of the name engraved on the headstone: Haruno Sakura.
Sai’s broken sobs intensify into a deep, piercing howl of pain.
He inhales sharply, and the noise is swallowed by a sudden moan of the wind. Thick incense stains the air and it smells like sorrow and defeat. A pressure lands on his right shoulder and Sasuke almost falls because he turns so quickly.
It’s Sakura, standing behind him, her hand ice-cold and even colder than the chilly breeze that continues to blow its way through the cemetery. Her face is a little paler but the way she smiles is normal when it shouldn’t be, because Sai’s cries only grow louder in the background.
“Sasuke-kun,” she says calmly, softly.
His mouth is bone dry, and it takes effort to get the words out. “What are you doing here? You are supposed to be—"
“—Dead? I know,” she says.
It’s only then that his gaze falls from her face, and what he sees is a gaping wound right above her heart, cutting clean through the armour of her ANBU uniform. He meets her eyes again in muted horror. She is dead because of Oto. She is dead because of him.
“Did you know that the louder the living mourn over a dead person, the faster their spirit can return? I could hear Naruto crying from where I was waiting, and he hasn’t stopped crying since yesterday. He’s grieving over my death,” Sakura says, “but those tears are for you.”
He opens his mouth, but there’s nothing to say. Sasuke raises his hands in front of his face, only to find the pale flesh of his arms mottled with dark flowers. The bruises are deep purple, edged with yellow.
“We’re both dead,” Sakura adds with a tiny shrug, like it’s no big deal, like Sai isn’t falling apart in front of her grave and Naruto isn’t a shell of a person, like it isn’t the end of everything.
Sasuke jerks awake in a cold sweat.
There’s a scream in his throat, one he manages to swallow just in time. The sheets around him are damp and the air is warm against his skin, not cool like the nightmare. When he opens his eyes, he sees white — the colour he imagines the afterlife being, but it’s also the ceiling of the hospital.
He’s not dead because there is nothing here but pain, clean and simple, pulsing through him. Pain is good because it is a reminder you are alive; another one of Orochimaru’s lessons.
To his right there is a large window and outside, the sun is only just beginning to set. Tall trees sway in the breeze, drenched in golden light, their brilliant green leaves bright and lush. People stroll around, their footsteps light and their expressions carefree. The village is safe, and it is as beautiful as he remembers.
It’s springtime in Konoha.
The weather has turned warmer, and he is alive. Going by dream logic, if he is alive, then so is Sakura.
Sasuke pushes himself upright and it takes several tries because his limbs feel like lead and his head pounds to the thudding against his ribs, but he is alive. Cautiously, he concentrates on the flow of chakra and he can feel it moving around inside him, weak but perceptible. His Sharingan works too. He looks down and around him, barely believing his arms are unbounded and his legs are free, even though there is a thick tube running down his throat and a thinner one feeding into the top of his hand. He yanks them all out.
He notices the simple cotton outfit he’s dressed in: dark pants and a blue shirt, and they are not the usual white uniforms he remembers Konoha’s patients wearing. His hair is longer than before. The ward is shrouded in a comfortable silence — the entrance to the ward is unguarded.
Next to his bed, a stack of scrolls lie in disarray next to a vase of yellow flowers, a jar of water and an empty glass. The ward looks less like a patient’s room because colour surrounds him and this space has been decorated, however simply, to be as comfortable as possible.
It looks like a home.
Gingerly, he reaches for a scroll and it’s heavy enough to make his weakened muscles scream. This is good paper and he recognises its quality: it belongs to the Hokage’s office.
When he was making notes on Konoha’s history, he had written down key events into scrolls just like this, mainly to keep up a show for Naruto. It was also to learn about his own past. These scrolls are not signed with a name but it doesn’t matter, not when he recognises this messy, spiky handwriting with an aching familiarity.
Inside is a date and a report of events.
Councillors Mitokado Homura and Utatane Koharu were taken into questioning by the T&I team on the truth about the Uchiha clan massacre. Enough evidence has been found about their involvement and they have been imprisoned. I don’t think there needs to be a trial — Ino’s investigation was extremely thorough.
His heart races. It’s not what he would have planned because prison is a mercy compared to what they deserve, but still, it is action. The councillors have been punished.
In another, dated three months ago:
The mission went according to plan. Orochimaru is dead and Kabuto disappeared, heavily wounded. We lost some shinobi, but Sakura-chan came back fine!
The truth bubbles bright in his blood and the relief that follows leaves him lightheaded — Sakura is okay. Sai hasn’t broken down. Naruto hasn’t lost a friend because of him. Orochimaru might be dead now, but that is never a certainty. His head begins to ache in earnest now. Sasuke pours himself a glass of water and when he swallows, he feels the coolness run down his sore throat. He eases himself back into the bed, listening to the sound of his breath.
Mind reeling, he sorts through the information he has.
Mitokado and Utatane wouldn’t be easy to kill now, not in prison. There is nothing left to accomplish in Konoha and there is a reason he has been left unguarded. It means one of two things — that someone powerful wants him gone or is allowing him to leave, to disappear.
Sasuke doesn’t think twice — he sits back up and goes through the rest of the scrolls, catching up to what he had missed. There are reports tracking Kabuto’s whereabouts and the condition of Oto’s other bases. There are also a few scrolls detailing domestic events, ones not written by the Hokage because they are filled with Naruto’s rambling thoughts. These are the only reports he skims, because they hurt to read. Guilt, like pain, comes in waves.
The moment he finishes the last scroll, he reaches for the window and it slides open with a soft click. There’s a pair of brand new sandals underneath the bed, and Sasuke slips them on before leaping out, only a little clumsily. When his feet touch the ground, he puts his weakened muscles and every ounce of endurance to use: he runs.
Night has fallen, and the barest chill in the air is invigorating. The more he runs, the more strength floods back into his muscles. There is still a part of him that doesn’t believe he is alive, because it shouldn’t be possible. He should have died the moment Sakura’s team stormed the base. He should have woken up in a cell as a traitor.
Instead, he is running. Whatever that has happened in the months he was in a coma, whatever the Sixth Hokage has done — it is working. In the shinobi world, each and every one of them has a part to play. Some will live to change the world. Others die as sacrifices of the state. His role now is clear.
He needs to disappear. He will watch Konoha from the shadows, waiting for the day, if and when it comes, for the councillors to be freed. Then he will kill them. Away from the village, he can wait for Orochimaru’s return. In the shadows, he can protect Naruto as the Hokage continues to fix what needs to be fixed.
At last, the mighty gates of Konoha loom ahead.
A silhouette stands in the middle of the path and unknowingly, his feet slow down. Heart pounding, breath catching in his throat, he approaches the figure warily, each step heavier than the last.
It’s not Naruto.
Sasuke doesn’t know whether it is relief or disappointment that floods through him. Sai stares at him with something unreadable in those black eyes and Sasuke stares right back.
“Finally,” he says, leaning away from the gate and straightening up.
Sasuke stops right under the entrance of the gate, right at the boundary of Konoha and beyond. The air here smells rich, of sweet, thick earth and decaying leaves. “Are you here to stop me?”
“After everything that Naruto has done for you, you still want to leave Konoha.”
He shifts the weight to his heels and back towards his toes. His muscles are tense and taut, but he knows he has a chance to outrun Sai if it comes down to that. “My presence in the village will be more difficult for Naruto than my disappearance.”
“Do you think you’re doing him a favour?” Sai asks.
“I don’t want to hurt him any more than I already have.”
“Where will you go? Oto is in shambles now, in case you’re thinking of going back home.”
Sasuke can’t help it; he laughs and it is a sharp, hollow sound. “It was never a home.”
“But it has been different here.”
He shakes his head. “No,” he says. “I’m sure you already know what the village did to my brother. To my clan. I can never forgive Konoha, and it will never be a home.”
“Home doesn’t have to be a place,” Sai says as his eyes slide off Sasuke and onto a point behind him. Sasuke turns around, weight shifting to his toes and he’s ready to flee at any moment. But there’s no one running up to them. They are alone, and there is only the village glowing with light and life. “Can you find comfort in a village you’ve been trained to protect at any cost? You and I both know it doesn’t work that way. Home is where you feel like you belong and you can find that in a person. In people. The concept of home didn’t make sense until I made friends. Until they taught me how to love. Until Naruto and Sakura.”
And Sasuke understands that this is the closest Sai will come to admitting that he understands how he feels; that they were orphans moulded from the same clay and fed the same lies and lessons. Sai stands here as a mirror of sorts — if someone like him can find his place in the village through its people, so can Sasuke.
These rationalisations and realisations have flitted through his head, from the hospital and up to this point; it’s been clouding his mind from the moment he fell in love with Naruto to that time he sat in the empty cell, sobbing until he fell into a troubled sleep.
It’s not that simple because there is a difference, and this difference is another painful lesson he has learned here in Konoha: there are some things that cannot be forgiven. Like his brother’s final mission, like the weight of his betrayal.
Something sits heavy across his chest and he tells himself it is not grief. “Tell him I’m sorry,” is the only thing Sasuke can say.
Night has fallen, and Sai’s face is a granite mask cast in shadow. “Tell him yourself,” he replies before taking a step back and vanishing in a sharp crack of opaque smoke. A clone, not the real Sai. By now, the memories would be flooding back to the real body and Sasuke knows that the only time he has to leave is now.
The dirt pathway that leads away from Konoha stretches onwards, infinite and eternal. There is nothing but darkness ahead and the woods are treacherous at night, filled with wild animals and bandits, but the night sky is awash with stars.
Sasuke runs because he can, because he has to, leaving the brightly-lit streets, the sleepy buildings of Konoha, and its greatest Hokage behind.
He doesn’t head east, because he doesn’t want to see another ocean for as long as he lives. North is where he had come from at the beginning of it all, and there is nothing left for him there. Sasuke chooses to run straight ahead, feet carving new pathways, and he doesn’t know how many hours have passed except the moon is at its highest point and the night is at its darkest. He stops, panting.
This part of the forest is just like the rest: quiet, where the only sound around is his harsh exhales and the whispering wind. Sasuke walks up to the closest tree, bark smooth against his palm, and lowers himself onto the grass to rest his back against it. Exhaustion crashes down as one great wave and before he knows it, he is asleep.
It is thick and dark, because there are no scenes that play across his eyes, no alternate worlds where his brother is alive or a reality where he was never taken from Konoha. Slowly, a sound grows in this vast darkness, a sound that is both dream and nightmare: Naruto’s disembodied voice, talking about everything and nothing. There is no form or meaning to his sentences and soon, Sasuke gives up trying to decode what he means and gives in to its lilt.
When Naruto laughs, raspy and warm, and when he says something Sasuke hears in perfect clarity, it sounds so close that it jolts him awake.
Tell me yourself.
Darkness surrounds him, but night is lifting. He’s still leaning against the tree and Sasuke lifts his arms, stretching to feel aching muscles burn and around him, the forest buzzes with mating insects and the calming swoosh swooshing of leaves played by the breeze. Everything pales in comparison to what churns inside him so torridly he can barely breathe.
With his brother’s eye in his head and his brother’s memories now carved into his psyche, he knows what it feels like to love unconditionally. He understands anguish. But nothing, nothing, is as suffocating as regret.
Right from the beginning, Sasuke had sensed it. What started as a pinprick in a young ANBU agent the moment his blade was unsheathed had consumed the man who faced Danzo at the Valley of the End.
In this chasm that exists at the edge of night and a new day, in the boundary between what is real and what isn’t, Sasuke is unmoored. It would be foolish to go back and yet he knows it is impossible to push on, not with dream Naruto, speaking Sai’s final three words, haunting him. Regret will hold him back. Regret will destroy. Mind still fuzzy, he doesn’t know if it’s from sleep, the dream, or the coma, and he doesn’t want to think — it’s time to act upon what feels right.
This will be his final mission: instead of pushing ahead, Sasuke moves faster than his mind can catch up and begins to retrace his steps. Itachi exchanged the future for his present, and he will not repeat his brother’s mistake.
By the time the first rays break through the horizon in a crown of light, he is back at where he started.
Konoha at dawn, laminated pale yellow by morning light, is peaceful.
He doesn’t run back to the house. He doesn’t run back to the Hokage’s office. Sasuke runs along the boundary of the village, past the cemetary, until he reaches the sheer mountain face. When he looks up, a giant stone face gazes ahead.
It takes much longer than he expects to make it up the mountain — his chakra reserves have been compromised, and halfway up, he hears it: a haunting, airy sound, played terribly off-tune.
He moves higher, faster. The first thing he sees, as he steps onto the top of the stone head, is the Sixth Hokage seated cross-legged with a shakuhachi up against his lips. It’s his shakuhachi.
Their eyes meet and Sasuke has to steel himself to not turn away. The Sixth Hokage looks tired, but not in any way sleep can fix. There is new depth in those eyes; new creases in the smooth expanse of his forehead. He looks older.
“You came back,” he says calmly, and Sasuke doesn’t know which terrifies him more to the core — how unsurprised he sounds or how perfectly his dream had mimicked the Sixth Hokage’s voice. It was less a dream, and more like his subconsciousness.
Knees weak, Sasuke comes to a seat. “To apologise.”
The Sixth Hokage lowers the instrument and rests it on his lap. He nods and his eyes are a piece of the vast sky they are under, cloudless and endlessly blue. “How do you feel? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Sasuke replies. “I didn’t want to leave without thanking you. For punishing the councillors,” he adds.
The Hokage exhales loudly, and it sounds like a sigh. “Before you brought the truth to light, I was pouring over paperwork and signing drafted policies. It was nothing that really mattered or changed things and I guess I...never learnt what was important. A Hokage has the power to put his citizens first and right the wrongs, and you reminded me I could use this power to change things.”
Sasuke looks down at the village and it looks no different. But there is something thrumming in the air, shimmering like sunlight — things are changing in Konoha. He cannot see it, but he can feel it. He should know; they both have learned that perception is just as important as what is.
“I also wanted to thank you for not making me stay,” Sasuke adds, turning back to him. At this, the Sixth Hokage lowers his eyes but not quickly enough to hide what flashes through them. It makes Sasuke freeze. “...I betrayed your trust, yet you still want me here,” Sasuke whispers, barely above the sound of the wind.
“The law requires you to stay — apparently a marriage is between whoever’s fingerprints mark the paper, not the names written down on it. What I want isn’t the only thing that matters,” the Sixth Hokage replies instead. Now it is his turn to look down at the village. “What do you want, Sasuke?”
Sasuke carefully places aside the unbelievable fact that he’s still legally married to Uzumaki Naruto and mulls over the more pressing issue at hand. The longer he sits with the question, the heavier it becomes.
This is something no one has ever offered him before: a choice. The lives of shinobi are not their own. They belong to their village, to its leaders, as weapons of war. When faced with any question, his only answer has ever been yes; Oto’s betrayal was his first no. And now, an even harder decision awaits because there is no yes-no dichotomy to fall back upon here. There is no mission objective. The only thing that exists here is what he wants.
On top of the village, wind surging around them, Sasuke realises for the very first time there are so many things he wants: I want Konoha to remember my brother for the boy he was, not the murder he was forced to become. I want to be happy. I want to go back to our home with you. They are also seemingly impossible things.
“I want you to play better,” he says at last, pointing at the instrument. And then: “I can teach you.”
The Sixth Hokage’s head snaps around in a blur of yellow, so quickly that Sasuke finds his hand gripping the sleeve of his Hokage outfit, holding him in place in case he topples over the edge. In the instant it takes for him to act, he releases the fabric as the Sixth Hokage responds with a voice as heavy as the weight pressing into Sasuke’s chest, “I heard it’s not an easy instrument to learn.”
“It’s not. It’ll take time.”
He chuckles, and it feels like a lifetime has come and gone since Sasuke had last heard something so effortless. It sounds different from the dream; reality is always better. He knows he cannot stay forever, but for now, this is enough. Sai is right because home isn’t a place, and his mind lingers on Sakura’s anecdote about his past — how he has always been able to do the right thing.
The thing in his chest shifts and lightens.
Perhaps she had mistaken the intentions and motivations of Konoha’s Uchiha Sasuke, because who he is now has learnt it’s not about doing what’s right. No single answer or decision can ever be the right one — his brother has taught him that. The only thing anyone can hope to do is choose what they will regret least.
All Naruto does is hand him the shakuhachi, and smile.