Disclaimer: I own neither Naruto nor anything related to the series. It is the property of Masashi Kishimoto, who hopefully won't be too fussed that I'm messing around with his characters/universe for my own amusement. (whistles)

This story is AU after episode 134/chapter 233. Other notes and Japanese terms are at the bottom. And off we go.

What have I become, my sweetest friend?
Everyone I know goes away in the end

--Nine Inch Nails, "Hurt"

Path of No Regrets: Renewal


Naruto wasn't dead.

No, he was unconscious. Sasuke was sure of that. He wasn't dead. There were no wounds… the hole in his jacket, that was from before, when his Chidori had hit. It had impaled Naruto's right lung… but somehow that bizarre, incredible power of his had regenerated the wound almost immediately. And there were no other injuries. He was just unconscious. He wasn't dead.

He wasn't dead.

Sasuke did not know what this feeling was, as he stood there looking down at his one-time teammate. It wasn't regret. It wasn't relief. It wasn't numb… but it wasn't sad, happy, or even angry, either. There was something twisting its way into the pit of his stomach that felt cold and unsettling, and he could not for the life of him give it a name.

All he knew was that it hurt a lot more than he thought it would have, standing here looking down at Naruto's lifeless form. He found himself wondering how it had come to this. How the hell it had come to this: him, standing over the person he considered to be his closest friend.


Debating whether or not to kill him.

Had things really gone so far?

There were clouds darkening the sky, curtains slowly moving to block the remaining pools of light that still illuminated the valley. The Valley of the End, where Sasuke had barely ten minutes ago sworn to himself anew that he would not look back, no matter what happened here. He watched tiredly, almost impassively, as the beam of light engulfing him and Naruto faded away until it at last disappeared completely, vanishing from Naruto's face. Naruto, who still wasn't dead.

Unexpectedly, the hitai-ate tied around the back of Sasuke's head came loose and fell to the ground with a soft chink beside Naruto's head. Sasuke blinked at it. There was a thin slash running through the Leaf Village insignia, disturbingly reminiscent of the mark that had been on his brother's forehead protector the last time he had run across him. The mark of a traitor, a missing-nin.

He didn't smile at the irony.

Instead, he thought of his own boast, made only a short time earlier. You still won't be able to lay a mark on my forehead. That much has not changed.

He wondered if Naruto had done it on purpose. It would be just like the idiot, going to the ends of the earth just to drive home his point. Sasuke wouldn't have put it past him. Even if it hadn't been on purpose, it still reeked of the usuratonkachi's stupid dumb luck.

Because, after all, it did drive home that point very well indeed. Sasuke had finally acknowledged him as an equal, and the slash just screamed that, hell yes, Naruto wasn't backing down from him. They had fought as equals right up until the end.

"Naruto…" The name came unbidden from his lips as he looked down on his friend (he was his friend…). "I…"

I what?

I care? I'm sorry?

I'm confused, is what I am…

Abruptly, he felt something cold hit the back of his neck, and he looked up, surprised. Then he heard it, the pitter-patter of rain hitting the sheer cliffs surrounding them, and the plop-plop-plop of the water as it drummed into the river. It was soaking him now, running down his face and soaking through clothes that were already wet from the battle before, but he somehow found himself unable to move. He stared into the dark sky, a thousand thoughts running through his mind. His past, his future, and most of all, his now. His choice. And Naruto, still lying there at his feet, still awaiting his final answer.

He didn't know…

Suddenly a jolt of pain lanced through his left arm, and he cried aloud. His breath hissed as the stinging continued, and he gripped his shoulder. Barely a moment later he discovered that the arm was not the only hurt as he coughed, feeling the painful aftereffects of his grueling battle with Naruto fully for the first time. He coughed again and stumbled, blinking as blood hit the ground a mere half-second before his knees did. He keeled forward with the pain.

And found, quite suddenly, that his forehead was now a mere two inches away from Naruto's.

He stared at him, silently, as the rain continued to pour down on them both, droplets sliding along the side of his face and trickling off, some of them splashing onto Naruto's own face. The other boy did not even stir. It would have been almost frightening, had not Sasuke been close enough to him to be able to clearly hear his steady, soft breathing. Because, after all, he was not dead.

Looking back at it long afterward, he knew that was the moment when he finally realized that he could not kill the person lying before him. He would never be able to kill Naruto. He could kick him, punch him, insult him, talk down to him, beat on him, yell at him, and run away from him. But he could not kill him. The thought of Naruto suddenly dead, gone, erased… he suddenly could not bear it. No, he absolutely could not kill him. What had he been thinking…?

Had he been that close to becoming what his brother was? A murderer? Someone who would betray even his own family?

He felt dizzy, suddenly, and wasn't sure if it was from the realization or just from his injuries. His head slumped down, and he tilted it away from Naruto so that his forehead hit the ground softly beside him. He closed his eyes, gritting his teeth. The earlier feeling in the pit of his stomach had gone from cold to heavy and nauseating. He swallowed against it, breathing heavily, and repressed a shudder, suddenly feeling very drained.

Tired as he was, he failed to detect the approaching presence, his senses too preoccupied by the sounds of the rain, the waterfall, and his own heart rapidly thumping against his chest. He did not even hear the footsteps until they were only a very short distance away. Then it finally registered, red flags of alertness going up and shock running through him as he opened his eyes.

He recalled Naruto saying something about others from Konoha who had come along after him. Neji… Shikamaru… Rock Lee, the guy Naruto always referred to as 'Thick-Brows'… and a couple others he could not recall. He also knew that the four Sound nin who had accompanied himself were presumably somewhere out there, though as he belatedly put two and two together, he realized that they must have been held back by the very shinobi Naruto had named. It was a very unsettling thought, and he immediately suppressed it in the back of his mind, because now was not the time to be thinking about more people that it seemed, either way, would be dying because of him.

Now was not the time to think about that, because he had much more immediate concerns on his mind. The person who stood a few yards away from him now was not anyone that Naruto had mentioned, nor anyone who had initially accompanied Sasuke himself on his flight from Konoha. He was now staring at a familiar silver-haired man of average height, who was perhaps the last person he had ever expected to see here.

"You…" Sasuke muttered, forcing his head up for a better view.

The man was smirking at him. As he regarded him more closely, Sasuke caught sight of the insignia on his hitai-ate… and all the pieces suddenly fell into place.

"It's been a long time, Sasuke-kun," the man said.

Sasuke felt sudden white-hot anger rush through him. The adrenaline that had only just been starting to quiet down immediately surged up once more.

"Kabuto," he spat.

When Sasuke had last seen this man, his face had been set in an awkward and disarming smile, the annoyingness and incessancy of which had rivaled even Naruto's usual fox-like grin. Now, though, Kabuto wore an ugly look, a much darker, hungrier smile that would have sent a chill running down Sasuke's spine if he hadn't been too angry to care.

"You lied…" he growled darkly as the man took another step forward. "You lied to us… that whole time… you were working for him!"

Kabuto raised his eyebrows briefly, as if impressed. "Ahh, very observant, Sasuke-kun. It took Naruto-kun much longer to realize when I encountered him a week ago. But you caught it right away." He tapped his forehead protector with his two forefingers, and his smirk widened. "As expected, of the one Orochimaru-sama desires so badly. You, unlike Naruto-kun, have great potential."

Sasuke seethed at him, saying nothing.

"Orochimaru-sama has been waiting for you a very long time, Sasuke-kun," Kabuto continued. "When you did not arrive as planned, and nothing was heard from either Kimimaro or the Sound Four, he began to grow impatient, and I was sent to hurry you along." His gaze shifted slightly from Sasuke to Naruto, and Sasuke's eyes narrowed as the man nodded slightly to himself.

"This, of course, explains why you were delayed," he said, his smirk abruptly fading. "It seems the Kyuubi brat has been interfering once again."

Kyuubi brat? Sasuke thought, puzzled, but had no time to dwell on the strange comment as Kabuto continued on. "It is a bad habit of his, isn't it? And it's getting rather troublesome as of late." His eyes narrowed, and Sasuke suddenly felt a chill of alarm. His sense of danger was confirmed a moment later when Kabuto came to a conclusion.

"I think it's about time we got rid of this problem once and for all."

Sasuke's eyes widened as Kabuto began walking toward them once again. No! he thought, and the urgency with which he thought it almost shocked him. He found himself desperate to stop the man, even though he could barely even move. Panic shot through him. Had it been any other moment, he would have almost wanted to laugh at the irony. Hadn't he himself been trying to kill Naruto barely ten minutes earlier? And yet now, he was utterly desperate to stop this man from harming his friend at any cost.

What had happened to his revenge? What about Itachi, what about his clan? Was he so frantic to save Naruto—Naruto?—that he was willing to give up everything he had spent half his life working towards without a second thought?

Pain blasted up his left arm again and he winced, seeing stars dance in front of his vision for a moment. When they cleared, he felt almost dazed, and realized with a start that Kabuto was right in front of them now, his right hand outlined in the faint, hazy glow of chakra. Or was it his vision that was growing hazy…? He wasn't sure.

His arm tingled… it was familiar. He had felt this pain before.

All of a sudden, he heard his sensei's voice, unusually stern and serious as he stood on a tree branch what felt like a lifetime ago. "Chidori is a power given to you because you found things important to you."

He looked down, saw Naruto still lying there, oblivious to the fact that he was about to be killed. That idiot.

That total idiot.

"That power is not something to be used against your friends…"

He drew in a shaky breath.

"…or for revenge."

Kabuto smirked once more, arm raised. His chakra, Sasuke could see now, formed a small blade.

Kabuto lunged.

"You yourself should know what that power should be used for."

And suddenly, Sasuke found himself moving faster than he'd ever moved before, his Sharingan activating in a split-second, his left arm coming alive in a blazing blue storm of pure chakra that danced outward in all directions, sizzling as it made contact with the rain that was still pouring down.

Sasuke did not even recall forming the seals. All he knew was that one moment he was crouched on the ground watching helplessly as Kabuto attacked, and the next he was standing between would-be-murderer and victim, shaking uncontrollably, his heartbeat pounding in his ears, his hand thrust out to catch Kabuto square in the chest with Chidori. Kabuto's eyes were wide open in utter shock. Sasuke was sure his own expression must have mirrored his exactly.

He slid his hand back out numbly, and Kabuto stumbled back.

And Sasuke's whole body was engulfed in flame.

He screamed, collapsing. It was pain beyond anything he'd known before. He was dying, he had to be. Every nerve in his body was on fire with pure agony. His head hit something—not the ground, it was soft; it was Naruto, he'd collapsed against Naruto—and he failed to bite back another cry as the pain intensified.

Naruto, he thought, and he forced his eyes open. He couldn't die here, Kabuto was still here, he couldn't let him… Naruto…

But it was no use, his vision was already fading, and the pain was dimming now…

The last thing he thought he saw was a dog, wearing a forehead protector. He knew that dog.

And he recognized the footsteps falling right behind it as he finally slipped away into darkness.

Kakashi was 27 years old.

He had graduated from the Shinobi Academy at age 5. Had become a chuunin at age 6. Jounin when he was barely in his teens. Anbu before he was old enough to drink. He had copied a thousand jutsus, seen a thousand deaths, fought in a thousand battles and wars. He had been a ninja for over twenty years. He had seen unimaginable horrors in his lifetime, things that he would give almost anything to erase from his mind and forget forever.

None of it prepared him for what he saw when he reached the valley.

"We're here," Pakkun said quietly.

It was like emerging onto a scene from a nightmare.

His students—his children; his responsibility!—lying there. Sasuke's screams, fading away into the rain and the thundering din of the surrounding waterfall. And that man… Kabuto, Orochimaru's henchman… crouching, hunched over, breathing heavily. Was that his blood spattered all over the immediate area? It had to be, it couldn't be theirs… it couldn't be theirs. He had not arrived too late this time.

An anxious glance at Pakkun confirmed it as the dog shook his head, much to Kakashi's relief. A quick leap later, he was crouched beside Naruto and Sasuke, finding himself doing something he had rarely ever done before—praying. A brief look at Naruto told him he still lived, as his fingers found his pulse to confirm it. A glance at Sasuke showed that he, too, was still alive, but in much more critical shape. Kakashi's forehead creased in worry as he did a swift analysis of the boy's condition. His breathing was ragged and very weak, his chest barely rising and falling. There were numerous cuts, scrapes, and bruises covering his body, and his left hand was badly burnt.

Chakra overuse, he thought grimly. It looked like he had attempted too many Chidoris, burning his hand and coming within a stone's throw of exhausting his chakra completely, killing himself. It was a miracle he was alive at all.

Slowly, he turned away from Sasuke to rest his one visible eye on the other man still crouched a few meters away. To his surprise, Kabuto did not look nearly as bad off as he had merely moments ago. In fact, Kakashi could not detect any wounds on him, even though his shirt was ripped and singed in places, much like Naruto's jacket was.

Eye narrowed, Kakashi rose to his feet. Kabuto stood at the same time, matching Kakashi's pace, smiling evilly. "Late as usual, Kakashi-san."

Kakashi did not reply to him. Instead, he glanced back at Pakkun and ordered, "Don't leave their side." Pakkun nodded and moved to stand behind Kakashi and in front of the boys protectively. If push came to shove he would be absolutely useless—although loyal, Kakashi's favorite tracking companion was definitely not a fighter. It didn't matter, though, as the jounin was not going to let anyone get within a dozen feet of his charges now that he was finally here.

He reached to pull up his hitai-ate to his forehead, revealing his Sharingan eye. He was not going to let this bastard get away with what he had done.

To Kakashi's bitter satisfaction, the younger man took a slight step back. However, his grin still held into place as he shifted into a loose fighting stance. "Sasuke-kun surpasses all expectations," he taunted flippantly, unexpectedly.

"You're not getting your hands on him," Kakashi replied.

Abruptly, he flung two kunai at Kabuto, who dodged as expected, jumping effortlessly to the left. As the other man evaded, Kakashi rapidly formed six seals, then shouted, "Doton! Iwayari no Jutsu!" Several dozen jagged spikes of rock emerged suddenly and rapidly from the ground on which Kabuto was just landing. Reacting quickly, however, the young Sound nin formed a protective glove of sorts with chakra, using it to do a handspring off the tip of one spike without impaling himself. He flipped up and out of range, landing perched on the cliff face a dozen or so meters above him, clinging to the rain-slick vertical surface with his chakra. A split second later Kakashi was there with him, launching into a brief but furious taijutsu battle before Kabuto again backed off, having blocked or dodged all of Kakashi's strikes but failed to attempt any of his own.

He was weak, Kakashi realized. If Sasuke had hit him with Chidori, and he had somehow managed to regenerate himself, it must still mean he was low on chakra now, vulnerable. Now was the time to go in for the kill, before the other attempted to escape. He formed three seals—ox, hare, monkey—and felt the chakra take form in his hand. Raikiri would finish this one off the fastest—he didn't have time to waste on a lengthy battle, not right now. He needed to get Naruto and Sasuke back to Konoha.

Before he could finish charging the attack, though, Kabuto aimed a slew of kunai and shuriken at him, forcing him to dodge. Mimicking Kakashi's own strategy, Kabuto used the brief span of time to rapidly form his own seal pattern, one Kakashi recognized a moment too late. Shit

"Kurotohari no Jutsu!"

Suddenly, the surrounding world went completely black. Kakashi cursed—this was no genjutsu; this was a highly advanced ninjutsu that used chakra to completely block out the surrounding particles of light, thus sending the immediate area into utter, total darkness. Because it was no illusion, but real, not even the Sharingan could see through it. It was the ultimate form of the age-old smoke-bomb trick, the ultimate cover for an escape, and required a lot of chakra to pull off. Kakashi hadn't gambled on the other man still having that much left. Cursing again, he powered down Raikiri and formed the seals for Kage Bunshin no Jutsu. Sending his clone—effectively blind, but better than nothing at all—back down to make sure nothing happened to Pakkun and the boys, Kakashi himself attempted to pursue Kabuto before he escaped.

It proved to be futile. With the jutsu obscuring his vision and the rain and waterfall effectively canceled out his senses of hearing and smell, Kakashi was unable to follow. By the time the technique faded away a few seconds later—its one major downside was that it was not at all long-lasting—Kabuto was already gone.

Kakashi's frustration was short-lived, however. He had much more important things to worry about.

Making his way back down to the others in a few short leaps, he found his clone already hoisting the unconscious Naruto onto his back. As he knelt down himself to pick up Sasuke, he paused momentarily as a glint of metal caught his eye. A deep frown settled beneath his mask as he took it in his hand.

Sasuke's forehead protector. A line was freshly traced across it, crossing out the once-proud leaf symbol. Kakashi closed his eyes for a moment as he tugged his own forehead protector back down to cover his Sharingan once more.

There was a lot that needed to be dealt with, once they all got back home.

Taking Sasuke carefully up into his own arms, wary of the boy's injuries, he nodded once at himself and Pakkun, and sped off back to Konoha.

-to be continued-

Hitai-ate – Forehead protector
Usuratonkachi – Total idiot
Iwayari no Jutsu – Rock Spear Technique
Kurotohari no Jutsu – Black Shroud Technique

Author's Notes:

So yeah, this is that fic that I've been referring to in my two most recent one-shots. The one I've been putting off writing for almost two years now, reason being that if things go as planned, it's going to be pretty damned long. And long fics intimidate me like whoa.

But, the gosh-darned thing just refused to leave me alone. And so here it is: against all odds, I have finally started to seriously write a multi-chapter fic. Updates should be reasonably frequent, but by that I mean every 1-2 weeks or so. I don't want to be one of those authors that never updates a story, but I don't want to get ahead of myself, either. I'm a slow writer at even the best of times, so we'll see what happens.

Anyway, feedback is much appreciated, as always. This is my little pet project, so I won't deny I'm curious as to how well it'll go over. :P