Greetings! I'm new to the Naruto fandom, though not to fan fiction. The idea for this got into my head after the umpteenth time I watched the battle at the Valley of the End (it was better than the endless fillers) and I haven't been able to get it out of my head since. I lost this chapter shortly after I finished writing it, which I took to be a very bad sign to not post it at all. Alas, I rewrote it and am going to take my chances anyway.

Story conventions: I follow the Japanese anime, so I am using the Japanese names for villages, techniques, and weapons (mainly because I have only watched two episodes of the dub and have no clue what all of this stuff is called in English). I will also use the honorifics, since they're such a big part of the culture, and will keep the Japanese order for the names (family name followed by given name).

Spoilers: If you haven't watched through at least episode 135 of the anime, you're going to be spoiled. This story is slightly AU because it jumps forward in time and addresses the issue of "what if?" I don't know how the manga will eventually turn out, but this is my take.

Disclaimer: The characters do not belong to me. I'm just borrowing them for a bit and I promise to return them in mint condition.

Warnings: None for this chapter.

I think that's all. I hope you enjoy the story.

&&&&

Chapter 1: A Promise Fulfilled

The crunch of dead leaves beneath his feet was the only sound in the vast forest that surrounded him. Whatever wildlife inhabited the forest had fled at the first sign of battle, and dead bodies now rested where squirrels and birds had before. It would take nature a long time to restore the area to what it was just a day ago. The precious burden in his arms was heavy, and it took everything he had left not to drop to his knees in exhaustion. Everything he'd done to get to this point had been worth it and he would not allow the limitations of his body to ruin what he'd narrowly accomplished.

He could only recall pieces of the battle that had just taken place. He wasn't even sure how long it had taken. It could have been hours, or days. He remembered defeating the guards that had been placed outside of the hideout, and then sneaking inside. What happened once he'd breached the main defenses was all a blur. His civilian clothing, which he'd worn because he was not on an official mission from his village, was torn and stained with blood, both his enemy's and his own. His body was bruised, battered, and cut open, but he was still on his feet. If anyone had been left alive to follow him, he'd be easy to find due to the trail of blood he was leaving behind.

This was his personal mission, 6 years in the making, so he'd come alone. If he'd failed, he would have died alone, leaving nothing behind to condemn his village and give the target a reason to attack it. They'd already tried that once, and had been defeated only by a narrow margin. He had no doubt that any excuse to attack again would have been pounced upon, and he loved his village too much to put it in that kind of danger. The precious burden he now carried, along with the dead bodies that littered the forest floor, were his proof that he had not failed. He only hoped that he could get them both back to the village before their injuries took their toll on them.

He shifted the body of the unconscious young man in his arms so that he could look at the face. It had been so long since he'd seen it that he found himself blinking several times to make sure that the young man wasn't going to disappear. The last time they'd crossed paths was when Oto had attacked Konoha a year and a half ago. The young man in his arms had not been himself back then. His body had been moving, but the young man had not been the one in control. Seeing him, hearing him, watching him destroy and kill with no mercy, had torn his heart to shreds and he had to keep reminding himself that his friend was not the one doing those horrendous deeds. His friend was probably watching from somewhere deep inside his mind, unable to stop what Orochimaru did with his body.

That incident, their first confrontation since their battle at the Valley of the End, had been the turning point for him and had reminded him of the promise he'd made Sakura when he was twelve. He hadn't been able to fulfill it before Orochimaru had switched bodies again, which had thrown him into a depression where the only important things in his life were training and his missions. Jiraiya had been ecstatic to have such a dedicated and focused student and had taught him everything he knew, which had allowed him to rise in the ranks to jounin. The attack on Konoha, and subsequent confrontation with his friend, had made him realize that he was the only one that could change the situation. Orochimaru was a threat, and the only acceptable way to get rid of that threat involved saving his friend. No one else in the village, except for Sakura and maybe Kakashi, saw the situation the same way. The Hokage had given an order to kill Orochimaru on sight, which meant that he had to get to Orochimaru first so that his friend wouldn't suffer the consequences of that order.

The research that the Fourth Hokage had undertaken before he sealed the nine-tailed fox had been invaluable in finding a way to remove Orochimaru's soul from the host's body. The Fifth Hokage had not given him permission to access the Fourth's secret scrolls, but Sakura, who worked for the Fifth, had no qualms about sneaking them out for him. They'd agonized over the research for a year and a half on their own, before they'd been able to formulate a technique for the removal and destruction of Orochimaru's soul. They told no one about what they planned on doing, because what they had planned was on the level of Orochimaru's forbidden techniques, which carried a penalty of death. If he succeeded, they'd deal with the consequences later. If he failed, he would be the only one to pay the price.

The pain of his knees hitting the ground forced him out of his thoughts. He hissed in pain as every limb stung with the impact. He clutched his precious burden closer to him as he attempted to keep himself from falling face first onto the ground. He had a feeling that if he fell, he would not be able to get up again and he had a long way to go until he could get back to the village. He managed to get one leg underneath him, before the knee gave out and sent him sprawling to the ground. The young man he was carrying fell on top of him, and the young man's long, dark hair covered them both like a curtain. He gently pushed the young man off of him and laid him down on the ground beside him. He put his right hand on the young man's chest and smiled in relief when he felt the chest moving up and down with the young man's breaths.

"Don't worry, Sasuke," Naruto said, his voice hoarse and almost inaudible. "I've come way too far to fail now. I'll get us home one way or another, I promise."

Naruto brushed Sasuke's hair out of his face and again rested his right hand on Sasuke's chest.

"I keep my promises."

&&&&

"That idiotic, good for nothing, reckless, impulsive, stupid kid, is going to get himself killed," Jiraiya fumed as he rode on top of Gamabunta. "I can't believe he took off on this suicidal mission by himself. What was he thinking?"

"What do you expect, Jiraiya," Gamabunta contributed in his rumbling voice. "Since when has Naruto shown any restraint when it comes to his friends?"

"I should have seen it coming. If I hadn't managed to pull the truth out of Sakura…"

Jiraiya trailed off, knowing that he could already be too late in reaching Naruto. For all he knew, the young man had already been slaughtered by Orochimaru or his minions. When Naruto had failed to show up for training, which he religiously attended, Jiraiya had been concerned. After failing to find Naruto at home, he'd gone in search of Naruto's closest friend, Shikamaru, to see if he knew anything about the wayward blonde, but had discovered that the young ANBU was on a mission. He'd then tracked Sakura down, and it was through her that he'd found out about their crazy scheme to bring Sasuke back to Konoha. She had not been cooperative at first, but after Jiraiya had painted a picture of just how bad it could get for Naruto if Orochimaru captured him, and he promised not to go to Tsunade until after the mission was over, she'd told him. He was now on his way to Orochimaru's hideout, hoping against hope that his student was still alive.

"Naruto has always made it clear that he would not give up on Sasuke," Gamabunta said, breaking into Jiraiya's thoughts. "You should have expected this."

Jiraiya's guilt reared its ugly head, as it inevitably did when the subject of Orochimaru came up. It was, ironically enough, a conversation with Naruto that had brought even more guilt about the subject. They'd been training when the subject had come up. Naruto had been so adamant about getting Sasuke back, and Jiraiya had tried to point out to him that at eighteen, he was still too young and too inexperienced to stand a chance against a man like Orochimaru. He'd mentioned that he, Tsunade, and Sarutobi, with their combined experience, had not been able to do anything to stop him. It had been the wrong thing to say; the conversation that followed was not one that Jiraiya was ever going to forget.

&&&&

"It's your fault, sensei."

Jiraiya raised an eyebrow in amusement, and slight puzzlement, at the accusation.

"What exactly is my fault, oh wise Naruto," he asked.

"Orochimaru," the seventeen-year-old stated and crossed his arms over his chest. "Sasuke too," he added in that tone that dared anyone to challenge him.

"Sasuke's defection is my fault?" Jiraiya asked.

While he was amused at Naruto's reasoning, he couldn't help but notice the set to Naruto's shoulders and jaw. Sasuke was a painful subject for the teenager and he never brought it up. The fact that he was doing so now meant that whatever he had to say was something he'd spent a great deal of time thinking about and had just been waiting for the right opportunity to bring it up. His student had grown over the past five years, and a great deal of maturity had come from that process. Naruto was still loud, annoying, and rash, but underneath the façade he had a sharp mind and great attention for detail. The time he and Shikamaru had spent together had rubbed off on the blonde, and Jiraiya had been surprised time and again at how much Naruto's strategic knowledge had grown. It also meant that now Naruto's arguments held substance and couldn't be as easily dismissed.

"Sasuke might have been a conceited bastard with a one track mind when it came to killing his brother, but he was not power hungry. He didn't ask to be cursed by Orochimaru. That was done against Sasuke's will."

"Sasuke chose to leave the village," Jiraiya pointed out. "Orochimaru didn't force him to do it."

"Didn't he?" Naruto countered. "The curse seal works by altering the recipient's mind, warping what desires that person already has. Like I said, Sasuke might have had a one track mind when it came to Itachi, but if Orochimaru hadn't placed that seal on him, he might not have felt that leaving Konoha was the only way for him to accomplish his goal. There were other ways to attain enough power to go after Itachi. Going to Orochimaru wasn't his only option, but the snake made him believe that it was."

Jiraiya chose to remain silent. He had a feeling that Naruto was just getting started. He had to admit that the though had crossed his mind, though. He hadn't had many dealings with the young Uchiha, but from what Jiraiya knew of the young man, he didn't think that he had been crazy or bent on domination as Orochimaru had been. He'd survived a devastating attack on his family, his clan, that had left him traumatized and with a desire for revenge. That, in and of itself, was not all that unique. Jiraiya had harbored his own need for revenge once or twice in his lifetime, and he'd never been tempted to turn to a man like Orochimaru for that kind of power. Had the curse seal been the factor that pushed Uchiha Sasuke over the edge?

"You, the old lady, and the Third, are responsible for Orochimaru."

The statement hung in the air like a razor sharp kunai waiting for a target. Naruto looked at him and his eyes were that curious mixture of blue and red that he got when he was angry. At the moment the teenager in front of him looked so much like his former student that for a moment, Jiraiya forgot that he was talking to Naruto and was instead being grilled by the man who would later become Hokage. The spell was broken when Naruto spoke once again.

"You knew he was insane and needed to be stopped, but you let him go. The Third had a chance to kill him, to end the madness and prevent the bloodshed that he's caused, but he didn't. You had a chance to do the same, but did not."

Jiraiya's anger flared at the mention of something he'd told Naruto one day when they'd both been slightly intoxicated from the sake Jiraiya had snuck into the training session. He'd had a moment of weakness and had revealed what he perceived as his greatest failure. Naruto had no right to throw that back in his face.

"I sense your anger, sensei," Naruto said. "Are you angry because you know I'm right or because I don't have a right to meddle in your life?"

Jiraiya's jaw clenched and he fought the urge to turn away from the teenager's stare. Orochimaru was his greatest failure and that was still an open, and bleeding, wound.

"Don't you think I know what we've done?" Jiraiya finally said. "Do you think that I didn't try? Like you and Sasuke at the Valley of the End, I couldn't beat him when I tried to stop him. It was a miracle that he left me alive and I still don't know why he did. It must have been some sick sense of humor."

Naruto's face darkened at the mention of what he perceived as his own greatest failure, but it was clear to Jiraiya that he was not going to back down.

"The difference between us is that unlike you, Tsunade, and Sarutobi, Sakura and I have taken responsibility for Sasuke. We will stop Orochimaru, Jiraiya. We will save Sasuke, or we will die trying."

&&&&

"Hey, Jiraiya, snap out of it!"

Gamabunta's voice forced him back to the present.

"What's so important that you had to space out?" the toad boss asked.

"Naruto and I had a conversation about Orochimaru about a year ago," he replied. "He mentioned that he and Sakura would save Sasuke, and I should have taken that to heart a lot more than I did. Knowing Naruto, I should have known that he was already planning something."

"The kid is gutsy and is loyal to his friends. A lot of people can learn from that."

They traveled in silence until they reached the outskirts of Oto. He dismissed Gamabunta so that he could go in stealthily, and the toad said he'd be ready to return when necessary.

The first thing Jiraiya noticed when he was close enough to the hideout was that the forest was completely devoid of life. The second thing he noticed was the chakra residue. He knew that chakra well, because he'd trained the man that wielded it for the past 6 years. The third thing he noticed was the nauseating smell of blood and death. It hung over the forest like a shroud and he had to fight the temptation to pinch his nose in order to block out the smell. A lot of people had died here today, and he hoped that his wayward student wasn't one of them.

He reached out with his senses, on the look out for either Naruto or Orochimaru. It was a blow to the gut to find that while both chakras were still very much active, they were very close to one another. He didn't hear the sounds of battle, so he could only guess about what Naruto and Orochimaru were doing so close together.

Without a second thought, he dashed off in the direction of the chakra, not caring about being detected. As close as he was, they had to have noticed him by now so stealth no longer mattered. He'd been running for a few minutes when he came upon a clearing. In the middle of it he spotted Naruto, who took step after clumsy step in a direction only he could determine. The blonde was covered from head to toe in blood and Jiraiya couldn't tell how much of it was his own. He was carrying Orochimaru, who was either dead or unconscious. The way Naruto held on to the young man made Jiraiya think that he was unconscious and not dead. He'd have to get closer and speak to Naruto to find out why he was carrying his enemy.

"Naruto," Jiraiya said when he was close enough to the blonde.

The young man didn't immediately respond. When he raised his head, Jiraiya noticed that his eyes were red.

"Ero-senin," Naruto whispered, falling back on the name that he hadn't used in years, "what are you doing here?"

Naruto looked like it was taking everything he had left to remain on his feet. His eyes were half lidded and the hold he had on Orochimaru was shaky at best. Orochimaru's head was nestled in the crook of Naruto's neck and it took everything Jiraiya had not to reach out and fling the man aside. He would hear Naruto out first.

"Sakura told me about your insane plan. I came to either talk you out of it or help."

Naruto's lips twitched into a ghost of a smile and he looked down at Orochimaru.

"I did it, sensei."

Jiraiya took a step closer to examine the unconscious man. He looked as he had the last time Jiraiya had seem him, with the exception of the numerous bruises and cuts on his face and body.

"Look at his chest," Naruto said.

Confused, Jiraiya lifted Orochimaru's shirt until he could see the man's chest. He didn't see anything out of the ordinary.

"Use chakra," Naruto instructed.

The sannin did as he was told and was surprised to see a seal very similar to Naruto's appear on the right side of the chest, very close to the underarm.

"I was desperate," Naruto said. "Orochimaru was about to kill me and I couldn't reach any other part of the body."

Jiraiya removed his hand and let the shirt cover the young man's chest once again. He looked at his student one more time and couldn't find the words for what he wanted to ask. He finally settled on what came into his mind first.

"What does the seal do?"

Naruto coughed, and blood dribbled onto his chin and Orochimaru's chest.

"Repel," Naruto said. "My seal keeps the nine-tailed fox in, this seal keeps Orochimaru out. It's just Sasuke in there now."

Jiraiya reached to take the body from Naruto, but the young man wouldn't release him.

"What about Orochimaru?"

Naruto coughed again and swayed. "The soul was destroyed. He couldn't get back into Sasuke, couldn't get into me, and everyone else was dead."

Naruto, having finally exhausted all of his remaining strength, dropped to his knees. Jiraiya caught them both before they could fall completely and lowered them gently to the ground.

"Did Sasuke wake up? Are you sure it's him?"

Naruto shook his head. "He's been unconscious since I placed the seal on him."

Naruto and Sasuke, if that really was just Sasuke, both needed urgent medical attention. Among their many other injuries, Sasuke had what looked like an injury from the Rasengan, while Naruto had an injury that looked to have been caused by the Chidori. He didn't know how Naruto was still awake and able to move, and he needed to be taken to Tsunade immediately. However, if Naruto was wrong and Orochimaru was not gone, taking Sasuke back to the village would be suicide. As if reading his thoughts, Naruto spoke.

"I'm right, sensei. Please trust me."

Naruto's eyes were no longer red. They had returned to the clear blue they almost always were and were pleading for Jiraiya to believe him. Naruto had not had many people in his life trust him and the sannin had never had a reason not to trust his student.

"Okay, Naruto, I'll take you back to the village."

Naruto nodded and finally let go of the tight control that had kept him going for who knew how long. The teenager lost consciousness, but managed to retain his hold on his friend. Jiraiya untangled Sasuke's body from Naruto's grasp and laid them both against the nearest tree. Jiraiya smoothed back Naruto's golden hair and smiled sadly.

"You did well, kid. You kept your promise."

He summoned Gamabunta once again and immediately took off towards the village. Once they were halfway there, Jiraiya also summoned Gamakichi.

"Get to Tsunade and tell her to meet me at Naruto's apartment," Jiraiya instructed the smaller toad. "Don't tell her why, but tell her to bring Shizune. If she starts arguing, tell her that it's about Orochimaru."

Gamakichi had known Jiraiya long enough to know when to just follow orders and not waste time, so once he'd received his instructions, he simply disappeared, leaving Jiraiya alone with his thoughts and two seriously wounded teenagers. While his concern was primarily for Naruto, his eyes kept falling on Sasuke. The last time he'd seen the teenager was after Orochimaru's battle with Naruto, in which Naruto had almost been killed once again. Jiraiya had gone after his former teammate with everything he had, despite being put slightly off guard by Orochimaru's new appearance. The snake's voice and his attitude had still been the same as Jiraiya remembered, however, which had made it a little easier to fight him. His anger over what had been done to Naruto and his guilt over how Orochimaru had turned out had taken over, and he hadn't even stopped to consider how Naruto would react if he'd succeeded in killing Orochimaru, and by association killed Sasuke. In the end, Orochimaru had retreated, leaving Jiraiya with a nearly dead student, a nearly dead jounin, and a frantic medic ninja. He'd rushed the kid and the jounin to Tsunade, and she'd worked her magic. When Naruto was recovering from his injuries, Jiraiya had promised Naruto that he wouldn't allow him to face Orochimaru on his own again. It was a promise that he hadn't been able to keep.

Naruto's whimper drew Jiraiya's attention. He got closer to his student and laid a head on the kid's forehead, which was hot with fever. Jiraiya wasn't sure if Naruto was suffering from his injuries, or from the images his mind was undoubtedly supplying him with. After all, getting to Orochimaru had meant that Naruto had to get through his entire army first. The nine-tailed fox's chakra may have helped give Naruto the extra power he needed to defeat Orochimaru's minions, but Naruto was the one who would have to live with the consequences. Naruto had killed before; as a ninja, it was part of the job. Mass killings, however, were another thing entirely, regardless of the circumstances, and Jiraiya had no doubt that Naruto was going to suffer greatly over what he'd had to do.

"We're here."

Gamabunta maneuvered them to Naruto's building, which was thankfully located towards the back, and sparsely populated, part of the village. Ironically enough, Naruto lived very close to the abandoned Uchiha neighborhood. Jiraiya had asked the kid once why he'd chosen to live so close to a place where so many people had been killed, and he said that seeing the empty houses as he came home every day reminded him of his lost friend and the promise he'd made to Sakura. Many people believed that the place was haunted, so they steered clear of the area. Naruto liked the solitude, and Jiraiya had to admit that it came in handy once in a while.

Gamabunta stopped directly underneath Naruto's balcony, and Jiraiya picked up Naruto and took him up first. He fished the keys out of Naruto's pocket and unlocked the sliding glass door. He set Naruto on the couch and went into the bedroom to get the spare futon out of the closet. He spread it out on the living room floor and then brought Sasuke inside and laid him on the futon. He dismissed Gamabunta with a promise to keep him updated on Naruto's condition, and settled down to wait for Tsunade.

It wasn't long before the door to Naruto's apartment opened and Tsunade rushed in, with Shizune on her heels. The woman took one step inside, saw the occupants of the living room, and stopped. Her jaw dropped open in surprise and she started from one man to the other, until her gaze finally rested on Jiraiya.

"Are you insane? Why did you bring Orochimaru back here? Do you want to give him the opportunity to finish what he started a year and a half ago?"

Jiraiya took a deep breath and counted to thirty. The wait for an answer annoyed Tsunade enough that a vein throbbed in her forehead. Once he was sure he wouldn't say something to make matters worse, Jiraiya finally spoke.

"Naruto took it upon himself to not only kill Orochimaru, but free Sasuke. The boy on the futon is no longer possessed."

Tsunade did not immediately reply. Instead, she looked from one teenager to the other. She shook her head and clenched and unclenched her hands as if she weren't sure about what she should do first. Finally, she stepped towards Naruto and removed his bloodied shirt.

"Shizune, take care of Uchiha," she said and Shizune immediately got to work.

After long minutes of silence, Tsunade spoke.

"It looks like they almost killed each other," she said. "Naruto's chest is a mess. It's a miracle he didn't go into cardiac arrest."

More silence, in which medical chakra flowed and Tsunade muttered about stupid little boys who needed to learn to follow orders and not get maimed and almost killed every year. Jiraiya found the mutterings disturbing, because they showed just how scared Tsunade was about Naruto's condition. If she was this angry, Naruto must be really bad off.

"Tsunade-sama, take a look at this."

Both sannin gave the medic ninja their full attention. Tsunade gasped when she got a look at what Shizune was pointing at and Jiraiya leaned in to get a better look at what he'd only gotten a glimpse of in the forest.

"Naruto did this?" Shizune asked Jiraiya.

"Yes. I wasn't present for it, but who else could have?"

"This looks like the seal on Naruto," Tsunade whispered. "How did he learn…" she trailed off and then turned on Jiraiya as a thought struck her, "did you know about this? Did you condone this type of experimentation?"

Jiraiya held up his hands, well aware of what kind of damage Tsunade could inflict when angry.

"I had no idea. I had to literally pull the story out of Sakura when I became concerned after Naruto skipped training. I went after him as soon as I realized what he was going to do."

Tsunade, who had already been angry, became even more so at the mention of her own student.

"Sakura," she hissed. "I should have known."

Tsunade and Shizune both returned to their healing, while Jiraiya watched them. They were the best two medical ninjas Konoha had to offer, and he greatly respected and admired both for their talents, though he'd never actually admit it to them. While they worked on the two teenagers, Jiraiya went to Naruto's kitchen, fixed something to keep their energy replenished, and made sure that they ate it. Hours later, well into the next day, they both sank to their knees, spent. Jiraiya handed them cups of tea, which they took gratefully. They sat in tense silence until Tsunade broke it.

"They'll be fine," she finally said. "Their bodies took a lot of damage, but with plenty of rest, they should be back to normal in a few weeks. That is, until I break every bone in Naruto's body for the stunt he pulled." She sipped her tea, and her eyes hardened as they landed on Sasuke. "I want you to keep an eye on him for the time being, Jiraiya. You brought him here so I'm making him your responsibility. He is not to leave this apartment until I have made sure that Orochimaru is indeed gone. Even without Orochimaru, Uchiha Sasuke is a missing nin and should be considered dangerous in his own right. He's lucky I didn't just let him die."

"Naruto would not have forgiven you if you'd done that," Jiraiya pointed out.

"The blonde idiot is in enough trouble already," she countered. "I'll send a squad of ANBU to guard the apartment tonight and you will tell me as soon as he wakes up. As far as Naruto is concerned, send him to my office when he wakes up. I'll take care of Sakura and Naruto at the same time"

Without another word, both women left the apartment. Jiraiya stared at the closed door for a long while, half expecting it to open once again. Tsunade had been uncharacteristically restrained, which didn't bode well for any of them. All three of them were in for a showing of the woman's legendary temper once the two teenagers were up and about. He was not looking forward to that.

Sighing in resignation, he went to Naruto's bedroom and removed the comforter from the bed and grabbed and extra one from the closet. He covered both boys and settled with his back against the couch Naruto was laying on, facing Sasuke. It was going to be a long night.

&&&&

"Hey, Sasuke, what are you going to do after you kill Itachi?"

Sasuke fought the urge to groan at the question. He ignored it in favor of regaining his breath. The spar had left him exhausted, but he was not about to show his opponent that. Ever spar that he and Naruto had was better than the last, which meant that both boys ended up more beat up and even more tired. Naruto had been steadily progressing, a fact that Sasuke did not miss. His training with Jiraiya was definitely paying off, and Sasuke made a mental note to speak to Kakashi about increasing his own training. Kakashi would probably complain, but he'd just have to live with it. After all, it wouldn't be good for Sasuke's reputation if he lost to the blonde idiot.

"Why do you care, idiot?" Sasuke managed to growl out.

He bent at the waist to hide his face, but turned to the side when he heard approaching footsteps. Naruto bent as well so that they were facing each other. When Naruto had Sasuke's attention, he grinned.

"Come on, Sasuke, don't be such a sore loser." Naruto said.

This time, Sasuke did groan.

"I didn't lose and you didn't win, Naruto. It's called a draw."

Naruto shrugged and dropped to the ground next to where Sasuke was standing. He crossed his arms and stared up at him. "So, what are you going to do?"

Sasuke didn't remember when they had started this, but it had become such a part of their spars that neither boy fought it anymore. As a reward for a good spar, each got to ask one question. The other boy had to answer the question, regardless of what was asked. It had started out as a dare from Naruto and Sasuke, being a person who never backs down from a challenge, had gladly taken the dare. Now it was routine. He'd gotten to ask Naruto about the villager's hate for him after their last spar, and while Naruto hadn't told him why the villager's hated him, which he hadn't directly asked about, Naruto had told him a few stories about things the villagers had done. Today, it was Naruto's turn to ask and as much as Sasuke hated talking about Itachi, he was not going to back down from their unspoken deal.

"I don't know," Sasuke answered truthfully as he sat down beside Naruto. "I haven't thought that far ahead. Since my family was murdered, all I could think of was killing Itachi. I made that my purpose in life, but I never really thought about what I would do after."

Naruto regarded him for a moment, before he nodded once in acceptance of the answer. It was a long time until he spoke again. "We'll be there to help you pick up the pieces, Sasuke. Count on it."

&&&&

The memory floated away like a feather caught in a lazy breeze, leaving Sasuke surrounded by darkness. He much preferred the darkness of his self made prison deep inside his mind to the horrors of the outside world. Once Orochimaru had taken over, Sasuke had retained full awareness of what was going on outside of his body, without the ability to control any part of it. The death and destruction that Orochimaru liked to surround himself with sickened Sasuke, so he avoided contact with the snake as much as possible.

His memories, just like every other part of him, had been tainted by Orochimaru. The snake had gained Sasuke's memories and he liked to use those to torment Sasuke, especially when he found that he could twist the memories to suit his dark pleasures. At the same time, Sasuke had gained Orochimaru's memories, which at first had displeased the snake greatly. Once he'd found out that Sasuke was disgusted by them, he'd taken great pleasure in showing them to him over and over. He especially liked to show Sasuke how he'd killed the Third Hokage.

Every now and then, when Orochimaru was dormant or injured, Sasuke was able to regain control of his body. When he first realized he could do it, he'd taken the opportunity to try and overpower Orochimaru. That had failed miserably, however. Once Orochimaru had learned that Sasuke was still alive and aware, he'd punished him by showing Sasuke things that would have left most grown men cowering in fear. Orochimaru also liked to inflict a great deal of pain. In the end, Sasuke retreated and Orochimaru eventually decided that it was more fun to have Sasuke around to torture than to get rid of him. It had become a game to him, and a living death to Sasuke.

The sensation of warmth on his face slowly dragged Sasuke out of his train of thought. Once that one sense had been triggered, Sasuke began to feel other things, like the breeze that caressed his cheek or the sweet smell of cherry blossoms. He had to wonder if he was not just imagining that last one. After all, Oto didn't have any cherry blossoms and Sasuke hadn't smelled one since he left Konoha. As time passed, he began to be aware of more and more things, like the dull ache in his chest and the throbbing headache.

His first instinct upon realizing that he had control of his body was to retreat so as not to make Orochimaru aware of the fact, but he fought that. Curiosity got the better of him and he wanted to see just how far he could retain control before Orochimaru realized it. He wondered what had happened to immobilize Orochimaru enough to drive him deep into his subconscious. It didn't matter, though. The more he practiced precise control and manipulation, the better chance he had to regain permanent control of his body.

Slowly, as if walking through a mine field, Sasuke took a deep breath and relished in the feel of his chest rising with the intake and lowering with the exhalation. He moved the fingers of his right hand and winced at the sharp pain that accompanied the movement. The breeze ruffled his hair, which tickled his cheek. He almost smiled at the sensation, but managed to catch himself in time.

He was afraid to open his eyes, because he didn't want this to be just another dream or another twisted illusion. Orochimaru had tricked him with illusions similar to this before and, as much as Sasuke hated to admit it, it would wound him deeply if he fell for another one. Deciding that not knowing whether or not he was really in control was worse, Sasuke finally opened his eyes. He blinked several times to clear his vision and when he did, found himself starting at something he never thought he'd see again: the symbol of Konoha. He was so shocked at what he was seeing that he forgot all about his fear of alerting Orochimaru that he was in control. He sat up on the bed and stared at the scroll that hung on the wall beside the bed. The scroll was not very big, and the paper looked yellowed with age, but it was apparent that whoever had put it on the wall held great respect for it.

Sasuke's eyes wandered around the strange room. It was bright, well lit, and colorful. It didn't look like any of the rooms in Oto. It certainly wasn't his room, because his room was underground and didn't have a window. It also wasn't Orochimaru's, or Kabuto's room, both of which he was very familiar with. He got off the bed and continued his inspection of the room, until his eyes landed on a framed photograph on top of the dresser by the window.

When Sasuke reached for the photograph, he saw that his hand was shaking. He carefully examined the four people in the photograph: the teacher, with his half covered face, the girl with her bright smile, and the two boys, one wearing a scowl and one gritting his teeth in anger. Everyone in the photo looked so young, so innocent, even though Sasuke know that wasn't the case for anyone in that photo. When he picked up the photograph, he'd uncovered what had been placed behind it. He picked that up with his left hand and ran his finger over the scratch that bisected the Konoha symbol. He remembered the forehead protector coming lose and falling off of his head when he'd collapsed in front of Naruto coughing blood. He hadn't paid attention to it then, because it had just been one more symbol of his decision to cut ties with the village of his birth. He'd never expected to see it again.

Distracted, Sasuke made his way to the window. It was mid-morning and the sun shone brightly into the room. The brightness had to be playing with his vision, because Sasuke thought he saw his old neighborhood in the distance. That wasn't possible, because he was not in Konoha anymore. What was going on? Where was he? Had Orochimaru found a new way to torment him?

"You're awake."

Startled, Sasuke turned towards the sound of the voice, and almost dropped the items he was holding when he saw Jiraiya standing by the door. The sannin regarded him carefully and didn't bother to hide the kunai he held. Sasuke didn't feel any malice towards him, however, just caution.

"Where am I?" Sasuke asked, glad to hear that his voice was steady.

If this was a dream, why would he be dreaming about Jiraiya? Sasuke had barely known the man. Then again, Orochimaru had known him very well and because of that, Sasuke did now as well. If this was an illusion, then Orochimaru was using his old teammate to remind Sasuke about his own teammate, the one he could never get along with but had somehow ended up becoming close friends with. Sasuke steeled himself for whatever was to come. He was determined not to show the snake any weakness, no matter what was thrown at him.

"You're in Naruto's apartment, where you've been unconscious for the past five days."

"What? Why would I be in Naruto's apartment?" Sasuke asked before he could stop himself.

The fact that he was talking, and Orochimaru hadn't already wrestled control back from him, should have been a sign that something was very different. Sasuke, however, was focused on whatever new game he was being forced to play. He'd learned from experience to catch on to the rules quickly or pay dearly for the consequences.

Jiraiya walked more fully into the room but stopped when Sasuke took as many steps away from him. He put the kunai back in its holster, which made Sasuke aware of the fact that he was not armed. He was no match for the sannin even if he was armed, but weapons would definitely make him feel better. He turned slightly to gauge the distance to the window and decided that if it came to it, he could always jump out of the window and run for it.

"Relax, I don't mean you any harm, Sasuke," Jiraiya said. "Don't you remember what happened?"

Sasuke thought back to the last thing he remembered. Orochimaru had been disciplining a ninja that had failed a mission and Sasuke was doing his best not to pay attention. Orochimaru was giving him little choice, however, and was even allowing him to feel the man's blood on his hands as Orochimaru beat him to death.

"What happened to Orochimaru?" Sasuke asked instead.

Jiraiya's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "You really don't remember?"

Sasuke shook his head, which brought some of his hair onto his face. He grabbed the almost waist length strands and shuddered. Orochimaru liked long hair.

"Mold some chakra and look at the right side of your chest."

Puzzled, Sasuke regarded the sannin, who just shrugged. Seeing no reason why he shouldn't, Sasuke pulled off the white shirt he was wearing and molded chakra. He was surprised to see a seal appear on his chest. The seal looked familiar, but he couldn't immediately place it.

"Naruto pulled Orochimaru's soul out of your body, and that seal kept him out. Orochimaru is dead."

The words came to Sasuke as if he was underwater, and it took him a while to digest the meaning of them.

"It's not a dream?" Sasuke whispered. "I really am in Konoha?"

The small seed of hope that he'd kept buried for the past three years suddenly blossomed, and he felt his eyes stinging with tears. He blinked them away, before he faced Jiraiya once again.

"I'm afraid so, kid. You're back in Konoha."

Sasuke swallowed the lump in his throat and didn't speak until he was sure that his voice would not crack.

"If this is Naruto's apartment, where is Naruto?"

Jiraiya grimaced. "He's probably getting chewed out by Tsunade as we speak. Get dressed, kid, you have your own appointment with the Hokage to go to."

&& &&

"Of all the stupid, idiotic, dangerous, not to mention illegal, things that you could have done, you defied orders, created a forbidden technique, infiltrated an enemy village and brought its leader back to our village. You're lucky I don't bust you back down to genin for your trouble."

Naruto stood at attention directly in front of Tsunade's desk, even though the Hokage was not seated in her usual chair. Instead, Tsunade paced the Hokage office like a caged tiger, waiting for the right moment to pounce on whatever idiot put their hand in the cage. Sakura stood rigid beside him, also at attention. He didn't have to look at her to know that she was looking straight ahead not at her teacher.

"I am sure that I don't have to remind you that your actions carry severe consequences."

Tsunade paused as if waiting for either jounin to speak up, but continued to speak when she was met with silence. She walked up to Sakura and stood directly in front of the younger woman.

"You abused your privileges as my student," she said. "You stole classified information and used it for personal uses." She then turned to Naruto. "You, young man, I can't even begin to put into words what you've done."

She started another orbit around her office, almost as if she were too disgusted to look at Naruto.

"I got rid of Konoha's greatest threat," Naruto finally said.

He understood where Tsunade was coming from; he was aware that what they had done would have consequences. He knew that she was hurt because he hadn't confided in her, and he felt guilty at having to not only keep her out of the loop, but disobey her direct orders. He didn't have to ask Sakura to know that she was fully aware of what they'd brought upon themselves and if they'd had to do it over again, he knew that neither of them would change a thing. However, he was tired of being talked down to like a little boy. He'd done what no one else in Konoha had the guts to do and he was going to be damned if he didn't get her to acknowledge that.

"Do you think I wanted you to carry all of those deaths on your shoulders, Naruto?" Tsunade asked. She then turned to Sakura. "You got off easy, Sakura, because you didn't have to do any of the dirty work. Naruto, however, will carry this with him until the day he dies."

She was suddenly beside him, and he had to force himself not to jump at her sudden presence. He turned his head to look at her and couldn't help but notice the anguish in her eyes.

"As skilled and mature as you are, Naruto, you're still only a teenager. I didn't want…" she trailed off, and the anger from before was replaced by weariness.

"I am a ninja, Hokage-sama," he said, using the formal title that he rarely used. "I am trained to kill."

Tsunade laughed, but there was no humor in the sound. She walked around her desk and leaned against it.

"You may think that now, but later on, when you're plagued by the screams of the people you killed, you may think differently."

Now was probably not a good time to mention to her that he was already starting to remember and hear those screams in his head. He turned to Sakura, who was watching him. He gave her a smile and she returned it. Everything he needed to know was in that smile. They would not regret what they'd done, no matter what the consequences. Before they'd even started on this journey, they had decided that Sasuke was worth it.

"It worked out, everything turned out okay."

Tsunade's eyes darkened and Naruto was tempted to jump out the nearest window. That would hardly win him any points with the irate woman, so he decided to stay where he was.

"I was the one that pieced you back together, Naruto, remember that. I also am not sure if your plan worked, or if we've brought Orochimaru right into our midst."

Naruto opened his mouth to protest that the plan had worked, that Sasuke was fine, but a slight shake of the head from Sakura kept him from actually forming any of the words. Sakura knew Tsunade's moods a lot better than he did and he wasn't about to argue with sound advice.

Tsunade sighed and dropped down into her chair. "You are both suspended without pay until further notice. I am not confining you to your respective homes, but I am confining you to the village. You will not leave the village without an ANBU escort, is that understood?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama," both jounin said in unison.

"What about Sasuke," Sakura said, speaking up for the first time.

Tsunade's face twisted in anger at the mention of the teenager's name and Naruto had to wonder why the woman hated the Uchiha so much. Could it be because, for a few years, he'd been possessed by Orochimaru, whom Tsunade most definitely hated? Was it something else? He'd have to ask her about it when she wasn't so angry.

"I've made him Jiraiya's responsibility," the Hokage answered. "I will allow him to live at his family home, but he will be confined to it until further notice. He is a missing nin and I am not taking any chances with him. If you two aid him in any way that is not approved by me, I will have you tried for treason, understand?"

Naruto frowned at the woman's extreme measures, but nodded his agreement.

"Are we allowed to talk to him, at least?" Naruto asked.

"You went through all the trouble to bring him back. Do you think I'd keep you away from him?" she said.

For the first time since they'd entered the office, Naruto saw a glimpse of the old Tsunade. She looked them both up and down and shook her head. After a few minutes of the scrutiny, she smiled.

"You crazy brats," she said. "I can't believe you pulled it off."

"No one else had the guts to try and we weren't about to let you have Sasuke killed on sight," Naruto added. "We took responsibility for him."

The remainder of that thought was left unspoken, but Naruto could tell that Tsunade got the gist of it anyway. He'd had the conversation about Orochimaru with her, just as he had with Jiraiya, so she knew how he felt about their lack of responsibility towards their teammate.

"Go on, get out of here. Go see your friend. Under no circumstances are you to tell anyone else about what happened, do you understand? I'm going to have to answer for this sooner or later, but I want to make sure that Orochimaru is really gone before I do. For now, only the three of us, Jiraiya, and the ANBU assigned to Uchiha will know."

They nodded their agreement, bowed in respect and left the office as quickly as was appropriate. Once they'd gotten out into the hallway, they ran towards the exit. When they were safely outside, Sakura launched herself into Naruto's arms.

"I'm so glad you're okay," she said. "I was so worried, and then Jiraiya showed up and I wasn't in the best state of mind to evade his questions. I'm sorry I had to tell him."

Naruto hugged her back. Sakura's enthusiasm was contagious and it brought a smile to his face. He couldn't believe that they'd pulled it off either. He'd been staring at Sasuke for hours on end, afraid that if he looked away, his former teammate would disappear. Everything still seemed very surreal to him and he found himself in a state somewhere in between full awareness and shock. What he'd done hadn't really sunk in yet and he wasn't sure if he really wanted it to.

"Don't worry about it. When Jiraiya found us, I could hardly walk. If he hadn't gotten there…" Naruto trailed off.

The incident, which had been mostly a blur to him when he'd left Oto, was becoming clearer. Tsunade's words earlier, about the blood now on his hands, came back to him. His dreams were already plagued with the screams and the smell of burning flesh, but he was not going to share that with her, or with Sakura. He'd done what he had to do. The road to it did not matter, only the results.

"Naruto, are you okay?" Sakura asked.

She'd released him from the hug but still held him by the shoulders. She was staring intently into his eyes and he could see worry clearly in hers. He shook his head and grinned at her.

"Of course I'm okay, Sakura! Sasuke is back. He's going to be pissy, and will probably brood a lot, but we'll have to deal with that too."

Sakura didn't look too convinced but, thankfully, she let it go. Knowing Sakura, she'd bring it up later.

"How about we go back to my place and see if he's woken up yet? It's been a week. You'd think he'd be tired of sleeping by now."

Sakura nodded and they began their walk towards Naruto's neighborhood.

"It's too bad Kakashi is on a mission with the ANBU," Naruto said. "He'd want to be here too."

Sakura nodded her agreement. "He's going to be so shocked. I think he took Sasuke's defection pretty hard, even if he didn't admit it."

"Yeah. When Oto attacked Konoha last year, Kakashi and Orochimaru got into it as well," Naruto added. "Kakashi got pretty beat up."

Naruto shuddered at the sudden image of his former teacher lying in a pool of his own blood. Orochimaru had summoned Manda, which had bit Kakashi and had left him with most of his bones broken. If he and Sakura hadn't gotten there when they had, Kakashi would have died.

"I was too busy trying to keep Kakashi from bleeding to death that I didn't get to face Sasuke. I'm not sure what I would have done if I'd had to fight him."

Naruto was glad that his teammate and friend had not had to go against their possessed former teammate. It hadn't been a pretty picture, especially when it was Orochimaru's vile words and actions being done with Sasuke's body.

"It doesn't matter anymore, Sakura. I have no doubt that this won't be easy for us or for him, but at least he's himself again. He can fight us all he wants, if he wants, as Uchiha Sasuke."

Sakura gave him a brilliant smile, before she began to run.

"Race you to your apartment!"

"Just try to beat me," he said and took off after her.

When they reached his apartment, they both stood outside of the door for a long moment.

"It was worth it, right Naruto?" Sakura asked.

Naruto didn't have to think about his answer at all.

"Of course it was worth it, Sakura."

With that, Naruto unlocked the front door. He didn't get very far inside the apartment, because standing in front of him, dressed in one of his sweatpants and old tee shirts, was Sasuke. The young man looked surprised to see Naruto, until his eyes became expressionless, his face a mask of indifference and aloofness. The mask hadn't been put in place fast enough and Naruto hadn't missed the suspicion that momentarily touched Sasuke's eyes. They stood there for what seemed like an eternity, staring at each other.

"Hi Sasuke."

It was Sakura that broke the silence.

&&&&

There, it's officially out of my head. Maybe now the muse can go away and bother someone else. Reviews would be appreciated, even if it's to say that it sucked and should be ceremonially destroyed. At least then I'd know to quit while only one chapter is down on paper.