Author's Note: I've been fascinated with the idea of Naruto ending in a similar way to its beginning. Well, it's that and the way Sasuke smiles in the recent chapters. Post time-jump piece, so potential spoilers for anyone not caught up with the manga. /Author's Note

It began with a smile. Perfectly poised on the edge of heartbreak and renewal. It was more than enough to silence the thoughts in his mind, deconstruct the words on his lips into nothing more than a shallow cry of anguish. All he had thought to do collapsed on the spot, arms falling limp at his sides and knees threatening to buckle at the slightest breath. All for a smile that bled acceptance.

Acceptance of an end that had been long awaited. Years stolen for the sake of this one moment, and Naruto could hardly begin to understand why. Was it really worth it?

Were you so damned?

The look in Sasuke's eyes whispered agreement. A solemn, life-draining look that offered up a final offering of peace. But Naruto couldn't understand. Didn't want to really. They were ninja. Peace did not exist for them, and it was beyond presumptuous of Sasuke to assume that he wanted any part of it. He had not spent the last five years tracking down the Uchiha heir just for this.

He had said never again. The first time was supposed to have been the last time, and Naruto couldn't help but cry out Asshole! when Sasuke smiled at him again.

How could he just. . . .why was he simply. . .

He could feel his hands balling into fists at his sides, could feel his body tremble from a violent mix of rage and grief injecting itself into his muscles. Sasuke didn't have the right to do this, but Naruto knew the other boy well enough to know that there was a streak of selfishness that would never find room for the consideration of another. There were things beyond friendship. . .beyond him.

Hated that look. The red faded from the other boy's eyes (blood parading as water as it was sucked down into his soul and left only a gaping blackness in its wake). A gaze that was just a little empty. But that smile. It lingered even as lips parted and let loose a pulse of blood propelled forward by a breath that stuttered with effort.

Sasuke dropped to his knees, but not before his brother hit the ground with the dull thud of the life-deprived. There was another hiccup of blood, which he numbly wiped away with the back of his hand. Stared at the crimson streak with a distant understanding in his eyes. His lips twitched, formed a half-smirk of awareness.

Even then, Naruto couldn't move. Or maybe he simply wouldn't move, some dark thought in his mind echoing the panic in his heart. If you go to him, you'll never leave. Why was it, even now, Sasuke threatened to take so much more of him?

Hadn't every inch of his motivation found its source in him these last few years? It had only been Sasuke pushing him forward, forcing him to constantly reinvent what couldn't be done, what shouldn't be done into something he could use. All to bring Sasuke home.

But the Uchiha heir was looking at his brother's figure, oblivious to the wounds he had just inflicted upon the blond. The blood (was there a reason their eyes looked so much like it?) was still oozing from the knife's edge wound he had inflicted over the older man's eyes. Blind. He couldn't help but want to laugh at that. All that talk of Itachi losing his sight from the Mangekyou hadn't been a lie. It had only been the manner of delivery his brother had failed to consider. When he tried to laugh, however, there was nothing. Only a glimmer of sun on the horizon, watery and half-formed.

To think that it would come to this. Sasuke's sigh called forth another blood-stained splutter. His heartbeat was thudding in his head, like war drums banging. Banging. Banging. So loud it took a good minute before Naruto's words registered in his head.

"How could you?! I could've handled him! I didn't ask for your help!"

Naruto wasn't even aware of the desperation in his words. His voice was hoarse, choked with the sobs that he wouldn't let out. But that couldn't stop the tears when they came. Hot down his cheeks, carving molten paths down skin that hadn't felt his sorrow in years. Because he had been so certain. Sasuke would come home. He would bring him back.

And you will.

That thought rung out like a gong-strike, reverberating in his mind in echoes that mocked his failed efforts.

"I was supposed to save you!"

Sasuke sank back against his heels, body heavy, muscles refusing to obey. It took so much just to turn his head again, but that smile. . .it came so easily. Broken and beautiful. Everything he had been since the night his brother's actions condemned his future. If only devastation had been so easy to construct. A simple smile to bring about a look that twisted grief upon anger, exposing the depth of a heart that cared beyond reason.

His next breath rattled in his throat, tasted of copper and expiring life. He could feel it in his lungs like minuscule shards of glass burrowing into his flesh. Reminding him that for the moment, he was still very much alive. Pain and all. The smile still sitting triumphant on his lips, Sasuke tilted his head back and shut his eyes.

"What. . . sort of Hokage. . .dies for a single man. . . .when he has a whole village?"