Synopsis: Alternative telling in which, after his battle with Sasuke, Naruto is swept down river and never recovered by Kakashi. Believed to be dead by his comrades, he, in fact, has been taken away by Jiraiya to Mt. Myōboku, land of the Toads, for recuperation and training for the upcoming battle against Akatsuki, who is actively hunting the Jinchuuriki.

Strength of a Sage

Prologue – Parting ways

The battle cries ceased, and the Valley of the End - save for the rush of the river - was once again silent.

Uchiha Sasuke stood on trembling legs, his entire body aching down to his very bones, and the Cursed Seal on his shoulder burned like molten metal against his pale skin. He had definitely overused the demonic power, and chakra exhaustion was consequently beginning to set in.

His half-lidded grey eyes were trained on a plate of metal at his feet. Absently, his fingers grazed his naked forehead, and he couldn't help but wince.

Naruto stared at him, crimson-orange eyes narrowed, determined.

"Why did you put on the forehead protector after all this time?"

Sasuke smirked.

"I'll admit it. You're strong," he remembered the averment as he prepared for the, up to this point, toughest fight of his life. "That's because, like me, you know the pain of being alone. And that pain is what makes us as strong as we are."

The young Uchiha took his fighting stance.

"That is why, by severing this tie, I'll gain an even greater strength!" He bellowed. "Starting now, this band shows that I'll fight you on even ground. But Naruto," he suddenly smirked, "you won't even be able to put a scratch on my forehead. That hasn't changed."

But it had changed, and he was humiliatingly proven otherwise. They had waged a war that would forever be imprinted onto both his mind and the very land on which he stood. And the mark of Konoha, the Shinobi of the Hidden Leaf, had fallen from his head, a jagged scar carved through it— the Dobe's final taunt.

His lagging gaze turned to his opponent, Uzumaki Naruto, and a beat of fear thumped in his chest. Even as the fellow Shinobi lay unconscious on the river bank, the victorious Uchiha still felt as if the young man may leap up and lash out with renewed energy. Such was Konoha's most unpredictable shinobi…

But the blond remained lifeless, his eyes shut tight, unknowing of what fate awaited him.

"Your closest friend… you must KILL him."

Channeling what trace chakra he still possessed, his finger tips danced with blue lightning, the soft chirping of birds filling the valley. He was resolute in the decision that this was how it had to end, with the death of Uzumaki Naruto, his best friend.

But as he took a step towards the unmoving figure, the clouds opened up and released their tears, drenching him. It was as if the heavens themselves were attempting to quell the fire of vengeance that had long since taken over his life.

But this was how it had to be. The Valley of the End, he remembered believing, was a fitting finale to their tale…

"This is where our paths part," he breathed.

"You're… my best friend."

Fingers twitched, and blue eyes slowly opened to a gray, weeping sky. Uzumaki Naruto, his mind overcast with a thick haze, briefly forgot where he was and even why. Had he been napping atop the Hokage monument again? That would be just like him– absent mindedly waking up in the middle of a thunderstorm without a clue. It almost made him smile.

But then it struck him, a painful wave of memories of the last day — the breaking of his neck, the hole through his chest, a Rasengan versus a Chidori, an earth-trembling collision… and his miserable defeat.

"Sasuke," he breathed.

He attempted to move, but his body refused to obey. Everything hurt. His skin, half boiled by the Fox's demonic chakra, still seared, even as the rain drenched him. The sloppily healed hole through his heart, marked by a large patch of discolored flesh, now throbbed with such force that he felt it in even his toes. His neck, previously broken and pieced back together, refused to support the weight of his head. Never in his life had he felt such pain. His bouts with Hyuuga Neji and Gaara hadn't even pushed him to these limits.

He had failed. There wasn't any other way to put it. He had failed Sakura, knowing he would be unable to deliver on his promise. He had failed Shikamaru, who was on his first mission as a true Chuunin. He had failed himself, having believed he was capable of saving his best friend. And he had failed Sasuke, who now stood over him, the final death blow glittering in his hand in the form of a crackling orb of electricity.

"There's no mistaking it now," he had thought an hour before, sadly accepting his former comrade's true intention. "You're serious…"

Sasuke was obviously unaware of his return from unconsciousness, for his face was turned upwards to meet the rain. He almost appeared at ease, calm and resolute in his victory. But Naruto knew of Sasuke's goal, and how this battle must end. His heart grew distressed, and he couldn't help the tearful grimace.

"What am I to you? Am I not your friend? Are you saying everything that Team Seven went through didn't mean anything to you?" Naruto raged, not understanding the beliefs the self-proclaimed 'avenger' followed, and disbelief that he could truly cast aside all bonds that he held with Konoha.

Sasuke closed his eye, breathing a, "No." Naruto flinched as Sasuke seemed to bear his true feelings for the first time. "It wasn't meaningless. You… Naruto… have become my best friend."

And he opened his eyes, now a demonic blood red—the Sharingan.

"Then why?"

"That is why," the Uchiha immediately retorted. "That is why… there is meaning in defeating you."

Naruto had been defeated. As much as he loudly boasted to cover up his usual short comings and losses, he had no problem in this admittance. Sasuke's unimpedible lust for vengeance against Naruto's wish to preserve a great friendship… he had lost outright.

"This is where our paths part," he heard Sasuke murmur, and the ruby eyes of the Uchiha turned on him, his hand rising to end it. But he seemed to falter upon realizing that Naruto had regained consciousness. But his pause didn't last long, and he smirked coldly, "Stubborn aren't you?"

Naruto himself didn't quite know how, but he was moving. Perhaps it was the fox… perhaps it was that weird Will of Fire that Iruka-sensei had spoken of… Naruto couldn't say. But, even as his bones creaked and popped and every muscle stretched and strained, he was climbing to his feet.

"I'm gonna be Hokage… a Hokage that surpasses all others!"

"Some Hokage I would make," Naruto laughed with a cough, spattering the moist ground with a streak of raw red. The boy wiped the messy trace of blood from his lips and managed a smile. "I can't even save a friend. How pitiful…"

Sasuke flinched, his glowing hand stayed… at least for the moment.

"When you wish to protect something dear, that's when you become truly strong."

"Please… Naruto! Please bring Sasuke back!"

"I never go back on my word… that's my ninja way!"

"A ninja is one who endures, one who stands brave! Let me teach you one thing… the most important attribute of a great shinobi is not how many jutsus you master… but having the guts to never give up!"

"Never go back on my word… never give up," Naruto wheezed, his voice barely above a whisper."If that's my way, then what right do I have to be whining."

"It's the promise of a lifetime!"

"Even if it takes me years, Sasuke… I said I'd take you back to Konoha," the normally hyperactive dead-last murmured. He turned a faint, chapped grin on the Uchiha, which only seemed to reignite the fury that had started the battle.

"Just give it up, Naruto!" Sasuke returned coldly. The lightning blade within his palm intensified, and he made his final charge.

"Give up…?" Naruto bellowed, his right palm tensing as he drew in a volatile typhoon of chakra. Without a clone to stabilize the jutsu, it quickly erupted out of control, forcing Sasuke to halt in his tracks and shield himself from the turbulent winds that suddenly filled the valley. "I'll never… GIVE UP!"

Mustering up every ounce of remaining strength he had in his body, Naruto swung his right arm and the unstable collection of chakra in an arc over his head, bringing it down on the ground like a hammer. The effect was instantaneous – the Rasengan expanded, engulfing the area in a blinding explosion of blue-white light.

"NARUTO!" Sasuke roared in disbelief and fury, forced to shield himself as every drop of Naruto's chakra slammed into him.

Dirt and stone erupted in every direction, and the Uchiha was painfully thrown backwards end over end, spinning and spiraling like a weightless doll, only stopped once caught by the unforgiving embrace of the trees along the forest line. He lifted his head and stared into the blinding blue sun before him, shocked that it was still expanding, it's whistling roar only matched by Naruto's own.

And then it burst, like a balloon too full of water, expelling chakra in every direction with enough force that Sasuke had to latch onto a nearby tree lest he be carried off once again.

It took several minutes, but as the pain ebbed away, the Uchiha slowly climbed to his feet, searching for the blonde through the dust and debris. However, there wasn't a trace. The ground he had been standing on was gone, separated in the blast and obviously swept away over the powerful falls.

Even if Naruto didn't understand it, he had just denied Sasuke the chance, the power, to truly meet his brother on even grounds once again. It almost made the young Uchiha laugh. But anger overpowered the encroaching shock and insanity and he mustered one final roar.


His echoes were carried away with the rain, river, and Uzumaki Naruto.