Prologue: The Road Less Travelled By
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-- Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
When Naruto awoke, there was no one beside him.
He blinked at the dull white ceiling and the slowly whirring fan in its middle for a while as memories paraded themselves before his eyes, and pain marched through what seemed to be every part of his body. Then, slowly and carefully, he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He had questions that could not wait.
It was night, and the hallways of the hospital were empty of visitors and staff. Halfway down the corridor he had emerged into, the name on a door caught his eye. He turned from his path and opened the door softly.
Chouji was an unnervingly still figure underneath the covers, in the bed, but he wasn't alone. Naruto could make out a ponytail sticking out at right angles from a second slumped figure's head, and a longer one trailing over a third figure's back. With Shikamaru's intelligence, and Ino's stubbornness, they would've had no problems finding a way around the rules that forbid visitors after hospital hours. Team 10 might argue incessantly, but in the picture they formed in the shadowed room their bond was clear.
Naruto closed the door as silently as he'd opened it, but his resumed track down the hall was halted again two doors down by the names on the door – two names this time. He turned the knob and peered in.
Unlike Chouji's, the second bed in this room was occupied. Neji's fall of dark brown hair was black in the moonlight, as black as Lee's, in the bed next to him; as black as Gai's, sprawled ungracefully in a chair in the corner of the room, his mouth wide open in sleep. Tenten's light brown hair was grey, and she herself barely visible curled up on a mattress tucked against the wall. Naruto found himself wondering why Lee was hurt, too, since he hadn't been on the Sasuke retrieval team, but it was an idle thought.
Five doors further down the hallway revealed Kiba, the sheets twisted around him, the white of his bandages sharper than the white of the cotton covers. Akamaru was curled up at the foot of the bed, Hinata curled up in the middle of the other bed. Clutched in her hand was a half-finished needlework symbol – Naruto squinted –that was supposed to bring good health. A closer examination of the room found Shino, hidden in his cloak and the shadows in the corner of the room.
So. Shikamaru and Chouji, Kiba, Neji. All were alive. Naruto felt a great weight lift from his shoulders. They were all alive, and apparently doing pretty okay, if they were in normal hospital rooms and not the ICU rooms.
Which left –
There was no one at the nurses' station, so Naruto quickly located the patients' records. To his surprise, Sasuke's was at the top of the pile. Victory warred with an immense relief in his chest – he had succeeded, they had actually succeeded! Flipping through the papers, Naruto realized that his teammate had come very close to getting killed, but judging from the pain in his own body, still unhealed even with the Kyuubi's abilities, Sasuke had returned the favour.
Sasuke's room was at the end of the corridor, in the single-patient rooms. Standing before the door, Naruto took a deep breath, and another, before he finally reached out and turned the knob, pushing the door open.
Sakura was slumped asleep over the side of Sasuke's bed, like Ino in Chouji's room. Shikamaru's presence was replaced by Kakashi's. The Jounin snapped awake, looking up from his seat by the window, and surprise flashed across his one visible eye when he saw Naruto, but it was quickly hidden away. He stood up and stretched gracefully, nodding to the blond.
Naruto's chest felt tight, and it wasn't just that Sasuke looked half-dead, lying white and bruised in the bed. He refused to think about it, though; refused to give in to his emotions. He'd had lots of practice for that, at least, so when he nodded back to Kakashi, his smile was in place, though it was wan.
Kakashi gestured to the door, clearly wanting to speak with Naruto without disturbing the other two. They were interrupted by Sakura stirring, though, coming awake in a start when she saw Kakashi standing. "Kakashi-sensei…?" she murmured, confused.
Then she turned her head, and saw Naruto, and the world went white.
When the explosion of agony cleared, static fading from his vision, Naruto could only stare, utterly lost and hurting, at Sakura being restrained by Kakashi. Her eyes, her face – there were so many emotions that it made Naruto dizzy, weariness and fear and hopelessness and betrayal and pain. What cut the deepest, though, was the hate.
His hearing was coming back, and he realized that Sakura was half-screaming, half-hissing at him. "…bring him back, not try to kill him! If he hadn't been Sasuke, he'd be dead! He's lying there in a coma while you're running around almost healed –"
"Enough!" Kakashi said sharply, shaking the girl hard so that she was forced to stop talking or risk biting her own tongue. To the frightened nurse at the door, he said curtly, "I'll make sure they keep quiet. Please leave."
Too cowed to protest, the nurse quickly left. Even before the door fully closed, Kakashi was forcing Sakura down back into her chair, speaking to her quietly but furiously. "We both understand that you're exhausted and overwhelmed, and seeing Sasuke in his condition isn't helping, but that still gives you no right to talk like that to someone who risked his very life to bring Sasuke back to us. You know as well as I do that if Naruto had another choice he wouldn't have hurt Sasuke this much, and besides he's always healed more quickly than anyone. Use that brain of yours, Sakura!"
Sakura looked away. She didn't apologise for hitting Naruto or for her words, but neither did she continue, and for that Naruto was grateful, though the feeling was distant. He felt like he'd just taken an impossibly huge blow; he couldn't think, could feel himself going blank, detached. It was funny, really; she'd never managed to put him off when he'd really liked her, but now that his feelings for her in that way had faded to friendship, she managed to wound him the most.
And then Sasuke sat up, effectively freezing everyone in the room. None of them had noticed him wake. He stared at Sakura for a heartbeat, and she stared back; he stared at Kakashi for two, and he stared back. Then his gaze came to lock with Naruto's for decidedly longer than a heartbeat or two or three, and Naruto stared back blankly.
When Sasuke finally spoke, it made everyone jump. "May I have a word alone with Naruto?"
It was all terribly polite, and as cold, colder, than the night air crisp through the window; his eyes were dark, black, unreadable. Sakura nodded jerkily, pushing Kakashi's hands away and leaving the room without another word; Kakashi hesitated, but at Naruto's almost imperceptible nod sighed heavily and left as well, but didn't close the door entirely. They could sense that he was far away enough to not overhear, though, if they spoke quietly.
So when Sasuke spoke, it was very quietly indeed. Every word cut deep, and through the haze Naruto saw the refined hatred in those black eyes and knew that each word had been carefully created to hurt, to wound.
"I meant every word I said to you in that valley. It was my decision! You had no right to try to decide my life for me. Did you think I was going to be grateful for the so-called rescue? What can you do for me but hold me back? The greatest of your power isn't even yours."
"Of course I know," Sasuke said coldly. "I've fought you and with you enough times, and your choice of animal when you were fighting that sand freak was a huge clue. Then in the Valley of the End, the shape your chakra took was obvious, and that was the final clue. Do you realize how hypocritical that is? You're drawing on something else for power, something evil. Who are you to try to stop me?"
He's right, Naruto realized, stunned. He'd been relying on Kyuubi's power, even though it wasn't on purpose most of the time, and the Kyuubi was a demon, just as evil as Orochimaru, perhaps more…
"I'm an avenger. I've told you time and again. It's the only purpose I have left. Are you going to take away my purpose? It's the same thing as if I tried to stop you from becoming Hokage. If you stand in my way again, I will kill you. We both know I almost succeeded this time. You are no friend of mine, Uzumaki Naruto. Once, maybe… I admit that. Not anymore."
And that was that.
Naruto dredged up a grin from the depths of his white and buzzing mind. "Sure," was all he could manage to actually say, though.
The look Sasuke gave him was suspicious, a hint of his previous self showing through, and it made Naruto glad to see it, even after everything. "Sure?" he repeated. "You complete idiot, did you not hear a word I just said?"
"Yeah. You said you once considered me a friend."
"So did I."
It made Sasuke blink, at any rate. Naruto found his vision blurring, this time with tears, but he held them back with effort and a smile that somehow came easier than before. "I considered you almost a brother, I just never acknowledged it. We never acknowledged it." He took a deep breath, and continued, "I'm acknowledging it now that there's no need to pretend anymore, no need to pretend anything anymore. I don't regret saving a brother, Sasuke, no matter how he might curse me for it. It was the right thing to do, and I hope you will realize that in the future."
Sasuke just stared, as if he couldn't decide what expression to have.
Naruto nodded once. "I guess this is it. I will abide by your wishes and never appear before you again."
The formal wording threw Sasuke off. "What –"
But Naruto was gone, the room empty except for himself. Sasuke tensed, fists clenching. I didn't even see him leave.
Moments later Kakashi stuck his head back around the door, and raised an eyebrow when he saw Sasuke staring at the empty space before his bed. "You guys done? I couldn't hear voices anymore – not that I could hear what you were saying, just that you were speaking," he assured Sasuke when the brunet whipped his head around to glare. "Naruto left through the window, I see. Hope he didn't break anything."
I didn't even sense him move.
"He deserves it if he did," Sasuke snapped, and then cursed vehemently – though mentally – when Sakura ran to his side and started crying, babbling about how glad he was finally awake. He ignored the thoughtful, slightly wary gaze that Kakashi pinned on him and suffered silently through the hysterics. His mind was filled with Naruto and his words, and he was astounded to feel guilt. Why the hell was he feeling guilty? It wasn't like the idiot didn't deserve it.
He would track down Naruto tomorrow, he decided, injuries or no. He was going to clear things up with the moron once and for all, and make sure that the idiot didn't stop him or blab on him to everyone.
It turned out, however, that he didn't have to.
Chouji's teammates had been there; for all that they fought as much as Team 7 did.
Neji and Lee's remaining teammate had been there, and even their sensei, though probably Gai had been there for Lee as much as for anyone else.
Kiba's teammates had been there, even the anti-social Shino, who they'd speculated once cared for nothing but his bugs.
He'd been the only one to wake up alone. He didn't begrudge his friends – he was glad that their friendships were close – but…
He'd woken up alone.
It was funny, really. He'd spent his life being alone, but years of loneliness hadn't hit so hard as waking up by himself in that room, and then seeing everyone else surrounded by their team, and then finding the rest of his own team –
Okay, Kakashi had defended him, but he'd still been with Sasuke. Sakura – Sakura – sure, he was healed more than Sasuke because of the Kyuubi, but he knew for a fact that he'd hurt Sasuke way less than Sasuke had hurt him back in the Valley of the End. Sasuke had started out trying to kill him, for god's sake.
He hadn't expected gratitude from Sasuke, either, all things considered, but this had been a bit much.
A bit too much.
The first thing he did was head to his apartment. And then, when he was done, he went to find Iruka-sensei, who yelled at him for a while and then heard him out and then understood. In that one moment, he loved Iruka-sensei more than he'd ever loved anyone, anything else in his young life.
"There'll be hunters on your trail, so you'll have to be more careful than ever before."
"You'll have to change your appearance, particularly those marks on your face."
"You'll have to stop eating so much ramen."
"You'll never grow that way, and it's as distinguishing a feature as the marks."
"But – but –"
"I know, I know."
"You'll have to contact me often to let me know you're alive, but use fake names and such."
"I love you like younger brother, so don't you dare die."
"…I know. I love you too, Iruka-sensei."
"Then go. There's not much night left."
"We'll see each other again, Iruka-sensei. I swear."
"I know. Go."
He ran faster than he'd ever run in his life, and his lungs and muscles burned, but he knew that no one could catch up to him at this speed – he'd once timed himself to see. It took a lot out of him, but he knew that he had at least a day's head start – likely more – before anyone started wondering where he was, and that thought spurred him on further, gave him reason to just blank his mind and run.
So it was that when sunrise came, he greeted it standing on the highest branch of the highest tree he could find – just past the borders of the Fire Country, normally a two-day journey. Freedom was a bitter, ash taste in his mouth; it carried none of the relief he'd imagined as a child longing to escape, none of the joy he had dreamed of.
It simply hurt.
Clenching his fists against the loneliness, Naruto started to run again.
He would be running for a long time.
To be continued...
Ashen | "When Naruto awoke, there was no one beside him."