[Valley of the End]

In the final clash, Rasengan against Chidori, Naruto, by the slightest margin came out the victor.

By forcing himself into a momentary 2-tailed cloak, he gained the upper hand for a mere nanosecond, and that stretch of time claimed him the victor of the bout between him and his rival.

His breathing was labored, his whole body ached, racked with pain. His shoulder was still in the process of being mended as a result of redirecting a fatal attack. As he stood atop the water, clothing torn to shreds, torso laced with cuts, burns, lacerations and bruises, he could only think one thought.

I did it... I beat him! And I'm going to keep my promise-ttebayo!

Naruto grimaced as he called upon all his will to move one foot in front of the other. It's a shame that my jacket is this busted up. It was my last one! he thought. The fabric of his orange jumpsuit had been, true to his thoughts, torn at the waist, his zipper had been cut clean off in the clash, exposing only his mesh undershirt beneath it all, which had a visible tear in the area he had been struck right above his lung.

The sloshing of the water beneath his sandaled feet was the only audible sound permeating his surroundings. He gazed upon the face of his downed opponent, who looked somewhere between astonished, anguished, perplexed, and unbelieving.

"Stay... away... from me... Do-," the raven haired boy's sentence was cut off by a jolt of pain that surged through his body, causing him to cough up blood in the process. As the crimson fluid leaked from his mouth and down the side of his face, he stared at the victor of their battle, one Naruto Uzumaki, as he neared towards him, impeding his advances mere inches in front of his face. No matter how much he willed himself to move, his body wouldn't listen.

The torn pant legs of his rival's jumpsuit were the only thing in his vision, so he refocused his gaze to look up at his opponent's face.

His injuries... they're far greater than mine! How...? Why...? The two questions pervaded his thoughts as he racked his brain to find a solution as to how he was defeated, and why he suffered minimal injuries in comparison to his opponent.

Aside from a few tears on his clothing and a slight wound to his pride, he was unscathed.

Yet he wasn't the one standing. Naruto was.

And those eyes... I... don't know what to make of them, he thought as he attempted to peer through the cerulean orbs of his teammate. They looked hollow and endless, and he felt as though he'd sink deeper in those pools of blue than he would in the water he had just been fighting for his life on top of.

He suddenly felt his body being lifted, the pain in his immobile and prone figure being the main indication, as he was hoisted onto his rival's back. His head was adjusted so that his chin was right on Naruto's shoulder, and they spared each other a minute sidelong glance at each other before one of them broke the silence.

"Time to go home, teme," said the orange-clad boy in a low tone. This was the most lifeless and subdued tone he had ever heard his teammate speak in. Not even when he had risked his life on that bridge a year ago did he hear him like this. With too many thoughts in his mind to keep track of, he allowed black to cloud his field of vision and let unconsciousness overtake him.

Naruto, in his beaten and battered state, began to make way for his home, Konoha, his mission complete, and his promise kept.

But something told him he wouldn't be receiving what he expected to come from these results.

It had been a few hours, but what felt like days to our blond hero. He refused to give into his body's cries to stop moving, as he trudged down the path to Konoha.

As he hopped between the trees and foliage, droplets of blood soaked the grass underneath with every step he took. It seemed as though his tenant hadn't been quick enough to heal his injuries, and the blood loss was beginning to take a toll on him.

Licking his lips, which were soaked with the iron taste of dried blood, his vision was blessed with the gates of the village he had promised to return to, as the setting sun cast a glow behind it, depicting something akin to a mural that his surrogate grandfather would have been giddy with excitement to illustrate.

Once he touched down onto the dirt path that was the entrance to his village, he allowed himself an inward smile and held back the need to grimace in pain.

The ground crunched underneath his feet as he made it towards the entrance.

Kotetsu and Izumo, the gate guards and dubbed "Eternal Chūnin" were sitting at their posts when the familiar mess of blond hair came into their sights. Narrowing his eyes, Izumo was able to discern the figure of Sasuke Uchiha on the boy's back if the raven colored hair was anything to go by. The former of the guards had his feet kicked up and his hands folded over his stomach as he grinned.

"The kid did it," he said, just barely loud enough for his partner to hear, eliciting a chuckle.

"This village doubts him time and time again yet he proves he can do the impossible," he replied, allowing a smile to grace his features.

"Well," the bandaged of the two began, stretching and sighing as he felt a satisfying pop, "let's greet the hero and let him through." With that, he stood up from his post and stood before Naruto Uzumaki, who had finally made it mere feet in front of them.

Naruto allowed himself to grin despite the pain telling him otherwise, if only to reassure the Chūnin that this event was meant to happen. He always kept his promises, mission or not.

As they let the boy through they requested that ANBU escorted the two boys to the hospital but were politely declined.

"I gotta give Granny my mission debriefing and see my team," he croaked out. His voice was raspy and it hurt to talk, but he didn't care. He had to let Sakura-chan know that he kept his promise.

The two older men frowned at him with a look of worry etched on their faces but allowed themselves resigned sighs upon seeing their favorite prankster give them a strained version of his signature foxy grin.

Reassuming their posts, they bid their comrade goodbye as the boy made his way through the village.

"Stubborn brat," Izumo mumbled, causing his partner to chuckle.

Naruto was used to stares. The cold and frosty eyes of the villagers was something he became desensitized to almost a decade ago. Glares that bore through his very soul and sneers that once made him flinch and quicken his pace if only to lessen the time he was under scrutiny.

But confusion was not something he was familiar with.

Although some of the populace retained their regular gazes upon seeing him, there were some that he believed he must have been mistaken seeing.

Recognition.

Shock.

Concern...?

The street that had always been bustling with chatter had become near dead silent. The sound of his feet dragging across the ground and the rustling of his clothes was all that was heard.

He was only allowed this luxury of silence, however, for a mere 30 seconds before the mumbling began.

"What's he doing with the Uchiha on his back?"

"I heard it was a mission."

"How was he able to beat him?"

Those were some of the phrases Naruto was able to decipher with his advanced hearing before he tuned them all out. His mouth was formed into a thin line. He never allowed their words to affect him so why would he allow it now? The only difference was this time many unfamiliar words were said that caused his mind to be in a frantic state of confusion.

"He must be strong!"

"He saved the Uchiha!"

Though they were not above whispers, he was still able to hear them, but he made his way through the street with his only goal in mind to let his team know of his mission's success.

Tsunade was irritable, yes, this was common knowledge. However, as of current, she was impatient beyond words. Her elbows sat upon her desk, hands folded in front of her face, which was currently in the form of a scowl. The only thing in front of her was a foot high stack of paperwork, which, under normal circumstances, would be the cause of her ire, however, this time was different.

Her fingers twitched several times as she contemplated on whether or not it was worth a scolding from her assistant Shizune to take a swig of sake but decided against it. She needed to calm her nerves, but as of now, her vice wasn't the best manner in handling it.

She glared at the door in front of her, waiting for a creak, a crack, something that told her someone would enter. At least it would serve as a distraction from her thoughts as of now.

Dangerous thoughts.

Not more dangerous than they were to herself.

Her mind was on a certain blond haired boy who she had just recently taken a liking, no, loving to, in the familial sense.

The boy that reminded her of her brother's ambitions. The boy that had given her hope in the village she once felt she had to cut all connections from. And the boy who saved her from her darkness.

Naruto Uzumaki.

She closed her eyes and let an exasperated sigh escape her lips. He had left earlier for his mission to retrieve Sasuke Uchiha, the village flight risk, and although a majority of the team she had hand-picked to retrieve the boy had returned, her favorite blond was not of that majority.

Everything I touch... she was cut off from her self-destructive thoughts, however, when a presence from one of her ANBU let itself be known.

The figure, kneeling, waited for its recognition before speaking.

"State your reason for entry," she said, parting her fingers and folding them atop her desk. The response she got nearly made her blood run cold.

"Forgive me for interrupting, Hokage-sama, but I thought it imperative to inform you that Genin Ino Yamanaka had confronted me with an injured Naruto Uzumaki. He has been admitted into the hospital in critical condition with many near fatal injuries," the masked man stated. Tsunade felt as though her heart would leap its way out of her [bountiful] chest. Not allowing her true feelings of inner turmoil to be shown, as expected of someone in her position, she merely nodded and steeled herself as she chose her words.

"Thank you for the report. I shall make my way there soon. What of Sasuke Uchiha?" she asked, attempting to keep the impatience and trepidation out of her tone.

Nodding, the ANBU continued, "Uzumaki-san's mission was a success and the Uchiha has been admitted into the hospital as well, albeit with minor injuries," the ANBU stated as he rose up to face his superior.

Tsunade hummed in thought before nodding in thanks and giving a wave of her hand, allowing the ANBU to return to his previous station.

Tsunade steadied her breathing as she exhaled through her nose before standing up, the chair behind her scraping against the wooden floor. It wouldn't do well now to make a fuss, she thought, as she opened the door to her quarters and made her way out of the building with Shizune and her pig Tonton hot on her tail.

Tsunade all but rammed everyone down in her path as she dashed to the hospital and through the doors, nearly breaking them off their hinges.

She demanded from the nurse at the desk to give Naruto's room number. Upon seeing the lady scowl, Tsunade almost allowed herself to turn the incompetent worker into a stain on the wall but restricted herself. The nurse, however, wasn't bold enough for any act of defiance and relinquished the room number, causing Tsunade to run in a mad dash through the hospital ward to get to her son and little brother figure.

Shizune, as the more reasonable of the two, sighed with a shake of her head and also requested Uchiha Sasuke's location which was given much more freely and with a smile. Frowning, Shizune muttered out a thanks before following her mentor.

Naruto had been lying in bed, his face set in an impassive and blank look as he stared at the while ceiling above him in his bandage form. His headband was next to him, wrappings taking its place upon his forehead and framing most of his face. The only of his distinguishable features were his eyes, mouth and hair.

His entire torso, arms, and legs were also covered in bandages causing him to inwardly grimace, as he couldn't move his body even if he wanted to. But that was only half of the reason.


Several Minutes Earlier


Naruto had spotted his final team member Sakura Haruno as he was making his way towards the Hokage Tower. She had been with Ino Yamanaka walking along the path and had a downtrodden expression on her face as her rival and friend attempted to cheer her up.

Seeing her walking towards him, he let out a hoarse cry of "Sakura-chan!" attempting to gain her attention.

The pinkette, in her depressed state, managed to force herself to look up towards the voice, as did her companion.

What she saw made her and Ino freeze in their tracks, mouths agape and eyes wide.

Her teammate, Naruto Uzumaki, who had promised her to return the boy she loved back to the village was walking towards her, littered in injuries head to toe. But what was more surprising than that was the boy on his back. His raven hair was the only feature she was able to distinguish upon her teammates shoulders, but that was all she needed to incite her to move forward, Ino hot on her tail.

Naruto, forcing himself a grin as he looked into the emerald eyes of his teammate, Sakura. Those orbs which had been dead looking just a few days ago now had sprung to life, and he was the cause.

Or so he wanted to believe.

He knew his actions were the cause, but that didn't discourage him to do what he said he would, and it most definitely didn't impede him from succeeding.

In his now raspy voice he croaked out, "Sakura-chan, I did it," he began, before getting into a coughing fit as the girls halted in front of him. He bit back a wince as he began coughing up blood but remained grinning before continuing. "I...I brought him back..." he was cut off when Sakura all but ran into him, as he was too slow to react. She had grabbed the shoulder Sasuke's head wasn't perched on and pushed him to the ground, causing Naruto to fall face first into the dirt, picking up a cloud of dust.

Ino gasped in shock. The injured state she saw Naruto in and she had the audacity to knock him down? Naruto, on the ground, refused to let out the cry of pain that attempted to escape his lips, but that pain was nothing compared to what he felt in his heart.

All the work I did... and she only cares about Sasuke... he chuckled inwardly at his own stupidity and lack of common sense. It was clear as day something like this would happen, but he allowed his optimism to cloud reality.

Ino was crouched at his side in an instant, attempting to position his arm over her shoulder in as comfortable a position as possible. In her concerned state, she disregarded the blood that would get on her clothes as she set her priorities straight. Giving her fellow blond as sincere a smile as she could muster, she stated the two words Naruto had needed to hear most in his current state.

Looking directly into his cerulean eyes, she said, "Thank you." Her chest felt warm when she saw his eyes that had been apprehensive and showed pain at first shine with glee. Naruto allowed himself a pained smile giving her a slight nod.

Smiling back, her face turned serious as she looked towards her friend. "Forehead, what the hell is wrong with you? Naruto comes back with Sasuke-kun like he promised and you treat him like this?" She fixed a hard glare onto the pinkette, ignoring the whispers from the boy she was holding up saying 'it was okay' and 'not to worry'.

Sakura positioned Sasuke on her back in the exact position her other teammate had had him in before she began to stalk towards the bloodied boy perched around her friend's shoulder. She ignored the glare Ino gave her to give a glare of her own at Naruto who lifted his head up to reach her gaze.

"Don't start with that 'Sakura-chan' bullshit, idiot," she bit out, "Sasuke-kun is hurt because of you, and I'm taking him to the hospital," she grit out, ignoring the passersby as they began to watch the scene unfold in anticipation, already whispering and murmuring in hopes to find out what the cause was.

Silence.

Not a word nor a sound was uttered during the current exchange between 'teammates'. Not a comment from the many spectators, not by Ino, and most definitely not by Naruto. The only distinct sound was the rustling of garbage in the streets, as a strong gust of wind strung up leaves in its wake, which all swirled around the feet of the orange clad blond, kicking up dust before it completely waned and everything sat still.

The blonde locks that framed his headband swayed back and forth, and if one paid close enough attention, they would see, as the blond inclined his head a slight fraction, his vibrant cerulean blue eyes shifted quickly to a near dull and lifeless cobalt blue.

Naruto restrained the instinct to recoil at Sakura's words but held his ground. He felt his heart crumble apart piece by piece as someone who he thought of as a comrade, no, a friend, relayed such harsh words unto him. He had only done what he was ordered to do, and [what he was begged to do] subdue the target with brute force if deemed necessary, and return him to the village. Did the promise he kept mean nothing? Were the tears she shed as she clasped her hands when she desperately begged him to bring their teammate back fake?

Ino turned her head to look at the boy leaning on her, eyes full of concern. She, however, for the life of her, wasn't able to make out how he was feeling from his facial expression.

Lifting his head and attempting to find the correct words to respond with, Naruto inhaled sharply. He refused to let his resolve crumble as he picked his next words, looking directly into those emerald eyes he was once so fond of. They stared right back at him, as though peering through his soul with daggers as sharp as and as pain inducing as a rusted kunai. Her face was set into a scowl and to him it look as though her mouth was trembling, as if to hold back and more harsh words that wished to escape.

Or maybe due to... regret? No, it wouldn't do any good to give himself the benefit of the doubt in the current situation.

The silence was broken as all eyes shifted on Naruto, his voice cracking audibly as he began to speak. "So, it means nothing to you that I kept my promise?" he choked out, holding back the heartbreak in his tone as he spoke, but he was hardly succeeding.

Sakura scoffed before spitting out her next words as venomously as possible. "You hardly kept that promise seeing as Sasuke-kun beat your ass like he always does. Look at you! You're pitiful! And to top it off you knocked him unconscious, by some miracle, that is. So I'll head off to have him treated while you die in a shameful pool of your own blood for all I care. But even that would be too generous of a death for you." With her peace said, the pinkette stalked off towards the hospital with her crush on her back, not even waiting to see how the blond had responded to her words. Her footsteps were all that was heard as the whole street went silent.

Every word Sakura spat out at Naruto, he felt like that same rusted kunai had stabbed his heart repeatedly, twisting and grinding it against his insides until nothing was left.

Many looked at the girl's figure with a look of either contempt or confusion, but others focused their gaze onto the broken boy in front of them. The sight they saw made most of them wince.

Naruto: the village pariah, the prankster, the (unrecognized to most) hero of the village, the boy who boastfully claimed he would be Hokage nearly everyday, and most importantly the boy who never frowned no matter the circumstance, no matter how much pain was dished out to him, be it emotional or physical, had tears in his eyes.

And even then, they refused to fall.

Dammit! I promised myself years ago I wouldn't cry again! And here I am, looking pathetic as ever! Naruto continued to mentally berate himself, resisting the urge to create a Shadow Clone to knock some sense into him.

The look of sheer pain and heartbreak on his face made some around him look at him with pity in their eyes, but his blurred vision wasn't even able to make out their expressions. That, and he wasn't worried about those around him. As far as he was concerned, he was in an endless void, vacant of light, with the only thing illuminating it being the red and pink figure that continued to shrink in the distance.

He was gritting his teeth to bite back the sobs that wanted to leave his throat as he began shaking. His eyes found the ground to be very interesting as of current; he refused to look up.

Ino was livid. How could someone treat their own teammate like that? Someone who put their life on the line for not only the whole village when he stepped past those gates, but herself as well. And this wasn't the first nor was it the only occasion.

That ungrateful bitch! Ino exhaled sharply. Now wasn't the time to be angry. Naruto was in need of serious medical attention. So, in a manner similar to her rival before her, she set Naruto in as comfortable a position as she could on her back, and made her way to the hospital, a grimace on her face.

In the shadows, an indigo haired figure was peeking out from the side of a building at the scene that had just unfolded.

Hinata was not one who gave into negative emotions, and nowhere near as large of a scale as she felt she should right now. She gripped the wall she was hiding behind so hard her knuckles turned white and it began to crack under her grasp. Her pale lavender eyes were as piercing as the full moon upon the ocean tides as she glared with all her might at the retreating figure of Sakura Haruno.

If looks could kill, the pinkette would have died once over and been reincarnated, only to have her soul vaporized from existence.

She forcibly shook her head from the thoughts that invaded it. Now is not the time for this. Naruto-kun needs me! She thought determinedly, before leaping from her position onto the building she had been previously hiding behind and dashing across the rooftops towards the hospital.


Present [Konoha Hospital]


Naruto gripped the hospital sheets in his hands so hard that the teal fabric began to get stained with blood. Looking down at his clenched fists, he clicked his teeth before letting go, sighing instead as he closed his eyes.

Every effort I make goes unnoticed. That's something I can deal with. Everything up to this point that I've accomplished pales in comparison to what I'll do on my path to becoming Hokage! But...

Naruto's right hand unconsciously raised towards his chest. Not due to the phantom pain of the Chidori that had stabbed through it hours ago, but for another reason.

Droplets of water began to soak the bandages wrapped around his hand. It was then that he realized he was crying.

Why? Why would Sakura-chan... no Sakura treat me like that? She meant every word she said, and yet...

He bit back a curse as he began to truly lament his carefree persona and willingness to forgive.

Why can't I be angry with her?

Naruto failed to notice the door that slid open in his fragile mental state.


Ino stood next to the door of Naruto's room, her arms crossed over her chest, as she waited for the Hokage to receive the message she gave to an ANBU she had confronted on her way to the hospital. Damn, could Hokage-same be any slower? she thought exasperatedly.

Tapping her biceps with her fingers in impatience, her face set itself into a scowl as she continued to remember what had happened to the boy who had saved her crush.

Stupid Forehead! Even Naruto, as headstrong as he is, has limits to what he can take! Growling, she closed her eyes and tapped her foot impatiently on the marble hospital floor.

She only opened her eyes and lifted her head when she heard the squeaking sound of someone running through the hospital. As she looked up, she saw the familiar face of her ex-classmate, Hinata. She allowed herself a sad smile to grace her features as she already had an idea of why the girl had come.

No doubt she used her Byakugan to follow us on the way here, she mused.

Upon seeing each other's faces, Ino gave a silent nod towards the room next to her. Receiving an appreciative nod from the Hyuga heiress, she sighed and made her way to the chair nearest to her, sitting back with her head against the wall and closing her eyes.

It's not like I hate Naruto or anything but... I'm most definitely not the correct person to be giving any words of encouragement right now. Hopefully Hinata can break out of her shell enough to get through to him.


Hinata's hands trembled in anticipation as she stood in front Naruto's hospital room door. What would she say? What would she do? Deciding to take a page out of a book from her idol she simply went with her gut and gulped as she walked in, sliding the door open.

The boy of her dreams failed to even notice her and she quickly realized why. She stifled a gasp at his bandaged form. He was covered head to toe with the wrappings, only portions of his face and hair being shown. With the distance she was at from her hiding position, it seemed as though she only saw the lesser extent of his wounds. There were spots on the bandages soaked with blood. She quickly turned around to silently close the door and hastily made her way to Naruto's bedside.

"Naruto-kun..." she whispered out, seeing as the boy still hadn't noticed her presence. As she came to stand right in front of her crush, she felt her heart break at the sight.

He had one hand clenched over his chest and his eyes were shut as tight as possible, trying his best to prevent the inevitable cascade of tears. His body was racking with sobs.

Hinata wanted nothing more than to cry for him as well, but she steeled her resolve and did something she never thought she would do.

Leaning forward, she gently placed her right arm around his head, setting her soft hand in his shaggy blond locks. With her left hand she gingerly placed it upon his shoulder and pulled his head close into her jacket, leaning it on her chest.

Naruto was shaken from his dazed state and his eyes were wide with shock as he took in the familiar lavender scent and focused his gaze upwards. Through his tears, he made out the familiar indigo hair of Hinata Hyuga. Her chin was rested on his head and he could hear her whispering comforting words to him and to let it all out. That was what broke the dam as he tightly wrapped both his hands around her torso and sobbed into her chest.

Hinata fought back the blush that crept up her cheeks and positioned herself so that she sat on his bed next to him, holding him in a tight embrace that he returned even more fervently. She allowed Naruto's tears to soak the fabric of her cream colored coat, as it was trivial in comparison to the pain she knew he was feeling. She allowed one tear to roll down her cheek and into his hair as she whispered as soothing words as she possibly could. Feeling him get less tense with each word she spoke, she felt her heart flutter and allowed a smile to grace her lips at the warmth she felt coming from his chest.

Not even 30 seconds later, Naruto had cried himself to sleep, the sounds of Hinata's erratic yet calming heartbeat lull him to sleep. His physical and mental exhaustion reaching their limit. She was now allowed to get herself up off the bed and lay him down in a more comfortable position, smiling at the peacefully content look he now had on his face.

Standing up, she allowed her fingers to slowly and gingerly sift through his hair, earning a purr from Naruto as she inwardly squealed. She continued to stare as a serene smile plastered blond boy's facial features. With blush adorning her cheeks, she took her ministrations a step further and leaned forward, pressing her lips on the bandaged area of his forehead. If possible, the smile Naruto had in his sleep grew wider and he seemed to subconsciously lean into the kiss. Hinata abruptly stood back up, pink still tinting her cheeks, and took a seat on the chair by his bedside, holding his hand in hers. Feeling his grip tighten even the smallest fraction caused her blush to deepen and her smile to grow even wider.