Chapter 62

"The world is a dangerous place, full of all kinds of uncertainties and secrets. You can try to plan for everything, but there's a point where you need to throw caution to the wind and take fate into your own hands."

On a late summer morning when the sun had just barely peeked over the horizon, a group of five people gathered in front of Konoha's gates. The atmosphere could almost be called solemn, if not for the loud fussing of the Haruno parents.

"Make sure you wash your clothes regularly," Mebuki ordered sternly. "You won't be able to come back for a change like after a two-week mission, so it will be up to you to keep them clean."

"Don't worry mom, I will," Sakura promised, resisting an eye roll.

"And don't spend money unnecessarily on junk food!" Mebuki continued. "You can't just live off of sweets while you're away! Be sure to eat balanced meals!"

"Mom, you know I've never been the kind of kid to avoid eating vegetables."

"I know, and you're not starting now," Mebuki said with a nod, and then turned to her loudly sobbing husband to scold, "And stop crying, Kizashi! I can barely hear myself speak!"

"But my little girl is leeeaaaaving!" Kizashi wailed, melodramatically throwing his arms up in the air. In the process he released his hold on his crutches, and promptly started to keel over to the side with a startled yelp. He would have fallen had Yamanaka Inoichi not been standing next to him, quickly rushing to catch him.

"I swear, did you seriously forget you need those crutches to stand?" he grunted, helping hold Kizashi upright while Ino helpfully picked up the fallen crutches to hand to him. The pink-haired man laughed sheepishly as he accepted them, slipping them under his arms and hobbling away from Inoichi.

"Sorry, I'm still getting used to it."

"Most people don't just forget them though!" Mebuki exclaimed in exasperation, throwing up her hands with a long-suffering groan. As the two began their usual bickering Ino stepped closer to Sakura, sighing and shaking her head.

"Your parents are crazy," she muttered as they watched the two, and Sakura shrugged with a small smile.

"At least he's not depressed?" she replied almost sheepishly. The girls flinched sympathetically as they watched Mebuki lightly whack her husband on the back of his head after he burst into tears again, both stepping away to get some distance from the fight. With the adults' chatter now a little more muffled Ino released a long groan, drawing Sakura's attention.

"I can't believe you're seriously leaving me here all alone, Forehead!" she complained, crossing her arms with a melodramatic huff. "Now who am I supposed to have sleepovers and share juicy gossip with?"

"Sorry, Ino," Sakura said apologetically, smiling a bit sheepishly as she fiddled with the straps of her backpack. "But there are other girls around here, you can hang out with them. Masaru says Tenten is pretty cool."

"It's not the same!" Ino declared, seeming exasperated by Sakura's protests. "At this point, I'm just going to be stuck with Shikamaru!" Her face twisted in mock disgust at the notion, making Sakura stifle a giggle. She knew that Ino didn't really find her teammates as annoying as she claimed, but she could understand why she might not care to spend too much time with them outside missions. They might be friends, but that wasn't the same as a best friend.

She and Ino had been friends since their first year in the academy. Their friendship had its ups and downs, sure, but in the end they'd come out with their bond stronger than ever. Saying goodbye, even if only for a few months, left her feeling oddly sad and lonely. Especially at such a trying and stressful time.

Even as she looked at Ino, she could see her friend's haughty façade begin to crack, the firm set of her mouth wavering. Her blue eyes grew distant, her fingers digging into her crossed arms and her teeth running over her bottom lip in a barely-controlled show of anxiety. Sakura's own expression grew hard for a moment before she stepped forward and wrapped her in a hug, startling the blonde. "Huh? Sakura?"

"I'll miss you, Ino," she whispered, squeezing her friend. After a few seconds Ino's arms wrapped around her in return, holding her just as tight. Well, almost.

"Your backpack makes it so hard to hug you, Forehead," Ino grumbled after a few moments, and Sakura pulled away with an apologetic laugh. Before she could say anything her father suddenly flung himself at her from behind, making her shout in surprise as she nearly keeled over under his weight. Ino yelped as Sakura half-crashed into her, the two girls struggling to remain upright as Kizashi wailed loudly while leaning against his daughter. The fact he'd dropped his crutches to hug her didn't help.

"Saaakuuraaaa! My little flower! I'll miss you so much!"

"Kizashi, get off them before you all fall down!" Mebuki scolded, trying to grab her husband and pry him off their daughter. Kizashi just wrapped his arms around Sakura tighter, sobbing and blubbering farewells. Despite her annoyance and physical discomfort under his weight Sakura found herself smiling, feeling oddly warm inside.

She might be leaving for now, but she felt no less loved.

Sasuke and Masaru sat in their apartment in silence, eating breakfast quietly like always. Today's meal had a more somber air than usual, both aware that Sakura was probably at the gates at that very moment, but neither chose to comment on it. Sasuke had expected to be more irritated, but after having four days to stew over it he found himself surprisingly tired of that train of thought.

Honestly, he was just kind of tired of all the tension. It felt like he'd been stressed about all of his relationships lately, whether it be Sakura and her foolish worship of a woman who'd called her incompetent, or Masaru and just... everything with his family. Even Kakashi felt more distant, probably feeling guilty for not being able to help them on the latest mission.

Ironically, the only relationship that wasn't particularly stressful right now was Naruto, which was bizarre considering usually they were at each other's throats.

He sighed, the quiet sound cutting through the silence and drawing Masaru's attention. "Hey, Masaru, what do you do for fun besides training?" he asked, and his cousin blinked, head tilting slightly in innocent confusion.

"...Huh?" he asked blankly, and Sasuke fought down the urge to scowl.

"I'm... taking the day off training," he grumbled, finding it strangely hard to get the words out. "I don't... really know what else to do though." Across from him Masaru just gave another slow blink, reminding him distantly of a cat.

"...Who are you, and what have you done with Sasuke?"

Sasuke scowled openly this time, lobbing a small clump of rice at his cousin's head. Instead of dodging Masaru snapped his head up so he could catch it with his mouth, chewing and swallowing while Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Seriously though," he muttered. "I have no idea what to do, and the day's barely even started."

"I feel like no one else from our class would have this problem," Masaru mused thoughtfully, and Sasuke just scowled and resumed eating. Normally, he honestly wouldn't even think about taking time off because he had some very specific goals and needed to get stronger. Time spent on almost anything else would be time wasted. But after the past week... maybe he did need some sort of break.

He couldn't stop thinking about how Hinata had left because the pressure from her training became too much. Sakura, meanwhile, was leaving now because she felt like she wasn't training enough. One gave in to the pressure, while the other chose to rise to the challenge. Unlike them though, Sasuke had no external pressure to maintain his own rigorous routine, his sole motivating factor being the same goal he'd had since that horrific night when he was seven.

(A night which he was starting to question, more and more.)

It made him realize that almost all of his free time was dedicated to that goal, from training to sharpening his weapons and improving other skills. Even on his days off, he'd read books and scrolls that could be helpful in his quest for vengeance, whether it be about fighting methods and strategy, or even nutrition books about meals that would improve his physical condition. The most "leisurely" books he owned were about the Uchiha clan and Konoha's history.

He'd never really given it much thought before, but now? He was starting to realize that aside from that goal, he didn't have much driving him. Once he accomplished it... then what? Would he still be able to find that kind of motivation for other tasks, or would he just... burn out? He might not break like Hinata did, but that didn't mean he wouldn't crumble in another way.

So yeah, he needed to find something more to do. Sasuke would make that goal a reality some day, and he planned to survive the process, so it was only natural he should start preparing now for what would follow. He just... had no idea where to start. Hence, asking Masaru.

His cousin seemed to be deep in thought, leaning back in his chair as he considered it. "Well, I don't know if you'd like the stuff I do for fun. Lately I've been getting into drawing, but..."

"No," Sasuke said flatly. It reminded him too much of Ryoko, and right now she was a touchy subject for obvious reasons.

"That's what I figured," Masaru sighed. "Okay, so let's see. You hate socializing, and so do I, so anything related with that's out. And knowing you, you probably won't go for something that's not at least a little productive, but it can't be directly related to general ninja skills or it'd kinda defeat the point..." He frowned, face scrunching up in thought before nodding to himself. "Sculpting."

"Sculpting?" Sasuke repeated incredulously, and Masaru began counting off on his fingers.

"Encourages attention to detail, requires a lot of patience, and helps with dexterity. You can use a lot of materials, with or without tools depending on the medium, and it lets you practice certain skills without actually training. And if you're really stressed, you can just tear stuff apart instead of making something." He lowered his hands and shrugged, picking up his chopsticks to resume eating. "It's just an idea, but something in that vein would probably work."

Sasuke just eyed him silently, a bit surprised by the answer. "...You sound like you've put a lot of thought into that for something you came up with on the spot."

"My mother was an artist," Masaru deadpanned. "I am literally repeating what she would tell us when we were kids." Sasuke flinched slightly at the reference to Ryoko, trying not to scowl. He still had plenty of issues with that, but he didn't want to bring it up today of all days.

"So she sculpted too?" he asked, trying to be civil. Masaru paused, and then grinned mischievously.

"Nope. The one time I watched her try it, she got frustrated and ended up just throwing the clay out the window. And then we heard a yelp and she made us run into the other room and pretend nothing ever happened. We ended up hiding in there for an hour while he pounded on the door." The story caught Sasuke by surprise, blinking dumbly while Masaru just snickered to himself.

"...Wait, are you saying she hit some random guy with clay?"

"Yep. Just because she could paint didn't mean she was magically good at everything art-related." He smiled, looking more relaxed now as he got up and scooped his bowl to carry to the sink. "Anyways, I have some stuff to do today so I need to head out, but at least think about it. If I learned anything from mom, it's that art is a great way to de-stress."

Sasuke remained silent even as Masaru left, deep in thought. He still didn't want to do anything remotely related to Ryoko, but the points Masaru rattled off were decent. Maybe not sculpting, but he'd probably benefit most from something similar that required skills that could translate into other areas of his life. While his goal was to find something that didn't relate to his quest for revenge, he'd probably drop a hobby if he found it a waste of time. He hummed thoughtfully, finishing his breakfast in silence before heading out.

"So Inoichi-san volunteered to take Sakura to meet Tsunade?"

Kakashi gave a noncommittal hum to Kurenai's curious query, his visible eye focused on his book as usual. "He isn't on the active duty roster at the moment and we're short-handed, so he thought he would be the best option."

"Makes sense," Asuma mused, pulling a cigarette from a pack. "He's the head of the Analysis Team, but it's pretty slow right now since capturing enemies is low-priority. According to Ino he's mostly been busy with therapy and psych evals these days."

"At least he has plenty to do," Kurenai said softly, and a brief silence lapsed over the group. Despite it being nine in the morning, the four jounin sensei to the current batch of rookies had elected to meet up at a teahouse since their schedules lately had been too hectic for any other time. Being mindful of that fact, Kakashi had planned to only be half an hour late this time, but Tenzo had been waiting at the memorial when he arrived and dragged him to the teahouse where the others had already claimed an outdoor table.

The meeting wasn't purely to socialize though. Between Sakura leaving to train with Tsunade, Hinata going missing, and both Shikamaru and Shino already getting promoted to chuunin, they had a lot to discuss about their teams. The atmosphere felt a bit heavier in light of those facts, Kurenai seeming particularly somber. Kakashi had only seen her two times since Hinata disappeared, but her crimson eyes carried a notable weight and guilt to them that even he found a bit painful to see.

About a minute passed without anyone speaking before Tenzo sighed, crossing his arms with a mild frown. "This raises the question about how the teams will be organized for the next exams. Teams Eight and Ten were already due to be broken up since they each had one person promoted, and I know Masaru will want to participate this time too. We're still left with seven genin, and teams usually have three members."

"We might not need to worry about that," Asuma commented. "I asked my father for his thoughts on the teams last night, and he said breaking the three-member structure should be fine with the host village."

"Host village?" Kakashi echoed, glancing up from his book. "He didn't say a specific village?" Last he'd heard Suna had been tapped to host the next round of exams, though of course that had been before the invasion.

Asuma shook his head, pausing to exhale a small puff of smoke. "No. From what he said though, the winter exams are just being relocated to a different village instead of getting cancelled or delayed."

"Right," Kurenai said slowly. "I remember the delegates from all the villages at the exams were in meetings about it. I was assigned to escort Masuyo-san to and from her hotel in the days after the invasion, and from what she said it sounded like they were discussing having Ame or Taki host it. They'd probably host them in a location outside of the actual villages, given how secretive they both are."

Kakashi hummed thoughtfully, turning his gaze back to his book but not actually reading it. He didn't expect Suna to go through with hosting the exams after the invasion of course, but he'd thought the winter exams would have simply been cancelled. All the villages would be hyper-alert about the risks so soon after having one host invaded; he doubted many villages would be willing to send their shinobi.

Still, having it be hosted by a smaller village this time could prove interesting. Ame and Taki were particularly secretive after all. No one knew how to enter Taki, making it perhaps the only true hidden village, while Ame had become rather opposed to visitors following the last war. People didn't even know for certain if Hanzou was still the leader or not.

Tenzo hummed, looking thoughtful. "So we might be able to get away with having a team of four next time."

"Or two teams of two," Asuma countered idly, taking a long drag off his cigarette. "Not all villages are as strict on having three-man teams. Team Seven will probably be the only team with its original members in the next exams, assuming Sakura makes it back in time." Kakashi paused at that last remark, his gaze unfocused as he stared down at the page.

"Actually, it might not be," he said slowly, and felt everyone's eyes turn to him. "I spoke to Jiraiya, and he intends to take Naruto on a journey to train, well, that." He made a vague wave with his free hand, knowing the others would pick up his meaning. "It wouldn't be anytime soon, since he's doing some urgent recon on classified issues for the Hokage and also needs to be reachable if something goes wrong with Gaara. But he let me know he'd likely take Naruto in about three months depending on how things go."

"Three months?" Kurenai breathed, frowning. "So then, if Sakura-chan isn't back by the exams, Team Seven could be down to just Sasuke."

"Oh boy," Tenzo muttered under his breath.

"I don't think we'll need to worry about Sakura missing the exams," Kakashi commented. From the reports on her interactions with Tsunade, as well as reports on the woman's attitude in general, he had a feeling the Sannin would be all too happy to shove the pink-haired girl back at Konoha by the end of the training period. Whether Sakura would actually convince her to come back with her would be the bigger question. "I told Sakura about this in private last night, just so she wouldn't be surprised when she came back."

"And I'm guessing you didn't tell Naruto yet?" Asuma asked wryly, and Kakashi looked up from his book with a small shrug.

"I figure he's got enough on his mind right now." The others nodded knowingly, the atmosphere growing heavy once more.

"So, Sakura-chan left today, huh?" Iruka mused, snapping apart his chopsticks. "And to train with a Sannin, no less! I'm impressed she even got Tsunade-sama to agree. She can really learn a lot from her, and from what I hear Tsunade's fighting style could be well-suited for her." Next to him Naruto scoffed, hunched over the counter where Teuchi had deposited a bowl of ramen.

"Pfft, so what?" he grumbled with a scowl as he poked at the noodles. "A strong punch doesn't mean everything." Iruka's smile softened a bit, turning back to his own ramen with a thoughtful hum but not saying anything. That suited Naruto fine, he didn't really feel like talking right now.

Ever since finding out Sakura planned to leave to train with that Tsunade lady, Naruto felt like he'd been in an endless funk. He'd hoped that the magic of Ichiraku Ramen would cheer him up, but for once it didn't help that much. They'd had their final team dinner just last night, and right about now Sakura should already be out the gates and on her way. The thought made him droop even more, scowling down at his bowl as his fingers tightened around his chopsticks.

Don't get him wrong, he wanted to be happy for Sakura, but did she really have to leave for so long? And the timing was so horrible! They'd just lost Hinata, it felt like he was losing two people in one go.

But for all his childishness and immaturity, Naruto knew Sakura needed this. The look in her eyes when she told them about how useless she felt, how she was the weakest link... After spending years at the bottom of the class in the academy and always being treated as a nusiance, he could relate all too well.

His bitter scowl softened at the thought, recalling their final team dinner just the previous night.

"So... you knew?"

Naruto couldn't look at Sakura, just stared at his curry with a tense frown. Across from him Sakura shifted uncomfortably in her chair, gnawing her lip, while Kakashi and Sasuke exchanged pointed looks from the corners of their eyes. The Haruno parents had left the team alone just a few minutes prior, giving them privacy for this part of the conversation.

"W-well, not entirely?" Sakura hedged. "I always figured something was up, but after everything with the invasion, it just kind of... made sense." Her voice fell into a hushed whisper, only the clink of silverware against porcelain filling the silence.

Naruto hadn't looked forward to this conversation. After all, he didn't know how someone would react to the news their teammate was a jinchuuriki. It was the reason he was ostracized by the village, the reason he had suffered so much as a child. Telling Sakura could lead to her reacting the same as all the adults and push him away, severing one of his only friendships. But he also knew it wasn't fair to keep it from her.

Still, he didn't expect her to just... accept it and admit she'd already figured it out. She looked kind of awkward, sure, but it was more like the embarrassed awkward, than the 'oh-crap-my-teammate-has-a-monster-in-him' type of awkward. In his peripheral vision he could see her twiddling her chopsticks between her fingers, seeming to think about something before finally breaking the silence. "Honestly, I'd never even heard of jinchuuriki until then," she confessed. "It never would have occurred to me that those could be a thing. But, I already kinda figured you had something to do with the Kyuubi anyway...?"

"How so, Sakura?" Kakashi asked, smooth and casual as usual, but even Naruto could detect the probing edge to his tone. Sakura flinched, darting a nervous look their teacher's way before answering.

"Um... W-well, Naruto was born on the day of the attack," she started hesitantly. "That's a big coincidence. And then, there's some... stuff," she said lamely, shoulders drooping in dismay as she groaned. "Ugh, I'm really not supposed to talk about that part. But, you read my report on the latest mission, right?" She shot Kakashi a pleading look, and he sighed as he nodded.

"Yes, I did. I suppose I can see how you might make the connections from there. That's still pretty impressive though." Sakura just ducked her head while Naruto frowned at them. He had no idea what they were talking about, and a look at Sasuke showed he was just as confused, at least if he was reading the irritated scowl right. Granted, Sasuke had a lot of irritated scowls, but weirdly enough Naruto felt like he was starting to be able to tell them apart more easily. This one had distinct 'I-don't-like-being-left-in-the-dark' vibes to it.

"So what now?" Sasuke demanded, and Kakashi leaned back, his exposed eye surveying them coolly.

"Obviously, this conversation never leaves the room. Naruto's status is still a major secret, even if all of the adults already know," he added with a faint undertone of annoyance. "There are a lot of misconceptions about jinchuuriki, even among more experienced shinobi, and Gaara's behavior certainly won't help your peers' perception. We also don't want this to get out of the village. Naruto's allowed to tell people of course, but you two lack the clearance to do so. Am I understood?"

Sasuke and Sakura nodded sharply, and the discussion ended there.

Naruto frowned as he lifted some noodles with his chopsticks, letting them slip through his loose grip and fall back into the bowl. Sakura had accepted his secret so easily, way more easily than he'd expected, and so had Sasuke even if they hadn't really talked about it yet. It made him almost feel silly for worrying so much about it. Maybe he should just tell everyone else.

"Naruto?" Iruka's voice snapped him out of his thoughts, the chuunin regarding him with a worried frown. "You've been staring at your bowl for almost five minutes without actually eating anything. I didn't even know that was possible."

Naruto blinked slowly, as if in a daze, and took a deep breath. Then he clapped and sat straight, scooping the bowl up with one hand while using the other to slurp up the ramen. He downed the entire bowl in less than thirty seconds, the noodles soggier than he was used to after sitting and soaking up the broth for so long, but no less delicious.

He slammed the empty bowl down with a satisfied exhale, nodding at a faintly amused-looking Teuchi. "I'm ready for the next bowl!" he declared, and the chef laughed as he placed one already prepared in front of him, pushing the emptied bowl to the side to use as a base for the inevitable stack.

As Naruto got to work on the newest bowl Iruka huffed, a fond smile spreading on his face. "Well, that was a quick turnaround," he teased lightly, and Naruto grunted, too busy slurping noodles to respond.

Sakura might be leaving, and Hinata might be gone too, but that was okay. He still had plenty of other people who cared about him after all, regardless of the stupid demon fox sealed in his stomach.

Gaara stood in his new bedroom in silence, staring out the window as the sun peeked over the walls of Suna. Down the hall Temari and Kankurou were probably still asleep despite it being well past dawn, the pair having stayed up late last night to keep him company. Perhaps he would still be asleep too, if not for a lifetime of experience without it. Sleeping felt strange after spending so much of his life constantly awake, and he could only ever manage short bursts at a time now that he could.

Instead, he spent most of his nights just thinking.

A little over a week had passed since their return, and so many things had changed while many others hadn't. People still avoided him on the streets, civilians skirting around him and keeping their distance with wary expressions. A few shinobi aware of the modifications to his seal looked even more wary now, as if expecting him to blow up and release the Ichibi at a moment's notice. While Gaara no longer heard its voice as freely as before, his sand still moved without his conscious command to protect him from harm.

But he was no longer exiled from his family like he had been in the past. He had been given a bedroom in the Kazekage's residence, whereas before he had simply been left alone in Yashamaru's empty house save for the constant ANBU guard assigned to watch him from a distance. Temari and Kankurou spent more time with him now, still obviously cautious of rousing his ire, but had gradually become more open during the short trip back to Suna.

It was... strange, to see his siblings trying so hard to accept him after a lifetime of walking on glass around him. At the same time though it warmed him, just a little.

A quiet tap on the wall by the door drew his attention, and he turned to see a green-haired woman standing in the open doorway. "Good morning, Gaara," she greeted quietly, and he nodded at her.

"Pakura-san," he returned, voice monotonous but still respectful. His stepmother smiled slightly at that, stepping inside to join him at the window. As she did his eyes flickered briefly towards the stump on her right elbow, the puppet arm she used as a prosthetic currently absent. Pakura had been one of Suna's best kunoichi prior to losing her arm, severely limiting her capability on the field and forcing her into quasi-retirement, but no less deserving of respect.

Her brown eyes seemed distant as she gazed over Suna, an almost wistful glint to them. "It's so quiet now, isn't it?" she said softly. "Mornings used to be louder. We lost a lot of good people in the invasion."

"We did," Gaara agreed quietly, more to be polite than genuine agreement. He did not know any of the people who died so he couldn't judge whether they were truly "good," but he at least did not count his father among the "good" ones. Pakura hummed quietly to herself, a small, almost rueful smile curling on her lips.

"Rasa really left me with a mess," she murmured wryly. "We're lucky to even have a village right now." The words carried a sharp bitterness to them, but the edges were softened by a quiet wistfulness while her smile looked a little sadder. While their marriage had been purely political, Gaara knew they had come to genuinely care for each other at some point, though he didn't quite understand the full nature of their bond. Love was a complicated emotion after all, one he was only just starting to understand.

He still remembered the day she married his father when he was five, watching from a window with Yashamaru as parades passed below and listening to the festivities that filled the streets late into the night. The wedding had been arranged by the council, a bit of insurance to make sure there would be a suitable candidate for Kazekage if something happened to Rasa. So far Pakura had taken to the role of Kazekage quite well, having spent years preparing for it and already assisting with plenty of the lesser responsibilities before his father's demise.

Gaara himself had only interacted with Pakura a handful of times, having little interaction with his family in general. Before Yashamaru died his uncle had invited her to dinner a few times and she'd been polite enough, moreso than most people Gaara met, but afterwards she had taken to avoiding him like everyone else. Since returning from the invasion she'd made an effort to seek him out more often though, offering the same sort of tentatitive acceptance his older siblings now gave him. He still didn't know fully what to make of her, and he suspected she felt similarly about him, but... He appreciated the effort on her part.

The green-haired woman pulled away from the window with a quiet sigh. "Breakfast should be ready soon. Feel free to come join us." Gaara merely nodded and watched silently as she sauntered out the door before turning back to the window.

He pressed a hand to the side of the windowsill and a flash of color caught his eye, his gaze flitting to the colorful braided bracelet around his wrist. Red, leaf green and sandy beige, the hues worn but not faded by any means. His eyes remained trained on it for a long while, still unused to seeing it after more than seven years of keeping his wrist pointedly bare. Finding it hadn't been difficult, the bracelet hidden away in a box with the rest of the letters from back then, and he wondered if he would ever stop associating it with a sense of grief. Learning the truth had painted those letters in a different light.

A quiet pitter-patter of footsteps drew him from his musings, and he turned to see a small, sleepy-looking girl in the doorway rubbing her eyes. Her green hair was messy and stuck in every direction, the streaks of rusty red and orange framing her face almost lost in the mess. "Gaara-nii, can you carry me t'breakfast?" she mumbled, words slightly slurred, and Gaara eyed her for a moment before pulling away from the window to face her fully.

"It's only downstairs, Kokoro," he pointed out dully, and the girl slowly blinked her large, black eyes, head slowly tilting to the side as if trying to process his words.

"But m'tired," she finally said, as if that was a good argument. Gaara felt a small twinge of amusement at the six-year-old's logic, yet another emotion he was still getting used to.

"Very well, just this once," he agreed, and despite still looking half-asleep Kokoro's eyes seemed to light up as she raised her arms.

"Yay. Thank you." Sand poured from the gourd on his bed and slithered towards her, the little girl hopping onto it and sitting down on the ever-shifting platform. It still amazed him how little wariness she showed compared to everyone else. He had only ever seen his younger half-sister from afar, never allowed to get close lest his jealousy cause him to lash out, yet this past week she had immediately accepted his sudden addition to her life. It was strange, even moreso than Temari and Kankurou's tentative attempts at friendship, but... it was nice.

He walked past her to the door, the sand moving to follow with the little girl riding atop it. "You'll need to walk downstairs tomorrow though."

"But I like riding the sand."

"I won't always be here, Kokoro."

"Aww..." Even without looking at her he could picture the pout on her lips, and Gaara felt a surge of warmth in his chest, a small and rare smile playing across his own lips.

Things were changing in ways he couldn't predict and filled his days with uncertainty about the future as he struggled to adjust, but this was one change he would like to get used to.

"Lady Tsunade, please hurry and get dressed! Sakura-chan will be here soon!"

Tsunade moaned as Shizune lightly scolded her, the blonde sitting hunched over on her bed still wearing her pajamas. Last night she'd stayed up later than usual drinking, wanting to take advantage of her last night of freedom. Once the pink-haired brat arrived she wouldn't be able to drink as much, if only because Shizune wouldn't let her. Her student and assistant was always trying to look for an excuse to curb her drinking habits, and having an actual child around would be a perfect reason to object.

Part of her still questioned why she agreed to train the brat. The best she could come up with was pity. That last morning the girl had made such a strong speech about not wanting to feel useless anymore, and how if she quit altogether she'd always be a victim. The hard glint in her eyes had stirred something in Tsunade, able to see a fierce determination she hadn't seen in years.

(It reminded her of that first day Ryuusuke came up to her and asked her to teach him, just a little.)

But still, Tsunade shouldn't have given into the momentary bout of sympathy. The girl would go back to Konoha stronger than before, sure, but that just meant she'd likely be sent onto more dangerous missions. Strength didn't increase your chances of survival, it just increased the level of danger people would be expected to face.

Massaging her head, she let healing chakra seep into her skull to soothe her growing headache, the light no longer quite so agonizing to her sensitive eyes. Hangovers had become much more bearable after figuring out how to use medical ninjutsu to lessen the migraines, but she couldn't do anything for the general bluh feeling. She heaved a quiet sigh as she forced herself to stand, trudging over to the dresser where Shizune had left a change of clothes.

As she shrugged out of her nightgown and began fumbling with her shirt she could hear Shizune moving around the room, gathering and packing the rest of their belongings. They'd stayed in this particular town for three days in anticipation of Sakura's arrival, having agreed to meet there during that breakfast where the girl had made her plea. When Shizune opened the suitcase she paused though, a quiet sigh ringing in the silence.

"Really?" she asked reproachfully, and Tsunade glanced over her shoulder to find the dark-haired woman holding up a scroll with a disappointed frown. "We saw Masaru five times. I even left you two alone the last time for almost fifteen minutes, and you couldn't even give him Ryuusuke's letter then?"

Her voice carried a scolding note, but in spite of herself Tsunade found herself snorting, turning away with a wry smirk as she pulled her pants on. "Spare me the lecture, I did offer it to him," she countered coolly. "The brat's the one who refused it."

"What?" When she glanced back again she found Shizune staring at her with a stunned expression, her eyes wide and scroll dangling limply at her side. "He... refused? Did you even tell him who Ryuusuke was? How you knew him?"

"Of course I did," Tsunade scoffed, pulling on her pants. "Told him it was his father's last request and everything."

"What? But then, why...?" Shizune trailed off into silence, looking hopelessly lost and confused. Tsunade ignored her and turned away, striding towards the chair where Tonton currently dozed to grab her jacket from the back and pulling it on.

"Because it's not the right time," she said simply.

"Thank you," he murmured, so quiet she could barely hear it. Then, with a deep breath, he pushed the scroll forward as he bowed his head and said, "But... I can't accept this right now."

The refusal made her pause, turning to face him fully as she crossed her arms. "Oh?" she said, arching an eyebrow. "And why not?" Masaru raised his head to meet her gaze, his dark eyes steady and resolute.

"Because you said this letter is for me and Akari, so it's only right that we're both there to read it. So please hold onto it until that day comes!"

A bitter smirk twisted on her lips at the memory, tugging her hair into her usual pigtails. That boy knows things he shouldn't, she thought ruefully, feeling a twist of pain and sympathy. Those twins had truly been cursed by fate, pulled into a conspiracy far larger than any child should be tangled in. Her student could never have anticipated such a tragic destiny when he penned that letter, when he went off to his death for whatever mysterious cause he'd taken up.

She exhaled softly and turned to Shizune, swiping the scroll from her still-limp hand and slipping it back into the suitcase. "Come on, let's go. The brat's going to get here soon." Her comment snapped Shizune out of her stunned stupor and she blinked and straightened, nodding her head sharply.

"Right! Let's go!" As she rushed to finish up packing Tsunade snorted, tipping her head back to look at the ceiling. Her thoughts flitted to a bandaged teenager inside a dark cave holding a sobbing little girl, tears streaming down his face as he watched her with a single glowing red eye full of fear and anxiety.

Kid, you've got your work cut out for you. You better make it out of this mess and get a happy ending.

Masaru ignored the early morning crowds as he strolled down the street, walking with a definitive purpose in mind. Funnily enough, despite his earlier conversation with Sasuke about finding things to do aside from training, today he had already planned to work on improving his skills. Just... not through training. At least, not yet.

Over the past few months, he had been thinking long and hard about his skill set, and the kind of shinobi he wanted to be. Taijutsu was still his greatest strength, and he'd made some impressive strides with his ninjutsu since he started practicing with Foxfire. But despite that he felt like it wasn't enough, like he wasn't living up to his own potential yet.

His mother had been renowned for her katon techniques and fuinjutsu, and had dedicated much of her life to studying various chakra-related topics. His father, according to Tsunade, had been a highly respected medical ninja and a prodigy in the field. His parents had both been masters of their respective fields, each leaving their own legacy and mark on the world, and Masaru...

Masaru wanted to be different.

He didn't want to just be an extension of their legacies, to build his career off their accomplishments. Even Foxfire ultimately came from his mother, a welcome gift but one she had originally created for herself. He wanted to find his own specialty, something unique that he could call his. It had been on his mind more than ever, and now that he knew Akari wasn't alone, he knew he needed to find one and begin training now. Things were starting to move, change was coming and already happening.

The last mission had been proof enough.

Frustration filled Masaru as he and Shikamaru rushed into the warehouse after Sasuke, silently cursing his cousin's sudden impulsive charge. For Shikamaru the room they entered would be almost unbearably dark, only allowing him to see a vague outline of the man inside. But for Masaru, whose Sharingan had been active from the start, he could see everything.

He could see the individual strands of curly hair spiking upwards from the top of his head, trace the well-defined muscle beneath his dark sleeves. But what truly held his eyes was the mask. Blood red, with wispy tendrils stretching from the eye hole in a spiraling pattern—

(A boy lay strapped to a table in a dark room, thick cloth stuffed into his mouth and bandages wrapped around his eyes.

Delicate fingers reached for the bandages and slowly untied the knot, carefully unwinding the gauze one layer at a time. When the final layer fell away the boy's eyelids twitched before the right lid slowly parted. A dark onyx orb peered above, unfocused and blank as if not really seeing. Flecks of crimson flickered into the black iris and spread to form the outlines of three tomoe.

"Live," a voice commanded in a whisper, and the eye exploded into a bloody sunburst, the tomoe stretching into slender, wispy tendrils extending from a small black sun—

Masaru woke up with a strangled gasp, his breathing ragged and heavy. Something moist and warm clung to his cheeks and he inhaled a sharp, trembling breath before sitting up and pressing his hands to his eyes, a dull ache haunting his right one.

'Live,' the voice repeated, so soft and familiar, so pleading and desperate and terrified. Tears that belonged to both him and another slid down his cheeks as the word repeated over and over and over against a backdrop of questions, the phantom ache growing stronger with each repetition as the eye with a bloody sunburst still glowed in his mind.)

He wondered, now, what they'd thought of it.

What Sasuke and Shikamaru thought when he charged forward, screaming at him not to hurt her. His movements fueled by an animalistic rage, his eyes blazing red and getting up without rest each time he was knocked down. They probably thought he was talking about Sakura, wanted to defend her with the same instinctive fury that led Sasuke to charge into the warehouse in the first place.

They probably never noticed that Masaru only snapped after Shikamaru mentioned the man experimenting on Kakashi's eye—Uncle Obito's eye.

They probably thought he only stopped trying to fight after being caught and shoved at Sasuke because he was tired and sore. Perhaps that he was in shock after nearly using Foxfire bare-handed before his intended target intervened, and getting himself caught in such a vulnerable position with the masked man clutching his wrists.

They definitely didn't hear those quiet words whispered in those tense seconds, the man's voice pitched low so only he could hear as his masked face hovered next to Masaru's good ear.

"You don't need to worry about Akari-chan. She's fine and perfectly safe right now, and I promise, I won't let anything happen to either of you."

Back then, he'd been wary of the promise, but after returning home he decided he would trust those words—for now, at least. There was still so much he didn't know, so much he didn't understand. Something had happened, something so dangerous his mother had to fake Akari's death, couldn't even tell the Hokage without risking her life. Masaru only had the words of a virtual-stranger whose identity he could only speculate about to assure him Akari would be safe.

And obviously, words alone weren't quite enough for him.

As he made his way down the street his eyes roamed the crowds, soon spying a group of familiar figures. All of their jounin teachers stood outside a teahouse, talking lightly amongst themselves as they obviously prepared to depart and split up. He changed course immediately for them, the quartet quickly noticing his approach.

"Hello, Masaru," Tenzo greeted with a smile as he turned to nod at him. "It's been a while. I'm sorry I haven't been by recently, I've been busy."

"It's okay, everyone's really busy right now," Masaru assured him quickly.

"Well, I should be free for a couple hours right now. Do you need something?"

"I do," Masaru confirmed with a nod. "But not from you this time." That made Tenzo pause, the other three jounin pausing as well and glancing at him with sharp, calculating looks. Masaru ignored their stares, focusing on Kurenai and standing ramrod straight. The woman's red eyes widened slightly in surprise as she realized she was his target despite barely ever speaking to each other, staring as he dipped into a bow. "Kurenai-sensei, can you please teach me genjutsu?"

One day, he would find Akari again. He would fix everything that had led to them being separated, piece apart this conspiracy so large and complex he couldn't even begin to imagine it, and find a way to end it. That day was coming closer and closer, and when it did come, he was going to be ready.

Everyone had their own reason to get stronger. Masaru's just happened to be a little different from the rest.

And with this, Part 1 is officially over.

Thank you for your patience everyone. I'm so, so sorry for the long wait! I wanted to get the next few chapters done so I'd have a buffer, but block has been a bitch for what to do for the next arc, especially since I also fell hard into the My Hero Academia fandom. That, and just... life happened. I graduated, I became an adult, I survived 2020... and endured 2021 and am barely into 2022... Yeah. Before I knew it, three years already passed. But I'm back now, and I finally have the chapter.

I'm sorry to anyone who has to go back and reread everything to remember stuff. On the bright side, I edited a few of the earlier chapters to make stuff a little... cleaner? Biggest edit was to 42, "Dear Kakashi", to fix some typos and also make Itachi feel a little less OOC while still desperate. Other than that, next most notable edit was just an offhand mention that Ryoko's ninneko have always existed in there (which was always the explanation for how they're still able to visit Konoha, I just never actually mentioned that).

This chapter was one of the hardest to write to date. There's so much I wanted to cover. I've known for a long time now I wanted to feature the bits with Tsunade and Gaara, but the rest were written kinda on the spot. Tsunade's scene confirms some suspicions I've seen commenters mention about our masked friend. I think most people should be able to figure out his identity by this point.

Gaara's scene is particularly noteworthy, specifically Kokoro. I've been planning to give the Sand Siblings another younger sibling for a long time now. Anyone remember the "red or purple" question mentioned back in Chapter 47? That was to figure out which kekkei genkai she'd inherit from her parents. But even before that, I had the contest for the person to leave Review #200 on FFN to get to offer input on a certain OC. The winner of that contest was reebajee, who also happened to be the very first person to leave a comment on Echoes of Light. Specifically, I asked: "1. Boy or girl? 2. Red or green? 3. Young or old?" Yeah, those were also for Kokoro. She chose girl, green, and old. Had she chosen "young", Kokoro would be closer to a toddler.

As for the name, I just felt like Kokoro was fitting since Kokoro means "heart" and Gaara has the whole love motif going on.

From here, there will be a time skip. Not too long, we're only skipping a few months and not three years like canon did, but we're finally leaving canon behind for good. By the time we reach the point Shippuden started, there will be no salvaging any of the events from there. We already have a different Kazekage, let's see where we can go next!

Before I go, I want to thank everyone for reading so far, especially if you're a returning reader after my unplanned 3 year hiatus. This story has ballooned further than I expected. I've managed to meet a good chunk of my goals already, from revealing Akari's status to Kakashi telling Itachi he knows the truth to even Pakura surviving and becoming the Kazekage. Then there were all the twists I never planned that just happened: Hinata leaving, Ryuusuke being Tsunade's student, Konan and Shibuki starting to form a bond...

There are still so many secrets to be revealed, so many bits of foreshadowing waiting to pan out. I can't promise to have regular updates, because honestly, this fic is probably at the bottom of my priority list in writing. But at the same time, Echoes is probably the most special one, because it's a bit like my love letter to Naruto as a whole. This is a story born from a passion for a series that played a HUGE role in my childhood and adolescence, so I have no plans to stop before it finishes! I'm not sure what the future holds from here, but I'm looking forward to finding out. To quote the prologue:

"Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. I obviously know how mine begins, and I have a pretty good idea on how it will end, but for everything in between I'm just gonna wing it. Let's see how much I can change this narrative without sending everything to hell!"