AN: And so it begins... (and soushiki means funeral)
He was the most unusual individual she'd ever met. He was scatterbrained, boastful and an unapologetic prankster, but he was also warm and inviting. And he always saw her for who she really was. And for that, she hoped she wouldn't have to let him go...
Seal Master of Konoha
Silence blanketed the air, deafening the usually lively chatter of the forest all around Hinata. The muted chirping of birds and the rustling of leaves were almost nonexistent as if nature itself could tell what this day truly was. A day of loss. A day of longing, of mourning those gone too soon.
A day where the normally peaceful calm of the forest transformed into a stifling stillness, almost suffocating as she stood amongst the wilderness. This was what her life had become. The ground slipping from under her, ever shifting as she tried to find her footing. She felt as small as barely thirteen years could create.
It was like drowning beneath the high tide, rooted in place. A constant storm pelting her with the heavy rains of expectations she no longer knew how to shoulder. Not in this new world. Not in this existence where she was left to stand helpless as the waters engulfed her. Powerless. She could no sooner struggle against her fate than the sea against the will of the moon. And that…
Hinata shook her head, unwilling to name the emotion that rolled within her. A myriad of emotions that raged just beneath the surface threatening to crack her carefully crafted mask of indifference. He would have been ashamed. He would have lifted his head in just that way to indicate his complete dissatisfaction with her progress, with her mannerisms, with her strength, with her. A voice filtering through her thoughts condemning her for her failures. For her inability to separate herself from her emotions because this was not her day to mourn. To crumbled beneath the weight of expectations neither new nor unexpected yet wearily heavy all the same.
No, that day did not exist for her. Not with the weight bearing down on her shoulders. Overwhelming. Oppressive as it colored every thought and every action with uncertainty. Mortification flooding her system at every mental hesitation. This was not what he would have wanted. Not what he'd painstakingly taught her day after long, unending day. This was weakness she couldn't afford and yet it crept at her consciousness all the same. A truth whispered in the nothingness that spoke of the very failing he'd spent so much time trying to rectify.
This was everything he would have hated. Everything he loathed, each biting criticism delivered in that tone, as cold as ice and as sharp as a kunai. It was the phantom memory of shaky hands and hesitant steps that had been corrected well before they'd been allowed to become a habit. This was loss. This was…
A disruption in the wind flow pulled Hinata from her spiraling thoughts as someone approached her location. In an instant, the forest regained its life. Muted sounds, dampened smells all returning in a rush as she shifted her focus to the intruder.
Recognition was almost instantaneous. The tense pinch between her shoulder blades easing as she immediately relaxed at its familiarity. Warm in the way that only he could be. Crisp like the morning dew in the surrounding forest. The ease of the familiar far more potent as her intruder grew closer, the sharp tang of ink and blood lingering on her tongue.
It could be only one person. The only person who would dare to intrude on her solitude. And oddly enough, the only person who's intrusion was welcomed. 'Uzumaki-kun.'
Without her conscious consent, she remembered blue eyes like the vast oceans of trips she refused to remember laced as they were with bittersweet memories. Instead she remembered blond hair as golden as the blinding sun and a brilliant smile to match its intensity. It seemed simple enough, those characteristics unique in their village, but he was so much more than that to her now. Had probably always been.
He was dry ink and parchment, confined to spaces she associated with control and order, and yet he also somehow embodied the natural chaos of the forest. He was a duality of concepts that she hadn't thought possible to coexist together, but he somehow made it work. And he was warm…
'Warm,' she mulled the thought over, rolling it across her tongue as he grew closer to her position. Until she'd met him, she'd had only limited references to the feeling. The hint of a memory nearly forgotten in its distance and rarity, but it fit him perfectly because he was warm. And of course, he was so much more than that simple descriptor, but despite her expansive vocabulary, she couldn't find a better term.
It was simple. The contagious warmth that seeped into her every pore. Even on this day filled with cold, somber grief and something far more chilling lurking just beneath the surface, she felt the beginnings of something warm, affectionate even, bubble to the surface. It was…
She shook the thought from her head as she turned to face Uzumaki-kun properly as he pulled up behind her, his movements almost completely silent.
Naruto's eyes darted across the forest below, alert and careful as his gaze traced for any and every available hint that would lead him to his query. Unsurprisingly, Hinata-hime was difficult to track, the natural glide to her gait harder to follow than most of the ninja he'd spent days trailing. Even so, there were hints of her presence steering his course. Small mistakes that he wouldn't believe she'd leave if she truly wanted to be hidden. He hoped that meant she didn't mind being found.
Instinctually, he lightened his steps slowing the cadence of his breaths to blend into the surrounding wildlife as he approached an isolated clearing just on the outskirts of the Hyuuga Clan property. Complete silence was impossible, but also completely unnecessary. He only had to be light like the critters crawling across the forest floor, each movement like that of the wind passing through the trees. He was like the life of the forest, invisible as they were and it was more than natural to fall into these practiced steps. So much so that he barely noticed the change in his own gait.
Soon enough the familiar black and white kimono came into view. The snow white haori in stark contrast with the colors of the forest, even muted by winter's cold touch. The Hyuuga Clan symbol emblazed on her back right along with a set of characters that he'd become intimately familiar with. Sure, he still didn't know exactly what it said, but he did know it wasn't the characters for 'Hyuuga'. And while he'd never been very good at reading kanji, even he could recognize the character for world on her back no matter what Sakura said. It was just the second one that was always giving him trouble. Not that it really mattered. Hinata-hime was Hinata-hime.
Briefly, he wondered if it said 'Koushi' like he'd heard most of the villagers call her, or maybe it said 'Yotsugi' which he assumed was some weird Hyuuga equivalent because they were the only ones to call her that. He really should remember to look those words up. 'Oh well,' shrugging, Naruto brushed the idea aside as another idea slowly formed in his mind. It didn't really matter what the characters said, not when that wasn't really who she was. And especially not when there was a perfect opportunity right in front of him that he just couldn't pass up.
Intentionally, he softened his footsteps even further, carefully picking his way through the forest as he moved towards Hinata-hime. It didn't seem like she'd noticed his approach, her sightless gaze still firmly forwards, back turned to him as she continued to blindly stare out into the dense foliage. 'Good, she'll never see it coming.' He smiled as his imagination supplied a startled Hinata-hime. A squeal slipping passed her lips in her surprise. Her focus would be solely on him, him and that temporary fear of the unknown and nothing else.
And sure, that did seem a bit underhanded given that she was down one sense. Her inability to see him would certainly make his little trick more startling than normal. And yeah, normally this kind of prank would be beneath him in its utter simplicity, but…
Naruto tried not to shake his head as his thoughts lingered, hesitant to complete the real reason he'd been out and about far earlier than any non-Gai-sensei training day required. No, he wouldn't normally consider pulling a prank like this, but today wasn't like a normal day. No, today was her dad's funeral. And while he couldn't really relate to the pain she must be feeling, he could at least do everything in his power to take her mind off it, no matter the method. Cheap shot or not.
Posed, practically crouched and ready to pounce, Hinata-hime turned in his direction before he could move. Sightless gaze angled up at him, tilted just a tad too low for him to imagine that she was looking into his eyes – a fact that really wasn't her fault as the six centimeter lifts he'd needed for his disguise had likely shifted were she was use to looking at his face. Caught, Naruto sheepishly straightened before closing the distance like a normal person. Hinata-hime had seen straight through his plot – easily finding him even when he was at his stealthiest. Again. A smile formed on his lips as he finally pulled up to her side.
"Someday I'll sneak up on you, just you wait," he stated, a grin growing wider on his lips as the passion of a new challenge filled his eyes. That was a promise. A promise on a list that just kept growing, but unlike the ever growing chore list stuck to his refrigerator, he felt a shiver of excitement at the prospect of adding more and more things to this one. And he really shouldn't have been surprised. This was his best friend after all. He'd never tire of hanging out with her no matter what it was and his growing list just proved it.
"Recognition is more than our auditory and visual senses," she replied, acknowledging his presence with a simple nod in greeting. He could see that she was still slightly distracted as her normal hyper focus on him was gone, but that was to be expected. In fact, he'd been preparing himself mentally all morning for the cold shoulder Hinata-hime had yet to give him. Seeing her now though, he was beginning to think she might never have reason to give it.
Turning away from her knowing that his presence wasn't unwelcomed, he let his mind think about what he might have done wrong with his attempt to sneak up on her. 'More than sound and sight?' He'd really not thought all that much on how his best friend must 'see'. But it made sense. She maneuvered around trees and within large crowds with ease. There was no hesitation. She was just as good if not better than other ninja he knew. And it couldn't be explained by hyper awareness of just those two senses.
Nodding his head he spoke aloud, "Oh that explains so much. You move around way better than a lot of the Chuunin who try to track me after an entirely innocent unfortunate series of completely unrelated events that happen within the village. You'd have to be doing more than them to have caught me." He paused for a moment, waving away the thought of the hordes of people that had tried and failed to capture him after a very successful and epic prank with a flippant sweep of his hand before continuing.
"I always just assumed you had eagle ears or something like that. But I suppose the shift in the air might have given me away. And you know, I thought I took a bath this morning, but I guess you can't ever really wash off the smell of ink." He nodded as his mind wandered to the possibility of developing a scentless ink. Ah, the endless possibilities. "Oh well," he added, storing the idea away for later as he focused his attention back on his friend, smile wide across his lips, "that will just make it that much better when I finally sneak up on you, believe it!"
At his declaration, tense shoulders eased. It was just a tad, barely noticeable. Likely unperceivable if he hadn't been watching for the usual tells, but it was there and Naruto's grin could only grow because of it. That was as relaxed as Hinata-hime ever let herself be in public. At least he hoped it was just in public. If she couldn't be herself behind closed doors, then where could she.
With an internal shrug, Naruto pushed that thought aside. That didn't matter at the moment. After all, what could he do about that now? No, what mattered was the fact that he'd been able to put her just a tad more at ease. And he was sure that if she'd been facing him, he'd also be able to catch the little crinkle at the edge of her mouth. That small twitch of amusement that just begged to be drawn out into a smile. And sure the smile was being held back by practiced ease, but it was there. He knew it. And better yet, he'd put it there. His best friend was both relaxed and amused and that was a heck of a lot better than the alternative.
"Should I be concerned that you managed to infiltrate the Compound?" she questioned filling the silence that had previously surrounded them, a silence he hadn't even noticed existed until she'd broken it.
'Good question,' Naruto thought as he glanced down at his outfit. Each detail meticulously chosen to perfectly replicate that of the Hyuuga policeman's identity that he'd borrowed for the day. He briefly debated if anyone else could match the detail he'd put into borrowing Private First Class Liang's identity. The brown wig filled with perfectly styled long, natural hair. The dark brown contacts he'd chosen to hide his own exotic blues. His normal whisker marks covered under a layer of foundation, and Private First Class Liang's unique unit tattoo intricately applied to his forehead.
While Hinata-hime couldn't see the painstaking detail he'd put into his impersonation, it was downright immaculate. Certainly nothing to snuff at. Really, the only thing that separated him from Private First Class Liang was the other boy's exact voice patterns, which was a task he still hadn't perfected, but something he was sure would come eventually.
'Nope, don't think anyone else could manage something like this,' Naruto thought with a sharp nod before a frown slowly etched its way across his face. It was true he didn't think anyone else could replicate the feat, but for some reason he was still sure Hinata-hime would not approve of him managing it in the first place. Surely, if she could see him, she'd be pointing a disappointed frown his way. He'd seen her aim it at one of her clansmen once. No words, just the slight drop of her lips. And the poor sap had nearly run away, ready to commit seppuku because ritualistic suicide was the only reasonable response to failing so epically in the eyes of Hinata-hime.
Yeah, he didn't want that look pointed his way. Certainly not when she'd likely follow the look with all the hard questions that no one else seemed to ask. Like how he'd managed to obtain Private First Class Liang's credentials and information in the first place. No, he didn't want to have to answer a question like that. Still, he had to say something.
His first instinct was to deny everything. After all, what Hinata-hime couldn't see wouldn't get him in trouble. But that hardness of her face, every angle sharper than it should be almost completely erasing the ease he'd managed to put there gave him pause. That was worry. Fear for her clan, her family. And he couldn't live with keeping that there. No, he didn't want that at all.
So instead he laughed nervously, stalling for the few extra seconds that he would need to come up with something honest. Something truthful enough to answer his best friend that would undo at least some of her concerns about the safety of her clan. Something that wouldn't be a lie, but also wouldn't reveal all his trade secrets. Sure, they were best friends and he was certain to tell them to her someday, but that would take a much longer conversation under far better circumstances.
So, instead he searched for something else. Reviewing his memories of this morning to try to find something. Almost instantly, his mind landed on how short staffed the check-in gate had been, on how quiet the mood had been. The distraction. A distraction that had aided his quest like never before.
Suddenly, he realized what it was. 'The funeral.' Clearly, the funeral had affected far more than just his best friend. "Considering today, can you really blame security?" he questioned, speaking with an open sincerity that he typically tried to avoid.
He could read the answer from the slight tilt of her head, cast downward and away from him, there was a sadness there that seemed to bare down on her with an astonishing weight. Silent and regal, Hinata-hime stood before him with a clarity of understanding that only came with personal familiarity. The weight of this day so much heavier than he could ever dream of understanding.
Even now, he could feel her drifting back to that dark place he'd found her in, pulling away from him in the heavy weight of the silence that filled the space between them. And he couldn't have that.
"And hey, it's not like it's easy to get in here," he continued lightly. "You know, only a pranking genius like myself, a true master of the craft, could pull off such a feat," he added, trying to insert as much levity into his words, anything to bring back that momentary spark of happiness.
Slowly, he could see it start to work, but it wasn't enough. Not yet. "Actually, now that I'm thinking about it. I should probably teach some type of master class on it. Maybe start my own journeymen practice. You know, something like 'the Great Uzumaki's Pranking Expertise, all the laughs without the punishment'. I'm sure it'd be a hit!"
He smirked as the crinkle returned, another smile suppressed. Another laugh ready to bubble up to the surface. 'Good,' Naruto thought as he turned away, gaze shifting out to the small river running a short distance away. Hinata-hime seemed lighter, better than she had when he'd first arrived. Not perfect, not filled with that complete unburdening that would wipe away any dark cloud, but it was something.
And that was beyond good because he knew how heavy some burdens could be. How just the act of sharing it with one person could lessen the load. And just as Hinata-hime had helped him with his – acknowledging the monster that lived within him as if it didn't change who he was – he wanted to share her burden. Offer the same safety she gave him with just her presence constantly beside him, protecting him from the terrifying glow of red eyes haunting his dreams.
Naruto pulled his hand away from his stomach. Now was not the time to dwell on his own personal monster. Hinata-hime needed him to be strong. Beside him, Hinata-hime moved forward, sure steps taking her up to the water's edge as it rushed on in front of them both. Sometimes he felt like she was like that river. Always moving. Its strength never wading. But then, that comparison felt wrong somehow. Because Hinata-hime was never shaped and swayed by others. She didn't beat against those beneath her until they conformed.
Naruto frowned as he shifted his gaze to the sky above. The sun's rays filtering through the trees. 'No, Hinata-hime is like the moon,' he thought with a smile. She was radiant like the moon, gently swaying the world around her. Commanding and regal, but she wasn't perfect. Just like the moon, when you bothered to look close enough you could see those small imperfections. Naruto just wasn't sure anyone had bother, but he would change that. He would make sure she knew he saw her.
Nodding briefly to himself as if to reaffirm the thought, Naruto joined her at the water's edge. Yeah, he would change that. He would be there for her like she'd been there for him. She'd accepted him without thought, she'd needed no persuasion. He'd never known he needed that, until she'd given it to him. Now, he wanted to give it back. Show her that he was here. Even if it was just like this, silently standing next to her so that she knew he was here. Because he was. Always. Here for her. And nothing would change that. Because he wasn't going anywhere.
The silence was…
Unexpected. Pleasant even, but certainly something she had not expected from the likes of Uzumaki-kun. After all, he was pure energy. Vibrant and active and always in motion. And this silence was…
It was the stillness of open waters, lakes confined and left to rest. This was not the Uzumaki-kun she thought she knew.
But in some ways it was. Each slow, measured breath the sharp focus of a boy that could do incredible feats with only ink and bits of paper. It was like the beginnings of a meditative trance although Hinata greatly doubted that Uzumaki-kun had the temperament to sink into a full meditative state. This was something close. Soothing with the easy rise and fall of his chest. Each soft drag slowly displacing the air around them. It was…
"I can see why you come here," Uzumaki-kun spoke, interrupting her thoughts as he broke the silence. "It's calming, nice." Uzumaki-kun let the sentiment hang in the air, the space between them filling once more with the sounds of the forest undisturbed by mankind. They stayed like that for the span of over a dozen slow breaths, the constant slow draw interrupted once again by Uzumaki-kun's abrupt statements. "I'm leaving tomorrow."
Her curiosity peaked, Hinata shifted slightly in her spot against a towering tree of the forest, silently asking for more on this new development.
"Oh, it's some big mission with Ero-sannin," Uzumaki-kun began, easily reading the question in her stance. "We're going to find the next Hokage, some slug mistress or whatever," he continued with an offhanded wave clearly not impressed with the mission perimeters despite its high profile nature. A smile itched to crawl across her face. After all, that was definitely the character of her friend. In fact, she would not have been surprised to learn that he'd not paid all that much attention to his mission objectives.
"Anyway, I wasn't actually paying all that much attention when the pervert was telling me about it," he added, easily confirming Hinata's assumptions. The smile tugged at her features once more as she continued to listen to the boy's antics. "You know, I'm pretty sure Ero-sannin is just sore about his book research, if you can even call what he writes literature," Uzumaki-kun stated, the exasperation clear in his voice.
The comment reminded her of the last few times her friend had mentioned the legendary Sannin. Never in a positive light. Never more than a few offhanded comments. But that was Uzumaki-kun. A boy not easily impressed by titles and accolades. Sometimes, Hinata wondered if he even knew he should be impressed by such things. Certainly the ease at which he interacted with her was a result of that disregard for titles.
"Really I was doing the world a favor. No one needs that pervert running around spreading that crap to the masses. Someone could be writing real stories. You know of substance. Something like our grand adventures. And yeah, I know we haven't really had that many yet, but we will. And that will be something everyone will want to read. But no one seems to see this my way. Not even Jiji. So now I'm stuck as his servant, or student as he likes to tell other people if you believe those lies."
Another smile fought at the corners of her lips as a warmth surged beneath her chest at the comment, Uzumaki-kun's unique brand of humor a welcome distraction. His unique thought pattern, the chaotic path of his thoughts and reasoning, was more than enough to shift her focus. It was strange how such words spoken with such candor affected her so, but he made her want to smile. He made her want to let go and laugh.
And perhaps it was his own smile, radiant and contagious, felt even without the aid of her eyes. His happiness, his unfiltered joy was like a tactile heat, filling the air around him so all felt its touch. And perhaps it was something different altogether. Something she couldn't name even as she struggled to put words to the emotion. Maybe it was…
"Anyway, Jiji really wants me to go. Even promised me all I could eat ramen with a friend. That is, if you're not busy," he continued, his excitement radiating off of him like the heat of the sun. That excitement leaked into his next few words as he chattered on nonsensical topics meant solely to fill the air. He was distracting her. Taking her mind away from the reality of the day with an ease she hadn't realized was possible until this moment.
But of course, she shouldn't have been surprised. This was what he did. He cared despite not really knowing her. Or perhaps he knew her better than anyone else. Perhaps that was what it meant to be best friends. Sole confidants. Shared shoulders to bare the weight of the world. Either way, she appreciated it. Welcomed the distraction for however long it could last because it would be her only escape for the day. Her only escape until Uzumaki-kun came bounding back into her life once more.
Eventually, his chatter petered out leaving them in silence once more. The hum of the forest leaving them in a comfortable tranquility that was only broken when Uzumaki-kun deemed it appropriate.
"You know," he began, an unfamiliar hesitation coloring the sound of his voice. "If you ever want to talk to me about it, I'm here. I…" The sentence hung in the air, unfinished in a way she'd never associated with Uzumaki-kun. Not when the boy seemed to always know what to say. How to brighten a dreary, blackened day with only a handful of words. Speechless. At a loss for words was not the Uzumaki-kun she knew.
"I won't pretend to know how you feel. How it feels to lose a dad, but if I ever lost Jiji…" His voice waivered at the thought, weak and broken in such an unfamiliar way until he finally turned to face her, steel in his voice as he continued, "I'm here."
The sentiment was clear. She didn't have to face this alone. A promise to always be there for her. To share the weight as unbearable, as insurmountable, as it seemed. But it wasn't enough. It couldn't be enough. Not when this was a path she had to walk alone ever concerned with the image that would stare back at her if she didn't. If she failed in the one task, the only task she'd been given.
These were responsibilities that only she could do. Only she had the power to accomplish. And that was what kept her up at night, what ate at her in the quiet hours as she lay alone in the darkness. Worry and fear and a chill that refused to leave warred against her, a constant reminder of her inadequacy. Because as much as she wanted to believe, she couldn't help but remember the time when no one believed. When the voices whispered words of failure and discontent. When weakness colored her every action and only the guiding hand of a man that was no longer here had helped her back to the path she was destined to walk.
'What if…' The question rung through her head on an endless spiral as she turned away from the rushing water, her sightless gaze landing on the one person that would not hesitate to tell her the truth, even if she didn't want to hear it. "What if it wasn't enough time?" she questioned softly, far softer than she'd intended. 'What if I'm not ready? What if I'm not strong enough? What if I'll never be strong enough?' she continued silently, hoping that Uzumaki-kun would understand even without the words. She was only so much, only so strong. And everything, her everything, had been spent working to this one goal, but this was still too soon. Too…
"But you are ready! You've got this, Hinata-hime. You're strong and smart and more than ready to protect your clan. Heck, you're the strongest person I know. You're so far ahead of everyone. Even me. You've already mastered your craft. While I've got a long way to go. You're…"
"No, Uzumaki-kun," Hinata interrupted, unwilling to allow her friend to continue to discount his considerable skills. "You are the Seal Master of Konoha."
For a moment, her words hung in the air undisturbed. The weight of them sinking into her best friend's stance as he shifted nervously beside her. "Ah well, I've got faith in you too," he replied warmly, a hand moving to run across his chest. "Which is why I know you're ready for this," he continued, the hard, definitive steel of his voice a comfort that showed his unrelenting conviction. "It might be hard, and you'll miss him, but you're ready. You're the Princess of Konoha. You were destined for this!"
This time it was Uzumaki-kun who allowed the weight of his words to sink in, for her to absorb everything that he was offering. The confidence, unwavering, that he had in her. It was…
"And hey," he added, interrupting her thoughts with a mischievous tint to his voice. "If you're ever feeling really low, just remember master pranking rule number one," he continued, pausing briefly as he made sure he had her complete attention. "Never give up." Silence filled the air as the words danced around them. It was so like Uzumaki-kun. The simplicity of it all. Everything, every challenge, every doubt and hesitation boiled down to one simple saying. One drive that pushed him even if she doubted it could do the same for her.
But she wanted to believe in the simplicity of his world. She wanted...
"It's what gets me through the day and I'm sure it'll help you too. That is, until you can see and remember what I already know. Because you're going to rock this!" She could feel his grin widen even further as the air shifted, molding around the double fist pump he delivered as he practically leapt into the air in his excitement. A smile tinted at the edge of her lips as his words filled her.
Hinata turned away from her friend as she contemplated his mantra. There was a truth to his words. Something that she wished ardently she could believe. Because she hoped that Uzumaki-kun was correct. Hoped that she really could do this. Hoped that she was ready even if she felt anything but.
Turning on her heels, Hinata headed back towards the center of the Compound unsurprised when Uzumaki-kun fell into step beside her, finally ready to face what lay ahead. Silently, they walked. Each step bringing her back to reality. Each step bringing her that much closer to her destiny.
Slowly, the sounds of the Compound marketplace filtered through the silence growing louder with every step until they both stopped just outside of the familiar hustle and bustle.
"I better go," Uzumaki-kun began, the air shifting around him as he nodded his head in the opposite direction. "It's probably a bad idea to get caught around here like this," he continued, his hand shifting the air further as it swept down to point at his outfit, a disguise she assumed given the familiar yet unfamiliar pattern of the wind through his cloths.
With a short nod in acknowledgement, Hinata listened as he turned to leave. "But don't worry," he added, the statement spoken from over his shoulders. "I'll see you around."
Hinata stood there a moment longer. Her thoughts circling around the one person that seemed to really see her. Because he did. She couldn't really question that any longer. Not when with just a few words she felt better, a confidence in herself that she'd never felt before. And that was in part because of him. Because he was. He was…
The most unusual individual she'd ever met. He was scatterbrained, boastful and an unapologetic prankster, but he was also warm and inviting. And he always saw her for who she really was. And for that, she hoped she wouldn't have to let him go. Hoped his voice wouldn't end up just another memory floating in the wind.