Author's Note: Here it is, guys? Are you ready?
When she wakes, a comfortable, protective warmth rests beside her, and someone's even breathing tickles the back of her neck. Sakura shivers in response and blinks, trying to force back the confusing tides of unconsciousness.
When she opens her eyes finally, Kakashi is bent over her, his eyes crinkled in amusement.
"Kakashi-sensei…?" Sakura wonders. "Did I faint again?"
Mortification fills her at the very thought.
"Well, if you did, you're not the only one," he tells her cheerfully, and Sakura doesn't understand the implication in his voice.
Until she pushes herself up and feels the hard-muscled thigh beneath her palm. Suddenly she is completely awake, and she turns around to see blazing black eyes glaring up at her. Her brain registers their position—legs tangled, Sakura lying on Sasuke's chest as he sprawls beneath her—and she squeaks in wordless shock.
"Hey, asshole, what are you doing to Sakura?" Naruto's voice breaks through the heavy silence, and the blond boy leans over to give Sasuke to the stink eye.
"Probably saving her from something," Sasuke mutters, beginning to pull himself away. To Sakura he grunts, "Get off of me."
She is quick to comply, still trying to recapture her train of thought, while also trying to commit to memory the sensation of being so close to Sasuke. It's hard to do, since all the blood in her body has rushed to her head and is adding to her dizziness from waking up.
Sasuke does not seem to share her fluster. "What happened to us? The last thing I remember is walking through that strange distortion."
"Me too," Kakashi replies gravely. He is staring at something beyond them, looking thoughtful. "The simplest explanation I can think of is that our walking through the distortion disrupted it and there was fallout. It would explain our unconsciousness."
And why everything hurts, Sakura thinks. Though she has no injuries on her body, everything feels sore, the same way it feels after she's finished a heavy weight-lifting workout.
She reflects on Kakashi's words, and frowns. "That doesn't make sense, though. There have to have been a lot of other people who went through the barrier, even just by accident. What's so special about us that we could stop it?"
Kakashi shrugs. "It might have something to do with the Sharingan. Sasuke and I both have one; perhaps it interacted with whatever the phenomena was and cancelled it out."
"I guess…" Sakura agrees, remembering that nothing happened when Naruto or his clone went through. "But what caused it in the first place?"
Kakashi does not respond and strides a few feet away, staring at the ground with a frown. He kneels down and presses two fingers to the ground. "Kai!"
Spindly, faded symbols radiate outward. She expects to see them form into a sealing circle, but instead only about a quarter of them appear; the rest look as if they were cut away with a curved blade.
"That looks like a Memory Erasing Seal," Sakura says, recognising several of the characters from her studies. "Do you think someone used it on us?"
"Not someone," Kakashi replied, straightening up. "Me. This is my work."
His students gawk up at him in shock.
"Are you kidding me?!" Naruto demands. "Why the heck would you that? Now we're standing around like idiots trying to figure out what happened."
"That's why I gave you the simple explanation," Kakashi replies, unbothered. "Come on, let's go home."
Sakura scoffs in disbelief. "What are you talking about?! You can't just say something like that and just…not explain!"
"I can if it's above your paygrade. Use of a Memory Erasing Seal means either the mission became S-Rank, or there's something we stumbled upon that was too dangerous for a bunch of genin to know. Or both."
"So, you erased your own memories too?" Naruto snorts. "Talk about stupid."
"How are we supposed to make a complete report if we can't remember what happened?" Sasuke adds, irritated.
"The simple version," Kakashi repeats pointedly. "I'll mention the seal to the Hokage, but even if she chooses to have it investigated, it won't be by us. Our job is done here. Which is just as well, because I'm exhausted."
And he continues to walk away.
"Is he nuts?" Naruto mutters to Sakura and Sasuke. "We're just supposed to…leave it like that?"
"He's got a point. We've done our job," Sakura says with a tentative shrug. "And, I mean, I'm really tired too. I never would have guessed just looking around would be so exhausting! Don't you think so, Sasuke?"
He doesn't reply, staring at the spot where the memory seal was. "I want to know what the less simple version of the story was."
"Yeah, well, good luck with that," Naruto huffs and stretches, putting both arms behind his head. "When was the last time you got Kakashi-sensei to tell you something he didn't want to?"
The three of them exchange thoughtful looks, and then collectively sigh, hanging their heads.
We can't even get him to show us what's under his stupid mask, he's not about to tell us S-rank secrets, Sakura thinks dejectedly.
"So, on that note…" Naruto goes on, and then grins wickedly at his teammates. "I'm thinking ramen."
"You're always thinking about ramen," Sasuke grumbles.
"Oh, like you're not hungry!"
Sasuke's stomach chooses that moment to grumble loud enough that they all hear it. Sasuke's face remains carefully blank, but Sakura is sure she sees his right eye twitch a little.
"Tell you what," she says, once again falling into the peacemaker role, "I'll pay for dinner at Ichiraku, and we can figure out a way to get Kakashi-sensei to tell us more about Memory Erasure Seals. I bet if we put our heads together, we can figure out what they might be hiding, right Sasuke?"
She beams at him hopefully.
"Whatever," he sighs and starts walking after Kakashi.
"Hey, what about me?" Naruto demands as Sakura hurries after the Uchiha boy. "Hey, Sakura, you're buying me ramen too, right? Sakura? Aw, come on…"
Sarada blinks in surprise at the spot where seconds before her parents' childhood stood. There was no after-image or slow fade; one moment they were standing there, and the next they weren't.
And a beat later, a portal opens behind her, and she is dimly aware of her mother guiding her through/
The five adults and three genin land on the paved road that leads to Konoha, and the portal to that strange desert dimension closes. Papa leans forward on his knees, breathing hard.
"Well," Boruto says, because of course he has to be the one to break the silence, "that was weird."
"I would say interesting," Mitsuki adds.
"Does this mean everything is back to the way it was supposed to be?" Aunt Hinata wonders, glancing at Papa in question.
"It seems to," he replies, glancing about with his Sharingan and Rinnegan active. "I see no overlap of dimensions any longer. And I can no longer remember that day, beyond what I witnessed myself today."
Sarada frowns to herself and rubs her forehead thoughtfully. She doesn't think it's quite that simple.
"Same here," Mama says. "All I remember is Kakashi making some explanation about a Memory Erasure Seal, and you guys making me pay for supper."
"Hey, we didn't make you do anything!" Lord Seventh protests. "You offered!"
"No, I offered Sasuke," Mama replies primly. "You horned in on it, as always, and then ended up ordering like three bowls yourself!"
"So did Sasuke!"
"He paid me back for it."
"You did?" Lord Seventh asks, surprised, and glances at Papa.
"Don't you have something more important to talk about?" he asks pointedly. When Lord Seventh looks confused, Papa looks pointedly at Team Konohamaru. "Regarding your shinobi corps?"
"Oh!" Lord Seventh's eyes widen in realization, and he nods. He turns to the genin squad and draws himself, a solemn look on his face. "Konohamaru, is there anything you want to explain about your most recent mission?"
Konohamaru looks confused. "Er…nothing that you don't already know?"
"I see. So…no explanation as to why your squad flouted protocol to return to Konoha when you realized this mission was far above their level?"
"Hey, that's not fair!" Boruto yells. "We were all separated and stuck underground, how were we supposed to get back?"
"I believe he is referring to the point after which we were all reunited," Mitsuki pipes up reasonably. "Konoha shinobi protocol maintains we should have returned to the village, instead of staying behind with Konohamaru-sensei."
"You are not helping right now!" Boruto hisses.
"In summary," Lord Seventh says, "you are all grounded."
"Definitely," Aunt Hinata agrees.
"No way!" Sarada and Boruto chorus, having not expected that.
"We were on a mission!" Boruto goes on. "You can't ground us for mission stuff!"
"Oh, you're not grounded for the mission," Lord Seventh says. "As shinobi, you did a great job and completed your mission beyond expectation, figuring out the cause of the disturbances."
"But?" Sarada challenges.
"But once your parents showed up, technically the mission was over," Konohamaru says quietly. "And they told you a bunch of times not to get involved, so…"
"Grounded," Sakura finishes with a nod.
"Technically, none of you are able to ground me," Mitsuki points out.
"I'm Hokage. I can do whatever I want." Lord Seventh folds his arms. "Besides, I have what's known as locomotive parenthesis—"
"In loco parentis," Aunt Hinata corrects gently.
"Yeah, that! Which means, I can make decisions for your wellbeing instead of your parent if I have to, and I say, right now, you're grounded."
Mitsuki looks considering, as if this is a novelty he did not expect and doesn't know how he feels about it.
"Tough luck, kids," Konohamaru-sensei tells them with a rueful smile.
"Oh, you're grounded too," Sakura tells him crisply.
He stares. "I'm an adult. You can't ground me."
"Want to test that theory?" she asks, smiling with the scary kind of cheer Sarada recognises as a danger sign.
Konohamaru blanches, and Sarada thinks she hears him whisper under his breath, "Scary."
"Right. That's done," Lord Seventh says. "So I'm thinking—ramen."
They all begin to walk back toward the village.
Aunt Hinata laughs and Mama groans. "Seriously, Naruto?"
Papa shakes his head, and as he does it, Sarada can hear his younger self muttering, "Moron."
And she grins, then, because even if there are no photos of her father when he is younger, she's seen him with her Sharingan and he's forever imprinted in her memories. Disgruntled scowl and all.
And Mama, all flustered and silly, and Lord Seventh the loveable fool—and how much he and Boruto resemble each other—and Lord Sixth looking a little graver than normal but still the protective force she knows.
She thinks she gets it now. She gets them, or at least understands why even after so many years, and in some case, so much absence, they are still the unstoppable, legendary Team 7.
Sarada glances at Boruto and Mitsuki, who are teasing a dejected-looking Konohamaru, and she wonders if she's destined to continue that legacy.
For a brief instance, she imagines someone whispering to her.
You walk with gods, little one. Mind your step.
The moment is gone right away, skating away from the edges of her mind, like a distant dream. Instead, her attention is rivetted on her parents, who are turned and waiting for her, expectant. She thinks if they were alone, just the three of them, Mama might lean of Papa for support, but they're both so stubborn about that sort of thing.
They're so different, and yet, so completely the same.
Sarada laughs and runs to her parents, placing herself between them and grabbing hold of their hands.
"Mama, Papa," she tells them earnestly, with a conviction that has never felt truer in her life, "when you guys were young, you were annoying…"
And that, my friends, is the end.
I tried to end it on a lighthearted, open note the way an anime episode or movie would end. Any questions that haven't been resolved yet, I'm probably planning to work into a future fic, so don't worry (Sarada's knowledge about Itachi and the Uchiha will be addressed in its own time, I didn't want to stick it in here because it would feel tacked on.)
It has been an astounding two years and four months. When I started this fic, it was supposed to be three chapters long, at maximum five. It was supposed to be a humorous "what if" situation of past meeting future.
And instead, I ended up on as much of an adventure as you guys, in the writing! There was a time in the last year when I didn't think I would ever finish this. I didn't have the attention span or the ideas, and I felt like I had written myself into a corner. But through it all, no matter what other projects I worked on, there were people sending me messages about how much they enjoyed An Inch of Gold and dearly hoped I would continue it. It's really thanks to you guys that I managed to do it.
This is the longest story I have every written and completed. It's far from perfect—I know there are mistakes along the way, and word choices that should be fixed and any number of things that need to be edited.
But I did it.
I said everything in it that I wanted to say or resolve, and it has been utter therapy for me, both in my life and in response to the travesty that has become the Naruto universe lately.
I finished this damned behemoth of a story.
And that makes me think that one day, I'll have the drive and attention span to write my own original story that's just as well-received. I hope you guys are there to see it.
I may take a bit of a break from posting stuff for a little while. Finishing this really did drain me, but when I get the energy again I'll update the fic list and chronologies, and categorize which fics are in the Path of Needles or Path of Thorns series. And, of course, my many non-canon/non-headcanon series that need to be continued. And a whole host of new fic ideas that won't leave me alone!
The future looks very interesting ^_^
All my love and gratitude,