Disclaimer: Naruto does not belong to me. Nor do Sakura, Sasuke, or any of the other characters mentioned or described herein. I haven't even bothered to get permission from their great and august creator. Feel free to sue me if you wish, but you won't get anywhere. Not only do I have no money, but as a college student, I have LESS than no money. That's right. A negative net worth. Have fun, Mr(s). Lawyer! Also, I will be using adult language in this fic. If you're not supposed to read such language, GO BACK TO SCHOOL!


By: Flashfyre5

Chapter Fifteen: The End of the Beginning

"How is he?" Tsunade asked softly, entering a small observation room. It was located just off of a secured room in Konoha General's psychiatric ward. In it waited a short man in a white coat. The little man jumped at the sound of Tsunade's voice, then turned and bowed.

"Tsunade-sama," he addressed her, rising from his bow. The man's white eyes and brown hair marked him as a Hyuuga branch family member. He wore his bangs long, to cover the awful seal that had been carved on his forehead. His shoulders sagged a bit, and the man turned back to look through the two-way mirrored glass that allowed him to look at the sole inhabitant of the secured room.

"See for yourself," he said as casually as he dared. Inside the room, Sasuke sat on the edge of his bed, sobbing softly. A few machines monitored his vitals, and an I.V. drip wound its way into his wrist. "He's been like that for days. Hasn't moved at all," the doctor added, shaking his head.

"What's wrong with him?" Tsunade asked, remaining impassive. The Hyuuga doctor looked at her, then shook his head and looked back at the window. Tsunade pretended that she hadn't seen.

"Almost everything," the doctor finally said with a sigh. "He came in with a dislocated hip, which we re-set and called in a medic-nin to heal. The next morning, we found him like this. He barely responds to anything, and we haven't been able to stop his crying." Tsunade looked over at the little doctor, but he continued. "After that, we sent him in for a CAT scan. Take a look," he said, fishing out a sheet of plastic and handing it to Tsunade. She held it up to a fluorescent wall light, then gasped at what she saw.

"This has to be wrong," she said, taking a half step back from the sheet.

"We thought so too," the doctor agreed. "We ran the test two more times, and I even examined him myself," he said, referencing his eyes. A Hyuuga neurologist had been an incredible boon for Konoha Hospital. He was quick, smart, and almost never wrong; Byakugan eyes could see levels of damage that even the most advanced CAT scan could only hint at. He shook his head as Tsunade looked over at him, a little more respect in her eyes. "I've never seen a level of brain damage this severe before. It's a miracle that the boy's still alive."

"Do you know how it happened?" Tsunade asked, returning to the window.

"Not exactly, but we've got a pretty good guess," he replied. "We think that the Shijuukaigan Sharingan is related, in some ways, to the Renge technique. It releases chakra at higher levels than the body is used to, and causes a significant, and permanent, increase in chakra molding potential. Unfortunately, the technique causes immeasurable damage to the creative centers of a person's brain."

"The first time he used it, his body immediately detected the damage. His brain hyper stimulated the remainder of his creative centers and flooded itself with dopamine. This caused paranoid schizophrenia at an uncontrollable level. Sasuke was left with the desire to stay alive, an imagination that could pinpoint how everyone would want to kill him, and seriously impaired inhibitions. The second time he used it, his brain no longer had the capacity to imagine ways that people could kill him, and his inhibitions were burned completely away. All that was left was the instability of his schizophrenia," the doctor continued.

"And now?" Tsunade asked.

"The third time wiped out what remained of his higher creative functions," he replied, shrugging his shoulders. "He's still technically schizophrenic, but his brain lacks the capacity to think on that level anymore. All he has now are his memories and a few lower-level creative centers. Just enough for him to function, I suppose. Anyway, we think that the past has caught up to him, so to speak. Our working theory is that he's in a kind of feedback loop, where he no longer has the physical capability to cope with the loss of a loved one."

"So he just sits there and cries," Tsunade finished, saying what the doctor hadn't. He nodded slowly, then sighed again.

"I can't do anything for him," he finally said, looking at Tsunade. "Brain cells can't be regenerated. Even if they could, his schizophrenia would resurface." Tsunade turned, and met his gaze.

"There's nothing…?" she asked, her lips a tight line across her face.

"I don't know," he said, shaking his head. "Maybe if you got him to do something that requires his full attention. If he keeps at it for long enough, he might be able to put enough time between the present and his teacher's death for the memory to fade a bit. That is, of course, presuming that you can get him to be responsive." Tsunade nodded in reply, then turned and walked slowly from the room.

* * * * * *

Sakura knocked softly on an open hospital room door. It was mostly a gesture of courtesy, since she was well within the hospital's posted visiting hours, but she did her best to be polite, primarily because it was something that her inner self never made a point of.

"Sakura-san! Come in!" Lee called from within the pale green room. Sakura was surprised at how excited Lee seemed to be; he could barely move on his own at the moment, and his doctor had told her in no uncertain terms that it would be at least six months before his muscles were healed enough to begin training again. Someone had propped the black-haired teenager up against the backboard of his bed, and he was grinning widely.

"Hey," Sakura greeted him. "Good to see that you're feeling all right." She glanced around the pale green room as she spoke to Lee. Sakura hated that color of green; it was supposed to put patients at ease and help them heal, but it only made the pink-haired girl uncomfortable.

"I'm great!" Lee declared, and tried to flex a muscle for her benefit. Sakura tried not to laugh when he found himself unable to bring his arm more than a foot away from his torso. After a few seconds, Lee gave up, but appeared as enthusiastic as ever. To hide her amusement, Sakura placed a daffodil in a small flower vase next to Lee's bed, reducing the little bundle she'd brought to two.

"So," Sakura said, her merriment falling. She paused for a moment, then sat on the foot of Lee's bed. "Will you be able to come to the funeral?" Lee's excitement faded too, and le looked morosely at his blanket-covered feet for a moment before replying.

"Yeah," he replied quietly. "My doctor said that I could go, as long as I was in a wheelchair." The two were quiet for a moment before Sakura spoke again, breaking the silence.

"He would've appreciated it," Sakura replied, looking at her lap.

"Yeah," Lee agreed, nodding as much as his injuries would allow. The two shared a long silence before Sakura looked up again.

"Well, I might have some good news for you," she said, trying to summon up a level of cheerfulness. She slid a small backpack off of her shoulders and reached inside. From it, she withdrew a scroll, emblazoned with the symbol of Konoha village. Lee's full name was printed in blocky characters beneath it. "Tsunade-sama asked me to deliver your results from the jounin exams."

"Really?" Lee said, his mood buoyed by Sakura's feigned cheerfulness. "Did you get yours too?"

"Yeah. I didn't make it," Sakura said, shrugging her shoulders. Lee made an attempt to pat her comfortingly on her shoulder, but his arm again refused to obey him.

"That's too bad," Lee said instead, giving up on his rebellious limbs. Sakura shrugged.

"It's okay," she said, her voice a bit wistful. "I would've liked to be a jounin, but I was mostly there because Sasuke and Naruto needed me." Again, Sakura shrugged her shoulders, but Lee could tell that she was holding something back. "Anyway, do you want me to read you your results, or should I just open the scroll and pt it on your lap?"

"Read it to me," Lee said, trying to smile in a comforting, yet anxious and excited way. It ended up looking more like a grimace. Thankfully, Sakura's attention was already focused on opening and reading the scroll.

"Konoha village recognizes the effort that you have put forward, blah blah blah," Sakura began, skipping the preamble of the scroll. "We are, in conclusion," she began again, reaching the end of the scroll. "Pleased to offer the candidate, Rock Lee, the choice of joining the Anbu, in recognition of his excellent combat skills, or of enlisting as a full-fledged jounin. Hey, congratulations!"

"Yahoo!" Lee shouted at the top of his lungs, and Sakura had to stifle a giggle at his choice of celebratory words. Lee tried to pump his fist in the air, and again failed to. He made a mental note to train his arms extra-hard when he could, as punishment.

"So, which are you going to choose?" Sakura asked once Lee had stopped shouting.

"Jounin, of course!" Lee declared, flashing Sakura a blindingly white smile. Sakura finally lost her inner struggle with her manners, and giggled slightly at Lee's happiness.

"That's good," she said, rising. Her backpack was again slung over her shoulder, and she looked down at Lee. "Well, I have to go and see Neji. Remember, the funeral's at four." Lee nodded, trying to look appropriately somber at her reminder and failing miserably.

"I'll see you later," Lee said as she made her way to the door.

"See ya," Sakura replied with a smile as she left. Above the door, a clock ticked its way towards one forty-five. She walked slowly over to an elevator, which opened and discharged a pretty-looking nurse just as Sakura neared it. She slipped inside and pushed the button for the fifth floor. The elevator hummed quietly as it ascended, leaving Sakura to her thoughts.

/No fourth floor,/ she remembered. With a shake of her head. In reality, the fifth floor was actually the fourth, but it had been labeled as the fifth. Four was unlucky; long tradition held it as the number of death, and nobody wanted to stay on the fourth floor when they had to be in the hospital. A little clever labeling had solved the problem, but a art of Sakura said that the superstition was stupid. Still, she knew that she'd feel uneasy if she had to be on the fourth floor of a hospital.

Then the elevator dinged, and its doors slid open on well-oiled hinges. Sakura walked out and across the hall. Neji's room was 501, right across from the elevator. The door was closed, prompting Sakura to slow, then stop. After a moment of thought, she knocked on the door softly, not sure whether Neji was there or not.

"Come in," Neji's voice called clearly from within. Sakura pushed the door open and entered quietly. Neji was standing in front of a full-length mirror, which Sakura reasoned had been brought in by another of the clan's members. Neji was dressed in black, insofar as he could. He wore hid green vest over a sleeveless black t-shirt. His regulation combat pants were black as well, and the painted wooden mask he wore on his head bore a small black tassel, attached at the chin. This was the Anbu's traditional symbol of mourning. Neji would only remove the little ornament when he felt that he had honored the deceased for a sufficiently long period of time. His left arm hung in a sling, and the Hyuuga prodigy had even gone to the trouble of bandaging his arm in black and finding black cloth for his sling.

"Sakura," Neji greeted her, nodding in her direction. She knew not to take offense to Neji's quietness. Though usually willing to respond when someone made the effort to start a conversation, Neji would often become very quiet when he had a lot on his mind. Sakura didn't blame him; Neji took death seriously.

"So, you went with the Anbu?" Sakura asked conversationally. As Neji tried to straighten his vest, Sakura slipped a flower into a vase next to his bed. The little daffodil was all but swallowed up by the bouquets that already occupied the vase. Neji's victory had earned him a great deal of respect in his clan, and the expensive flowers were a quiet token of the head family's regard for him. Sakura suspected that Neji would have thrown the whole affair out, vase and all, if it wouldn't be so impolite.

"It's a family tradition to spend a few years in the Anbu before becoming full jounin," Neji explained simply, turning away from the mirror. His vest was perfect, as was the rest of his attire. His face reflected his displeasure with the fact in subtle undertones around his mouth and eyes.

"Ah," Sakura acknowledged, not quite sure whether to congratulate or console the white-eyed man. Neji simply nodded to her and pulled down his mask, which bore a striking resemblance to the mongooses that he could summon.

"I'll see you at the funeral," he said in farewell, and limped out the door to discharge himself.

"He'd appreciate it," Sakura replied, looking down. Neji stopped, then turned to look at her again.

"I didn't know him that well," Neji admitted, "but it seems like the right thing to do." Sakura nodded slowly, and Neji left. She stood in the room alone for a minute before she moved. Quickly, she walked over to the flower vase, picked it up, and threw it into the room's trash can. The delicate glass shattered on impact, and flowers spilled up and over the brim of the little plastic cylinder. Sakura stormed out, ignoring the mess. However, she stopped short when she saw Neji, standing only a few feet from his doorway.

"I… I…" Sakura stammered, sure that she had managed to offend Neji. Slowly, he raised his mask, and then smiled. Without a word, he turned and limped towards the elevator, which stood open, waiting for him. The doors slid shut as he turned to face her. Neji pulled his mask into place again, but not quickly enough to hide the satisfied smile that he still wore. Unsure of what else to do, Sakura breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief. Slowly, she came back to herself, and looked down at the single daffodil remaining in her hand.

"I guess it's his turn," she decided, with no small amount of apprehension. Slowly, the pink-haired girl started down the East hallway of the fifth floor. A few minutes later, she came to the secured section of the hospital, generally reserved for those on a suicide watch or… those that were less than completely sane. Sakura was stopped by a guard, who asked her in a polite but firm voice to disarm herself. She did so, placing the various tools of her trade in a little green plastic basket. The guard placed it on a numbered shelf, then asked to see her backpack. After a few minutes of rifling through it, he returned the bag. Sakura signed her name on a little clipboard, and the guard finally produced a ring of keys and unlocked the door to the ward.

Meekly, Sakura slipped in, and was immediately assailed by the sounds and smells that tended to accompany the dregs of humanity. The scent of medicine, linen, and metal mixed in her nostrils, and sent a shudder down her spine. A few rooms away, someone shrieked at the top of her lungs. A pair of orderlies ran over, opened the door, and began to wrestle the apparently suicidal girl into submission. Unconsciously, Sakura had edged away from the room, and now proceeded to slip past it while hugging the far wall. One of the orderlies injected the girl with a sedative, and she slowly calmed down. Sakura shuddered and jogged away down the hall.

After a few minutes, Sakura slowed to a stop. It was eerily quiet here, so far away from the violent patients' section near the entrance. Most of those here were either comatose or, for one reason or another, considered to be less actively dangerous than the norm for this ward. After a little searching, Sakura found the room that she'd been looking for. The pink-haired girl glanced in a little window on the stainless steel door to make sure that the room's inhabitant was decent. Satisfied, Sakura tugged the door open. It slid on nearly silent hinges.

"Hey," the room's inhabitant greeted her. The light fixture in the room was broken, and it cast a deep shadow over the corner of the room that he was standing in. In front of his body, Sakura could just make out a small dresser, from which he'd pulled a set of clothes. "How long have I been out of it?" he asked, turning to face the pink-haired girl. Red eyes caught the dim, flickering light in a way that contrasted oddly with his almost invisible figure.

"Three days. They kept you sedated for most of it, to be safe," Sakura replied, sliding the room's door closed behind her. The man nodded, then pulled a light jacket from where it had been carefully folded on top of the dresser.

"Tsunade's orders?" he asked, not moving.

"Yeah," Sakura replied, leaning against the wall. She tried to tell herself that she wasn't doing it out of fear, even though she knew she was. Across the wall, next to the shaded window, there was a light patch of wall, where a mirror had once hung. After a while, the room's inhabitant noticed Sakura's gaze and responded.

"They say that my eyes'll always look like this," he explained, still not moving. "It was too weird to keep looking at myself like that."

"I guess it's not that bad of a price to pay, considering," Sakura trailed off, and bit her lower lip. The figure slowly turned to face Sakura, his eyes narrowed a bit.

"You have no idea," he said, choking up a bit. "What happened to me, what it felt like. What it feels like." He took a couple of steps forward, into the flickering light.

"I can hear her, sometimes," Naruto continued, his jaw shaking a bit. "That woman's soul is inside of me, and I can hear her scream sometimes. And I can hear him laughing, 'cuz he knows that I can hear." Sakura nodded dumbly, not having to ask who Naruto was referring to. Naruto deflated a bit, and sat down heavily on his bed. A long moment of silence passed between the two.

"So," Naruto began sullenly. "Now you know what happened to Kyuubi. He's been right here all along," he said, patting his belly softly. "It's why I wouldn't go out with you before. I'm scared of him."

"I can understand that," Sakura replied with a nervous chuckle. Naruto joined in, his forced mirth sounding hollow and wooden. Again, the two lapsed into silence.

"Anyway, if you don't wanna go out with me any more, I understand," Naruto finally said, looking down. Even though she couldn't see his face, Sakura knew that Naruto was fighting to keep from crying. She pushed away from the wall and slowly walked over to the young man, seeming so small and helpless. She had never seen Naruto like this; by the time she'd met him, the year of their graduation, he'd been an arrogant, incorrigible pillar of self-confidence. Slowly, Sakura sank to her knees and looked up at Naruto's tear-stained face. He looked away sharply.

"Sorry," the blond-haired teen said before she could speak. "I just hate losing friends to the fox." He rubbed his nose hard with the back of his arm, and made a visible effort to choke back the tears that still trickled down his face. Sakura was about to respond when the simple truth of Naruto's words struck her.

She could easily remember all the times that her mother had told her to be careful around Naruto, that the boy was a bad influence on her. All throughout the year of school that she'd spent in his presence, Naruto had been teased and ostracized. Every day at lunchtime, she remembered with sudden clarity, Naruto had eaten alone on the schoolyard swing. He had always looked with carefully disguised longing at the little groups that naturally formed between friends. Then, he'd eat his little cup of steaming ramen, and if anyone bothered to make a point of his aloneness, Naruto would simply laugh at them. Sakura wondered why she'd never realized before how hollow that laughter had been.

"Hey," she began comfortingly, gaining Naruto's attention. "You're the same person you've always been, right?"

"Huh?" Naruto asked, confused.

"I mean, this whole thing with Kyuubi is scary and all, but you've always been like this, right?" Sakura clarified, looking up at Naruto. He slowly nodded, biting his lip nervously. Sakura paused, considering her next words carefully. "Well, the idea of dating a guy that's got a horrible demon inside of him is definitely gonna take some getting used to," Sakura began, then paused again, allowing her words to sink in. "But I'm willing to give it a try if you are."

"Even with Kyuubi?" Naruto asked hopefully, his face uncertain.

"He's always been there," Sakura replied. "He never counted before. I… don't see why he should count now." At her words, Naruto's face dissolved into an expression of relief. He just sat on the edge of his bed for a few minutes and smiled softly, thinking.

"Thanks," the blond-haired teen finally said, his voice soft. Sakura smiled and stood up, then offered her hand to him.

"Come on. Let's go to Kakashi-sensei's funeral," she said. Naruto took her hand gratefully and stood.

* * * * * *

"So…" Tsunade began, then stopped herself. She was leaning on the edge of a desk in the office area of Konoha Hospital. Across from her stood a tall, frail woman. She wore a chuunin flak jacket and, seemingly at odds with it, a flowing white dress. Soft brown hair rolled down from her head in waves, and the woman had a sunken, pale complexion. She was, quite obviously, not doctor. When Tsunade had entered the office area, the woman had quickly cleared it of all its normal inhabitants. The information she bore was for the Hokage's ears alone.

"You wish to ask about the Uzumaki boy's seal," the woman stated simply. Tsunade raised her eyes at the woman's directness.

"Right to the point as always, Naomi," Tsunade replied with a half-grin. She had dealt with the pale woman often before, but each time was a new experience in how one could exist in the world with no level of social grace whatsoever.

"You know that I don't get out much," Naomi returned. Tsunade would have taken offense, had she been talking to anyone else. This woman had been trained in the complex art of seal-making from before she could walk. She had been sequestered her whole life, and had never formed a real grasp on the far more intricate art of social interaction. Naomi was one of very few people in the world better at forming and examining seals than Tsunade was.

"…And?" Tsunade asked after a few minutes had passed without elaboration.

"It is holding. The demon cannot escape as things are now," Naomi replied succinctly. Tsunade breathed a visible sigh of relief. "However," she interjected, as if waiting for Tsunade to be relieved at the first part of the statement. "It has been altered. Significantly." Tsunade looked up sharply.

"How so?" she asked, pushing away from her relaxed position on the desk.

"The use of the Shiki Fuujin has altered the seal by placing another seal on top of it," Naomi explained. "A four-point seal using the four cardinal directions as anchors. It was created when the Shiki Fuujin dragged the woman's soul into the Uzumaki boy's body. Kyuubi is now using that seal as a sieve, so to speak. The same amount of chakra leaks out from the seal as has ever, but the demon is able to use the second seal to concentrate and control what kind of chakra is transmitted to the boy." Naomi fell silent, and Tsunade thought carefully on what she had said.

"Meaning that Kyuubi could try to force his personality through as a carrier on the chakra," Tsunade reasoned, worry in her voice.

"Theoretically," Naomi conceded with a shrug. "If his personality is as strong as I've heard, though, I doubt it. It takes an extremely weak personality to be forced out by another, even if it belongs to a demon. He should be safe, but I wouldn't be surprised if he develops a habit of talking to himself." Tsunade grinned wryly in response, but the woman turned and began to make her way towards the door.

"Thanks," Tsunade called after her. Naomi stopped and nodded.

"At your command, Hokage-sama," she replied, obviously trying to be polite. Tsunade laughed and shook her head.

"Don't bother, Naomi. I've gotten used to you," Tsunade grinned as she followed the recluse woman from the hospital offices

* * * * * *.

A few dozen black-clad people, most of them shinobi, ringed a pair of small but beautiful altars. They were simple folding tables, draped in black cloth. Upon the right one, two tall, thin candles burned atop elaborate silver candlesticks. Between them, a small egg-shaped urn sat. It, unlike the candlesticks, was a statement in simple elegance. Dark walnut had been lacquered a shining black, then edged in silver leaf. In front of the urn was a small picture that Kakashi had had taken shortly after he had been assigned as Team Seven's instructor. It included all three of the students, as well as Kakashi himself. There had been some murmuring before the ceremony had started at Sasuke's inclusion in the memorial photo, but no other could be found. Kakashi had never much liked cameras.

The left table was quite different. No picture rested on front of the deceased's remains, because the village had no photographs of the deceased. Taka's urn was made of cherry wood, and had been stained a luminescent bronze. In the tradition of the Wind country, the urn was simple, and without ornamentation. On either side of it, amber candles burned. They stood atop thin, simple candlesticks, also in the tradition of the Wind country. Only two mourners had come for Taka's half of the joint memorial, but even Naruto would admit that he and Sakura were there mostly for Kakashi.

A man stepped forward from the crowd. He was the only one among them wearing white; everyone else was wearing black. Three kimono, one atop another, covered his body, and a tall, boxlike hat rested atop his head. Slowly, the priest turned to regard those present. Lee sat silently in his wheelchair near the edge of the crowd. An attendant nurse, draped in a black coat, watched him carefully. Neji stood near them, a somber figure in his black uniform and white facemask. Gai wept openly in the front row while Iruka, who happened to be standing next to him, tried to comfort the man while still maintaining an appropriate level of respect. Asuma stood toward the back of the crowd, shockingly without a cigarette. Next to him stood Kurenai, who he'd been seeing on and off for a year now. They were currently in one of their 'off' phases, supposedly. Kurenai's body language said otherwise. Naruto and Sakura, both wearing black, stood at the front of the crowd. Both of their faces were blank, a mask hiding all emotion.

"Everything in this world that has a beginning also has an end," he began solemnly, then paused. Tsunade, draped in her ceremonial robes of office, had managed to arrive a half-minute late. She took up a position at the rear of the crowd, and nodded to the priest. "As ever, the beginnings are celebrated, while endings are mourned," the priest continued. "We stand together here, at the end of all things. As one, we mourn the passing of those close to us, and hold tightly to those we yet have." Again the priest paused, and several couples in the crowd drew closer together. Kurenai and Asuma's hands found themselves intertwined, though both would later deny any such thing vocally. Naruto snuck a glance at Sakura on his left, who returned the fleeting look.

"There is little that can be said of Hatake Kakashi that has not already been said," the priest picked up after the semiconscious shuffling of the crowd had died out. "He was a good, but troubled man. He was the best friend a person could have, and would have gladly laid his life down for any person here today. He was with us as a brother, a son, a friend, and even a mentor. He was, ultimately, what we all aspire to be: someone that loves their life so much that they try to pass on that love to everyone they meet."

"Some would say that his chosen profession was somewhat of an odd choice, considering this, but I disagree," he continued, a gust of wind rustling a pair of trees behind the altars. "Kakashi decided to defend his friends and family when he was still a child, and spent his life following that goal. I said before that he would lay his life down for anyone here, but that was not the extent of Kakashi's loyalty. He would kill to protect those dear to him, no matter how much it pained him. I cannot imagine," the priest said, then continued after a moment, "any person whom I would rather call friend." The priest bowed his head in prayer for a few minutes, then walked over to the altar. He bowed deeply to it, holding the bow for considerably longer than was strictly necessary. Slowly, he straightened, then lifted Kakashi's urn with both hands. Again, he bowed deeply, holding the urn in the air. Then, slowly and deliberately, the priest carried the beautifully lacquered vessel to an elderly couple in the front line of the crowd. He bowed deeply to them, and held the urn forward. The man of the couple, with hesitating and shaking hands, accepted it, while the woman next to him broke into tears. When the priest rose, the two bowed to one another. An almost palpable tension released, the ceremonial part of the funeral complete.

The priest made his way to the second altar, and bowed to it as well. Sakura and Naruto moved to observe the second funeral. Of all those present, only Tsunade made her way over to join the two. The priest had no words for the spirit of Sorano Taka, and simply did his best to consecrate the urn. It would be returned to the Sand village by a diplomatic escort, composed of several of Tsunade's best available shinobi. Only in the village of those hidden in the sand would Sorano Taka receive proper funeral rites. After a few minutes of prayer, the priest rejoined the quietly talking crowd near Kakashi's altar. Sakura, Naruto, and Tsunade stood in front of Taka's altar for a few more minutes. After a while, Tsunade placed a hand gently on Naruto's shoulder. He looked over at her, and gave her a tight-lipped half-gin.

"Hey," he managed, through a throat clogged with emotion. Sakura looked over too, and self-consciously tried to rub away the lines where tears had been falling.

"Are you all right?" Tsunade asked, returning the false grin.

"I'm okay," Naruto answered, then looked away. After a deep breath, he continued. "It all kinda hits ya, you know?" he asked. Tsunade nodded. "This is it. This is what we do for a living," Naruto continued, shaking his head a bit. "Right here." Tsunade drew breath to respond, but found that she had nothing to say. She closed her mouth silently.

"Most of us are like Kakashi," Tsunade finally said, after a long minute of silence. "We fight because we know that we're the only thing standing between those we love and those that want to kill them."

"So we say," Naruto returned, his tone tinged with bitterness. "I think I'm beginning to see why ero-senin left." After a moment, Naruto amended, "Both times."

"It's why I left too," Tsunade admitted. "I couldn't go on hurting and killing people when I couldn't do anything to protect the people I loved. It took me a long time to realize that my absence was hurting many more people." The three shared a moment of silence, each thinking on what Tsunade had said. "I wish the world was painted in black and white," she began again wistfully. "The right and the wrong. Sadly enough, it seems like black and white are the only shades that the world isn't." Naruto nodded once numbly, then stared at the ground hollowly for a long while. Sakura's hand found his, and squeezed. After a bit, he squeezed back. Tsunade reached inside her robes for something, then paused.

"I have something for you," she said slowly, watching Naruto's face carefully. "If you don't want it… don't want all this, I'll understand. A lot of people can't keep doing this kind of thing." Tsunade drew a small scroll, emblazoned with Konoha village's logo, and held it out. It took a few moments for Naruto to respond.

"You're right," Naruto finally said, resting his hand on the scroll. "As much as people hate me, I can't let them get hurt." He looked over at Tsunade, his lips thin. "Yondaime made me the perfect defender for everybody in the village. I'm not gonna fail." He tried to take the scroll, but Tsunade held onto it for a bit.

"The decision was unanimous," she said quietly, "Jounin-san." Naruto's jaw wobbled a bit, then he nodded to her and accepted the scroll. "No matter what other people think… we hold you in the highest regards, Naruto."

"Thanks," he returned, rubbing his nose a bit. The young man's eyes were brimming with tears, but he fought to hold them back. "But I'm not gonna kill anyone. Not again," Naruto declared, clenching his jaw. Self-consciously, his empty hand crawled across his belly. "The fox might be inside of me, but he isn't me. I'm never gonna be anything like him. I don't care what I have to do."

"You can hear him?" Tsunade asked, a bit of worry in her tone.

"Yeah," Naruto admitted. "But mostly her. That woman that I killed. She's inside of me." He looked Tsunade in the eye, his expression carrying all the message she needed. "With him." Tsunade nodded slowly, digesting this. There was no doubt in her mind as to the woman's fate. After a few minutes, Tsunade turned and left, leaving Naruto and Sakura in silence.

"And that's it," Sakura said, the first words that had come from her mouth since the funeral had begun. "The world keeps turning, and the winds keep blowing. Life goes on." Emotion choked her voice, and Naruto squeezed the hand he still held. She squeezed back.

"It's what he would've wanted," Naruto said, looking at the rustling trees.

"It is, isn't it?" Sakura agreed. After a few minutes, the couple turned and walked away. Their hands did not once part.

*** Author's Notes ***

Wow. It's done. I think that I need a few days to let that sink in…

Anyway, and in more serious news, I've been crying tears of rage as the last five chapters of the Naruto manga (220-224) completely demolished my carefully crafted storyline. Nothing I can do now can humanize Itachi. Shijuukaigan Sharingan has been surpassed by the almighty Mangekyou Sharingan. For reference to those that read this fic well after it's been written, I started writing somewhere around chapter 205 or 206. If I had known where the story would end up… I never would've started. Life sucks if you're Flashfyre5 right now.

For those of you who've been loyal followers, I'm sorry that I've slowed down over the summer. Work has been hectic (burn in Hell, all you back-to-schoolers! Wait, that includes me…), so I haven't had as much time to write as I'd honestly like. As such, the fic has taken a backseat to real life. Ah, c'est la vie, I suppose.

On to the news that you've all been waiting for… Chuunin is victorious! By an overwhelming majority, Chuunin will be my next fic. As a nod to the second placer (Option 2), it will be dark. Rather dark, in fact. I'm not sure HOW dark, but three of the central characters of the fic are extremely troubled. I guess we'll all find out.

Well, I'd like to thank all of my readers, past, present and future, for sticking with me as I ramble my way into a little piece of your lives. I'd like to thank my prereaders especially, for sticking with me, and Thermopyle specifically. Without his less-than-gentle prodding, I never would've done this. As a side not, for anyone who needs a red pen that's red because of blood, I'd refer you to Therm. He's fantastic, but brutal. Thanks again, everybody, and I'll see you next fic!

As always,

~Flash ()

Ending Theme:

"Call Me Call Me," Cowboy Bebop OST. This is a great song for the fic in general, and this chapter in particular. I highly recommend the Bebop OST, incidentally, for anyone that's interested.