And so this story comes to an end, after being updated for roughly 14 months. As usual when I complete a story, I find that I have relatively little to say. Many thanks to all those who have read it, regardless of if you reviewed. Those of you who have been consistently providing input, I thank you especially and I would love to hear from you one last time. A special thanks to all of you who critiqued aspects of the story; some of these caused me to edit later parts of the story, some of them will help me in the future as I continue writing.
In the previous weeks I have given serious consideration as to rewriting this epilogue, but in the end I left it unchanged. I believe that it is a fitting end for the series, and I hope it will suffice as a resolution for you. Many of the different threads the story has explored come together, if not wholly tied up, and I like the thematic aspect. After I upload this chapter, I am likely to take a good, long break from fan fiction, but rest assured that if I ever write any more, I will place it here. Fare thee well.
The wind blew through Naruto's blond hair as he moved down the street, sending it randomly tumbling about him. It was remarkably refreshing, actually. Things had been pretty weighty in recent times, before with the terrible burden of his job and most recently cleaning up in so many petty ways. He might not like it, but it had to be done.
Today, however, he didn't expect to be too bad at all. In the evening there was one meeting of extreme importance, but there he would only be speaking with a select few, and it should not be tiresome. Prior to that, he anticipated a long time to relax and do nothing. Of course, this morning was going to be enjoyable as well. How long has it been?
At least his job was made easier in a few respects. Though the city was crammed full of shinobi from all over the world, it made security not even worth considering. Between the villages there existed such a great feeling of kinship that there was no danger of any fights between them, not that any of the villages had disputes in any case. Anyone else attacking would be either suicidal or insane, considering that every other person you passed on the crowded streets could destroy an army. Today was the last day, but he was going to enjoy it while it lasted.
Before any of that, though, he had a much simpler task: rounding up all the participants. Most of them had been pretty easy to find, though he'd dealt with a few grumpy ones this early in the morning. They'd deal with it, though. He was almost to the end of his list, leaving only Sasuke and Hinata. Neji had told him Hinata was gone, so Naruto figured he might as well try for Sasuke. Chances were he was in his house if he was anywhere at all.
For a moment the Hokage paused on the street, just glancing up at the Uchiha house. It was still a large building, and somehow seemed sad. The damage done to it had been repaired, but the spirit of the home was gone. He had never seen it before the slaughter, but he always felt just a bit wistful around the place.
Most of the time it was empty, Naruto pondered, walking up to the door. Sasuke was the sole inhabitant, and he was almost always on a mission. That was probably part of why the place felt so desolate. Not that I really care about that... Sasuke-kun is there, and that's all that really matters.
The front door was locked, at least for a moment. After a bit of fiddling, Naruto entered soundlessly, figuring there was no sense in waiting for someone to answer if no one was home. From the few times he'd been here he knew that Sasuke would be in the master bedroom at the far end of the ground floor. He was probably awake, but it couldn't hurt to check.
As he moved down the hall, Naruto became aware of Sasuke's chakra, exactly where it should be. Perhaps he'd slept in, then. Reaching the door at the end of the hallway, Naruto rapped on it with the back of his hand.
"Yo!" he called. "You aren't going to forget about the class reunion, are you? People are gonna start arriving in less than a half hour!" For just a moment Naruto paused, cocking his head to the side. "Don't make me kick your sorry behind out of bed!"
"Patience, Naruto-san, is generally considered a virtue." The door glided open, revealing Sasuke standing in his black cloak, eyes glimmering over the edge of his collar.
"Bah," Naruto scoffed easily, a slight grin affixed on his face. "You are coming, though, right?"
"I will be there," Sasuke nodded just slightly, sweeping past Naruto silently. The other shinobi remained by the door for a moment longer.
"Oh, good morning, Hinata-chan!" he greeted her in a friendly manner. Hinata had also emerged from the doorway, wearing a loose robe.
"Good morning, Naruto-kun."
"Say," Naruto scratched the back of his head, eyes squinting. "What are you doing at Sasuke-kun's house this early in the morning? Don't you generally stay at Neji-san's? Why does your robe have the Uchiha clan symbol on it, anyway?"
"Um, I..." Hinata began fidgeting, and Naruto laughed.
"No, I'm just kidding, I assure you. Even I'm not that dense. I realize you're married now, and I approve whole-heartedly." He gave her a trademark grin and a gentle, brotherly pat on the shoulder. "You're coming too, right?"
"You mean the reunion this morning? Yes; I don't think I'd want to pass up a chance to see everyone again. We don't get to do that very often, after all."
"All too true," Naruto nodded, turning from the house. "See you there."
Back against the cool wall, Sasuke merely watched from the shadows. He occasionally took a slight sip from his cup, more for the sake of appearances than anything else. It wasn't that he didn't want to be with everyone else, or that he was bored, but simply that he had no urge to do anything other than watch.
The few people that he had wanted to talk to he had already spoken with. Those that played large roles in his life he would be seeing again soon. For now, it was far more enjoyable to simply watch everyone. People that he had known since he first entered the academy, now all adults having gone their separate ways. In some ways, people changed so much, and yet in others it was as if they hadn't changed at all. All these people... no, his friends, were being exactly who they were, and it was a calming sight.
"So why are you back here?"
Sasuke's eyes slid to the right, though he recognized Temari's voice. She was leaning against the same wall he was, also mostly in the shadows. When Sasuke looked away she did as well, both observing the party.
"I feel no need to be out there," Sasuke answered simply.
"That's basically what I figured. Personally, I've been sticking to the edges mainly because I feel a bit out of place here. I'm here because Shikamaru is, but still... don't get me wrong, you guys are all great, but this is your reunion, and I don't really belong."
"Somehow I knew you'd say something like that." Temari's face shifted to a slight smile. "I admit I'll be more comfortable once we're back in Wind Country. The change of scenery has been pretty nice, though. And it is always interesting to see so many people."
"You have a reason to be here," Sasuke spoke after a slight pause. "But what is Kankuro-san doing here?" The Sand shinobi was currently at a table opposite Kiba, draining a glass. Even as Sasuke spoke, Kiba filled his own glass and drank in retaliation. Shaking his head in an effort to restore his vision, Kankuro poured himself another glass.
"Sheer boredom," Temari told him simply. "He has nothing to do here at all, yet we're staying until Gaara-san leaves. It is just like him to get into a drinking contest..."
"Is that all?" Kankuro slurred, raising an eyebrow at Kiba. Immediately the other shinobi bristled.
"Is that all? What do you mean? I can and will drink you under the table, punk!" The two of them continued, briefly holding Sasuke's attention. He was brought back to his location by Temari, whose gaze was fixed elsewhere as she spoke.
"It's good to see him back here," she said softly. Sasuke followed her eyes to Shikamaru, who was slouching just beside the table of food. Chouji loomed beside him, laughing about something as the two chatted. "He has good friends."
Instead of answering, Sasuke let his eyes wander throughout the reunion. Everyone was here. No one had died and all of them were healthy enough to come back. The only people standing alone were Shino and Neji, and they looked as though they preferred it that way and intended to keep it such. On the far side of the room Lee had one arm around Tenten casually. Both of them were listening with great amusement to Naruto, who was making exaggerated gestures with his hands.
"And then," Naruto explained, "he was like 'Do you truly think that you can defeat me? Your power is nothing compared to mine! Blah blah blah' - I think you get the drift. Anyway, though, he ended his little rant with 'Mortal fool!' I wasn't really expecting him to burst into monologue, so the only thing that occurred to me to say was 'Immortal fool!'"
"You actually said that?" Lee seemed to be trying to hide a snicker. "How did he respond to it?"
"He stopped in the middle of a hand seal and just stared at me. I figured I was on a roll, so I started making stuff up. Just on the spur of the moment, you know? I swear, I can't remember much of it, other than that it was some of the lamest stuff ever to come out of my mouth, which I can admit is saying something. I'm pretty sure it ended with 'And that is why you will always be defeated!'"
"That doesn't even make any sense!" Tenten burst out, laughing as she did so.
"Wait, wait," Lee began, "I think I've got something just as bad. There's a really small village called Hidden Waterfall..."
Several small tables were in one corner of the room, comfortable benches circling them. Hinata leaned back in one of them, punch glass in hand. She wasn't drinking at the moment, and yet she felt no need whatsoever to fidget with her cup. A slight smile appeared on her face. It looked as though at least one lesson hadn't been lost.
Just then two people slipped onto the bench on either side of her. Hinata blinked at Sakura and Ino, wondering what they could be doing, especially with such expressions. Immediately Ino put one arm around her shoulders and glanced about conspiratorially.
"Just a word to the wise," she whispered. "There's some silly rumor that you were near Sasuke's house last night."
"And you're about to be descended upon by idiots who've heard the rumor," Sakura added. "Anyway, gotta go warn Sasuke-san." She slipped away, moving to his shadowed corner, and Hinata followed her with her eyes, blinking in slight confusion. It had been a long time since she had seen Sakura so friendly.
"Um, think fast," Ino muttered, looking at something over Hinata's shoulder. "I'm going to look busy. You can handle yourself, right?"
"I should be able to," Hinata answered with a slight smile. Ino dashed away to Shikamaru and Chouji, who greeted her in a friendly manner. This brief exchange so stunned Hinata that she didn't develop the presence of mind to move until it was too late and she was hemmed in on all sides by younger Leaf shinobi, probably all Sasuke fangirls.
"Oh. My. Gosh." one of them began. "Are you Hinata-san? Did you really-" Her voice cut off as a massive amount of chakra descended upon them. Eyes widening, the girl looked over her shoulder to see Neji standing behind her, taking a small sip from his drink. He was mostly just standing there, not saying anything. Hinata's expanded field of vision could also see Shino positioned across the table. Similarly, he said absolutely nothing, gracefully carrying a glass but never actually drinking from it.
Neji and Shino continued to face one another from opposite sides of the group, looking for all the world like they were having a casual conversation without the conversation. Their silence, not to mention their chakra, killed whatever the other girls had been going to say. Time dragged on, and neither shinobi seemed inclined to move. Eventually all of them left, probably to look for Sasuke.
Calmly raising an eyebrow at Hinata, Neji moved off to stand elsewhere. Shino readjusted his glasses and likewise vanished. Once again alone at her table, Hinata let herself smile just slightly and leaned back.
From his safe vantage point at the door, Sasuke smiled just slightly beneath the collar of his cloak. All of them had come together, with everyone playing their roles. He would not have expected anything more, and he would not have been satisfied with anything less. It was a reunion indeed.
The shinobi at the gate looked at him suspiciously for a moment but eventually let him through. After all, he seemed harmless enough, and he was leaving the city, not entering it. Letting someone go couldn't do any harm, could it?
He had chosen this time of day because he knew there would be almost no one about. Many of them were currently celebrating their ultimate victory, the Leaf shinobi were all occupied elsewhere and those that were truly powerful would soon be having a very important meeting. No one was required to be at the gates, but some still were. At this hour he had the highest probability of being let outside without a problem, judging from the patterns of previous days.
Matthew stopped a short distance from Konoha and removed the broad hat that had formerly eclipsed his features. Wind immediately struck his face, blowing his hair back. Completely expressionless, he remained facing the wind, not yet wanting to move. There would be time for that later.
"Hello, Sasuke." He broke the silence, turning to glance behind him, where the shinobi he had named melded from the shadows as if summoned.
"And how did you sense me this time?" Sasuke asked, raising an eyebrow.
"I didn't," Matthew told him. "But I knew you would come."
"Perhaps I should have expected that. You probably have a general idea of what I will tell you as well. The shinobi of Hidden Leaf wish to extend to you an invitation to stay within the city, as we acknowledge the role you have played in this conflict." Sasuke's eyes flickered to the side. "Given proper training, you could become a powerful warrior indeed."
"Perhaps," Matthew nodded somberly. "I mean no disrespect to you or your profession, but I think at this point I would much rather just be a doctor. This world has warriors enough."
"Then so be it." Sasuke nodded once and began to slip back into the shadows before Matthew interrupted him.
"I would ask a favor of you, however. If at all possible, I do not wish to be remembered in the records of these events. I am..." Matthew paused, though it was a very different pause from his usual, "very tired. Tired of playing a major role in the world, tired of this conflict, and indeed tired of the life that has been forced upon me.
"Now, I think it is merely time to start over again. I have already erased all mundane records of my existence, and only the data held by the world's shinobi remains. I would like to completely disappear, if you do not mind."
"It can be done," Sasuke told him. "But regardless, Matthew-san, you will always have a home in Konoha."
For a moment Matthew merely watched him, expression blank, then a slight smile appeared on his face. He said no more, but his eyes spoke his farewell. Turning away, he continued down the road that extended as far as the eye could see. His steady pace continued until he was lost in the horizon...
The park was an extremely quiet place, and Sakura liked it that way. She wasn't really going anywhere, but she knew she didn't want to meet anyone on the way. As things were, they were desolate, which matched her own state of mind almost perfectly. In this season the leaves were just beginning to die, occasionally twisting past her.
It was such a romantic place, and she was very conscious of how alone she was. As soon as the general celebration finished, her chances would plummet once more. She already knew that Naruto was going to send her on a fairly minor mission as soon as he stopped being lazy long enough to do paperwork. He said something about needing to do the non-destructive jobs to help rebuild the world's confidence in its shinobi. Mentally, she could agree with him, but that didn't mean she didn't hate it.
Soon she'd be off to some backwater town with no chance of being with Sasuke. He had responded fairly well when she had told him of the approaching mob, which is to say that he didn't give her a cold stare. Actually, his expression had been more bemused than anything. Still, it had been encouraging... if only he wouldn't be leaving on another A Ranked mission in a few days.
Why, oh why, had she been so stupid? They'd been together on an entire S Ranked mission and all she'd accomplished was making him hate her more. Of course, Ino had done exactly the same thing... but that didn't seem to matter so much anymore. Apparently Ino was interested in other things now, which was fine with Sakura. How could she have been too dense to realize she was annoying him? Hopefully she had made some positive impact, and maybe he would remember her in a good sense. Maybe next time they met he would be feeling a bit less icy.
Wistfully she played with a strand of her hair, and her eyes widened as she did so. Slowing considerably, she looked at her own hair in wonder. When had it grown so long again? It had been so many years ago that she had cut it, wanting to be a useful member of the team... she had not noticed as it had slowly lengthened. She needed to cut it. Soon.
That decision made her think back even further, to how she had grown it out because she had heard Sasuke liked long hair. Ironically, that hair symbolized all the things he apparently didn't like about her. If only she could have it both ways... Sasuke's tastes might have changed, or the rumor could have been wrong in the first place. It would be perfect if he liked short hair now...
"That's not true at all," he would say. "I think you'll be beautiful no matter how you do your hair, but I really do like it short."
She shook her head in an effort to clear it. Still having fantasies, was she? But it didn't matter, even if - wait. That hadn't been her imagination. That had actually been his voice! Soft as if distant, but definitely real! Discerning that the voice had come from just around the curve in the path, she slipped around it...
...just in time to see Sasuke smooth back a lock of Hinata's hair with a slight smile. They were ahead of her on the path, standing on a thin bridge over a small stream. And... and... Sasuke was holding Hinata? Close to him? How could- at that point Sakura slipped backward. Her vision started to darken, and she dropped toward the ground.
Before she struck a hand caught her gently, pulling her back to her feet. She gasped in surprise as the mists of chakra floated away from Sasuke beside her. He was still holding Hinata, which nearly made her fall again, but he had caught her. Now Sasuke was facing her, his expression slightly concerned but with raised eyebrows.
"Um," Sakura began awkwardly. "I'm sorry to interrupt you... I think I should probably go." Beginning to blush, she whirled and rushed back down the path.
"Take care of yourself, Sakura-san," Sasuke said softly at her back. Her eyes widened, but she kept moving. A few minutes ago, if he had said something like that she would have swooned, but now... Hinata? How was that possible? It looked like her chances were absolutely crushed. Yet... a few minutes ago, realizing that would have thrown her into depression, but now... now she just wasn't sure.
It was annoying, but she had to admit, they looked kind of cute together...
He watched her as he went, his face shifting to a dark expression as soon as she was out of sight. Though he was glad to see that she had taken the revelation fairly well, the interruption had been rather annoying. With a sigh he turned back to Hinata, but discovered that she was only smiling serenity. The severity of his expression lessened considerably.
"Maybe I should talk to her?" Hinata suggested.
"Eventually," Sasuke answered, putting his arms around her shoulders again. She melted against him happily, and they remained together silently. In the center of Hidden Leaf, amid the slowly falling leaves, two were one.
The central room of the Hokage's residence was generally a busy place. Most days there was plenty of work to be done, shinobi filing in and out with reports and orders. Often one could find several customers looking to petition the Hidden Leaf for some sort of task, and probably the Hokage himself attempting to shirk his duties.
Not today. Only five people were in the large room, standing in a circle. All of them were wearing less formal garb than before, though it was still obvious each was the Kage of their respective village. Naruto stood at the head of the group, pondering his words. At his right Gaara stood with his arms folded, neither moving nor speaking. The Mizukage stood at Naruto's left, brushing back a long lock of blue hair and waiting. Turned slightly away from the group was the Raikage, who was rolling and unrolling a scroll in his hands. Filling out the circle was the Tsuchikage, who stood with her hands on her hips impatiently.
"Thank you for coming here," Naruto said at last. "I'm glad that everyone is relaxing here for the moment, but I'm sure you all know we have a lot yet to do." There was a general murmur of assent around the circle. "It won't be long before we all return to our own countries, and we'll all have our own problems with politicians.
"I stand by what we agreed before: from this day forth, the shinobi villages will bow to no ruler. But that is part of what I came to speak with you about today. We cannot continue to operate as we have in the past. If we continue on our way stubbornly, I believe we will break just as a stiff tree breaks before the wind.
"Instead, it is time for us to live on. All this carnage has a lesson to teach us: the people of the world fear us, and this war is what that fear results in. Oh, sure, it requires a few nuts and a bunch of other stuff, but the base of it all is fear and hatred. When we continue, we must keep this in mind. This is the era of shinobi, my friends, and I believe it will only continue to grow greater and greater."
Four pairs of eyes watched him as he fell silent. There was a long pause, and then Naruto scratched the back of his head.
"Um, yeah, that's it. I'm done. Man, I hate making speeches..."
"Actually, Hokage-san, I think that will do just fine," another of the Kages told him. "Let's move on, shall we?"
All of them nodded their agreement, and then the shinobi vanished into the shadows.