Note: Thank you so much to everybody who reviewed:)
thirty: memory; photograph.
It is a direct contrast to the personality of the Rokudaime Hokage that there are only three framed pictures in his office.
One of them hangs above an elaborately designed, ornamental ramen bowl. It is old, battered, slightly yellowed with age, and the glass covering the photograph is smudged with decades' worth of fingerprints. Hatake Kakashi is standing behind his three students, his arms crossed and a vaguely satisfied expression on what is visible of his face. Sasuke glares off moodily into the distance, his arms crossed and generally looking the epitome of twelve-year-old coolness, Naruto glares at Sasuke, obviously envious of all the coolness, and between the both of them, the eye of the storm, Haruno Sakura smiles innocently into the lens of the camera. Her eyes are closed, mid-blink, but the expression of mingling enthusiasm and joy is unmistakable – and contagious.
The picture next to the window is much more recent, and evocative of less bittersweet memories. Naruto is wearing the Hokage's robes and hat for the first time, his face glowing and radiant, split with one of the biggest smiles he has ever worn. His eyes glint mischief at the camera, as he holds up a peace sign, ever irrepressible. In a vague contrast to the previous snapshot, he is surrounded by what can most accurately be described as a mob of people, all as overjoyed as he is. His fiancée's head is resting on his shoulder as she smiles shyly at him, even as Neji has been captured on film looking vaguely nauseated at the mere thought of public displays of affection between his younger cousin and Naruto. Sakura's arms are wrapped around Naruto and Hinata both as she beams with pride too great to be put into words.
(The memory still makes Naruto grin.)
The last picture is the only one on his desk, and it is the one nearest to the picture of the original Team Seven, despite having only one member in common. She is immediately recognizable, despite the decades separating the first photograph from this one. Her hair is as vividly pink as ever, and even though her face has a newfound maturity – brought on by assuming the role of the most accomplished medic-nin the Village Hidden In The Leaves has ever seen, in the face of Tsunade's retirement – the true happiness and contentment of her smile has never faded in the years that have passed. She wears (highly fashionable, she insists) glasses, now, her eyes weakened from years and years of poring over complex medical scrolls. They do nothing to dull the sparkle in those familiar green eyes.
An equally familiar face stands by her side, his arm wrapped gently around her waist. The Neji in this picture is not one that Naruto would ever have dreamed of encountering in his early days as a genin. That Neji did not know how to eat ice cream or how not to smirk, where this one holds the remnants of a large watermelon swirl ice cream cone in his free hand, as he shares an actual, sincere, smile with whoever may be viewing the photograph – a smile usually reserved for his closest friends, his beloved wife, and his children. He favors his right leg more nowadays, and has a slight limp, the result of a war wound too severe to ever be properly fixed. In a marked change from the days of old, his legendary Hyuuga pride does allow him to lean slightly on Sakura for support when they walk through the village together, a fact that Naruto will probably never stop teasing him about.
The remaining three individuals of the photograph all share remarkable features that, arguably, make them some of Konoha's most distinguishable persons. The oldest boy, fifteen years old, stands dutifully at his mother's elbow, holding his twelve-year-old little sister's hand gently. Hyuuga Hizashi is the spitting image of his father at that age, albeit with his mother's tendency to smile easily. But then, Neji didn't have naturally bubblegum pink hair dyed chocolate brown, either. Hizashi's pink roots are always extremely visible, much to his mortification. That hasn't seemed to hold him back, though, and he is slated to take his jounin exams as soon as he turns sixteen, later that summer.
Hyuuga Miyazaki, in contrast, proudly sports her shoulder-length pink hair as readily as she does her new Konoha headband, which is tied securely around her forehead. In an amusing parallel to her mother's first picture as a genin, the camera has caught her in the process of blinking, although she is obviously as overjoyed and excited about the beginnings of her life as a shinobi as Sakura was. To both parents' surprise, Miyazaki shows astonishing proficiency not for medical chakra control, but in the usage of her Byakugan – she seems to have decided to leave following in Sakura's footsteps to Hizashi, who undoubtedly will dispel the old notion that men make substandard medic-nin.
The youngest member of the family stands between his parents and siblings, grinning up at the camera in what Neji dubs, with a very loving sense of horror, as a decidedly Naruto-like fashion. Doubtless it comes after spending so much time tagging along with his adoring godfather. Seven-year-old Isaru's goggles are pushed high on his forehead, holding back his somewhat shaggy and not yet dyed pink hair. To the shock of the Hyuuga clan at large, Isaru has declared that he wants to keep it pink, just because it makes him unique.
Sakura is proud.
Neji despairs, but takes consolation in the fact that at least Isaru doesn't wear orange.
Naruto calls them his favorite family – with the exception of his own, of course. The Uzumakis and the Hyuugas go out for ramen together at least once a week. The picture is the first thing he sees when he comes to his office in the morning and the last thing he sees when he packs up his things to go home for the night. He takes a look around the photographs of the room and he sees the very beginning of their lives, so many, many years ago. Through those three photographs, he sees people and relationships grow and mature, like uncooked strands of noodles into the beauty of a full, delicious bowl of ramen.
The Rokudaime Hokage stands up from his desk and stretches luxuriantly. He checks the time and gathers his things. Doubtlessly Neji has already left the ANBU Tactical Commander's office and headed down to Ichiraku, along with Sakura, whose shift should have ended half an hour ago. Naruto will pick up Hinata, probably worn out from the day's teaching, and their children, from the Academy on their way to the old and beloved ramen stand, where Hizashi, Miyazaki, and Isaru are waiting.
When he steps out of Hokage Tower, he is somewhat surprised to see Neji and Sakura waiting for him near the doors. Naruto blinks in a moment of surprise, before embracing his two old friends with his customary bouncy excitement. "Neji! Sakura! I didn't expect to see you guys out here already!"
Neji gives him a good-natured smirk, for old times' sake. "I would hate to get predictable in my old age, after all."
Naruto sniffs, placing his hands behind his head as he used to do so many times as a young genin. "Sorry to say that you've already been there and done that, old man."
Sakura interrupts their light joking with a humorous snort. "Listening to the two of you talking, it's like hearing two senile grandfathers on the verge of death, honestly!"
Neji and Naruto exchange very similar looks. Naruto takes a deep breath, deciding to be the one man enough to take the risk. "You're one to talk, obaa-san."
Sakura's eyes widen and she gives a reaction astonishingly similar to Tsunade's upon hearing Naruto's favored nickname of powerful medic kunoichi of their village. "Naruto, Hokage or not, I am going to kill you—"
She lunges forward, and, with a cheeky grin, Naruto does what he does best and disappears in a puff of smoke, leaving her hands closing in on nothing but empty air. Sakura fairly roars with exasperation, and Neji, an expression of distinct amusement on his features, takes her hand, pulls her back to him, and tries valiantly not to laugh.
"Don't you dare laugh," she tells him grumpily. "I'll smack the blonde brat a good one when I see him again."
Neji can't help but smile at the ensuing mental image, and he takes her hand, as she twines her fingers with his. Without further ado, they are heading down the dusty path that leads them back to the Academy, back to Ichiraku Ramen, back to the Chuunin examination stadium, back to their childhood.
Sakura's hair flutters in the light wind, a few loose strands whipping forward to tickle Neji's nose. He looks startled for a moment, but then laughs, and as they keep walking forward, their shadows lengthen and merge together in the sunset.
Well, wow. I can't believe it's finally over. I've had this idea for the closing chapter and epilogue, of sorts, since I first began writing. It's great to know that, more than a year later, I've actually completed it. :)
Of course, this project wouldn't have been nearly as fulfilling to write if it hadn't been for you guys, who have been supporting me since the very beginning. I never even imagined that it would get such a favorable response – the best out of all the stuff I've written so far!
This is definitely not the last NejiSaku piece I intend to write. I don't know when I'm going to start my next venture into this pairing, but it will happen. I would like to say, to everybody who's read this fic, go out and spread the love! This is a totally amazing pairing with a lot of potential, which unfortunately seems to be underrepresented in fandom. Write your own NejiSaku fic. It'll be tons of fun, and the Naruto community needs more of this lovely pairing. :D (And think of the offspring! They're so very cute!)
Thank you so much for everything. I hope y'all enjoyed the last installment.