I have no words. If you're reading this then believe me when I say: I'm just as surprised as you are.
Epilogue: When All Is Said and Done
What happens after 'happily ever after?'
Do the worries of the world simply get washed away by the immense tide of happiness that comes on the tail of a successfully resolved conflict?
The world, it seems, is not quite so lenient.
After all, the ending and close of one story is in reality the beginning and opening of a new story.
'Turn big problems into little problems; little problems into no problems,' or so the saying goes.
But there will always be problems, and in the eyes of a certain wrinkled old man a famine of problems was about to become a bountiful harvest.
"For the last time, Aki, give me back my kunai!" the young girl demanded. Her bluish-black hair fluttered angrily in a slight breeze, a hand extended open-palm out towards the aforementioned Akihiko. It was met with a blown raspberry and an evil smirk.
"Aw, what's the big deal Nee-chan?" the pink-haired boy shot back nonchalantly, one hand held behind his head in a laid-back manner while the other twirled a kunai, presumably the stolen item, around by its ring. "You've got plenty of them, so I know you're not low. Unless...," and the boy dragged his free hand down over his short hair to rest over his face in a mock-tragic pose, "this is... his?" Querying rhetorically, he held the kunai delicately into the air by two fingers, as if gingerly avoiding contaminating it.
The girl shrieked. "Uchiha Akihiko, so help me I am going to kill you!" Leaping forward, it was uncertain as to whether her target was the kunai or the hapless lad before her; either way, her intent to maim, dismember, and murder was palpable to the old man watching from the side.
"Ha-HA!" the boy yelled gleefully, skipping to the side at the last minute, eyes twinkling. "I knew it! It's your precious gift! Your bond of looooooove! I'll bet you-OOF!"
Beset with rage as she was, Akihiko's bantering was no match for a woman scorned and the elder sister ducked low and launched herself at the boy's legs, snagging one as they attempted evasion. With a poof of dust the girl locked the knee and yanked the foot behind her, causing Akihiko to lose his balance (and his unspoken taunt) and fall backwards to the ground. Not one to give up an advantage, the girl immediately went to mount her younger brother, who of course recovered quickly.
The old man watched with unmasked glee as the youngsters pounded the living hell out of each other. Other passerby wandering in the vicinity of the park either slowed for a moment before continuing on their way with a helpless chuckle or ignored the scuffling pair. This, it seemed, was commonplace for this area though the old man couldn't quite recall if this pair had ever scuffled here before.
Abandoning his musing, the old man watched as the dust cloud began to settle around the siblings who were on their backs, panting. The kunai, it seemed, was nowhere to be found, but neither appeared to care at the moment.
The boy sat up first. Shaking his head and brushing the dust from his no-longer-entirely-pink hair, he hopped to his feet and extended a hand to the girl, who had resumed a normal pace of breath but had yet to rise.
Akihiko grinned. "Damn, Kei-nee, but you really pack a wallop," he offered, perhaps by way of an attempt at a truce. Whether Kei accepted it or not, the old man couldn't tell, but she did grab the proffered hand and used it to get to her feet as well. Brushing the dust from her bright red bike shorts and top, she smiled crookedly at the boy.
"Clean yourself up or Haha-ue will murder you for me," she replied, brushing her hand against the black sleeveless shirt sporting the crest of the Uchiha and knocking a fair amount of dust away. Blanching, Akihiko scrambled to remove the rest of the dust from his clothing. Seemingly satisfied, he nodded in triumph before extending his hand to Kei. "Here's your - huh?"
Intending to return the stolen kunai, Akihiko was understandably confused. Where the kunai had been firmly grasped, an empty hand remained. Eyes widening, he patted himself all over and searched the aftermath of their skirmish before returning to gaze at his sister, whose expression could have been lightly described as 'demonic.'
"Ahhhh... young whippersnapper... could you mean this piece here?" a voice called out.
Whipping their heads to the voice's owner, the pair of siblings saw an old man sitting on a bench with a kindly face covered in wrinkles. Eyes twinkling blue under the sun, he held a kunai firmly in his palm.
Guessing what had happened, Kei sprinted over to the old man and bowed several times. "We're really really sorry ojii-san! It must have gotten flung over here when we were fighting, I'm so sorry thank you so much!" she spluttered helplessly, numbly accepting the kunai being pressed into her hands. "Were you hurt at all?"
The old man laughed and waved his hands. "Not a tad, young miss, not a tad." Finally looking up at the old man, Kei was greeted with blue eyes shining with kindness as he gazed at the youth. "Though it is getting dark; perhaps you and your brother ought to be heading home, yes?" he added, sounding concerned.
"Shit! Let's blitz, Kei-nee!" Akihiko yelped, running up to his sister. Grabbing her hand, they sprinted off as only shinobi could, taking to the rooftops with a few hops. The old man watched them go with a small smile, then lifted himself to his feet. Bones cracking, a cane appeared from the folds of his white robe that breathed perfectly despite the hot sun setting in the distance, and he began his trek back to his abode.
As he walked, his mind wandered as it did and he found his thoughts dwelling on his own family. Independent of his conscious will, he realized his feet were taking him down a familiar path through the town and he accepted the course as a fact, closing his eyes and treading the steps by memory. Drawing to a halt, he opened his eyes after a moment.
Black. Shiny black, somewhat reflective, and as he focused the writing became clearer and clearer on the Memorial Stone. Shifting from his own reflection to the writing on the wall of stone, his mouth slowly began to trace the sounds of the names from top to bottom. One by one he read them out, softly, slowly, never missing one, pausing gently after each.
Down and across he went until finally, as he knew it would come to pass, the familiar syllables passed his eyes.
'Hyuuga,' he enunciated softly. Sucking in a breath, he continued -
'Hiashi.' a voice softly spoke behind him.
Smiling, he turned to face a beautiful woman. Long, dark blue tresses danced down her back as gentle pearls gazed into his own blue. Her white skin, unblemished by any mark or age, tinged slightly with red as she took his gnarled hands in her own.
And crunched them with an almighty grip of steel forged in the fires of battle.
"Dear, Sakura-chan says you've been terrorizing her daughter again," Hinata said sweetly, still smiling, as the bones of the old man's hands began to strain under the pressure to stay connected to each other.
With a small 'pop' the old man disappeared; or rather, the 'old' disappeared from the 'man' and a rather handsome, crimson-haired, sheepishly smiling face in the prime of youth replaced it. "Well, you know, she reminds me so much of Sakura-chan that I-YOWWWW-okay okay okay, I'll drop by later and apologize!"
His excuse-turned-howl-turned-surrender dying in the air, the eyes of pearl glared at bashful steel blues for a moment more before softening considerably. Then they disappeared altogether, buried in the chest of the crimson-haired man. After nuzzling for a bit, Hinata lifted her head to look at the names on the Memorial Stone that Naruto had returned his gaze to.
"You miss them," she stated quietly. Naruto looked down at her incredulously.
"Don't you?" he asked with no small amount of disbelief, turning to helplessness as she glared up at him again.
"Baka," she whispered as she cradled her love's head in her hands, "of course I do." She grinned. "But I'd be more afraid of what happens when you have to meet them again. They'll have a lot of... 'catching up' to do with you to say the least. I hope my father goes easy on you for my sake, at least," she added playfully. Naruto's head drooped with another helpless grin.
"Yeah, there's that." He pondered for a moment. "I wonder what happens when the time comes." His question hung in the air as silence reigned.
"Some say we come back. Some say we go on to an afterlife. A few say oblivion, but I don't really think that's possible," Hinata offered after a spell. "We definitely only get one chance at this life, though."
Naruto nodded solemnly. "Reincarnation doesn't sound to bad. I'd get to meet you again, after all!" he finished grandly. Then he paled. "If it's an afterlife, I hope you don't get to see everything that happens here. If Hiashi knew what I did to you almost every night he'd-"
Whatever words the world's greatest prankster had planned were lost forever as a palm sought to become one with his spine by way of the abdomen.
One trip to the Uchiha residence later, the couple arrived at their own front door to be greeted by a little lady with crimson hair highlighted with streaks of midnight blue.
"Good evening, my little demon!" Naruto exclaimed proudly, tousling the girl's hair. A delighted grin spreading across her face, she closed the distance and hugged Naruto, the top of her head coming only to the bottom of his chest.
"Don't call her that, you brute," her mother said while whacking the offender 'cross the back of the head. "She'll start to believe you. Maika-chan, don't listen to a word your father says," Hinata cautioned as the girl kissed her mother on the cheek. "You're 14 now, you should know better."
"It's okay, Kaa-san. I like it, and whenever the other kids are around and Naru-tou calls me that it inspires them with the respect I deserve!" Maika said proudly, hands on her hips and nose turned into the air. Naruto groaned at the pet name and pinched her nose.
"Normal daughters call their fathers normally," he admonished, though the accompanying wink took most the sincerity out of it. Walking inside, he palmed his forehead in recollection. "Taichi comes back until tomorrow night from his mission. Looks like it's just us for dinner again."
Hinata smiled at her husband's memory. While he certainly had a lot on his plate to juggle, he could be absent-minded about the most important things. Squeezing Naruto's hand, she went with him to prepare dinner.
After a nice meal and a pleasant evening, they lay in bed together with Hinata having claimed her rightful place against Naruto's side. Snuggled against him with his hand around her, she grinned. "If you listen, you can hear her chattering away. I swear, she's as smart as you are and, like her father, applies it in all the wrong ways."
Turning to frown at his teasing wife, Naruto 'hmm'd' quietly. "It's an incredible jutsu. Where we previously had to rely on the mind powers of the Yamanaka and others, now anyone can talk to anyone with a simple technique and a unique sequence of seals to identify the target. I know Kira was thrilled when we finished it and sent Haku and her off to Iwa to have them try it out, though I'm sure the parents of Rock will be just as 'thrilled' as we are." He grinned. "Karma, huh..."
Hinata poked him. "Be nice. Haku and Kira have no idea what they're missing. Not that there's anything wrong with not having kids. They're very happy, after all," she added with a smile, thinking of the fiery girl and her mischievous husband.
Naruto turned and kissed his wife soundly. "I love you," he whispered. Grinning blue eyes flashed briefly, and Hinata gasped, barely managing to keep from shouting out. Mustering control over her volume, she beamed and kissed him again and again.
"You did it! I can't believe it!" she said as exuberantly as possible while keeping her voice down. Then she glared, though the smile never left her face. "That's how you got poor Kei-chan's kunai away, didn't you?"
Naruto chuckled helplessly. "Akihiko was never one to hold on to a weapon in a fight, and it looked like one of them was about to have an 'accident,' so I tried one of the old seals and it worked perfectly. I'll have to make sure to take it slow, but yours truly might be back to 100%!"
Hinata stared at his face, whisker marks barely visible after all the years, and resumed her snuggling, mind growing drowsy. "You never cease to amaze," she muttered.
Intelligently managing to refrain from a (dirty) wisecrack, Naruto kissed the top of her head and settled down for a good night's sleep, his mind wandering to earlier that day.
Many of their friends awaited them, having gone on before them.
Many of their friends were still here, with them.
15 years ago, the largest conflict the ninja world had ever known came to an end. Many, many lives were lost. Ever after the war ended, the elder generation too began to disappear, content to leave behind the world in their descendents' capable hands.
15 years later, Naruto mused, it seemed to be true: things really do get better.
He activated his old eyes again, briefly, and with a whisper was looking at his daughter's restful form. She shifted in her sleep, then opened her eyes slowly. Looking up at the ceiling, her eyes seemed to lock with Naruto's. They flashed themselves and, smiling, Maika nodded to her father before resuming her dreams.
Shaking his head helplessly at his daughter's abilities, he closed his own eyes and drifted off.
With the ones he loved by his side, Naruto looked forward to the future.
Tomorrow was a new day, after all.
So, yeah. For everyone reading this, thank you. Thank you so much for reading this five-year-old epic saga of grammatical nightmares, transitional bloopers, and helplessly fluffy ninja-ness.
I wrote this not only because I always wanted to write a true epilogue, but also because steadily, throughout the years, people kept finding this story, they kept reading it, they kept following it, and they kept telling me about it. Art in its purest form might be able to exist in a vacuum, but I derive an incredible amount of joy from knowing that somewhere out there someone might be enjoying something I made.
It is truly humbling, and so I say: thank you. I hope you enjoyed this little afterthought.
(Special thanks to Hinata-Win)