A/N: My goodness… (lower jaw starts to tremble) Heh, I can't help it; starting the final opening AN is NEVER a joyride. (grins sheepishly, then sniffles a bit)

But, as per usual… MASSIVE thank yous for all those INCREDIBLE reviews you shipped for me – I could've NEVER imagined that this silly 'lil story would become this popular, so I'm baffled here! (tackles ya all to a hug) THANK YOU! As always, responses to anonymous reviews can be found from underneath the chappy, believe it.

Awkay, I better stop stalling the inevitable, ne? So let's ROCK – GOSH, how I hope you'll enjoy this final chappy! (jaws lip with nervousness)


CHAPTER 14: Epilogue


Twelve And A Half Years Later


Tokyo


A very much grown up Naruto's fingers danced on a keyboard as he wrote, in such a speed that suggested he was terrified the words would run away from him if he didn't write them fast enough.

'The years after he left weren't easy. I started studying, even managed to get a relatively normal life in many ways although I was, of course, the youngest on my year class. But it wasn't as easy as I'd hoped to leave the past behind, especially without him by my side. There was a point in which I started having panic attacks. And now that all the therapy sessions I've had have brought those days back into my memory, I still have nightmares about the night when my parents were killed. Over the years I had to change my therapist twelve times before I found someone who I could actually talk to, but it paid off. I don't think anyone, even he with his departure and almost leaving me after that accident, has made me cry as much as my current therapist. I can't even describe how good I felt after the emotional turmoil of the first session faded, and I realized what was happening. I actually started feeling like a normal person little by little; my grades were by no means amazing on most classes, but good enough for me, and I got some new friends. I still write to my old teacher thrice a week, and over the years he's become something close to a second father to me.

And over the years, I also found what I'd been waiting for so long.'

A huge grin appearing to his face, he glanced over his shoulder towards an enormous bed in which Sasuke was sleeping relatively soundly, with only a small frown suggesting that the raven was dreaming. Now, with the scarred side of the Uchiha's face turned towards the pillow, it was easy to forget all the hells of the man's past.

Sighing at the last thought, he turned back towards his laptop, and allowed his fingers to keep moving.

'I didn't meet him, or even hear anything about him, until I finished my studies, and during the longest nights the pendant he'd left for me was my only comfort. I wasn't entirely hopeless, though, because after the last night and with the fact that he'd left a memento for me I knew I'd been at least somewhat forgiven. But nonetheless it was excruciating to wait and wonder, when he was the only thing I knew for sure I wanted, when even after the first three roughest years and some pretty good dates I just couldn't stop loving him – or being furious with him leaving. Things have never been black and white between us.

It's hard to explain what I felt when I saw him for the first time in so many years, sitting in a park about two hours after the sunset. I'd never felt anything similar, anything as strong.

I could've walked away, yelled at him although I'd deserved the pain his departure had brought, or I could've walked up to him and pretended that nothing had ever happened. Instead I all but ran to him, and before he'd probably even seen me I was kissing him so that soon enough neither of us had any oxygen left. All the while I held him as though fearing that even the slightest slip would mean that he was lost forever.

That night, I made love for the first time in my life, in his home that was about to be sold. After a couple of hot hours we finally talked, about everything. It seems we love doing things the wrong way round.

He didn't want to tell me much about the time we'd spent apart, but I got the picture that those years hadn't been easy for him, either. He'd changed a lot from that angry, self-destructive ice prince he once was, but I could tell he hadn't let go of all those wounds he'd received. To be honest, I don't think he'll ever be able to let go completely, but I've learned to accept that fact. I can take the many bad days for the sake of all those good ones we have more often than not. And he wouldn't be the person I fell in love with without his rough edges. Of course he still drives me crazy sometimes, but he's already changed a lot, and I know he's happy – his eyes tell me so, even though his words can't. That's more than good enough for me.'


Sasuke frowned, still not opening his eyes, when something rather warm and moist brushed his cheek. His drowsy mind couldn't figure out what was happening at first, and he prepared for a violent reaction before hearing a familiar, very soothing voice. "I'm sorry to wake you up, but it's already a bit late. We've gotta get going soon."

He groaned, not exactly wanting to open his eyes.

He heard a chuckle that felt almost as good as a caress. There was another kiss, this time to his nose. "Oh, don't you dare try that game with me, Uchiha."

Sasuke's muscles moved surprisingly fast, considering the fact that he'd just woken up. Naruto made a sound of mild startle when he flipped them so that the blond was resting beneath him. He could tell his eyes flashed while he looked into those once oh-so-innocent blue orbs. "Are you still sure we have to leave immediately?" he questioned huskily.

All of a sudden the fact that he hadn't even brushed his teeth wasn't all that important.

Neighbours most likely became disturbed by the sounds they made.


Hinata knew most people were excited on the morning of their wedding day. That's why she couldn't understand why she was almost in tears while standing outside a church, as though waiting.

Of course she loved her husband to be – she would've never agreed to marry him otherwise. But… Her head was just too fuzzy.

Perhaps this was just the usual bride's nervousness – there didn't have to be anything more horrible going on. In half an hour she'd be someone's wife, and they'd laugh together at her giddiness. This was the way things were supposed to be.

Just then the wind seemed to carry something into her ears, because all of a sudden she lifted her gaze – and breathing became very, very hard.

For there, on a tiny path that led away from the graveyard, walked Itachi Uchiha, and she could've sworn he looked at her for just a moment although she knew it to be impossible. Her heart nearly stopped while she kept all but staring at him. She even took a small step closer, momentarily forgetting everything, until her mind forced her to halt.

It'd been well over twelve years – back then they'd been very young, completely different people. They probably wouldn't know each other anymore, especially with how short their time together had been. Now… Now, it was time to act like adults. It was time to let go of childish fairytales, no matter how much it'd hurt, she decided while bringing a hand to her for the time being flat stomach.

A bitter taste filled her mouth, and her eyes felt uncomfortably hot while she balled her fist.

I'm so sorry.

Her chest had never hurt the way it did when she turned around – turning her back on something she would've desperately wanted – and started to walk away, towards something she didn't even know of. She did her best to come up with plausible excuses when guests asked her why she was in tears all of a sudden.

-

What she couldn't have possibly known, was that Itachi's eyes hadn't been as blind as she'd thought.

Everything inside the raven was whirling around and sizzling while he stood still for a while, his feet dangerously unsteady and his mind even more so. He didn't remember many occasions when it would've hurt as much as it did then.

He'd finally seen Hinata's face, and oddly enough she'd looked exactly the way he'd thought she would. Not that her appearances would've made much difference at the moment.

An extremely sad smile rose to his face as he watched how she walked away, towards a life he'd never be a part of. For a couple of moments he felt almost unbearable urge to follow her – to stop what was inevitably about to happen – but in the end, defying everything inside him, he turned around and started to walk towards the opposite direction with heavy steps.

They'd both be happy, just not with each other.

He had to believe that for the sake of his sanity.


Konoha


From a small, beautiful tree a tiny bird watched as a lone figure made his way towards a particular tombstone, with an expression any being could easily recognize as that of anguish. Each step seemed heavy and laboured, all the way until they came to a sudden halt.

Gaara's legs – which still hurt whenever rain fell, reminding him of what once happened – trembled while he knelt to a tombstone, his thoughts whirring with such a speed that he couldn't determine what exactly he was feeling. His eyes stung, and he had a feeling that it had nothing to do with the sleepless night before or even the sunlight wrapping stubbornly around him.

Kimimaro, his brain just managed to register.

He swallowed thickly, unsure as to how he should start something this painful. "I… came to bring you some flowers – I still remember how much you always loved flowers. And…" He took a deep breath, not entirely sure how to go on. "I just… It feels good to show you that someone still thinks of you down here, too." His jaw tightened under everything he was trying to hold back. "I'm so sorry I couldn't protect you." In some other situation the apology might've felt uneasy in his mouth, but now…

He waited for a couple of moments before going on. "I know I should've visited you earlier, but… It's not easy to see…" He gestured towards the stone. " …this." He forced his expression into a more positive one, although his insides hurt. He took a deep breath, determined to say what he was about to. "I'm… okay, you know? I have… scars, and talking, reading and learning new things is difficult, but I can live and move on my own. I could've never imagined how much of a privilege that is. But…" He caressed the stone with his fingertips, his throat choked. " … I'd want to face it all with you. I miss you. And…" He swallowed, his throat feeling inhumanly dry and tight before an injustice like this. " … I really hope you're finally happy, wherever you are."

He must've been absolutely still for several minutes before he felt a hand on his shoulder. Lifting his gaze, he met Deidara's uncharacteristically soft expression. The blond clearly knew this was no joyride for him. "Ready to go?"

He nodded, not wanting to speak because his tone would've given him away, and followed along as the other started a journey towards the blue car waiting for them.

Sasori, who was sitting behind the steering wheel, gave them a somewhat dry look as they hopped in and sat down. "So you're done?"

Deidara seemed to roll his eyes while kissing the redhead. "Oh, shut it."

A stab that had nothing to do with jealousy crossed Gaara while he watched the two start out their usual bickering that seemed more like a foreplay – with Deidara, purposely or not, annoying Sasori, and the redhead responding with grumpy remarks. With all the rehabilitation and recovering – mentally and physically – he hadn't had the time to even think about starting a romantic relationship. Even if he'd wanted to, that is – after what he'd had with Kimimaro, with all the memories and feelings that just wouldn't go away or even grow dimmer…

Giving a sigh the couple on the front seats couldn't hear, he lifted his gaze towards the car's roof. And suddenly he could've sworn he felt a touch on his hand. Mildly startled, he turned his gaze, only to find an empty seat. But it was nonetheless hard to hold back a tiny, frail smile.

Nothing would ever erase the ache inside him. But… He was getting better, slowly yet surely, and he had his friends – Naruto, in another city but still there, Deidara and even Sasori. He had hope.

Maybe, just maybe, that'd be enough for now.

-

Still sitting on a tree branch, the bird gave a surprisingly strong chirp before rising to its wings and disappearing into the sunlight.


Tokyo


Naruto was mildly out of breath from all the running he'd done when he rushed into a huge gym hall's audience, looking a bit like a lightning bolt as he went.

His heart grew warm when he met the familiar gang – Sakura, who was working hard to keep her four-years-old son Toshiro (who had her eyes and Neji's hair) from running around, Shikamaru, who was fighting over the phone with Temari, his newest 'conquest' (which was how he called her, although they all knew it was something far deeper), Shino and Kiba, who seemed to have something weird going on judging by how fidgety they were around each other, and of course Itachi, who had a strange, nearly sad look just traceable on his face. He made a mental note to talk to all three of them later, and to tell Sasuke to interrogate his brother a bit.

He greeted them all, and although they were already adults something close to a hassle erupted. A huge grin then appeared to his face when he met two more familiar faces. "Hey! I thought you guys wouldn't come until tomorrow."

Hayate smiled. "We both had some holidays to spare, and we knew how important this is – to both of you."

Yugao smiled while ruffling the man's hair playfully, and winked a bit. "Don't let him fool you." Anyone who knew her caught the sparkle of joking in her eyes. "He just wanted a break from the twins. Teenagers aren't a joy to live with all the time."

He grinned while sitting. "Yeah, I can tell." As from birth, the twin-girls had been fighters, and their temper hadn't diminished the slightest as they'd grown up. He truly admired the couple for not losing their minds completely yet.

Kiba's voice, which sounded slightly more tense than usual, pulled him out of his thoughts, along with a swat to his head. "Hey, time to zone back to reality. It's starting."

Naruto swallowed thickly, a part of him almost hoping Sasuke wouldn't appear all the way until the Uchiha was already on the ice, with an expression he just couldn't read.

He chewed his lip so hard that blood was almost drawn. Please…, his mind pleaded before he realized anything was coming.

A couple of long and heavy, electric seconds of silence ticked by until the music started, sending Sasuke into motion.

No matter how much a part of him hated watching Sasuke skating – knowing just how painful it was although the Uchiha never admitted a thing – Naruto found himself smiling as the music started. For the smallest of seconds he was sure the raven's eyes met his.

It was 'Prince Igor' again. (1) He was childishly glad knowing that no one else could've possibly understood the little message, the importance of something as seemingly trivial as music.

In a matter of moments, despite all the worry speeding through his veins, he lost himself into watching the performance. Every single move – every heart-stilling jump, speedy twirl and other move – seemed perfectly controlled, out of this world. On Sasuke's face lingered the same clouded look he always saw when the raven skated. The expression gave a feeling that the younger Uchiha was somewhere a million miles away, seeing and experiencing something no other mortal had access to.

It felt like watching a bird rising to its wings, and just witnessing the scene made Naruto feel like gasping.

And suddenly he was smiling, feeling warm while his heartbeat and blood pressure gained a life of their own. He truly hoped no one noticed the eager bulge that appeared to his pants – Kiba would've never let him live it down.

When the performance ended and the audience exploded into ovations and cheers he finally gasped, loudly, realizing only then that he'd been holding his breath. Without managing to speak another word he bounced up from his seat and ran.

-

Hayate frowned while watching the blond go. "Is something wrong?"

Kiba grinned toothily while shaking his head. "Nope. It's like this every freaking time." The grin deepened still. "Whether he admits it or not, a certain part of Naruto's body likes these performances very, very much. I wouldn't go looking for him – or Sasuke – for a while."

Hayate, a teacher who'd already thought he'd faced it all, blushed radiantly.


That afternoon Neji, who'd been deep in thought while going through a shopping list, almost jumped when his cell phone chose to snap to life. If he'd had a little bit less self-control, he might've smiled when noticing who the caller was. "Hey. Is everything okay?"

"Yeah. I was just… wondering how much longer you're going to spend there." Apparently, that was Sakura's apology for the very much hormone induced fight they'd had that morning. "It's quiet here without you, especially now that Toshiro's sleeping."

At that moment, it was very, very easy to remember every single little thing that'd made him fall in love with her. "I know." His voice was so soft that in some other occasion it might've sickened him. He took a look at his list. "I've got only two more stores to go. It shouldn't take long."

"Okay. Just come home soon, 'k? I miss you already." With his mind's eyes, he could see how she smiled and stroked her already huge bump affectionately. "We both do."

It was next to impossible not to smile. "See you soon." I miss you, too, was something his pride wouldn't allow him to say.

After hanging up, he took a couple of steps towards a nearby small store when something caught absolutely all his attention, struck like a kick to his stomach. He couldn't help staring as the unbelievable sight that unfolded before him.

Right there, walked a small boy who looked more like him than should've been humanly possible and was exactly at the right age. And holding the boy's hand was none other than TenTen, who was walking by some black haired man's side. Their voices echoed in his ears.

"But mommy, I want one now!"

"Enji (2), what have I told you about patience? When we get home, you'll definitely get a ice-cream."

"Promise?"

The laugh sounded like something that should've belonged into some other universe. "Yes, sweetie. That's a promise."

His mind growing dazed and fuzzy, he took a step forward – only to halt when out of nowhere a buss arrived, speeding past so that it almost touched his nose. When the vehicle disappeared the family was gone. Had he not known better, he might've thought he'd been dreaming or hallucinating. Unfortunately his mind couldn't be fooled.

He gave a long, shuddering breath, absently realizing that he was shivering a little.

In one long blink he realized that the world wasn't such a simple place anymore.


Much later that evening, a nurse named Mitate sighed while entering one of the most secured rooms in the psychiatric hospital's closed ward. Inside he found a strange, brown haired young man, who was currently staring at the ceiling while resting on the bed to which he'd been strapped pretty much for the past five years. Unfortunately such a sight didn't surprise him; this stranger – of whom no one knew more than that his name was 'Zaku', or something like that – had been like this since he'd been found.

He hadn't been along, of course, but he'd been told that the brunette had been found from the attic of a tiny house, after neighbours had complained about an unbearable reek. The reason for the stench had also been discovered. Beside the extremely bloodied brunette – who'd been hugging his legs while rocking himself back and forth – was the body of a man with long, black hair. They'd gotten the shock of their lives when finding out that the corpse had been none other than one of Japan's most wanted criminals, Orochimaru. Apparently Zaku had stabbed him with a razor knife thirty times almost a week earlier, and been unresponsive since. It was a miracle that the brunette had survived.

While looking at the catatonic brunette, he wasn't quite sure if the other had been lucky or not.

He created the same smile he always wore with patients while approaching the brunette as he would a somewhat dangerous wild animal. "Alright, then. Let's do the evening washes, shall we? I heard you were I bit difficult with the morning shift. But we won't have the same problems, will we?"

-

When leaving the room much later, Mitate blinked and felt a tingle of threat when finding an old man sitting in one of the long hallway's chairs. "I'm sorry, but it's much past the visiting hours, and we don't even allow visitors here."

The man seemed to swallow thickly while getting up to what seemed like shaky legs. "It's… okay, I just…" It took a long moment before words were found. "I'm Danzou, Zaku's… current guardian. Is he… still the same?"

He fought the urge to arch an eyebrow. Odd – he'd never met this man before. "Yes, I'm afraid so." I'm sorry, almost passed his lips as he looked at this haunted being.

The man nodded, his shoulders slumping in a defeated manner. "I understand." With that the man seemed to attempt to work on some authority, only to fail miserably. "I'll stop by tomorrow."

He could only nod as a response. He shivered while watching the man go, feeling pity squeezing his chest.

Gosh, even ghosts had more life than this Danzou did! It was beyond him how people could get that badly lost.

Shaking his head, he turned around and started to walk away. The next day he didn't even remember the poor, unfortunate soul.


Naruto and Sasuke were already halfway asleep while the lay in their bed, watching how shadows created entrancing patterns to the room's ceiling.

Such calmness and relaxation… felt very, very good, to both of them.

Sensing Sasuke shift, and hearing a tiny hiss, Naruto moved his head so that he could see the raven. He frowned lightly when meeting a trace of pain that disappeared quickly. "It still hurts, doesn't it?" He knew that despite the two operations that'd been made during the past ten years or so, skating was still extremely painful to the Uchiha – heck, even that day the man had nearly collapsed into his arms. And he had a feeling that their activities during that very pleasant afternoon and evening hadn't exactly helped matters.

Sasuke avoided meeting his eyes before the raven's had regained their usual steel. "Stop looking at me like that. I'm fine."

He felt like snorting. Yeah, sure you are… For a while he thought about trying to coax the Uchiha into quitting skating, but stopped when remembering that it was pointless. No words from him, Itachi or doctors helped. Sasuke had made up his mind, and all he could do was try to narrow the damage to minimum. Biting back a sigh, he kissed the raven's lips, resting his head to a chest in which a heart was beating strongly, reassuringly. After a moment he closed his eyes, smiled and let his mind shut down, enjoying the moment at hand too much to worry.

It was impossible to worry with Sasuke beside him, he mused.

He must've almost fallen asleep, because he shuddered a bit when hearing Sasuke's somewhat sleepy, nearly murmuring voice. "How's your book going? I heard you typing this morning."
He fought the urge to smile. The Uchiha had been, to say the least, hesitant when it came to his newest book at first, but in the end the raven had understood that it was something he needed to write, for the sake of his sanity. They'd come to a agreement that his project was okay so long as he didn't use anyone's real names, and the matter had been almost buried this far. Now, he felt extremely good when facing approval like this. "I'm almost done", he announced, feeling the same pride he always did when finishing one of his writing works. "You know, I even managed to come up with a title for it today."

Sasuke quirked an eyebrow. "What would that be?"

Grinning far more brightly than he assumed to be suitable for an adult, Naruto crawled out of the bed with some reluctance, then walked up to his desk. Soon enough he returned to his boyfriend's warmth, and revealed Sasuke the first page of his book; a sheet of paper he'd written very early that morning. He could tell the Uchiha came close to smiling.

'Welcome To A Masquerade'


Owari.


1) Heh, I'm sure you don't remember anymore, so… This was the song to which Sasuke skated when Naruto saw him skating for the first time. It's 'their song' of some sort, I guess. (grins)

2) Enji - Neji. (gulps) Yeah, uh-huh...


A/N: My GOSH, I can't believe this – it's actually over! (gawks disbelievingly, then starts bawling) MAN, am gonna miss this! (sniffs)

Before I tune out, thank you from the bottom of my heart for all those fabulous reviews, listings, and of course reading this silly little drabble of mine! It's been a long ride but I've enjoyed it all the way, mostly thanks to you. (grins from ear to ear)

And, of course… PLEASE, leave a review so I'll know what you think about this ending! Pretty pwease…?

Once more THANK YOU, and all the very best to all of you! I really hope I'll see you all again around this site.

Take care, and peace out!


lalala: Yeah, almost done indeed. (sniffs) Awww, I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who's been enjoying this fic. (grins radiantly)

Ah, I believe you mean 'Sealed by horseshoes' (heh, I think that's how it's spelled)! Heh, I can't help it – whenever I imagine Naruto and Sasuke interacting, that's what comes to my mind. (grins) (sighs) Oh, the days when they were like that in the manga, too…

Awww, I'm so happy to hear ya like my responses THAT much! (beams) I love chatting with ya guys, too. (grins and nods)

Colossal thank yous for the review!

See you soon, no?