ahhh, my gentle readers and o my best beloveds... here we are. Final page of this journey that's been such a wonderful ride. I loved writing this but it wouldn't have been nearly as enjoyable without all of you. Getting reviews every week full of insight and thought and depth? - it was pure gold to my little writer's soul. I can't tell you how much I looked forward to the notices in my email box each week. And here we finally are - the ending of this story and the starting of another written by someone else's hand. Thank you for coming with me on this journey. I will miss seeing familiar names popping up in my inbox. tennisdesi91 - you've been around since almost the beginning and wonderfully consistent. I'm glad you liked the last chapter - I thought we all needed a sweetness to swallow down all the action of the previous chapters - lol. I think I've taken Minato and the fox as far as I'm going to but I know their story isn't finished by any means just because I've finished writing for them. I like to think that they carry on without me much the same way they did when I was there ;) mystic 777 - I'm glad the creepiness worked. He's a character I don't have much of a handle on and he's not quite what he one day will be. Yes, I will be ending this canon - see below. But... I hope that the ending is better than you hoped and not as sad as it would seem. I don't write tragedies. Tell me how I do and if I absolve myself in your eyes for following the manga ;) I think you'll be happy. writing bunny - heh, yes, foreshadowing is one of my favorite things to do - though I always double back and find myself asking 'too obvious?' 'not obvious enough?' lol. But there was just too much to not use it. And I'm glad - I thought that the last chapter should end on the two men who believe most in Minato. he's stepping into his future in the last chapter and in this one he's fulfilling it. And I'll admit, I'm a little sad to see the story end too. It's taken up a solid bit of my life for a while and I'll find it odd when it's gone and I'm not rushing to make sure everything perfect for posting on Saturday nights anymore ;) crazylikeanko - here you are - one last hurrah for us both. I've always so enjoyed getting your reviews, they never fail to make me smile and I'm going to miss that. I hope that this chapter is everything worth while to wrap up this wild ride we've been on together and I hope it leaves you satisfied at the end. Next Sunday is going to be weird for me, having nothing left to post. BTB - tell your wife I agreed with her and thought it needed an epilogue ;) Akatsuki was mentioned when the little monster (so appropriately called) was having his conversation just before Minato arrived. Apparently he'd been promised a place in it's membership if he brought down Konoha. Or at least that's what he was lead to believe. I thought it was appropriate to let the whispers of the future start flowing a little bit more in these last few chapters. It's been odd writing a story that already has the ending known to all my readers as well as myself - bittersweet - challenging - and surprisingly enjoyable. All stories must come to an end though - or at least the pause where the writer steps back and lets it go on without them and we're there now. I don't believe stories ever really end though - I think they just keep flowing on without us. And I'm okay with that. bukkakenojutsu - I'm adhering to canon. You tell me if it's a tragedy or not. Because I got all choked up writing it - but I found myself smiling at the end ;) I'd be curious to hear what you think. mc - what can I say? You've come all the way on this ride with me with no idea who any of these people were or where we were going. And yet I know you loved them and saw into their hearts just as well. this last bit is heavy on the original story that I swiped the characters from but hopefully not so much so that it's not understandable. At least that's what I shot for. You've caught the point of the story anyway - that Minato needs his little fox to be human and that watching that happen was all worth while. Sometimes good men forget that they're good - that's when they just 'need a little push' ;) (there, that will be our inside joke regarding our ffvii lives ;) Meet you at the punch bowl! mar888 - heh, glad you're enjoying. Sadly, this is the last chapter but you showed up just in time for the after party! :D bylaternlight - my thanks. That's two 5/5s in a row and I'm going to shoot for 3 with this last bit. I wrestled a bit with how to end last chapter because I needed to wrap things... and yet leave everyone understanding that it was really only the beginning. I'm glad it worked well and I'm glad our snake handler was as creepy and yet subtle as I imagine he must have had to have been during that time. You want more little fox - as you wish ;) oh my beloved velo - heh, here we are and I don't know if I would have made it sanely if not for you and if there's applause to come you have to join me on the stage to receive it as well. You've been awesome at both encouraging me, reading the characters so well, and giving me tips on how to fix the things that have made me stumble. I will miss your reviews and I will miss you. You're awesome and don't be surprised if I get another Naruto bug and decide to come tapping at your door again - lol. This last bit is all for you :D achi magi - heh, when you get to this point here's my thank you. I'm thrilled you're enjoying the story and hope that these last few pages of it make it all worth while. It's wonderful having readers with you each chapter but there's always something equally wonderful about having someone reading your work without having to pause each week to wait for you to update :D I hope you enjoyed it and I hope to hear from you again to tell me how I did ;) dellende - two reviews in one week? oh huzzah! that's nice to get :D You've got Minato's heart down very well and that's a wonderful thing to read. The bite marks from chapter 9 were left over from the children's corpses the villain used to attack Minato when they first ran into each other. I figured start off creepy and show just how dark the person Minato is going up against really is right at the beginning of things. I'm glad the last chapter was the smile and the sigh that I'd hoped to make it. We deserved a break after all we went through with them and they deserved some happy. Now we just have this one last bit to go before we let them go on without us. Special thanks of course and always to Jini and Velo - my two sanity checkers and the reason this came out at all. Thanks to everyone that's read this and special thanks to everyone that's made themselves a part of it by leaving reviews. I'm going to miss this.

And so... here we finally are... Ready?


death is not the end. It is only a small step forward into an infinite journey.

The world was very small.

Somewhere, far outside and beyond, there was death. A great, slavering death with mad, mad red eyes and tails that toppled mountains. Outside, somewhere far beyond, humans were dying in a desperate last attempt to save what they had bound their hearts too – buildings and land and families. Somewhere, outside, the greatest shinobi in all the worlds drew a line in the ground and said 'no further'.

The world was very small.

She lowered her head.

Against her chest, a tiny new life rested. It was warm and soft and had the sweetest smell she'd ever known. It smelled so sweet that tears came to her eyes and then trailed down her cheeks to tickle her awkwardly placed ears.

"I love you."

She whispered it. As she had whispered it to that tiny life since before it had been planted in her. Her throat felt tight and awkward and she still managed to smile. Against her skin, the child stirred and purred and she wondered if he would remember her scent the way she would always remember his. Her fingers moved soothingly down his tiny back, tap tap tap, and she felt the tears threaten again. He was so soft, so small, so warm… so human. She wanted to hold him against her chest forever. She wanted the world to stop. She wanted to live.

But… the world was very small…

Years ago, she had fallen in love with a human. Today, she gave him a son. A son with his hair and his eyes – and his stubborn determination, she was sure. Her fingers found and stroked, lightly tugging, at the barely there wisps of blond hair. So soft… She swallowed and tried to talk – but her voice broke.

He was dying. Out there beyond here – her Yondaime was dying. She could feel it. He was in pain, heart pain because he was finally realizing what he had to do to beat the monster that had already destroyed her entire clan and had now come for his – and he was dying.

She inhaled, sucking in tears and sorrow, and tried again. Because her son deserved to hear it – even if he never remembered.

"Your father loves you. He loves you more than his own soul." She had to whisper it because her voice wouldn't stay steady. "But I have loved you longer." She paused and rested both hands on her kit's back, looking up at the hospital ceiling and blinking until the tears calmed. "I have loved you longer," she told the ceiling, "because I have dreamed you in my dreams all of my life. You are my death, little kit, and I have always known it – and always loved you fiercely."

Out there, beyond here, she felt the first tug on the bond that her lover's pact with her all those years ago had established. Someone else – something else – was trying to take what was already hers. Her lips curved at their edges and sharp teeth showed briefly.

No one took what was hers. Not even death itself.

But her time was fading here. In this very small world.

Using what little strength she had left, she lifted the kit above her. He stirred and opened unfocused eyes of blue to squint down at her. No male kitsune was ever born into the world but he killed his mother in the process. Too much power, too different a magic, too much of a fight to keep her body from refusing him as he grew in her. Bestest sister had offered to end him in order to save her…

She had told her 'no'.

She had never been so proud of anything or anyone as she was of her son in this moment.

"They are coming for you. To take you to your destiny. And you will not cry when your father takes you in his arms for the first and last time. He is asking something very hard of you – and very great and your heart will have to be very, very large to hold all he will trust you with."

Tiny arms stretched down to her, fingers the size of nothing reaching and she quickly pulled him close and held him tightly, burying her nose in his smell. Her throat closed again but she swallowed hard. There was more she needed to tell him and little time to do it in. The magic she had laid over them to make people unconsciously avoid them would break when the shinobi came from her lover to take her child. The doctors would come and they would realize she was bleeding out and they would panic. She needed to tell her son her words now – before there was no more time.

The world was very small.

"You will be great. Greater than your father. But you must love just as greatly as he has. You must, above everything, love as he does or else your destiny will destroy you." The tug on her bond was greater. The god of death had accepted her lover's pact – an eternity spent in the Shinigami's stomach battling demons in exchange for the safety of a village. She pressed her lips to her kit's soft hair in fierce desperation and determination. "Remember my words. You must love. You must. It will save you from the monster you will bear inside you. You must love as your father has." She blinked tears. "You must love as I have loved you." For a long moment, the water leaking from her eyes took her ability to speak from her and she could only pressed her lips to her child and hold him.

Her lover would be so upset if he knew she had always known this would come and had never told him so. The thought made her smile weakly even as the shinobi appeared in the room. It was Umino and he was bleeding and dirty and smelled of smoke and despair and death. He was dying, she could smell it on him. But he had come, this one last duty to his Hokage and friend.

Her kit's first taste of the outside world and it came as it should. With the smell of battle on it. Umino's eyes were empty and hopeless as he approached and looked down at her and she knew he could not say the words her lover had sent him to say. She saved him from it, pressing one last kiss to her kit's soft cheek, rubbing her nose against his and her cheek against his. Leaving her scent on him even though she knew it would not last. Then, throat closed over, she lifted the child and offered him, first son of the greatest shinobi in the world, Fourth Hokage of the Village Hidden in the Leaves. Battle bruised hands closed around the soft bundle and the look of despair and sorrow Umino gave her threatened to swallow her whole. She turned her head and closed her eyes and refused to watch him disappear with her child.

The nurse came then, as if sensing the difference in the emptiness of the room and her panicked call brought the doctors. It was already too late though – it had been since she'd first dreamed of a laughing boy with whiskers on his cheeks and sunshine in the sky blue of his eyes and she smiled as they rushed around her, mouthing reassurances she couldn't hear anymore.

The Fourth Hokage's woman was dying and his only son was missing.

The world was very small.

Somewhere, out there, she felt new life flow through the bond between her and her lover, felt the renewal of purpose… and his horrible, horrible despair. He finally realized what his dream had meant. What horror he would visit upon his own son by binding the strongest monster in all the world inside that tiny, trusting body – to save a village and create a hero for the future.

She had never loved him more or been more proud of him. Her Yondaime…

One of the doctors was speaking to her, trying to get her attention – but she had nothing she wanted to tell him. She looked beyond him with glassy eyes and concentrated. Her timing must be perfect. She must not let her soul slip away before or after her lover's. It must be at the same moment – so that she could catch him – and join him in the hell he had agreed to. It was her right. She had told him once before that there was nowhere he would go that she could not find him, that she could not follow. Not even a god of death could stop her if she chose it.

And she did.

She had long, long ago.

The world was very small.

She felt the strength leave her lover and in that instant she let her own soul jump free. It left behind her body and suddenly she was gold and red and four legged and pale skinned and long hair and soft fur and everything and more than she had always been. She saw her son, surrounded by promises and sorrow, a new destiny marked on his stomach. Her heart did not hurt for him anymore. He would be great – and there would be pain – but he would triumph.

"Kushina…my cousin… do you see him now? The child that will carry your name into the world and make it good again…"

She saw an empty, ruined clearing where the world's rage had been stopped and defeated.

"Great Kyuubi… I have done my clan's duty to you, great ancestor and destroyer of my people thrice over. I have found a way to make you mortal and one day, when he is done with you, my son will kill you and free you from your madness…"

She saw her lover's fallen body, the hair still bright despite the dirt and blood in it, and – turning, her running steps led her there and even as the Shinigami closed his fingers and drew the life out of Konoha's Yondaime, the great Namikaze Minato, she threw herself forward and wrapped herself around that single soul that was hers to own and she went into the darkness with him.

"He will come…" her heart whispered it to her. "One day… he will come and free you both. Your kit-child Naruto…"

In the darkness, she smiled and then her head lifted because she heard a voice, puzzled and distant but growing closer. It said:

"Little fox?"

- and suddenly, again, the world was very, very small. Just the size of one man's arms.