Here we are at the end of a very long (little over a) year. Tales has now run for 365 chapters which, while not my original goal (I had none) when starting out, I decided upon about halfway through. It has proven an excellent way to gauge my progress as a writer, which is very apparent when going back and reading (and cringing) at my earlier writings. Writing a story every day has been both a wonderful and nerve-wracking experience. Some days I had to dredge my mind for anything to write, but in the end I always managed something...and I also discovered the more sleep-deprived I am, the better it seems to get. Strange, no?
I would like to thank four people in particular for sticking around for this whole long journey - Kaiser969 and freewolf17 for being part of the catalysts who created the beginning of this, and urging me to continue writing those first few days which turned into a daily story. Addster and Ella Unlimited for promptly jumping in soon after and providing me with ideas and encouragement throughout this past year. Without the four of you I can almost guarantee I would not have made it this far.
Everybody else who had a hand in this, no matter if it was once or many times, thank you. You all are the reason I kept writing these stories, and I owe it all to you. There are too many to list without boring everyone, but I will mention a few - Star Josherson, for hopping into the story about halfway through and also reviewing practically every chapter with something new each time, DarkShadowRaven for your inventive ideas, maxridelover for your reviews that made my day, Good boy-chan for your encouragement, and narutofan (the anonymous) for also reviewing every new chapter since you joined the story and giving me some very interesting thoughts to write out.
To everybody who favorited and alerted this story over the time it was being created chapter by chapter, thank you so much. Those let me know new people were finding my story and enjoying it as much as those already reading it were...and as much as I was.
I really will miss writing a chapter every day, even though at some points it drove me towards insanity. I'll miss trying to think up a new theme every day...but that doesn't mean I'll stop writing. I have a few other ideas in the works, which will come out in both long and short stories. So keep an eye out. ^^
Again, thank you to everyone and I hope you enjoy this last chapter, whose premise is Addster's brainchild.
In the End
The bed wasn't very hard or very soft – she had lain in it so long that it just was. Personally as a kunoichi she hated that she couldn't move without assistance anymore, but the medic within her accepted the reality she was living and even looked forward to the next stage. After all, everyone had some curiosity as to what happened after death. Around her bed were grouped all the young people whose lives she had touched in some way since returning to the village, with those closest to her standing near the bed.
She could make out Shizune standing by the foot, now a middle-aged woman who hadn't followed her mentor's example and hidden her age – not that the jutsu worked for the retired Godaime anymore. The once jet black hair was now streaked with silver, but rather than making her appear aged it simply added a distinguished look to the medic. Next to her and a bit closer was Sakura, holding one of her children on her hip as the boy gazed solemnly around the room. Luckily he hadn't inherited his mother's unique hair color. Konohamaru stood on the other side of Shizune, all grown up and a jounin in his own right, although he still called Naruto 'boss'. Shikamaru stood beside the brunet; ever since the genius's first mission, the two had created into a mutually intellectual friendship, simply enjoying each other's company and not having to explain every thought running through their minds as the years went on. And the boy – he would always be a boy to her – had needed a confidant every now and then, and she was perfect to fill the role.
The one who occupied most of her attention, though, stood closest and where she could see him the best; the rest of the crowd was just a blur. Naruto had positioned him right next to her bed throughout the weeks, and now it was unofficially his spot alone. His hand was grasping hers lightly, as though afraid to break it, although she had told him time and time again she wasn't that fragile.
She could feel it coming, creeping up on her the way the water moved out before a wave arrived at the shore, ready to enfold her into its embrace. Taking the last chance she had, Tsunade looked up at Naruto and caught his bright blue eyes, the clearest feature on his face to her, smiling weakly. "Don't you worry, it'll be okay," she breathed out, voice barely audible; her hand squeezed his lightly to impart the message. "I'll be watching…" She didn't get to hear his reply.
Death wasn't quite what she expected – which was impressive, considering she didn't have any expectations. There was no scene of floating over her body and looking down at all the people gathered around her bed, nor was there a bright light for her to follow. Instead there was a sense of floating and the delicate smell of flowers invading her nose, a far cry from the spice bundles Shizune placed around her home.
"About time you joined us." The unexpected and familiar voice had Tsunade's eyes snapping open, to stare into a face leering over her. If she hadn't been lying down she would have scrambled backwards to get away from Jiraiya's too close visage, but instead settled for the next best thing.
Her arm was caught before the slap could make contact, and another voice sounded from off to her left. "Now, that isn't the way to greet your old teammates is it, Tsunade-chan?"
Somehow when it came to death, it didn't take her by surprise that her two teammates were there; if anything, she supposed she had expected such a thing in her subconscious. They couldn't escape each other in life, why should death be any different?
The whole knowing about death thing while being dead was proving a bit harder to grasp than she had initially thought. She could feel, she could smell, she could see, she could hear…she wasn't going to test taste, but no doubt that sense worked as well. But she was dead. And she was younger, more around her thirties than anything if how she felt was any judge, but from what she could see of her skin she looked the same age as she had for most of her life – timeless.
Seeing Tsunade's breath quicken, Jiraiya reached out an arm and gave her a tight hug around the shoulders, not one that could be misconstrued as any attempt at groping on his part and therefore result in a flying punch. "Don't worry hime, you'll get used to it pretty quick. We did, and anything we can do, you can."
"After fighting it out," Orochimaru injected in his dry tone, sending Tsunade a sympathetic smile that catapulted her back to their genin days before the genius had gone evil. That more than anything relaxed her enough to follow the raven's pointing finger to a patch of the endless field that was torn up and trampled. "It turns out we can't use jutsu up here, although chakra is readily available."
"So we brawled," Jiraiya elaborated simply. "Worked too. It gets pretty old just fighting over and over again, so we cleared the air, I guess you would say."
The whole thing was still a bit over Tsunade's head, which was still spinning with the fact she was stuck forever with her old teammates. Who were in a field of flowers – why were the boys in a field of flowers? – and acting as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. And she supposed for them, having had twenty years go by on earth while they were stuck up here, it really was ordinary by now.
"Baka, let Tsunade go and show her the pool," Orochimaru told Jiraiya, although without the normally caustic tone he has used in life. "It might help her understand things the best."
"Oh, yeah!" Jiraiya sent a flashing grin at the blonde, giving her one more squeeze around the shoulders that she promised herself she would exact payment for later, and releasing her. "You'll love this."
In a daze she followed them across the flowers – that same question nagging at her about their area choice in the afterlife – until they both stopped at a large pool of water in the middle of a clearing. It didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary until Orochimaru motioned her closer to the edge so she was looking directly down into the water instead of across it, and she couldn't quite suppress her gasp.
There below her, through what seemed to be a pane of glass, was Konoha in perfect detail. "We can focus the water wherever we want," Orochimaru explained softly so as not to break the spell that had fallen over the kunoichi. "But we usually keep it on Konoha."
"Except for the times teme here has to go check up on those precious labs of his," Jiraiya interjected, refusing to let his teammate hog all the explanation. "Which is about every year or so. He's like a mother duckling."
"I am not," Orochimaru snapped back, pale cheeks coloring slightly. "Besides, what about all those detours you make to the womens springs in Konoha and everywhere else on the continent? You think that isn't creepy?"
Without looking away from the picture that showed her beloved village with the citizens she knew wandering around about their daily business, Tsunade shot out a fist and hit Jiraiya in the head, utilizing her chakra to send the man flying. She didn't bother to see where he landed.
"Should have expected that," the sage's grumbling floated back across the field to them. "But don't think I'll let you get off scot free, teme. You ever tell her about that time when we were twelve and –"
"That was different!" Now it was more than a light blush raging across Orochimaru's face and he refused to look at Tsunade. "Besides, it was all your fault and –"
All arguing stopped as Tsunade sent her patented look at the two, the one that promised pain if they didn't cease at that exact moment. Even after all the years that had gone by since she had first used it, the look retained its effectiveness. It probably had something to do with the fact she was sure her two boys hadn't aged a day mentally from the time they were thirteen, for all the world had put the three of them through.
Her eyes were drawn back to the pool, trying to find those who had been closest to her. A pale hand reached out and touched the surface of the water lightly, sending ripples across the surface as the image wavered and changed. Now they were looking at the Hokage office, a familiar blond sitting in her chair with a group gathered in front of him.
"All it takes is a thought," Jiraiya spoke up quietly from next to Tsunade, having walked back to the pool without her noticing. "Time doesn't move quite the same up here either, so you never get tired or bored of watching things happen down there, no matter how mundane. You can speed it up and slow it down as you wish."
Already she knew she would try to watch every moment of their lives, keeping an eye on all the people that meant so much to her who she would never see them again. It was one thing to know and trust she had left the village in good hands, but there was something indescribable about watching those she had put her faith in prove it.
She didn't notice when the two males walked away, discussing something quietly under their breaths, or when they broke into another taijutsu match in that trampled down field behind her. She was engrossed in watching the present play out in Konoha, in watching the village grow and prosper under the leadership of her friends and surrogate family.
It didn't just take a Hokage to make Konoha what it was, after all.