From atop a hill, Naruko glanced down at the city.
Built on a distant world where mankind had never been born, in a large, green valley surrounded by lakes and rivers, the Hidden Village was a sprawling metropolis of wood and bricks. It didn't have protective walls like Konoha; dimensional barriers had been utilized instead.
The city's wooden towers, large facilities, were the most noticeable parts, as were the countless houses. The construction had been a mess, poorly planned from start to finish. Atlas had petitioned High Command to widen the streets and to introduce a strange device called 'cars'. So far his demand was pending, but Naruko was confident it would never catch on.
A large area had been left to nature, where summons could establish themselves. Manda, by far the largest of the locals, was visible from afar, flexing his massive body in the morning. The city was open to all newcomers, if they could find it.
"I can't believe we built a whole, fully functioning Hidden Village in months," Naruko said.
"When not used for warfare, chakra can work miracles," Tobi said, the sage watching the place next to her, "I really feel like I'm helping more by building new houses with Ninjutsu than by battling others with it… I wonder if that's what the Sage of the Six Paths envisioned when he taught mankind Ninshuu."
"You can ask him yourself," Naruko smiled, "Just ask Sensei, and he will find you one somewhere."
"Shouldn't you be saying Sekaikage-sensei?" Tobi teased her. "Not that I complain. Having our Kage be elected by the population every four years… I wonder how Orochimaru got the idea. Maybe I will try to apply next time? Tobi is a good boy, best slogan ever."
Naruko smiled. Not that Kazama had had any noteworthy challenger, having founded the Village in the first place.
The Hidden World.
The population had grown quickly, welcoming the survivors of devastated worlds that didn't feel like immigrating elsewhere. Most citizens had been invited through endorsed recruitment, because they shared the Hidden Village's goals… or because they were looking for a second chance. A lot of Ame citizens had come there, and had proved to be helpful fellows, if a bit troublesome at first.
Naruko cringed a bit. She remembered some of the excesses of old Ame, which Kazama had been careful to avoid this time. The former Ame-nins were still a bit… zealous, but in time, they would probably mellow out. Hopefully.
"I'm going to the memorial," Naruko told Tobi, "Want to come, Senpai?"
"Sure." He started to float above the ground, before setting back down. "On a second thought, maybe I should do some exercise."
"Do you remember how to put one leg before the other?" Both of them laughed at her joke.
They passed in front a training ground, where Kakuzu was busy barking out orders at a group of ninjas, old and young. "You call that a Taijutsu move? Hidan could do better! You're not even worth the money I'm paid to watch you squirm, you homeless maggots!"
Kakuzu, like usual, had tried to run away once the Warlord had been defeated… and had been promptly caught.
It seemed his luck had finally run out.
Minato Namikaze had wasted no time in clamoring for his head, due to his previous crimes. Others, surprisingly, had asked for leniency seeing as the old bounty hunter did help them fight on behalf of all worlds. In the end, Kakuzu had been condemned to years of community services, and his financial assets had been frozen - a blow that had devastated him on a fundamental level.
Naruko wondered if he might have preferred death instead.
So far the punishment had worked out. The old bounty hunter had proved to be an excellent, if gruff and strict, instructor. He had even started to soften up… a little.
He was still ever the greedy miser though.
Of course, old grudges weren't so easily forgotten. Minato Namikaze and his wife did their best to avoid him like the plague whenever they visited. In the end, forgiveness was not for everyone. Naruko accepted that, but the memory of Konoha burning around her was always a reminder one had to stop somewhere.
"So?" Tobi began, as they walked near a pond. Naruko noticed Sasuke and the Dark Wolf near the shore, both in casual attires. Seeing the Dark Wolf not with armor, but a white shirt and brown pants she didn't seem fully comfortable wearing was quite a shock. Sasuke quickly noticed Naruko, waving a hand at her and keeping the other on his girlfriend's. Naruko gave him a nod and a smile. "What's up with Haku? Haven't seen her for a while."
"She's still occupied with her Kirigakure," Naruko replied. Toppling a violent regime had been easy enough for Sekaigakure's forces. Ensuring a peaceful transition, not so much. "She should come back next month."
She had the feeling Zabuza was watching over Haku from the Pure World. Was he proud of his apprentice? She had fulfilled his dream, found a reason to live, and bloomed into a powerful kunoichi. Haku had her whole life ahead of her, and would probably topple many more Yagura and his like.
That was what Sekaigakure was for.
After the Warlord's defeat, the Alliance had decided that instead of disbanding, an interdimensional, independent peacekeeping force might be needed to prevent another incident of this magnitude… especially considering some Relays might still remain to be unearthed.
Of Teikoku's surviving members, only Temari had surrendered without a fight and agreed to face judgment for her crimes. To this date, her trial was still ongoing, although due to her circumstances, her punishment might prove just as lenient as Kakuzu's. With Sekaigakure's help, her Suna could access the resources it needed through trade, instead of pillage. The arrangements hadn't been unanimous, but Naruko hoped it would work out.
Kabuto had promptly fled, taking the opportunity to steal valuable DNA material along the way. Some thought the mad scientist had world shaking ambitions, others that he simply wished to be left alone. Whatever the case, they would find him, eventually.
Some of the armies Teikoku had gathered hadn't disbanded with the demise of their leaders. Otogakure and Deidara's disciples, especially, caused them no end of trouble.
But it was the Warlord's remaining clones, those who had defeated the teams sent against them, or simply escaped, who presented the biggest problem. Being able to track down their portals thanks to Kazama, the Alliance had finished off most of them, and forced the remaining ones into hiding. Eventually, without the original to provide them with chakra, they would dissipate into nothing. But Shadow Clones with a finite lifespan or not, they remained deadly… and vengeful. At least one of them had tried to bring back the original with Edo Tensei, and failed.
Kazama hadn't lied. Whatever his technique consumed was gone forever. The Warlord would never return.
Yugito and Matatabi too.
The thought gave her a sour taste in her mouth.
Tobi seemed to have guessed her thoughts, for his eyes turned sad. "You know, Naruko," he said, "Sometimes, I wonder if I shouldn't use the Rinnegan to bring them all back, even if it costs me my life. What's one life worth against that of so many heroes?"
"They fought to protect others," Naruko replied, "I don't think they would have wanted you to throw yours away for them."
Tobi sighed. "Yeah. Perhaps I'm being cowardly; life isn't an equation, additions and subtractions. I should face the future with open eyes." He let out a sigh. "I'm still missing Spiral. He's been with me since, like, forever. I feel like I've lost an arm."
"I miss him too," Naruko said, "Maybe you should find someone?" It seemed to work with every adult she had seen.
"Yes… it's been a long time since Rin died. She wouldn't have wanted me to waste away for her memory. Karin has been pestering me since I saved her life, even if I'm like, twice her age. Must be my Uchiha charm working."
"Kaguya is available."
"I don't think it's a nice idea to hit on the big boss's mistress," Obito replied, a thin smile forming at the end of his lips.
"Mistr-" Naruko's bulged out. "Don't tell me that you believe those awful rumors too!"
"They live in the same house," Tobi countered. Her reaction blatantly amused him. "They totally have an arrangement."
Naruko bit her lower lip. "I live in that house too!"
"What do you think they do when you're not at home? Seals and timespace ninjutsu do wonders for privacy too." Tobi kept pushing, his smirk growing. "Do you know how many times bunnies get to it per year? Kazama has Shadow Clones, so he gives each women his full attenti-"
"You're evil," Naruko cut him off, "You pretend to be wise and mature but deep down you're evil. This's the last time I'm talking to you."
Tobi simply burst out laughing.
They soon encountered another duo on the way. "Hi there," Menma said, Sakura holding his arm as tightly as she could. The former had traded his awful cloak for a casual attire, while the latter wore an elegant kimono. She had clearly put more effort into her appearance than her boyfriend.
"Tobi-san, could you help us?" Sakura asked, sounding a bit embarrassed. "We need a Wood Release expert, and we can't find Zetsu."
It didn't surprise Naruko; Madara's old assistant was as elusive as a ghost. He seemed awfully focused on shadowing Kaguya though, for a reason Naruko didn't understand.
"I always knew that my true vocation was that of carpenter," Tobi deadpanned, his tone dripping with sarcasm. "What happened this time?"
"Sakura collapsed the whole bedroom," Menma said, "Messy chakra control, makes her clumsy."
"Menma!" Sakura blushed.
"How did you manage to collapse the be-no wait, I don't want to know." Tobi gave a pat on Naruko's shoulder. "This might take a while. Pay your respects to Spiral for me, will you?"
"I will," she said, watching them go with a smile.
Continuing her journey alone, Naruko wondered if she would ever get used to these peaceful moments. Certainly, the struggle would never end. There would always be warlords to fight, criminals to capture, problems to solve. That was their job, and Naruko fully supported it.
Yet, everyone seemed to have found a routine, rebuilding their lives without risking their life every day of the week.
While Naruko… wasn't yet used to it.
She wanted to, but she hadn't fully found peace yet.
It didn't take her long to reach the memorial, mostly because of how huge it was. An immense field of statues, so large, one could have fitted ten stadiums within. All those who had died fighting with the Arashi clan, and against Teikoku, had received their own statue; with the Warlord's final killing spree, the death toll had climbed to the hundreds of thousands.
Even summons had received their own. One of Gamabunta, sized like the real one, towered over all the rest.
She had heard Manda visited that one sometimes, but only when he thought no one was looking. Sadly for him, that didn't stop people from noticing, but no one pressed it when it was rarely brought up in conversation.
Naruko passed next to familiar faces. Zabuza, wielding his sword proudly. Kamui, his arms crossed. Sasori, building a miniature puppet, next to a friendlier Kabuto Yakushi whom she had never gotten to know. She noticed small, finely crafted wood dolls at the feet of the last two. Chibaku's doing no doubt.
She nodded to each of them, respectfully, and then at the next ones. Kuebiko and his comrades, standing sides by sides. Mei - both of them. Konan, carrying an origami flower in her hands, and escorted by Yahiko and Nagato. Kitsune and Samehada, and many others whom she didn't recognize or never knew.
When she reached the statue of Matatabi, with Yugito riding on her back, she stopped there for a little longer than usual.
But not twice as long as she did in front of Kurama's own statue. Or Spiral's.
In the end, she reached the other end of the memorial, and found Chibaku and Inari eating in the grass, right next to Karasu's statue. The puppeteer had rebuilt his wooden body, and polished the features. He almost looked like a Naruto Uzumaki of flesh and blood… which disturbed Naruko a little.
Naruko counted three bowls of ramen. Inari had finished his own, while Chibaku hadn't touched his.
The last one was meant for the late Karasu.
"Hey, flat lady," Chibaku said upon noticing her, Naruko clenching her teeth in response. She would never outlive that nickname. "What are you doing this afternoon?"
"Going to visit Izanami-san," Naruko said, "Why?"
"We've got a lead on Kabuto, and I intend to join the taskforce," Chibaku said, "I swore I would puppetize that bastard, and that's what I'm gonna do. And yes, I just made that word up. Anyway, do you want to join?"
"Mmm… maybe," Naruko scratched the back of her head, "I will tell you later, I need to think it over."
"I would have loved to help you, but Ghost will come soon to pick me up," Inari said, standing up, "I better go pack my things. If I'm late he might get bored and start talking to the gods here." He shivered in poorly subdued terror at the thought.
"You're leaving?" Chibaku sounded a bit disappointed.
"Yeah, I've still got my own training to do. Barely a third of the way into the trip actually." Inari cringed. "Not that surviving this multiverse wasn't already a training course in itself… it's nice here now that everything's all done. It's been a while since I had the opportunity to, you know, just have a good time and relax."
"If you are going soon," Naruko said, searching within her pocket and bringing out a small headband. The elaborate symbol of Sekaigakure - a mandala - was engraved on it. "It's the official headband of our Hidden Village."
"And the badge of the Interdimensional Peacekeeping Force," Chibaku said, making a pose, "The fearsome IPF."
Inari struggled not to laugh at that. "What?" Naruko asked.
"Nothing," he lied, still struggling against the urge to laugh, muttering something about powerlifting…
"Just channel your chakra through it, and it will send a signal to us," Naruko said, ignoring his antics, "One for pick-up, two for trouble, three for big, big trouble. We will answer whatever happens."
"So three or nothing?" Inari joked, before seizing the badge, "Thanks. I'm not sure I will call often, or that it'll work all the way in my own multiverse, but it's nice to know however shitty things get, someone that isn't completely insane will have my back. I owe you one."
"You're a friend," Chibaku said, "A big, ugly duckling nobody likes, but a friend all the same."
"Please, everyone knows I'm the pretty one," Inari lightly punched the puppeteer in the left arm, with a savage grin on his face. "I'm going to miss you."
"Me too, buddy," Chibaku said.
Naruko left them and the memorial behind, approaching a small house nearby. It was pretty simple, made of wood, with a single floor and flowers in the backyard she planted herself. One window was broken - Kaguya didn't know her strength yet - and Kazama hadn't gotten around to repairing it.
She knew the place's details, like she had grown up in it.
A Naruto Uzumaki clad in an ANBU uniform stepped out, a white mask over his face. He closed the door behind him, and curtly nodded at her. "Naruko."
"Masayoshi," he corrected her. The ANBU tried to sound understanding, but he wasn't very good at it. "I did not forget your name."
"I'm sorry," she said, blushing heavily, "There's so many of us running around, I can't keep track."
"Excuses denied. You are being lazy."
Naruko hurriedly changed the subject. "What's up? Is something the matter?"
"With Suna and Konoha gone, the homeworld of Kazama-sama is on the brink of war," he said. Because of him, was left unsaid. "Since the locals rejected his help, and due to a certain lack of subtlety on his part, he called me for advice."
"And?" Naruko asked, anxious. Masayoshi had been a Root member. She worried his solutions might be a little… extreme.
"I have discussed with him many diplomatic strategies. I also suggested more… expeditious ones, but he cast them aside. I told him no door should be clo-" Masayoshi abruptly turned his head, glancing at something that wasn't there.
… Naruko felt someone watching…
"I can see you, little boy," Masayoshi said.
"Itachi!" Naruko shouted. "It's not funny."
The young boy dropped off his genjutsu, his back against a wall of the house. No older than eight, his eyes red as blood, the young ninja's expression was completely undecipherable.
Naruko had seen his potential, alternate future self, so she knew he might grow into a nice, fearsome leader. But right, now that boy was just… creepy. But at least, he had learned to share a house with his stepfather. That was a step up.
It took her a few seconds to realize he had vanished again. "That boy will be the death of me," Naruko said. Did he have a crush on her or something?
"He looks like someone I hated with all my heart," Masayoshi commented, "But he has talent. He could have a career in the ANBU."
"I doubt his mother will let him," Naruko said. "She worries about him a great deal."
"I wish I had someone that considerate of my well-being when I was his age." The ANBU gave Naruko an abrupt nod. "I must meet Orochimaru soon for an information exchange. We will continue this discussion another time. Please excuse me."
"Excuses denied," Naruko laughed, the ANBU leaving with a shrug. She could feel he wasn't that much of a bad guy deep down… just not good with conversations and self-expression.
She pushed the door open, entered, and put down her sandals. The place smelled like oranges. Kaguya had started burning incense again. "I'm home!" she shouted loudly.
Even now, she had trouble getting used to the word. This was her place. Her family.
She walked into the main room, where she found Kazama sitting at a table, reading scrolls with a cup of tea next to him. If his creasing eyes were of any indication, he hadn't slept well. Not because of paperwork - with Shadow Clones, Kazama remained up to speed all the time. He was careful not to overuse the technique though.
They knew what happened with the last person that did.
Naruko sat on the table, making him raise his eyes. "Naruko," he said, with a smile, "I didn't hear you."
"What if it had been an assassin?" she asked. "You would have been dead in no time!"
"I wouldn't count on that," he replied smugly, putting the scrolls aside. "Is something the matter?"
"It's about Gaara. I… I think I should try to reconnect with her, just once." She also wanted to visit Fugaku and his family. She hadn't met them since the last battle with the Warlord, and she missed them quite a bit.
"I see. I can certainly get in contact with the Godaime and arrange a meeting." He seemed a bit bothered by another matter.
"The Prime-Sasuke has been... traveling through dimensions recently, searching for something."
"Us?" Naruko frowned.
"Maybe. Maybe not. We left a bit of a mess behind us, so he could be investigating. I'm not certain whether to approach him or not yet, so I've kept to monitoring his progress. With Mikaboshi lurking in the background, I'm wary of involving World Prime in any way." He locked eyes with her. "You aren't telling me everything, Naruko."
"There's also…" Naruko hesitated. "Where's Kaguya?"
"Abed, I think. She's not a morning person." His head perked up a bit. "The rumors again?" He didn't need to wait for a response. "Let them say what they want."
"Oh, what is said about us?" Izanami stepped into the room. She wore a white kimono, holding a swelling belly with both hands.
"You should know," Kazama replied, "You have given them plenty to talk about."
"What can I say? I am a colorful person. But I should probably do something to stop the rumor mill, for Kaguya's sake." Izanami massaged her belly, "Without her help, this wouldn't be possible."
"Have you settled on a name?" Naruko asked, as Izanami sat on Kazama's lap, her sensei putting his arms around his girlfriend's stomach, as if to feel the life inside her.
"Madara, if it's a boy," Kazama said, "Yugito, if it's a girl."
"Speaking of that," Izanami's smile grew larger. "Would you like to become a godmother, Naruko?"
Godmother? At her age? The thought both filled her heart with anxiety, dread… and a warm feeling she had no word for.
Auntie Naruko. Yes. She could get used to it.
Naruko looked at Izanami, then at Kazama-san. When they smiled back, she understood she had found it.
She remembered her childhood, her loneliness until she had met them… these moments seemed so far behind her, the memories of a past she had long since left behind.
She had found her happy ending.
And she wouldn't let it go.
A/N: it is finished.
... I feel all strange inside, as I type those words. Echoes... it's not just one of my fanfics to me, it's the fanfic. Five years of my life spent on it. I was still in high school when I started writing it, and now it is over as I finishes my studies. Echoes (and you, by extension) were with me for a quarter of my life.
Do you know the first story I wrote (in French) and published was a Legend of Zelda fanfic that ended up becoming a crossover with Metroid, Jak and Dexter, and Power Rangers? It was EXACTLY as bad as it sounds... I was ten when I wrote it. Don't hold it against me. Still, when I look at what I was writing then, and at what I'm writing now, I really feel I'm improving over time.
I'm still making mistakes, but I'm an optimist. There are people with a natural talent for storytelling, whose first stories are big successes. I'm clearly NOT one of them. I'm just a guy who likes reading and writing. But I feel that I do have one slight advantage; I learn from my mistakes (or at least I try to; I have a chronic habit of adding too many characters than necessary). I listen to criticisms and I take it into account. I've seen many writers that never try to improve, either because they have success without it, or because they simply don't want to. I'm not one of them. I really want all my stories to be better than the last.
Anyway, Echoes is really my first serious story. It has changed alongside me.
I do think I had a brilliant idea (Echoes is the very first multiversal Naruto story on the site, or at least the first to push the concept to its limits) which was poorly executed at first due to inexperience. The first half of the story especially feels clunky, from the Inner Council conspiracy to some experiments with narrative devices that either worked or failed spectacularly (the crossover with Yet Again was quite poorly handled on my end). If I had the time I would probably rewrite the whole first half.
I do regret starting writing Echoes when I did... let's just say my personal life a few years ago was miserable, both in school and out of it. I had been struggling with depression for a while, and sometimes I felt life really wasn't worth it. I copped by becoming a bitter misanthrope, and I think I wouldn't be there today had I not received proper psychological care.
Echoes started as an outlet for the existential angst I felt, a safe space I didn't have at home; which really shows with the pessimism of the early part. It was some sort of therapy, I suppose. It helped, that's undeniable. That's what fantasy and wish fulfillment is all about, escaping from a reality that one can't deal with all the time.
Still, I think there was still a sliver of optimism within me even then; I had always intended for the heroes to earn a happy ending, or at least a bittersweet one.
Now, I'm comfortable with my life. It's not always good, but my situation has so considerably improved compared to where I was a few years ago that I feel a very different person. There are downs, but that doesn't take away the ups.
Anyway... I think that's what the Epilogue is meant to say. The struggle never fully ends; there are always new challenges to overcome; killing the big bad evil guy doesn't solve all the world's problems. That's life. But it doesn't negates the work done (for the world is a better place without the big bad around), nor all the joys; the main cast has earned a home and a family that will stick with them to the end, and no villain will ever take that away from them. The world of Echoes goes on even beyond the individual characters.
I've left a few doors open in case I want to write a sequel (although I will more likely focus on other projects; finally finish Atlas and Property Damage). Those wishing to read my online web novel "Magik Online" through that link: magik online . com (remove additional spaces).
Anyway, I wish Kishimoto good luck in his future endeavors, and to thank him, for his world inspired me enough to start writing about it, and then design my own.
I really want to thank Third Fang and ABitterPill for having betaed this story almost from start to finish, and whose help and support has been invaluable.
But most importantly, I want to thank all of you readers, for having stuck with this story for so long. I know the wait has been long, that the journey had its ups and downs, but I hope you enjoyed it all. That's my sincerest wish. If Echoes inspired you to write as other stories on this site did for me, all the better.
You're all amazing. Don't ever forget that.
And so, I'm out. If you've got final thoughts about it, post a review or send me PMs. I will answer (probably not instantly, but I will).
Write you next time, and Happy New Year.