Warning: This chapter contains spoilers well past the Forbidden Jutsu Arc. Do not read unless you have read/watched through Manga Chapter 572, and Episode 329.


Naruto sat on a bench, the weak light of the lamppost above him flickering in and out. He stared into nothingness. It had been a day from hell. Yesterday Uzumaki Naruto had returned to his village after completing his mission concerning the Slug Jinchuuriki, Utakata. This morning he had learned that Jiraiya, the Great Toad Sage, his master, was dead.

Loosely in his fingers Naruto held a stick of twin ice-pops.

He hardly registered as the tears finally pooled forth. For the first time in his life Naruto could not tell what it was he felt. Every sensation was dulled. Clouded. And to think, he had shaken the hand of the man who killed his Master – and Naruto had shaken his hand! There had been mere feet between them and Naruto had shaken his hand – that same hand which had killed Jiraiya.

Now Naruto understood what it had been that man had wanted to prove

One emotion pierced sharply though the mudded fog of all the rest. He was going to avenge him. He was going to make the Akatsuki pay! He would not stand idly by. More so than anything else Uzumaki Naruto felt Pain.

The form of the Slug Jinchuuriki fell to the ground in a dust cloud. One lifeless yellow eye stared up at the roof of the cavern, unseeing, the chakra of the Bijuu drained from the body.

Zetsu's white half let out a sigh of relief. "Sealing the Six-Tales… is done. It takes time when there are only five of us." Pain chose not to mention how much longer it might have taken if they'd had to pull the Bijuu's chakra apart from that of its host's.

Hoshigaki Kisame, whose features resembled that of a shark, mused, "There are two Tailed-Beasts left."

"Yes…" Pain acknowledged. "I've sent Sasuke to go and retrieve the Eight-Tails."

Konan twitches. "Can we trust him?"

Tobi shifted. The chamber stilled. Madara fixed his one eye on Konan. Pain almost felt protective. Almost. "I can vouch for Sasuke." His voice echoed through the cavern.

Hotaru tore through the forest as fast as she could. She saw a small puddle on the ground. Her limbs were screaming in pain. If she didn't get away now, that was going to be the end of her. "Water Release: Hiding in Water Jutsu!" she cried out, making the appropriate hand symbols. The little puddle took on a new sheen to it, and without a second thought Hotaru dove at it.

What should have resulted in her falling into a muddy mess instead resulted in her hauling herself up through another such puddle mere inches deep, in a completely different part of the forest. She gasped for air, allowing her burning muscles to rest for a moment. Even as she collapsed against a tree the puddle which she had used as her escape was quickly drying up.

Good. That way I can't be followed.

She needed to get back to camp. If she could get back to camp she would be safe. She would be able to find…

A crack echoed across the forest. Her head snapped in the direction of the sound. It was nothing. She knew it was nothing. If it had been something then there wouldn't have been a noise. Still, she couldn't stay here. She had to get back to camp.

As she pulled herself back up to her feat she caught sight of the flash out of the corner of eye just in time. She barely managed to make the Tiger seal and whisper "Water Clone Jutsu," before the kunai made contact. Water and bark splattered everywhere as it went through her clone and into the tree behind.

Hotaru peered around from her hiding place. One…two… there had to be three of them. She bit the inside of her lip. Leaves rustled around her. She whipped around, her eyes wide. They'd found her.

The first attacked. She dodged. "Water Release: Rising Water Slicer!" she cried out, throwing her arm out. From the tips of her fingers a knife-like sheet of water tore through tree and rock, and hurtled right upon one of her assailants. It cut right though him.

She smirked.

Her assailant gave out a throttled cry and, with a 'pop' vanished. A shadow clone. Hotaru turned onto the next one. "Gunshot!" She cried out and, even as the word left her lips, her hands flying with seals, her mouth filled with water. With one almighty spit she shot out the condensed water balls at rapid-fire pace. They found their target. She let out a cry of victory.

'Pop.' Another shadow clone.

Her eyes fixed on the last of the three attackers. So, this was her true opponent. She planted her feet somewhat more firmly into the ground, and pulled a kunai out of her satchel. …This was going to be fun.

For a moment neither of them moved. Then, he lunged. With all of the skill and flexibility of a single child raised on a lonely mountain with ample opportunity to practice her evasiveness, Hotaru bent out of the way of his attack, disarming him of his kunai and, as she did so, dropping her own as well. Her hands flew so quickly through the seals that it was a wonder that her fingers did not become entangled with one another.

Hardly having the breath to finish she clapped her hands with the final seal, crying out "Water Prison Jutsu!" and slammed the palm of her hand into his chest.

A sphere of water instantly rose up around her adversary, trapping him. Hotaru, her one hand still extended to hold up the prison, rested her other hand on her knee, bent over double, a terrible stitch blooming in her side. She could rest now. There was no way out of a Water Prison. And even the pain in her entire body could not distract her from what was most important in this moment.

Hotaru's head snapped up, gawking at her prisoner. "I did it," she whispered in shock. She had won. "I actually did it!" Her elation was complete. It took all of her self-endurance not to throw both hands up in the air in victory. However that would break the prison and–

Calmly, without any hast, his clothes wafting about him in the water, Sir Utakata pulled from his robes his newly fashioned bubble blower. He had not returned to the kimono which he'd worn before, but now instead preferred an attire of dark blue trousers and light blue kimono-jacket. Hotaru's success frozen on her face like a mask, she watched as, with a single breath of air, a single pocket, a bubble rose from the tip of that instrument, floated up… and broke the seal of the prison which her hand had kept in place. Water crashed about them as, like her victory, the prison popped. Just like a bubble. In the next moment Hotaru was slammed against a tree, a kunai to her throat

She let out an almighty groan. "I almost had you that time too!" she cried out exasperated as Sir Utakata re-pocketed the kunai and the bubble blower.

"Hardly," he responded primly. "Still, you are making leaping improvements. And it's good to see that you're not falling back on Wild Water Wave anymore." It was true of Hotaru that, what she lacked in natural talent she more than made up for in sheer determination – not unlike a certain orange clad ninja. "We will rest for now," her master concluded, looking around to gage the direction of camp. Next time she would definitely get there before he caught up to her! "We will resume after dinner."

As she picked herself up off the trunk of that tree Hotaru could not help but smile at the realization that she was too tired to even think as far as after dinner.

Sir Utakata smirked. "Also, Gunshot? Thank god Tonbee can't see his ladylike Heiress now!" Hotaru swung out at him, and he dodged with ease.

Konoha lay in ruins about them. There was not a single building left standing. All had turned to dust.

Pain observed the Jinchuuriki before him as the boy fought back in the remnants of his precious village. "I see…So you have become a Sage," he observed. "Mastering the same Jutsu as Jiraiya-sensei."

The boy's frog-like eyes widened. "Jiraiya-'sensei?'"

Yes. Now he would know.

"I also learned jutsu from Jiraya. He was once my master…" Pain's eyes remained fixed on the boy's face, studying his every reaction. "Which would make us sibling disciples. Sharing the same master, you and I should be able to understand one another. Our master desired peace–"

The boy's expression contorted before Pain could even finish the phrase. "Shut the hell up!" The Jinchuuriki and his three clones conjured a new attack in the palm of their hands. It was one that Pain had never seen before. The boy broke into his thoughts. "All that you've done here…" he spat, the ruins of his home still smoldering about them, "Where's the 'peace' in that?!"

Foolish child. "You only look at the tree, not the whole forest. You don't know the true meaning of peace. …So," Pain took in all that was Uzumaki Naruto, his fellow student of the Toad Sage, Jiraiya, "let yourself be captured. Your death will lead to peace."

"I told you," The boy snarled. "To shut the hell up!" With an all mighty throw he hurled at Pain what appeared to be a shuriken of raw chakra.

What he'd been told from other Akatsuki members had been right. The boy did not listen.

Kabuto, a snakelike excuse for a man, hissed with delight, turning from one batch of bodies to the next. "First…the former Akatsuki members…," he mused, walking past the body of Nagato – once known to the Ninja World by the name of Pain. "Then the former hosts…" He looked to those who had died for the Bijuus within them. "And the previous Kages…" He mused. "And finally…various other master ninjas!" He laughed, surrounded by his army of the dead.

Kabuto took his place beside Madara, the orchestrator of all this chaos, who himself turned to the world, and its destruction. "Let's go," he boomed. "The war begins now!"

The second day of the War broke…

"The long night is ending, and this group is about used to their new eyes." Madara stood within the palm of the Demonic Statue, at the heart of a forest as dawn broke upon the earth. Before him, at the very edge, stood the six resurrected Jinchuuriki. "The new Six Paths of Pain, composed entirely out of Jinchuuriki," he mused. "Not entirely to my tastes, but whatever. Also, I've added a little something…"

In each face the Rinnegan, the most powerful of the ocular jutsu, sat within the left eye socket, and the Sharingan, that of the Uchika clan, in the right. Having had a chakra receiver implanted in his body the form of Utakata shifted. And blinked.

It had all happened so quickly. The War. Charging through the forest. Head-butting straight into Madara and the enemy. Naruto was blasted backwards. Everything cartwheeled about him. The forest, Madara, and then… bubbles. His eyes widened. "This is…" This jutsu…is it Utakata? His vision righted, and an all too familiar figure in an all too familiar kimono wafted down before him.

A bubble collided with Naruto's back, and he felt himself washed over by a genjutsu.

Naruto was standing before Utakata. Not battling. Just standing. And if Naruto had not known that this was not the real Utakata… If he had not known that this was the vegetable that they had created…

But then, was it a vegetable?

In the creases of his face Naruto saw reflected so much sorrow. Naruto remembered what Sakura had said then, on the bankside of that lake, what seemed like a lifetime ago.

"–A shadow. He is a shadow. It was an inexact procedure that we performed last night. How could it not be? No one had ever done it before, and lived. However, it is all too likely, when the pressure of the extraction became too much, and we were no longer able to cleanly cut Bijuu from Host… that Naruto took an imprint of a part of Utakata with him when he ripped the Slug from his body. It would have been a part of him that was both powerful and fresh in his memory, yet at the same time, the part he would have been most willing to give up: The part of him that knew he was about to die."

This Utakata… the Utakata who now stood before him… he had never been rescued. He had never been kissed by Hotaru. He had never become a master. His memories truncated with the day that he was attacked, and captured. And died.

Naruto's throat tightened, and he did the only thing he could think of. "This chakra… Utakata, you were a Jinchuurik?" He played along… for what good would explanations be to this sad shadow.

Utakata blinked, and opened his light brown eyes. "You too, huh?" he whispered, his voice exhausted.

Naruto's shoulders tensioned and, to the best of his ability, he tried to mix the lie with the truth. "I heard rumors that you had gone missing." Never mind that it had been he and Kakashi-sensei who had started such rumors. "So the Akatsuki got you, after all."

"Yeah…" Utakata responded quietly. "After I left you guys, they were lying in wait for me." There was almost detachment in his voice as Naruto watched him replay those final memories of his battle with Pain in his own mind. This Utakata recounted to him how he had gone into the forest. How Pain had been waiting for him. How they had battled. How the Akatsuki had defeated him. "The last thing that I saw… was Hotaru." His eyes were glazed over, seeming so far away. "I sent out a bubble. One last bubble. She was the last thing I saw… waiting for me… And then… darkness."

Naruto knew it was all a lie. He knew that this was not how Utakata had died. He knew that Utakata and Hotaru had fulfilled their dream of traveling together. And he hoped one day to see them again. However, for some reason, he still could not help the emotion churn inside of him at Utakata's story. "Why?" he asked bitterly, unable to stop himself. "Why did you go into the forest alone?" It had been stupid of him, even then. "If you had escaped with Hotaru, you'd still be–"

You still are–

"The Shinobi Tracking Unit from the village was in the forest," Utakata interrupted his word and thought. "I grew tired of running…" he added. "I wanted to reconcile with the village and live in peace." Utakata's shoulders slumped. His entire frame looked overcome. "I wanted to stop living like a fugitive." He said the words so wistfully that they cut to Naruto's core, and he just wanted to reach out and shake the idiot. He wanted to tell him that he did get to live in peace. That the village thought he was dead, but he wasn't, and he did not have to live like a fugitive anymore. But most of all he wanted to tell Utakata that he did live. Just as he had once told Hotaru to do.

But Naruto couldn't.

This Utakata's thoughts turned to Hotaru of their own accord. "And I wanted to spare Hotaru from the life of being constantly on the run."

Naruto blinked, his throat becoming dry. "Utakata…" he whispered, "you…"

"I wonder why I started feeling that way." Utakata closed his eyes, a pained expression washing over his features. "Why did I wish… for such a dream," he whispered, confessing to Naruto more of his feelings for Hotaru in death than he had ever done in life. Utakata opened his eyes again, and they were vacant, his spirit broken. "Well, it's all meaningless now."

Naruto looked away, and silence hung between them. What was there to say? His speeches of hope and success did not reach the dead.

"I convinced myself that the master I trusted had betrayed me," Utakata finally continued. "And so, I closed off my heart. I didn't know how to trust people. Yet…" He again raised his eyes to meet Naruto's. "Hotaru put her faith in someone like me."

"Hotaru was also burdened with a fate she hid from others," Naruto whispered. "The same way we Jinchuuriki are." He swallowed and then said, trying to give what comfort he could, "Maybe she sensed that you both were alike?"

Utakata looked down. "Hotaru…" His voice cracked. "I was like a bubble floating aimlessly in the wind and Hotaru showed me the way. I made up my mind to become Hotaru's teacher." A flicker of that old bitter smirk which Naruto remembered flitted across Utakata's face. "Isn't it ironic? Just as I was about to make good on my decision, my life was snatched away from me. I was resurrected… only to discover that I have no will of my own, and am forced to walk a different path."

"The ones manipulating you used the Akatsuki too, and are bent on controlling the world." Naruto explained. So much had happened since his adventures with Hotaru and Utakata. So much had changed. He took half a step forward, and something kindled within him. "Are you just going to do what the likes of them order you to?" He didn't know what he was doing. Did he actually think he could get through to this Utakata? And if he did, what would that mean? There was already a man living his life, loving his Lady.

And yet, Naruto could not help himself. Seeing Utakata like this… knowing that this would have been the fate Utakata was condemned to had Naruto and the other Leaf Ninja not come to his aid …it made Naruto sick to the core. It would be an image to haunt his nightmares. To see Utakata like this, having felt the raw pain of his regrets, and the absolute love with which he regarded Hotaru, even in death… It filled Naruto with overwhelming bitterness. "If you see Hotaru again, you might be forced to fight her without being able to say anything!" Even as he voiced the notion, it terrified Naruto to say it, and he promised himself that would never happen. Whatever Madara planned to do with Utakata and the others, Naruto would not allow it anywhere near Hotaru… wherever she and the real Utakata now were.

This Utakata's eyes narrowed, and then he closed them altogether.

"You have the will to take yourself back," Naruto hurtled on. I know. I've seen it. I've seen that iron will of yours cling to life as we ripped at Bijuu from your stomach. "This is a meaningless fight–"

"Naruto…" Naruto flinched at the tenor of Utakata's voice. Final. "I don't know if it's because of these circumstances or not, but I just ended up telling you my true feelings." The words hung in the air and, for an instant, this shadow of Utakata looked unburdened. "Thanks for listening."

His eyes snapped open once again, and the honey-brown color had been supplanted with the Rinnegan and the Sharingan. The genjutsu melted away. The bubble which had touched Naruto's back 'popped,' and set off such an explosion that he was sent hurtling into a tree.

Naruto caught a branch and looked up… at the form of a man he told himself he had saved. Bubbles floated down around him. The form of Utakata raised his hand and, with a flick of the wrist, snapped his fingers. Explosions and splintered forest tore through the air around Naruto.

The war raged on.

Utakata bulked underneath the chakra that washed over him. It crashed into his chest with such force that, for a moment, all the wind was knocked right out of him.

It was such familiar chakra too, as though it was as much a part of him as he himself was. It was… No… it can't be. Utakata blinked, and found himself sitting atop the Six-Tailed Slug. He looked about him, disoriented.

What he saw was the stuff of legend. He was surrounded by seven of the other Trailed Beasts, each with a rider atop – Jinchuuriki.

You are just in time. Son Goku's called us here, a voice rumbled in his mind. Utakata did not even flinch. After all, how could one flinch at the sound of a voice that was as familiar to himself as his own conscience? He looked down at the Slug. However, before he could respond with anything in turn the great Four-Tailed Ape began to speak.

He spoke of "the one," and of what was to come, and whom they were to put their trust in. He spoke of names, and of freedom. And he spoke of a promise – a promise to which he made them all swear. Utakata did not understand most of it, but he knew better than to speak. However, he did understand one thing. It was when the Jinchuuriki of the Four-Tailed Ape spoke.

"Do you think we could have traveled down a different path too?" He was speaking of the bond between host and beast.

Utakata blinked. He did not know how he had gotten here. It had almost been as though he had been pulled here – as though a part of his consciousness which he had never been fully aware of dragged him into this place. However to be faced so suddenly with such a question… the question of the bond of Jinchuuriki and Bijuu… it was one over which Utakata too had deliberated many endless nights.

"Tish," the Four Tails brushed the question off. He finished brusquely with, "Well, maybe if you had tried to remember by name right when you became my Jinchuuriki." The two began to glow, still jabbing back and forth.

Finally the old man smiled. "Is just Son good enough?"

In a flash the two disapeared, but not before Utakata saw the most minimal change in the Tailed Beast's expression. Then, they were gone. And after a moment of silence another wave of chakra swept over all those that remained. Utakata braced himself, placing his palms flat against the back of the Slug – and then it rumbled.

Long time no see.

Utakata glanced down. The Slug rippled beneath him again. Yeah… Long time, he answered. What's going on? What happened? Why are we here?

Tish. That friend of yours… The noisy ninja…

Uzumaki Naruto? What of Naruto?

He will save us. Is saving us, the Slug rumbled. Just now. In the very moment of that flash. He frees me from the control of my captors… just as he freed you. There was silence between the boy and the beast.

Utakata's fingers pressed a little more firmly into the Slug's back. A knot formed him his throat and a burden which he did not realize had been there, shifted, becoming somewhat lighter. But also making itself more known. This too had plagued him these many months. The question of what had become of the Slug once he had handed it over to the Akatsuki. I'm so glad… He finally thought. More glad than I could ever say.

Whatever the Slug had meant to answer in response, a ripple of charka which coursed through them all ended it. He comes!

Utakata looked down. They were once more seven Tailed Beasts. The place of the Great Ape had been taken by…a Nine-Tailed Fox. However, his Jinchuuriki did not ride astride him, but stood before him– He stood before them all. So, Naruto. Utakata's eyes darted from the Fox to the boy, and back again. This was the Bijuu that was sealed within you…

"We've been waiting for you." For the first time Utakata took a closer look at his fellow Jinchuuriki. The one who had spoken… was none other than the deceased Fourth Mizukage of the Mist, Yagura. He had been Terumii Mei's predecessor. He was small in stature and, for someone who knew nothing of history, he might have been mistaken for a child. However, with violet eyes, sandy hair, and a scar running down the left side of his face, it was impossible not to know one of the fiercest ninja that the Water Country ever yielded. Utakata looked around, thunderstruck. It hit him, in that moment that, save for Naruto, he might very well be the only one living left among these Jinchuuriki.

"You did get all the way to this plane, just as Four-Tails said," another Jinchuuriki spoke up. She had long plated blond hair, and rode atop the Cat Bijuu.

"Welcome," The Mizukage continued. "I thank you on behalf of all us Jinchuuriki and Tailed Beasts. I've wanted to meet you, Uzumaki Naruto! To tell you the truth…huh?" The Mizukage stopped in mid-sentence and Utakata, when he turned his eye back on the Leaf Ninja on the ground, understood exactly why.

Somehow, in the span of a few seconds, Naruto has dissolved into a sloppy, snotty, nasty mess of tears. Utakata almost smirked as a thought dawned on him. There's no chance that…

"You look like you're shorter, younger and weaker than me!" Naruto was blubbering out. "You must have had it rough as a Jinchuuriki. Knowing how you went through that, and how you've already passed on… it's just so sad!" Naruto was furiously rubbing his eyes. "You never knew the taste of good ramen or what it felt like to kiss a girl!"

It took all of Utakata's self-restraint not to smack the palm of his hand into his face. Well, had thought that it would take an idiot who knew nothing of history, and he had been right. And this was the Mizukage under whom the village had gotten the name "The Bloody Mist," too. He supposed it was just a blessing that the man was dead.

However, whatever shame Utakata felt on behalf of his moronic friend, it was deafened in the next instant by the mutual cries of the Mizukage and Naruto's own Tailed Fox. "Hey! You've never kissed a girl either," the Fox interjected gleefully. –Followed by "I am the Fourth Mizukage, very talented, and I'm an adult!"

At this rate they were never going to get to the matter which the Four-Tails had wanted them to address. And Utakata did not want that to happen. His words, and his last exchange with his Jinchuurki, still echoed in his ears. "We assembled–" Utakata interjected. In the next instant he almost stopped as he realized that all eyes, human and tailed, were suddenly on him, " –here on Four Tail's summons." That much seemed right enough. "…And hung around after promising to tell you and give you something." He swallowed.

Naruto locked eyes with him for a moment. In that moment Utakata could have sworn that a flash of confusion had flickered in those blue eyes of his friend's. As though Naruto had not expected to see him there. As though Naruto had expected to see something… less.

However, a moment was all that it lasted. "I see. He did all that," Naruto chuckled sheepishly, the topic of conversation once more with the departed Four-Tails. Then he looked about him at all of them. "I'm glad that you're all gathered together and getting along!"

Yes well, I'm glad that's not the current Mizukage. If he was up to date and knew that I was a missing nin… The stories of what that man did to those who betrayed the Hidden Mist are not to be thought on. Utakata's gaze flickered warily back over to Yagura.

Pay attention, idiot. This is important! The Slug shifted irritably beneath him.

The Two-Tailed Cat spoke. "Naruto, step forward and extend your hand. We shall now fulfil our promise to Four-Tails… Or rather, Son Goku."

Naruto stared up into her face.

"My name is Matatabi," the Two-Tailed Cat said. – "Nii Yugito," her Jinchuuriki sounded off.

"My name is Isobu," the Three-Tailed Turtle offered cheerily. "We've met before!" – "I'm Yagura, the Fourth Mizukage."

They went around like that, in pairs. Each sounded of his or her name. And, as they did, Utakata watched as each broke out of the shackles placed upon them by the stigmas 'Jinchuurki' and 'Bijuu.' Finally it was his turn, and that of the Six-Tailed Slug.

"Me! I am called Saiken," the Six Tailed Slug chimed. Utakata almost smirked at the sound of that wobbly voice.

He looked into Naruto's face once more, and the smiled. As he did, he saw whatever confusion that had been there vanish – Naruto knew for certain, it was him. "You already know me," Utakata merely said, confirming what Naruto had already realized. "I'm Utakata." And he said no more. Now was not the time. Later, perhaps, when this war was over. When there was peace. Later… when they had gotten threw everything… and lived.

One after another the Bijuu each placed one of their paws into each other's, and into the center of their circle. The Jinchuurki, in turn, each placed the flat of their hands upon the backs of their beasts. Naruto simply watched for a moment. Then, his footsteps reverberating in the silence, he walked beneath that dome of titans' hands, and pressed his fist to their palms.

The eruption was complete. Naruto was fueled with all the fire of all of their chakras. Utakata felt the whole of this world vanishing from about him. This was not his battle. This was Naruto's battle. He tried to call out, but he could not. And then, he felt something. He felt as Naruto pulled the chakra receiver from Saiken's body.

I'll be alright now! Fear not, friend! Saiken's voice gurgled in his ear. Goodbye then, and thank you for seeing me off!

Saiken! Utakata opened his mouth, but had no voice with which to cry out. Goodbye, old friend!

The next thing he knew he was rising up into the air through a pillar of light alongside the other Jinchuuriki. But he was not going where they were. He knew that. Some fragment of his consciousness had drawn him to this meeting place, like a marker in a valley. It was why, he suspected, the last of the Jinchuuriki had not been there. For, unlike Utakata, there was no part of the Fifth Kazekage, Gaara of the Sand, that still bound him to his Bijuu.

Naruto was on the ground, and he shouted up to each of them. "…Utakata…" he said. They looked at each other for a moment longer. "Leave it to us!" He called up to them with his usual bravado. The light became blinding. Utakata could no longer see. And then–

His eyes snapped open. There were tears streaming down his face.

Utakata swallowed. That last bond… that last consciousness that had bound him… It was gone. Finally, at long last, he was truly free.

"Sir Utakata?" The voice jolted him from his stupor. Hotaru was by his side. "Sir Utakata, what happened to you? One moment you were there, fighting alongside everyone. And then in the next, without a blow striking you, you simply collapsed! I was so scared. Why are you crying? Are you in pain? I thought some genjutsu had gotten you and… and…"

Utakata looked around himself blearily. Night had fallen. The sounds of battle began to return muffled upon his eardrum. He lay beneath a blanket, behind some outcropping. That's right… he remembered now. He had been in the heat of battle when that light had come upon him. They were now in the heat of the Fourth Shinobi War. Months had passed since he and Hotaru had begun traveling together. His hair had grown back somewhat. Hotaru had trained hard, and had done well.

…Hotaru must have brought him here after he collapsed.

His eyes snapped up to rest on her face, contorted with worry as it was. Suddenly, a wave of emotions he could hardly understand tore through him. He pushed himself into a sitting position, scrambling to heave himself up, deaf to Hotaru's protestations.

In a single motion his clasped his hands around either side of her face, taking in her sandy hair, and all that beauty will it. Their eyes locked, and the emotion only swelled to the point that Utakata thought that it would burst through his chest. He was so grateful. Though they were surrounded by war and destruction, he was so grateful for these months that he had had. For the life that they had lived. For the fact that, when that pillar of light had lifted him up, it had been to here that he had returned. His lips parted, and all he could do was take a shaking breath, and intertwine his fingers in her hair.

"Hotaru… You… I want you to know- now- here- how grateful I am to you, for everything."

"Sir Utakata," he placed her hands over his, her eyes going round. "Sir Utakata, what is the matter?" she whispered.

He swallowed hard, trying to push past the knot in his throat. What was the matter? Nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing was the matter. How could anything be the matter with her there, before him, alive, and with him.

"I was like a bubble…" he wrasped, the words coming to him from he knew not where. "Floating aimlessly in the wind. And you… you showed me the way." Somehow, being linked to the Bijuu for those brief moments, it had given him such clarity into what would have been had she and Naruto not saved him. And now, he just wanted to say everything. Say it all so that she knew. So that he might never regret her not knowing. "I convinced myself that the master I trusted had betrayed me," he whispered. The battle seemed so far away, though he knew he would soon return to it. But not now. No. This moment was theirs. "And so, I closed off my heart. I didn't know how to trust people. Yet…you put your faith in someone like me."

She smiled at him that beautiful, soft smile. He didn't know what to do. He was sure his heart would burst. Surly it could not contain all of this relief and happiness. Surly it was not used to it. "You are the reason I started feeling that way," he croaked, running his thumbs along her cheeks. "You are the reason… I wished for such a dream."

He drew her face to his, and pulled her into a long and tender kiss. One of her hands left his and came to rest on the back of his neck. They were at war, and all was chaos around them. But here, in this moment, behind this outcropping, they two felt nothing but relief and contentment at the lives that they had been gifted.

Utakata did not know if it was because of these circumstances or not, but these were his true feelings.

When the Forbidden Jutsu Arc finished after only eight episodes I thought that it had a very truncated end. I almost felt as though half the story had just not been told, what with the introduction of Harusame's extraction ritual, and all of the characters involved, all of it resulting in nothing. From that abbreviated ending, and all of the possibilities therein, "Sir Utakata, We Must Both Live," was born.

Throughout this story I have taken extreme care to make certain that every aspect should seamlessly meld with the canon Narutoverse. This Epilogue is the final stitch in that pattern. Apart from the two parts written with Hotaru present, every scene in this chapter is lifted from the actual manga/anime – with perspectives filled in accordingly. I hope you have liked this story of Hotaru and Utakata. I may someday write more about their life together. For now, please enjoy the "Post-Story Family Tree" in the image section on my Profile Page.

Please review and critique. Thank you.