Seven days after Keizo returned to Amegakure, Naruto received word that Iwagakure had been all but razed to the ground.
Leaving Fū in charge of the Hidden Rain, he and his son departed shortly thereafter. Up until the point where he'd received Kakuzu's message, Naruto had retained some inkling of hope that he'd see his mentor again. But after six years of no contact followed by a cryptic, seemingly farewell statement…well, that hope had been dashed.
Not that he'd known conclusively what the former Taki-nin's intentions were, but it had been clear that the old miser had a plan, the fruition of which he and Keizo became privy to two days after their departure.
The Hidden Rock was in absolute ruin. From a distance, the two blonds could see wisps of smoke curling off of the destroyed remains of some buildings, earth and stone disrupted in an attempt by the Rock shinobi to defend their home. As they traversed the outer fringes of the former great city, Naruto observed the signs of a cataclysmic battle. Pumice and shiny obsidian decorated the ground in bountiful fields where rivers of lava had once flowed. The melted remains of buildings and people could be seen high and low, and there were small holes decorated by scorch marks in buildings where something hot and thin, like a laser, had burned through.
As they got closer to the center of the Hidden Rock, the wanton destruction became more apparent, the severed body parts that littered the ground evidence of the stubbornness, tenacity, and futility of the Iwa-nin. Judging by the long trails of bloodstains and spread-out nature of the limbs, many of them looked as if they'd been blown off of whatever body they'd once been attached to with extreme concussive force. In continuing their trek, the pair eventually came across a splotch of black goo, and after a moment of staring at it, Naruto forced himself to look away and keep walking. They found two more as they continued on – one oozing out from between the cracks of a pile of boulders, the other creeping down the façade of a building missing its top several stories – and all the while, Keizo looked around in stunned silence, awed at the havoc his grandfather-figure had wreaked.
The fourth puddle of black goo they found was at the foot of the Tsuchikage Tower, a handful of paces away from the man himself. Naruto looked over the big man's figure – the Tsuchikage he had met during Pein's interruption of the Kage Summit had since passed away – then out over the surrounding area, blue eyes searching.
His mentor's body wasn't there.
Kakuzu had lost four hearts in his raid of the Hidden Rock, but the man's tall, thread-ridden corpse was nowhere to be found. For a brief moment, he held on to the idea that the old nukenin had perhaps survived his venture deep into enemy territory, but then he quashed it. False hope was the devil's plaything, and there were a dozen different reasons why Kakuzu's body might not be in the immediate vicinity, the most ironic of which would include someone cashing in the corpse for whatever bounty had been on the man's head.
Naruto's mouth twitched in bemused morbidity at this idea before returning to thin-lipped neutrality.
During the training session he and Fū had gone through after Kakuzu's death, the blond could remember being confused at how his mentor had fallen to the Leaf ANBU, outnumbered or not. He'd asked once, but the nukenin's only response had been 'a miscalculation', and, in what Naruto presumed to be anger or embarrassment, had never spoken of the subject again. With proper planning, and what the Amekage guessed to be a number of Bloodline Limits at his disposal, Kakuzu had the capacity to wreak destruction on a level that even other members of Akatsuki were unable to replicate; the evidence was arrayed before him, in the broken bodies and buildings that used to be the Hidden Rock.
But attacking an entire Hidden Village – even one which had been steadily losing numbers due to Akatsuki and the Ame-Oto-Suna alliance – alone was still a tall order, and Kakuzu was not immortal; he'd proven that when he'd died before Naruto's eyes over 20 years prior. The lack of conclusive evidence was suspicious, but in a realistic world, the miser had simply completed a suicide mission with ridiculous aplomb.
Besides which, even if Kakuzu was alive, he'd given up his Akatsuki ring to Keizo, meaning that he had no intention of returning. There were lands beyond the Elemental Nations where he could make a nuisance of himself, if properly motivated, but the fact of the matter was that, regardless of the bounty hunter's status, the blond was unlikely to ever hear from him again.
Instead of fixating on what had become of his mentor, Naruto turned to his son and said, "This is the legacy of a true master of Jiongu. You sure you still want it?"
"I thought I had to become a Jōnin before you'd let me have Jiongu."
Keizo looked around at all the death and destruction, mind wandering back to his father's initial question, before asking, "Do you think it's a good legacy or a bad one?"
"Depends on how you look at it."
"Kakuzu…he did it all for us, didn't he? I mean, to help Akatsuki, right?" Naruto shrugged in response; the man's obsession with money aside, he'd never fully understood what his mentor was thinking most of the time, even when they'd traveled together. That he was so unreadable was one of Kakuzu's annoying quirks. Keizo nodded to himself in affirmation of his belief. "I wanna follow in Kakuzu's footsteps."
Naruto's arm pulsed as threads began moving around in his body. Soon enough, a suture on his arm opened up to reveal the scroll Kakuzu had given to him upon the older man's defeat six years prior. Just as the former Taki-nin had done for him years ago, Naruto unrolled the scroll on the ground and told his son to place his palm in the center of the circle imprinted on the parchment. The blond watched with a curious sense of déjà vu as Keizo went through the motions, innumerable black threads erupting from Jiongu's seal and angling towards the teenager to bury themselves beneath his skin.
It was at the moment when Keizo began writhing on the ground, his body wracked with pain, that the shinobi Naruto had felt following them, waiting for the opportune moment, attacked.
The ground beneath Naruto's feet turned into mud and sucked his legs down to the ankle, hindering his movement as eight Iwa-nin jumped from their hiding places, half of them weaving hand signs, the other half ready to impale him with swords.
When they were within striking distance, threads erupted from the seams stitched liberally across his body, forming great black spikes that impaled the airborne adversaries and protected him from the earthen blocks and spires that attempted to maim him. Only one Iwa-nin was spared this quick death, the tendrils that targeted him instead wrapping around his body and binding him in an inescapable cocoon. Naruto commanded the threads to bring him near his son, and when they were close enough, they parted at the man's chest, leaving an opening positioned directly over his heart. The tendrils infesting Keizo's body speared into the Iwa-nin's chest and grasped for his heart, emerging with a pulsing mass that quickly melded into the younger blond's body.
Naruto allowed the corpses of the Iwa-nin to drop to the ground, manipulating the earth around his feet back into a solid surface in the process. Now free, he bent over and plucked the dark green ring from his son's finger as Jiongu's threads returned to his body, grabbing the kinjutsu scroll along the way. Whether or not Kakuzu had done what he did for Akatsuki or for himself was up for debate, but Naruto chose to believe that, despite his claims to the contrary, the old miser possessed enough sentimentality to aid the cause of those he cared about.
And now, because of his decision, Naruto had a huge choice to make, one that would affect the future of the Elemental Nations.
He hoped that wherever Kakuzu was – Hell, or some unexplored country far away from the lands that once fed his coffers – the man was satisfied with what he'd accomplished.
If he'd had his way, Naruto would've preferred to give Keizo Jiongu back in Amegakure and allowed the teenager to rest (as Kakuzu had done for him decades ago) while his body acclimated to the kinjutsu's power. Then he would've been able to plan his next move from the safety of his home or office. As it was, with the foreknowledge of the Iwa-nin hiding in wait presenting such a prime opportunity for his son to get a heart, not to mention the urgency of moving quickly to capitalize on the moment Kakuzu had granted them, he brought Keizo to one of Iwa's more put-together buildings, placed the teenager on a bed, and settled himself cross-legged on the floor.
The stitch along his right wrist opened up to reveal a single thread slithering out, a ring with an orange gemstone inscribed with the kanji rei in its grasp. Pein had bequeathed his Akatsuki position to Naruto upon his deathbed – though Naruto preferred to keep the ring in safekeeping until he needed it – as well as handing the ring that had once belonged to Orochimaru and later Tobi to Fū.
Naruto didn't mind Kakuzu passing on his and Hidan's rings to his kids as far as sentimental value went – especially since the pair had rarely, if ever, decided to partake in the infrequent meetings held by the ring-bearers after Pein's death – but Keizo was in no condition to attend, nor would he have anything to contribute.
He closed his eyes and sent a pulse of chakra through the ring, and a moment later, he was in a plain room with a round table and several chairs set up deep within Otogakure. Multicolored projections of Konan, Fū, Zetsu, Sasori, and Kisame flickered to life in their usual positions; Itachi had been buried with his ring, and the puppet-Deidara that Sasori possessed bore his. "Iwa's gone," Naruto stated without preamble.
Surrounded by fellow S-class shinobi as he was, Naruto wasn't altogether surprised when none of them seemed to react in any outward fashion. "That is…impressive," Konan stated. "What happened?"
Kisame laughed. "So the old zombie still had some kick in him, eh? Where's he at now?"
"Dead." It didn't matter if the man was truly deceased or simply out of their lives, he was now a nonentity, and despite the lack of evidence in Iwa, Naruto assumed that even Kakuzu himself didn't think he'd live through the assault. He would honor that memory.
"Kakuzu…" Fū murmured morosely.
"Not so immortal after all, eh?"
"Kakuzu was an asset to this organization," Konan stated, eyes narrowing in reprehension in Kisame's direction, "and a little respect would not be undue. Perhaps a moment to honor his sacrifice?"
"Heh, sorry, Fishbait," Kisame offered before all present lapsed into silence.
After 10 seconds, Sasori spoke up. "While Kakuzu's loss is tragic, certainly this isn't the reason you called us all together."
"Maybe he wants us to find the body, dispose of it properly."
"No," Naruto said, his voice firm, "this isn't about Kakuzu. With Iwa gone, there's only one threat left, and I wanted to bring your attention to the matter of Kumo."
The rest of the table fell silent once again, mulling over Naruto's unspoken proposal. After Suna had acquiesced to Pein's ultimatum and Kisame, Kakuzu, and Hidan had disposed of the Mizukage and her faction in the Hidden Mist, the Hidden Villages of Rock and Cloud were all that had remained to oppose Pein's ideal of peace. Akatsuki's grip on the world had tightened even further over the years, with Amegakure and Otogakure rising in power as Iwagakure and Kumogakure struggled against them.
Two other big moves had cemented Akatsuki's usurpation of the world. Kirigakure, a country of almost constant civil unrest, had gone through a minor rebellion following Kisame's takeover and restructuring of the government. In part to please the rebel faction (and because the blue-skinned man hadn't really seen himself as fit for leadership, especially since his pastime still involved ripping other people to shreds), he had asked Harō a couple years prior to leave Ame and come join the Hidden Mist as both a member of the new Seven Shinobi Swordsmen and as Mizukage, a role which the cobalt-haired man had accepted.
Additionally, Sasori had volunteered to be Akatsuki's (secret) ambassador to the Hidden Sand. Despite his history with his former village, and Pakura's unwavering loyalty/neutrality, the Scorpion of the Red Sand had insisted that he knew best how to navigate the den of vipers that was Sunagakure, and if anyone could smell a plot coming from there, it was him. No one argued with the puppeteer's logic or results (courtesy of his spy network), but Naruto secretly wondered how many mind-controlled spies the man had at his disposal within Suna, and whether or not the Kazekage was one of them.
"Does Kumo know about Iwa?" Fū asked.
"If it doesn't, it will soon enough," Sasori answered. "Losing its only ally is not something that will just be overlooked; the Raikage is certain to act." The puppeteer turned his attention to Naruto. "You say you called us here to discuss Kumo, but I believe you already have a plan."
Naruto nodded. "As a sign of good faith, we have refrained from attacking the Hidden Villages that oppose us because they haven't initiated anything openly." The exception to that rule had been the Hidden Mist, but that had been taken over as both a show of force and because Kisame was part of Akatsuki's alliance; with Deidara dead, there were no members formerly affiliated with either the Hidden Rock or Cloud to spur the group to action against either power. "But with Iwa gone…well, is there really any reason to keep Kumo around?"
The other members seemed to exchange glances before Konan spoke up. "That seems logical. Kumo has been a continuous threat to peace since the Kage Summit, and it seems to have no intention of changing its stance. Should you need any additional resources—"
"No," the blond interjected. "Oto is flourishing, as are Ame and Kiri, and I would like to minimize casualties. I believe a small, elite strike force is all that's needed." He turned to glance at the other original Akatsuki members in turn.
Kisame chuckled in amusement, his beady eyes appearing to glow with excitement. "So that's how it is, eh, Fishbait? Count me in."
"Another opportunity to add a Kage to my collection? Certainly."
Naruto nodded. "Good. Fū," he continued, turning to his wife, "you're coming with. Keizo and I will be back in a couple days. Find someone to take over and watch him and Kyōko while we're gone. Zetsu, scout ahead and come back when you've got an idea of what Kumo's numbers are."
"Gotcha!" chirped the plant-man's lighter side before his hologram winked out.
"I will see what my spies have to say," Sasori mentioned before he, too, disappeared.
"Heh, this should be interesting. I'll let the lightning brat know about all the fun he's missin' out on."
Then it was just Konan and the two Jinchūriki left. "You're certain you wouldn't like some additional assistance?" the blue-haired woman ascertained. "Taking down a country, especially one as militaristic as Kumo, is no mean feat; the Raikage is far stronger and more experienced than the most recent Tsuchikage. Even Kakuzu and Hidan together were unable to defeat him."
"You don't have to prove you're better than Kakuzu," Fū tried.
"This isn't about Kakuzu," Naruto told them, "and I'm not charging into Kumo by myself, am I? He did what he wanted and I'm grateful for that, but this is our fight, and we don't need to lose the lives of anyone else over this. Kumo will learn exactly why Akatsuki shouldn't be trifled with."
A long time ago, back before Naruto had liberated Fū from the Hidden Waterfall Village, Kakuzu had tried to instill in the blond some modicum of strategy by teaching him chess. After almost a century of life, the bounty hunter had collected knowledge of countless games, and he'd made the determination that chess was the best option – more complicated than Go, but with less rules than shogi, and still capable of teaching all the appropriate lessons about thinking ahead and being wary of how the opponent could move.
The first time they'd played, Kakuzu had beaten him in four moves. Lightning war, he'd said, the blond staring at the board in surprise and annoyance, the simplest and easiest way to destroy your adversary. That should be the goal of every mission you embark upon.
They'd played a couple more games, with Naruto progressively dragging out his loss every time, but in the end, he'd gotten fed up with his defeat, just as Kakuzu had gotten fed up with him, and the bounty hunter had left on another expedition.
He'd never really been able to apply the chess lessons to his bounty hunting – after all, in chess, the player knew what moves the opponent could make ahead of time, whereas in the field, a shinobi could retaliate with any number of things (Bingo Book knowledge notwithstanding) – but now, standing on a mountain range overlooking the Hidden Cloud Village, Naruto couldn't think of anything more applicable than finishing this as quickly as possible. There was nothing to be gained by drawing out the conflict; a lightning war – coincidentally, against the Land of Lightning – would suffice.
"First, move your pawn," Kakuzu explained, showing Naruto the mechanics of the lightning war strategy after their first game. "This opens up space for the rest of your pieces to move."
His pawns were in place. Zetsu had already given him a tally of the Hidden Cloud's forces, Sasori's mind-controlled spies were positioned to wreak havoc, and Kisame was standing nearby, a deadly glint in his eyes, ready to engage in battle. Granted, S-class nukenin were hardly the equivalent of pawns strength-wise, but functionally they served the same purpose – support.
"Next is the bishop, to B4. This sets you up for the eventual checkmate on your opponent."
A speck in the distance grew closer, eventually alighting next to Naruto. The pair of wings sprouting from Fū's back disappeared, the chakra giving them form disintegrating into the wind. With practice and experience (and a better relationship with her Bijū than Naruto could ever hope to have with his own), his wife had managed to tame the Nanabi's powers, gaining access to the full range of the beetle's transformations (for limited times, at least). "No immediate issues," she reported.
His bishop – a pang of nostalgia hit him, knowing that the position of bishop should but never again would be played by Kakuzu (despite the lack of frequency the two had worked together towards a common goal) – had scouted out the area and would lure out the main force protecting the king – in this case, the Raikage. "Good. Is everybody ready?"
Kisame hefted Samehada from off his back and propped it against his shoulder, shooting him a sharp-toothed grin that promised pain. Zetsu – who, combined with Sasori's help, had already seeded a number of White Zetsu copies into the Hidden Cloud's populace – threw him an equally-maniacal look. Sasori withdrew a scroll and summoned a blond puppet that almost immediately produced clay birds for him and Kisame to ride on. "Then let's go."
"Then, a two-pronged assault. Queen to H4…"
Akatsuki's assault started when Sasori directed the bird carrying Kisame into the Academy building, the former Kiri-nin jumping off just before the creature exploded; water filled the streets moments later. The puppeteer veered off shortly thereafter, preparing to sow chaos into the city below.
Naruto watched all this from the clutches of Fū's whip-like tail, four gossamer wings holding the pair aloft as they flew towards the Raikage Tower. In a lightning war, the strongest piece was sent to deliver the finishing blow, and Naruto had every intention of fulfilling that role. He tugged on Fū's tail, and with one swift movement, she whipped him forward, sending him rocketing towards his destination. As he wrapped himself in a cocoon of Jiongu's threads, his periphery caught the blip that was his wife explode into the Seven-Tailed Horned Beetle's large, colorful form.
He crashed through the domed building and immediately allowed the tendrils surrounding his body to unwind, seeking out any nearby targets; they found one in a dark-skinned woman with powder blue hair.
"…then to E2, where you take the king's pawn, if it remains," Kakuzu finished, flicking said pawn out of the way as the finale to his detailed demonstration.
"But what happens if the other person stops you before you can finish?" Naruto asked.
Kakuzu's strange green and red eyes stared at his pupil unblinkingly. "Then you alter your strategy and progress until the opposition is destroyed."
The Raikage – just as muscled and imposing as Naruto remembered from the Kage Summit almost 20 years prior – crashed through the wall leading to his office, his anger palpable. "Mabui!" he bellowed. With a casual snap, Naruto broke the woman's neck and recalled his threads, allowing her corpse to drop to the floor. The blond spared a casual glance towards Ē, whose dark face was red with rage. "AKATSUKI!" he roared, lightning erupting in a shroud around his body, white-blond hair standing on end.
Naruto shrugged. "Eh, close enough."
The Raikage disappeared in a flash, and Naruto immediately replaced himself with the desk the man's secretary had sat behind. Splinters of wood flew everywhere, but the blond hardened his skin with the Earth Spear technique as the Raikage turned hate-filled eyes towards him.
He could understand how Kumo's leader had proven a handful for even a shinobi as skilled as Kakuzu. His old mentor liked to use the Earth Spear technique almost exclusively to augment his physical offense and defense, sometimes letting his elemental hearts roam around as thread-creatures for additional interference. But against an opponent who controlled lightning to such a degree that his movements were unseen, Kakuzu's standard Doton armor wouldn't hold up, and his thread-creatures would be exposed to danger if allowed autonomy.
Granted, Kakuzu was talented enough to adjust his strategy when he needed to, but he typically disliked doing so. Habit – predictability, he'd say – was dangerous to keep and hard to break.
Fortunately, Naruto didn't utilize the same methods his teacher did…at least, not to the same extent.
Not to mention that he'd surpassed the old miser years ago.
Just as the Raikage disappeared again, Naruto finished the last seal for his technique. "Fūton: Arashinome," he muttered, and then wind exploded outwards from his body in a powerful buffet. The remaining office windows shattered, and, his assault stopped by the zephyr, Ē became visible once more, fingers digging gouges in the floor to prevent himself from flying outside the room and falling to his death. The Amekage took the opportunity to unleash Jiongu's tendrils at him; they attempted to skewer the man, but his lightning armor protected him from the black threads.
Naruto frowned. The tales of the Raikage spoke of his unrivaled speed and powerful offensive force, not of the defensive nature of the layer of lightning that covered his body; he'd thought that it was responsible solely for augmenting the man's speed and strength. Jiongu's threads were hardy (though not invulnerable), but lightning was a fierce element, and the Raikage's defenses were apparently strong enough to repel their attack.
Fine. He had other methods of getting past the Lightning Release Armor…methods he probably should've just started with in order to not take chances, but live and learn. After all, he'd pierced Kakuzu's supposedly impenetrable defense in their last battle; who was to say the same strategy wouldn't work here?
Before he could channel wind chakra through the kinjutsu, Ē released his hold on the floor and gripped the threads that were poking around his armor. With a roar, he yanked on them, bringing the surprised Amekage within striking distance. "Erubō!" he bellowed, thrusting out his elbow to catch Naruto in the sternum.
Just as the attack was going to connect, the long suture in the Jinchūriki's chest came undone. Instead of solidly hitting his adversary, the Raikage's elbow fell into a cavernous mass of writhing black threads. Naruto took advantage of Ē's momentary surprise by condensing some chakra from his Storm's Eye technique into a miniature cyclone centered about his hand, creating a Wind Release: Whirlwind Fist that drove into the larger man's stomach in a vicious uppercut.
The wind chakra drilled straight through the Kumo leader's Lightning Release Armor and exploded out of his back in a mixture of blood and eviscerated organs. Naruto could tell the man was trying to teleport away and find some method to recover, but with half his arm buried in the Amekage's chest cavity and bound by black threads, the blond had ensured that his hope of achieving such a task was practically nil.
Ē raised his other arm, prompting Jiongu's threads to dart forward and wrap around it, restraining it in midair. The Raikage may have been physically stronger than him, but between a debilitating injury and the kinjutsu's power, the imposing man didn't stand a chance. "Well, this was fun," Naruto commented blithely, talking louder than normal to be heard over the gales of his own technique, "but your time is up."
"A…kat…suki…scum…" the Kumo-nin rasped. "DIE!" he roared, and then a blue-white aura illuminated his body.
Without even thinking, Naruto released his grip on his enemy and summoned chakra to his hands for a Wind Release: Great Breakthrough. Combined with his Storm's Eye technique, the blast sent the Raikage careening through the shattered window and into the sky high above the Hidden Cloud. Jiongu's threads wrapped themselves around their wielder, a layer of wind rising up protectively around that to create a double-shelled sphere. The last glimpse Naruto had of the outside was the Raikage's distant body discharging his built-up chakra in a brilliant flash of lightning.
For several seconds, all Naruto heard was a deafening silence, though the flare from the Raikage's final technique caused bright spots to dance in the darkness of his vision. Eventually, the wind from his Storm's Eye and Wind Sphere techniques petered out, the black tendrils of his kinjutsu unwinding slowly to reveal the outside world once more.
From his vantage point in the Raikage Tower, the blond had a fantastic view of the damage his opponent's last attack had caused. Almost every window on the buildings he could see had been blown out – though the buildings themselves seemed to be relatively intact – and he could see smoke rising from the charred corpses of those unfortunate enough to have been caught in the blast.
It was a testament to his own power that he'd disabled his opponent so quickly and forced him to resort to a suicide technique to beat him. It also proved exactly why he hadn't allowed any of Konan's Oto-nin or his own Ame-nin to accompany him; there was no purpose in having them throw away their lives needlessly.
On the other hand, he did still have companions – pawns and other sacrificial pieces, Kakuzu would have called them – fighting in the blast zone. Fū, he thought, looking skyward for his wife and finding no trace of the blue- and green-colored carapace of the Nanabi. Fearing the worst, he jumped out of the tower, black threads sprouting into an approximation of wings to slow his freefall.
Down on the street, the smell of burnt flesh filled his nose and made him choke. Fighting back the urge to gag, Naruto called out, "Hello? Fū, Kisame?"
The blond turned on the spot to find Zetsu melding out of the road, looking no worse for wear; the benefits of his Mayfly technique, Naruto supposed. Silently, blue eyes taking in the carnage they'd wreaked in the Hidden Cloud, he followed Zetsu's seemingly-disembodied head through the streets. By the time he was beginning to feel completely lost, the plant-man came to an abrupt halt. "Over there," he gestured. "We'll be back soon."
Naruto barely registered the spy leaving, his gaze fixated upon Kisame. The former Mist shinobi looked terrible, his blue skin dark navy to black in most places, beady eyes bloodshot from the output of lightning chakra. Given his current state, the blond found it impressive that the former Akatsuki member was still alive, though for how much longer he couldn't tell.
Kakuzu would let the taller man die, but then again, Naruto wasn't Kakuzu.
Dispatching the additional hearts secured on his back, he called upon the Kyūbi's chakra, adopting a vulpine shroud of bubbling red-orange. Samehada, unbound from the bandages normally surrounding it, licked its lips and attempted to dive for the Jinchūriki. Naruto forestalled its hunger by stepping within a foot of Kisame's prone body, allowing the sentient sword to feast on the demonic chakra. Soon enough, the shark-man's body began to heal, blackened skin fading to its normal blue hue. Kisame coughed, hacked up a globule of blood, and tossed Naruto a smirk. "Heh, wasn't enough competition for Samehada to get a proper meal. Guess I owe you one, eh, Fishbait?"
"Consider us even," the blond replied, allowing the Kyūbi's chakra to fade as he watched his one-time teacher get to his feet.
"Oh, Kisame-san, you're alive! I'm mildly disappointed."
Naruto turned to find the remaining members of his strike team behind him. Sasori appeared physically unfazed from the assault, though the smallest upturn of his lips indicated that he was pleased about something; likely he'd found the Raikage's body in the aftermath of the man's attack, the blond mused. Fū trailed slightly behind the redhead, tired but unharmed. Utilizing the Nanabi's chakra in such a large capacity – especially after she'd probably burned through a lot defending herself from the Raikage's technique – always left her drained.
Despite that, she still smiled at him. "We won."
He returned the gesture. "Yeah, we did." Then he walked up to her and took her in his arms, grateful for her presence, for the fact that she was still there. She'd done her job and come out relatively unscathed, just as he'd planned.
The clearing of someone's throat caught the pair's attention. Sasori, Zetsu, and Kisame all stood nearby, watching them. "Are we done here?" the puppeteer intoned.
"Why, what's the hurry?"
"I have other projects to attend to, and little patience for wasting time here."
The blond waved him off. "Yeah, we're done. Thanks for the help."
Zetsu slipped into the earth and Sasori brought the Deidara puppet back out to create transportation for himself and Kisame. Both Jinchūriki watched them all disappear. "We should've asked him for a ride," Fū told Naruto, "I'm too tired to fly us back to Ame."
"It's fine," he said. "We can take the time to figure out what to do next."
Konan was waiting for them outside of Otogakure proper as the duo was crossing the renamed Land of Rice Paddies. "Zetsu informed me of your victory," she mentioned when both Jinchūriki looked surprised to see her. "He has gone back to look into any holdouts we should be wary of in Kumo."
It was just an excuse for the plant-man to return to the Land of Lightning and partake of whatever corpses he could, and all three knew it, but Naruto nodded. Regardless of the spy's intentions, knowing if Kumo had enough – or any – shinobi left to mount a resistance was beneficial. Iwa would have to be scoured more thoroughly as well, though he doubted either nation had any forces left to pose a threat. "I have something I wish to show you," Konan continued. "Come." As the pair followed her into the Hidden Sound, she asked, "Have you given thought as to what should be done with Iwa and Kumo?"
"Yeah, we were talking about it on the way here," Naruto mentioned. "Unless you want them, we were going to just let them lie. Neither country has much to offer in terms of natural resources that we need, and setting up satellite villages so far away will just make it too hard to control everything. We'll let Pakura know that anything she wants from the Land of Earth is free game."
Konan craned her neck back to raise one blue eyebrow at him. "You don't think she will consider the expansion an opportunity to resist our power?"
"The opposite, actually," Fū piped in. "She's seen us take down all of the Great Shinobi Nations except hers, so if she makes any misstep, she knows we'll come down hard on her. Plus, giving her a little something will show that we repay loyalty and should keep her in line."
The paper-user made a thoughtful noise of understanding. "I see." After a moment of thought, she said, "I may try to establish some border villages to mine for ores and semiprecious stones within the mountains of the Land of Lightning, but I have no interest in Kumo itself. We have flourished without the aid of Iwa and Kumo for many years now; I see no reason why the empty villages would provide us any benefit. This way," she motioned, leading them through a shortcut to the center of the village.
Naruto stopped short at the sight before him, Fū coming to pause at his side.
Not long after Konoha's destruction and the succeeding Kage Summit, both the Hidden Rain and Hidden Sound had constructed statues of Pein as a sign of their respect to the god who had freed them from tyranny. After Naruto had become the Amekage, one of him had gone up next to Akatsuki's leader within Amegakure, monuments to the men who kept the peace, parodies of the Hokage Mountain that had overlooked the Hidden Leaf.
Now, flanking the orange-haired man's likeness within Oto were two more statues, both situated slightly behind it. On the left was Uchiha Itachi, expression flat, one arm partially extended in the signature way he cast genjutsu, the other hidden within the depths of his Akatsuki robe.
To the other side was Kakuzu.
Naruto was surprised that they'd made him taller than Pein, though he supposed the statues had been constructed realistically as opposed to sizing them with respect to reverence; Pein's statue still held centrality, after all. The likeness, however, was incredible, even considering that most of the bounty hunter's features were hidden by his cloak, mask, and head covering. Looking closely, he could see a slight furrow in his teacher's brow, the same one he'd get whenever someone (mostly Naruto) started to piss him off. His arms were held ramrod straight against his sides, the sleeves covering his hands, but tendrils of Jiongu were creeping out of the openings, wriggling and curved like too-taut wires that had just been cut.
Konan's voice snapped him out of his daze. "With the elimination of Iwa and Kumo, we have finally achieved Pein's dream of world peace. I felt it was only appropriate to honor the memory of those who assisted in seeing that ideal come to fruition. We had several Doton-users who were quite eager to lend their aid; I rendered the likenesses from my own memory, so I hope they turned out satisfactory."
"They're perfect, Konan," Fū assured her. "Don't you think so, Naruto?"
Instead of responding, the blond walked up to the statues. He stood before Pein's for a moment before clapping his hands together and kneeling down, placing his palms upon the ground. Three square blocks rose from beneath the statues, providing platforms for them to stand on. With methodical slowness, he went from one block to the next, placing his hands upon each and manipulating the earth to carve out words. He saved Kakuzu's for last, pondering what to put as Fū and Konan stepped forward to see his work.
Pein's read 'a god among men'; Itachi's simply proclaimed 'fought for peace'. It was as both women were approaching him that Naruto came up with the most apt description for his teacher.
"Eh, Kakuzu, I don't get it. What's the bishop do?"
"Take my queen," Kakuzu ordered. Naruto did so, and before his fingers even left the piece, the bounty hunter had already moved his bishop to the spot where the blond's king now resided. "Checkmate," he intoned. "Now you see that the bishop's purpose is to protect the queen."
When he stepped back, the word 'protector' had been grafted into the stone. "Fitting," Konan appraised.
Fū hooked her arm around his elbow. "He really was, wasn't he?" she whispered.
Naruto could only nod, the same thought that both his wife and son had offered taking firm root in his mind. Maybe he had what remained of Akatsuki and Fū to watch his back now, but Kakuzu had always been the one to watch over him in the past.
Just as the bishop was supposed to do.
He blinked away the beginning of what Kakuzu would no doubt describe as weakness forming in the corners of his eyes. We won, thanks to you, Kakuzu. The world would finally see true peace, and his teacher's sacrifice had made it all possible.
Now it was time to reset the pieces and start the game anew.
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