Disclaimer: Still don't own it.
Chapter 6: Building the Bridge
Tsunade leaned forward, elbows resting on the wooden table in the small building Yamato had constructed to serve as the Hokage's office until the tower could be rebuilt. "Uzumaki Naruto, Uchiha Sasuke, in recognition of the fact that you helped neutralize a traitor to the village, and successfully negotiated a cease-fire with an attacking force, I am hereby granting you both a field promotion to the rank of chuunin."
"Woo-hoo!" Naruto pumped a fist in the air. "I'm one step closer to becoming Hokage!"
"Idiot," Sasuke muttered, but the others could see that he was smiling a tiny bit.
"Uchiha Itachi," she said, and everyone went quiet. "You committed a grave crime, but you did so under duress and under orders from a superior. In light of that fact, I hereby declare that you are no longer a missing-nin. Your name will be removed from the Bingo Book and from the bounty lists."
Itachi inclined his head. "Thank you, Hokage-sama."
"However, you did still undertake a mission involving assassination without the sanction of the Hokage. The ANBU are under the Hokage's direct authority and are entrusted with the most serious of Konoha's missions. As such, they are held to an exceptionally high standard. Regardless of the mitigating circumstances, your actions leave me no choice but to forever strip you of your rank as ANBU."
"I understand." Itachi glanced sideways at Naruto and Sasuke. "I suppose I will be joining the two of you as chuunin."
Tsunade shook her head. "While the titular leaders of Akatsuki no longer seek to harm the village, this Uchiha Madara figure that you've mentioned is still a threat. Jiraiya and I have been through the village's historical archives, and what we've found there is...worrisome. Senju Hashirama, the First Hokage, was the only one who could defeat Madara, and then only by a narrow margin. If we have to fight one of the most legendary shinobi in the world, we cannot afford to underutilize anyone. In particular, a fellow Sharingan user would be extremely valuable in this confrontation. For that reason, I am giving you a field promotion as well, from your pre-ANBU rank of chuunin to the rank of jounin. As your first assignment, I need you to give us any intelligence you've gathered on Madara since joining Akatsuki."
"Might I suggest also speaking with Konan-san? I believe she has been aware for some time that Madara's goals do not truly align with hers and Pain's, and she may already have laid the foundations of a plan for neutralizing him. However, it is likely that...recent events...have brought the matter to a head faster than she anticipated. Whatever she's planning, she may need our help to put it into action."
In the topmost room of Amegakure's highest tower, Konan lay with her eyes closed and her arms at her sides. Her skin, hair, and clothing were all bleached pale, making her look less like a person than like a three-dimensional drawing. With each shallow rise and fall of her chest, another sheet of paper split off from one of those already concealed beneath the surface of Ame's sea.
Ten minutes of deafening explosions rocked the sea that surrounded Amegakure. Light from the blasts reflected off the spray that was thrown up from the water's surface, so that the air seemed to be filled with rainbows. As the last tag detonated, Konan sank to her hands and knees on the surface of the water. I didn't think I would need so much chakra, but it's finally over. "Madara must be..."
"...Dead, right?" The voice came from right behind her.
How? How can he be alive? I was sure about the limitation on how long he could maintain his intangibility jutsu! Konan looked down and saw the jagged end of a metal pipe protruding through her abdomen. Blood dripped into the water, each droplet spreading out like a gruesome flower. "I had hoped...to defeat you on my own, as the leader of Amegakure...but I guess that's not to be..." Fingers trembling, Konan managed to detach one last paper from her cloak and, reaching back, slapped it onto Tobi's torso.
"Another exploding tag? What difference do you really think that's going to make?" Letting go of the pipe to peel the tag off, Tobi paused. His eyes widened as he realized that it wasn't, in fact, another exploding tag. "That's a Hiraishin mark!"
"What? How do you know about Hiraishin?"
Tobi ripped the tag off and flung it away from him, just as four people appeared around it.
"Konan-san! You're hurt!" Naruto shouted, stating the obvious.
"Madara," Itachi said, darting to the side to interpose himself between their opponent and his injured ex-comrade. Sasuke stood by Naruto, his red eyes alert for any change in Tobi's chakra.
Kakashi alone seemed indecisive, watching Tobi with an apprehensive expression on what little could be seen of his face. Itachi, the former Akatsuki member, seemed to accept this man as Madara, but something about that didn't sit quite right with him. It was just a gut feeling, but ninja who didn't learn to pay attention to their gut feelings very quickly became dead ninja.
Sasuke drew a windmill shuriken from the pack on his back and threw it at Tobi, who just raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Really?" he asked as the weapon passed through him.
Sasuke smirked at the same moment that the the shuriken broke apart, its four radial blades separating from the central ring. Tobi sighed as one of them soared through him in the opposite direction. "If you're done showing off your toys, perhaps you could let the adults fight now?"
"Hey, hey, don't underestimate me and Sasuke's teamwork!" Naruto protested.
"Teamwork? Sasuke did that all by-" Tobi's last word was cut off by a pop as the four shuriken blades disappeared in puffs of smoke and were replaced by clones of Naruto. Two of them held Rasengans in their hands.
"Nice job almost giving the deception away, dead-last."
The Rasengan-bearing clones roared and charged at Tobi. Like everything else so far, they passed harmlessly through his insubstantial body. The two clones without Rasengan threw kunai with exploding tags attached, but those were no more effective.
"Five minutes!" Konan called out, clutching the wound in her stomach. "He can stay intangible for five minutes! You have to attack him constantly for longer than that!"
Kakashi's eyes widened, and he glanced at each of his comrades in turn, measuring their reactions. Sustaining a constant barrage of attacks for that long would tax even Naruto's chakra. Tobi's voice was echoing strangely in his ears; there was definitely something wrong here, but he couldn't put a finger on what it was.
Itachi turned to Kakashi. "The three of us who can make clones should do so. Kage Bunshin for Naruto-kun, Mizu Bunshin for you and I since those require less chakra. The clones will use attacks that aren't chakra-intensive, such as throwing projectiles. The attacks will rotate among groups of the clones so as to be coming from multiple directions without exhausting any one clone's supply of weapons. Our real selves will supplement with jutsu as necessary."
Kakashi nodded. It was a solid plan, though now that Tobi had heard it...
Itachi seemed to know what he was thinking. "You looked around at all of us after Konan-san conveyed her information. I caught your eye and am relaying this plan through genjutsu. I suggest you do the same to Naruto-kun, and I will tell Sasuke."
A moment later, duplicates of Naruto, Itachi, and Kakashi crowded the water's surface. Some of them reached into their weapons pouches and withdrew kunai or shuriken. As they raised their arms to throw, a thousand sharks burst from the water, each one snapping a clone in half in its jaws.
At the apex of their jump, the sharks turned and crashed down toward the group of shinobi like a tidal wave. "To me!" Itachi called. The others ran to his side, and found themselves within the glowing ribcage of Susano'o. The construct raised one hand, and a great shield appeared in it. The horde of sharks slammed into the Yata no Kagami, dissipating as they touched it.
"Well, I guess I shouldn't have expected this to be easy, not with you on their side," Kisame said, climbing up onto the water's surface with the rest of them.
"How are you alive?" Kakashi asked. "Jiraiya-sama said he had killed you."
"It must have been the Gedo Rinne Tensei," Konan answered for him. "Nagato couldn't have chosen targets specifically, since he didn't know everyone we killed. The jutsu must have resurrected every recently dead person within Konoha's borders."
"Exactly right," Kisame said. "I was able to get out of the village unnoticed by using my Dochuu Senkou."
This is a bad situation for us to be in, Itachi thought. The look on Konan's face said that she was thinking the same thing. Both of them knew that Kisame could fuse with Samehada, but Itachi was the only one who had seen Suiton: Sameodori, the chakra-draining giant water prison, in action. Kisame could just fold the water they were standing on up around them, and Sameodori would gradually suck away even the energy that made up Susano'o. But every strong person has a weakness. "Kisame," he said.
It was the tone of voice he used when they were on missions together and he sensed an approaching enemy or noticed a trap. Kisame had learned to pay attention to that voice, and after years of partnership had lost his fear of looking into Itachi's eyes. On instinct, his gaze flicked to Itachi's face. By the time the rest of his brain caught up and reminded him that they weren't on the same team anymore, it was too late.
Kisame surveyed the red and black landscape, surprised that he wasn't restrained in any way. "So this is the jutsu you used to torture Kakashi-san and your brother, huh? Can't say I'm looking forward to being on the receiving end of it."
"I do not wish to hurt you, only to talk." The voice came from directly behind him, but Kisame didn't bother to turn around. If Itachi decided to kill him now, there wasn't much of anything he could do about it. "You deduced that I had motivations beyond those most people assumed. I have noticed something similar about you. You did not join Akatsuki simply for money, protection from hunter-nin, or opportunities to kill. What is your reason?"
"Why do you care? If we're on opposite sides now, why not just kill me?"
There was a long silence, and the answer seemed to come into Kisame's ears on the wind. "I lost my closest friend once already, and I am not eager to repeat the experience."
Now Kisame turned, and saw Itachi standing just a few feet away from him. "What, you don't want to try for super-Mangekyou or something?" Seeing the look on Itachi's face, his smile faded. "When we first met, I said that men who raise their hands against their own comrades are fated to die a terrible death. I wasn't talking just about you."
The ground around them bulged, distorted into shapes that pinched off from the slick black surface to become trees and rocks and people. A younger Kisame, sans Samehada, was one of them. Itachi watched as the Mist-nin killed his teammates to prevent the secret code they carried from falling into enemy hands.
"Look, you and I both know the ninja world's broken. Kakashi-san out there knows it, your brother knows it, Konan-san knows it, probably even that loudmouthed jinchuuriki knows it. But who's actually got a plan for doing something about it? Pain-sama did, but honestly, I don't think it would have really worked as well as he thought."
"And you believe Madara's plan has a better chance of success?"
"It'll be tough to pull off, don't get me wrong, but if we do...yeah, it'll work. I mean, if we can actually get everything set up, it's pretty much guaranteed."
Itachi raised an eyebrow. "Kisame, I have been a shinobi since I was seven years old, and I have yet to see a plan where success was guaranteed."
"Yeah, yeah, I know, Ninja Saying Number One: no plan survives contact with the enemy. But the beauty of Madara-sama's plan is, no one would have any choice about it, any more than people who get caught in Tsukiyomi have any choice about what happens to them."
"You're talking about Mugen Tsukiyomi."
"Think about it, Itachi-san. A world where kids don't get sent to fight in wars, where people aren't feared and hated because their elders shoved monsters inside them, where people who've risked their lives for others aren't treated as just tools." Although Itachi was far younger than him, Kisame had never felt the need to treat him as a protege or student-he knew full well that Itachi was stronger despite his age. But now he laid a hand on Itachi's shoulder, as he might have done with a young comrade struggling with the ugliness that shinobi often faced. "A world where thirteen-year-olds don't have to choose between killing their own families and seeing a lot of other people they care about get killed."
Itachi turned away from Kisame and looked out over the red and black landscape. "But it wouldn't be real. No more real than this."
Kisame shrugged. "Does it matter? Is there any practical difference between reality and an illusion that you don't know is an illusion and have no hope of penetrating?"
Itachi made a sound that might have been an attempt at a laugh. "I never would have guessed you to be such a philosopher."
"That doesn't answer my question."
After a few moments of silence, Itachi replied, "It does matter. Even if no one knows it, the fact still remains. The peace of Mugen Tsukiyomi would be just as false as the one Pain wished to impose. And what does that mean for those who have died? Some shinobi lose their minds to bloodlust, but most of us kill for a reason. Most of us are genuinely trying to protect our nations, or people who are close to us, or helpless civilians. Most of us believe that what we do will make the world a better place. To negate all of that work would mean that every person we've killed will have died in vain. All of those people." He pointed toward where the bodies of Kisame's old teammates lay on the ground. "All of these people." He pointed in the other direction, where men and women with fan crests on their clothing lay in streets and on rooftops.
"So what should I do? Just sit around hoping someone figures out a better plan?"
"You have time, do you not? More than most people."
"Most people reach their physical peak sometime between the ages of twenty-five and thirty. You are past that mark now, and yet even my eyes can detect no sign of decay. Your strength, speed, and reflexes are all as good as they were when we first met. That is no accident. Samehada has been healing the effects of aging as well as acute injury, hasn't it?"
Kisame grinned. "Heh, I should have known I couldn't keep anything hidden from you. Yeah, that's true, but even that won't last forever. Sooner or later, I'll hit a wall. But not for a long time. Twice as long as most people, if I'm lucky."
"Twice as long...so give the world one lifespan. Give them until I die. Go off and be a freelance mercenary, and watch what happens. See what path the world chooses to take after this...and when I'm gone, if you don't think sufficient progress has been made...well, I won't be around to stop you."
Kisame stared for a long time at the bodies of his comrades. Finally, he nodded. "You've got yourself a deal."
In one instant, Kisame met Itachi's gaze, and in the next, he grinned. "Well, see you around, I guess. I'm off."
Naruto, Sasuke, Kakashi, and Konan all stared at the former Mist-nin, unsure how to respond to this bizarre statement. Tobi had a more coherent response: "Off? What do you mean, you're off?"
"I mean I'm leaving. As in, not fighting these guys anymore." With that, he dove back under the water.
"So, Madara, will you continue to fight even without your backup?" Konan asked.
"Why not? It isn't as though you can kill me," Tobi replied.
Kakashi kept his Sharingan trained on Tobi throughout this exchange. If he were still alive, Madara would be an old man by now, but the part of Tobi's face that Kakashi could see was scarred but not wrinkled. And somehow he seemed familiar.
Maybe it was because only half his face looked like it was scarred. It reminded Kakashi of his last glimpse of Obito, laying on his back with boulders covering one side of his face. His one visible eye socket was empty, and half his mouth was turned up in a sad smile, because at least Rin would be protected...
Kakashi shook his head. He was letting memories of the past distract him, and that wasn't like him. "Naruto, let's try again."
"Right!" Another horde of clones appeared, and the shuriken began to fly.
Five minutes was an eternity for shinobi. Kakashi counted the seconds as projectile weapons filled the air. Naruto was doing the bulk of the work, but he, Sasuke, and Itachi were all helping. Even Konan, exhausted and injured as she was, contributed some paper shuriken.
Two hundred ninety-five.
Kakashi brought his hands together in a seal, and a copy of himself appeared beside him.
Two hundred ninety-eight.
Kakashi and his clone both began to make hand-seals, and from the corner of his eye he saw Itachi imitating some of them.
Three hundred! Time's up!
A spinning vortex of water sprang from the original Kakashi's hands, and he remembered seeing the Demon of the Hidden Mist performing the same jutsu. Blue light flashed around his clone's hand, and it stuck the Raikiri into the stream of water to electrify it. Beside them, a twin vortex formed as Itachi completed his own seals.
Both waves, one crackling with electricity, tore across the surface of the water towards Tobi. He dodged Kakashi's, but Itachi's slammed into him and propelled him back across the sea. When he got up, his already-torn cloak had been ripped apart completely, and his mask had shattered to fragments.
Kakashi had been preparing a Raikiri of his own as a finishing move if needed, but when he saw Tobi's now-exposed face, his arm dropped to his side. "Obito?"
There was no mistaking it. Despite the Rinnegan and the bitterness that etched his face more deeply than the spiral scars, the man in front of them was definitely Uchiha Obito. "How are you alive? And why did you join Akatsuki? Why are you impersonating Madara?"
Obito drew in a great breath and then released it in a gout of flame. At the same moment, the air began to spin, as if the scars on his face were extending into his surroundings. The flame twisted into a spiral that consumed most of Naruto's clones.
"Suiton: Suijinheki!" Itachi and Kakashi called out together, and a wall of water rose up from the sea. Steam surrounded them as Obito's katon slammed into it, but it held.
"Madara is the one who saved me. Him and Zetsu. They healed my injuries, nursed me back to health. I was determined to make it back to you and Rin and Minato-sensei. But just as I was getting strong enough to finally leave the cave where I'd been recuperating, Zetsu warned me that you and Rin were in trouble. You were being attacked my Mist-nin. I went to save you, but it was too late. You had already killed her."
"What? That makes no sense!" Naruto pointed an accusing finger at Obito. "Kakashi-sensei would never do that! On our very first mission, he said that he doesn't let his comrades die! Besides, you said yourself it was Mist ninja who were attacking them!"
"Mist ninja did attack us," Kakashi explained. "They sealed the Sanbi into Rin, hoping that it would escape from her in the middle of Konoha and destroy the village. She knew that she didn't have the power to keep it contained, so..."
Itachi picked up where Kakashi's voice had trailed off. "She asked you to kill her, didn't she?"
Kakashi didn't answer Itachi directly, instead speaking to Obito. "I had four genin teams before I took on the students I have now. I sent them all back to the Academy. Their grasp of ninjutsu was solid enough, but they didn't understand what it really meant to be a team. I was afraid they'd repeat the mistakes I made. Everyone talks about how I've copied a thousand jutsu, but I think the most important thing I've done is to teach the younger generation not to do what I did. Who knows what would have happened if I'd listened to you when you said we had to rescue Rin right away? Maybe she'd still be alive. Maybe everything that's happened to our team is my fault. But don't take it out on people who actually have a shot at not doing the same things!"
Naruto listened, remembering the day of Kakashi's bell test.
"The people whose names are engraved on this stone are heroes."
"Okay, then I'm gonna get my name put on there too! What kind of heroes are they?"
"They're heroes who gave their lives for this village. My best friend's name is carved on this stone."
"Kakashi-sensei called you his best friend!" Naruto exclaimed. "And he considered you a hero! So be a hero! But instead of being a hero who dies for the village, be the kind of hero who lives for it!"
Now Itachi chimed in. "I'm in no position to judge you for what you've done. But I can tell you that there is another way, if we're willing to foster and encourage the next generation. You've made grave mistakes. So have I. So has Kakashi-san. So has Konan-san. But all of us are picking up the pieces of what we left behind and building something stronger from them." He pointed to Naruto and Sasuke. "Help us build a world where our mistakes won't be repeated by those who come after us."
"And exactly how am I supposed to do that?" Obito asked. Tendrils of wood smashed up through the water, rising from the sea bottom far below and curving towards Itachi and Kakashi like gnarled fingers. "I attacked the village, killed the Third Hokage's wife and the Fourth Hokage too! I'm not like you, Itachi, who can go back because you were ordered to do what you did. There's no return for me. The only thing left is to keep walking this path to the end."
With a groan, Konan staggered forward and stretched out a hand. The reaching branches bleached white and began to fall apart, shedding pieces of paper like leaves. Konan straightened up as some of the papers wound around her torso, binding the wound Obito had inflicted on her. "Ame would have you," she said.
"What? But you-" He gestured to her midsection with his one remaining hand.
"And? I'm hardly an innocent flower, Obito. Even though Nagato brought back the people I killed in Konoha, that doesn't negate the fact that I killed them. If the citizens of the Leaf can accept me as an ally despite that, I can accept you. You've posed as a member of Akatsuki for years; I'm giving you a chance to join it for real. Be part of the dawn, not the darkness that it washes away!"
As the last of his Mokuton was transformed into paper, hesitation flashed across Obito's face. Kakashi saw it and pounced. "Obito, for a long time I thought you died because I was too blind to see what being a ninja really means. And then I was forced to kill Rin. Both of my best friends gone, because of me. Don't make me go through that again. Don't make me fight you to the death." It may be a guilt-trip, but it's true. My actions didn't kill Obito, and I've been given a second chance to be the kind of friend I should have been. I don't want to have to kill him for real!
Obito's shoulders slumped. "It still won't be completely over. Part of this plan is Zetsu's too, and Orochimaru's still out there somewhere..."
Konan stepped forward, crossing the gap between them and holding out one hand. "No one expects this to be easy. We've all come close to death already, and we may have only earned a temporary reprieve. But we'll try. We'll believe in the next generation, and we'll try. So...will you be part of Akatsuki? The real Akatsuki?"
Obito took her hand tentatively, as if expecting it to turn to razor-sharp paper.
Watching from afar, Zetsu hissed in disappointment. Who would have thought these brats would be able to turn both Kisame and Obito against us?
Don't worry about it,his other side reprimanded. We have all the time in the world to prepare another way for our mother to return.
"It's not fair!" Naruto pouted. "How come Sasuke and Sakura-chan get to train with Itachi and I don't? That's favoritism, that's what that is!"
Kakashi peered over the edge of his beloved orange book. "It's nothing of the sort. I said during our very first training session that Sakura is a genjutsu type, and Itachi-san is an unparalleled master of genjutsu. And of course he's perfectly suited to teach Sasuke how to better use his Sharingan. Besides, this is extra training they're doing; it's not as if it's replacing our usual work."
"Yeah, but if Sasuke does extra training and I don't, then I won't ever be able to beat him! And I have to beat him if I wanna be Hokage someday!"
"Well, that's why I'm here. You're going to be doing extra training with me."
"What kind of training?" Naruto glared at him suspiciously.
"Well, to be honest, it's really less like training and more like presenting you with a gift."
"Ah ha! I knew it! You're gonna buy me a bowl of ramen and claim that's a substitute for training!"
"Not at all-although Iruka-san did say he wanted to take you to Ichiraku when we're done here. The gift I have for you is something that used to belong to your father."
That got Naruto's attention. "Really? What is it?"
Kakashi reached into a pocket of his vest and pulled out a kunai. Unlike most kunai, it had two side-prongs in addition to the main blade, and the handle was marked with a Hiraishin tag. "Minato-sensei gave this to me when I became a jounin. Because of the mark on it, he could teleport to it instantly. He had me keep it with me, so that if I was ever in real trouble, I could throw it, and he'd come to help. If you put your mark on it, and give it to someone else, you'll be able to do the same for them."
For once in his life, Naruto was speechless for a few seconds. Then a broad grin split his face, and he said, "That's the best gift ever, Kakashi-sensei!" He put his hand on the kunai, and a second mark appeared on the opposite side of the handle from Minato's. He threw it up in the air, teleported next to it, caught it, and landed. He repeated the process over and over, bouncing around the clearing.
Kakashi watched with a faint smile beneath his mask, remembering what Obito had said. "It still won't be completely over. Part of this plan is Zetsu's too, and Orochimaru's still out there somewhere..."
That may be true, Kakashi thought. But that's why I'm going to do all I can to impart Minato-sensei's legacy...and Kushina's...to Naruto. I'll help Sakura and Sasuke get stronger too, and so will Itachi-san. There's still a storm coming, but we're all going to do our best to make sure it doesn't catch us unprepared.
A/N: Whew! This last chapter took quite some time to finish, and the story overall is longer than anything I've written since 2006. I originally started this fic as a response to a prompt, but it was clear pretty quickly that it was going to be a lot longer than the one-shot that I (and probably the prompter!) had originally envisioned.
The title of this chapter is a reference to Konan's line in the manga about being a pillar that holds up the bridge to peace. (Which, now that I think about it, is a nice callback to the first plot arc of the series, with the bridge that was Wave Country's hope being named The Great Naruto Bridge.)