Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. This is one more for the road guys. Cheers.
Epilogue: Full Circle
With the war effectively over, the early peacetime days of scrambling around for the scraps of power, land, etc. that the defeated Continental Ninja Federation dropped never occurred the way that Iwagakure had planned. The status quo had been effectively shaken.
They had been effectively frozen out while the G.S.A. seemed completely willing to negotiate and hash things out amongst themselves. In the last few months since the end of the war, even a few of the minor villages that had been enemies managed to garner entry.
This was infuriating to the proud village that had always been involved with the fallout from every single one of the three previous Shinobi World Wars, and they wanted their piece of the pie. To be kept out of such an important time in the history of the Elemental Nations simply burned them up.
They were Iwagakure. You did not forget that you set a place at the table when the time came to dice up this continent like the dessert piece that it was.
Which was why when correspondence came that Konoha was looking to meet and speak, it was readily accepted. Suna was closer, but after the stunt that Iwa tried to pull in the last few weeks of the war with their little 'Risk' strategy of taking Ame and sweeping back for Suna in one fell swoop, the desert-dwellers weren't exactly fans of them, even more so now than ever before.
With Konoha being the second closest G.S.A. power, they would be the one sending the representative.
Onoki figured that Iwagakure had been thrown a lifeline, and 'The Great Fence-Sitter' was looking to use it to pull Konoha and whatever else they could out of the boat with them.
"We could always take this opportunity to tilt things back our way." Kurotsuchi tried to urge to her grandfather as she and her partner Akatsuchi stood at his sides, "Even if he is stronger than before, he's just one guy with a three-man escort. By the time he returned to Konoha anything could have happened to him."
"Be quiet girl." Onoki groused, "This isn't as simple as him being the Kyuubi jinchuuriki. He's Tsunade's next-in-line for the Hokage seat." Whether it was in five to ten years, or whether it was tomorrow in case of an emergency, their guest was next up if the way he'd been utilized lately had been any indication, "Apparently the remaining three kage accept this as an action for the future."
The towering Akatsuchi began seemingly counting on his fingers after hearing that, "Uh… that'd make him how old when he gets it?" He asked before looking down and over at his leader, "Tsuchikage-sama, how old are you? When are you gonna pick somebody else?"
"When I find the right candidate! How many times do I have to say it?"
Kurotsuchi just crossed her arms and rolled her eyes at the predictable response that her grandfather gave. It had been the same thing for years, even decades before she was even born. It was just a sign that Iwagakure had been accustomed to the way things were. The system had been something they could easily work to their advantage. It was all a matter of playing the game.
And when it came to the game of politics in the ninja world, Onoki didn't believe for a moment that some wet-behind-the-ears apprentice knew what he was getting into.
The doors to the room opened with two Iwagakure guards flanking both sides of Konoha's diplomat until they reached the limits of the conference room.
The blue eyes of the scar-faced jounin looked around, taking in his surroundings quickly as he entered and gave a respectful bow to the Tsuchikage as he entered. His own guards were outside, and he was expecting Onoki to send Kurotsuchi and Akatsuchi away as it was meant to be a meeting between just the two of them.
"Naruto Uzumaki." Onoki greeting with an expression that could only be perceived as a wily, knowing smirk. At his gesturing, his two bodyguards left his side and exited the room, moving past Naruto.
They all remembered each other from the short time they'd met during the chunin exam in Sunagakure well over a year and a half ago. There wasn't enough history there to determine on any side whether or not they particularly liked or disliked each other.
Upon being left alone, Naruto took a seat at the table and clasped his hands in front of him on the surface; a classic negotiation posture that Tsunade had almost literally beaten it into him to take whenever put into a discussion situation such as this, "Well Tsuchikage-sama, I have to say, to hear that you reached out to the G.S.A., it surprised the Mizukage and the Raikage."
'Straight to business I see.' Onoki's smirk didn't drop however, "But not the Hokage or Kazekage?"
"Well honestly, Gaara isn't really big on this at all, so he didn't care as long as Iwa had nothing to do with Suna. At all." Naruto let his hands part for a moment to gesture in a balancing-beam manner, "We've got four villages in this thing. Give and take, checks and balances, you know."
"Well you seem to be the type that isn't too good at beating around the bush-."
'I am with people that I actually like.' Naruto thought to himself in the middle of Onoki's statement.
"-So I'll say that we should simply cut straight to brass tacks. This is for the eyes of your Hokage." With that being said, he passed a scroll across the table to Naruto that the young man opened and began to read over, "These are the terms and conditions that Iwagakure requires if our entry into the Grand Shinobi Alliance is guaranteed."
Raising an eyebrow, Naruto perused over everything requested inside just to see what this village thought they were working with here. It was interesting to say the least, whether they honestly wondered if they could get away with taking a good number of what was listed there or not.
Unconditional backing for pressing Amegakure for reparations paid on behalf of damage done to the military, "No." Territory from the western portion of the Takigakure countryside, "No." A request for a neutral site for the next chunin exam, "No." Promises of inclusion in a rumored minor-major village trade parity agreement meant to restore a semblance of economic stability to the losers of the war, "No." Allowance to annex buffer state minor hidden village Ishigakure that stands between Kaze no Kuni and Tsuchi no Kuni, "Hell no."
Onoki's smirk fell with every no he received, leaving his face with no touch of good humor upon receiving the final denial, "…You didn't even send this to your Hokage to relay to the other village leaders."
"I'm not going to either."
"I think you're forgetting your position here. You don't have the ability to make the decisions." Onoki said, dropping all pretenses of cordiality at this point. If the boy wanted to be blunt, he could do blunt, "You're basically a glorified messenger ninja in this situation. You can title yourself 'diplomat' or whatever you'd like, the game remains the same. Your job is to scurry on back to Tsunade and give this to her, and then maybe you get to come back and return here with her answer. This goes back and forth until a compromise is made that benefits both sides."
"Yeah… no." Naruto said flatly, rolling the scroll back up and setting it aside, "The reason Tsunade-baachan trusted me enough to send me here to negotiate with you so early in my apprenticeship… is because there is no negotiation. If you get into the G.S.A. you aren't getting anything. I'm the only one she could send that would flat-out say that to your face instead of dragging it out for six months with the back-and-forths."
Any diplomat from Suna would have been completely willing to show up and say it to his face just for the sake of seeing the look on it afterwards, but as Suna was right now, it might have made Iwa feel froggy enough to jump at something. With Konoha, there wouldn't be any rash responses to the declaration that there would be no concessions made.
Iwagakure was the last holdout of the Big 5 to join. That did not make them special or unique. They had missed the boat and now wanted it to turn around just for them. That was the reality of the situation. And the other four villages weren't keen on making room to a village like that.
"What the hell is this!?"
"What did you think, we were all going to give you something to sweeten the pot for trying to join? No. You get the same conditions that everyone else gets and nothing else."
And they would be lucky to get that. The only reason they were being offered the standard conditions of joining the G.S.A. was because it was simply pragmatic to get the entire continent locked down instead of allowing for separate treaties to be set to let this whole mess start all over again in less than three years. The others had asked Iwagakure to join at the outset of the tensions rising between the major and minor villages, but they simply said that it had nothing to do with them and stayed clear.
They weren't necessary now, and as things were, if the other villages so wanted they could have Iwa wither at the end of the vine so to speak.
Naruto rolled the scroll back across the table and picked up where he left off, "You don't have any leverage over any village in the G.S.A., even the small ones. You don't have a legitimate claim to a single spoil of war against the C.N.F., because you didn't fight a second of it. Yes, you lost 1000 shinobi, and that's terrible, but you were the aggressor against Amegakure."
"You think leaving us out is the best option then?" Onoki rebutted, throwing the scroll away like trash once it reached him, "Are you really sure that this is the unanimous opinion of the G.S.A.? Even the minor villages now involved?"
"Yes. Your army is hurt from the attack on Ame. You don't even have a jinchuuriki as a deterrent. So trust me when I say, you really want to join now and be done with it instead of doing whatever you think you think you're going to do to screw with things. You see, the rest of the four villages actually like each other. We all fought alongside each other and saved each other's tails. You waited the whole thing out just to see who won so you could swoop in and pick the bones."
Suna was actually hoping that Iwa would turn around and try something, because they really wanted an excuse to fight them. No one had forgotten the b.s. that they'd tried to pull with their sweep through Ame in a bid to conquer them and then swing over to Suna.
If Iwa didn't play ball, within twenty years time the Big 5 would become the Big 4 instead. None of the others really had a problem with that in the least if this was the way that it wound up happening.
"How much influence do you think you have?" Onoki asked, his glare trying to burn a hole through Naruto, "I don't mean your alliance, I don't mean your village, I mean you in particular. To say these things to me. Powerful or not, you're no kage yet. You know that I could have you crushed don't you?"
Naruto's serious countenance actually cracked a bit as his lips turned upwards, "Maybe." He wasn't going to lie. He was in the middle of Iwa and old man or not, this was still the actual Tsuchikage he was speaking to, "…But I do know every other kage in the Elemental Nations, and I know for a fact that right now they like me better than you."
If he wanted to fight, either personally or on a nationwide scale, he could feel free to do so. Whatever happened after that point was entirely up to the fates though, and if Onoki was a betting man he wouldn't have taken that wager at his most desperate.
To his horror, while he'd been sleeping the status quo had changed. The rules to the game that he had spent his entire adult life learning how to play to perfection had changed without his knowledge, and to get along in this new world he would have to go along.
Bitterly he snapped at the young jinchuuriki, "Is this the kind of Hokage Tsunade is raising?"
"No." Naruto answered straightforwardly, "It's the kind of Hokage that Tsunade is raising, that Jiraiya already raised, and that Danzo Shimura built up from scratch." He couldn't have felt anymore pride in saying that to the man across from him as he got up to leave, "So go ahead and think about that. You already have the universal concessions for inclusion in the G.S.A. Tsuchikage-sama. We'll all be waiting on your reply."
"Tayuya-chan…" Naruto warned as he and his three-guard entourage made their way back home after leaving Iwagakure, "Get that shit-eating look off of your face. Seriously. It's not funny."
"I heard all of that shit." The sound-using genjutsu specialist noted for Naruto's knowledge, bumping him with her hip as she, Naruto, Neji, and Shikamaru were exiting the country of Tsuchi no Kuni, "Seriously, soundproof walls and a privacy genjutsu cast around the room? Who do you think I am?"
Looking curiously over at Naruto who seemed to be somewhat embarrassed by whatever had been said in the conference, Neji couldn't help but wonder. All he could do was see through the walls, unlike Tayuya who specialized in sound-based things, "What exactly was said between you and the Tsuchikage?"
Tayuya gleefully opened her mouth to answer until Naruto covered it tightly, "Need-to-know." Naruto said in a chiding tone of voice that only made her eyes twinkle, "…Seriously, what am I gonna do with you?"
"There are only two things you could have said just now, so I just have to ask; was it PG?" A shake of the head told Naruto no, "Of course it wasn't."
In return, Tayuya just shrugged and chuckled huskily. What did he expect from her by now really? Tayuya had become one of Naruto's most constant bodyguards on these recent trips around the continent. Oftentimes she would try to make herself available on his excursions to ensure that she would be able to broker some guaranteed alone time with him. Tsunade tended to hog his time to drill him nonstop on what he needed to know and what would be expected of him as the Hokage.
She would have never expected it eight years ago that the stupid kid she'd chased out of Otogakure would have wound up prompting her to fall in love with him, and she never would have seen it coming that he'd wind up as next in line to be Hokage.
Either way, she was just happy that this time it was going to be a reasonably quick trip. They'd be back before anything had time to go wrong, and she even got a night to play with him in the hotel they were given rooms to stay in.
There was quite a bit of biting, scratching, bumping, and cursing to really be considered any sort of playing, but the both of them had gone to bed happy after it had all come to an end.
"You know me Uzumaki." Tayuya said to him with a grin after prying his hand away, "When it comes to you I just can't control myself." She then made sure he had his full attention, giving his hand a quick peck before visibly mouthing 'later' to him.
"As long as whatever he said doesn't get us ambushed on the way back to the village, I don't care." When it came to Shikamaru, the attitude of the chunin over the last few months since the end of the war had been mixed to say the least.
"That's not a very encouraging attitude to have." Neji said, wondering if Shikamaru was ever going to endeavor to get his mess together and get himself promoted to jounin the way that everyone else in the group managed to, "How do you hope to excel any further?"
"I really don't think I want to." The lazy genius admitted. Inside he was wrestling with himself over his dislike of doing active things, and his dislike of having responsibilities presented to him.
On one hand there was no more fighting for days at a time, which was great for him because he actually had to give his best in the field. On the other hand, Naruto had basically picked him to shore up the administrative side of things in the future once he started taking things over. While it was more appealing than fighting and leaving the village regularly, the workload that would invariably come with it left Shikamaru dreading the next five-to-ten years.
"Oh don't be such a limp-dick about it." Tayuya remarked in Shikamaru's direction, "Not getting killed isn't the only reason you should. You can find other reasons to want to do your job. For instance, for me, staying around a yellow-headed jackass that really seems to like it when I make him pull my hair and take me from mmmpfrpm." Once again, Naruto covered Tayuya's mouth.
"Naruto seems to have trouble keeping those close to him in line." Neji pointed out. But it was all in good humor. He knew for certain that Shikamaru and Tayuya would follow whatever order Naruto gave them. But they had been around each other for a long, long time.
"Well to fix it, he can stop taking his friends and lovers with him on these long mission trips out of the village." Shikamaru drawled in return, "And I'm not saying that just because I'm one of those friends he tends to bring."
"That is why you're saying that." Naruto accused, "It's not my fault the next-gen best are all people I know, including you."
"It's just troublesome, that's all I'm saying."
(Some Time Later – Konohagakure no Sato – Hokage's Office)
Months after the Fourth Shinobi World War came to an end, and while things were different, they had fallen into something of a pattern of comfortable normality again. It was a relief after a long time of uncertainty and suspense, even back before the war had actually begun.
It was over now though. Boy was it over. And she couldn't have received the news that it had been over in a more startling manner.
Tsunade's original reaction to Shiima turning up to her office and summoning a frothing at the mouth Naruto with bits of grass around his lips was absolutely priceless for the old female toad to see. The only thing better was the series of emotions that Tsunade's face went through upon being informed that the war was over and Naruto had been the one to end it, in exceedingly brave and equally idiotic fashion.
The stages of acceptance:
-Abject shock that it seemed to be over so suddenly.
-Unbridled joy and happiness that it was all over.
-Sober understanding of just what had occurred to make it all happen.
-Complete rage at the person that had decided to take matters into his own hands to do so.
Repeatedly, for several minutes until Naruto woke up and realized where he was. Then he was met with the complete rage portion of the stages. Tsunade probably would have thrown him back above the clouds if he hadn't already been suffering altitude sickness from the constant extreme shifts in altitude he'd been subjected to begin with.
This was to say nothing of the reaction of the army when Shikaku learned that the Naruto that had been with him and had been a focal point of the advance plans had been a clone.
It was then that after all his experiences in life he understood two things in particular. One; that damn it, that jutsu was dangerous, and two; that Naruto was its undisputed master.
Needless to say, the knowledge that the war had ended without a single life lost in what was shaping up to be the next and final campaign of the conflict elicited widespread cheers and celebration from the battle-hardened Konoha faithful that lasted from the early afternoon until late in the night. Even away from home they found the drive to party.
It was a celebration. Everything was over with.
Even Suna ninjas that had been coming to reinforce the Konoha divisions with extra force wound up getting swept up in all of it. People laughed, they cried, they shared stories of their experiences from everything that had occurred from day one to what they were doing when they found out that Amegakure's leadership had surrendered.
Naruto's clone stuck around due to being located by some of his actual friends. Instead of bursting the bubble of every single ninja there by saying he wasn't real, he rolled with being the genuine article for the day, and partook in the real delights and revels of victory, including lots of time with some of the women that had found themselves close to him over time.
Temari was especially excited to find him and celebrate the end of hostilities between the two sides, more than willing to steal him away and keep him to herself once she got a hold of him.
Shikaku didn't inform anyone that the Naruto with them had been fake, deciding that some things were better kept under wraps.
…As opposed to the original who spent that day in Konoha dealing with being fretted over by Tsunade while she provided him the medicine needed to fix him up quickly, and being chewed out by her as she forced him to stay behind and assist her in beginning to draft the armistice that would be sent to Amegakure.
The first thing she would make sure come hell or high water by the time she was willing to drop the reins to him was that even though you were the strongest and the leader meant to ensure the village's safety, you did not put yourself out on a limb unless there was no other option.
Things were peaceful now and though there was new business to be had, it was still just business as usual. With the war over with and done, there was a need between the four biggest villages that had come out on top to consolidate their alliance and minimize the ill feelings between the defeated minor villages (or what was left of them) so that nothing else occurred anytime soon.
"You're welcome to stay as long as you like before reporting back to your village Yugito." Tsunade said to the Kumogakure liason and Nibi jinchuuriki as another meeting had been completed.
It was inevitable that something would invariably happen to fracture the good times, but for now they would hold onto what they had fought so hard to enact between each other. All of them had come close to seeing life as they knew it warped into an ugly future forever, and while things might not have been set in stone, the future was brighter than it had been yesterday.
"I think I'll do that." Yugito accepted with a very sly, feline smile, "By the way Hokage-sama, would you happen to know where to find Naruto-kun? I haven't seen him since he came to the last Kage Summit with you. It's been a while since we… caught up. I miss him."
'I'll bet you do.' Tsunade thought to herself with a grin and a roll of her eyes, "I've been keeping him pretty busy lately, so I've given him the day to tend to his own business. It's pretty serious, but you may just be able to catch him this evening. He'll probably be exhausted though."
Yugito just waved and continued smiling over her shoulder as she saw herself out, "That's never been a problem before." She said with a closing of the door.
"…If he picks her out of the girls that are in love with him, what kind of baby would two jinchuuriki make?" Tsunade mused to herself before raising an eyebrow in a secondary thought at the quite realistic scenario that she had presented to herself, "Actually, how would that even work with two separate villages?"
(Top of the Hokage Monument)
The end of the war brought peace many people, including people that had spent their entire lives seemingly moving from one struggle to another. One man had figured that his home was in good enough hands for him to take a permanent sabbatical. After almost five decades of a ninja career, Jiraiya had decided to hang up his headband for good.
Well, unless he was absolutely needed of course. Then he'd have to step in. It was just his nature to play the hero. The world needed a man as outstanding as him to save the day every now and again, but now he could focus on his passion; writing. The fans were eagerly waiting for what wondrous tales of adventure and romance their beloved author would provide them next, and if Jiraiya was anything he was a man of the people.
Mostly the ladies, but ladies were more people than anyone in his opinion.
"It's weird you know?" The white-haired older man said with a content smile on his face, "I think this is the first time I can remember where something like this ended, and I really can't think of another enemy on the horizon to fight." Of course there would be one. There always was. But for now he couldn't see one, and that feeling was surprisingly easy for him to accept.
Jiraiya sat on the head of the Fourth Hokage that had been sculpted into the face of the mountainside, simply thinking aloud as he tried to get some work done on the next installment of his series of novels. Why the hell not? He needed the feedback after all, and he didn't really trust many with critiquing his work.
It gave him a sense of comfort to speak aloud as if he were really talking to Minato or Hiruzen depending on whose head he chose to sit on that day, as if he were filling them in on everything that had transpired since they'd departed from that plane of existence. He was glad that his final student's home, where he was now living in his retirement, was extremely close. He could go there anytime.
"Your brat's gonna take your job you know." Jiraiya said with a smile on his face as he scribbled away possible plots and new character developments in his notepad. Due to his one arm, he had to keep the pad on the surface of the carving, "It's just a matter of time now. He needs time to marinate in the expectations of the role… and no I couldn't think of a better metaphor, so shut up."
The Minato head didn't answer. It really couldn't you see. It was just made of rock. Rocks didn't really talk. You could pop off to them and smack them like the heads of stubborn children all you wanted to and you wouldn't get a response.
"Don't judge me with your silence." Jiraiya said, as if the stillness of the day were a language in of itself, "I could always tell when you were biting your tongue because you didn't want to piss someone off. That's why Kushina always called you flaky."
This time however, nature did respond, with a strong enough breeze blowing to rip out a dozen pages of notes from the worn notebook, sending them flying through the air to be scattered to the four corners of the village.
…Well didn't that suck?
Jiraiya just watched them all fly away as there was really nothing he could have done to stop them. He looked directly down, and then straight up with a sigh, "Minato, you're a real petty bastard for a guy that had a hot wife and a to-be-kage son."
Hmm. Well this might have been a sign from beyond anyway. Maybe he should retire the Icha-Icha series and take another foray into writing a traditional novel? After all, he certainly had a brand new subject that he could base story events off of this time after all.
Yeah, and now it wasn't like he didn't have the time to compile a portfolio of new ideas. He had lots of time. Nothing but time as a matter of fact.
"Ugh… but I can't reuse the character name 'Naruto' for this story though."
Perhaps he could come up with another name by staring at another meal he enjoyed? It worked once before after all.
(Meanwhile – Forest of Death)
Business as usual in Konoha meant a lot of things for a lot of people. For Root it meant covering the future Hokage's ass from the shadows and doing the things for him that he couldn't be caught doing by others around the world.
Or… you know, the whole covering his ass thing.
The only safe place in all of Konoha for Naruto to go for the final piece of business he needed to settle up before looking forward to the future was deep inside of the Forest of Death. Not for him of course, because the Forest of Death was anything but safe, but for the village.
Even if the Kurama had promised on his tails not to raze Konoha to the ground if he managed to win and free himself, the act of him being released anyway would be extremely destructive to anything in the immediate vicinity.
Of course at the moment there were enough deadly things in the forest to worry about before worrying about something that Naruto was already on the job of handling. In Sai's opinion, the spiders in the Forest of Death had evolved again and become the dominant species. They were also extremely territorial.
The feeling of the Kyuubi's chakra emanating from Naruto seemed to keep them from straying too close, but you never knew. Those spiders had the instincts of top-flight predators.
"I really must say Kiyomizu-san, that I feel uneasy having you here for this task." Sai commented, hand on his tanto just in case something went down out of the blue. He was not going to be caught slipping by any of those damn spiders. They already killed around seven of them on the way to the clearing area, and they were bigger than ever, "I can't guarantee your safety to Naruto-senpai, so I don't know why you wanted to come here."
He and Maki should have been more than enough to protect Naruto from spiders, but since Hamako had come along as well, she'd brought four of her transforming golems that would defend her with lethal force if the need arose. Maki was more than willing to accept the help of the will-free equalizers, but Sai was still wary of them after his first brush with one years ago.
"When it comes to a matter of seals I will always be there for my master, no matter the danger." Hamako commented brightly, hands on Naruto's stomach so that she could monitor his progress with his biju control battle properly, "This is my duty as a retainer of the Uzumaki Clan, and I will lovingly serve its head as needed."
"What does 'as needed' mean Kiyomizu-san?" Maki asked, sitting patiently on the ground, eyes constantly panning to her beloved senpai in the hopes that he would awaken soon with full control of the biju within him.
"Exactly as it sounds Maki-san. But I'm assuming you mean physically? You already know that I am master's mistress."
"Why does that not bother you?"
"I've already told you why."
"If memory serves correctly Maki-san…" Sai interjected in the feminine discussion, "…Didn't Danzo-sama deign you to be the future wife of Naruto-senpai? You even claimed to me that you were willing to wed him if the mission required it. So if anyone should understand performing one's duty it should be you. Unless you're indicating that you would enjoy adhering to that task."
Maki simply stared at Sai as blankly as she could muster her facial muscles to allow, 'Sai-senpai, I'm so sorry to inform you that I'm afraid your days of flustering me with remarks on my relationship with Naruto-senpai are behind us.'
Naruto had made sure that Maki had more than accepted the fact that not only did she have feelings for him, she more than enjoyed acting upon them. She delighted in getting him to hold her. She oftentimes enjoyed checking in on Naruto at night after Tsunade was done sending him on errands, the intimacy he gave her keeping her coming back.
If she was ever indeed directed to follow through with Danzo's original intentions for her, she knew without a doubt that she would do so with great enthusiasm.
The very small but victorious smirk on Maki's face upon not allowing herself to be rattled by Sai's comments died when she realized that Hamako was staring directly at her with an unreadable expression on her face.
The white-haired girl was no fighter, but what she had shown herself to be capable of creating with her sealing abilities proved to be quite imposing. It was quite possible that the chesty young woman could give someone hell if she so wished.
"If this is indeed the case…" Hamako said to Maki, "…Then the day that this occurs and another woman becomes Naruto-sama's legal wife, whoever it is will receive the same power over me that Naruto-sama does. Slightly less, as his orders will always override that of any other, but nevertheless-."
"-What does that mean exactly?"
"If you wed my master I will also serve you as is needed, no matter the task." She then remembered what Maki's definition of serving someone as needed apparently was and added on to her comment, "I do not think conceding to your physical whims as well would be that much of an issue for me if you're curious about that."
Maki, fully red-faced now, turned back to Sai who merely waved at her in response, a forced smile on his face. He was getting way too good at the whole subtle manipulation of others' behavior as far as she was concerned. Maybe Danzo picked the right person to take over Root after all.
And as her eyes drifted back to the steadily meditating Naruto, she told herself that maybe he had picked the right person to take over as the eventual Hokage as well.
'I wonder Danzo-sama…' Sai thought to himself, also turning his attention to Naruto, if only momentarily, 'What would you think about the way things seem to be heading?'
(Inside of Naruto's Mindscape)
Opening his eyes inside of his mind, Naruto was greeted with the sight of an unfamiliar place. But something about it seemed to resonate in his mind somehow. It was a village, and it was fairly large, but seemed to be rather old. The structures were built with an older architecture than he would have associated with any modern hidden village.
Walking down a main street, something about that place seemed to vaguely resonate with him. And when he found a four-way intersection and found the insignia carved into the pavement, he found out why.
"Uzushigakure?" In a panic, Naruto began looking around rapidly. The last thing that had occurred before he'd used the key to open Kurama's seal for the fight was a bright flash of light as Kurama let him in for the two of them to have it out. Then he appeared in the home of his clan of all places, "That doesn't make any sense. I don't even know what this place would've looked like back before it was destroyed."
If his mind was going to dump him into Uzushiogakure for the final battle, he would have expected it to be the old ruins that he had traversed when he and Sai found Hamako and the heirloom sword. He didn't think his imagination was that vivid to make an image of an intact village in his head with this much detail. For Kami's sake he could smell the saltwater in the air.
"Well yeah sweetie you don't, but I do."
Wait. This was his mind. There shouldn't have been anyone else in his mind but Kurama. If Kurama was behind him speaking to him though, he would have run him through with one of his claws like a skewer stick.
And sweetie? If Kurama ever had the lapse of mind to call him that, he'd kick his ass out of principle. And Kurama would probably help Naruto beat the hell out of himself for allowing that to ever even come out of his mouth. It sounded like a woman had said it anyway.
Turning around to find out just who had the nerve, Naruto came face-to-face with someone he'd only seen once in a stray picture. Long red hair, violet eyes, and the warmest smile he'd ever seen any other human give him in his entire life; a maternal one. This couldn't have really been Kushina though, could it have?
Naruto took two steps back and looked around suspiciously, "Kurama you jerk! You called 'no illusions' months ago! We both agreed!" They agreed mostly because neither could consciously do them. He was prepared to keep calling out his tenant until the woman's warm hand rested on his face.
"I'm not an illusion." She said, before taking a moment to think and amend her statement, "Well, I'm kind of an illusion in a technical manner of speaking. I kind of imprinted my chakra inside of your seal for when you finally decided to take the plunge and fight the Kyuubi."
Wide-eyed, Naruto stared at the woman as she continued to stroke his cheek fondly, "So you're a chakra imprint put in my seal."
"That was supposed to manifest when I went to fight Kurama."
"Ooh, my baby's smart."
"…I still think you're an illusion."
"Not too smart though. Good." The woman said with a bright smile, "If you were too smart you'd make me feel dumb, and you'd never make your mother feel like that would you?"
Kushina found herself almost lifted up off of the ground when Naruto wrapped his arms around her in a hug. Ah, he didn't think she was an illusion. He just simply couldn't believe that he was actually in the presence of his mother. It was more along the lines of his mother's chakra. Eh, same difference either way, it didn't matter.
In the end, Kushina still returned the tight hug as hard as she could, marveling in how big and grown up her son was. The last time she'd seen him, the only time she'd seen him, he'd been so little and defenseless.
Now she felt like the one that was defenseless. Now he was as strong as she could have ever imagined he'd ever grow to be. She could feel it just from being there.
"Heh… I thought you would have been somewhat expecting me at some point." Kushina said, still hugging her son, "Since Minato isn't here too I assume he's already run through his shot with the imprint. He didn't say anything about me?"
At that, Naruto blinked and pulled away from the woman that birthed him, giving her a somewhat vacant stare as he tried to remember, "Uh… it was kind of hectic at the time when we met. The only things I really remember are getting an explanation about the masked guy in Akatsuki and bitch-slapping dad."
"You bitch-slapped Minato?" Kushina asked him in amazement.
"He told me to."
"He told you to bitch-slap him?"
"Not… in so many words." Naruto admitted sheepishly. Minato hadn't necessarily told Naruto to hit him. He just said he would rather have had Naruto express some sort of anger at him to make him feel better for the sealing. To Naruto's amazement, Kushina actually began laughing on the spot.
"You backhanded him. Oh, you're my son." Kushina said, wiping a forming tear of humor from her eye, "Why use the back of the hand?"
Naruto hadn't really thought about it until the question had been raised by his mother, Minato's wife, "Honestly?" Kushina nodded, honestly wanting to know despite Naruto's hesitance to say something disparaging about his father right to his mother, "Bitchface. His face is too perfect for a grown man, a grown ninja man, to have. No wrinkles, no scars, no marks, nothing. He needed to be slapped with knuckle to leave a mark or something."
With the way his own face naturally looked, Naruto expected his father's face to have some character. Some wear. Some sort of indication that this was a man that would kill your army in flashes of yellow in between periodic sessions of stopping in front of you and laughing at the look on your face while he did it.
Thank the heavens that he got most of his facial definition from his mother's side of the family, even though her face didn't look anything like his other than a few particular traits.
Maybe if he'd been raised with it Naruto would have gotten used to Minato's face. Hell, maybe if he'd been raised by Minato the man would have lived long enough for his face to get some marks of character, but that was not the case.
"Exactly." Kushina said, dusting Naruto on the shoulder with a grin on her face, "People didn't get it why I always said he was girly. I love that man with all of my heart, but most women have to wear makeup to make their face look as unblemished as Minato's."
"Oh I think I love you more than anything else in the world right now."
"You'd better. I'm your mother."
The shared mirth between the two of them tapered off and only a desire to make this moment last as long as possible remained.
They both knew it wouldn't. It couldn't. But for a short while they could pretend that they were really together. That Kushina had lived to see the ups and downs, both the horrible and the wonderful things that made her son who he was, and all of the events in life that made him the man that stood before her.
"So you defeated the masked man?"
"Did you find out who it was?"
"I saw under the mask, but I didn't recognize them." Naruto told her, "I don't care who it was. He didn't deserve a name. He took my mother from me."
Kushina reached out and held Naruto's face in her hands. She just couldn't get enough of looking him over. It was incredible to her. Even with the fuuinjutsu clearly disguising whatever was in his right eye socket and the vertical scar that adorned the skin on the brow and just underneath on the cheek.
Tears came to her eyes. If she or Minato had been around, things could have been safer. If they'd been there so many things would have been different. He wouldn't have had to live in the dark for as long as he did just for Konoha.
As she let the tears fall down her cheeks, Naruto just smiled at her, "Mom it's okay. A lot of things happened, and I've done a lot of bad things. I've hurt a lot of people. I used to be such a prick to people. I still am kind of. And maybe with you or dad, or both, I would have been a better person. I just want to know, if you don't tell me anything else… I just need to hear you tell me if you're proud of me or not."
Kushina's breath hitched as she bit back a sob.
"No matter what, if you say yes or if you say no-." Naruto continued, trying to keep her from sobbing, "-I just want to know what you think of who I am. There's nothing you can say to make me not love you mom. You gave everything for me. And you should get to judge for yourself how the results of your and dad's sacrifice turned out."
Looking at his face, into his eyes, there wasn't any cold emotionless. He was putting himself out there on the line to get the truth from her. It was all he wanted. Luckily the truth was all Kushina was prepared to give. She was never one for lying, even as a kunoichi.
"You've done so much." The redhead started to say, "Pleasant and unpleasant things. Difficult things. Things that make me laugh, things that make me cheer, things that make me cry. You've touched a lot of people's lives, some I'm not sure I'm too fond of honestly, but they're important to you which is what counts. You've hurt a lot of people too." Naruto's face fell at hearing the double-edge of Kushina's words, "But no matter what, you're my baby. And you've done more than Minato and I could have ever hoped from you. I'm proud of you, and even if I'd been there with you nothing about that would have changed."
To top this off, Kushina removed Naruto's headband and laid a long, thoughtful kiss on the center of his forehead. She pulled back to find that Naruto was crying as well.
"Oh man." Naruto said, shaking his head in happy disbelief. He had to say that it was a good thing he didn't know Edo Tensei. He might have been tempted to use it on his enemies just to bring Kushina back every now and again, "Oh man, oh man, oh man. This is not what I need right now mom! I'm about to get into a fight with a biju!" He remarked playfully while wiping at his eyes.
Kushina put on a smile herself despite her reddened, puffy eyes, "Well don't lose your edge! I'm gonna be watching and I want to see you win a fight in person!"
"Hah! You think he can beat me on his best day?" At the sound of that familiar, gravelly voice of authority and power, Kurama seemed to fall from the sky right in front of them and obliterate entire blocks of the mindscape village with the impact he made on the ground, "Ahh, I've been waiting a long time for this Naruto. You have no idea how happy I am to fight this fight."
With the face of his partner/enemy facing him, Naruto chuckled and moved his mother behind him, "Kurama, Kurama, Kurama. It'd be easier to just give up and say that we're partners. Just don't go crying to my mother when I whip you in front of her." He said, his eyes taking on the signs of Sage Mode as both Uzumakis grinned widely.
"And don't you go crying to her when I wipe up this village with your face." The titanic fox said, staring down at the two of them with a vulpine grin and intense red eyes.
However despite the tough talk, there was no malice between Naruto and Kurama in the slightest.
This moment had been established from the very beginning of their working relationship, back when they'd made first contact with one another in Naruto's Root training days. They would fight one another for Kurama's freedom when Naruto was ready to take him on. Receiving the key from Jiraiya was the cue that the time had come, and Naruto had been a man of his word.
Naruto was the only human that Kurama respected unconditionally for more than purely his strength.
And it wouldn't be that bad to hang around if this boy was his partner. No, that was loser talk. He was going to win and free himself once and for all.
Kurama didn't have access to Sage Mode because he would really be moving while Naruto's body on the outside and could actually draw in the energy nonstop due to the stillness of his body. Naruto didn't know how to Sharingan-genjutsu Kurama for an easy victory. Things were as fair as they were going to get for both sides, "Whenever you're ready fleshbag."
Naruto drew his sword from his back and instantly transformed it into his powerful armor, balancing out its energy with Sage Mode. A small gasp came from Kushina behind his as she touched at the shoulders of the transformed Sen'nenki no Ken protecting her son's body and enhancing him even beyond Sage Mode.
"I was gonna kind of help you cheat to beat him." Kushina admitted with a sheepish look before moving out of the way. Far out of the way, "I think I'd rather watch this for now though. Don't worry about a thing and go all out! I can't be hurt here!"
Kurama simply let her move before turning his attention back to Naruto, "So how are you feeling about all of this? After everything that's happened, and what may come. Tell me. I really want to know." He wanted to hear firsthand the things that made him the kind of person he respected.
Naruto shut his eyes and sighed, "Happy about everything that we've done, scared but really excited too about what might happen, really hopeful that this is just the start… I can't even tell you everything! Not at one time on the spot!" With that done, he opened his eyes, a determined smirk on his face as he settled down and steeled himself for the fight. The blades on the tips of his fingers shining just as brightly as his hair and eyes, "I'm not done moving forward yet."
'Naruto Uzumaki, this is who you are.' Kurama thought to himself with no small measure of pride as he faced the diminutive human down.
"Now let's see if I can get to what's at the end of that horizon." The to-be Hokage said as he faced down his inner demon, "Because I'm definitely gonna be dragging you along with me for the ride."
Well, for better or for worse that's how it is guys. Over three years, over 650k words, a lot of effort, and a lot of growing pains as far as writing went in my own personal opinion. This is what we've got at the end of it.
I can't even believe that. Three years. When I think of all of the things that have happened to me over the course of three years… man. And it's finally over.
I want to thank everyone that made this one my most reviewed story ever. For whatever reason, back when I wasn't even that good at this whole writing trip, this one somehow got a ton of attention and I always tried to do right by it as I slowly improved. There's a lot I did in the earlier parts of this story that I don't like in hindsight (I can't even stand reading the first 20 chapters back to be honest), but I tried to keep to the spirit of what I started.
Whether you loved it or you hated it, or you hated ME, you still gave it a chance and that's all I could ask for.
With that being said, I bid you all adieu. Now everybody out there in internet land… please.
Go get some sun.
Unless it's nighttime where you are.
If it's nighttime just ignore me and keep doing whatever it is you're doing.
Now I'm going to go and do awesome things to take the edge off of bringing this bad boy to a close.