The battle was won, the invasion rebuffed, and Cloud sat on his front step and thought about the past few months as he performed a little weapon's maintenance. The genin he had been given had all proven themselves to the jounin they had been with during the battle, and had been promoted to chuunin by the Shodai after the funeral for those shinobi that had fallen in battle. The Sandaime among them. There was no rush to try and find a Godaime though, not with the Shodai and the Nidaime recently resurrected. The pair were willing to once more take an active part in the governance of the village they had created, though they also both wanted to get the village stable again fairly quickly so that they would feel no guilt over returning to the Pure World where just about all of their loved ones were.
Two hot-headed boys has become calm, driven shinobi. A weak little girl had become a strong, passionate kunnoichi, while another shy girl had become confident, and knew that she had the skills to back up that confidence. A tool had been captured and slowly was turning into a person under his guidance. He'd drunk Shikaku Nara under the table after killing an S-ranked missing nin.
Not bad for a few month's worth of activity.
"Ohayo," Cloud greeted, and swung the Kubikirihoncho around in front of the two people who had been about to pass him, stopping them. He had lived in Konoha for a long time, and he knew the chakra signatures of just about every local ninja. "It's been a long time, Itachi-chan. Who is your friend?" he asked, not looking up as he set aside the whetstone, though the sword remained perfectly still and level, two feet off the ground and held there by only one hand.
"Oh?" one of the two stopped people asked. "So someone took Zabuza-chan's sword from him? That's a bit of a surprise."
"It has been a long time, Sempai," Itachi agreed. "You didn't use a sword at all, the last I knew."
"I hardly let everybody know everything about me, Itachi-chan," Cloud answered simply. "Where are your manners? I asked you who your friend was."
"It's manners to introduce yourself first," the stranger pointed out.
"I am Sempai," Cloud answered, finally looking up. "Sometimes Taicho. Every now and then I'm actually officially Sensei. Very few people know my name and I prefer to keep it that way."
"You'll never become famous that way," the stranger scoffed. He had blue skin, and marks like gills around his eyes, and a sword as large as the Kubikirihoncho at his back.
"Ah, but if everybody knows who you are, then you're not really a shinobi," Cloud countered with a wry smile. "Kisame Hoshigaki," he finished, not needing the introduction once he's actually taken in the appearance of the stranger. "Would you care to know how I killed Momochi-san?" he asked lightly.
Kisame smirked. "I will admit to curiosity," he allowed. "Zabuza-kun wasn't exactly a pushover."
The hand not holding the large sword flashed, quickly picking up the small razor that had been folded and resting by his leg, waiting its turn to be sharpened, and flicked it open. Then the little blade was tearing through Kisame's neck, just as it had torn through Zabuza's. SOLDIER speed enhanced with chakra meant that Cloud was able to quickly defeat one who expected more banter, rather than an attack from someone who was sitting down.
"That is how I killed Zabuza," Cloud said to the corpse as it bled out on the street in front of his house. Then he turned to Itachi. "What brings you home?" he asked. "Did you come to congratulate your little brother on his recent promotion to chuunin?"
"Iie," Itachi answered, apparently unperturbed by the death of his travelling companion. "Though that news does please me. Kisame and I came for the kyuubi jinchuriki, Uzumaki Naruto."
"Ah," Cloud said. "To congratulate him on his promotion to chuunin?" he suggested with a wry smirk, well aware that the scenario he'd just proposed was as likely as Orochimaru returning to life and apologising for the mess he'd caused with his attempted invasion.
"Iie," Itachi answered. "Akatsuki intends to create a new world with the power of the biiju. Of course, this requires that we have the biiju."
"Hn," Cloud grunted as he bent to examine the body of the man he'd just killed, still keeping the Kubikirihoncho level in front of Itachi. "Interesting little bauble," he commented as he pulled a ring off Kisame's left ring finger. "Imagine if that got caught on something, and I see you're wearing one as well," he noted, and slipped it into a pocket before he picked up the Kisame's bandage-covered sword, the Samehada. "What is their significance, Itachi-chan?" he asked.
"Only the leader really knows," Itachi answered blandly. "Please excuse me Sempai, but since you have managed to kill my partner, I really must withdraw and report to the leader that I will likely be unable to capture the kyuubi at this time."
"You're not excused," Sasuke's voice cut in sharply from behind Itachi. "Aniki."
"Oh, hello Otouto," Itachi greeted, turning to see his little brother. "Have you become stronger?"
"I have," Sasuke answered, his words whispering in Itachi's ear from behind as he dug the kunai in his hand sharply into his brother's chest, through the ribs and into the heart.
"Sasuke," Itachi breathed as his eyes opened wide in shock from the attack. "Oh, Otouto, you have done well," he said as he fell, obvious pride in his voice along with the unavoidable pain, and coughed up blood when he hit the ground. "Take my eyes, Sasuke. You will have the Eternal Mangekyou, and never have to fear the deterioration of your sight." Itachi coughed up some more blood, but when he looked up at his little brother again, there was such pride and love shining in his red eyes. "Sasuke. I'm sorry for the pain I caused you," he said, and coughed again. "Sasuke, I- I didn't slay our clan alone. I could -" Itachi hacked another bloody cough. "I could never have killed the children. I had-" another cough, "- orders to kill the elders and father. They were -" he hacked, and spat out the blood that filled his mouth. "Plotting a revolt. Madara killed the rest," he said, and coughed some more, straining for breath, straining to stay alive and convey this last message rather than simply accept his death. "Be careful, Otouto," he begged. "I love you, and want you to be strong. If you -" Itachi again coughed and hacked and had to spit out the blood in his mouth. "- wish to kill Madara, you must be stronger than I ever was."
"Aniki," Sasuke said softly, and knelt by his brother's side, uncaring that he was kneeling in his brother's blood, just so long as he was by Itachi's side as these truths came out at last. "I forgive you," he said, and brought up a hand covered in healing green chakra even as his eyes changed, developing the Mangekyou Sharingan as he quietly, desperately prayed he could save his brother from the death he had just inflicted. "We will kill this Madara together," he insisted softly. "We're stronger when we aren't alone, when we have someone to protect."
"Life," Cloud incanted from behind Sasuke, tapping into the magic of one of the materia in his bracer. "Regen," he continued, jumping from the lowest spell on the materia to the highest, skipping the one in the middle. The first spell made sure that Itachi wouldn't die. The second made sure that his recovery wasn't too fast, so that he wouldn't run away.
"Sensei, arigato," Sasuke said gratefully.
Cloud nodded. "Where's the rest of your team?" he asked.
"Naruto is training with Shodai-sama," Sasuke reported. "Something about Uzumaki techniques?"
Cloud nodded in understanding. "Shodai-sama's wife was an Uzumaki," he supplied.
"Ah," Sasuke said in acceptance. "And Sakura is sparring with her parents," he finished.
"Very well," Cloud said, and looked down at the two bodies on the street in front of his house. One dead, the other near-dead but recovering. "Bring him inside," he ordered. "I'll perform the surgery to swap your eyes, and then we'll go see Nidaime-sama. He doesn't have a high opinion of the Uchiha for personal reasons, but I will vouch for you both."
"Arigato, Sensei," Sasuke said, and bowed to Cloud briefly before he bent and slung his brother over his shoulders.
Cloud collected any valuables Kisame had on his person – weapons, scrolls, jewellery and the like – and then burned him on the spot with a katon jutsu. Kisame left behind the pungent smell of burnt seafood, rather than the foul and permeating smell of burnt human flesh, which made Cloud snort in mild amusement before he headed inside after the Uchiha brothers.
"Nidaime-sama," Cloud said formally as he stood in the Hokage office with the two young Uchiha men who had just enjoyed/suffered through a surgery (he'd made it as painless as he possibly could, but personal experience had Cloud firmly believing that it was impossible to 'enjoy' a surgery) that saw them swapping eyeballs with each other. It had been very successful, especially once he'd shot each of them with an Esuna and a Cure3. "I have information that Madara is still alive and plotting."
Tobirama sighed. "Of course the bastard is," he grumbled. "This information come from them?" he asked with a jerk of his chin in the direction of Sasuke and Itachi.
"From me, Hokage-sama," Itachi answered, and stepped forward to kneel in front of the desk.
"Sempai," Tobirama said lowly.
"I vouch for both of them," Cloud answered. "They're loyal Konoha shinobi who put the needs of their village and comrades before their own desires."
Tobirama huffed a bit, but nodded in acceptance. "Very well," he allowed. "What do you want to do about it?" he asked the two Uchiha in a no-nonsense, businesslike tone.
"It's a mess left behind by the Uchiha, Hokage-sama," Sasuke said plainly. "It seems only right that what is left of the Uchiha clean it up. Of course, we won't be able to do it alone."
Tobirama nodded. "Glad you know it," he answered. "Alright. I want a written report with all the details we don't have the time to actually discuss right now," he said, a scowl forming on his face. "Damn paperwork, springing up out of nowhere. Never had it when I was Hokage," he grumbled. "Just mission requests and reports. Supplies were each shinobi's own business to procure."
Cloud chuckled at his old friend. "But paperwork like this means that we haven't had to worry about war until the other week when Orochimaru invaded," he pointed out. "Every other Kage is buried in the stuff too, and doesn't have time to make war."
The Nidaime scowled at Cloud. "I'm nominating you for the position of 'Fifth'," he threatened.
Cloud shrugged. "I told you about the business I ran, didn't I?" he countered. "I managed, even if I was just scraping by. That was back before I could do clones that could help me with the paperwork though."
The scowl fell off the Nidaime's face and was replaced by an expression of shock. Then he hit himself in the head. "Clones!" he exclaimed.
"You, out," Tobirama ordered, finger pointed at Cloud. "And take those two with you." He turned to Itachi, who stood to receive his orders. "Written report on my desk within the week," he instructed, then turned to Sasuke. "And an attack plan and a list of which shinobi you want to help you and why," he finished. "Go!"
The blonde and his two raven-haired companions saluted and left.
Team Seven weren't his students any more, no, now they were a chuunin team being led by Kakashi Hatake, and each one of them had, in their own way despite still all being together, stepped up into something of a spotlight as they killed stupidly strong enemies against ridiculously impossible odds, among other incredible things. Cloud wasn't there when they did those things, but Kakashi had kept in touch with him and informed him that when they'd killed Madara (or any of the other stupidly strong enemies that had crossed their paths for that matter), that they'd done it using the simple techniques that Cloud had taught them back when they were genin. After hearing the news from Kakashi, Team Seven always came and found him and told him all over again – and he'd told them that he was proud of them, which was the truth.
Even if he did think they were too famous now to be proper shinobi.
Tobirama had nominated Cloud for Godaime, just as he'd threatened to, but the Daimyo had no idea who Cloud was, and if he hadn't ever heard of a shinobi, then there was no way he'd accept that he was good enough to hold the post of 'leader of Konoha'. Leaders of Hidden Villages, the Daimyo insisted, needed to have a reputation. Tobirama had grit his teeth at the dismissal and resisted the urge to tell the Daimyo that anybody who knew Cloud Strife knew that the reason he didn't have a reputation was because everybody who lived to speak of what he'd done was too damn scared to – and he only didn't say so because he was counted among the number that was too scared of Cloud as well.
So Jiraiya was dispatched to fetch back Tsunade for the role instead. She even came willingly when she was told that her grandfather and great-uncle were both in Konoha, brought back to life. It had been an initially tearful reunion, followed by a couple of harsh lectures about running away from the hard stuff, then more hugs. Once they got through that, they had a week of getting Tsunade properly settled in to the office. Then it was more tears as the Shodai and the Nidaime performed the release for the technique that had brought them back to life, and returned to the Pure World once more.
The bodies of the two Oto genin that had been sacrificed to bring Hashirama and Tobirama back to life were given an honourable burial.
As all this happened, Cloud carefully faded into the background of Konoha life once more, back to where he'd been before he'd been given Team Seven. He did his missions quietly, quickly, and efficiently. A mercenary for hire, just as Zack had planned way back when, but with a much better manager than running off and doing it on his own. There was even a health plan, in the event he ever got hurt worse than he could deal with himself. Hell, there was a retirement plan, not that he'd ever take advantage of it. He just kept on going, one mission at a time, moving from one set of shadows to the next until the Seventh Hokage, Uzumaki Naruto (Konohamaru had been the Sixth very briefly before being assassinated while visiting the Daimyo), called him in to a jounin meeting and asked him how he felt about the idea of taking another genin team.