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The Fox Kit

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i. i.

It was a generally accepted rule that no matter how great an infant’s chakra reserves that it was completely and utterly impossible for said child to physically manifest a friend for themselves out of thin air.

Except, of course, in the case of a baby with a malevolent chakra construct sealed in his gut.

Or, well, no. Because the case of Kurama and Naruto was not one that Gaara and Shukaku would replicate without example, because unlike the Ichibi who had been sealed into Gaara shortly before his birth – and with a faulty seal at that – the Kyuubi had been curled in Kushina’s stomach since long before Naruto’s conception. Kurama had felt the first precious stirrings of life from within his prison, and perhaps at first he had been resentful of that little bundle of nerves and chakra forming within Kushina’s womb that would one day enter the world and be able to roam freely.

But for ten precious months, that growing baby had been his, wrapped safely in the embrace of his tails, swaddled by his chakra.

And then – the Sharingan.

Kurama remembered red eyes and grief and fear and fury unlike anything else, the feeling of buildings crushed beneath his paws, trees levelled by his tails, freedom at last! Madness.

Sealed again and missing a good portion of his chakra. No, not just a good portion. His entire Yin half.

Locked away.

Weak.

Angry.

Alone.

But his previous jailor was dead. Kushina had not survived. Neither had that Minato-brat.

No, they had sacrificed themselves, and Kurama was trapped in the belly of their infant son, Naruto. His jailor was his child, the one he had guarded so jealously for ten months.

It’s not so bad, Kurama thought, curling himself into a ball within the seal and wrapping his tails around himself as he licked his metaphorical wounds. At least it’s the Fishcake. My Fishcake. My kit.

But it was so bad, because Naruto was just as lonely as Kurama had ever been. He lay in his crib at the hospital and cried and cried for the mother that he had never met, for the tender affection that no adult would give him. Feeding and changing was done with brisk efficiency, and then he was left alone again, by himself, in a world that was large and confusing and all brand new. He was moved to the orphanage, and the caretakers were swamped with orphans from the Kyuubi’s rampage, and no one had a moment extra to spare with soothing the desperately confused jinchuuriki.

Naruto was three months old and howling for attention just gone four in the morning when the seal slipped and leaked chakra for the first time. He had been put in a room by himself, so he didn’t wake the other small children when he wailed at night, but one of the caretakers came past and snarled at him to be quiet, kami help them.

And then they stormed back out of the bare dark room and baby Naruto was left all by himself and he didn’t know why, and it wasn’t anger that made the seal falter, it was alone-alone-alone.

Kurama couldn’t break the seal. He couldn’t let much chakra slip through at all, and what he did get out he tamped down tight on so as not to warn those animal-masked ninja that lurked in the shadows and on the rooftops but never interacted with the baby. Painstakingly slowly, carefully, he made himself a body with that little tendril of chakra, until, at last – he took the form of a fox.

Well, not really. Not a grown fox. Not a fox with nine tails. Nothing remotely like the Kyuubi no Kitsune, who was taller than the Hokage monument and could level mountains with a single swipe of a paw or tail.

To an outside observer, the body he formed would have appeared like that of a very young fox kit, eyes just open and still filmy with the milky blue of infancy, body rotund and fuzzy, legs stubby, canine teeth only just erupting from his gums, tail not yet bushy, ears still little and flat against his head.

But that was alright, he didn’t need to be large for the task he set himself. He didn’t need all the tremendous amount of chakra that was still locked away behind the seal on the baby’s stomach. This tiny droplet was enough, and he squirmed and wriggled across the blankets in the crib to the side of the bawling infant to tuck his cool nose against Naruto’s neck.

The baby gave a little whimper of surprise and flailed one of his tiny fists, bonking Kurama on the head.

“Ouch!” the fox kit hissed, and the vocal chords in this body were small and underdeveloped, so he spoke in a high squeak-whisper and not his usual thunderous rumbling growl, the growl that shook humans right through to their bones, but that was okay because he was interacting with a very small human baby who he had no desire to intimidate whatsoever. “Don’t hit me, Fishcake. I came all the way out to comfort you, you ungrateful little brat.”

He pushed closer to the baby, snuffling Naruto’s ears and making him giggle with his tickly little whiskers, then giving his face a thorough licking to wipe all the salty tears off his cheeks. Before long, Naruto fell asleep, and the little part of Kurama that had managed to wriggle free of the seal curled up beside him, keeping watch in the dark.

“My name is Kurama,” he said very quietly to the slumbering baby. “And you’re mine, so I’m going to look after you, since these useless humans are doing such a lousy job. And you better listen to me, because I’m thousands of years old and know more than they could ever possibly comprehend.”

It took months, but Kurama managed to get a little more of his chakra free of the seal – just a tiny amount, a teaspoon from the ocean, a grain of sand from the desert. He grew as Naruto did, and when Naruto began to toddle, Kurama was the size of a fox-kit maybe four weeks old and could tumble along beside him. For a long time, Kurama hid whenever the caretakers came, until one afternoon when Naruto was let outside to play by himself, and it was feasible for him to “find” an equally orphaned fox kit while he was out and roaming, and from then on they were inseparable.

Of course, the villagers hated it. Said it was the Kyuubi’s influence. Said it was unnatural, that the Kyuubi’s container should attract foxes. Even the Hokage seemed notably uneasy, whenever Naruto and the fox kit were brought to visit his office, though the old man never voiced his concerns aloud.

If only they knew! Kurama would think and laugh to himself as he draped his little slip of fox-chakra body over Naruto’s shoulders like a living scarf.

By the time Naruto started at the Academy, the fact that Kurama was always by his side was a given, and he was accepted into the classroom at his boy’s side with only an anxious side-eye and a murmur that the adults were careful to prevent Naruto from hearing but which did not slip Kurama’s notice.

 

ii.

 “You are the Demon Fox,” Mizuki said, grinning, a malicious gleam in his eye, like he expected this secret to shatter Naruto’s entire world-view and send him undone.

Naruto stared at him, blankly. “Uh. What?”

At his side, Kurama covered his muzzle with a paw to hold in his guffaws. Naruto was, admittedly, not the sharpest kunai in the pouch, even after years of his tutoring, and Kurama was quite willing to admit that under different circumstances his boy probably wouldn’t have found out about the Kyuubi sealed in his gut until this very moment. It was a S-Rank secret, after all, and treasonous to speak about in front of the younger generation.

Fortunately, Kurama was not a citizen of Konoha but a millennia-old chakra-construct who had no qualms whatsoever about sharing secrets with his boy. As such, Naruto had known he was the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki for almost as long as he could talk. This might have presented a problem, as Naruto had a very big mouth and might have told anyone this, except Kurama had convinced him not to. It would be an excellent prank, Kurama had explained, to pretend they didn’t know, and watch everyone else go around tripping over themselves trying not to blurt it out.

Naruto might not have been the conventionally brightest kid out there, but he was as wily as a true kitsune, and perfectly willing to play any prank Kurama could think up with the sole proviso that they not permanently harm anyone.

Incidentally, this was also how Kurama had gotten away with being a talking fox for twelve years with no one the wiser. After he explained the concept of the long con to Naruto, his boy-kit was wholly on board.

Now, though.

“He’s lying, Naruto!” Iruka said, around a gurgling bloody cough.

Kurama nudged Naruto’s ankle and coughed surreptitiously, casting a sideways glance at Iruka, who was seriously injured, fuma-shuriken in his back as he protected the small boy, but not about to die.

“Sorry Iruka-sensei,” Naruto murmured so softly only Kurama, with the sharp ears of a fox, and Iruka, who was right there, would hear him. “I know, I know.”

And the expression of blank incomprehension had cleared from Naruto’s face, and suddenly he was grinning in a way that Kurama recognised as mischievous, though other people might misunderstand it for pure evil solely for the number of times it preceded the most nefarious and colourful pranks they could think of. Naruto threw his head back, fell onto the ground, and cackled, and using Iruka’s torso as a visual shield, he went through the hand-signs for the henge.

He promptly turned into a fox that looked remarkably like the Kyuubi. The actual Kyuubi inside the seal, with blood-red eyes with slits for pupils, dark black lines across his face, deep russet fur, and nine long, lashing tails. He was only about the size of a small dog, and nowhere near the mountainous form of the actual Kyuubi, and he was leaking absolutely no malevolent chakra whatsoever, which would have been a dead giveaway that this was a simple henge to almost anyone in their right mind.

Mizuki was mad with desperation for his gambit to pay off.

Naruto winked at one of the three ANBU the Hokage had sent with him hidden in the trees.

Because Naruto mightn’t have been the brightest, but Kurama was a fox, and he knew sly and underhanded tricks when he saw them. So, when Mizuki had suggested stealing the Scroll of Seals, Kurama had told Naruto to go straight to Jiji. Naruto was just the disliked jinchuuriki child, not even a shinobi, prone to reckless pranks, and Mizuki was a generally respected non-combatant chuunin, which meant Naruto’s word didn’t stand for much, even if the Hokage was fond of him.

They hatched a plan and laid a trap and Mizuki had walked right into it.

Iruka should not have been a part of the genuine search party sent out after Naruto, who were mostly jounin and ANBU in-the-know with the sole exception of Mizuki himself, which meant Mizuki must have been the one to rope him into the search.

Regrettable.

Not unsalvageable, though Kurama knew Naruto would feel terrible for a while.

Naruto laughed again, and his laugh was the Kyuubi’s laugh, a deep rumbling growling chuckle, and gently, gently, he pushed Iruka to the side with one paw and moved into the centre of the clearing to face Mizuki. Kurama made himself useful and sat on Iruka’s uninjured leg to pin him with a flat amber stare to keep him from interfering.

“You’re quite right,” Naruto-the-fox grumbled at Mizuki, who had suddenly become very pale. “I thought I had been concealing myself rather well. What gave me away, little shinobi?”

“The – the – the seal,” Mizuki stammered.

“What seal?” Naruto growled, and no-one but Kurama heard the question in the rumbling voice.

Ah, even in his stupidity his boy was wonderfully intimidating!

Mizuki turned to run.

Naruto, faster on four legs than two because he’d been using the henge technique to turn into a fox to run around with Kurama almost since he’d started the Academy, cut him off, and chased him towards the hiding places of the ANBU, who dropped out of the trees they were hiding in at the last moment, trapping the white-haired chuunin between them and Naruto-the-fox.

“What?” Mizuki cried, utterly confounded, right before one of the ANBU incapacitated him.

Naruto dropped the henge with a poof and stood in the clearing in the moonlight giggling at a prank well-pulled off.

“I can’t believe Mizuki-sensei fell for that!” he crowed gleefully, dancing on the spot and clapping his hands. “Thank you, ANBU-san! Tell Jiji I’m bringing his fancy scroll thing right back. I just want to make sure Iruka-sensei is okay.”

Kurama felt Iruka slump in relief, and now he licked the man’s closed eyes, more to be annoying that anything else.

Iruka groaned. “Stop it, Kurama.”

Incidentally, Kurama may have earned himself a bit of a reputation for being an absolute nuisance in the classroom when he wasn’t napping on Iruka’s desk, but Iruka always gave the best ear-skritches when Kurama gave him sad puppy-dog eyes and Iruka forgave him his transgressions. He was even better than Akamaru, an actual puppy, at the puppy-dog eyes! Take that, Akamaru!

“Iruka-sensei!” Naruto cried, throwing himself bodily onto the ground beside Iruka. “Did you see? I tricked Mizuki-sensei good. But he tried to trick me first. You can’t graduate by stealing this funny scroll thing and learning a technique. That’s lies. I asked Jiji.”

“So Hokage-sama…?” Iruka said.

“We set a trap,” Naruto said, sitting up to rub his hands together and grin with far too many teeth on show. “And Mizuki-sensei sprung it. Oh, but while we were waiting, me and Kurama, I did learn a technique from this scroll, because it was boring, and Jiji didn’t say not to. Do you wanna see?”

And then he executed the kage bunshin technique and created half-a-hundred of himself.

“I couldn’t do the regular bunshin because I have too much chakra!” he told Iruka cheerfully. “So much chakra. I thought I was going to have to spend a whole ‘nother year practicing water-walking to get my chakra control good enough to do one, you know! Once I could walk over the rapids by the waterfall below the bridge without falling in, that’s when my control would’ve been good enough! Or, well, maybe never. I’m not sure. How do I explain? It’s a little like trying to thread a needle – you know, a quilting needle, one of those ones with the really small eyes – with a mooring rope. I’m pretty sure my chakra control could be so good I could walk on the water particles in the air and still not be able to make a bunshin. Hey, sensei, is that possible? Anyway, now I can do the kage bunshin, so it doesn’t matter, so does that mean next time I can skip class and just come back for the exam? A whole six months to do pranks… Oh, I can send a clone to class, and my henge skills are awesome so I’ll always have an alibi and everything, you know!”

Iruka went a little green around the gills, which Kurama found amusing to watch, and actually made a squeaking noise. “I think, Naruto,” he said quickly. “That you have displayed sufficient skill to graduate now. I’ll make a special exception.”

Naruto sat back and eyed him suspiciously. “You’re not just saying that?”

“No, no, you’ll make a very good ninja. You’ve proved yourself admirably today!” He paused. “But… Naruto, I have to ask. How did you know the fox looked like that?”

“Eh? Oh, you mean that Demon Fox Mizuki was talking about? I guessed. It had to be scary, right? Because otherwise no one would’ve been afraid of it. Did I get it right?” He grinned.

Iruka looked troubled.

“I mean,” Naruto went on, forming the hand-seals for another henge. “It wasn’t like anyone woulda been afraid of that big old fox if he looked like this!” And with a poof he’s turned into a knee-high kitsune with nine tails, except unlike before his fur was a soft pastel pink, his eyes were big and earnest and blue, each fluffy tail was tied with a red ribbon, there was a heart-shaped white patch of fur on his chest, and he was wearing a bedazzled red collar with a little tinkling silver bell on it. “This wouldn’t’ve been scary at all!” Naruto said, in a high trill, sitting back on his haunches.

Kurama was secure enough in his sense of self that he did not find this offensive in the least. Rather, he let out a howl of fox-laughter and fell off Iruka’s knee to roll on the forest floor, cackling with glee. “That’s brilliant! I’m never forgetting that!” he yowled, happily.

So many people had been left traumatised by the attack twelve years ago, and Kurama suddenly had an excellent idea about how to make them feel less frightened by the concept of nine-tailed foxes. Sure, it was his own dignity at stake, but he’d spent years pretending to be a mostly helpless fox-kit, and he could see the humour in the situation.

Iruka stared, and then chuckled lightly.

“Naruto,” he said. “You know that what Mizuki said wasn’t true, right? You’re not the Kyuubi. You’re Uzumaki Naruto.”

“Of course,” Naruto said, still pink and fluffy. “Why wouldn’t I be Naruto? Can I tell you a secret, Iruka-sensei?”

Iruka hedged.

“I think,” Naruto went on, not noticing his hesitation. “That Mizuki-sensei let the stress of the exams get to him and he went a bit mad. I hope he feels better soon. Oh, but you’re hurt, and I forgot! You should go to the hospital! Do you need help to get there?”

 

iii.

Kurama had taught Naruto all sorts of things over the years. Bits and pieces of unconventional wisdom that Naruto would not have learned anywhere else.

“Foxes,” he told Naruto once, as they were curled in the long grass in the shade beneath a tree, relaxing through the hottest part of the day. “Have to be wily. They’re predators, yes. They hunt to survive, so they must be crafty to catch their prey. But foxes are not the biggest animal in the forest. There are wolves and tigers and bears, and all of them will eat a fox, if they can catch him. So, a fox must also be crafty, that he can avoid the bigger predators. Shinobi are like foxes. They’re stronger than the civilians, who are like mice and rabbits, but there are always bigger and stronger shinobi, like the bears and tigers and wolves.”

“Like kages and the sannin?” Naruto had asked.

And Kurama had grinned foxily. “Indeed.”

Other things, too. Such as:

“Don’t just trust your eyes. Your ears and your nose are just as useful!”

And:

“The reason you have so much trouble with some jutsu is because you have too much chakra. It’s like you need a single spoonful of water, but you’re trying to get it from a raging waterfall, so you always end up with more than you need, and anything that needs precision gets so overpowered that it fails. There will be some things you will never be able to accomplish – I would not recommend medical jutsu, you’ll kill anyone you try it on, and you’ll never be good at genjutsu, but you should be able to get the Academy Three down with enough training. Uh. Hopefully.”

And:

“Your mother’s name was Uzumaki Kushina. I did not like her, and I will admit I wished for her to die so I would be free, but her death was ugly, and I’m sorry for it, kit. Your father was the Yondaime Hokage. Namikaze Minato… He was a good man. He had this technique called the Hiraishin – a time-space jutsu – that let him teleport from one place to another. They called him the Yellow Flash. He died sealing me into your stomach. I’m sorry for that, too. But! You have a brother. Sort of. Not a biological brother, or really an adoptive brother because he was never officially adopted, but there was a silver-haired kid with a mask that the Minato-brat took in a few years before you were born. Hatake Kakashi We’ve seen him. He’s in ANBU. He was Hound-san, you know, the one who was always kind when you were little?”

“He went away, though,” Naruto said.

“I think they made him,” Kurama replied. “He was a good kid, but he’s really sad. Remember he always smelled sad.”

“Why?”

“He lost his team, and his father killed himself when he was small. He’s all alone.”

And:

“The Sharingan is extremely dangerous, Naruto. Never look someone with a Sharingan in the eye. Of course, the Uchiha Clan is the only clan with that Bloodline Limit, and most of them are dead.”

“Uchiha. Like Sasuke?” Naruto asked.

Kurama nodded, solemnly. “Sasuke is the last, except for his brother, Itachi – but Itachi was the one to massacre his entire family and abandon the village.”

A long pause. “Wait, so that bastard is an orphan, like me?”

Kurama rolled his eyes. “Yes, kit. And you don’t have to love him, but he has no one left. He had a family, and he loved them – or I assume he did, unless the Uchiha madness got him early but he doesn’t seem mad to me, just a bit prickly. He had a family, and he loved them, and then he lost them, overnight. A whole clan. His mother and father and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. Everyone. People, humans, like you, they don’t come out of that sort of thing unscathed. It has a lasting effect. Don’t hate him. Regardless, we’re talking about the Sharingan.”

“Only the Uchiha family have it?” Naruto said.

“Yes and no,” Kurama replied. “It can be… taken. An awakened Sharingan can be stolen from a corpse and implanted into a living host, and used by them.”

“Gross.” Naruto made a fake gagging sound.

“It is what it is,” Kurama said, philosophically. “The Hatake-brat has one. When his teammate died, he gifted it to him.”

Naruto blinked. “Kakashi-nii-san has the Sharingan?”

“Yes, his left eye. He keeps it covered. I’m not concerned about him. Uchiha Itachi, however, is a rogue ninja and an enemy of Konoha, and as such he is incredibly dangerous. The – the Sharingan can make you see things and think things that aren’t real. A fully developed one is powerful enough to control even me. That’s what happened the night your parents died. And that’s why you must be very, very careful around Sharingan users. Sasuke doesn’t have his, yet, and the Hatake-brat will probably try to protect you rather than hurt you, but there are people out there who will use it against us.”

And:

“I know you don’t like it. I know it seems harsh. But never, ever leave an enemy at your back. If you defeat him, kill him. If you don’t want to kill him, incapacitate him so thoroughly he cannot come back to attack you.”

It was a rainy evening as they discussed this, and Naruto was sniffling sadly as thunder rumbled in the distance.

“Why can’t I just tie him up?” he asked, sadly.

“Shinobi are masters of escape, kit. How much do you want a knife in your back? Now, in my personal opinion, it’s kinder to kill him, because incapacitating your enemy enough that he can’t come back to get you usually means hurting him a lot, and a tidy kill is less painful.”

“Why do I have to have enemies?” Naruto sniffed.

“Because you will be a shinobi of Konohagakure no Sato, and Konoha’s enemies will be your enemies,” the little fox said, patiently.

“I’m gonna change that when I’m Hokage.”

Kurama smiled. “I look forward to it.”

And:

Kurama sat on the Naruto’s kitchen counter and wrinkled his muzzle in distaste. “I know it’s delicious, and your name might seem portentous, but you cannot live on ramen alone, Naruto. I’m not going to go into the importance of a varied diet and macro and micronutrients with you, but you need to eat other things as well or you’re going to get scurvy.”

“But I can’t afford anything else, Kurama!”

Kurama huffed. “Because the villagers are bumping up the price of things unfairly. After you’re finished at the Academy today, we’re going into the forest and you are going to learn to hunt. And fish. And forage for edible plants and fungi. Do you know what was actually a rather ingenious human invention? Agriculture. If we can find a patch of earth that’s likely to be undisturbed, you can grow your own food.”

“How do you know all this stuff?” Naruto grumbled.

“I’m literally thousands of years old, Fishcake. I’d have to bury my head in the sand and keep it there to not know it.” He paused. “And what I don’t know, I can always sneak into the library and read about.”

Naruto mumbled something under his breath.

“Well, one of us has to do it,” Kurama replied.

And:

“Orange is a terrible colour for stealth.”

“It’s my favourite colour!” Naruto objected, hotly.

Foxes are orange,” Kurama replied. “I am simply observing that making almost your entire body an eye-catching neon colour may be counter-productive. There is no single environment where you will blend in. Not one. On the other hand, if you do learn to be hide yourself effectively in spite of the orange, then you’ll officially be the stealthiest ninja in the entire village. Even stealthier than Maito Gai, because for all that he wears that awful green jumpsuit, we’re surrounded by trees and they’re green most of the year. Go for it.”

“I’ll do it, then, I’ll be the stealthiest ninja in all of Konoha, and you better believe it!”

“Why wouldn’t I believe it? You’re my kit, and you will do anything you set your mind to.”

And: “I want to check up on the Hatake-brat again. Want to come prank the ANBU?”

“Yeah!”

 

iv.

The chalkboard eraser, until that moment precariously held up between the door and the wall, dropped down onto the head of Team Seven’s jounin-sensei as he slid open the door.

A moment of silence.

“My first impression of you,” the jounin said. “How should I say this—”

And then he was cut off by Naruto hurtling across the room like a thrown projectile and crashing into his chest, sending them both tumbling into the hallway as he screamed “KAKASHI-NII-SAN!” at the very top of his lungs, having taken that single precious second to observe the silver hair, face mask, and hitai-ate tilted down to cover his left eye and connected the dots about the identity of their new jounin-sensei.

Kurama sighed, and if he’d had opposable thumbs he might have pinched the bridge of his nose.

Damn.

He needed to come up with a way to explain how Naruto mysteriously knew exactly who Hatake Kakashi was, without ever having met him in his life – except as Hound-san, all the way back before he started at the Academy.

Oh.

He had an idea. It was a gambit, but it might work.

If only Hatake wasn’t a bloody genius. He’d just have to hope that they blindsided him so thoroughly that he wouldn’t question the answers he was given.

And of course Naruto’s jounin-sensei would be the Hatake-brat. It made perfect sense. Kurama should have realised and prepared Naruto earlier.

Naruto, as the person with the worst scores in the class, had been placed with the rookie of the year, and the top kunoichi. The rookie of the year was Uchiha Sasuke, and the top kunoichi was that pink-haired girl with the career genin parents, Haruno Sakura, who neither Kurama nor Naruto had much to do with because she had so very little in common with them.

As it was, it was inevitable that both Naruto and Sasuke would be placed under Hatake Kakashi. He was, after all, the only jounin in the village with a Sharingan and thus the only person who could potentially subdue the Kyuubi, if the worst came to the worst. He was also the only person who could teach Sasuke how to wield his own Sharingan, if the Uchiha Clan’s prized doujutsu ever manifested in their last heir – and they probably would.

“Naruto knows our jounin-sensei?” Sakura asked herself quietly, while Sasuke looked on with quiet consternation before they were all called up to the roof to introduce themselves to each other.

Hatake went first, and told them nothing but his name, but Kurama didn’t care because he knew enough.

Naruto went next.

“I’m Uzumaki Naruto!” he exclaimed cheerfully. “And this is Kurama!” He picked Kurama up under the armpits and held him up to show him off. “He’s my best friend in the whole world and we do everything together, even fight.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Kurama said, politely. “Please take care of me.”

Sasuke and Sakura both recoiled sharply.

“It speaks?” Sakura asked, a little bit shrilly. Kurama suddenly realised that he was usually quiet in class, except for laughter, huffs of annoyance, and sly comments to Iruka. Oops.

He sniffed, and made up a half-lie on the spot. “Of course. All civilised nin-animals speak. But not in class, because I don’t want to be a distraction… Akamaru just is a philistine.”

Hatake choked on nothing, then cleared his throat and motioned for Naruto to continue.

“Shush,” Naruto told Kurama, plopping him back onto the floor of the roof. “This is my introduction, not yours. I love… uh… so many things! Ramen, and Kurama, and Jiji, and Iruka-sensei, and sunflowers, and orange. I hate meanies! And traitors. And vegetables, especially green peppers. But Kurama makes me eat them anyway, the meanie. My hobbies are trying different types of ramen and gardening. And I’m gonna be Hokage one day, y’know!”

The Uchiha boy wanted revenge, presumably on his brother though he did not specify, which Kurama thought was fair enough given the circumstances but it was a terrible life goal that would ultimately leave him lost and alone.

The Haruno girl was infatuated with the Uchiha boy for some inexplicable reason, and hated Naruto, which Kurama supposed came from the irrational loathing the villagers held for Naruto and was probably something she had learned by osmosis and not a deeply ingrained personal belief, because they’d never even pranked her or anything.

Hatake dismissed them after telling them they would have to pass his own personal test before he would allow them to become genin – but held Naruto back.

“How do you know me?” he asked Naruto quietly and seriously, after Sasuke and Sakura had disappeared.

“The angry fox in his belly told him about you,” Kurama interjected, because Naruto had forgotten that he wasn’t supposed to know Kakashi but Kurama hadn’t, and he wasn’t a wily old fox for nothing.

For once, Naruto caught on quickly. “Yeah, yeah!” he said, hopping up and down on the spot. “You’re my nii-san! Grumpy-whiskers told me all about my tou-san and kaa-chan! And you! And how tou-san was your sensei but he loved you like his son. I’m sad the Council made Jiji make you stay away, but now you’re my sensei, so we can see each other every day, and it’s going to be great!”

Hatake looked faint.

Kurama grinned foxily.

“Does he… talk to you often? The fox in your stomach?” Hatake asked.

“Oh, yeah, all the time, but he’s actually really nice and smart when he isn’t being an old grouch, so it’s fine,” Naruto said, cheerfully. “I’d be really sad if he wasn’t there. He knows everything.”

The Hatake-brat looked a bit like he wanted to be sick.

“Not everything,” Kurama said, softly. “Just lots. No one in the world can know everything.”

Naruto shrugged. Then, impulsively, he hugged Kakashi again. “It’s so great to meet you after all this time, Kakashi-nii-san. I’m gonna ace your test tomorrow, and we’re gonna be the best team in Konoha, y’know! I’ll see you in the morning. Oh… should I call you Kakashi-sensei now, or Kakashi-nii-san?”

“Either,” Kakashi said, a little weakly. “Either is fine, Naruto.”

“Thanks nii-san! We’ll get ramen sometime!” And Naruto ran off, Kurama at his heels.

“I think I like him,” Kurama said, later that evening, from where he was lounging on the headboard of Naruto’s bed, tail swishing lazily back and forward. “But I expect you’ll find him prickly, and possibly a stickler for the rules. Kushina used to tease him about that. Anyway, we surprised him this afternoon, but he’ll be cautious later.”

Naruto, who was drooping over a scroll he was struggling to read, made a noise to acknowledge the fact that he was listening.

Kurama laughed.

“Go to sleep, kit. Whatever test he gives you, you won’t be able to pass it sleep-deprived.”

“Alright, alright,” Naruto said, re-rolling the scroll and getting up from the table to flick off the light. He was already dressed in his pyjamas for the night, so he crawled into his bed. “You’re so bossy.”

“Only because someone has to look out for you, and I’m your grouchy stomach fox,” Kurama replied, hopping down off the headboard to curl up on the pillow, pressed close beside Naruto’s neck. “Goodnight, Naruto.”

“G’night Kurama. I love you.”

“I’ll bite your ears in the middle of the night, Fishcake.”

“You won’t. You love me too.”

Kurama huffed and tucked his nose beneath his tail. “Brat,” he grumbled, affectionately, as Naruto began to snore softly.

 

v.

Team Seven arrived at the training ground and waited for about forty minutes.

“He’s late to everything, isn’t he?” Sakura asked no one in particular, a little despairingly. “He was hours late yesterday… How long until he turns up today?”

“If he’s gonna be ages, I’m taking a nap,” Naruto said, then he laid down in the grass, rolled onto his side, and went straight to sleep.

Sakura and Sasuke stared at him for a moment.

“Is he… actually sleeping?” Sakura murmured, after a moment.

“Oh, yes,” Kurama said proudly. “Foxes can sleep anywhere, anytime. It’s very useful. None of that insomnia business. We can sleep away the entire day. I taught my Fishcake how.”

“That’s useful?” Sakura said, doubtfully, then added even more dubiously: “…Fishcake.”

“Absolutely,” Kurama replied. “Like when you come off the front lines and you’re pumped up on adrenaline, but you have to eat and rest or you’re going to crash from chakra exhaustion, but you go to lie down, and you can’t even close your eyes let alone sleep. Or you’re in the mountains and you want to sleep but all you have beneath you and the cold rocky ground is a thin sleeping roll and you’ve got what feels like a boulder digging into your shoulder blade and another into your hip. Or you’re injured, and the pain is keeping you awake but you need to sleep to heal. Or you’re so far north that it’s still daylight even though it’s three hours past midnight. Or you’ve been on a long-term mission and you finally get home and collapse into your soft comfortable bed, but you’ve been sleeping rough so long you feel like you’re suffocating. Being well-rested is essential to your well-being and your ability to perform in the field, so being able to sleep anywhere, anytime is very useful.”

Sasuke made a noncommittal grunting noise, but Sakura looked thoughtful.

“Where’s Kakashi-sensei, though?”

“He’s a jounin,” Kurama said, sitting back on his haunches to shrug in a way that probably looked too human. “People who have been shinobi too long pick up all sorts of odd habits to cope. It’s not an easy life.”

Kids were great. Not only were they sponges that sucked up all the knowledge and wisdom he deigned to impart, they never questioned anything and took everything at face value, so Sakura just nodded along like it was perfectly natural for a random talking fox to be telling her this.

Kurama revelled in it, and wished he’d known about this boon sooner, because it was awesome.

“My nose is sharper than any dog’s,” he said. “I can sniff out anyone in the village, and I think your sensei is tardy enough already. Why don’t I go track him down and bring him back so we can get this over with?”

“Can you actually do that?” Sasuke asked.

Kurama snorted. “Don’t doubt me, brat.”

Actually, Kakashi was just on the other side of that copse of trees, over by the Memorial Stone, so he wouldn’t be tracking him halfway across Konohagakure no Sato at all – rather just slipping through a hundred yards of trees and brush. But Sasuke and Sakura didn’t need to know that.

“Fine,” Sasuke huffed.

“Be back shortly. Don’t fight while I’m gone.”

And Kurama trotted off into the undergrowth.

Kakashi was where Kurama expected him to be, kneeling in front of the Memorial Stone, muttering to himself so quietly that Kurama could not make out the words. The fox prowled closer on silent feet to sit in the grass close beside him, then press against his flank as he, too, stared up at the stone.

Humans were funny like that. They pushed each other away and pretended to be lone wolves, but they were pack animals and needed contact with each other more than any other animal Kurama knew – except, perhaps, dogs. Yet the quiet solidarity of a small, warm, breathing, fuzzy creature was sometimes enough to soothe the ragged edges of their soul when they weren’t letting other humans near.

For a long moment, Kakashi made no sound, no movement, to let Kurama know he knew he was there, though at least he didn’t leap away as if he’d been electrocuted.

And then he rested one large gloved hand on Kurama’s back, over his shoulder-blades, and skritched gently.

Kurama went boneless against his side, and had he been a cat, he might have purred. Instead, he said, very softly: “Your friends and family are on that stone.”

Kakashi said nothing, but his fingers stilled.

Kurama went on, undeterred, his gaze finding Kushina’s name, and then Minato’s. “There are people on this stone to whom I owe a debt of great gratitude, but who I never knew.” Well, he sort-of knew them. He watched them through Kushina’s eyes sometimes, but that wasn’t the same. “There are also people on this stone who I despise with every fibre of my being, from my nose to the tips of my fur.” He paused, thoughtfully. “Sometimes, those people are one and the same, and I am very sad.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Kakashi said, and his voice with tight with barely concealed emotion.

“The loss is not truly mine,” Kurama replied. “It is Naruto’s, first and foremost, which is what pains me, because he is my entire world.” He paused again, considered, because he was the one who had killed – however inadvertently – the last two precious people in Kakashi’s life. “I am sorry for your loss, also, Kakashi-nii-san.” He stood up, shaking Kakashi’s hand off him. “But, as much as I think it is proper to take the time to remember the dead, sitting in front of this stone for hours and hours is excessive, and your potential genin team is waiting for you over there rather impatiently. I have been sent to fetch you, and if you do not hurry I will bite your toes, nii-san or not. Those ninja sandals leave them horribly exposed, you know, and you don’t know when my last rabies vaccination was, so you’d best get a move on.”

Kakashi took a long, shaking breath, then eyed him shrewdly.

Kurama play-lunged towards his closest ankle, and Kakashi scrambled away from him.

“Okay, I’m going, I’m going,” he said, holding his hands up in mock surrender.

Kurama followed along on his heels, mock snapping at them whenever he walked too slowly.

They woke Naruto up – with little difficulty, because just as Kurama had taught him to sleep anywhere, anytime, he had also taught the boy to sleep lightly, and sleep with an awareness of his surroundings, so all it took was a little nibble on his ear and Naruto had sprung to his feet and was ready to go – and Kakashi explained his test to them. It involved a pair of little bells and sending someone back to the Academy.

As there weren’t really any two-man genin teams in Konoha with only a couple of exceptions – those that had had a member test out to chuunin, or die – and Konoha prided itself on its teamwork, Kurama saw through it immediately.

“You’ll have to come at me with the intent to kill if you want to have a chance,” Kakashi was saying, even as Kurama climbed up Naruto’s orange jumpsuit to whisper in his ear.

“None of you can get those bells individually,” Kurama hissed, very quietly, and Naruto cocked his head to listen, even as he kept his eyes on the jounin. “You’ll have to work together, then choose who goes back. Sasuke is very driven, and Sakura really wants to be on a team with him, so we should let them have the bells. We can graduate next time, and there’s so many great pranks we can play if we’re stuck in the Academy for another year, remember?” He was lying through his teeth, they would all pass or fail as a team, but he didn’t want to spoil the Hatake-brat’s test completely.

Naruto’s nod was nearly imperceptible. “I don’t need to be a genin now to be a great ninja someday,” he replied, under his breath.

Kurama lauded his selflessness.

Kakashi told them to go, and all three of them leapt away into the bushes.

“What’s your plan?” Naruto asked.

Kurama pointed towards the spot where he knew Sakura, who was the closest, was hiding. “Go fetch your teammates. I have the start of one, which I’ll explain to all three of you, but you can work out the finer details between you.”

Naruto crept through the underbrush, little fox at his heel, and whispered to Sakura when he found her: “Kurama has a plan, and it’s a good one, but we need to get Sasuke, come on.” She might not have liked them, but she liked Sasuke plenty, so she was willing enough to follow.

Sasuke was up a tree, so they climbed up to join him.

He looked at them crossly. “Go away, you’ll only hold me back.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Kurama growl whispered at him. “Not even you can get a bell off that man. He’s an elite jounin who’s been working in the field for two decades, and you’re a freshly graduated student from the Academy who has, what, the Academy Three and maybe a couple of clan techniques under his belt? Even if you were rookie of the year, you can’t beat him. Anyway, we have a plan.”

Sasuke made that same noncommittal grunting noise from before. Kurama took that as assent to explain the plan.

“Naruto and I will go back to the Academy,” he said, quickly. “We know we can graduate again next time, so it’s fine, and we have stuff we want to do around the village before we become fulltime ninja anyway. But none of us can get the bells by ourselves, so we’re going to have to work together. I need you, and Naruto, and Sakura to all distract Kakashi as much as possible, and I’ll grab the bells and then you and Sakura can have one each and be on a team together.”

There was a long pause where all three children looked at each other.

“That’s… not really fair,” Sakura said, and it seemed to physically pain her to say it. “I’m – I’m not sure I’m ready to be a shinobi, as much as I’d like to be on a team with Sasuke-kun. Maybe I should be the one who goes back to the Academy? I can graduate again. I was top kunoichi, but Naruto… I thought you failed?”

“Eh, I did. My bunshin sucked. But I learned how to do something way cooler, so it doesn’t matter, you know.”

Sasuke said nothing.

“Why don’t we just focus on getting the bells now, and then you can argue about who goes back to the Academy after?” Kurama suggested.

Naruto and Sakura agreed, and Sasuke grunted again, which Kurama decided to take for agreement.

“Okay, so let’s hash this out. No battle plan ever survives first contact with the enemy, so I think we’re probably going to have to improvise a certain amount anyway. Ideas, strengths, weaknesses: go.”

And that was how Kakashi found himself surrounded by a dozen pink nine-tailed foxes with jingling bells on their bedazzled red collars, as Sakura threw kunai at him to keep him away from the river, and Sasuke used the fireball technique to keep him from disappearing into the forest, while one last small russet fox with his chakra tamped down tightly sneaked up behind him and grabbed the bells from his waist, their tell-tale jangle hidden by the ringing of the bells of the dozens of little pink Naruto-Kyuubi clones.

After, and a full two hours before lunchtime, Kurama sat by Kakashi’s side as the three genin chased each other around the field, trying to force the bells onto one another, each claiming that they would be the one to return to the Academy.

“They… passed,” Kakashi said, feebly, to the sky.

Kurama made a pleased noise.

Kakashi glanced down at him with one wary silver eye. “You understood the test. You manipulated them into working as a team.”

“Maybe,” Kurama said. “It isn’t cheating severely enough to allow for disqualification. I’m Naruto’s ninkitsune – we’re partners.”

Kakashi gave him a thoroughly disgusted look.

Kurama extrapolated. “I’m a wily old fox. What did you expect? Foxes don’t get to be my age unless they learn to be cunning. I’m, what, going on nine? The lifespan of an average wild fox is five.”

Kakashi scratched his masked chin. “I can’t believe that worked, though.”

“They’re small humans,” Kurama said, like that explained everything. To him, it did. Small humans were capable of so much more than anyone ever thought, even if they needed more protecting than the large ones on occasion.

“How do you know so much, anyway?”

Kurama hooked his claws into Kakashi’s trousers and climbed up his clothes to perch on his shoulder. “Nii-san,” he said. “You spend too much time with dogs. I can smell them on you. But I already told you, I’m a fox. Not some dumb old dog, or a human child, that you must teach everything from scratch. Foxes learn by observing, and replicating, and thinking for themselves. We’re canny because we’re both predator and prey. It would be remiss of me to remain ignorant in a shinobi village, when my friend and fighting partner is the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi.”

Kakashi mulled that over, but seemed to find it acceptable, for he nodded, slowly.

Kurama turned his gaze to the genin, where Sakura and Naruto had pinned Sasuke to the ground and were forcibly stuffing a bell down the back of his trousers.

“I think you should tell them they all passed before someone draws blood. More blood.”

“I think you’re probably right,” Kakashi conceded, shaking his head. “Foxes.

 

vi.

What this team needs, Kurama thought, as he was delicately picking at his kobukoru, Is a responsible adult. And some proper team bonding exercises.

They were at the Yakiniku-Q restaurant, after a hard day of training followed by a couple of D-ranks. Incidentally, the restaurant owners had almost not allowed Kurama in, on account of him being a dirty animal, until Naruto crossly pointed to the hitai-ate tied around the fox’s neck, so now Kurama was sitting on the table Team Seven was eating at and trying to prove he could be tidy and not, well, a dirty animal.

It was more difficult than it looked.

He wasn’t going to tell anyone that.

Particularly not Naruto, since they split cooking duties at home.

Their first D-rank had been watching a civilian woman’s small children for a couple of hours while she went to the market, followed by another moving hay bales in a barn to make room for the new hay that had just been cut.

Kurama had not particularly enjoyed having very small humans pulling on his ears and crawling all over him – he’d had enough of that when Naruto was young – but the barn had been fun. Barns were fun in general. There were always rats in the hay, and he got to chase them and kill them while Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura shifted the old hay to make room to store the new, and by the end of the mission he’d lined up nine fat rats, a couple of little ones, and a handful of mice in the yard outside for the farm cats.

Not that he, mighty, ancient, chakra construct that he was would admit to having fun eliminating vermin… but there was something so satisfying about the crunch of little bones beneath his teeth, followed by a rush of hot blood, and the way the squealing of his victims abruptly cut off.

He was nostalgic for the old days of terrorising everyone, so sue him!

At least he was taking it out on pests and being useful while he did it, and if Kakashi looked at him funny as he cackled with glee as he pounced after a rat in the barn, well, he was a fox!

So, here they were at Yakiniku-Q, all of them tired and dirty to a certain degree except Kakashi, who had sat and read that Icha-Icha porn book of his and only glanced up every now and again to make sure none of them had killed each other. And Kurama looked at his boy-kit fondly, then he looked at Naruto’s team, who were not yet meshing, and he thought: This isn’t good enough. The strength of Konoha is the strength of the bonds of her teams. Even I know that.

He understood that Kakashi kept everyone at arm’s length, that having convinced him to take his otouto and his other two genin to dinner after a hard day was in and of itself a massive step.

Actually, convincing Kakashi to feed them all had taken a lot of guilt-tripping the man, telling him all about how all Naruto could afford was instant ramen, and that if he wanted to eat anything else he had to grow or catch it himself, so they had to hunt or fish twice a week and were cultivating various crops of vegetables out in some of the lesser used training fields.

So Kakashi had begun to offer to feed them a few times a week. Sometimes it was lunch and sometimes it was dinner, but it was a start.

It isn’t enough.

“We should have a slumber party,” Kurama said, cheerfully.

That’s a good idea, right? Children do it all the time. We can play truth or dare! Except maybe without the dare, because these are small ninja, not ordinary children, and someone might get hurt, and I wouldn’t be a very responsible adult if I let that happen and we aren’t even on a mission.

“Eh?” Naruto said intelligently, his mouth half-full of food.

“Well,” Kurama said. “One day soon, we’ll take a mission, and it’ll be outside the gates of the village and we won’t get back before nightfall, so it might be a good idea to have a pretend one where we all share sleeping quarters. You know, so we get to know each other’s… peculiarities. It would be terribly unfortunate to learn that Sasuke sleepwalks across the village every night, or Sakura has screaming nightmares that usually wake her neighbours while we were out in the field.”

At the exact same moment, Sasuke snapped: “That’s a lie!”

And Sakura said, horrified: “I do not!”

Kurama shrugged. “I was speaking hypothetically, but good to know. What do you think, Kakashi-nii-san?”

“Go for it,” Kakashi said, disinterestedly, reading his book. He had somehow managed to eat without anyone catching a glimpse at his face, which must’ve meant speed-eating while no-one was looking. Kurama thought that scarfing his food like that would give him terrible indigestion, but Kakashi was only in his mid-twenties, so he could probably get away with it for a little while longer before it became an actual health concern.

“I’m not sure my parents will let me have a sleepover with two boys,” Sakura said, a little uncertainly.

“I’m biologically an adult, I can chaperone,” Kurama said. “Anyway, none of you are properly into puberty yet. What can you even do? Dry hump? It wouldn’t be a productive coupling.”

Sasuke choked and had to grab his water and take several large gulps of it, Sakura went as pink as her hair, and Naruto burst into raucous laughter and toppled out of the booth onto the floor. Kakashi fumbled with his book so badly he almost dropped it, so he flipped it closed and carefully put it away.

“Maybe I should be there,” he said, after clearing his throat. “For, uh, adult supervision.”

Kurama sniffed. “You’re a pervert. Everyone knows you’re a pervert. You walk around reading Icha-Icha in public. I am not convinced that anyone’s parents would find your presence a relief, let alone a young girl’s.”

“I’m not a paedophile,” Kakashi hissed, scandalised, before glancing around the restaurant to make sure no one was listening in.

Taking a page out of Sasuke’s book, Kurama made a noncommittal noise at the back of his throat, but said nothing.

Naruto clambered back into the booth and sat down, still giggling a little hysterically.

“Right,” Kurama said. “Kakashi-nii-san will be joining us. Our apartment is really small, so… is there someone else who can host?”

Not to mention Naruto’s apartment was right in the middle of the Akasen, and Kurama was not certain that Sasuke or Sakura would be able to navigate it safely, because shinobi or not they were children entirely naïve to the seediest parts of the world. They were ninja now, so they’d learn about it in the next few years, but Kurama would feel bad forcing prepubescent children into that lesson.

What followed was a game of ‘Not-It.’

Kakashi couldn’t have them over because he had single-room apartment in the jounin dorms and, somehow, eight ninken summons that preferred to hang around at his place, if they could get away with it.

Sakura couldn’t host because her room was too little to cram four entire people into, and she didn’t think her parents would like it if they camped out in her living room. Kakashi backed her up, citing that it may not, in fact, be appropriate for him to invite himself over to the Haruno family residence.

Sasuke… just plain didn’t want to.

Thus, Sasuke lost the game and was obliged to play host for the very first official Team Seven slumber party, and they all agreed to meet at his house at eight o’clock, giving them just over an hour to go home, have a wash, change into clean clothes, and grab their pyjamas and toothbrushes.

Sasuke’s apartment overlooked the Uchiha Clan Compound. Well, it wasn’t really a compound so much as it was an entire district unto itself, which always made the enormity of the tragedy that had happened there feel so much worse and left Kurama feeling a little breathless. The little fox admired the neat little apartment appreciatively after they had been grudgingly let inside – for a child living on his own, Sasuke was fastidiously tidy, and everything in his refrigerator and cupboards appeared to be well before its expiry.

“What are you doing?” Sasuke asked, when he wandered into the kitchen and found Kurama halfway up the shelves in the pantry, squinting at the ingredients list on a packet of dried noodles.

“Checking,” Kurama said, dropping back onto the kitchen floor.

A long pause. “Checking what?” Sasuke’s expression was one of bemusement, more than anything.

“That you have healthy food in your home,” Kurama replied. “It would be remiss of me not to ensure the health and safety of my teammates. I can trust Sakura’s parents for certain things, and Kakashi-nii-san is currently beyond my sphere of influence, but you and Naruto both have a… severely lacking social support structure at home, which may leave you vulnerable in several different and unique ways.”

“I’m not weak,” Sasuke said, immediately.

Because that was the one thing the brat took from Kurama’s concern.

The fox sighed exasperatedly. “Do you even have ears, or are those things on the sides of your head for show only? Honestly, you’re as bad as the Fishcake, jumping to conclusions all the time. I in no way implied that you were weak. That was not meant as an attack on your character. All I meant to do was point out that because you, in exactly the same way as Naruto, lack people at home to ensure your ongoing wellbeing have a set of disadvantages that other genin do not have. It is in no way your fault, it is simply a fact of life.”

Sasuke said nothing.

“You’re doing better than Naruto is,” Kurama allowed, after a few long seconds of silence where they stared at each other uncomfortably. “I found some milk in our fridge that was a week past its expiry the other day and had to tip it down the sink. I swear, that boy would forget his head.”

And Sasuke smiled and gave tiny little laugh.

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, Uchiha, but you wouldn’t be the one dealing with Naruto with food poisoning if he’d drank it accidentally. Anyway, it doesn’t look like you’re going to get scurvy anytime soon. Where do you keep the cocoa? I thought we could all have a hot drink before bed.”

Sasuke showed him.

Kurama put in entirely too much sugar, Kakashi took a single sip and spat his out, Naruto stole the rest of it and had a sugar high and then a sugar crash that left him snoozing in the corner. They played a very tame game of truth-or-dare that mostly involved simple dares like asking Sasuke to try to lick his own elbow, or Kakashi to hop on one foot while patting his own head and rubbing his stomach, and truths like most embarrassing childhood stories and favourite colours and foods and songs. Everyone stayed up entirely too late, after they woke Naruto up for the third time, and consequently everyone was equally late to training the following morning, so no one shouted at Kakashi.

Kurama felt very smug.

 

vii.

Tora was a menace to society and Kurama never, ever wanted to see that demon cat’s ugly mug again in his life. As a general rule, and with the sole exception of Matatabi, Kurama did not like cats on the best of days. Tora very quickly became loathed.

“Respectfully, Hokage-sama,” Kurama said from his perch on Naruto’s shoulder in the Mission Room, after they had managed to return Tora to its owned for the third time that week, and Naruto pitched a fit that Kurama did not interrupt because he thought it was a very righteous fit, all things considered. “If I see that damn cat again, I’m not going to bother bringing it back. I’m going to eat it, and I don’t even care if that counts as a failed mission. I agree with the Fishcake on this. Give us something better.”

They were given their first C-Rank. Not what Kurama was angling for – he wouldn’t have minded weeding, or more farm work. He always enjoyed those missions. Instead, they had an escort mission, one where they were taking a smelly old drunk back to the Land of Waves where they would guard him while he finished building his bridge. His name was Tazuna, and he was very, very rude.

“Ah, they’re just a bunch of kids!” Tazuna slurred drunkenly when he first laid eyes on them. “Is the short one with the stupid face really a ninja?”

He probably meant Naruto, but technically Kurama was the shortest in the group, so he leapt off Naruto’s shoulder to stand in front of Tazuna, balanced precariously on his hind legs while he threw his forepaws angrily in the air, the fur on his tail all standing on end, and yelled at the top of his squeaky little fox voice: “I’m a ninkitsune, you idiotic old man, and my face isn’t stupid! It’s normal for a fox! Your face is stupid.”

It was at that precise moment that Kurama realised that he had been spending far too much time around children, and if they saw him having a childish tantrum and pouting petulantly like this, all his siblings would laugh at him. Never mind that he was more powerful than any of them, even after that Minato-brat sealed half his chakra in the gut of the Shinigami.

Then, mentally, he shrugged it off, because it wasn’t like anyone knew he was the Kyuubi no kitsune, so this would never get back to any of his siblings anyway, which meant he could behave however he liked, and Naruto was laughing joyously at the befuddled expression on Tazuna’s face which made the entire spectacle worth it in Kurama’s opinion.

Kakashi picked him up by the scruff of his neck. “Enough,” he said, and handed Kurama back to Naruto. “Control your pet.”

“I’m more than a mere pet!” Kurama proclaimed, loudly, squirming, but not actually making a very concerted effort to escape Naruto’s grasp.

“Maa, maa, you definitely are,” Kakashi said, waving his hands placatingly. “But I think my cute little genin should all go home and pack for our mission, no?” He addressed all of them. “Make sure to bring enough for more than a couple of days. Bring food, a change of clothes, your weapons, medical supplies, water.”

“Toothbrush?” Sakura asked.

“Yes, that too. We’ll leave first thing in the morning.”

“So, at nine then?” Kurama asked.

They scattered before Kakashi could lunge for any of them.

Helping Naruto pack was… an experience.

“You can bring two cups of instant ramen,” the fox told the boy, firmly. “They’re light, so they’re easy to carry – yes. But they take up too much space, and you need hot water to eat them, so they are not entirely practical. Tazuna should have a way to heat water at his house, unless he lives in such a backwater village they’re still cooking fish on sticks over open flames.”

“Aw, but Kurama.”

“No, Naruto.”

“You’re a bossy old grump.”

“I love you, too.”

Naruto wanted to bring his sleeping cap.

“You don’t need it, and it’ll take up the space where you could put something useful, like that roll of sterile bandages. What if you get hurt?”

“You always heal me!” Naruto protested.

Kurama rolled his eyes. “What if it’s a bad wound, and it takes me a while?”

“What injury could be that bad?”

“I can think of a few.”

Naruto wanted to pack food for Kurama.

“Naruto, I look like a fox. Everyone thinks I am a fox. I remind you now that I am not, in fact, a fox. I am a very small piece of the very large chakra construct currently residing in your gut. I do not, in fact, need to eat to sustain myself. I might do it for fun, because food tastes nice, or to inflict terror in others, but it really isn’t a necessity, and you’re packing necessities right now.”

“What if I think packing something you enjoy is necessary?” Naruto asked, sulkily.

“I thank you graciously, but decline. If I really want to eat while we’re on the road, I’ll go catch myself a mouse. I like it when my food runs and squeaks beneath my paws, and enjoy the hot rush of delicious coppery blood that runs down my throat as I crunch into it. Better than ramen.”

“Blasphemy,” Naruto gasped.

“I shouldn’t have taught you that word,” Kurama grumbled.

But finally Naruto had packed for their trip, and Kurama was satisfied. The following morning they left for the East Gate at nine o’clock, since they had given Kakashi a time to be late to so there was absolutely no reason to hurry, and met up with Sasuke, Sakura, and Tazuna, who were already there and waiting – albeit impatiently on Tazuna’s part.

He was still grumbling that they were a bunch of kids, and he couldn’t believe a bunch of kids could possibly protect him, something, something, something. Kurama tuned him out.

Kakashi arrived at ten, which was late, but earlier than expected and Naruto and Kurama beamed at him though Sakura looked a little sulky and Tazuna remained put out about this entire endeavour. Sasuke remained outwardly indifferent because he was just like that, as far as Kurama could tell.

“Don’t worry, Stupid-Face-san,” Kurama said, trotting along at Tazuna’s side. “Kakashi-nii-san has been a jounin since he was Naruto’s age, and he’s a really good ninja. It may not look like it, but you’re in very safe hands.”

 

viii.

“Puddle,” Kurama observed brightly. It was obviously a genjutsu concealing someone or something, and Kurama tended to make a habit of going around breaking every genjutsu he came across because he hated them by default. This one was not very expertly done, as it had not rained in days, the summer was hot and dry, and they were on a well-maintained piece of road with good drainage, which meant they had encountered no other puddles at any one point in their trip.

“Puddle?” Naruto repeated, and they paused to share a glance.

“Puddle,” Kurama confirmed, nodding, a toothy grin spreading across his foxy face.

“Wait,” Kakashi went to say, but he was not quick enough, for at that exact moment both Naruto and Kurama had jumped with all their might into the puddle, splashing water and mud everywhere and sending the pair of ninja who’d been concealing themselves in it springing out into the open, their ambush quite ruined.

“Ooh,” Naruto exclaimed, a kunai in his hand, mud splashed up to his armpits. “Kurama, there were people in there!”

“Shinobi,” Kurama agreed, wiping mud out of his eyes with a paw. “Why would shinobi be hiding in a puddle, I wonder?”

The pair of shinobi, clad in dark cloaks with clawed gauntlets and breathing apparatus, a nasty bladed chain held between them, appeared to consider Kakashi for a fraction of a second, and had their ambush not been so effectively decimated they might have gone after him. As it was, they leapt straight for Tazuna, but they were neatly intercepted the genin then incapacitated with a proper genjutsu cast by Kakashi, a messenger was bird summoned and sent on its way to Konoha for ANBU to come and pick them up.

For his first official fight with an enemy ninja, Kurama thought Naruto acquitted himself quite well. He hesitated for a fraction of a second, which Kurama would have to train him out of because that sort of nonsense would get him killed in the high-velocity world of shinobi battles, but then he launched himself into action, ducking behind one of the enemy nin to hamstring him while Sasuke was distracting the pair of them with kunai and shuriken, Sakura guarded the client, and Kakashi idly played with the second nin.

“The Demon Brothers of the Mist,” Kakashi said, as he peered down at the apprehended and unconscious shinobi, after. “Chuunin-level rogue nin.”

“Demons?” Naruto echoed curiously, and he and Kurama tried to creep over to inspect the enemy shinobi more closely, but Kakashi picked them up by the scruffs of their necks and deposited them a safe distance away.

“They don’t look very much like demons to me,” Kurama said, turning to sniff the abandoned bladed chain since Kakashi wouldn’t let him inspect the actually enemy nin.

Kurama was The Demon in these parts.

He would know.

The chain was poisoned. Interesting. He went to lick it to assess the components of the poison, in case Naruto ever had something similar introduced to his bloodstream and he had to burn it off to save his life… and was immediately scruffed again.

“Naruto,” the Hatake-brat said, exhaustedly. “Control your pet before it kills itself. Tazuna-san and I need to have a little chat about how this mission was mis-ranked. This is a B-rank at least.”

“But Kakashi-nii,” Kurama whined, as obnoxiously as possible.

“No, you stupid fox. Leave that chain alone. You will die. Don’t touch their gauntlets, either.”

Kurama felt oddly warm and fuzzy. The Hatake-brat cared not just about Naruto, but about him, too!

There was a big argument about whether or not to continue the mission. Tazuna won by guilt-tripping them rather masterfully, telling them all about his poor daughter and his poor grandson and how that horrible CEO Gatou was slowly killing the Land of Waves like a black rot, and they needed this bridge that was so close to being finished, or they would all die. Even the children. And his little grandson Inari was just small.

It was a beautiful piece of manipulation. Naruto was wiping away tears at the end of it, and then he turned and gave Kakashi the biggest, saddest, bluest eyes since the Minato-brat, and Kakashi caved after a minute of trying to look stoic.

“Fine,” he muttered. “Let’s go then.”

They continued.

Camping with Team Seven turned out to be an experience in and of itself, but it was not unpleasant. Kurama and Naruto got sent off to find firewood, which they were good at. Then they volunteered to find food, too, and Kakashi gave Naruto a long, slightly sad look, but acquiesced, and before dark Kurama had sniffed out a decently-sized boar which he and Naruto took down with only marginal difficulty.

Naruto had to use a handful of Shadow Clones to help get it back to camp, because it was very heavy, but the expression on Kakashi’s face when they brought a field-dressed wild boar bigger than a grown man into the campsite was well worth it.

Suffice to say, everyone was sick of pork by the time they reached the misty coastline some days later. Why Kakashi knew just the right jutsu for smoking meat for preservation was anyone’s guess but it meant that instead of leaving what they did not eat for the wild animals, which was Kurama’s usual modus operandi when hunting – to return unconsumed prey to the local ecosystem – they were instead obliged to bring it with them in a storage scroll.

“The village will appreciate it,” Tazuna said, at one point, so maybe the Land of Waves was having such an issue with food deficit that a single boar would, in fact, make a difference.

That made Naruto sad again, and Kurama curled around his shoulders and snuffled his neck, murmuring soft promises of the things they would fix when Naruto was Hokage to cheer him up – starting with the protection of the smaller neighbouring countries, the countries that did not have well-established samurai or shinobi of their own to keep themselves safe from people like corrupt shipping tycoons.

They passed beneath the great shape of the bridge, a looming shadow in the mist, but Naruto was too busy feeling morose to notice it. Kurama eyed the structure with the interest of a very, very old being, and quietly marvelled at the feat of human engineering being constructed between the island and the mainland, for it was truly massive. How little those humans were, and they weren’t even shinobi. They were just regular people who could do nothing more extraordinary than use their heads and their hands to bring the things they thought up into reality, and the amount of time and dedication that took made it even more amazing.

Kurama did not consider that once upon a time he would not have thought this of humans at all, would have thought them as nothing more than a blight on the landscape rather than short-lived but highly intelligent little creatures with unique and interesting existences, each and every one of them. It did not occur to him to consider this, because he was content now, and with his precious person, and with his precious person’s precious people, and most of his chakra might have been in Naruto’s stomach, dormant, waiting, but a small part of him was awake and out in the world, playing tricks and making friends, with a bright and happy plan for a future he would do everything he could to see fulfilled, having a better time than he had in centuries because he wasn’t alone. He was loved, and he loved in return.

They arrived quietly in the village, and the fisherman who’d given them a ride immediately left, like he was afraid to be seen with Tazuna.

“Well, come on,” Tazuna said. “Let’s head on to my home. It’s about a half-hour walk along the shore.”

Just a little way outside the village, but before they got to Tazuna’s house, they found themselves walking through a mist that Kurama thought was suspiciously unlike the mist from before. Mostly because the mist from before had been natural, and this mist was chakra-infused and deliberately placed.

Another ambush.

“I don’t like this,” Kurama said, dropping back to walk beside Kakashi, who was looking slightly more alert than usual.

Kakashi said nothing, so Kurama slunk over to Naruto, who was making a fuss about a rabbit that had given him a fright, and pressed against his side. Naruto quieted and stilled, squinting into the mist as he tested the air with his nose and listened, carefully.

“Down,” Kakashi barked, suddenly, and it was a testament to their training and their trust in their sensei that they dropped like rocks without question, Sakura dragging Tazuna down with her. A moment later, a very large sword whistled over their heads and lodged itself partway through a tree on the seaward side of the path.

Kurama knew enough about shinobi weaponry to tell a shuriken from a fuma-shuriken from a kunai from a tantou from a katana and a wakizashi, but beyond the basics he was mostly in the dark. He was, well, a mountain-sized chakra construct. He’d only learned about these tiny little pointy objects because Naruto had, at the Academy, and had not cared about them before then because none of them had concerned him any more than an insect bite might have.

Of course he now got pinned down and treated for fleas once a month, because insects were more annoying than he remembered, but that was beside the point.

A man appeared out of the mist and landed on the sword. Kurama correctly assumed it was his sword. Coincidentally, he was wearing a Kirigakure hitai-ate with a horizontal slash through it, which explained all the mist but was terribly predictable.

“Momochi Zabuza,” Kakashi said, getting to his feet and stepping between the genin and the man on the sword with the flair for truly terrible dramatics. And Kurama couldn’t remember it very clearly because it had been while he was rampaging around and mostly insane after he’d been unceremoniously yanked out of Kushina, but he was fairly certain that he’d once seen the Minato-brat turn up fashionably late to a battle on the back of a giant toad. Perhaps all shinobi were just dramatic. “Rogue-ninja of Kirigakure.”

“Sharingan no Kakashi,” Zabuza replied.

Sasuke froze like a deer staring down a tiger, his gaze locked on the back of his teacher, face expressionless but white as a sheet.

Kurama herded Naruto closer to the client, patted his ankle with a paw to let him know to stay, then slunk over to Sasuke to climb up onto his shoulder.

“It’s not kekkei genkai theft,” Kurama murmured into his ear, very, very softly and very, very quickly. “Kakashi-nii-san’s best friend was an Uchiha, but he was grievously injured when they were both your age. He was not going to survive, and Kakashi-nii-san had lost his eye, so his friend gifted him the Sharingan. The last selfless act of Uchiha Obito. Put your anger away, because it has no place here. Focus on the mission right now. Focus on surviving. Unless I am mistaken—” Kurama was not mistaken, he’d read last year’s copy of Konoha’s Bingo Book himself. “—Zabuza is one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist. That means he is very dangerous.”

Sasuke didn’t move for another second that seemed to stretch longer, and then he nodded and took up a position on Tazuna’s other side, guarding him without Kakashi having to command it.

In the meantime, Zabuza had demanded they hand over Tazuna.

Kakashi declined, and they fought out over the water.

The battle… didn’t go very well, and Kakashi was promptly imprisoned in a dome of water.

Must I do everything? Kurama wondered, curling the mist around himself and slipping out across the still water, as he let the brats deal with the Water Clone that Zabuza sent at them. He trusted them to survive against a clone that was a fraction of the strength of the original. They were genin, not useless.

He had a mouthful of Naruto’s toothpaste, which he’d had to climb into Naruto’s backpack to steal, and now he was working it around between his teeth and cheeks with his tongue, working up a good froth.

Zabuza was watching the fight between the clone and the genin so intently he didn’t notice the heavily masked fox until it bit him on the ankle, drawing blood, and then he glanced down sharply to see the grinning, foaming maw and wild, white-ringed eyes of a rabid fox.

In his haste to kick Kurama away, he dropped the water prison and Kakashi sprang away to a safe distance.

It was a good kick. Kurama went flying, right over the Water Clone and into the trees. His ribs – he’d constructed an entire body, complete with chakra coils and everything in case one of the Hyuuga ever glanced his way with their doujutsu active, because he would’ve been given away immediately if he appeared as just a ball of fox-shaped chakra and not an actual nin-animal – snapped like twigs, puncturing his lungs.

The wounds healed almost immediately, but there was blood in his lungs, now. He coughed it into his mouth, which was a disgusting experience because his mouth was already full of minty toothpaste and the two flavours did not mix well on his taste-buds at all.

Hacking and retching, he staggered back towards the fight, just in time to almost get washed away by a water jutsu and watch a Hunter-nin stick a couple of senbon into Zabuza to mimic a deathlike state, then make off with his body? Fake Hunter-nin, then, because that wasn’t standard practice if anything he’d learned from that Bingo Book held up in real life.

And then Kakashi toppled over from chakra exhaustion, which gave Kurama enough time to finish wiping his mouth on some grass, so it didn’t look like he’d almost died. He didn’t want to worry anyone unnecessarily.

 

ix.

“Oh,” Kakashi said, when he awoke late the following afternoon and found Kurama curled up beside his neck. “You’re alive.”

“Don’t sound so pleased about it,” Kurama said, without opening his eyes. “The brats are downstairs, helping Tsunami-san with the dinner. They’re safe, and whole. The client is safe. We’re at the client’s house. You overused the Sharingan.”

Kakashi freed one of his hands from the blankets piled over him to scratch softly just behind Kurama’s ears. “Thank you, Kurama,” he said softly.

“Rest, Kakashi-nii-san. You shouldn’t be awake this early, not with chakra exhaustion,” Kurama told him, and Kakashi slept again. Kurama tucked his feet under his chest and wrapped himself in his tail, then buried his face in Kakashi’s hair and kept his eyes closed but his ears open.

The following morning, Kakashi was up and about even though he really should’ve been on bedrest, which Kurama informed him of disapprovingly. Sakura backed Kurama up on the point of strict bedrest, but Kakashi ignored their concerns. He did, however, think that Kurama was right – Zabuza was not dead though he was definitely injured, and would come back for them all sooner or later and probably with his Hunter-nin friend.

This, of course, meant it was time for some last-minute training in case that would somehow increase the genins’ chances of survival against an S-Rank nuke-nin.

Kakashi’s idea of training was to teach them how to tree-walk.

“But Kakashi-nii-san,” Naruto whined, sounding terribly aggrieved. “I can do this already.”

Kakashi raised his single visible eyebrow skeptically.

Kurama didn’t blame him. Naruto was forever claiming to be an expert at things he knew absolutely nothing about, a bad habit Kurama could not break for the life of him, but this was not one of those times.

“Go on, then,” Kakashi said, as Sasuke and Sakura both picked a tree and began to practice.

“Why does no one ever think I can do it?” Naruto muttered to himself, stomping at a tree.

Kurama saw Kakashi suppress a flinch, obviously expecting some sort of chakra explosion.

Naruto kept on stomping, though, right up the trunk of the tree and then upside down along the broad underside of a branch maybe thirty feet in the air, until he was balancing upside-down on twigs and eventually flipped back down onto the ground.

“See? I’m a great ninja, you know! Why are you wasting my time with this baby stuff?” Naruto asked.

“Baby stuff?” Kakashi said, slowly.

“Yeah, I could tree-walk when I was seven!”

Sasuke slipped off the trunk of his tree and didn’t quite manage to stick the landing, ending up in a crumpled heap on the ground with an: “Oof!”

“Sasuke!” Sakura yelped, and leapt out of her tree, though she had been higher up than he had.

“Seven?” Kakashi repeated.

“Why don’t you believe me?”

Kakashi crouched down to meet Naruto’s eye. “I do believe you, but I’m not sure I understand, Naruto. Tree-walking is something you usually learn as a genin. It can be very difficult for many people, and requires a lot of chakra control. It is not a part of the Academy curriculum because the Academy senseis don’t have enough time to teach it to each student individually… So, I’m wondering how you did learn to do it so easily.”

“Kurama taught me,” Naruto said.

Kakashi glanced sharply at Kurama, who was lounging in a sunny spot in the clearing, enjoying the contrast of the warm sunshine and the refreshing sea breeze.

“What?” Kurama asked. “I figured the clan kids were probably getting tutoring at home, and Naruto has terrible chakra control, so it seemed like an appropriate exercise to try and improve it. Was I wrong?”

“No,” Kakashi conceded. “But where did you learn to tree-walk?”

Kurama rolled his eyes. “We’ve had this conversation before. I’m an old fox. Foxes don’t learn from books or Academy teachers – I was an adult long before I started going to the Academy with the Fishcake. Foxes learn by observing their parents – or in a Hidden Village in the absence of parents, by observing the shinobi. I found the ones with the animal mask shinobi to be the most informative, though the jounin and chuunin also contributed to my education.”

This was not even a lie. After he opened his eyes and started paying attention to the world his boy-kit was living in as more than just the nebulous idea of the den of the enemy, he had discovered a tremendous amount by simply watching the daily lives of the ninja.

“Because foxes are cunning,” Kakashi said.

Kurama sniffed. “Yes. They have to be.”

“Alright Naruto,” Kakashi said. “Why don’t you go to the bridge with Tazuna-san today, while these other two work on their tree-walking?”

Kurama and Naruto went off to the bridge. A half-hour later, Sakura joined them.

“Kakashi-sensei said I have really good chakra control!” she said, with a bright smile.

Kurama nodded, sagely. “You must. I’d bet that was faster than even he learned to tree walk, and he was a chuunin by the time he was six because he was a genius. You’re going to be really good at jutsu that require delicate control. You could be a phenomenal med-nin, if you so chose.” Because he had learned that children thrived on praise, encouragement, and direction. “Or a genjutsu specialist, though I am not particularly fond of genjutsu myself.” Kurama wrinkled his muzzle.

“You can do it!” Naruto said, ecstatic on behalf of her achievement. “Believe it!”

“You’re too loud, Naruto,” Sakura said, flinched.

“Oh, sorry. Kurama says that too. I just get excited sometimes.”

Kurama nodded. “All the time.”

Sasuke was late to dinner that night, and when he did arrive, he was dirty and scratched up and very tired. Kurama had the unsettled feeling that the status quo had been shaken up in a way that left the team feeling odd and off-balance. Apart from the Shadow Clones thing – which had ruffled no one’s feather since everyone knew Naruto couldn’t perform the regular bunshin technique to save his life – Naruto was usually the last to learn something, and Sasuke either already knew it from self-training, or could pick it up quite quickly.

That Sakura had also learned to tree-walk before him, and it seemed he was still struggling after spending an entire day at it, appeared to have upset him.

Should I step in and help? Kurama wondered as he crunched up the fried fish he’d been given for dinner. The Uchiha brat is proud and might not appreciate it. And he is determined… If he doesn’t have it down by tomorrow evening, I will help.

He cast his gaze to Kakashi and found Kakashi looking back at him with a lazily solemn expression.

Is this what you were hoping for, Hatake-brat? Kurama thought. The fox gave the jounin the stink-eye, and Kakashi eye-smiled back. Yep. Shirking your responsibilities. Is it because you’re lazy, or because you’re not sure how to teach?

Kurama speculated the latter. Kakashi, for all that he had been a shinobi for twenty-odd years, and was therefore very old for a ninja – ninja had frankly terrible life expectancies and Kurama had already resolved that Naruto was going to live happily and healthily until he was two-hundred – he was very young for a human.

If Kakashi were a fox, he would’ve been just out of adolescence, too young to have kits of his own, and would’ve probably still been hanging around with his sibling and parent foxes, still honing his ability to hunt. There would be an entire cycle of seasons between the Kakashi of now and the Kakashi that would theoretically be equipped to look after young foxes.

By that reasoning, it made sense that he would not know what to do with a bunch of twelve-year-olds when he was only just in his mid-twenties.

Kurama had been ignoring Naruto, who had been extolling some virtue or another of himself, but he tuned back into the conversation when the very small boy, Tazuna’s grandson, burst into tears and fled the table.

“I’m dealing with your genin,” Kurama hissed between his teeth at Kakashi. “You can deal with the small snotty human. I’ve done enough of that to last me a lifetime already.”

It will be good practice, Kurama thought, viciously.

 

x.

“Go on, then” Kakashi said. “Prove you can water-walk.”

“I will!” Naruto shouted, and jumped off the bridge.

He splashed straight into the ocean below and emerged a few seconds later coughing and spluttering.

“I thought you said you could do this, Naruto,” Kakashi called down to him.

“I can, you know!” Naruto yelled back up, thrashing angrily. “This water is weird. Give me a minute!”

“What he means,” Kurama said, peering over the edge of the bridge at his Fishcake. “Is that he’s only ever water-walked on fresh water. The salinity of the ocean means the buoyancy of the water here is different. He used the wrong amount of chakra in anticipation of his impact with the surface of the water, and as a result he went right through. He’ll work out how much chakra he needs to stay above it in just a second, though. Watch, and have some faith in your student for once, Kakashi-nii-san. Your lack of faith is frankly insulting. He might be an absolute idiot, but he learns by doing, and he’s been doing this for a long time.”

And, sure enough, Naruto climbed up onto the surface of the gently rolling water a moment later to grin up at them.

“Ah,” Kakashi said. “I see. Very good, Naruto. Why don’t you run the length of the bridge ten times for practice? Sakura, you can walk down that support beam and see if you can work out water-walking as quickly as you did tree-walking. I’ll watch Tazuna-san.”

“You’re supposed to be on bedrest,” Kurama said.

Kakashi shrugged unrepentantly.

“Naruto,” Kurama called. “I’m going to help Sasuke now. I won’t be far.”

“Why are you going to help that bastard? He always learns everything before me! Let me have this.”

Kurama affected his disappointed voice. “Naruto, you’re standing on the ocean right now. You’re so far ahead it isn’t even funny. Just because Sasuke usually learns things faster than you does not mean you should wish for your teammate to fail. Go do your running. It’ll help your stamina and your concentration.”

“Yes, Kurama,” Naruto said, and ran off, only splashing a little as he went.

“I’m not sure whether I should find it concerning or not that you are the one in charge of Naruto and not the other way around,” Kakashi said to Kurama. “Aren’t you his pet?”

“Pet. Ha. Foxes do what they want. People either follow or get out of the way.” Kurama lifted his chin and sniffed. “It would be more apt to say that Naruto is my pet.”

Except that Kurama didn’t like to think about Naruto as anything except an equal – albeit a small, fragile equal that wasn’t quite ready to look after himself yet – so Kurama shook that thought off and scarpered away to find Sasuke.

Sasuke was in the clearing, sitting on the grass, panting hard and glaring at his tree with extreme prejudice. The poor tree had a row of slash marks from Sasuke’s kunai going all the way up its trunk, and it was oozing sticky, sharp-smelling sap.

Kurama sat down next to him, and as he found himself doing for most of the members of Team Seven since its formation, pressed close against Sasuke’s side, a warm, quiet, fuzzy comfort as he waited for Sasuke to speak. And speak he eventually did, after he’d caught his breath.

“Why can’t I do this?” he growled.

“You can,” Kurama murmured, softly. “But it’s not an easy thing to learn, and it took Naruto the better part of a year. Oh, he shows off now, but this is your third day since you were introduced to this technique.”

“Why is he so annoying?” Sasuke asked, and Kurama noticed that his knuckles where white where he clutched at his kunai. He pawed at Sasuke’s hand, gently encouraging him to put the weapon down.

“There’s an explanation for that,” Kurama replied. “Most of it is wrapped up in S-Rank secrets, so I can’t say much, but you do know that Naruto grew up without any parents at all. In fact, I might almost be inclined to say that his life is more tragic than yours, which is a feat in and of itself.”

Sasuke glanced at him sharply. “My Clan.”

“I know what happened to the Uchiha,” Kurama said, placatingly. “That doesn’t mean you have a monopoly on the tragic past routine. Remind me to tell you about Kakashi-nii-san sometime. But we’re talking about Naruto right now. Do you know what happened to Uzushiogakure no Sato?”

A pause, as Sasuke squinted and thought. “The Village Hidden in the Whirlpools,” he repeated. “No.”

“Konoha doesn’t talk about it much, but it isn’t a secret. Just something people would rather forget, because it reminds them of their own shortcomings. It was very sad. Uzushio was where the Uzumaki Clan was from, and it was utterly decimated during the Second Shinobi War. They were close allies with Konoha, but when they called Konoha for aid, Konoha was too late, and everyone died.”

“Everyone?” Sasuke said. “But… Naruto isn’t an Uzumaki? I thought he was orphaned by the Kyuubi, and no one knew his parents, so he was named after the Shodaime’s wife, Uzumaki Mito-sama?”

Kurama barked an ugly laugh. “No. His mother was an Uzumaki being fostered in Konoha at the time. And now Uzumaki Naruto, the last of the Uzumaki, of the once great Uzushiogakure renowned for their fuuinjutsu, is an orphan of Konoha, a village that prefers not to even acknowledge that his Clan or Uzushiogakure no Sato ever existed. We live in the Akasen.”

Sasuke’s eyes had a slightly wet sheen to them, though his face was flat with anger.

“Why?” Sasuke demanded. “Why would Konoha treat him like that?”

Kurama had hit a nerve.

He tapped the side of his muzzle with his paw, and winked. “S-Rank secret. Treason punishable by death to speak of it. I cannot say, but I will tell you that it has to do with the reason everyone hates him. And I can tell you that the reason everyone hates him is not his fault. It happened before his birth, due to circumstances no one could have possibly predicted. Keep your eyes open, though, Sasuke, and you’ll see the truth.”

“Who… who were his parents?” Sasuke asked. “Do you know their names?”

“Also a secret I am not allowed to tell. Naruto knows. So does Kakashi, and the Hokage. His mother was the last Uzumaki before him, I’ve told you that much. His father was even better known. In fact, I’d wager you’ve seen his face so many times back home you don’t even think about it anymore.”

Sasuke looked at him blankly. “And he’s dead?”

“And he’s dead,” Kurama agreed. “So, Naruto’s had no one, his whole life. No one except me, and I’m just his pet fox. And almost everyone in the village has hated him. Naruto is a good kid, though, and he doesn’t want revenge on them, because he knows they don’t hate him, but what he represents. He wants to be Hokage. He wants to show them that he’s more than the thing they see whenever they look at him. He wants to protect every single one of those people, whether they like him or not, because he has no one, but he wants someone. Anyone. Everyone. Do you understand, Sasuke? He’s trying to get people to look at him as he is.”

“Noisy?”

“I’ll give you that,” Kurama said. “But no. A human boy with a playful streak a mile wide and a good heart who just wants to be seen as anything but a monster. And I’m going to help him as best I can, because he’s mine.”

“I’ll… keep that in mind. Can you… Kurama, can you help me learn this?”

“Absolutely. I was just waiting for you to ask. You realise we’ll help you with anything you need, too, right? Anything.” Kurama met his eye and held it until Sasuke looked away, his cheeks faintly pink although whether he was embarrassed or angry he couldn’t guess because Sasuke was almost unreadable. “So, tell me how you’ve been doing it so far…”

That night, Sasuke almost had it. He could walk-run to the top of the tree, but if he tried to do it at a walk, he still slipped more often than not. He stayed out long past dark trying to perfect it until, exhausted, he slumped into the grass of the clearing and fell asleep. Kurama curled up on top of his chest and drowsed.

Sometime near midnight, Kakashi appeared, little more than a pale thatch of hair and a shadow in the moonlight, a worried presence at the edge of Kurama’s consciousness.

“Leave him,” Kurama whispered. “He’s exhausted. There’s no rain on the wind, so there’s no danger from exposure, and I’ll keep watch.”

Kakashi nodded, faded back into the night, and disappeared.

The following morning, Sasuke was still asleep well after the sun had risen, and while Kurama was pleased that he was resting when he obviously needed it, he was also concerned that if he didn’t wake up there might not be any breakfast left for him! Naruto had a tendency to eat everything put in front of him and then some more, if the option were presented, which meant that leftovers were only an issue if truly prodigious quantities of food had been produced.

Given how poor it seemed the Land of Waves was, Kurama did not think very large meals were likely.

Hopefully Sakura had been thoughtful enough to put some aside for her teammate. She was hopelessly enamoured with Sasuke for reasons Kurama could not hope to divine, but it did mean that she was the most likely out of all of them to take his needs into consideration.

Kurama was drawn from his musings by the approaching chakra-signature of the fake Hunter-nin.

Momochi Zabuza was not with them, so he closed his eyes to slits and pretended to be sleeping while he observed their approach, since a little information-gathering never went amiss before approaching a potential target.

The fake Hunter-nin was a child, probably no more than a year or two older than Naruto, with long dark hair, a distinctly feminine face, and wearing a pink kimono, though they smelled male. They – he? – was carrying a basket of fragrant medicinal herbs, though he paused when he spotted Sasuke sleeping in the grass, expression cycling through surprise to fear to determination to what looked like regret.

They drew a kunai from beneath the herbs in their basket, and stepped closer on silent feet.

Kurama let them approach, keeping his breathing slow and steady, and when the kunai was gently moved toward Sasuke’s neck, as if to slit it and let him bleed out into the grass, Kurama moved, quicker than a striking snake, teeth clamping around the enemy shinobi’s wrist. He did not break skin, but pressed hard enough to bruise, and fixed the fake Hunter-nin with a pointed amber glare.

Sasuke had not roused.

Carefully, carefully, the fake Hunter-nin withdrew their arm, and Kurama let them go, scraping his needle-sharp little teeth over the soft unblemished skin of their wrist and then the heavily calloused hands before drawing back and releasing him.

“Don’t,” Kurama said, voice a soft whisper. “I can exert a bite-force strong enough to shatter your bones and snap your tendons, even if you reinforce them with chakra. Think about your options carefully and weigh your desire to remove one genin from your opposition against your own mobility, or, indeed, your own survival.”

“The last time I saw you,” the Hunter-nin replied, just as softly, wisely tucking the kunai away. “You were a rabid animal with his ribs kicked in.”

“I got better.”

“Or you were never hurt at all.”

Kurama grinned at him, foxily, which Kurama was very willing to admit was an unsettling expression on an actual fox face because it showed off all his pointy teeth and looked almost like a snarl, and why he enjoyed doing it so much. “Maybe,” he agreed.

“Then I did not need to rush off to get the vaccine for rabies for Zabuza-sama?” the fake Hunter-nin was frowning ponderously.

Kurama’s grin widened. “It was toothpaste.”

“You…”

“I am a kitsune. Either we’re the original tricksters, or the tanuki are, though that’s a debate I won’t get into now. What did you expect? How is Zabuza-san, anyway?” Kurama asked. “Naruto was sad when he thought he had died.”

“Is that boy Naruto?” the fake Hunter-nin indicated Sasuke.

Kurama shook his head. “No, this is the Sasuke brat. He doesn’t care either way.”

Sasuke chose that moment to stir awake. He froze when he spotted the boy in the pink kimono crouched down beside him.

“Good morning, Sasuke,” Kurama greeted him, cheerfully, with a lick to the cheek that had him wincing in disgust. “I was just thinking about waking you, or you’re going to miss breakfast. This is, uh…”

“Haku,” the fake Hunter-nin said.

“And Haku is…”

“I am gathering herbs. My friend is sick, so I need herbs to make medicine to help them feel better,” Haku said.

“Why don’t we help Haku and then go and get breakfast?”

“You would help me?” Haku said.

“We would?” Sasuke repeated, sounding just as disbelieving as Haku did.

“Brat,” Kurama rumbled, and bit Sasuke’s ear reprovingly. “We’re shinobi, Sasuke. Our entire purpose is not just to hone ourselves into perfect killing machines, or we would not be here, risking our lives on a wildly mis-ranked mission, helping old Stupid-Face-san build his bridge for the sake of the people of the Land of Waves. We must be compassionate, and think of the people who are not shinobi, who are not kami among men, who cannot protect themselves otherwise. Because if we forget those people, the little people, we are not shinobi, we are not even human anymore, we are just monsters.”

Like the Kyuubi. Like the monster everyone saw in Naruto.

“Ah,” Sasuke said, sucking in a sharp breath of understanding. “I see. Can you show us which herbs you need, Haku-nee-chan? We will help.”

Haku showed them. Kurama took a good whiff of what they were looking for and set about sniffing out some good specimens – he doubted he would be allowed to do the actual picking of the herbs, on account of not possessing opposable thumbs in his current shape and medicine probably didn’t work as well if it was all slobbery. So he would find the plants they were looking for, and call Sasuke and Haku to them.

As they worked, they made slightly stilted conversation, though Sasuke seemed not to notice.

“You are a shinobi?” Haku asked.

A pause, while Sasuke used his kunai to neatly trim a few sprigs of herbs. “Yes. From Konohagakure. My name is Uchiha Sasuke.”

“Uchiha?”

Sasuke nodded, but stayed focused on his task. “They were a big Clan, once.”

“Not anymore?”

“They were killed.”

“Ah. I’m sorry, Sasuke-kun,” Haku said, and Kurama thought Haku must have heard of the Uchiha before. He tried to recall his history about the Village Hidden in the Mist from the Academy, but that was one of the classes he used to sleep through the same as Naruto because it was boring and most of the facts were wrong. He’d been there! He’d been alive, then, but the humans had come up with all sorts of different stories about what had happened when and where, and sitting through them had been too boring for words.

They worked in silence for a little while, the only sounds the distance wash of waves on the shore and the cawing of gulls.

“Are you a strong shinobi?” Haku asked, at length.

“I’d like to think so,” Sasuke said.

Haku made a thoughtful noise. “Do you fight for your precious person?”

Sasuke paused. “What?”

“You can only truly be strong when you are fighting for your precious people,” Haku explained.

“I – I’m not sure I have any left,” Sasuke admitted, softly.

“Of course you do,” Kurama interjected.

“But my – that man – he killed them.”

Kurama considered that. “Is your team not also precious, in its own way?”

“No,” Sasuke said, immediately.

“You don’t like us at all?” Kurama opened his eyes wide and slicked his ears back just so, the perfect puppy-dog expression, and peered up at Sasuke imploringly. “Really? You wouldn’t be at all sad if we all died tomorrow?”

“What?” Sasuke exclaimed. “No! That’s not what I meant! Of course I’d be sad! I just—”

“We cannot replace what you have lost,” Kurama said gently. “Nor would I, nor I suspect Naruto or Kakashi-nii-san, nor even Sakura, wish to replace what you have lost. But just because you have lost one family does not mean you cannot build yourself a new one. Naruto’s in the middle of adding you to our family right now, or had you not noticed?”

“Oh,” Sasuke said, softly, like all the air had gone out of him. “I do have precious people.”

“Of course you do.” Kurama beamed at him.

“I suspect you are a very strong shinobi indeed,” Haku said, solemnly. “Thank you for your assistance, Sasuke-kun. Kitsune-san. I think I have enough herbs for the medicine for my friend, now.” He turned to leave. “Oh, and Sasuke-kun. I am a boy.”

Sasuke went all pink.

 

xi.

The attack on the bridge came nine days after their initial confrontation with Momochi Zabuza, on a naturally misty morning. Sasuke was back at Tazuna’s house, sleeping, because he had once again exhausted himself – this time in the pursuit of learning to water-walk – although now he also had a sniffle, a rattling cough, and a low-grade fever. In his dogged pursuit of water-walking mastery, he had spent most of each day repeatedly falling into the ocean and had inhaled water on several occasions.

Although he’d been able to stand on top of the water for an entire minute before falling in yesterday, Kakashi had made him stay behind today, with strict orders to rest or risk killing himself from pneumonia when they were days away from anywhere with antibiotics.

Sasuke, thankfully, was not so bone-headed as Naruto, and had agreed.

But now the mist was subtly thickening as tendrils of chakra stirred it, and Kurama could sense both Haku and Zabuza on the bridge.

He glanced sharply at Kakashi, and Kakashi was already lifting his hitai-ate and motioning for Sakura and Tazuna to back away.

And Zabuza pitted Haku against Naruto and Kurama, who promptly found themselves trapped inside a dome of ice mirrors. Haku was a child with a kekkei genkai, one of the few, he explained that had survived the Bloodline Purges.

Kurama abruptly remembered that for a long time Kirigakure had been known not simply as Mist, but as the Bloody Mist, and that he had heard the Minato-brat mention to Kushina the rumours of horrors that had happened there, back when he was the Yondaime, before Naruto was born.

Haku stepped into the mirrors and began to throw senbon at them.

“Ow, ow, ow!” Naruto howled, senbon sticking out of his arm like the pins of a porcupine. “Come out and fight fair, asshole!”

“He will not, Naruto,” Kurama said, and nimbly darted out of the way of a rain of lethally sharp needles that would have impaled his chest and punctured all the tiny organs in his equally tiny ribcage. “Fights to the death tend not to be fair.”

“Why would I fight fairly?” Haku asked. “I am a shinobi. As a shinobi, I am but a tool to be used by Zabuza-sama, and as a tool I do what is asked of me to help him attain his dream by whatever means necessary. Is this not the same for you?”

But Naruto was a jinchuuriki. Before he was a day old he’d had a bijuu sealed in his gut and been made an extremely powerful weapon, coveted and despised in equal measure for the enormous destructive power he contained. There might have been people on the Council, maybe even the Hokage himself – Kurama could not read the old man’s mind – who did, truly, believe that Naruto was a tool. Naruto, on the other hand, was no one’s tool to use and manipulate because Kurama had made certain of it. Had carefully built his boy’s sense of self and confidence until he could not be used, not to wage war or bring death and despair.

Could he be conned into helping people in a tough spot? Yes. But so could Kurama.

But they would not be weapons. They were not tools built and honed for the waging of war.

“I…” Naruto said, a little uncertainly, and then he sniffled, and his lower lip wobbled and Kurama hoped to Kami that Naruto was not about to cry right here in the middle of what was supposed to be a life-or-death battle. “I don’t think so. Kurama… you aren’t… you aren’t my tool, are you? Because I don’t want you to be.”

“Don’t be foolish,” Kurama said. “If you started getting stupid megalomaniacal ideas like that, I’d just eat you. I don’t suffer morons.”

Naruto sniffed. “Thanks, Kurama. Ouch!” He now had a dozen senbon in his thigh and ankle.

“You’re surprisingly resilient,” Haku noted, idly. “Most people would’ve fallen unconscious by now.”

Sasuke turned up. Apparently, a couple of Gatou’s civilian bandits had tried to attack Tsunami and Inari. They were now charred bandits and would be getting up to no further mischief on account of being dead.

“You should have stayed at Tazuna’s house,” Kurama told Sasuke, who was running through the seals for a Katon technique, even as he coughed hoarsely, though the fox was admittedly interested to see how the Uchiha Clan’s Great Fireball would fare against an ice kekkei genkai.

Not very well, it turned out, and then Haku slipped out of his mirrors to kick Sasuke into the ice prison, and Sasuke was stuck with Naruto and Kurama.

“Well, how do we get out of here?” Naruto demanded, no one in particular.

Sasuke and Haku began a cat-and-mouse game through the mirrors, and though Sasuke’s body wasn’t quick enough to catch up, his eyes were. One moment he was squinting at the mirrors as Haku dashed between them, his eyes dark as pitch, and the next they had bled red, pupils contracted to small dots, a pair of tomoe in one eye, and one in the other.

So, Sasuke had unlocked the first stage of the Sharingan. Kurama felt a faint crawl of unease but was immediately distracted by a new barrage of senbon, for Haku – upon realising that Sasuke could use the Sharingan against him – seemed determined now to end the fight as quickly as possible.

Kurama jumped in front of a wave of senbon that would have killed Sasuke and dropped to the concrete of the bridge, hacking up blood, a needle stuck right through the side of his throat from one side to the other.

“Kurama!” Sasuke yelled, though Naruto froze.

And then Naruto and Sasuke were both hit and went down, but only Sasuke stayed down, fallen not a foot from Kurama, who could see his face, eyes glazed, and face drained of colour.

Naruto staggered back to his feet.

“What are you?” Haku asked, and though his face was masked his voice was horrified. “You should be dead.”

Naruto ignored him, stumbled past Kurama, who watched him out the corner of his eye as he staggered over to Sasuke, who was very still.

“Kurama,” Naruto whimpered, his bloody fingers toughing Kurama’s fluttering flank for a moment. “Sasuke, is he?”

Kurama tried to speak, but only gurgled as his throat filled with blood and spilled from his mouth onto the bridge.

He’s alive, Kurama thought, in their shared mental space. He’s hanging by a thread, but he’s alive.

The response he got from Naruto was not a coherent thought, but a garbled series of images and feelings. Pain. Fear. Grief. Loss. Family. A sense of having only just found something incredibly rare, incredibly special, the most beloved thing in the world, and being right on the precipice of losing it. An image of Kurama as he was, not as he pretended to be, the mountainous and terrifying nine-tailed fox with the heavy, corrosive chakra, the being that resided in his gut.

It is a risk, but I understand, Kurama thought, and popped out of existence. His hitai-ate and two dozen bloody senbon clattered onto the bridge where his body had been a moment earlier.

The next moment, he and Naruto switched places. Instead of Kurama trapped inside Naruto’s gut, Naruto shifted into Kurama’s, where his tiny soul was held close and safe by the mental manifestation of Kurama’s tails in the form of a soft, fuzzy cradle. In the outside world, the prison of ice mirrors shattered and melted all at once as the Kyuubi emerged and launched itself off the bridge and into the ocean.

Haku was thrown backwards, tumbling uncontrolled and head-over-heels, as the Kyuubi rose up on four feet until it was peering down at the bridge, which was only elbow-height, water lapping over its enormous paws. A quick lash of its many tails, and the obscuring mist was blown away, leaving the scene on the bridge clear beneath the sunny sky.

Everyone had frozen where they were.

Good.

Including, it would seem, that boat of ruffians approaching the mainland end of the bridge in what looked like an ambush.

Kakashi was staring at him with abject terror.

Less good.

Zabuza was being held still by Kakashi’s ninken, and they were cute, too. So no one was dead, yet – excellent.

“KAKASHI-NII-SAN,” the Kyuubi boomed, and Kurama immediately regretted letting Naruto control his vocal chords, because that honorific growled out in that huge booming voice was… No, it was fine, even if his siblings heard about this. Kurama was doing this for Naruto. “SASUKE NEEDS HELP. PLEASE SAVE HIM!”

“The seal,” Kakashi said, more to himself than anything. “The seal… It broke. The Kyuubi is free. Oh, no, Naruto.”

The Kyuubi only heard this because he had very large ears.

He let out a tremendous and aggrieved whine. “KAKASHI-NII-SAN. STOP WORRYING ABOUT ME AND HELP SASUKE.”

“That obnoxious blonde kid was the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki? Konoha sent the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki here, to stop Gatou, and we released the Kyuubi?” Zabuza said, disbelievingly, then: “Haku! Run! You cannot fight that monster! No one can fight that monster!”

Incidentally, none of this was true. Naruto and Kurama had accidentally broken the seal when Naruto was eight years old. It had been the result of some years of curious poking, both from within their shared mindscape and from examining the seal painted on Naruto’s belly, which was only visible when he was channelling chakra.

All of it had faded except a few last wispy black lines of ink by the time Naruto was ten, which was the first time that Kurama had hypothesised that it might be possible for them to switch places though he was hesitant to try lest he burn Naruto’s tiny, fragile, human soul to a crisp.

Everyone ran, then, bolting along the length of the bridge towards the island as quickly as possible. Kurama felt an immense relief when he saw Kakashi herding Sakura and Tazuna along, and pause to scoop Sasuke into his arms, fleeing side-by-side with Zabuza and Haku.

Close your eyes and cover your ears, kit, Kurama thought, as the Kyuubi turned to the boat. We have one more thing to do but you will not like it.

He waited until he was certain Naruto’s eyes were squeezed shut, and he had his hands clamped safely over his ears, then he tightened the cradle of his mental tails until it was more like a cage and locking them together to block out the outside world.

“WHERE IS GATOU?” the Kyuubi demanded, turning towards the boat, which was powered by a small outboard motor and was not swift enough to outrun him.

Gatou’s hirelings were not loyal when their lives were on the line, and they shoved him toward the front of the boat viciously. He was an ugly little man, too. Overcompensating for something, Kurama thought, the Kyuubi stalking through the ocean, and he kept the thought private, even as the enormous Kyuubi grinned maliciously and leant down to pluck the screaming Gatou off the boat and kill him with a single crunch.

He spat the body into the water – let the sharks eat the disgusting little man – then tipped the boat over for good measure, spilling Gatou’s bandits into the ocean, before he at last turned back to the bridge.

Unwitnessed by anyone, as they were all too busy fleeing in terror, the Kyuubi leapt toward the unfinished end of the bridge and unceremoniously shoved Naruto back into the world, pulling most of himself back into the space in Naruto’s soul where he lived that seemed to exist whether the seal was fully intact or not, except for a tiny speck which detached and took form in time to land on the bridge in the shape of a little red fox. Naruto landed next to him, less gracefully, and flopped onto his stomach.

“Ouch,” Naruto said, and went to sleep.

Kurama checked on him, but it appeared to be a simple case of utter emotional exhaustion more than anything physically serious.

 

xii.

There was nothing like suddenly being confronted by a colossal bijuu to cause people to make unlikely alliances, Kurama thought, as Kakashi and Zabuza ventured back onto the bridge near sundown. Neither of them had their apprentices along with them, and for good reason. It would be the absolute height of irresponsibility to bring children incapable of effectively fleeing so close to such a source of potential danger.

Too bad that source of potential danger was as extant as it had been yesterday evening at sunset. The only difference was that they knew it existed now. So much for S-Rank secrets. Ha, ha. No one every expected the Kyuubi.

Kurama had spent the better part of the day chewing that issue over, after he’d examined the spot where Kakashi and Zabuza had fought, checked to see the Kyuubi had not caused any structural damage to the bridge when it had emerged, and recovered his hitai-ate, which he slipped over his head and wore around his neck like a collar.

Kurama thought they’d done the right thing, in the end. They had disrupted the fight so thoroughly that Zabuza and Haku could no longer continue to harangue Kakashi, or pose a threat to Sakura, or Tazuna, and hopefully they had got Sasuke the help he needed in time. On top of that, Gatou and most of his cronies were dead, drowned, or were still running away.

On the other hand, Kakashi thought the seal had broken.

The seal was broken, but it broke ages ago and wasn’t an issue. Although he had been afraid he might burn Naruto’s tiny soul away when they switched positions this morning, that had not been the case, and wrapping the boy in his chakra had been surprising familiar, like the ten months when he had cradled Naruto protectively while he was in Kushina’s womb and curiously watched him grow.

But… how was Naruto going to explain that the Kyuubi went back into his stomach of its own volition? The Kyuubi was a monster. It was angry and it rampaged and killed indiscriminately in its madness. It didn’t obediently hop back into its container, or yell at its nii-san to go help a teammate.

Oh, this was a disaster.

He could spin it that Naruto was in control the entire time, that Naruto had attained complete mastery over the Kyuubi by some mysterious power? Which was kind of untrue, because Naruto didn’t even know how to pull on Kurama’s chakra, and that power was love and Naruto would probably say that, and that didn’t sound believable at all.

Zabuza and Kakashi slowly, slowly, crept along the bridge, like it had been rigged with mines or explosive tags in their absence, and came to a stop maybe twenty feet away from where Naruto was sleeping peacefully, a little pool of drool forming on the concrete under his mouth. Kurama sat beside him, feet tucked tidily beneath him, tail wrapped around them, a little guardian.

“Kakashi-nii-san,” Kurama greeted. “Zabuza-san. Gatou was unfortunately too close to the battle site, and got eaten, so I do not believe you will have further reason to fight each other.”

Kakashi and Zabuza glanced at each other, warily.

“Kurama,” Kakashi said. “Where did the Kyuubi go? Which direction did it run? We… didn’t see.”

“We were more focused on getting to a safe distance,” Zabuza admitted.

“There’s no path of destruction,” Kakashi continued. “Did it head out to sea?”

They thought the Kyuubi had run away? Actually, that would make sense. Once upon a time, Kurama might very well have fled after escaping his container.

“Uh,” Kurama said, a little awkwardly, because he knew they wouldn’t believe him. “It went back inside.” He pointed at Naruto with a paw.

Kakashi looked at Naruto, now, and he did so with reluctance and misery in every visible part of his expression and body language. He was expecting a dead child. People tended not to survive a bijuu leaving their bodies, after all. Naruto snorted in his sleep and rolled onto his back, and Kakashi startled like a frightened cat.

“That child is a monster,” Zabuza breathed.

“No, he isn’t,” Kurama said firmly. “He does contain one, however.”

Kakashi finally composed himself and cleared his throat. “Kurama, is he alright? Can you wake him up?”

Kurama tilted his head like a dog hearing a new sound for the first time, or a fox trying to pinpoint the sound of a mouse moving under the snow, because he happened to know it made him look adorably confused. “You usually find it so fun to wake your cute little genin when you find them napping and they shouldn’t be.”

“Just wake him for me, please. I need to check something.”

“You need to check that he’s still Naruto, and that the Kyuubi hasn’t take him over from the inside,” Kurama said. “Alright. I’ll wake him up, but you better have food ready back at the house because he missed lunch and he’s going to be starving.”

He got up, and snuffled Naruto’s ears. Naruto groaned and tried to cover his head with his arms, mumbling something incoherent, so Kurama jumped on him, and licked whatever pieces of face he could get to through Naruto’s fingers.

“Five more minutes, stupid fox,” Naruto grumbled.

“You’re going to be late to class,” Kurama told him, and stepped on his belly, making him wheeze, but he stubbornly rolled onto his side.

“Don’t care,” Naruto said.

“Iruka-sensei said he’d buy us ramen at Ichiraku’s if you did well on that test today,” Kurama continued.

Naruto sat up, sleep crusting his eyes and a trail of drool creeping across his face most of the way to his ear. “What?” he said, and then he stumbled to his feet and started running along the bridge, right past Kakashi and Zabuza who jumped out of the way hastily. “I’m coming, Iruka-sensei!”

Kurama looked at Kakashi smugly.

Naruto stopped halfway along the bridge, finally realising where he was, at which point he turned around to level an accusing finger at Kurama. “You! There’s no ramen, and Iruka-sensei isn’t here! Kurama, that was mean. You’re a meanie.”

“You still have one of those cups of instant ramen, and I’m sure Stupid-Face-san will let you have some hot water. You can probably sneak it in before dinner, if you hurry,” Kurama called to him.

“Ah, you’re right!” and Naruto ran off.

Kurama turned to Kakashi and Zabuza.

“Is Sasuke okay? Naruto was very worried.”

“I… gathered as much, when the Kyuubi demanded I tend to him,” Kakashi said, a little sheepishly. “Yes, Sasuke will be fine. He has no major internal bleeding, or organ damage, and Zabuza-san’s apprentice helped us remove the senbon safely. He still has a fever, though, and he’s asleep, because he really has been overdoing it these last few days, so he’ll need to rest a little longer.”

Kurama nodded, pleased. “Good.”

The three of them walked in silence for a while.

“I thought I knew demons,” Zabuza said, after a while. “The called me the Demon of the Mist. But…”

“The Kyuubi is something else entirely,” Kakashi said, and he sounded like his mind was far away and years in the past. “Not even the strongest shinobi can stand a chance against a bijuu, and the Kyuubi is the strongest of them all. Your only hope is to seal them away.”

“And it’s sealed in that child?”

“Yes.”

“Naruto is a genin,” Kurama piped up. “And he’s a great ninja already. Just a bit… loud, and unrefined.”

“And hyperactive, and knuckleheaded,” Kakashi added. He paused, deep in thought. “I really thought that would kill him.”

Kurama sniffed. “You should give him more credit. He’s going to be Hokage one day, you know!”

Oh, kami, he was starting to affect Naruto’s verbal tics.

Kakashi laughed, but it was a humourless laugh, the laugh of someone who was laughing so they didn’t cry instead. Zabuza and Kakashi parted ways at the end of the bridge, bidding each other farewell.

“If we ever meet again on the battlefield, I hope you give me a good fight, Sharingan no Kakashi!” Zabuza said, then glanced in the direction Naruto had run off. “Though perhaps I would prefer if we met again as allies.”

“Goodbye, Zabuza-san.” Kakashi saluted him lazily. “I wish you well in your endeavour of the reformation of Kirigakure.”

“Tell Haku farewell from me,” Kurama said, climbing up onto Kakashi’s shoulder because both of them were unfairly tall and he didn’t like craning his neck to peer up at them. “And tell him that being your tool is not all there is to being a shinobi. Tell him that helping the little people and looking after your friends is also important, and that you can help someone achieve their dream without being theirs to manipulate. You can do it because you love them and that’s what friends do.”

Zabuza stared at Kurama for a long moment. “I see you and Haku spoke at length.”

“Between having senbon thrown at me,” Kurama agreed. “It was all really very philosophical.”

“Very well. I will tell him.”

Zabuza wandered away through the village, and Kakashi headed off towards Tazuna’s house through the trees.

“You are a very strange fox,” Kakashi murmured, at one point.

Kurama hummed, neither in agreement nor disagreement, more to make a noise to acknowledge that Kakashi had spoken at all.

He sat up awake that night in the room where Team Seven slept, alert and watching, and moving from one person to the next as they stirred and whined in distress. The entire room smelled of stale fear and old grief, and he was unsurprised that every single person had nightmares.

Kakashi, because his memories of the Kyuubi were incredibly traumatic. The last time he had seen the Nine-Tails, he had lost the very last of the family he had cautiously scraped together from bits and pieces after his father died. The death of his father had affected him for such a long time that he had only just begun to accept his team when Obito died, and then Rin. Minato and Kushina had both been extraordinarily powerful shinobi, must have seemed almost invincible, for all that there was danger present – and then they, too, were torn away in an instant, and just as with Obito and Rin, Kakashi had been powerless to help.

Kakashi did not cry out in his sleep. Years as an ANBU operative, and an active jounin, had presumably trained him out of the habit, but Kurama could feel the tension in the air, the distress that rippled out from him, and each time he moved to the side of Kakashi’s bedroll and pressed close and warm against the right side of his face and neck, gently murmuring nonsense to him until he relaxed again, and then Kurama would have to move on, because Naruto was thrashing and crying in his sleep, the tang of salt sharp in the air, crying over friends he dreamed had all been killed while he had been powerless to help.

Kurama licked away his tears and promised him quietly that everything was alright, everyone was okay.

Sasuke shivered with fever-dreams. He had taken his first lives that morning, but it had not been a quick or clean kill, Gatou’s cronies had burned and died over the course of minutes, not seconds.

Kurama praised him for his bravery, for protecting Inari and Tsunami, told him he’d done the best he could, told him the next time would probably not be easier, but he would at least know what to expect.

Sakura dreamed of Sasuke, lifeless and dead on the bridge, killed by Haku instead of gravely wounded. She dreamed of the horror of the Kyuubi turning not on Gatou but on them, of being crushed between immense jaws, of chakra so oppressive she could barely breathe, let alone move.

Kurama promised her she was safe, the Kyuubi was not here, it would never turn on her, Sasuke was safe, they were all safe.

And as soon as one person settled, another would stir, and Kurama would move on, going around and around the room feeling helpless and sad and wishing his precious people weren’t experiencing this.

The next few nights were little better, though the days were bright and happy, and they all pitched in with assisting in the construction of the bridge, except Sasuke, who came along bundled in a blanket but was made to sit down by the railing with a thermos of tea. Before long, with the aid of Kakashi, the genin, and Naruto’s innumerable clones, the bridge between the Land of Waves and the mainland was completed.

Unfortunately, Tazuna could not be discouraged from naming the bridge The Great Kyuubi Bridge in honour of their great and terrifying saviour.

All the way back in Konohagakure, the Sandaime Hokage received a message from a courier hawk from Kakashi. It read thus:

Hokage-sama,

Our mission has been completed. Tazuna-san has finished the construction of his bridge, and I will be returning with my team in the morning. I will give you a more thorough debrief when I arrive, but I am aware that the rumours of what occurred here may have reached you already, and you may be rightly worried.

I wish to assuage some of the fears that you may have had.

Yes, we did encounter Momochi Zabuza, the Demon of the Mist, and fight him twice. He had been hired by Gatou, CEO of the Gatou Company. That shipping company, you know the one. After Gatou’s death, which nullified Zabuza’s contract, we no longer had reason to engage each other in combat, so I allowed Zabuza and his apprentice to leave unmolested. Attempting to apprehend or kill him seemed unnecessarily risky with genin in tow and no back-up.

The Kyuubi did make an appearance and eat Gatou. I have yet to determine why, although it was only present for five minutes. Naruto claims that the Kyuubi did not escape, they just ‘switched places.’ He explains that he went into the fox’s stomach for the duration of that time, and then they switched back. I did not personally witness this phenomena, as I was attempting to get everyone in the surrounding area to a safe distance, and as such can not confirm. However, when I sent my ninken out to attempt to attempt to track the Kyuubi, in the event that it had escaped, they returned to me with nothing.

Naruto is well and in good spirits. He showed me his seal, and I believe it has either broken or been seriously tampered with. As you know, I am tolerably well-versed in the art of sealing, but any stop-gap seal I tried to apply to broken area just burned off within a few minutes, and as he seems like himself I have resigned myself to leaving it.

I regret that we may have to bring in a seal-master, as this is well beyond my area of expertise.

Sasuke has been unwell, after inhaling seawater, but is mostly recovered, and Sakura seems determined to become stronger.

They both now know that Naruto is the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki, and I am not certain if it will be possible to contain this secret much longer. Incidentally, I take no responsibility. I had absolutely no idea this could even happen. I thought seals only weakened during childbirth. The people of the Land of Waves are very happy, and have named their new bridge ‘The Great Kyuubi Bridge.’ They have also painted a mural of the Kyuubi tipping over the boat with Gatou and his men on it. It is not a very good mural, but there have been a lot of visitors already to see it. I have enclosed a drawing of the mural.

The drawing of the mural was also not very good, and if Sarutobi Hiruzen hadn’t known what he was looking at, he might not have recognised the badly-drawn four-legged thing with a jagged line for a mouth and nine curling lines to be the Kyuubi at all.

We expect to be back in the village by next week.

The letter was signed with a henohenomoheji.

The Sandaime Hokage sighed sadly, puffed on his pipe, and reached for a scroll. He was too old. He should never have come out of retirement. Hokage was a young man’s job. And he needed Jiraiya back in the village ASAP because someone competent needed to look at that seal last week.

 

xiii.

They arrived back in Konoha near nightfall. Kakashi sent them all on their way, because he needed to speak to the Hokage in private, then walked off with his back strangely straight and a grim expression in his one visible eye, almost like he was walking off to his own execution.

“Wanna get ramen with me?” Naruto asked Sasuke and Sakura.

Sakura hesitated. “I should really go home,” she said, twirling a strand of hair around a finger, absently. “We were away a really long time, and I… missed my parents.”

“Oh,” Naruto said, drooping just a little. Kurama almost fell off his shoulder and had to dig his claws into Naruto’s jumpsuit or risk an ungraceful tumble. “Tell them we said ‘hi,’ I guess. Sasuke?”

Sasuke shrugged, but he followed along behind Naruto as he walked towards Ichiraku Ramen.

Ichiraku Ramen was not unoccupied. A familiar and beloved Academy teacher was sitting on one of the stools there, finishing off a bowl just as they arrived. Kurama had a fraction of a second to realise what was coming, and hastily catapulted onto the counter just in time.

“IRUKA-SENSEI!” Naruto bellowed, and tackled him with a flying hug.

“Shoo, no animals,” old Teuchi said, waving a cleaver threateningly at Kurama. “You’ll get fur in the broth, it’s a health hazard.”

Kurama yelped and bounded onto the one stool that had not been tangled up and knocked down by Naruto and Iruka.

Teuchi eyed him warily. Kurama eyed him warily back.

This was a ritual they went through every time.

“The usual, please, Teuchi-san!” Naruto said, hauling himself up using the counter for balance. “And – uh – what do you want, Sasuke? My treat.”

“No,” Sasuke said, a little bit stiffly, picking up a stool and climbing onto it. “I will pay for us both. Hello, Iruka-sensei.” He ordered brusquely.

Iruka finally managed to get up, wincing slightly.

Kurama wondered if he needed to break Naruto of the habit of flying-tackle-hugs, but Naruto was a small boy, most of his targets were adult chuunin and jounin in their prime, and he always preceded these hug-attacks with a bellowed warning, so it was really the other person’s fault if they got knocked over. If he started doing it to little old people Kurama would put his paw down, but until then he deemed it acceptable.

“It’s good to see you, Naruto, Kurama,” Iruka said. Then added, slightly bemusedly: “Sasuke. I didn’t know you two got along.”

“We’re friends, you know! I’m friends with all of Team Seven!” Naruto exclaimed.

Sasuke stuck his finger in the ear closest to Naruto, presumably to moderate his volume a little bit. Sometimes Kurama wished he still had fingers.

“I’m glad to hear that, Naruto,” Iruka-sensei said, sounding genuinely pleased, as Teuchi put their bowls of ramen in front of them.

Iruka had not initially liked Naruto, back when he was made Naruto’s homeroom teacher when Naruto was eight years old. Kurama had been suspicious of him for a long time because of it as his behaviour had neither been the irrational hatred of the villagers nor quite the wary distance of the shinobi. It was more personal, which had been odd because Kurama was reasonably certain they had never met Iruka before.

And yet he’d treated Naruto like any other student. Not a particularly liked student, but just like every other student all the same. The consequences for poor behaviour were the same, as were the rewards for good, though Naruto had still been struggling with too much energy and little chakra control at eight, coupled with no friends and only a fox demon for moral support. There had been a group of particularly cruel children who mocked him every day, children so vicious that Kurama always left the Academy with his teeth itching from the intense desire to bite the little brats.

Things had come to a head when that group of little boys had gone to the cemetery where many of the shinobi killed by the Kyuubi were buried. It was apparently haunted by the ghost of the demon fox and going into the cemetery on the night of the full moon with only a little paper lantern was supposed to be some sort of test of courage.

Naruto and Kurama knew the haunting to be blatantly untrue, as they both knew precisely where the demon fox was and it was generally draped around Naruto’s neck like a living scarf or trotting along at his heel, but they were always up for a good prank.

So they’d snuck into the cemetery at sundown and climbed up onto the piece of abstract stone artwork at the far end of the cemetery supposed to represent the Will of Fire and waited until Kurama heard the scuff of children’s sandals. Naruto had henged into his Kyuubi-Kurama imitation and stood high up upon the abstract stone fire, tails lashing against the light of the rising full moon – and those horrible bullies from the school had run away squealing like trapped rabbits.

By the time Iruka-sensei burst into the cemetery a minute later, kunai in hand, Naruto dropped the henge and hopped down to sit on the ground in the moonlight shadow of the abstract stone, and he and Kurama were looking out across the field of graves, the joy and laughter from their prank dulled by the knowledge that this was the true power of the Kyuubi. This was the destruction Kurama wrought, this was why the village treated Naruto so badly. All these lives lost.

The immensity of the loss the village suffered had been sobering.

Iruka told them off for the prank, and Kurama had realised, then, that what he was smelling and feeling from the Academy teacher was not anger, not really, but fear and grief. Grief like their dog-faced ANBU watcher had carried around like a shroud for years. Grief like the Hokage wore every day. The grief of someone who had lost their precious people.

And when Naruto and Iruka argued and Naruto swore he would never go back to the Academy, never, Kurama came to a realisation. The following morning he got Naruto up hours early and forced him to the library, where they found a list of those who died in the Kyuubi Attack. And, sure enough – they found Umino Iruka’s parents.

“He’s not angry at you,” Kurama whispered to Naruto, between the stacks of books and scrolls. “He’s angry at me, but whenever he looks at you he thinks of me, because I killed his parents. And I’m very, very sorry.”

“He’s an orphan,” Naruto had murmured, then. “Just like me.” And then he’d burst into tears and run all the way to the Academy to arrive two hours too early. Upon spotting Iruka, he’d started crying anew, ugly bawling, and between sobs he’d apologised for every single slight he could think of. For every prank and every time he’d failed a test and every time he’d fallen asleep in class or not paid attention, even every time he secretly thought Iruka was just a big old meanie, as though Iruka could somehow divine his innermost musings and was not a chuunin not yet out of his teen years.

It had been… awkward, and ended with Naruto crawling into his teacher’s lap to wipe snot all over his flak-jacket.

Their relationship got better, afterwards, though, and half the time when Naruto forgot himself in class Iruka just laughed. And when he did well, he’d invite him out to eat ramen. And he sometimes let Kurama sleep on his desk during the boring lessons, like history and math, so annoying little fingers didn’t poke his sides or pull his tail like what happened when he snoozed too close to the kids.

“I missed you so much, Iruka-sensei!” Naruto was babbling, between mouthfuls of ramen. “I haven’t seen you in forever and ever! And I love Kakashi-nii-san, don’t get me wrong, but you’re like my first family from before I really knew Kakashi-nii-san and I love you too and I was really sad without you.”

“Shouldn’t he be ‘Kakashi-sensei’?” Iruka asked.

“I don’t know why,” Sasuke said, suddenly cutting in. “But Naruto already knew who Kakashi-sensei was before we even met him, and he’s been calling him nii-san from the start. Kakashi-sensei seemed surprised, too.”

“That’s ‘cause he is my nii-san!” Naruto said. “Anyway, he said it was fine if I called him that.”

Iruka obviously didn’t quite know how to process that, so he just smiled and ruffled Naruto’s hair. “So I heard you had a big mission.”

“Yeah, but we have to talk to Jiji about it tomorrow, so I can’t say anything now,” Naruto grumbled. “It was really cool though, except when it was scary, but it all turned out okay.”

“I’m glad.”

Iruka ruffled Naruto’s hair, and Naruto squawked indignantly.

 

xiv.

Kakashi had had them doing training in the mornings, and D-ranks in the afternoons. Kurama noticed he was quieter, more serious, and the little fox hadn’t spotted a copy of Icha-Icha since they got back from the Land of Waves, which was very abnormal.

“Are you well?” Kurama asked, sitting beside Kakashi on the riverbank one afternoon, as the genin practiced their water-walking while they fished trash from the river.

Kakashi made a pensive sound, glancing away from the three brats, who were splashing and laughing as they worked. Well, Sakura and Naruto were laughing, though Kurama had spotted Sasuke smirking a minute ago, when he flicked a piece of waterweed at Naruto’s head starting a game that looked like an odd mixture of tag and evasion training. “Ah, I’m fine, Kurama. You don’t need to worry about me.”

“This team is my family, and I’ll worry about any member of it if I deem they are acting abnormally.”

Kakashi appeared to think that over. “Maybe I’ve just decided to get serious about training these three.”

Kurama flopped against him. “You’re worried. Hokage-sama is, too, unless I’ve been imagining the animal mask ninja following Naruto around. You don’t have to be.”

“How can I not? The Kyuubi—”

“The Kyuubi called you ‘Kakashi-nii-san,’” Kurama interrupted him. “I think it’s clear who was in control of it.”

Kakashi scratched his chin through his mask. “I still don’t understand.”

“Not everything is meant to be understood.”

“Is that a real saying that I have conveniently never heard, or are you just pretending to be wise?” Kakashi asked.

Kurama grinned up at him and said nothing, and then Kakashi got a face full of waterweed and they all played tag on the river for a while.

After they filed their mission report Kakashi released them to enjoy the rest of the afternoon following their own pursuits, and Naruto yelped happily and ran off to find Konohamaru, Moegi, and Udon, who he’d promised to play ninja with. It didn’t matter that he was a real ninja these days and had no need for pretend play, it was still a fun way to spend the latter half of the afternoon and early evening, and Kurama relished running through the streets dodging rubber shuriken and kunai as they formed teams and took turns being the pursuing shinobi, or the infiltrating shinobi.

Incidentally, they got in trouble a lot while they were playing ninja, but it was usually innocent trouble like sneaking into adult bookstores as part of their infiltration missions or bumping into people in the market streets while they were running after each other, and they rarely got more than a good verbal lashing.

Today, Naruto had invited Sakura, who had hemmed and hawed and wrung her hands, but ultimately agreed when Kurama promised it would be fun, screw what Ino or anyone else from their graduating class thought, none of the rest of them had even been on a C-Rank mission yet so they weren’t allowed to judge.

That had cheered her up, and although Sasuke had declined their invitation, citing that he wanted to go and train by himself, Naruto and Sakura were laughing joyously as they chased the three little kids through Konoha. Sakura was often so quiet, unless she was hitting something. Kurama thought it was nice to see her smiling openly and having fun.

And then Konohamaru bumped into the back of a young man in a strange dark-coloured jumpsuit complete with hood and… ears? It looked familiar somehow, though Kurama couldn’t recall why. Konohamaru fell down, and the young man, who had geometric purple paint on his face, turned to leer down at him.

“You should be more careful,” he sneered. “That hurt, you know.” He picked Konohamaru up by the back of his shirt. “I think I should hurt you back.”

Kurama shivered from nose to tail, his skin crawling. The air around them was thick with the scent of raccoon dog, mixed with the smell of sand dunes at noon and dry desert wind, and a roil of turbulent emotion. Shukaku.

“Hey—” Naruto started to yell, but Kurama patted his ankle with a paw, and he closed his mouth so quickly his teeth clicked.

Stinking tanuki, Kurama broadcast into their shared mental space, and Naruto tensed all over. I have this.

Okay. I trust you.

Konohamaru may never forgive me for this, Kurama thought, apologetically. I’m going to take advantage of his status, which he’s been trying to escape.

Their mental space communication had become very quick, over the years, though they didn’t do it often – it felt more natural to speak to each other in the physical world – and they were capable of flinging ideas at each other a lot faster than they could during ordinary conversation. A decision had been made in fractions of a second. Kurama smelled the sudden cold sweat Naruto had broken into, pungent like fear, even as he clenched his fists in determination. The little red fox climbed his jumpsuit and clambered onto his shoulder, nuzzled his cheek reassuringly.

“You should put the Honourable Grandson of the Sandaime down,” Kurama said, firmly.

“Eh?” the young man with the face-paint said and dropped Konohamaru in a heap on the ground. Konohamaru yelped and flailed then scrambled over to join Moegi and Udon where they were hanging back behind Sakura and Naruto.

“Kankurou!” a young woman with dirty-blonde hair, apparently accompanying the oddly dressed man, snapped reprovingly. “Why can’t you just leave well enough alone?”

“That fox speaks,” Kankurou said, disbelievingly. “Is it a summons?”

“No, Kurama’s just a regular ninkitsune,” Sakura said.

“Kurama.” Ah, and there was the jinchuuriki. A boy with red hair up in that tree, a large gourd on his back, and the kanji for ‘love’ tattooed onto his forehead? Okay, unusual, but not really any odder than the brat with the purple face-paint. Another Suna-nin, from his hitai-ate, and related to the other two, from the way he smelled and what little of his chakra Kurama could feel beneath the angry snarling of Shukaku’s chakra within him. His voice was inflectionless, but there was a question there all the same.

Where was the nearest ANBU? Ah, there, someone concealing themselves two blocks to the east. Good. Not close enough to see, though if their hearing was good they might listen in.

Kurama lifted himself onto his hind paws, balancing himself with one paw on Naruto’s head, and let the shadow he cast in the setting sun behind him take on the shape of longer ears and eight additional lashing tails as his eyes bled from amber to the colour of freshly spilled blood.

“I’m Kurama. Konohagakure is fox territory,” he said, directly to the boy, black markings creeping from his ears down across his eyes to now nose. “You smell like tanuki. All tanuki will behave themselves in fox territory, or I’ll kick their weak, stupid butts from here all the way back to the desert. This is your one and only warning. And that goes especially for any tanuki who happens to be called Shukaku who is a dobe and wouldn’t even know a precious thing even if he was sitting right on it.”

“Kankurou, Temari,” the red-headed boy said. “Come, now. You are an embarrassment.”

“Yes, Gaara-sama,” they chorused.

And they body-flickered away.

“What was that?” Sakura asked.

“I don’t like tanuki,” Kurama said, letting his shadow return to normal, his eyes fade back to a very plain amber, and the markings on his face disperse. “Especially Shukaku. He’s the most annoying person I ever met in my entire life, and he’s not even a human. I don’t why those Suna-nin smelled like him, but I don’t like it. Anyway, they’re gone now, it’s getting late, and I think that a traumatic experience like that deserves ice-cream, what do you think, Konohamaru-kun?”

Konohamaru harrumphed and crossed his arms over his chest, then thought about it for a moment. “Yeah,” he agreed. “But only if you buy it!”

“I haven’t got any pockets, but Naruto just got paid for a D-Rank, so he might shout you?”

“Oi, Kurama!” Naruto whined, but the tension was forgotten.

Kurama remembered halfway home that the face paint and jumpsuit were traditional puppeteers’ garb.

Still weird.

 

xv.

There was a soft tap on the window beside Naruto’s bed. The night was warm. Naruto was deeply asleep, laying on top of his bedcovers on his back with his arms and legs splayed out in every direction. Kurama lay beside him, close but not touching, sprawled on his side and panting softly in the heat.

In the morning, Naruto would comb his fur with the slicker brush Kakashi had given him, after he noticed that Kurama was shedding his undercoat in a messy albeit very natural fashion for a wild fox. Apparently that was not good enough for a ninkitsune who was supposed to be the well-cared for partner of a shinobi, however, and he should be sleek and healthy and civilised in appearance.

Kurama had had mixed feelings about this, until he realised how nice having his fur combed felt, and how much less itchy he was after all his dead undercoat had been brushed away.

He was dreaming about it.

It was a good dream, one full of happy feelings that made his chest want to burst.

The soft tap repeated itself, and Kurama roused to the darkness of Naruto’s little apartment, a shadow on the windowsill, and the nearby and very unmistakable rolling of Shukaku’s wild chakra. Ah, the jinchuuriki had sought him, them, out. Well, it was to be expected, really.

He rolled off the bed, padded over to the window, and hopped up onto the sill to unlatch it.

The red-headed jinchuuriki slid the window open and slipped inside.

“I wouldn’t cause a commotion,” Kurama said, before the Suna jinchuuriki could open his mouth. “There are three ANBU operatives watching this apartment as we speak. No doubt this will be reported to the Hokage within the minute. It will be allowed only so long as violence does not occur, but if they detect even a hint of bijuu chakra, we’re going to have all hell rained down on us. And I don’t know about you, or that idiot tanuki who never thinks before he acts, but I’d personally rather avoid that if possible. There are innocent people living next door, and though they might not make their livings through the most… legal means, they have been kind to us.”

The red-haired boy was quiet for a long moment. Then he said, and he sounded ever-so-slightly puzzled: “You were sleeping.”

“It’s night time. People sleep at night time,” Kurama replied. He peered up at the boy’s face, and saw the dark rings around his eyes, and thought that perhaps this child never slept at all.

The boy pointed at Naruto, who was snoring softly. “He’s sleeping.”

“Yes?”

“He’s like me, but he’s sleeping, and the monster doesn’t come out when he does.”

Oh, so that was why the boy looked so tired. He had to stay awake, or Shukaku would wreak havoc? That… didn’t bode very well for anyone. And it said all sorts of terrible things about his seal. Kurama wanted to look at this terrible seal out of morbid curiosity – how different was it than his and Naruto’s had been? But he was also afraid to, he knew the ugliness of what had been done to his brother and this child would sicken him.

He decided that ultimately, it wasn’t his business.

“I can wake Naruto up, if you like. It’s rude to sleep through visitors. He might make tea,” Kurama offered.

The boy said nothing.

The silence stretched so long it got awkward.

“Right,” Kurama said, at length, climbing back onto the bed. “Yes, I’ll just wake Naruto, I’m sure he’ll be delighted to meet you, he loves making new friends, and we can have some tea, or maybe cocoa – I’m great at making cocoa, ask anyone except Kakashi-nii-san – and I think I hid a box of pocky on the top shelf, we can share, if you like pocky—”

“I want to kill you,” the boy said, and Kurama froze.

“Uh, that isn’t a very nice thing to do to someone you just met.”

The boy fixed him with a very intense glare. “Okaa-san wants to kill you, too, but Okaa-san said if I tried you’d kill me. Okaa-san said I wouldn’t be able to do it. Okaa-san said you’re much stronger than me. Okaa-san is very angry at you for it.”

Kurama wondered who this kid’s mother was, because she sounded even more homicidally psychotic than the kid. He hoped he hadn’t widowed her or something accidentally, but he didn’t remember there being any delegates from Suna being in Konoha before his unfortunate episode of Mangekyou-induced madness… He didn’t recall that entire episode of his life that well, though, so it was always a possibility.

“When you return to the inn, or wherever you’re staying, you should tell your mother I’m very sorry for whatever I did to earn her ire,” Kurama said, bowing. “Now, about that cocoa? It really is good, I promise, and we’ve even got milk that’s in date.”

The boy stared at him.

Kurama decided to just take that for acceptance.

“Oi, Fishcake. Get up! We have visitors! Er, a visitor. No, visitors.”

Naruto moaned. “But Kurama,” he whined, and buried his head under his pillow.

“Naruto, don’t be rude. We’re the hosts, we should provide food and comfort.” Kurama pushed him off the bed.

He landed with a squeal and a thud, and sat up to fix Kurama with an indignant pout.

“Go put the kettle on,” Kurama said. “Look, we have guests.”

“Oh,” Naruto said, noticing the red-haired jinchuuriki for the first time. “You’re the tanuki guy. You’re like me and Kurama. Hi! I’m Uzumaki Naruto, and this is Kurama, the Kyuubi no Kitsune. Or, well, a part of him. Like, the tiniest sliver of his toenail! Most of him is in my tummy. This is the part that comes out to keep me company so I’m not lonely. He’s my best friend in the whole world and I love him but he’s mean and makes me eat vegetables sometimes.”

Ugh, too much information that Shukaku could be listening in on.

Kurama was going to be laughed all the way to the Southern Continent.

“Kettle,” Kurama reminded Naruto, gruffly, and Naruto stumbled sleepily off to the kitchen-area to flick on the light and putter around, running fresh water into the kettle and pulling out the sugar, the cocoa, the milk, and the cocoa pot. Kurama turned to the red-headed jinchuuriki. “It would be polite at this juncture to introduce yourself.”

“Sabaku no Gaara,” the boy, Gaara said.

“It’s nice to meet you, Gaara-kun.” Kurama smiled at him, but it wasn’t the toothy fox grin, and rather a relaxed squinty-eyed, soft-eared, wiggly-tailed, genuine smile. “I don’t really like your bijuu, Shukaku, very much because he’s my most stupidest, littlest brother, and I’m the biggest brother, so it’s my duty to squish him into the dirt when he gets too big for his trousers, but we could be friends, you and I.”

“I’ll be your friend, too!” Naruto called. “Kurama, can you come do the rest, I don’t know how.”

“Come sit at the table and make yourself comfortable, Gaara-kun. The cocoa will be just a minute,” Kurama said, scampering into the kitchen to leap nimbly onto the counter and turn on one of the burners and push the cocoa pot onto it.

Gaara’s stare turned blank with incomprehension.

“Sit, sit, sit,” Naruto chanted, pulling out a chair for him and shooing him towards it.

Gaara sat, shrugging off his gourd to sit it by his feet, leaning against his chair.

Naruto sat across from him, leaned his elbows on the table, and grinned at him, expectantly.

Gaara was staring back uncertainly when Kurama turned to pour the already-heated water into the pot. Just a little, just enough to dissolve the cocoa powder and the sugar. He held a wooden spoon a little awkwardly between his paws as he mixed them together, until the room smelled sweet and warm and chocolatey, before he tipped in the milk.

“Mugs, Naruto,” Kurama said. “And put the rest of the milk away.”

Naruto jumped up to do as he asked.

Kurama turned and pointed to one of the cupboards. “There’s pocky on the very top shelf of that cupboard, there. Why don’t you get it down and offer to share some with Gaara-kun.”

“Okay!” Naruto said, and he had to climb onto the counter and stretch up on the tips of his toes to reach. “We had pocky?” Naruto paused, holding the packet.

“Yes, for guests who might not appreciate ramen,” Kurama told him. “Go on, then, and come back. The cocoa’s warm enough now and I need your help to pour it into the mugs.”

Naruto delivered the pocky to Gaara, returned with two sticks in his mouth like walrus teeth – Kurama had told him about walruses ages ago – and they carefully poured the hot cocoa into the three clean but old and slightly chipped mugs.

“Here you go, Gaara!” Naruto said, putting the first mug in front of the red-headed jinchuuriki. “Kurama makes the best hot cocoa out of everyone I know.”

“He said that,” Gaara mumbled, more to himself than anything.

“The secret is the amount of sugar you use,” Kurama said, hopping up onto the little kitchen table as Naruto brought over the last two mugs of gently steaming cocoa. “And you can’t put too much water.” He winked. “So, Gaara-kun, was there a reason you came to visit us at—” Kurama checked the kitchen clock. “—Just gone two in the morning?”

“Okaa-san was angry,” Gaara said. “And I was curious.”

“Curious?” Naruto repeated. He had a cocoa-moustache.

“People are not afraid of you.”

Naruto looked at Kurama, who looked right on back at him.

“Eh? Yeah they are,” Naruto said. “Well, lots of them, anyway. But they don’t mean it. They don’t really know that I’m not the Kyuubi, and it’s the Kyuubi they’re afraid of. I’m Uzumaki Naruto and I’m going to be Hokage one day, believe it!” He covered his mouth with a hand, and laughed, grinning foxily, and it was a cute expression on him. “They’re scared of the Kyuubi, but they don’t know Kurama is the Kyuubi and he’s been pretending to be my pet fox for years and years and they just think he’s cute! Isn’t it a great prank?”

“Prank,” Gaara said, glancing from Kurama to Naruto and back again.

“Yeah! It’s a long con, Kurama explained it to me.”

Gaara tilted his head, like he was listening to something. They watched him, wondering what he was doing.

“Okaa-san thinks you’re the stupid ones,” he said, at length.

“Eh, your mother’s here? Where? We should’ve offered her cocoa and pocky, too!” Naruto cried.

Kurama eyed Gaara thoughtfully, as an idea struck him.

“Your mother… who speaks and only you hear her,” he said, slowly. He glanced meaningfully at Naruto.

We can do that, too, but I am not your Kaa-chan, he thought into their shared mind-space. A momentary pause, as Naruto digested this. He got a very mixed-up sequence of hurt, outrage, sadness, and misery in return as Naruto understood the consequences of what Kurama was telling him.

Naruto burst into messy tears.

“Naruto,” Kurama said, gently. “Why don’t you find that thermos we’ve never really used and put the rest of the cocoa in it, so Gaara-kun can take it with him? I need to have a word with Gaara-kun.”

Naruto nodded, bawling snottily, and left the table.

Kurama turned to Gaara, expression serious.

“I am very sorry, Gaara,” he said.

Gaara looked at him like he’d grown a second head. “What is going on?”

“The voice in your head only you can hear. That is not your mother,” Kurama told him. “Shukaku is playing a very mean trick on you. I thought tanuki were better at pranks than that, but it would seem I was wrong. He’s been playing the long con, too, but he hasn’t been playing a fun, safe prank at all. He’s been playing a prank meant to hurt you and everyone around you and that is not okay.”

Gaara sat there, frozen, except for a subtle tremor running through his entire body.

Naruto crept over and put the thermos down on the table in front of him. Gaara didn’t seem to notice. Kurama, however, observed the small swirl of sand escaping from the gourd.

“Naruto, moved behind me, please.”

Naruto did.

“Shukaku,” Kurama said, addressing the bijuu directly. “I would prefer not to fight in the heart of Konoha. This is my village, and I will protect it with extreme prejudice, but I do not want to harm the people who live here. If we are to battle, we must head outside the walls to a safe distance. Do not think I am incapable of making you – do not forget that I am the Kyuubi no Kitsune. I will not hesitate to beat you so badly you cannot reform for a whole century, should you force my hand. But I do not want to hurt Gaara.”

Gaara looked at him, sharply, then.

“Okaa-san hates you,” he hissed, malevolently. “I hate you.”

And he hefted the gourd onto his back and left through the open the bedroom window, leaving Naruto and Kurama alone, but for the slightly worried-feeling chakra signatures of their ANBU watchers.

The thermos of cocoa was gone.

“Well,” Kurama said. “He despises us, but that could have gone a lot worse.”

Naruto picked him up and cuddled him to his chest, sniffling miserably. “I love you, Kurama.”

“I know you do, kit. I know you do.”

 

xvi.

“Are you guys afraid of me?” Naruto asked, laying on his back on the grass as they waited for Kakashi to finish sitting at the memorial stone, talking to dead people.

“No,” Sasuke said, immediately. “Why?”

“Just something someone said recently, it’s nothing.”

Sakura, who was sitting beside him, reading a medical textbook, went to pat him idly on the head but she wasn’t paying attention and got him in the face instead. “Whoever they were, they had no idea what they were talking about,” she said, but she was clearly only half paying attention.

Naruto dropped his voice. “What about the, you know, the Kyuubi?”

Kurama, who was sitting on his belly with his feet stretched out in front of him, regal like a sphinx, watched Sasuke and Sakura both spare him little more than an idle glance.

“You seem to have that situation reasonably well in hand,” Sakura said, after a while. “It was scary when I saw it… But you saved our lives, so.” She went back to her book.

“I didn’t even get to see it,” Sasuke groused. “I bet it wasn’t as cool as all that.”

And that was that.

Kakashi arrived not too long after and told them he’d signed them up for the Chuunin Selection Exams, which were in a week.

“A little more warning might have been nice,” Kurama sniffed, indignantly. “Though I suppose that explains why there are so many foreign shinobi in the village. What’s it entail?”

Apparently there were three parts to the exams, but Kakashi couldn’t tell them more because they changed each time.

“But you became a chuunin at six!” Naruto said, and Kakashi looked like he wanted to ask how he knew that, and went so far as to open his mouth before abruptly closing his mouth when he remembered that Naruto was known to speak regularly with the Kyuubi, who had watched him through Kushina since he was a kid.

If only he knew just how much time he spent actually interacting with the Kyuubi…

Ha, but Kurama was going to milk this for as long as possible because he liked being petted and fed titbits and treated like he was beloved and precious by everyone. It was an excellent boon for a creature so magnificent as he, even if he had to be little and fluffy to do it.

“You’ve been a shinobi for ages!” Naruto went on. “You must’ve seen a few exams in progress, or heard what happened in them, in your long and… Kurama, what’s the word I want?”

“Prolific,” Kurama said.

Naruto nodded. “In your long and—” he pronounced the following word slowly and carefully, as if tasting how it felt in his mouth: “—Prolific career as a shinobi. So you gotta be able to tell us what to expect!”

Kakashi scratched his head. “Ah,” he said. “I think the entire point of the Selection is you go in blind. Because as a shinobi, you will encounter missions where you’re entering a situation with too little information, and you must adapt to what you find, or fail and die. Kind of like what happened in the Land of Waves. But with the Selection, there will hopefully be a lower likelihood of, well, fatality.”

Naruto thought about that, face grim with concentration, and then he smiled sunnily. “Okay, Kakashi-nii-san! I understand. Thanks for explaining the reason.”

Kakashi looked at Naruto thoughtfully, as if he were only just noticing him. “Huh,” he said, more to himself than anyone else. “All right! You all want try for chuunin, right?”

Four decidedly determined nods, including Sakura, who had been shadowing the med-nins at the hospital two days a week and studying medical texts in most of her free time, because she’d been inspired by Kurama’s suggestion and was determined that if someone were to get as hurt as Sasuke had in the Land of Waves, she’d be able to heal them up in a snap next time.

“Okay!” Kakashi clapped, eye-smiling. “Let’s do some serious training, then! We’re going to start with evasion. Whoever gets hit ten times first gets the D-Rank to find Tora again after lunch. Whoever gets hit ten times second gets to look after the Kobayashi brats. Whoever gets hit last picks where we eat dinner afterwards and has the afternoon to recuperate. Go!”

Yelps as he suddenly had rubber practice shuriken between each finger, and all four of them were springing in different directions. He was surprisingly good at leaving welts when he hit, even with practice shuriken, too, so it wasn’t like there wasn’t incentive enough not to get hit without the terrible D-Ranks he’d lined up for them if they did badly.

And so the week sped by with training drills and stamina building and taijutsu practice, a couple of afternoons spent honing their ninjutsu and the art of breaking genjutsu, and before they knew it they were meeting at the gate in front of the Academy, where the first of the exams was to be held.

It was meant to be up in a classroom on the third floor. For some reason, a whole bunch of genin were clustered around a door on the second floor trying to get into the wrong room. Amongst them was a boy in bright green spandex which scared Kurama more than anything he’d seen since Uzumaki Mito came along with a means of sealing bijuu – though that might be because he was just angry at the impudence of humanity back then than because he understood real fear – because had Maito Gai somehow managed to spawn? Surely not.

What a terrible thought.

“Genjutsu,” Kurama murmured, looking at the wrong number on the door sign. “Let’s go.”

They snuck past to the next staircase up like the good little ninja they were, since if two dozen of their competitors got themselves eliminated by not turning up at the classroom on time, then that meant less competition later. And Kakashi had been kind enough to explain that the Chuunin Selection was something of a competition and an equaliser between all the large countries that entered genin, with only the best passing to become chuunin and setting the general standard for the strength of shinobi across all the countries. Even if he didn’t explain anything else.

Kakashi met them at the door to the correct room on the third floor, congratulated them on all turning up together because if they hadn’t none of them would’ve been able to tackle the Selection – it was supposed to be done in three-man teams – and sent them inside with an honest eye-smile having told them he was proud of them.

Kurama could feel Naruto glowing without even having to touch their mental space, the happiness was just exuding from him that powerfully.

And then they found themselves in a room with more than a hundred battle-hardened, tough-looking shinobi absolutely bristling with weapons, many of them fully-grown adults with bodies lean and strong from years of dedicated training and the flat dead eyes of men and women who had killed so often it no longer phased them.

Kurama spotted Gaara off with those other two Suna-nin, Temari and Kankurou.

“HI GAARA-KUN!” he yelled as obnoxiously as possible, just because he could, and it would annoy Shukaku.

Gaara twitched, and Temari and Kankurou flinched away from him subtly. Interesting.

Also, the rest of the room was staring at them, now, and Sakura had edged behind Naruto as if to use him as a human shield in case someone started throwing kunai.

“Is that a talking fox?” someone toward the front of the room asked.

“Must be a summons,” someone else said.

“That little shrimp has a summons contract? No way. Are summons even allowed?”

“I don’t see why they wouldn’t be.”

It turned out that the rest of the rookie genin from Naruto’s graduating class were also attempting the chuunin exams, and they proceeded to have a noisy reunion by the doorway, because they were children with a total of about four months and a handful of D-Ranks under their belts as career shinobi and were adorably ignorant like that. Kurama had to admit, he was mostly fond of this little group of children, who’d been in Naruto’s classes for years and as such who he’d come to know reasonably well. He was leery of a few of them – Aburame Shino, Yamanaka Ino, Hyuuga Hinata, Nara Shikamaru, even Inuzuka Kiba could out him as being not a real fox if he was incautious.

So far, however, judicious application of flea treatment to keep Shino’s kikaichuu away, pretending to have nothing interesting going on in his mind and thus never prompting Ino to peek, taking care whenever he constructed his physical body so there weren’t any abnormalities Hinata might spot, maintaining his cover so completely even Shikamaru with the enormous Nara genius didn’t think him troublesome enough to question, and making certain he smelled like a real fox and not pure chakra so Kiba couldn’t sniff him out, meant he’d avoided detection.

It might’ve been different, he might not have managed to avoid detection so long if he’d had to interact regularly with their parents, but Naruto hadn’t really been invited around to anyone’s houses when he was younger, so Kurama’s disguise had remained intact.

Akimichi Chouji always had a delicious snack on him, and he would occasionally share a chip or two with Kurama.

Kurama thought he liked Chouji best out of all the rookie genin, after Team Seven, though he was not so ignorant of his own self to realise his feelings for Chouji might not just be cupboard love.

Their loud reunion was interrupted twice: first by the team with boy in green spandex coming in – and the boy shouted a challenge at Sasuke before running off to another part of the room with his teammates, a girl with her hair up in buns and another Hyuuga that Kurama didn’t recognise, and a second time by another unknown Konoha genin who had apparently taken the chuunin exam six times and was on his seventh attempt despite the fact he didn’t look very much older than them.

He introduced himself as Yakushi Kabuto. He wore big round glasses that Kurama thought made him look a bit like one of Shino’s bugs, he was weirdly friendly for someone in what was essentially a competition, and he had a bunch of funny cards because he apparently had statistics on everyone taking the exam.

“What can you tell me about Rock Lee?” Sasuke asked him, and Kabuto picked a card out, infused it with his chakra, and read out what he knew.

Rock Lee was one of Maito Gai’s students. A genin for a year-and-a-bit, never took the Chuunin Selection Exams before because Maito Gai had not submitted him for it. Extremely good at taijutsu. Not very good at anything else.

“Sparse,” Kurama noted idly. “What’ve you got on Sabaku no Gaara?”

Even less, it turned out. Kabuto didn’t even know he was a jinchuuriki.

“Oh, me next, me next!” Naruto cried, hopping from one foot to the next. “What do you know about me?”

Kurama pricked his ears interestedly.

Kabuto picked out a card, infused it with his chakra, and said, a little blankly: “Uzumaki Naruto. Student of Hatake Kakashi, also known as Sharingan no Kakashi and Copy-nin Kakashi, Eternal Rival of Maito Gai. Just graduated to genin. A prodigious number of D-Ranks, has your sensei been running you ragged? One C-Rank… which was mis-ranked and could be considered an SS-Rank because you encountered the Kyuubi, two S-Rank missing nin from Kiri, escaped all three, captured two different Kiri missing nin, and still somehow managed to complete… your… mission. Uh. Interesting.”

“Didn’t you make these cards yourself?” Sasuke asked, suspiciously. “Shouldn’t you have known that already?”

“I did,” Kabuto said, waving his hands and grinning in a very sheepish manner. “I guess, I just didn’t realise it was you guys that did that mission! You’re so… little.”

“I am not!” Naruto snapped, hotly.

“Naruto, you’re twelve,” Kurama said. “You’ve got plenty of time to get taller. That’s probably what Kabuto-san meant.”

“Exactly!” Kabuto said, hurriedly.

“You met the Kyuubi?” Shikamaru asked.

Team Seven all looked at each other.

“Yeah,” Sakura said, a little awkwardly, but they were saved from further unwanted friendly interrogation when Morino Ibiki dropped into the room and announced the start of the exam.

To Naruto’s consternation, it was a written exam.

Kurama realised promptly that it was an information gathering exercise disguised as a written exam – and information gathering was something Naruto was only good at when it suited his nefarious purposes and not otherwise.

Luckily for Naruto, he and Kurama were partners and together counted as one entire shinobi, so it was not considered cheating when Kurama sat on his lap, scanned the page, took the pencil between his teeth, and filled out the first nine questions for him with the sort of expert knowledge that only came from being a millennia old chakra construct that had had the opportunity of unparalleled lengths of time to pursue intellectual avenues… when he wasn’t squishing things that annoyed him, or trapped in peoples’ guts.

They were finished within ten minutes, and to prevent anyone from cheating off them, Kurama had Naruto flip the page over and gave him the pencil so he could doodle on the back.

Naruto was not at all cowed by the tenth question, as he figured Kurama would be able to answer it anyway, so he sat there patiently, twiddling his thumbs as team after team left. In another world, one where Kurama had hated Naruto as a jailor and had not been friends with the entirety of Team Seven who viewed him as an odd creature that was half pet and half supplementary sensei when Kakashi couldn’t explain something, Sakura might have put up her hand out of doubt for Naruto’s ability to answer the tenth question.

But this was not another world, and no one doubted that with Kurama’s assistance Naruto would succeed, so Sakura’s hands remained by her sides as she waited for the tenth question to arrive. Sasuke was confident enough in himself and his team that he did not consider raising his hand, either.

Long, silent minutes passed. Their numbers dwindled.

And Mitarashi Anko came crashing through the window to tell them they’d all passed, the tenth question was whether or not they would stay for the tenth question, which had Naruto scratching his head in confusion, but Kurama understood well enough.

 

xvii.

Training Ground Forty-Four had a booming population of foxes.

Over the past half-dozen years, they had bred like rabbits, and it was now difficult for someone to walk into the Forest of Death without startling at least two and sending them scurrying off into the bushes. This might have been because the megafauna of Training Ground Forty-Four had, roughly half-a-dozen years ago, all unanimously become abjectly terrified of anything and everything small and fox-shaped.

They were so terrified of things small of fox-shaped that even their offspring were frightened of things small and fox-shaped, and it was not an uncommon sight to see an enormous Land of Fire tiger creeping after a deer, only for a little fox to think it was great fun to leap playfully at the tiger – and send it running in the opposite direction, fur puffed up with its tail tucked firmly between its legs.

Kurama… may have had something to do with this.

Training Ground Forty-Four was a very good hunting grounds for a hungry little boy who couldn’t afford anything but instant ramen. And “KEEP OUT” signs and high fences weren’t really a very good deterrent for mischievous little children or their equally mischievous pet foxes-slash-bijuu-in-disguise. Rather, they acted as something of an invitation, like a flashing neon sign that said: This place in interesting, come in and see why!

So, they’d done a lot of hunting in Training Ground Forty-Four, because there was almost no chance of a single small boy dangerously affecting the existing ecosystem with overhunting when he only took an animal he could carry, never came more than twice a month, and the Training Ground was twenty kilometres from one side to the other.

And maybe Kurama had beat the fear of foxes into a few larger animals that would have preyed on a small human child out in said training ground all by his lonesome, but it wasn’t his intent for the fox population to spiral out of control! Thankfully, the foxes here seemed to be largely insectivorous, and they were not pushing any other animal out of their ecological niches.

But it still meant that Training Ground Forty-Four, also known as the Forest of Death because of all that horrific megafauna and poisonous flora, had also earned itself another name over the past few years. Kurama didn’t even know how it made sense, but he supposed it was a bit like the small children thinking the spirit of the Demon Fox haunted the cemetery where his victims were buried.

The Forest the Kyuubi Cursed.

“It should be ‘The Forest the Kyuubi Blessed,’” Kurama grumbled to Naruto, flopped despondently over the boy’s shoulder like a very small sack of potatoes.

Naruto giggled, and Mitarashi Anko, the proctor of this exam, shot them a feral glare. “You think this is funny?”

“No, no,” Naruto said, quickly. “Just – the name is funny. The Forest of Death. It’s not really that scary!”

Anko squinted at him, one of her eyes twitching, and behind her, in one of the enormous trees beyond the fence on a branch a hundred feet up, a snake that was probably thirty feet long uncoiled from a branch and slithered away, probably disturbed by the smell of fox.

“Little boys like you will be the first to die. You—” she began, then paused at looked at him more closely. “Oi! You! Orange brat! You’re the little monster that’s always coming in here in the middle of the night! Do you know how much trouble you’ve caused me? You’ve traumatised all of the snakes, they’re terrified of you! I thought you were a weird ghost! But no! You’re a genin. Oh, that is so much worse, I am in so much trouble. And so are you!”

Kurama covered his face with his paws. Right. Mitarashi Anko was the tokubetsu jounin who oversaw the curating of Training Ground Forty-Four. They’d run into her a few times, usually gone midnight, and fled whenever they saw her, usually leaving behind their kill, if they’d made one.

Oh, awkward.

“Oops,” Naruto said, totally unapologetically.

Sakura and Sasuke looked at him curiously.

“The hunting is really good in there,” Naruto hissed at them.

“Of course it is,” Sasuke said, while Sakura groaned something about suicidally stupid people to herself.

Anko threw her hands in the air and snarled to herself, then went on with her explanation about the second exam, and how each team would have to have both a Heaven Scroll and an Earth Scroll and reach the tower in the centre of the training ground with all three team members to pass, but that they would only be given one scroll at the beginning of the exam, ensuring at least half of them failed. If not more, because the megafauna was quite lethal and there was a possibility their corpses would never be found…

Then they had to sign consent forms. On account of, from this point on, there was a very real possibility of dying. And Anko, and by extension Konoha, would not be held responsible for any loss of limb or life that occurred when shinobi was pitted against shinobi in what was essentially extreme survival games combined with a moderated battle royal.

Across the field, Shikamaru put up his hand. “Is it too late to resign from the exam?”

“Yes,” Anko said, and she had a remarkably malicious grin. “You may not leave between exam stages. You will spend five days in the Forest of Death, or you will get your Heaven and Earth Scrolls and reach the tower before then, no exceptions.”

“Troublesome,” Shikamaru sighed.

“That isn’t very fair,” Kurama said. “If he wants to leave, it should be allowed. Ah, well.”

They handed in their consent forms, were given their scroll, were herded to a gate equidistant from the other teams around the perimeter of Training Ground Forty-Four – and then they had to wait half-an-hour. Naruto whined petulantly. Kurama, who was very good at taking naps that lasted entire eras, but was not very good at being patient otherwise, also whined.

Sasuke appeared to be vehemently pretending he didn’t know who they were in front of their chuunin proctor.

Sakura seemed to be considering the pros and cons of walloping them, but ultimately decided against it, as they might need to be mobile to get to the tower.

Finally, finally, as Naruto was laying on his back, with Kurama perched on his belly, both of them singing loudly off-key, the clock struck two-thirty, the gate opened, and they were released into the forest.

“So, smart and beautiful teammates, while we were otherwise occupied, did you come up with a plan?” Kurama asked, and the entirety of Team Seven came to a screeching halt to look at each other sheepishly.

“Err…” Sakura said, flushing pink.

“If the dobe knows this forest as well as he said, then he knows the way to the tower, correct?” Sasuke asked.

“You bet I do!” Naruto said, cheerfully.

Off in the distance, someone screamed, horribly. It sounded like they were dying.

Sakura squeaked.

“They probably ran into a snake. Or a leech. Or a tiger. Or a centipede. Or a spider. Or a pack of hungry foxes. Or walked into one of those poison plants that feel like your skin is burning off if you touch them,” Naruto said, peering thoughtfully in the direction of the screams as they faded away, then shrugged. “Come on, the tower’s this way. The river passes by about a kilometre away from it, so we can set up an ambush somewhere around there, for the teams incoming, and steal a scroll off a team that’s already got both. That seems easiest. We should be able to get there before in a couple of hours, if we’re quick and avoid the tigers that live on this side.”

“That’s… not a bad plan,” Sasuke admitted.

“Eh he, I’m actually pretty smart, you know!” Naruto said. “But I gotta pee.”

He turned away from Sakura and Sasuke to go against a tree, but Sakura objected. “I don’t want to see that, Naruto! Go behind a bush or something!”

“Just turn around, Sakura,” Kurama said. “And keep watch. It wouldn’t do to get separated here. You might get eaten by something.”

Sakura mulled that over, nodded, and turned around to eye the trees warily while Naruto relieved himself and Kurama hissed at him: “Honestly, Fishcake, why didn’t you go before? You had a whole half-hour!”

“You didn’t remind me, Fox-face!”

“I’m not your mother, I’m your pet fox!”

“Sometimes I forget because you nag so much!”

“Ugh,” Sasuke said. And then, eyeing a lone bamboo pipe sticking suspiciously out of the ground without even a leaf growing from it, with a tight ball of chakra hidden and malicious intent Kurama could’ve felt a mile off in the earth beneath it, he said: “If we do get separated, we should have a way to check whether we’re who we say we are. A password.” And then he recited about a dozen lines of a pop song, and Kurama stared at him flatly.

“That’s stupid, Naruto will never remember that. Okay, here’s a better password: how many of my paw-pads are pink?”

“Oh, I know!” Naruto said, but Kurama shoved his paw over Naruto’s mouth to stop him blurting the answer out, then showed Sakura and Sasuke each of his paws in turn.

The answer was none, though zero would also work – all his paw-pads were black, which was natural for an adult red fox. Lack of pigmentation would have been unusual. But whoever was hiding over there couldn’t see and wouldn’t know that.

“Alright, let’s get going,” Naruto said, clapping his hands. “The easiest route is to go that way until we reach this funny-looking tree that looks like it has a face—”

The chakra that had been hiding under the ground leapt up behind them, there was a flash, and a great gale suddenly rushed over them. Kurama stuck to the ground with by circulating chakra in his feet, but Naruto didn’t think fast enough and went tumbling head over heels off through the bushes.

That was not a genin-level technique!

Then again, Sasuke and Naruto both knew ninjutsu that wasn’t genin-level, and he was pretty sure that several of the other older genin probably knew some as well. He made a split-second decision and bounded off after his boy, figuring that Sasuke and Sakura were reasonably intelligent, and with excellent chakra control and the Sharingan between them, they ought to be able to hold their own against three other genin.

He arrived in time to find Naruto being eaten by a snake.

It was abnormally large, even for a snake from Training Ground Forty-Four.

Summons, Kurama thought, catching the ozone-tang of a summoning on the air, even as the flat-eyed snake turned its gaze on him, and no snake native to the area would dare think twice about facing down a fox. And then he thought: No genin should have a summons contract.

“Spit him up,” Kurama said, glaring up at the enormous snake. “Or you’ll find I’m worse than a mongoose.”

The snake laughed at him.

It was not laughing as he burrowed into its brain through the back of its skull, and it was absolutely not laughing when Naruto used the Kage Bunshin to explode its gut from the inside.

“Quick,” Kurama said. “That wasn’t one of the normal snakes.”

“You’re telling me,” Naruto grumbled, and they dashed back the way they’d been blown, crashing through leaves and branches uprooted shrubs that had been ripped away by the chakra-induced gale. “They never get that big!”

A wave of Killing Intent rolled over them, and Naruto staggered.

“Run,” Kurama snarled at him, both in his mind and in the physical world, pushing the choking oppressive KI of a furious Tailed-Beast out in front of him. The other Killing Intent sputtered and died.

They sprang up into the trees, leapt from branch to branch, in time for Kurama to spot Sasuke desperately trying to evade another giant snake, Sharingan spinning. Kurama did not hesitate. He rebounded off a tree branch, and reinforcing his tiny, twig-thin bones and tendons and muscle-fibres with chakra he leapt straight into the snake’s mouth and through the top of its head to catch himself on a bough just above, dripping with blood and grey matter.

The snake collapsed, and… a person of indeterminate gender broke out of it, like they had been hiding inside its skin. The person did a weird gross thing with its body and coiled around the branch Sasuke was crouched, frozen, on as if they were part snake, too.

Their chakra was tightly condensed. It reminded Kurama of the ANBU, but the ANBU hid themselves like they were not there, and this person-snake-thing was tamping their chakra down just tightly enough that it seemed like they had genin-level chakra.

Kurama dropped down in front of Sasuke, hackles up, teeth bared, growling.

The person-snake-thing peered at him impassively with weird snake-slit-eyes.

Killing Intent rolled over them again. Kurama didn’t budge.

“Little mind tricks like that won’t phase me,” he said. “Who are you?”

“Kurama, that’s Orochimaru,” Sakura called, from behind him. “Get away! He’s really dangerous.”

Orochimaru. Kurama narrowed his eyes. “Rogue-nin from Konohagakure no Sato,” he said, sitting back on his haunches, but watching the person-snake-thing carefully. “One of the Legendary Sannin, contemporary of Senju Tsunade and Jiraiya. Exiled for unethical human experimentation. I think you’ve gone a bit too far with your experimentation, Snake-Face-san, you’re looking a bit… how should I put this? Inhuman.”

Orochimaru just laughed and summoned a third snake, one that was much, much larger than the others.

“Kurama, Naruto, we need to run,” Sasuke said urgently, his voice high and tight and trembling just a little. He sounded very scared.

“Eh?” Naruto exclaimed, because he was as dense as a brick and had very little concept of strategic hauling ass in the other direction unless he was running away from a lecture, but he was more afraid of those because they were boring than for any other reason. Until maybe a hundred years ago, Kurama wouldn’t have considered retreat either, but he’d learned the hard way. “Are you really Sasuke? What’s with this coward stuff? Tell me the password!”

“The password is none, dobe! None! Kurama’s paws are all black!”

Go, Naruto, Kurama thought, fiercely. He’s more dangerous than Zabuza or Haku ever were. Get somewhere safe. Get to the tower. I’ll distract him.

“Good enough for me! Sasuke, Sakura, this way!” Naruto barked, and the sound of flight through the trees followed, though Kurama didn’t take his eyes off Orochimaru, or let his senses falter, because this man was on par with Jiraiya of the Sannin – Jiraiya who had taught the Minato-brat, who in turn had sealed half the Kyuubi into the belly of Shinigami, and he was not to be underestimated.

“How cute,” Orochimaru cooed in a way that set Kurama’s teeth on edge. “The sweet little ninkitsune is buying them time to run away and find a grown up.”

Kurama could count on one paw the number of times he’d been called sweet in his entire life, but he refused to rise to the bait.

“I’ll just kill you first and go after them,” Orochimaru said, and – did something gross and creepy with his tongue. “Or maybe I’ll go now, and just let my dearest eat you, so I don’t waste time.”

Kurama snarled, leapt at him on top of his snake’s head, but he used the kawarimi technique to replace himself with mossy sludge from one of the trees, and was chasing after the genin in the next moment. Kurama went to follow, but the snake shook its huge head, throwing him off, and snapped its teeth after him.

Damnit!

Hopefully Naruto would be okay for the precious few seconds it took him to deal with this stupid summons. At least he had no witnesses as he let some of his tightly tamped down chakra free and flicked the tiny toes on his paws through a sequence of heavily simplified seals.

Wind and fire combined, and the snake screeched and writhed as it burned.

A subtle pull on the greater part of Kurama’s chakra, fear and loathing mixed with a sharp protectiveness, and Kurama went hurtling through the trees in pursuit of Orochimaru.

Suddenly – nothing.

Naruto was unconscious.

That wasn’t good!

He burst onto the scene as Orochimaru launched his head out, all weird and stretchy like he had no bones, and bit Sasuke on the neck. Sasuke screamed and collapsed, Sakura caught him, and Kurama hurtled into Orochimaru’s jaw head-first. There was the crunch of breaking bones and his head whipped around on his weird snake-y neck, which was admittedly very satisfying.

Kurama caught himself on a tree trunk, snarling, as Orochimaru stared at him with wide-eyed surprise.

“Oh,” he said, jaw twisted grotesquely to the side and blood leaking from one corner from his mouth. His skin seemed to be peeling away to reveal different, paler skin underneath? Weird and gross. Was anything about this guy not weird or gross? “You’re still alive.”

“Yeah, and your stupid snake is dead!” Kurama growled, all his fur standing on end.

“A shame,” Orochimaru said, before he melted into the tree, and Kurama was pretty sure people couldn’t do that anymore, it was a lost kekkei genkai, but Orochimaru was weird and gross.

Sakura burst into tears.

Kurama hopped over to her and took a closer look at Sasuke, whose chakra had gone kind of wobbly and who now had a curse seal of some variety where Orochimaru had bitten him.

“That isn’t a very good sign,” Kurama said.

 

xviii.

Naruto woke up in time to help them carry the unconscious Sasuke down the tree.

“He burned our Scroll,” Naruto said morosely to Kurama, when they had crawled into a safe little space between the roots of one of the huge gnarled trees of Training Ground Forty-Four. The hollow was large enough for the three genin, but too small for any of the particularly nasty local megafauna to enter, and though not particularly comfortable, it was dry and safe enough.

“We can take the Chuunin Selection Exams another time,” Kurama told Naruto, from where he was nosing at the cursed seal, trying to get a better understanding of it.

“And he did something weird to my stomach. It made me pass out.”

Kurama sat bolt upright. “Show me.”

Naruto did.

There were the remains of a seal there, already fading away to wispy nothingness, though Kurama could see from the faint lines what it had been. Five points laid over what had once been an eight-point seal. If their original seal had been intact, Naruto’s chakra would’ve been impossible to regulate until someone could counter it. But the Five Elements Seal was designed as a permanent seal to go over another existing permanent seal, not one long since broken, and as a result it had caused a temporary chakra disruption before being burned off by Kurama’s corrosive chakra.

“You’ll be fine,” Kurama told him. “No lasting damage, back to normal by tomorrow morning at the latest. Because of the thing we did when you were eight.”

Sakura was distracted enough by treating Sasuke’s wounds and sudden elevated body temperature that she did not question the vague thing that Kurama and Naruto did when Naruto was eight. Which was breaking the Kyuubi’s seal.

“Ah,” Naruto said, and turned his attention to Sasuke also. “Kurama, is he going to be okay?”

“I don’t know,” Kurama said. “That’s a very evil curse mark, and I cannot remove it.”

He was still covered in snake blood and brains, so he set about giving himself a thorough tongue-bath, cleaning himself from nose to tail tip. Once he was convinced there was no longer gore beneath any of his claws, or in his ears, or matting his fur, he crawled into the collar of Sasuke’s shirt and pressed his warm little body against the curse seal as Sasuke shivered and groaned.

Sakura healed the self-inflicted kunai wound on Sasuke’s thigh. “It was the only way he could break the fear,” she murmured, her hands glowing a faint green in the increasing gloom.

“Kudos to him for finding a method that worked,” Kurama said. “But stab wounds in this sort of environment are asking for an infection! He should’ve pinched himself or something.”

Sakura smiled sadly. “Do you think this fever is productive, or should we try to reduce it?”

“Unless my understanding of human biology is very wrong, and I don’t think it is because I paid attention during those classes unlike someone,” Kurama glanced at Naruto, who was peering warily out into the forest. “Then we should try to bring it down. Fevers that get too high can cause convulsions, and death, and it’s getting up there. You brought medicine?”

Sakura nodded.

“Good. You know how to give it to an unconscious person medication without choking them? Excellent, Naruto, come here and help for a second.”

“You gotta live, you hear me, bastard?” Naruto said, softly, as he lifted Sasuke’s head so Sakura could trickle water mixed with crushed fever-reducers into his mouth. “You’re stronger than this, and you got a dream same as I do, and I’m gonna help you succeed, same as Kurama’s gonna help me, because you’re my friend!” He took a deep, shuddery breath. “Sasuke, you just believe it, okay?”

Kurama looked at Naruto, and saw the grief and exhaustion in every movement and every breath. Today had been too much excitement. Sakura was the same. Her expression was haggard, her face pale.

“Have something to eat, some water,” he told the brats, albeit gently. “Sleep. I’ll watch first. If – if Sasuke gets worse, we’re going to have to call for help. And, Naruto, if it comes to that, though it might be dangerous for you, you’re going to have to make a lot of noise when you do it, to get someone’s attention. They – the proctors – they’re going to be expecting a certain amount of noise in here, people are going to be dying, so you’ll need to unleash Kyuubi. Konoha hates Kyuubi, there are still people hurting so much from the last time Kyuubi was loose here, they’re all going to want a piece of him, so that is the absolute surest way to get them to come.”

Naruto considered that, then nodded determinedly. “If it comes down to me or Sasuke.”

Kurama smiled at him. “You’re a good friend. You’ll be a good Hokage.”

Sakura fell asleep before she’d eaten even a half of her ration bar. Naruto followed her shortly after.

Kurama turned to peer out into the lowering darkness in the forest.

He could still smell snake.

There were three genin planning to murder them at sunrise, not a hundred yards from their current hiding spot. That was unacceptable. Kurama looked from Naruto, curled on his side, head pillowed on his arm, knees pulled up by his chest, to Sakura, expression already darkening in a nightmare, and wondered.

The night stretched long. Sasuke stirred, then settled, his expression sometimes contorted into one of pain. Sometimes he whimpered and sometimes he cried, soft sobs and pleas, though what he was begging for Kurama could not guess.

Kurama didn’t think he’d even seen the Uchiha brat cry before. He’d been dry-eyed and staunch when he’d returned to school after the Uchiha Massacre. Naruto cried all the time, and Kurama never knew if it was because he felt things more acutely than other people, or if he’d worked out that the act of crying had an unusual tendency to make humans feel better afterwards.

Sometimes Kurama wished he could cry. He felt it would be cathartic.

Through the long dark of the night, Kurama licked his tears away, whispered promises of a better future in his ear, and sang snippets of old lullabies he only half remembered.

Sakura woke from a nightmare with a sharp jolt a few hours before dawn, her breathing fast, hands clasped to her chest.

Kurama paused in his recounting of the peaceful precursor of ninjutsu, ninshuu, gifted to the world by the Sage of the Six Paths, to regard her silently for a moment. She peered back at him with wide green eyes that shone faintly in the darkness.

“A nightmare?” he asked.

She nodded silently, then asked: “Is Sasuke?”

“No change,” Kurama said. “We should give him more water and medicine.”

They did.

“Have you been awake this while time?” Sakura asked, after the silence between them had turned from moments to minutes.

“Yes, but I can sleep whenever, wherever, and stay awake when I need to. I am an adult, and I do not have to take into account the fact that I am growing when I consider how long I can push myself before I need to rest,” Kurama said.

“You should rest anyway,” Sakura told him, with a little wobble in her voice. “I don’t think – I don’t think I’ll sleep anymore, now.”

Kurama gave a thoughtful hum. “Sakura, I do not need to sleep now.” Or ever, he just did it because it felt good and he liked curling up in the sun, or next to Naruto, or in some other warm, comfortable spot, and snoozing. “However, putting my views on taking revenge aside in this one case, I would very much like to go out and beat something to a bloody pulp, and I was wondering if you fancied joining me.”

“Your views on revenge?” Sakura echoed.

“The best revenge is a life well lived,” Kurama said. “Someone can do terrible things to you, make your life a prison, a literal hell.” Uzumaki Kushina hadn’t really needed to use the stakes after she’d chained him. That had been excessive in the extreme. “They can try to kill you, or they can hurt your precious people, and certainly you can go off and kill them, but you’ll only feel better for a little while, and then you’ll feel just as bad as when you were thirsting for their blood. So, the best revenge is a life well lived, and even though they might not be there to see it, you can take comfort in the fact that they tried to ruin you, but they didn’t, and you’re happy.”

“That seems…” Sakura began. “And we’re making an exception…?”

“Well, yes,” Kurama said. “There’s a group of maybe-genin roughly a hundred yards that way, and they stink so badly of that awful snake guy I can smell them from here. I can also hear them, and they’re planning on killing us at dawn – probably waiting for better visibility, the idiots, a shinobi’s best friend is the darkness, I rescind my previous statement, they probably are genin after all – so I propose going over there and taking out a little vengeance. Not direct vengeance, just vengeance one step to the side of the target we actually want to take revenge upon.”

“Orochimaru,” Sakura whispered.

“Yes. But also they want to kill us and I don’t want that. Here, I have a plan. Can I show you something? Watch what I’m doing with the chakra in my paw.”

She took hold of the proffered paw, because ‘watching’ really meant ‘feeling with her own chakra.’

Kurama slowly reinforced bones and muscle and tendon and skin, one at a time, waiting each time for the tiny change in her expression to register that she had felt the change.

“You try now. Just a finger,” Kurama said.

She frowned. “Why?”

“Because this is how I headbutted my way through the head of that snake without breaking my own skull or snapping my neck or leaving myself with permanent spinal injuries. I reinforced my body with chakra, because I’m little and breakable, and I can perform physical feats I wouldn’t otherwise be able to, because I’m too small and will never have the muscle mass to back me up.”

Sakura’s frown deepened. “So, in taijutsu—”

“Yes,” Kurama nodded enthusiastically. “Most useful for taijutsu. The more muscle you have, the stronger you’ll be! But you can hurt yourself, using your muscles like that, which is why you reinforce them. Imagine punching a rock with your bare hand. That’s hurt a lot.”

“It would,” Sakura said.

“But if you make all the parts of your hand stronger…”

“Oh,” she breathed. “I won’t get hurt.”

“There are people who fight like this already,” Kurama said. “But you need good chakra control. It doesn’t use much chakra, since you’re keeping it all inside and not using any jutsu, but you need really good chakra control. You need to be able to feel your own muscles and skin and bones, and I don’t think either Sasuke or Naruto will ever be that good. Imagine if I told them to try to feel how different their skin was from the tissue underneath? But I think you already know what I’m talking about, though, no?”

She was staring at her hand, and he felt her chakra move. A moment later, she was clenching a perfectly reinforced fit.

“Excellent!” Kurama said, standing up and wagging his tail. “Let’s go beat some of Orochimaru’s stupid maybe-genin up! And don’t forget to reinforce the other muscles you use for punching, too, like the ones in your back, or you’ll hurt yourself.”

 

xix.

“Watch me again,” Kurama murmured, and Sakura laid her hand on him and concentrated. “I’m going to show you something else.”

He tamped down his chakra tight, pulling it in close and squashing it down until it resembled that of a natural woodland creature.

“It’s like you’re an actual fox,” Sakura said, face blank with astonishment.

“I am an actual fox,” Kurama said, feeling a moment of anxiety as he wondered what he felt like if not fox.

“I mean a normal fox, not a ninkitsune with years of training,” Sakura explained. “Your chakra kind of reminds me of the Kyuubi’s. It’s… warm and sort of heavy, but not the same? Because being near the Kyuubi is a bit like being in a room so hot you can’t breathe, even if its not that hot at all, and all your insides feel like they’re being squashed at the same time but the air pressure hasn’t changed. It’s a bit hard to explain.”

“Must be because we’re both foxes,” Kurama squeaked, feeling his paw-pads start to sweat. “You try masking your chakra now.”

It took her a few attempts, but eventually he deemed her acceptable.

He peered at her through the predawn darkness, seriously. “We’re going out there to do irreparable harm, Sakura,” he said, eventually. “We’re going out there to absolutely remove any possible chance those three have of ever continuing their careers as shinobi. We’re going to knock them out, and then we’re going to cripple them permanently. Is that okay with you? I can go alone, if I must.”

Sakura glanced anxiously at Sasuke, then her gaze slipped to Naruto, who had curled up until he was in a little ball not dissimilar to a sleeping fox, face hidden under one of his hands, knees tucked almost to his chin.

“You’re sure they’re Orochimaru’s?” she asked.

“Even if they weren’t, they’re going to try to kill us,” Kurama said. “But yes, I’m sure. They reek of him. It’s not very pleasant.”

“What do they smell like?”

“It’s… How do you explain sight to someone who has never been able to see? Huh. That’s a difficult question. They smell like snakes. Snakes smell a little bit like musk and cucumbers and rotting corpses, and Orochimaru-stink is mixed with a weird antiseptic smell, and those two scents don’t really belong together, rotting corpses and antiseptic, so it kind of reminds me of how a hospital morgue might smell? Except I’ve never been in a hospital morgue, so I don’t know. There are places Naruto and I never thought it was appropriate to prank because it was disrespectful, you know. It’s just – it’s a weird contradictory smell. With a side of cucumbers.”

Sakura’s face screwed up in disgust. “Gross.”

“I know, right?”

She was silent for a moment, and then her eyes hardened, and her fist clenched, and she nodded firmly. “I can do it! Shannarou!” she hissed. “Let’s go do this.”

She was beautiful. She was fearless. She did not falter, even when their enemies were unconscious and Kurama had ripped the tendons and nerves and muscles out from behind their knees, destroying their legs, before he asked her to heal the severed arteries, so they didn’t bleed out. Kurama chewed off their feet, and she only blanched a little and asked if it was overkill, and when he said it wasn’t, they were enemies of the lowest calibre, she nodded and accepted his word, looked away as he gouged out their eyes, her mouth drawn in a determined line.

For good measure, they disarmed their enemies and destroyed their weapons, blunting the kunai and shuriken on stones and stomping the odd metal arm one of them had into the ground, breaking it into tiny pieces, and then Kurama sent Sakura back to watch Sasuke and Naruto with the scroll they pilfered.

“I really don’t like how sick Sasuke is,” Kurama said. “And I don’t want to reach the tower and get turned away because we don’t have two scrolls, so I’m going to go steal some other team’s scroll. We’ll move out when I get back.”

Using his stupid stubby little fox toes, and his even stupider dew claws, he went through the seals for the henge, and turned himself into a slightly smaller, more generic forest fox like the hundreds of others that inhabited these woods, his hitai-ate hidden.

“Good luck,” Sakura said to him.

“I won’t be long, I know this forest like the back of Naruto’s hand,” Kurama told her, and raced off into the underbrush.

The first team he came across was the once composed of Ino, Shikamaru, and Chouji. They were hiding in some bushes not too far from where Kurama had left Team Seven, and their plan seemed to revolve around trying to avoid everyone else until their five days in the forest were up. He peered at them fondly as they slept on the ground, decided that out of Konoha-solidarity he would not take their scroll, and darted off to find a team of foreign shinobi.

Next, he encountered one of Maito Gai’s team. That odd green spandex kid. Rock Lee was moving at speed through the branches above him, and he must’ve seen dozens of foxes already, because he ignored Kurama entirely and left him unmolested. He was another Konoha shinobi anyway, so Kurama didn’t pursue.

At last he found a group slightly scratched up in an area that smelled like both fox and bear, sleeping high up in a tree. A little girl with such vibrantly red hair and such an enormous pool of chakra that she reminded Kurama of an Uzumaki – though they were all dead, so it was impossible – had the scroll in her pack, and he stole it stealthily because it was the opposite of the scroll the now debilitated Oto nin had had.

Then he raced back off, another little forest fox among hundreds.

Sasuke was stirring in a way that looked like it would lead to wakefulness when Kurama slipped back into their hollow and dropped the henge, and the scroll.

“Any trouble?” Sakura asked.

Kurama shook his head. “No, I stole it from some sleeping kids. They’ll fail, but they probably won’t die, and that’s the best outcome at this point. Naruto, up.”

Naruto woke up faster than Kurama had ever seen him awaken before. “What? What is it? Is Sasuke okay?”

“No change,” Kurama told him. “We’re going to the tower now to try to seek medical attention. I don’t like this.”

“Okay,” Naruto said, without argument. “I can carry him on my back. Boy, I’m so glad Kakashi-nii-san made us do all that stamina stuff carrying those packs full of rocks, or this would be really difficult.”

They packed up camp and left into the predawn, Sakura and Naruto following Kurama, whose night vision was the better than any human’s. Packing up camp, incidentally, didn’t involve packing anything but quickly dismantling the rudimentary traps they had set, and then removing all traces of their presence in the first place, which went just as quickly, as they hadn’t dared have a campfire when the light and smoke might attract others to their location.

Dawn came as they neared the tower, and the chakra around Sasuke started to roil and churn.

“Stop,” Kurama said, hurrying them into the undergrowth. “Naruto, put him down, now, and back away.”

“What’s happening?” Naruto asked, his voice wobbling and tears beading in his eyes.

Kurama peered at Sasuke, whose face was scrunched up with what looked less like pain and more like fury. His eyes snapped open, Sharingan active, and oh, hey, he had two tomoe in each eye now and they were whirling, and that made Kurama feel less comfortable than ever. Creeping black lines swirled across his skin as he launched himself to his feet, crouched low. They were radiating out from the curse seal, and he bared his teeth in a surprisingly animal expression quite unlike him.

“Sasuke-kun?” Sakura asked, from a dozen feet away. “Are you – how are you feeling?”

But Sasuke slumped back to the ground and covered the side of his neck with his hand, wincing, and the lines spiralled back. “I have to… I have to get stronger,” he whispered to the dirt between his knees. “I have to. I have to.”

Kurama, who was by far the most durable out of the three of them, crept closer and crawled onto Sasuke’s lap. “Hi,” he said. “It’s good to see you awake. We were really worried.”

“We were, you know!” Naruto whisper-yelled. “You can’t die, Sasuke! You’re my friend, and I gotta help you realise your dream.”

Sakura sniffled. “You had a really high fever, Sasuke-kun. Can I – can I hug you?”

Sasuke lifted one hand, and wrapped an arm around Kurama, pulling the little fox so tight against his chest that Kurama could feel the anxious thrum of his heartbeat, leaving Kurama feeling strangely like he was being treated less like an animal with bodily autonomy and more like a stuffed toy. His other hand came up to wipe at his eyes. Naruto and Sakura took that for permission and crowded close in a slightly awkward group hug which left Kurama feeling very squashed indeed, but he felt like this was something the children needed more than wanted, so he put up with it and tried not to wheeze.

“He killed them all because I wasn’t strong enough,” Sasuke whispered.

Kurama guessed he was talking about the Massacre. Poor kid. It probably ate at him every single day. The little fox wiggled until he could take a deep breath. “He killed them because he wanted to. You were a child and would’ve died, too.”

“Why didn’t I, then?”

“I can’t read minds, and I even if I could, I wasn’t there, so I cannot tell you. I’m sorry, Sasuke,” Kurama said.

“He killed all the other children, though. Even the babies.”

Kurama winced, and Sakura hugged Sasuke a little tighter.

“He was your brother. I guess he loved you too much to kill you, too,” Kurama suggested.

“No,” Sasuke said, but it was a broken, miserable little whimper.

Kurama licked the salt from his cheeks, then nosed his ears the way he knew was tickly because it always made Naruto shriek. Sasuke pushed his face away to bury his nose in Kurama’s fur and inhale deeply, and Kurama knew that even more than having a warm living thing pressed against their side, inhaling the scent of a warm living thing was soothing to human beings, who were odd and adopted all sorts of animals they weren’t remotely related to.

“It’ll be okay, Sasuke,” Kurama said. “You’re not alone, and if you really feel you have to kill him to be able to truly live yourself, then we will help you, okay?”

“I don’t… I don’t want you to get hurt,” Sasuke sniffed. “It’s got to be me, because it doesn’t matter if he kills me. He should’ve killed me back then.”

“Sasuke, no,” Sakura said.

And Naruto started crying, but it was the silent sort of crying instead of his usual loud bawling.

“That is absolutely not true,” Kurama informed him, firmly. “Here’s what we’ll do: We’re all going to get stronger, so none of us will get hurt, not you or me or Sakura or Naruto. Or even Kakashi-nii-san, though we’ll have to work on him, because he’s stupidly reckless about chakra exhaustion and he’s going to run himself into the ground, I swear, though most of it is that transplanted eye and you have to admit it does give him at least some semblance of an advantage. I digress. Team Seven is going to be the most unbeatable team there ever was! And then we’ll go kick Itachi’s ass all the way from Suna to Kumo so he regrets ever, ever messing with you, even though you were a kid and couldn’t do anything, because karma always comes back around.”

“Believe it,” Naruto whispered.

“We’ll always be Team Seven,” Sakura added, nodding.

Sasuke sniffed, and gave them the faintest hint of a watery smile. “Thanks.”

They sat like that for a long time, until Sakura took the hand Sasuke had been wiping his eyes with to pull him to his feet, and Naruto wrapped his arm around Sasuke’s shoulders on his other side to stabilise him as he walked, and the made it the rest of the way to the tower.

Unfortunately, Kurama was carried the entire way tucked into the crook of Sasuke’s arm like a plush toy, but he tolerated it because he knew it was an emotional comfort thing, and who was he to deny a child in need comfort?

 

xx.

Naruto was not Kurama’s first child. The first infant Kurama had found his chakra curled protectively around had been the child of Senju Hashirama and Uzumaki Mito. He’d been so angry at the time, freshly locked away in his very first jinchuuriki, that he hadn’t seen how precious that child truly was and had taken the weakening of the seal caused by pregnancy and childbirth as an excellent time to thrash and claw at the seal, trying to escape.

Later, after he found himself sealed into Naruto, he found himself regretting his foolishness. He had been ecstatic to find that that child, his first, had gone on and had a child of their own: Senju Tsunade, and to find that Tsunade had made an extraordinary name for herself as an amazing healer and a tremendously powerful taijutsu fighter, one of the very few people with sufficient chakra control to achieve the Yin Seal.

And he was heartbroken to discover she had fled the village of Konoha to become a drunk and a gambler. She was almost his own granddaughter, and the horrors she had faced that had left her with such dysfunctional coping mechanisms that he mourned for her loss, also. Of course, she was old enough to look after herself – she was Jiraiya’s age, and Jiraiya had been the Minato-brat’s sensei, and Minato had been the Hatake-brat’s sensei, and only now was the Hatake-brat Naruto’s sensei.

This did not stop Kurama from reading about the way she fought and healed, examining it critically, and breaking the technique down into the most basic composition to begin to teach to Sakura, who was young but had a sensitive nature and had yet to find her specialty. Her chakra control, though, was extremely promising, to the old fox’s eyes.

Team Seven hung around the hospital for three days, after Kakashi placed a temporary containment seal over the mark on Sasuke’s neck, and then they returned to the small arena at the tower to forfeit as a team.

“I do everything I say I will and never go back on my word,” Naruto said, cheerfully, as he bowed out. “But I never promised anyone I was gonna make chuunin at this Selection! I only just made genin, I was mostly in it for the experience of what the Selection Exams were like, and I got a lotta that! Too much, maybe. So I’m forfeiting now.”

Actually, after a team discussion about how Orochimaru had infiltrated the event by killing three genin from the Land of Grass and taking their places, as well as placing his own team of genin in the Selections with specific instructions to target and kill Sasuke and Team Seven as well, if necessary, they decided that maybe they could have another attempt at Chuunin Selection at a later date when they would hopefully not be the targets of body-snatchers and assassins.

Not that genin weren’t assassins-in-training, but usually they weren’t entered in the Chuunin Selections specifically to assassinate one particular team and make it look like just a part of the exam.

They were not the only ones to forfeit. Sabaku no Gaara forfeited, which startled both of his sibling-teammates badly, though they did not also forfeit. That Kabuto kid and his team forfeited, which was kind of weird because none of them had gotten hurt. They reached the final part of the exams, and then just randomly gave up for no reason. No wonder they never passed.

But here Kurama was now, on a sunny Monday morning, watching Team Seven napping as they waited for Kakashi to show up. Well, Sasuke, who’d been tired since Orochimaru bit him, and Naruto who slept anywhere, anytime, were napping. Kurama had encouraged Sakura to meditate, to get more in touch with her chakra, and she was sitting there with her eyes closed, but she wasn’t asleep because he could feel the way she was moving her chakra around.

He fell asleep eventually as well, sprawled in the grass.

When he woke, it was to two quickly approaching chakra signatures. One was Kakashi’s, and he wouldn’t’ve ordinarily noticed it had it not been joined by another very large, disturbingly familiar presence.

A moment later, Kakashi appeared before them, and he was not alone. With him was a tall older man with shaggy white hair, red clan markings, and a Mount Myouboku hitai-ate. Jiraiya of the Sannin. Not quite as good at the art of fuuinjutsu as Namikaze Minato had been, as the Minato-brat’s fuuinjutsu education had been supplemented by Uzumaki Kushina, but his original teacher and good enough at fuuinjutsu that he posed a risk to Naruto and Kurama because of the knowledge he held.

Kurama bit back the urge to growl, and rolled onto his back to hide the fact his hackles were all standing on end.

“Ah,” Kakashi said to Jiraiya. “It looks like we might have to come back later, Jiraiya-sama. It would seem that my cute little genin are all sleeping!”

Jiraiya didn’t look as amused as Kakashi did. “Hokage-sama dragged me from the other side of the continent for this, Kakashi-san. Apparently it’s a matter of utmost urgency, and I have research I could be doing. Either you wake them up, or I will.”

“I’m already awake,” Sakura said, without opening her eyes. “Whatever you’re planning, don’t include me, thank you.”

Kurama had finally managed to smooth down his fur, and weren’t autonomic reactions annoying? How did animals deal with these? So he hopped up and moved briskly out of the way, because those hand seals Jiraiya was flashing through promised a good drenching.

“Ack!” Naruto shouted, as the moisture Jiraiya pulled from the air was dumped over the sleeping genin, springing to his feet and scrambling away. “Kurama, you coulda told me it was gonna start raining! Oh. It isn’t raining. Hey! Why’d you do that to us? That was mean!”

Sasuke remained where he was, lying on his back on the ground, glaring at the sky as if it had personally wronged him.

“Are you going to get up, Sasuke?” Kakashi asked.

“No.”

Naruto was squinting at Jiraiya, now, a perplexed expression on his face. “Are you my godfather?”

Jiraiya’s eyes widened comically. “What? How do you know that?”

“My stomach fox told me,” Naruto replied, tilting his head. “You look like he said you would. Are you a pervert? He said my godfather was a pervert, and to never go anywhere with him without a responsible chaperone because – uh – Kurama, what’d he say?”

“If you explained it to me right, Kyuubi was worried about the bad influence of perverts on growing young minds,” Kurama replied, yawning. “Kakashi-nii-san is bad enough, reading porn in public, but Kyuubi said Jiraiya was a super-pervert and could not be trusted to be appropriate with small children.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right!” Naruto said.

Jiraiya looked like he’d gotten all sweaty all of a sudden. He turned to Kakashi and said: “Hokage-sama was right. It’s an extreme emergency and I need to look into it right now.”

“Maa, I guess,” Kakashi bleated. “You’ll look at the curse seal Orochimaru put on Sasuke after, though?”

“It depends on how dire Naruto’s situation is. This might take some time to undo. It seems like the Kyuubi has sunk its malicious claws quite deeply into his mind…”

“Hey!” Naruto objected.

“Kurama, you’re chaperone,” Kakashi said, quickly.

“Great,” Jiraiya crowed, and he grabbed Naruto by the collar of his jumpsuit, and Kurama by the scruff of his neck, and disappeared with them in a shunshin. They reappeared at the entrance to an onsen on the outskirts of the village.

“Nope,” Kurama said, hanging limply from Jiraiya’s large hand with his tail tucked up between his legs. “Nowhere with naked people. Pick somewhere else.”

“Ichiraku’s,” Naruto suggested, brightly.

“Ramen, ramen, ramen!” Kurama agreed, not because he loved ramen more than anything else but because it would be more difficult for Jiraiya to get Naruto half-naked to examine the place where his seal had been in front of Teuchi and Ayame.

“You’re a weird summons,” Jiraiya said, holding Kurama to examine him at eye height.

“Probably because I’m just your regular, every day garden-variety ninkitsune,” Kurama agreed. “I’ve never even been to the domain of foxes, I don’t even know what it’s called! I certainly didn’t come from there.” Not true. It was the place where the ruins of the Sage’s temple, the one that he had sent Kurama to protect a long, long time ago, used to be. But without getting Naruto to sign the actual Fox Summons Contract, pretending to be a fox summons was too fallible.

“You’re creepy,” Jiraiya said to Kurama.

“I am not! I’m a normal fox,” Kurama yelped, flailing. “You’re the creepy one, you old perv!”

“Foxes don’t talk.”

Kurama crossed his paws over his chest and huffed, offended. “I do!”

“Can you put me down?” Naruto asked, plaintively.

Jiraiya, outnumbered two-to-one, gave the entire onsen thing up as a bad job and took them to Ichiraku Ramen. Kurama crowed for joy at having won this round against the old sannin. Naruto crowed for joy about getting ramen. Jiraiya sighed, heavily, as he hauled himself onto his stool, and Naruto asked him if he was shouting their early lunch, since he was his godfather, and paying for necessities like food and stuff was his job, right?

“So,” Jiraiya said, as he stirred his noodles with a chopstick. “What else does this, uh,” he dropped his voice. “Stomach fox tell you to do, Naruto?”

“Just boring stuff,” Naruto replied. “Like eat my vegetables and pay my rent and do the laundry. You know. The stuff I usually forget.”

“You turned up to training in your pyjamas two weeks ago because you ignored your stomach fox and didn’t do your laundry then realised you had nothing clean to wear,” Kurama sniped at Naruto grumpily, around a mouthful of pork belly.

Naruto stuck his tongue out at him, petulantly.

Jiraiya was sweating again. It was pungent enough that Kurama could smell it over the greasy deliciousness of the ramen.

“Does the fox ever tell you to hurt anyone?” Jiraiya asked.

Naruto peered up at him, like he was checking him for head injuries. “No. I think he’s a closet pacifist, though he pretends he isn’t.” Kurama hissed at him in their mind-space. Lies and slander! Naruto prattled on, and he was either blissfully ignorant or a brilliant actor and Kurama couldn’t even tell with that child anymore. “We help people! He’s gonna help me become Hokage, and I’m gonna be friends with everyone and make sure everyone is happy and safe! That’s our greatest dream.”

“Er…” Jiraiya said. “Would it be alright if I checked your seal?”

Uh oh.

There it was.

 

xxi.

“What seal?” Naruto asked, perfectly and honestly oblivious. “That weird snake-y guy said something about seals too.”

Actor, Kurama thought, viciously proud of his amazing child. And then, with a sinking feeling, he thought: Wait, no. Maybe he just forgot. That’d be more like Naruto. He didn’t even get dropped on his head as a baby. I don’t know how these things slip his mind.

“Then,” Naruto continued, and yep, that was the sweet, sweet smile of ignorant oblivion. “He did a bad touch with his fingers and I passed out it was so horrible.”

Kurama was torn between howling with glee at the way Jiraiya went all pale and sick-looking at the implication of those words and wailing in despair at the scarcity of Naruto’s vocabulary. Surely, surely, Naruto knew how to phrase the application of the Five Elements Seal better than that?

“Are you gonna finish your ramen?” Naruto asked Jiraiya, noticing he’d hardly touched his bowl.

Mutely, Jiraiya shook his head.

“Can I have it?” Jiraiya stared at him for so long that Naruto took it as an agreement, swiped his bowl, and started scarfing it down with the same enthusiasm he’d eaten his first five bowls with.

Jiraiya turned to Kurama. “Is he a bottomless pit?”

Kurama sat back on his haunches to shrug. “Dunno. We usually can’t afford more than three bowls when we come by ourselves, and if someone else is treating us, they tend to cut him off by now out of concerns for his health or something. I’m not that well-versed in the gastric concerns of humans, but I know that some foxes eat up to a quarter of their own body weight daily.”

“You say ‘we’ as if you belong to Naruto. I was under the impression that you were one of Kakashi-san’s pack?”

“Eh, no. Why would I be Kakashi-nii-san’s? I mean, I suppose all of Team Seven are just extended members of his pack, but Naruto is mine,” Kurama said.

Naruto finished Jiraiya’s bowl of ramen and sighed contentedly. “Can I have another?” he asked, with a hopeful gleam in his eye.

“I think you’ve had enough for now,” Jiraiya said. “I would like to go somewhere with fewer people to look at your seal.”

“I don’t got a seal. Think I’d know if I did,” Naruto grumbled, obstinately. “Fine, though.”

Jiraiya picked them both up by their scruffs again and took them all the way out to a little-used training ground outside the wall, a long way from the centre of the village or any human habitation.

Jiraiya dumped them unceremoniously in the grass beneath a big old tree, and told Naruto to pull up his shirt.

“This isn’t for something perverted, is it?” Naruto asked him, suspiciously.

“No, you’re supposed to have a seal on your stomach,” Jiraiya said, and Kurama thought it looked like he was getting to the point where he was considering pulling out his hair in frustration. Naruto squinted at him, and Kurama squinted at him too, but Naruto pulled up the shirt of his jumpsuit to reveal his naked, unmarked belly. Jiraiya sighed, and said: “You know how you channel chakra to your feet to tree-walk, right? Channel chakra to your stomach for me.”

Naruto did so.

The tiny black wisps of the broken seal showed up, then faded away.

Jiraiya swore. Colourfully. At length. And paced backwards and forwards at he did it. At last, he sat down, panting and red in the face.

“See,” Naruto said, poking his own stomach. “I don’t have a seal. The snake guy tried to put one on me, and it hurt, but it went away again.”

“He tried to do a Five Elements Seal,” Kurama said. “But it didn’t work, because the Eight Trigrams Seal is broken.”

“You know fuuinjutsu?” Jiraiya asked.

Kurama made a noncommittal noise. “Some. Enough to be of use, on the odd occasion, but I don’t have thumbs, so I can’t use it easily. I can read seals well enough. Look at these dew claws. Look at them. They’re useless! I have to use a brush with my mouth! Do you know how unwieldly that is? I wish I had hands.”

“So Orochimaru didn’t touch you in a bad adult way, he tried to put a seal on you?”

“Yeah, I told you that before!”

Jiraiya sighed in relief, then had another thought and went quite still. “Naruto, how long has that seal been gone.”

“Since I was eight,” Naruto said, still poking at his stomach. “It’s alright, though, because Kyuubi is nice.”

Jiraiya succumbed to the urge to tug at his own hair as he looked despairingly at the branches of the tree above them. “Kyuubi is nice,” he repeated. “The Kyuubi destroyed half of Konoha twelve years ago.”

“Only because the guy with the weird orange mask and the black cloak with red clouds and the one funny Sharingan made him do it,” Naruto said blithely.

Jiraiya went completely still. Kurama wasn’t even sure he was breathing anymore. “Black cloak with red clouds,” he said, slowly.

“You hard of hearing, old man? That’s what Kyuubi told me, and that’s what I said!”

“How would the Kyuubi know about the Akatsuki…” Jiraiya mumbled to himself.

Kurama didn’t actually know what an Akatsuki was, but he didn’t say anything.

Jiraiya stayed in his own head for so long that Naruto and Kurama moved out of the shade, lay on their bellies in the sun, and began to play jan-ken to pass the time. Kurama was winning eleven-nine when Jiraiya finally came back to himself.

“Naruto,” he said. “I would like to speak to the Kyuubi. Do you think that would be possible?”

Naruto glanced at Kurama anxiously. Kurama hoped it looked like he was glancing at a friend for reassurance, and not like he was asking for permission.

If I close my eyes, Kurama thought into their shared mind-space. I should be able to manifest as Kyuubi without dispelling or becoming disorientated. We’ll see.

Just don’t puke, Naruto thought back, just a little bit venomously. “Okay,” he said aloud, and smiled brightly. “On three, old man? Also, if people from the village come, can you send them away? I don’t want them to hurt Kyuubi. Alright. One, two, three.”

Kurama cowered, covering his eyes and ears with his paws to block out as much external stimuli possible, as Naruto pulled himself into the mind space at the same time as he forcibly shoved the Kyuubi out. One moment there was a small boy lying in the grass in front of Kurama, the next moment Kurama was lying in the grass in front of Kurama – and oh, yep, he was dizzy now, and that was a weird out-of-body experience he was having, looking at his own self through the Kyuubi’s eyes.

The Kyuubi turned its tremendous head away from the tiny, tiny little fox cowering in front of it to peer down at Jiraiya, who now also seemed tiny.

“HELLO, TOAD SAGE,” the Kyuubi said, grinning to show off all its magnificent teeth.

Jiraiya stammered.

“I UNDERSTAND YOU WISH TO SPEAK WITH ME,” the Kyuubi continued. “WELL, GO ON, GET ON WITH IT. WE’RE TOO CLOSE TO KONOHA FOR THIS, AND I DON’T WANT TO UPSET ANYONE UNDULY WITH MY PRESENCE, SO WE HAVE TO BE QUICK.”

Now Jiraiya was gaping.

“GET ON WITH IT, WHELP!”

“You certainly are the Kyuubi no Kitsune,” Jiraiya coughed out, after a long moment. “There’s no doubting that chakra.”

“I CAN SQUASH YOU IF YOU DON’T GET TO THE POINT,” the Kyuubi pointed out, and lifted a forepaw threateningly. A dozen panicked chakra-signatures, incoming from the village, fast. “WE’RE ALMOST OUT OF TIME.”

“What do you want with Naruto?” Jiraiya asked him, finally. “What is you plan?”

“TO HELP NARUTO BECOME HOKAGE SO WE CAN PROTECT OUR PRECIOUS PEOPLE,” the Kyuubi said. “EXCUSE ME, WE’RE ABOUT TO HAVE COMPANY.” He flicked through the seals for a henge, and turned himself soft pastel pink and bedazzled, just in time for two squadrons of ANBU to arrive, ready to defend Konoha with their lives – then pull up short. “GOOD AFTERNOON. IF YOU DO NOT MIND, I HAVE PERSONAL BUSINESS WITH ERO-SENNIN HERE. EVERYTHING IS FINE, ISN’T IT, JIRAIYA-SAMA?”

“Er, yes. Go back to the Hokage and tell him everything’s fine,” Jiraiya said. “I’m just… having a quiet word with the Kyuubi. Nothing to worry about.” He was extra sweaty now, his hair all damp and sticking to his head with it.

“YES. PLEASE DO NOT WORRY. I MEAN NO HARM.”

The ANBU didn’t move. Kyuubi started to feel anxious. Jiraiya looked like he was about to keel over dead.

As abruptly as he had appeared, the Kyuubi was pulled back into Naruto’s soul and they switched places, the tremendously huge pink chakra construct disappearing with a puff of smoke as Naruto reappeared in a heap on the grass. “Okay, that’s enough,” Naruto announced, leaping to his feet. “Kyuubi’s going away now because he scared too many people and felt bad!”

“But why did it turn pink?”

“Less scary if he’s pink,” Kurama, now no longer nauseated by the feeling of having his eyes open in two places at once, sat up and said brightly. “He probably hoped it might diffuse the situation with the animal masks. I’d say it probably worked, because they didn’t skip straight to attacking.”

“He makes me eat green peppers, old man, if you’re looking for dirt on him,” Naruto stage-whispered. “He’s super mean about it too, you would not believe. ‘You’ll be a runt if all you eat every day is ramen, Naruto. Do you want to be a runt forever? Because that’s where you’re heading.’ Can you believe it?”

The ANBU members were now shuffling their feet awkwardly, looking to one another and signing off rapid-fire questions. Then, as quickly as they’d come, they disappeared again.

“I need to speak to Hokage-sama,” and Jiraiya disappeared, too.

Naruto and Kurama were left standing in a field all by themselves.

“That coulda gone worse,” Naruto decided.

“Probably,” Kurama agreed. “But he might’ve dropped us back off with Kakashi. We’re miles away!”

“Aw, man, you’re right. It’ll be dinner time by the time we get back.”

Kurama sat back on his haunches to shrug. “Least we had lunch, and he paid for it.”

Naruto grinned and folded his hands behind his head as he began to walk back in the direction of the village. “Yeah, you’re right.”

Kurama thought it miraculous that they went unmolested over the course of the following few days… Surely, Jiraiya would have told someone about Naruto’s missing seal, and someone would have come to fix it. Surely, Kurama was going to be locked away again. He woke every morning tense and anxious and was snippy at everyone.

But nothing happened.

Weird.

Must’ve been Naruto’s insistence that the Kyuubi made him eat his vegetables.

 

xxii.

Kurama was beginning to think that Sabaku no Gaara didn’t have any real concept of time, or even understood that most people slept at nighttime. Or maybe he was just an obnoxious brat who turned up at three in the morning for the sake of being an obnoxious brat and disrupting other people’s sleep schedules.

He was back at Naruto’s window, tapping on the glass.

Kurama grumbled obscenities to himself as he rolled off the bed and padded over to let him in.

“Good evening, Gaara-kun. Morning. Whatever. At least you’re polite enough not to break in,” Kurama told Gaara, as he slipped off the windowsill into Naruto’s little kitchen. Gaara gave him a faintly startled look, and handed him the thermos from his last visit. “Oh, thank you, but we never used that. You could’ve kept it.”

“I want more,” Gaara said. “Will you make some?”

Kurama cast a glance at Naruto, who was deeply asleep after a day learning elemental jutsu. Kakashi had handed them bits of paper to channel chakra into a couple of days after Jiraiya’s visit, and they had all been given a scroll containing instructions for a jutsu matching their elemental affinity and sent off to learn it. Naruto, predictably, was had a close affinity with wind, and he’d been working himself into the ground trying to get his jutsu down.

“You’ll have to help me, because I’m not waking him up,” Kurama told Gaara, sternly. “He did some really difficult training yesterday.”

Gaara quailed for a moment.

“I don’t bite, you know.”

“I felt you the other day,” Gaara said. “It said you weren’t as strong as you used to be. But it also said that that didn’t mean you could be underestimated.”

“Well, I expect not,” Kurama agreed. “I’m still stronger than Gyuuki, even with half my chakra sealed in the gut of the Shinigami!”

“Gyuuki?” Gaara asked.

“The Hachibi,” Kurama said. “Looks a bit like someone stuck the front-end of an ox to the back end of an octopus.”

Gaara’s face went curiously slack. “It’s laughing,” he said.

Kurama frowned. “His name is Shukaku, and he might be my littlest brother, and I might not like him much, but he is still a sentient entity capable of intelligent thought – beyond bloodlust and madness. Have some respect, Gaara-kun, for the responsibility you hold in your hands. Shukaku is thousands of years old and a being of immense power.”

Gaara looked at his feet. “People fear me because of it – him. They hate me.”

“You said that before,” Kurama said. “Come here and help me get the milk.”

“When I sleep,” Gaara said, lifting the carton of milk from the refrigerator and placing it on the counter, where Kurama indicated. “He comes out. And he hurts people. Kills them. I’ve killed lots of people, too. Is that bad?”

“Well, I’m going to be honest, Gaara-kun, it’s not good,” Kurama said, kicking the fridge closed. “This cupboard. Can you grab that packet? Yeah, that’s the sugar, and that tin’s got the cocoa. Did you mean to do it?”

“Yes and no,” Gaara said. He paused, then added: “When I was six, I killed my uncle. Yashamaru. I thought he loved me, but my father sent him to assassinate me. I – I didn’t mean to, I protected myself, I didn’t know it was Yashamaru. Then his mask came off, and he told me he hated me, and that my mother hated me, she died hating me because I’m a monster, and he blew himself up.”

“You’re not a monster,” Kurama said. “Here, this is the pot for making cocoa. Can you measure out a couple of pints of milk for me?”

Gaara did so, hesitantly, like he had no idea what he was doing.

Kurama smiled gently. “That’s perfect, thank you, Gaara-kun. I’m too little like this to do it myself.”

“You have enough power to destroy everyone in this village,” Gaara said, tilting his head. “I felt it! You could’ve killed everyone!”

“I don’t want to, though. I like Konoha. My precious people are here.”

“Precious people,” Gaara echoed.

Kurama measured a cup of water into the cocoa pot and shoved it onto the little stove. “Yeah. I’ll tell you a secret, Gaara-kun. I don’t think Shukaku knows about precious people. That’s why he’s so mean to you and hurts the people around you.”

“Oh,” Gaara said, softly. “Why doesn’t he know?”

“Because I only just learned. And if I’m the oldest brother, and I know the most, and none of the other bijuu are even aware about having precious people, how can Shukaku know?”

Gaara went slack-faced, like he was listening to something. Then he said: “He says you’re weak.”

Kurama sniffed disdainfully as the water came to a boil and he started to tip in the sugar and the cocoa. “I disagree. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been in my entire life. Shukaku doesn’t know what he’s talking about, as usual. Add the milk for me, please, Gaara-kun.”

And obediently, if a little uncertainly, Gaara did.

“Good, thank you, Gaara-kun,” Kurama said, picking up the wooden stirring spoon a little awkwardly to mix the cocoa as it heated.

“Do you think I can have precious people?” Gaara asked, standing on the tips of his toes to watch the cocoa in the pot.

“Of course,” Kurama replied. “It takes a little work to find someone, and sometimes they’ll be precious to you but you might not be precious to them, and that might make your heart hurt. But I definitely think you can have precious people. I think you could be one of my precious people, if you’ll allow it. And like we said last time you visited, Naruto would love to have you for a friend. He loves making friends.”

“Really?” Gaara asked, and it came out as little more than a whisper.

“Really,” Kurama said, nodding. “I think this is ready now.” He flicked off the burner. “Would you like a mug now, or would you like to take all of it away in the thermos?”

“Can I – can I stay here the rest of the night?” Gaara asked, and this time he said it so quietly he might as well have breathed it, but Kurama didn’t have sharp ears for nothing. “I don’t want to go back to the inn.”

“Your siblings won’t be worried? What about your jounin-sensei?” Kurama said, even as he walked up the wall to fetch a mug from one of the high cupboards for Gaara.

Gaara shook his head. “I told you, they’re scared of me.”

“Even them?” Kurama asked, and felt his heart hurt.

“And,” Gaara said, accepting his mug of cocoa but starting to tremble. “My father… They want to invade Konoha. They’re going to invade Konoha. And I think I must tell you. They’re going to wait until the final exam of the Chuunin Selection, and attack while everyone’s distracted by the tournament. I said I wasn’t going to help, and a lot of their plan had been hinging on the damage I could do with him, but I can’t and they’re really angry and keep asking questions and I don’t want to go back right now and—”

“Hey,” Kurama said, even as he assimilated this information and considered the people he should inform to ensure that there would be the fewest casualties in the event an invasion occurred when Gaara thought it was going to happen. “It’s alright. You can stay here as long as you need. Calm down, take a deep breath, you’re alright. It’s alright. I’m not angry. Naruto won’t be angry. We can work this out.”

Thank Kami, he didn’t start crying, but then, Kurama wasn’t sure Gaara knew how to cry.

He did, however, fall asleep at the table.

How many days running had he been awake, anyway?

“Shukaku, you tanuki bastard,” Kurama growled at the unconscious child, as he wrestled him onto the bed beside Naruto with great difficulty because twelve-year-old boys, no matter if they were on the small side for their age, were still much larger than perfectly ordinary foxes. “If you try anything, I swear.”

Shukaku, however, did something sensible for once in his long and irritating life and remained quiet and still.

 

xxiii.

“—Part, I think, of the truly precious nature of humanity, Shukaku, is their ephemerality. We will exist forever, and as we both already know, their lifespans pass in the blink of an eye. What are they but mayflies? That’s the flaw in our thinking. We underestimated them. We walked all over them, for generations, and they finally did something about it, and I was angry, yes, for they used a perversion of ninshuu to do it, to trap me, to lock me away in the dark, away from the world. But I had forgotten what otou-san asked of us, back at the beginning of things, and that was my mistake. I should have been guiding them, for generation after generation, from my temple, not roaming around knocking mountains on them, or washing entire settlements away with tsunamis, so we were trapped in a cycle of wrongness, but it was my fault we were wrong because I didn’t do what I was tasked. Little wonder they call us demons.” Kurama suddenly realised that the red-headed jinchuuriki was blinking at him, sleepily. “Oh, good afternoon, Gaara-kun. You were asleep for a long time.”

Gaara launched himself off the bed, the cork on his gourd popping off to allow his sand to swirl around him as he looked around, fearfully.

He paused, his expression becoming one of confusion.

“I’m still here?” he asked. “I fell asleep, but he did nothing?” And then he tilted his head, listening to an answer Kurama couldn’t hear. “Oh. He says you talk a lot. He says you… talked his ears off?”

Kurama sat back on his haunches and shrugged unapologetically. “Well. You were here, which meant he was here, and I know he’s aware even when you aren’t. Anyway, Naruto’s at training right now, but we’re supposed to be having team dinner at the Yakiniku-Q restaurant tonight, Kakashi-nii-san’s pick, and Naruto wanted to know if you wanted to come, if you woke up in time?”

“Kakashi-nii-san?” Gaara said. “You… he wants to know how you can have a nii-san. You’re the oldest.”

“Oh, well, he’s Naruto’s onii-san, only not by blood, and I just call him that too, because I can’t call him ‘Hatake-brat’ to his face. I’m trying to keep a low profile. You, Naruto, and Shukaku are the only people in the entire world who know that this beautiful foxy face is, in fact, the Kyuubi no Kitsune, and I intend to keep it that way. So, lips sealed, Gaara-kun. You can call me Kurama, or Kurama-san, I don’t mind which, but absolutely not Kyuubi-san or -sama or any variation thereof. Got it?”

Gaara nodded as enthusiastically as Kurama thought he was capable of being.

“Alright, put your sand back in your gourd, now. I don’t want to have to sweep again this week.”

Dinner went surprisingly well, in that there was no bloodshed, although Gaara was very quiet throughout. He sat by the wall, with Naruto squished into the booth beside him, his gourd between his knees under the table, and Kurama on the table by his side as a sort of fox-shaped shield to prevent too much attention reaching him.

The entirety of his introduction to the rest of Team Seven had been handled by Naruto, who said: “Everyone this is Sabaku no Gaara, from Suna! He’s my friend, and he’s like me!”

After, they parted ways.

“I should go back to the inn,” Gaara admitted. “It might be bad if Suna accused Konoha of kidnapping me, especially since I’m not partaking in the Chuunin Selection anymore.”

Everyone bid him goodnight, but after Kakashi looked at Kurama and Naruto with a bemused look in his eye and said: “Naruto, how did you manage to befriend the youngest son of the Kazekage? That kid is supposed to be—” He cut himself off, and finished lamely, “Well.” Kurama heard the monster in the words left unsaid, though.

“I like him,” Naruto said, staring off along the street Gaara had disappeared along. “He’s kind of shy, I think. But he’s like me.”

“You said that before,” Sasuke pointed out. “What do you mean, like you? Stupid also?”

“Jinchuuriki,” Naruto replied. “Oh, Kakashi-nii-san, Kurama and I got something we need to tell you. But… it’s really private.”

That got Sakura and Sasuke’s interest immediately.

“What?” Sakura demanded.

“Boy stuff,” Naruto told her, and pointed at his crotch.

She immediately wrinkled her face up in disgust, and Sasuke made a revolted noise.

“Well, go on, shoo,” Kakashi said to them, and they made themselves scarce, leaving himself alone on a dark street corner with just Naruto and Kurama. “Naruto, this better—”

Kurama leapt at his flak jacket and scrambled up it in time to cover his mouth with one paw. “Not here,” Kurama said. “You have somewhere we can speak where we won’t be overheard?”

Why me? the expression in Kakashi’s eye said, as he led them to his room in the jounin dorms, with Naruto and Kurama following quietly at his heels. He touched a privacy seal array on his door as he pulled it closed. It flared briefly with chakra, then darkened. His ninken all looked up from where they had been napping the evening away, but when they saw the seal light up, they all put their heads back down and pretended to go back to sleep.

Nosy dogs, Kurama thought. But dogs were notoriously loyal, and they were unlikely to betray Kakashi.

“We can speak, but do so quietly,” Kakashi said, eyeing them both equally warily.

Kurama wondered why, then realised that yeah, he was kind of as loud as Naruto sometimes.

Weirdly, Kakashi’s room didn’t have any dogs in it.

“You weren’t kidding when you said you didn’t have room for a slumber party,” Kurama said.

Kakashi glowered. “Surely this isn’t just about my home—”

“Suppose we heard a rumour,” Kurama interrupted him. “It’s the kind of rumour that could start a war, or route one before it began. We heard it from a credible source, but we ourselves are unfortunately not really considered reliable because other people might think we’re just pulling another prank.”

Kakashi slipped off his sandals and moved into the room, stepping over and around sleepy canine bodies to sit down on his bed, resting his elbows on his knees, and resting his chin on his laced fingers as he regarded them, seriously.

“I have noticed,” Kakashi began. “That the pranks you pull tend to be harmless. An inconvenience, at the most, or an eyesore, but harmless.”

Kurama nodded. “Yes. We don’t want to hurt people.”

“And you never do,” Kakashi observed.

“I like your blanket,” Naruto said, then, pointing at Kakashi’s green bedspread, which was decorated with a shuriken pattern.

“Thank you, Naruto,” Kakashi said.

“Kakashi-nii-san,” Naruto said, wringing his hands. “Gaara told us Suna was gonna invade, and I don’t want there to be a war because then we’d have to be enemies, except he’s my friend. He’s got no friends in Suna ‘cause they’re all scared of him, like people are scared of me which I know is why they’re mean, they think I’m the Demon Fox, but I’m not Kyuubi, Kyuubi is just my grumpy stomach fox. So there can’t be a war, and we gotta tell you, because no one else will believe us. I’m just the Demon Fox kid, and even if I told Jiji, there are other people Jiji has to listen to who’d say I was being stupid and not to listen to me, so it’s gotta be you, Kakashi-nii-san, since they’ll listen to you. You’re a great shinobi already, so they gotta listen to you, you know!”

Kakashi followed this string of non-sequiturs quite well, though he still blinked in surprise a couple of times.

“I,” he began, paused as if not entirely sure how to continue, then plough on anyway. “Yes, okay. I’ll go to Hokage-sama—”

“Kakashi-nii-san, go to Ero-Sennin, have him go to Hokage-sama,” Kurama said. “He might be a super pervert, but he’s also a spymaster, and if you can convince him you heard it from a good source, he can look into it and confirm it, and then maybe we can stop this before it starts. Gaara-kun has already told us he won’t fight against Konoha at Suna’s behest, so we don’t have to worry about the Ichibi being unleashed on us, and I think he might’ve been a cornerstone of their invasion plan, but we have to make sure!”

Kakashi looked suspiciously at Kurama. “How do you about Jiraiya?” he asked. “Very few people are aware of his actual position, and for him to remain effective, it has to remain that way.”

“Don’t worry, Kakashi-nii-san,” Naruto said. “Kyuubi told us, and we’re actually really good at keeping important secrets.”

“There isn’t an intelligence leak,” Kurama added, placatingly.

Kakashi still looked worried, in his one lonesome eye, and Kurama had the stray thought that he was remarkably expressive for a man who covered almost his entire face. “When is this supposed to happen?” he asked.

“Half their people are probably already in place,” Kurama admitted, a little sheepishly. “But we only just found out from Gaara-kun, so. They plan to attack when everyone’s distracted by the third exam. I assume ANBU and the jounin forces will be distributed differently then than at other times?”

Kakashi nodded. “Yes. Konoha will be hosting many foreign dignitaries, as well as the Kazekage, as they oversee— Why am I telling you two this?”

“We kind of figured as much,” Naruto told him, solemnly. “It’ll be my job as Hokage, one day, to know these things. Goodnight, Kakashi-nii-san.”

“Good luck,” Kurama wished him.

 

xxiv.

Kakashi was making them do flexibility stretches for cooldown after taijutsu training in the middle of the afternoon a couple of days later when Jiraiya reappeared in Naruto and Kurama’s lives in a swirl of leaves. Kurama thought the old Toad Sage was very brave, coming back after such a bad scare with the Kyuubi, and he was only a little bit sweaty and anxious-looking as he turned to address Kakashi.

“Might I borrow your student again today, Kakashi-san?” he asked.

“By all means,” Kakashi said, fixing Kurama and Naruto with a brief but very firm glare that said: Behaves yourselves.

“This isn’t for something perverted, is it?” Naruto asked, standing from his stretch to eye Jiraiya curiously.

“No, no,” Jiraiya said. “I wouldn’t want to risk the Kyuubi’s ire on that matter, definitely not. I thought I might do some special training with you, the sort Kakashi-san cannot offer.”

“Eh? But Kakashi-nii-san is a great sensei.”

He really wasn’t, by Kurama’s estimate, although he wasn’t awful, either. He definitely liked his genin, which went a long way, he just had no idea what to do with them, how children learned, or even what was age-appropriate. First he’d taught them too little and trained them too lightly. Now, he was pushing them like they were fresh ANBU recruits that had recently been added to his ANBU team, and he needed to whip them into hardened soldiers ASAP, so they could defend themselves in any situation and adapt to abrupt changes in mission parameters on the fly.

Granted, Kurama preferred the latter over the former because he fancied their survival rate would be much better, and Naruto was absolutely going to live to become Hokage and reach two-hundred and have so many great-great-great-great grandchildren he couldn’t even remember them all.

Kakashi still didn’t know how to slow down or simplify something for a kid who didn’t understand a concept he grasped instinctually, though, and Kurama found himself as co-sensei most days.

But they were still genin who hadn’t hit thirteen yet, and Kurama had to push for a couple of days off every week and breaks for food, water, rest, and fun exercises where instead of emulating life-and-death situations, they did something light-hearted, like play pretend ninja as if they weren’t real ninja, complete with fake rocks made of painted cardboard boxes, or throw water balloons at each other for a morning instead of lethal objects, or just nap in the shade for an afternoon instead of completing D-Ranks wearing weights on their wrists and feet.

Kurama knew the genin knew they could die. At this point they understood that fact implicitly. They had realised it in the Land of Waves, and this fact had been compounded by Orochimaru. Now they needed to find a good work-life balance before they ended up like all the other shinobi in Konoha with maladaptive coping mechanisms.

Now, Jiraiya looked at the scratched-up, bruised, slightly singed and very muddy children. He looked at Kakashi, who was also a little ragged around the edges. “I do not doubt that Kakashi is an excellent sensei, Naruto,” he said. “But I know something Kakashi doesn’t, and I wanted to share it with you?”

Naruto cocked his head. “But Kakashi knows everything,” Naruto said, naïvely. “He can copy any technique.”

Jiraiya took a deep breath in through his nose, then exhaled through his mouth. “Naruto, I want to let you sign the Toad Summoning Contract. The Hatake Clan typically signs with dogs.”

“Toads?” Naruto asked. Then he smiled brightly. “Okay.”

Kurama repressed a shudder as he remembered the Yondaime appearing on the battlefield of Konoha on the back of the Boss Toad. He didn’t really like toads, but Naruto thought they were cute.

“Kurama, chaperone,” Kakashi said.

“We don’t need that little fox to come with us,” Jiraiya protested.

Naruto scooped Kurama up and cuddled him to his chest. “Ero-Sennin,” he whined. “Please can Kurama come? He’s my partner!”

“Fine, but it’s not my fault if he gets eaten.”

Naruto gasped in outrage. “Those toads better not dare! I’ve seen Kurama burrow through the head of a snake summon before, so you tell them, Ero-Sennin. You tell them that if they eat him, he’ll dig right outta their bellies and then they’ll regret it!”

Jiraiya took them to an adjacent training field. He sat down, and beckoned they sit, also.

“Kakashi-san tells me that you are… attentive students,” he said, eyeing them speculatively. “But Konoha has become more dangerous lately. You may not be aware of this, but not long ago we uncovered three spies planted by Orochimaru amongst the genin taking the Chuunin Selection Exams.”

“You mean those guys from Oto who were gonna kill us in the Forest of Death?” Naruto asked.

“What – those genin we had to send home on a cart because those feral forest foxes hamstrung them and ate their feet and faces?” Jiraiya asked, perplexed. “No, I am speaking about Yakushi Kabuto and his teammates, Akadou Yoroi and Tsurugi Misumi.”

Naruto and Kurama looked at him blankly, until Kurama suddenly remembered that weird kid with grey hair. “Oh!” he said. “You mean that genin with the cards on every single person present at the exam, who’d taken it and failed half-a-dozen times already, then weirdly just gave up at the end of the second exam even though his entire team got through fine? Yeah, I can see it.”

“He seemed nice,” Naruto said, scratching his head, then shrugging. “How’d you find out they were spies?”

“He killed seven of the ANBU stationed around the Uchiha Compound late in the evening last week. A specialist tracking team brought in confirmed the perpetrator by scent, and when ANBU operatives later stormed the apartments of the suspect and his teammates, they had been professionally cleaned out.”

“You mean Inuzukas, huh?” Naruto asked. “You brought in Inuzukas. Their noses are the best.”

Jiraiya peered at him, thoughtfully.

“How do you know they belonged to Orochimaru?” Kurama asked.

“We have had one confirmed sighting of Yakushi since then, and he confirmed our suspicions.”

Kurama squinted at him “You aren’t going to tell us more, are you?”

“Correct, so don’t ask any more questions,” Jiraiya said.

“Eh?” Naruto yelped. “You can’t just say that! I have so many questions now! Why is the weird snake guy so obsessed with Sasuke, anyway? Why didn’t that bastard say something about people being murdered all over his family’s home? That mighta been something he’d mention to his team!”

“Sasuke doesn’t know it occurred,” Jiraiya admitted. “Thankfully, it would seem that Sasuke was not present in his apartment at the time of the attack because of an impromptu late-night team bonding exercise involving a garden plot in the back hills which turned into a camping trip? I figured it was better not to ask.”

“We went to visit my pumpkin vines,” Naruto said.

Jiraiya’s expression was that of a man who dearly wanted to ask questions, but at the same time thought if he did so he would learn yet another thing he had been trying very hard to remain ignorant of. “I didn’t need to know, thank you for telling me, and that does not help demystify the situation at all.”

Naruto grinned. “I try! But why are you telling me this, Ero-Sennin? And why am I going to sign on with the toads?”

“Well, Yakushi and his accomplices are at large, possibly still in the village. Seven ANBU are dead, Gekkou Hayate, one of the village’s tokujou, has been murdered under suspicious circumstances, and I’ve been hearing some unsettling rumours lately that lead me to believe that Konoha either is not safe, or will not remain so for very much longer,” Jiraiya said, and Kurama thought that was a roundabout way of explaining that he’d smelt the smoke of war on the morning winds. “I’ve been in debate with Hokage-sama and the Council for some time about how much information you should be given so you may keep yourself safe.”

“Ero-Sennin,” Naruto said. “This is a shinobi village. It’s built on secrets. But, between me an’ Kyuubi, we know enough.”

Jiraiya regarded him seriously. “Maybe. Maybe not. But I would like you to have more than just the ability to unleash a giant, angry, pacifistic fox or generate a hundred Shadow Clones at your disposal. Being able to summon a toad to assist you in battle would be a start, but I would also like to teach you to channel the Kyuubi’s chakra.”

“Can I do that?” Naruto asked.

“It will depend entirely on whether he will let you,” Jiraiya admitted.

“I’ll ask,” Naruto said.

Take what you need, Kurama thought at him. It was always available to you. I never figured you wanted it, and I’m not using much of it right now.

Aren’t you made of chakra? Will I use you up?

Kurama had to fight very hard to keep a straight face on his little physical fox body. Instead, he lay down on his belly in the grass, crossing one forepaw over the other and resting his muzzle on them, trying to appear boredly unaffected. No, Fishcake. You will not ‘use me up.’ My chakra regenerates with rest the same way yours does, though I can pull it from the natural world around me, if I must. You needn’t worry.

“He says it’s fine, and I could always use it, I just never thought to!” Naruto said. “Oh, except I accidentally borrowed a little bit when I was fighting Orochimaru in the Forest of Death because I was super worried he’d hurt my friends, which was why he put that seal on me. I think that was the only time, but it was on accident.”

“Yes,” Jiraiya said. “Well. I expect you’ll need to supplement your own chakra with the Kyuubi’s to perform the summoning jutsu, at least in the beginning. Here, watch me.”

And he showed Naruto the hand seals, summoned a toad, and had him sign the contract while Kurama was hiccupping, because he’d had to swallow his giggles.

 

xxv.

“Not too much. Don’t summon one that’ll eat you,” Kurama said, then hiccupped.

Naruto focused. He went through the hand seals. Kurama felt him draw on his chakra, then push some of it back. He said the words for the summoning jutsu, though Kurama had no idea why shinobi went around shouting out what technique they were using. That would give their opponent too much of an opportunity to counter, wouldn’t it? Or did it somehow help them get the technique correct? Were humans that bad at moulding chakra?

Even the Toad Sage had said the words.

Kurama chewed the inside of his cheek, hiccupped, and wondered if that was another thing he could train Naruto out of. Or – or, he had a better idea! Say the words for the wrong technique! His hand seals said one thing, his mouth said another, and then he came out with something different again? Excellent prank in some instances, valuable misdirection in battle?

But the seals did help focus chakra to an extent. It wouldn’t be very easy.

Kurama would have to think about it. If he could train Naruto until he only needed one seal for most of his techniques, then any other seals would be superfluous, and he wouldn’t be using them to channel chakra. He only needed the single seal for the Shadow Clones these days.

Yes. That might work…

Naruto summoned a tadpole.

Jiraiya laughed at him, but Naruto panicked because they were in the middle of a dry field and Kurama had stopped him from fishing tadpoles out of a pond when he was four. Tadpoles couldn’t breath out of water, Kurama had explained. They were still too little, and if Naruto caught them and pulled them onto the dry land, then they would die.

Kurama had taken him back to the pond every day to watch the tadpoles develop, grow back legs then little arms, then absorb their tails, until one day they were gone, and Naruto cried.

“They’re frogs now, Naruto,” Kurama explained to him. “Or toads, maybe, I can’t really tell. But the thing is, they didn’t need to stay in the water anymore because they were all grown up. They’ll still be nearby, though.”

And they had poked around in the reeds until they found one of the little amphibians they had watched grow, and Naruto had shrieked with delight as the frog had hopped back into the water with a splash and swum to hide under a lily pad and regard them accusingly.

In retrospect, those peaceful and informative afternoons might’ve been the start of Naruto’s love of amphibians. Kurama had always hoped it wasn’t genetic.

“Tadpoles aren’t supposed to be out of water!” Naruto cried, now. “It’s gonna die, Ero-Sennin. Help! How do I send it back? Quickly, they can’t breathe like this!”

Jiraiya showed him how to dispel the tadpole, and it disappeared in a tiny puff of smoke, leaving Naruto anxious and shaky. Jiraiya laughed at him.

“A tadpole,” he cackled. “You summoned a tadpole! Ha! I don’t know what I expected.”

Naruto glared, turned around, and sat down facing away. “I don’t want to talk to you anymore. Go away.”

“Eh?” Jiraiya said. He looked at Kurama. “What’d I do?”

Kurama hiccupped. “Naruto is ignoring you because we endangered that tadpole’s life unduly. It might die now, it might not grow up to be an adult toad, because we summoned it when it was too young and took it from the water before it was ready to survive on land or breathe the air. We are not averse to hunting animals for our dinner, but we do so for only to sustain ourselves, never for fun or training, and tend to take animals that are old enough to have had a change to reproduce already – culling only the young native to any area could irreparably damage an ecosystem. Anything we do not take, we leave for local predators, and to go back to the earth. So, we summoned a baby and endangered its life, which goes against all our principles, and then you laughed at him when he got upset about it.”

Jiraiya looked perplexed. “That’s… an interesting philosophy for a shinobi to uphold. I hate to assume, but the Kyuubi was involved, wasn’t it? Why is all our information about that monster so wrong? Never mind! Questions for another day. The toads of Mount Myouboku are hardy creatures. It’d take more than that to hurt one of their young.”

Kurama gave him the stink-eye and stuck his tongue out at him, petulantly, but relented. “I’ll talk to Naruto.” He hiccupped again.

He padded over to where Naruto was sitting, and found his boy was crying silent tears, snot running from his nose because he was too afraid to sniffle and give himself away.

“Oh, kit,” Kurama said, and clambered into his lap to be hugged close.

“I didn’t wanna hurt him,” Naruto said, very quietly, his voice wobbling.

“I know you didn’t,” Kurama replied, trying to sound soothing but hiccupping halfway through his sentence.

“I’m never, ever going to summon another animal again,” Naruto said.

“Don’t you dare make that a promise, Naruto,” Kurama said, because once Naruto promised something, he never forgot, and he never broke his promises. “Imagine how sad the toads are going to be. They finally get a new summoner! You’re the first one since the Yondaime, then you summon a tadpole, and refuse to summon any of them for the rest of your life. They’re going to feel so rejected. Jiraiya said that tadpole was probably fine, too. The toads are pretty strong.”

Naruto gave up and sniffed. It was a disgusting, snotty sound. “I don’t want to accidentally bring another baby here and risk hurting it,” he said.

Kurama mulled that over. “Okay, here’s what you’re going to do. Disregard what I said before about not using too much chakra. Use every scrap of chakra you can! Every bit of yours, and as much of Kyuubi’s as you can manage, and summon the biggest, fattest, strongest toad you possibly can! I’m sure you won’t get a tadpole again that way, you’ll get a nice good toad that’s ready to leave the pond and will be interested in an adventure.”

“Do you think I can do it, Kurama?” Naruto asked.

“Of course! You can do everything, if you set your mind to it. You’re gonna be Hokage one day.”

Naruto’s face set in an expression of grim determination. “Okay. I’m gonna try again.” He got up, placed Kurama down gently, and turned to Jiraiya. “Watch me! I’m gonna summon a real big toad this time!”

“I’ll believe it when I see it, kid,” Jiraiya said.

Naruto focused. He went through the hand seals. Kurama felt him draw on his chakra – and oh, that was quite a drain actually, but Naruto was slamming his hands on the ground and shouting out the summoning. Kurama felt a moment of impending doom swoop through his chest, and with a great crash the Boss Toad appeared.

“Uh oh,” Kurama said, sprawled beside Naruto on the Boss Toad’s head beside Naruto, then hiccupped.

“He’s… huge,” Naruto breathed.

“He’s not a tadpole, I’ll give you that,” Kurama agreed.

And that was how they met Gamabunta.

 

xxvi.

“Sasuke wants to kill his brother,” Kurama said to Kakashi before dawn one morning, as they were watching the genin have a mock battle on the river. “Because of what Itachi did to the Uchiha Clan.”

“I know,” Kakashi replied, and he sounded grim.

Kurama was lying across his shoulder on his blind side, not allowed to join Naruto in the fake fight because it would skew the battle unfairly in his favour, and Kakashi wasn’t certain that Kurama would remain unbiased and fight for himself were he allowed to be his own team, which Kurama thought was fair enough. As much as he adored Sakura and Sasuke, Naruto would always remain his priority. “Ah. You are also afraid of him running off half-cocked and getting himself killed, then?”

Kakashi must have been spending too long with Sasuke, because he made one of those noncommittal little grunting noises.

“I had a thought about that,” Kurama said. “Well, I’ve had lots of thoughts about that, actually, and I no matter how I look at it, I can’t see a positive outcome because Itachi is a S-Rank rogue-nin and Sasuke is a genin. The math doesn’t add up.”

Kakashi said nothing, but Kurama assumed he was listening, because Naruto and Sasuke were at a stalemate and Sakura was sneaking up on them, her chakra masked the way Kurama had taught her.

“Loath as I am to admit it, Orochimaru may begin to look more and more like a viable option for Sasuke to gain the strength and cunning he will need to defeat Itachi in battle,” Kurama said. “I don’t want that. I like Sasuke. He’s one of Naruto’s precious people, and Naruto will never let that lie, not as long as he lives.”

“What do you suggest?” Kakashi asked.

“I’m so glad you asked,” Kurama grinned, but Kakashi couldn’t see it, because he was flopped over their jounin-sensei’s left shoulder. “The Sharingan is an incredibly powerful doujutsu. This cannot be denied, but it is fallible. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the reason Zabuza-san used such thick mist on the bridge back in the Land of Waves was to limit your visibility? This leads me to believe that like anything, the Sharingan can be fought. In fact, that reminds me: Haku performed hand seals with just one hand. So, here’s my proposal: we begin training the kids to fight in situations where they are down one or two senses. You can learn, too, because I know you had to summon your ninken to help you with Zabuza-san, and that was unacceptable – you need to be able to fight sightless as well.”

“Why?” Kakashi asked.

“Dunno. Suppose someone throws chilli powder in your eyes or something. Sharingan won’t be any more useful then than it woulda been in that mist. Or suppose you’re going up against a superior Sharingan, like one of those ones that looks like a pinwheel, not tomoe. We have to assume Itachi has it, or he wouldn’t’ve been able to decimate the entire clan like that – and you can’t look someone like that in the eyes, or they’ll do terrible, terrible things to you. We must teach the kids how to combat things like the Sharingan, and I think Sasuke will be more likely to stick around if he thinks what we’re doing will actively help him later,” Kurama hummed thoughtfully. “Also, a shinobi leads a dangerous life, and it is unsafe to take the wholeness of body for granted. They should know how to keep fighting, keep running, find their way home, even if one shoulder is dislocated or their arm is broken, or they can’t see or hear or smell or their chakra has been disrupted or sealed.”

“What got you thinking about this?”

“Huh? Oh, I was thinking about how Naruto can do the Shadow Clone technique with just one seal now, and whether it would be possible to teach the kids to do other ninjutsu moulded with a single seal but add in multiple other seals and shout the wrong technique name for misdirection purposes,” Kurama explained. “One thought led to another, you understand.”

“Yes, I understand,” Kakashi said. “And I think you’re right, but it will be difficult. We have the seals to help us focus for a reason.”

“I don’t want them to die, Kakashi-nii-san,” Kurama said. “I know the life of the shinobi is often short and brutal, but they’re mine, I protect my things, so I have to prepare them as best I can, and if that means difficult training and underhanded tactics, well. I don’t want Sasuke to go to someone who wants him for his kekkei genkai purely because he promised him strength and ability we could not. On that note, you should teach him the chidori.”

Kakashi picked Kurama off his shoulder by his scruff to hold him and peer at him, aghast. “That’s an assassination technique.”

Kurama peered back at him, unapologetic. “Yakushi and his accomplices are still unaccounted for. As far as I am aware, Suna is still planning to invade at the tournament for the third exam, which is only a few days away now. The more the kids have in their respective repertoires to throw at an enemy that they might either escape or defeat them, the safer I will feel.”

Kakashi pinched the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, and sighed, shakily. “I hate that you’re right.”

“I do too,” Kurama said, wiggling free of Kakashi’s grip on his scruff to scramble along his arm and drop onto his chest, hanging onto his flak jacket with his claws. “Cuddle me, Kakashi-nii. I’m sad and I want a hug.”

Kakashi obligingly wrapped his arms around Kurama and held him close, running his fingers through the fur on the back of Kurama’s neck. If he realised that it was actually the other way around, that Kurama had decided that Kakashi was the one who needed a hug and had instigated it for him, so he didn’t have to ask, well, he didn’t say anything. He just closed his eye and sighed, until there were identical squawks of surprise from the river and Sakura came running over to them, grinning widely.

“I won, Kakashi-sensei!” she cheered, as Sasuke and Naruto decided it was a hot day and there was nothing wrong with turning their previous battle atop the river into a fight to see who could splash the other the most.

Kakashi looked up to eye-smile at her. “Masterfully done, Sakura.”

 

xxvii.

An hour or so before the start of the tournament that comprised the third exam of the Chuunin Selections found Team Seven out on a training field, running laps around a pond with blindfolds on. Gaara sitting on the side-lines acting as an impartial judge. If someone peeked, he had been given permission to lob pebbles at them, and as he used his sand to throw the pebbles instead of his own arm, they were remarkably painful.

Kurama, who was also blindfolded and who had been tripped over a dozen times already, thought they probably looked like a bunch of headless chickens running in uncoordinated circles. Naruto had already fallen into the pond twice.

And, oh, there was another splash and an outraged yowl. That was the third time.

“Use your nose, Naruto!” Kurama called to him. “Pond-water has a distinct smell, if you’re looking for it!”

“Can’t,” Naruto called back. “My nose is all full of pond-water now. Everything smells like it.”

Sasuke snickered, and then fell over, from the sound of the thump and the soft “Oof.”

Gaara laughed, delighted.

“Ouch!” Sakura yelped, as she and Kakashi ran into each other.

Kurama ducked around them, relying partly on his hearing and partly on his chakra sense that told him that tightly-controlled but prickly like a static shock chakra was Kakashi, and the soothing earthy chakra belonged to Sakura. A pebble pelted past him, but he heard it whirr in the air, and ducked.

“Kurama, you’re cheating!” Gaara complained.

“Am not! I can’t see anything. I’ll come over and show you. My eyes are closed shut underneath here – it’s not my fault they’re humans and all their senses are about as blunt as hammers.” Kurama wheeled, loped lightly over the surface of the pond because water had a feel to it, if one was focusing closely enough, and made his way to the burning, uncontrolled, maelstrom that Gaara felt like.

Gaara fiddled with his blindfold and harrumphed. “Guess you weren’t cheating after all. Hey! Naruto!”

Naruto wailed as the pebble Gaara threw struck true.

“No cheating,” Gaara said, firmly.

“Sorry,” Naruto called, not sounding remotely contrite. That, Kurama supposed, was one of the consequences of growing up without ever having to deal with broken bones that took weeks to heal, muscle aches after hard exercise, or lingering bruises from picking a fight with the wrong person. Pain was fleeting, and because it was fleeting it was forgotten almost immediately.

Uzumakis were known for their vitality; for their enormous chakra pools, for their longevity, and for their naturally quick healing. All Kurama had done was increase Naruto’s chakra, and hasten already faster than normal healing… Yet, had that caused Naruto to develop a lack of caution?

Thought for another day, because there were a pair of fast-moving chakra signatures inbound. They were the tightly-coiled signatures of ANBU who were not actively trying to hide themselves, and yet were still curled in on themselves somehow. Kurama had never seen a non-ANBU member who held their chakra so close to their chests… Except retired ANBU members, maybe.

“Someone’s coming,” Gaara said.

Kurama pushed his blindfold up and opened his eyes. The others did the same. Kakashi sucked in a sharp breath as the two ANBU, and indeed they were masked and uniformed ANBU, dropped into their clearing.

“Cat-san, Monkey-san,” he greeted them, and Kurama decided he must know them.

“Kakashi-san,” Monkey replied, and Cat inclined his head before they both turned to face Naruto. “Naruto. Hokage-sama and Jiraiya-sama request your presence at the Hokage Tower… Gaara-san, you are wanted by the Kazekage.”

“What’s Jiji and Ero-Sennin want now?” Naruto asked, and Kakashi flicked his ear in reprimand.

“Don’t be disrespectful,” he said.

Naruto pouted at him. “I’m not.”

“And get going. Being late is disrespectful.”

“Hey! What does that make you?” Naruto yowled indignantly, even as he began to run back towards the centre of Konoha proper.

“Be safe,” Kurama said to Gaara, nosed his cheek briefly in goodbye, and took off after Naruto.

Sarutobi Hiruzen was waiting for them in his office, a pile of paperwork pushed to the side, so he could peer over the desk at them. Jiraiya was with him, looking unnaturally solemn. Most of Kurama’s memories of this man involved him smiling or joking or making some sort of mischief. He was older now, of course, but it still wasn’t a good look on him.

“Naruto, I see Kurama is here as well,” the Sandaime said.

“Kurama goes everywhere with me!” Naruto said, brightly.

“Yes, and that has been the case since you were toddling around outside for the first time. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a closer relationship between a shinobi and his nin-animal.”

“You won’t,” Naruto said. “Kurama’s my best friend in the whole world, and he’ll always be my best friend, believe it!”

Kurama scrambled up Naruto’s jumpsuit to perch on his shoulder to smile foxily at the old men, teeth and all. “Believe it,” he agreed.

“I had hoped that we might keep this meeting just between the three of us,” the Sandaime said, indicating himself, Jiraiya, and Naruto. “But I see we will include Kurama as well. Come, Naruto, and sit. I have some things I feel it is important you should know.”

“Eh? Why’re you telling me secrets? I’m just a genin,” Naruto said, even as he threw himself into a chair, almost toppled it, and recovered.

“They regard you most of all,” Jiraiya explained.

“Oh,” Naruto said. Then he said: “Wait! Is it something Kyuubi might know? Because if it is, you don’t need to tell me! He already did. He said he wasn’t a citizen of Konoha, so you couldn’t punish him even if it was a S-Ranked secret, so it didn’t matter. And then he said that you couldn’t punish him anyway because he was in me, and you wouldn’t hurt me because you need a jinchuuriki for your political games or something, I dunno, he lost me at that point.”

“So you know the Yondaime—”

Naruto shushed them. “That’s a secret!”

“Then that’s why you refuse to call Kakashi-san ‘sensei?’” the Sandaime said, heavily. “You’ve known all this time. And you failed to react as anticipated when Mizuki told you that you were the Demon Fox.”

“’Cause I’m not! I’m Uzumaki Naruto, you know! I just have the fox inside me and we talk. But I wasn’t supposed to let Iruka-sensei know I knew, so I pretended not to,” Naruto said.

Jiraiya looked at Naruto, thoughtfully. “You’re smarter than you let on,” he said.

“He really, really isn’t,” Kurama told him. “But he gets by.”

Naruto grinned like that was the best compliment in the world.

Jiraiya turned to the Sandaime. “I’d like to take him on as my apprentice,” he said. “After everything calms down, that is.”

The Sandaime sighed. “It might be a good idea for Naruto to leave Konoha for a little while,” he agreed. “There are people here who are… uncomfortable with the current situation. He may be safest with you.”

“Are Kakashi-nii-san and Sakura and Sasuke coming, too?” Naruto asked.

“I’m not taking on an entire genin team and their abnormal jounin-sensei!” Jiraiya said, hotly. “And the pet fox, though I suppose I can’t escape the pet fox either way.”

“I am a ninkitsune,” Kurama grumbled.

Naruto gave him the puppy-dog eyes. “But Kakashi-nii-san is my sensei and I just found him, and I love him and he’s my family, you can’t make me leave when I just found my family! And Sasuke is in just as much danger as I am, if not more! He can’t stay here if I’m leaving, you know!”

“Yare yare,” the Sandaime muttered to himself. “We’ll discuss this again later. But now we should head on over to the arena to watch the third exam. Would you like to sit with Jiraiya and I, Naruto? You’ll have to be quiet, and behave yourself, because there will be Feudal Lords and the Kazekage and his son in attendance.”

 

xxviii.

It was immediately obvious that Naruto, slightly damp, covered in grass stains and dust from falling over, and smelling of pond-water, did not, in fact, know how to behave in front of a room full of opulently dressed Feudal Lords and Ladies and their various retainers. He froze like a rabbit being stared down by a wolf as everyone in the Feudal Lord’s box turned to greet the Hokage, and their eyes slipped from the most powerful man in Konoha to Jiraiya before settling on the filthy, smelly little blonde boy trailing behind them.

Kurama, sitting on Naruto’s shoulder, surreptitiously picked a piece of waterweed from Naruto’s hair and flicked it out into the hallway.

The Sandaime greeted them, thanked them for travelling all this way, spoke quietly to one about the latest dalliance of his grandson and laughed because “Children will be children!”

Naruto, to his credit, did not yell or trip over anything or make any sort of scene beyond being a pint-sized Konoha ninja dressed in bright orange. He just… stood in the corner, quiet as a little mouse, and stared on in utter bewilderment. Kurama found it endearing, and Jiraiya must have, too, because he came over to stand beside Naruto and clap him on the shoulder, jovially.

“If you become Hokage,” he said. “One day it will be you talking to those very important people from all over the land.”

Naruto gulped, nervously. “I think,” he squeaked. “I’d rather fight them than talk to them.”

Jiraiya laughed. “Not a one of them is a shinobi,” he explained. “It would be a short, dishonourable fight.”

And Naruto quailed.

At last, the Sandaime had done enough handshaking, and he led them up to the open seats high above the arena, where he and the Kazekage would be watching over the entire tournament. The Kazekage, dressed in long blue robes, most of his face covered except for his eyes, was already there, standing at the railing and peering down at the line-up of the eight finalists. Beside him was Gaara, looking tense and uncomfortable, and a pair of Suna-nin. ANBU, Kurama thought, though they were dressed as ordinary jounin might.

A dozen Konoha ANBU were concealed around them. Everyone except Naruto, who was not quite good enough at sensing chakra yet, was probably aware of their presence.

“Gaara!” Naruto cried, joyously, and flew at him in a tackle-hug-attack that sent Kurama toppling off his shoulder.

There were a dozen sharp spikes of terror from around them, the air turning sharp and bitter tasting with fear. Everyone present was aware of Gaara’s sand, and the way it reacted to perceived threats without Gaara even needing to think, and the Kazekage’s youngest son’s unfortunate and terrible bloodlust. They were probably expecting Naruto to be surrounded by sand and crushed into a nasty smear of blood in an instant.

Instead, Naruto and Gaara went tumbling head-over-heels into the railing. Naruto was laughing delightedly at finally having caught Gaara off-guard, and Gaara was pushing at his face, looking faintly irritated but also like he wanted to laugh along with Naruto, and there was nary a grain of sand to be seen.

“Ah,” the Sandaime said, sweat beading on his brow and lip. “I see that you have met Gaara?”

“Yeah, Jiji! Me an’ Gaara are friends, you know!” Naruto said, leaping to his feet and then extending a hand to help Gaara up. Gaara took it.

“Of course he’s friends with the Ichibi no jinchuuriki,” Kurama heard Jiraiya mumble. “I don’t think that kid is capable of not making friends with everyone he meets.”

The Hokage greeted the Kazekage and exchanged stilted pleasantries as Gaara and Naruto came over to Jiraiya to say hello. The Kazekage took his seat, made a thinly veiled barb about the Sandaime’s age which fell short when the Sandaime wholeheartedly agreed with him, and the Hokage stepped forward to address the eight genin lined up down in the arena, along the assorted people who had gathered to watch the exam.

Naruto whispered to Gaara throughout the address. “Look,” he said. “That girl, that’s Hyuuga Hinata. She was in my class in the Academy! She’s nice, but she doesn’t say much. And beside her, that’s Inuzuka Kiba, he’s one of her teammates, and on his head is his ninken, Akamaru. Akamaru is cool, but Kurama doesn’t like him. Probably because Akamaru is cuter and an actual puppy, not a fox who sometimes pretends to be a puppy, so he can get away with more stuff.”

“I will pee on everything you hold dear,” Kurama grumbled.

Gaara looked alarmed.

“And that’s Aburame Shino, he was in the Academy with me, too, and he’s their last teammate. He’s kind of quiet, too, but Hinata and Shino are pretty smart. They must’ve all done real good to get so far, you know!”

“What about the other Konoha genin?” Gaara asked.

“I don’t really know them,” Naruto admitted. “They were a year ahead of us, so we never really did stuff together. But that kid with the big eyebrows and the bowl-cut? That’s Rock Lee. He’s kind of weird, and I think his sensei must have infected him because his sensei is kind of weird, too, and he’s Eternal Rivals with Kakashi-nii-san? But I’m not really sure how that happened because Kurama never worked it out, and Kakashi-nii-san won’t tell me.”

“That boy looks like Hinata’s brother,” Gaara pointed out.

“He isn’t,” Kurama said. “They’re cousins, but their fathers were identical twin brothers, so they might as well be half-siblings.”

“That’s Hyuuga Neji,” Naruto said. “He seems grouchy all the time and I don’t know why. And that’s Tenten, their teammate. I don’t know much about her, so it’ll be really cool to see her fight!”

Gaara pointed at the two sand siblings. “That’s my older sister, Temari,” he said. “She uses that fan and wind techniques to fight. And that’s my older brother, Kankurou. He uses puppets.”

“Puppets?” Naruto breathed. “You can use puppets to fight? That’s awesome! Believe it!”

“I’ve always found it creepy,” Kurama said.

“You would,” Naruto replied.

Gaara snickered.

The Hokage wound up his speech, and the first two combatants remained in the arena while the other six left the field.

“Oh,” Naruto said, squirming excitedly on the spot. “It’s your brother and Shino! Shino uses bugs.”

“Kikaichuu,” Kurama expounded. “Not any bug, though he never liked it when we did pranks with bugs in class. They live inside him.”

Behind them, the Kazekage and the Hokage were speaking quietly to each other.

“Who is this strange boy?” the Kazekage asked the Hokage, and Kurama decided he had to mean Naruto because he probably wasn’t senile enough to have forgotten his own son.

“That’s Uzumaki Naruto,” the Hokage replied. “A genin from our most recent class of Academy graduates. An orphan, formerly a ward of the state, his parents died in the Kyuubi Rampage. He and his teammates made through the first two stages of the Chuunin Selections but he forfeited with his team before the third exam after one of them was injured. My former student, Jiraiya, I’m certain you will have heard of him, has found him quite promising and is thinking of taking him on as an apprentice for a time. He wants to be Hokage one day, so I thought I’d give him a treat.”

Kurama thought the Hokage absolutely had ulterior motives.

The Kazekage made a thoughtful noise and called for his son. “Gaara, it is my understanding that you also successfully made it through the first two stages of the Chuunin Selections yet chose to forfeit before the third exam. Would you like to explain that to me?”

Gaara looked wearily at the man who – if he was to be believed – had attempted to have him assassinated several times. “I’m too dangerous,” he said.

It quickly became apparent from the perplexed expressions on everyone else’s faces that this was not, in fact, a comprehensive enough explanation.

“The only people who made it through the second exam were his teammates and Konoha genin,” Naruto said, cheerfully. “And Kyuubi told Ichibi that if Ichibi hurt anyone from Konoha, he’d kick his ass so bad he wouldn’t reform for a hundred years. Because Konoha is Kyuubi’s which means that no meanies are allowed. So, Gaara forfeited so he wouldn’t hurt any of my friends because the math was bad.”

“I’m too dangerous,” Gaara said, again. “I always kill.”

“Oh, Kami,” Jiraiya whimpered.

“I… see…” the Kazekage said, very slowly, before turning to the Hokage, who has turned the colour of sour milk. “I assume this is your jinchuuriki?”

“Er, yes,” the Hokage replied. “Naruto, you didn’t tell me that happened.”

Naruto shrugged. “Kyuubi had it under control, and me and Gaara are friends now so it didn’t matter anyway!”

“His seal is a strong one, I hope,” the Kazekage asked, perhaps a tad anxiously, and presumably because Gaara’s was a mess.

“I don’t have one, it broke when I was little,” Naruto said sunnily, then turned back to watch Kankurou and Shino, who were squaring off against each other having put the entire arena between them.

The Kazekage made a sound a bit like a kettle going off.

 

xxix.

Naruto was still sniffling over the end of the fight between Hinata and Neji two matches later, when Temari crossed weapons with Tenten briefly – and then forfeited. The Kazekage had excused himself to the bathroom towards the end of Lee and Kiba’s match, and not yet returned. Beside them, Gaara stiffened and turned to Naruto and Kurama.

“It’s now,” he whispered.

But Naruto was yawning, even as he wiped at his tears. “I’m really sleepy all of a sudden.”

Kurama bit him, and he yowled indignantly. “That’s a genjutsu, you useless child!” the little fox hissed.

Sure enough, almost everyone in the grandstands below the Hokage’s box were slumped in their seats, including most of the genin and even a couple of the chuunin. The present ANBU and jounin were awake and alarmed, even as the man with the left half of his face obscured leapt up onto the roofing before the Hokage’s box with Temari and Kankurou behind him.

“Gaara,” the man began, and Kurama assumed this was Baki, Gaara’s jounin-sensei.

“I said no!” Gaara shouted at him.

“Kankurou, Temari, take Gaara—” Baki began.

“No!” Gaara shouted again. “No, I’ll kill you! Go away!”

Baki tried again. “The mission, Gaara—”

Sand swirled out of Gaara’s gourd. “I’m not doing that mission,” he snarled, his eyes wild.

Kurama noticed Jiraiya eyeing the boy with suspicion and placed a paw on Gaara’s forearm. The sand froze mid-air.

“Don’t hurt someone who might be precious,” Kurama said, solemnly. “Even if you disagree with them now, you may regret it later.”

More ANBU arrived, but they reeked of snakes, and suddenly they were battling with the ANBU who had been hidden in the Hokage’s box and Jiraiya, and Baki had disappeared with Kankurou and Temari in tow.

There came an explosion from the other side of the village. Three tremendous snakes – summons, they had to be – had breached the village wall. People were screaming. The Kazekage was still in the bathroom, which was kind of weird but Kurama had more important things to worry about like the hundreds of defenceless people trapped in a sleep-inducing genjutsu gathered in one convenient place for extermination while there was an invasion going on.

The thoughts he threw at Naruto were rapid-fire, and the agreement he got in return was laced with determination, a sense of duty, and concern for the village, not just the lives of a few.

Naruto grabbed Kurama and thrust him at Gaara, and Kurama was glad that everyone else was busy enough with fighting that they weren’t paying attention to a pair of prepubescent genin huddling in the Hokage’s box. “Here. Can you look after him for me? He got caught in the genjutsu,” he said, and winked when Gaara peered at him with an expression of disbelief.

Naruto bounded out of the box, leapt for the centre of the arena, and pulled himself into the Kyuubi as Kurama closed his eyes tight and buried his face in Gaara’s shirt.

First, the genjutsu.

Luckily, very few genjutsu were so powerful that a person could sleep through a rampaging bijuu, and people were snapping awake with utter and abject terror in their hearts before the Kyuubi’s paws had even touched the dirt. The arena was a little bit small for the sheer enormity of the Kyuubi, who found itself trying very hard not to either step on anyone or bump into one of the grandstands because it very much didn’t want to squash anyone.

Sadly, waking everyone up from the genjutsu and appearing in the middle of Konoha had the unfortunate side effect of making everyone start screaming.

“GAH!” the Kyuubi wailed, leaping out of the arena, over the most-heavily developed part of Konoha, towards the snakes. “STOP SCREAMING, I’M TRYING TO HELP YOU! YOU’RE HURTING MY EARS.”

More people screamed, but there were fewer of them as it neared the wall.

Also, the Kyuubi might have accidentally uprooted a few trees, but it mostly avoided knocking over houses and it was fairly certain it hadn’t felt anything… small and crunchy… get under any of its feet yet. And it was keeping its tails to itself. Really, the people could scream a little bit less. Except those Suna-nin up on the wall suddenly having regrets about the choices they had made that had led them to this confrontation. They could scream a little more and preferably run away.

The Kyuubi pounced on the snakes – and they were joined together towards their tails?

If one snake dies, the Kyuubi wondered. Will the other two die as well as the first slowly poisons their blood while it rots?

Then it decided that such thoughts were semantics anyway because the snakes were all threats in the immediate sense, even as it tore into the throat of the first snake with fangs and claws, ripping its trachea out.

The second head of the snake wrapped around one of the Kyuubi’s back legs, while the third head bit into its shoulder – but the Kyuubi flared its chakra, burning and corrosive, and the snake reared away from him, screeching. Patches of skin and scales sloughed away to leave behind great steaming wounds, and the snake writhed, but it could not slither away quickly enough.

The Kyuubi bit into the second head, crunching the snake’s skull, before turning to the third head. The third head’s mouth was so severely burned its tongue had come away and its fangs had fallen out, so the Kyuubi raked it with its claws and sent the last snake tumbling to the ground in a wriggling, bleeding heap.

“WHO ELSE OPPOSES KONOHA?” the Kyuubi roared, blood and spittle flying from its slavering maw. “WHOSOEVER WISHES TO TEST THE MIGHT OF KONOHAGAKURE NO SATO, I DEFY YOU.”

For some reason, the Suna-nin and the Oto-nin the Kyuubi was sure it had spotted had suddenly made themselves scarce. The Konoha-nin that were now appearing on the walls and buildings around it also seemed to be seriously considering running away.

The Kyuubi lowered its head to peer at them, found several injured in one of the towers nearest the wall breach.

“YOU ARE INJURED. I AM GOING BACK TO ENSURE THE HOKAGE’S SAFETY. WOULD YOU LIKE ASSISTANCE TO THE HOSPITAL?” None of them said no, but none of them said yes either, and some of them looked like they were bleeding quite heavily. “CLIMB ON MY HEAD. I WILL CARRY YOU. IT IS NO BURDEN.”

A half dozen people were helped onto the Kyuubi’s head, and then it turned and picked its way very, very carefully back towards the centre of Konoha.

“PLEASE BE CAREFUL. I DO NOT WISH TO STAND ON YOU BY ACCIDENT. I AM SORRY ABOUT YOUR CHICKEN, BAA-SAN. I DID NOT MEAN TO SQUISH HER. PLEASE SPEAK TO THE HOKAGE ABOUT MONETARY COMPENSATION.”

The med-nins and the civilian doctors at the hospital were very scared, too, but they helped the injured shinobi off of the Kyuubi’s head and into the emergency room for evaluation, and the Kyuubi continued picking its way around carts and livestock and buildings, trying not to kill anything.

It found the arena empty, the Oto-nin that had been disguised as ANBU dead, the Hokage alive if moderately disturbed, and Jiraiya looking all sweaty again. The Kyuubi wondered if Jiraiya was just sweaty in his old age, or if he was actually nervous. Gaara was peering up at the gigantic fox, his face slack with something between awe and worship, even as he held Kurama close to his chest – and, yep, there was the dizziness of being in two places at once.

Naruto and the Kyuubi switched, and Naruto scrambled up to the Hokage box. Kurama pretended to stir awake in Gaara’s arms. Gaara gave him one last hug and put him down.

“Jiji! I was so worried! Is everyone okay?” Naruto exclaimed.

“Naruto,” the Hokage said, a little faintly, and Kurama was fairly certain that was relief, but it was a weird, multi-faceted relief. “Yes, yes, as far as I know our losses were kept to the barest minimum, less than a handful. That was the quickest invasion I think I’ve ever seen. But where did the Kazekage go?”

They found the Kazekage’s robes in the bathroom, along with his skin, which had seen shed like he was, well, a snake. Also, they smelled all snake-y and gross. Kurama was incensed that he’d failed to notice before. Orochimaru must’ve somehow managed to hide his scent. Kurama had overlooked his murderous intent because he’d known the invasion was happening, but that had obviously been an error.

“So,” Jiraiya said, sitting on his heels. “That was not the Kazekage at all, but Orochimaru.”

“Why’d he run away?” Naruto asked.

“I don’t know,” the Hokage said. “What I do know, without any doubt, is that I am too old to be Hokage any longer. I tried to retire more than a decade ago. This time, I’m retiring for good, effective immediately! Someone else can take the hat. I need to go lie down, I am an old man, why does no one understand that I am an old man, I have a grandson!”

And he threw down the hat and stalked off.

“I have a really bad feeling all of a sudden,” Jiraiya said.

“I think my father might be dead,” Gaara said blankly, poking at the pile of skin and robes.

Naruto burst into noisy tears for the second time that day.

 

xxx.

Mission: Team bonding exercise.

Mission Objective: Cheer up Hinata while she recovers. People visited other people while they were convalescing, didn’t they? Kurama was fairly sure they did.

Parameters for success:

- Hinata is cheered up.

- Team Seven is not forcibly removed from the Hyuuga Clan Compound.

Parameters for failure:

- Hinata is upset.

- A teammate abandons the exercise. Kurama was looking at Kakashi and Sasuke in particular.

- Cause a ruckus at the Hyuuga Clan Compound resulting in forcible removal from the premises.

- Earn the ire of the Hyuuga Clan Head, Hyuuga Hiashi.

Objectives completed so far:

- Ask Shino, Kiba, and Kurenai-sensei about Hinata’s likes and dislikes.

- Procure appropriate gifts and food suitable for someone convalescent.

Objectives yet to be completed:

- Enter the Hyuuga Clan Compound.

- Locate Hinata’s room.

- See Hinata.

- Leave without upsetting anyone.

This was probably the most difficult team bonding exercise Kurama had ever set, because it required being nice… er… civil to someone outside their usual social group. Certainly, most members of Team Seven interacted with Hinata periodically, but not on an ongoing daily basis like they did each other.

Naruto had still been upset about the match between Neji and Hinata, even days later.

“He’s her family,” he’d said to Kurama. “How can he do that to her? Hurt her so badly?”

And Kurama had had to explain that sometimes families weren’t always love and protection and everything he’d always imagined. Sometimes, families were parents who pushed too hard or just didn’t care, or branch family members who were treated like cannon fodder, or the scum on the bottom on the main family’s shoe, and Kurama had thought about Uchiha Obito who he’d known so briefly through Kushina, bright and sunny and shunned, dead the day he unlocked his Sharingan, and he mourned in his soul.

Naruto mourned, too, his understanding of family shattered.

“Sometimes,” Kurama had told him. “Your family is bad, or you don’t have one, so you look around you at your precious people, and you decide that they’re your family instead. I think those families are the strongest. Team Seven is our family, and I think it’s a great family.”

But Naruto still cried.

And Kurama hated it, hated seeing Naruto so despairing over something he couldn’t hope to change, so, here they were, standing in front of the gates to the Hyuuga Clan Compound as a team to visit Hinata. The last of the Hatake Clan. The last loyal Uchiha. The last of the Uzumaki Clan. And a little clanless girl from civilian parents. And, well, a pet fox. All here to see the former Clan Heiress and offer her their support.

The guards at the gate looked at them skeptically.

“Maa, maa,” Kakashi bleated at them. “Just let us in before the kids start yelling. We want to see Hinata-chan and wish her a speedy recovery. We won’t cause trouble. I promise on this copy of Icha-Icha.”

To anyone who knew of Sharingan no Kakashi and his particular habits, this probably seemed like a fairly decent promise, almost akin to swearing on his life or his mother’s grave. Unfortunately, it was not, as that was actually his third copy of that particular volume of Icha-Icha, the other two having died unfortunate deaths. One had been fiery and had involved Sasuke. The other had been… a bit more interesting and had involved a stray kunai and an experimental explosive tag that Kurama might have been involved in, but the book had ended up sadly sodden and dripping such a deep purple ink the text had no longer been legible.

As such, this was an incredibly poor promise of good behaviour, because Kakashi had become accustomed now to having to purchase the same books repeatedly and the sanctity and untouchability of Icha-Icha had been forever lost.

“Very well,” one of the guards, a middle-aged branch chuunin probably, said, and let them in.

“This way,” Kakashi said, made them all take off their sandals, and led them through the compound unerringly, which might have been creepy if Kurama didn’t know that he’d been ANBU and probably knew far too much about the layout of most of the private residences in Konoha. “If I remember right, Hinata-chan’s room should be over here—”

And then they met Hyuuga Hiashi in the hallway.

He was a tall, imperious sort of man who peered at them a bit like they were ants that had dared invade his pantry, except Kurama was quite sure that Hiashi was the sort of man who never looked in his own pantry because he had people to do that for him.

“Good afternoon, Hiashi-sama,” Kurama said, from his position curled around Sakura’s shoulder’s like a living, breathing scarf. “Don’t mind us, we’re just here to give Hinata-chan our best wishes on her speedy recovery!”

“Look,” Sakura said, holding up the arrangement of flowers they had got from the Yamanaka flower shop, all of them mild-smelling and with innocuous meanings. “We got her these.”

“And these!” Naruto added, showing Hiashi the bag he was carrying with the boxes of pocky, konpeito, amanatto, chocolates, and candied strawberries.

“We also made her a card,” Kakashi said, pulling the card from one of his numerous pockets and showing it to him.

Thankfully, Sakura was quite good at paper crafts because the card would have ended up disastrously left in Naruto’s hands, or not made at all if left to Sasuke or Kakashi. As it was, it was quite well made, and they’d all signed it and written individual get-well-soon messages inside.

“You are all here to see Hinata,” Hyuuga Hiashi said, slowly, as if trying to parse a particularly wordy passage in a text written in an ancient dialect.

Naruto, Sakura, and Kurama nodded enthusiastically. Kakashi eye-smiled. Sasuke grunted.

“She was in our class at the Academy,” Naruto said, just a little-too-loudly, but that was okay because at least he wasn’t shouting so it was close enough to an inside voice that Kurama wasn’t going to bother. “She’s really nice!”

“Nice,” Hiashi said, as he turned and beckoned for them to follow him.

They passed a screen door that was open onto a courtyard garden, where Neji was hunched over a book in the shade, reading. Naruto spotted him, then turned away and ignored the fact that he existed entirely. Neji noticed them and stared as they went past.

Kurama stuck his tongue out at the boy and pulled down his eyelid, making a very ugly face.

Neji’s eye twitched, his cheeks flushed, and he buried his nose in his book hastily.

Kakashi covered a snort of laughter with a cough and Hiashi paused to level him with a flat glare.

“Hinata is in there,” he said, indicating one door of many very similar doors. “She has training in the dojo in twenty minutes, so try not to make her late. I know of your habit, Hatake-san, and I disapprove.”

“Eh, it’s fine. None of us mind,” Naruto said. “He’s only late because he’s talking to the Memorial Stone and making time for all your friends is important, even if some of them aren’t there anymore.”

Hiashi took on a distinctly constipated expression and strode off.

Objectives completed so far:

- Ask Shino, Kiba, and Kurenai-sensei about Hinata’s likes and dislikes.

- Procure appropriate gifts and food suitable for someone convalescent.

- Enter the Hyuuga Clan Compound.

- Locate Hinata’s room.

Objectives yet to be completed:

- See Hinata.

- Leave without upsetting anyone.

So far, so good. They’d even survived an encounter with a previously-unaccounted-for Hyuuga Hiashi. Now all they had to do was see Hinata, give her the gifts, maybe make a little bit of small talk but she seemed to be naturally very quiet, so it might be best if they kept the idle chatter to a minimum, so they didn’t overwhelm the poor girl, and then successfully make their escape.

Sakura knocked on Hinata’s door.

The Hinata who answered it was pale and wan, thinner and more tired-looking than Kurama had ever seen her. At the sight of them all crowding in her doorway, she paler further, and uttered a soft little: “Oh.”

“Hi, Hinata-chan!” Naruto said, cheerfully, waving so exuberantly he whacked his hand on the doorjamb and yelped. “We were worried about you, so we came to see you and wish you to get well soon! And we brought presents!”

He thrust the bag of candy at her.

“O-oh,” she stammered.

“Can we come in?” Kakashi asked.

She stepped hesitantly out of the way, and Team Seven crowded into her room.

“We brought you flowers, too,” Sakura said, and showed her the flower arrangement. “Shall I put them on your bedside table? We know you like flower pressing, but fresh flowers might be nice while you’re recovering.”

Hinata, who had slumped bonelessly into the chair beside the window, nodded mutely.

“My cute little genin made you a card,” Kakashi said, and handed it to her.

She took it, looked at it, then seemed to lose all her strength and let her hand flop down uselessly.

“Here,” Sakura said, kindly. “I’ll put that beside the flowers.”

Kurama slithered down from Sakura’s shoulders onto the floor, to hop into Hinata’s lap. “Will you scratch my ears?” he asked her. “They’re really soft. Ah, thank you Hinata-chan, that’s lovely.”

She smiled, shyly.

“Th-thank you, everyone,” she murmured, very softly.

“You’re welcome,” Naruto said, as cheerful as ever. “You’re our friend, so of course we came to see you.”

“Ah,” she said, then said no more, her pale cheeks turning quite pink.

“Well,” Kakashi said, reading the emotions in the room remarkably well for a man who Kurama was quite sure had no idea how to understand other human beings at all, clapping his hands. “Your father said you have training shortly, and we don’t want to overstay our welcome. Get well soon, Hinata-chan, and I’ll talk to Kurenai-sensei so that hopefully our teams can train together sometime! Won’t that be fun?”

Everyone bid Hinata farewell, and they left.

Neji was waiting for them in the hallway.

They were on the home straight, their mission was almost over and successful, but watching Naruto’s shoulders tighten, Kurama suddenly had a sinking feeling in his chest. He supposed their mission would still be considered a partial success, even if Naruto and Neji got into a scrap here and now, because they had achieved their primary mission objective, which had been to visit Hinata without upsetting her or getting turned away before they could.

“Why do you care about her?” Neji asked. “She’s weak. She’s not even Clan Heiress anymore because she wasn’t strong enough.”

You’re weak,” Naruto returned.

“Now, now, children, let’s not fight here,” Kakashi said, and they both ignored him.

“You think you’re strong,” Naruto continued. “And maybe you could be, one day, but you’re not. You’re just a… a… a big meanie is what you are. An’ people who only fight for themselves or to be mean or whatever are weak cowards.”

‘Big meanie’ was not, in Kurama’s estimation, a very good insult for one ninja to throw at another. ‘Weak coward,’ on the other hand, was fighting words.

“What do you know about it?” Neji spat venomously.

“Probably too much,” Kakashi said, and then he picked Naruto up by the collar of his jumpsuit. “Time to go. You can come meet us at Training Ground Seven at ten o’clock tomorrow morning, Neji. Bring Gai and Tenten and Rock Lee, and you and Naruto can sort it out between you while the rest of us train, but you are not going to fight each other in Hiashi-dono’s house.”

Ha! Saved by Kakashi after all.

Mission: Complete.

Mission status: Successful. No casualties.

Chapter Text

xxxi.

Kakashi was inevitably between one and five hours late to everything. This meant that Team Seven automatically translated ten o’clock in the morning to sometime vaguely around midday and straggled along to Training Ground Seven at roughly twenty-minute intervals a little while after lunch. Team Nine, with Maito Gai at the helm, was more inclined to youthful punctuality, and arrived promptly at nine-forty in the morning.

If someone really wanted Kakashi, they could always go fetch him from the Memorial Stone, but the fact was that neither Kurama, nor any of the little human genin, were ever compelled to pull him away from his daily communications with the dead, and they tended to leave him to it.

The result was that while Maito Gai and Rock Lee had gotten down to some enthusiastic training, and Tenten had reluctantly joined them, Neji had been called out to a fight at least three hours early and was very cross by the time Naruto and Kurama meandered onto the training ground.

“Didn’t you know?” Naruto asked him, pleasantly, because he was full of ramen and he was always pleasant when he was full of ramen. “Kakashi-nii-san is always late. If he says to come at one time, you always show up at least two hours later than he said. Sometimes, if you’re slow enough, you end up being the ones that are late, and he gets really annoyed. It’s great! Is he here yet? I think he was going to referee, so we can’t start until he arrives.”

Neji snarled wordlessly.

They waited another hour. Naruto flopped onto the grass and fell asleep. Neji paced like a caged tiger. Sasuke and Sakura went off to practice taijutsu under Gai-sensei’s expert eye. Kurama watched Neji until he got dizzy, then he, too, lay in the grass to nap.

Kakashi arrived, handed out a bunch of shaved ice treats that he’d stopped to pick up for everyone, and which Neji vehemently declined.

“More for me,” Kakashi said, cheerfully, and somehow managed to eat it without anyone seeing his face.

Finally, Neji and Naruto squared off, after Naruto had finished his shaved ice.

“I’m not gonna use Kyuubi’s chakra,” Naruto told him. “It wouldn’t be a fair fight, and I want to fight you fair, just you an’ me. ‘Cause you hurt Hinata-chan, she was trying really hard, but you didn’t have to go that far and she’s your family.”

“What would you know about families,” Neji spat.

“Nothing, apparently, ‘cause mine’s all dead!” Naruto yelled. “But even if your family is a bunch of assholes, Hinata-chan isn’t.”

They traded blows, testing each other’s speed and strength, until Neji activated the Byakugan and Naruto was wise enough to dance back out of reach. Not, Kurama thought, that blocking Naruto’s tenketsu would keep him down for very long. He was determined, stubborn-to-a-fault, and he recovered from injuries that might kill someone less hardy stupidly quickly.

“What is a family that does this to its branch family members?” Neji asked and removed his hitai-ate to show them the seal on his forehead.

Kurama sat up and paid attention. He had, of course, heard of the Caged Bird Seal, but never seen it – and now he had seen it, and suddenly he fully understood the implications of what he was seeing.

That, he thought at Naruto. Is a very, very nasty piece of fuuinjutsu. No, I won’t even call that fuuinjutsu, because fuuinjutsu is an artform, and that is brutality, plain and simple. It can only be activated by certain people, presumably members of the main family, and it will cook Neji’s brain if it is activated. I feel sick. That’s a death sentence. That’s slavery. Oh, I see now why they call it the Caged Bird Seal. That isn’t funny. That is cruel.

“Kyuubi says that’s cruel and brutal and shouldn’t be allowed,” Naruto said. “He knows all about seals because he was trapped in one or another for a hundred years, until I accidentally broke mine.”

“Well,” Neji snarled. “It may be cruel, as the Kyuubi says, but it’s my fate. Just as it is Hinata’s fate to be weak. It was my duty to show her that weakness, to encourage her to give up her futile attempt to pursue a career as a shinobi when she is not cut out for the life.”

“Eh? But she’s a great ninja!” Naruto objected. “She only just got outta the Academy, and she got all the way to the finals of her first Chuunin Selection. I think that makes her really great, actually!”

“It is her fate,” Neji said. “Just as yours is to be Konoha’s weapon.”

“Nuh-uh,” Naruto said. “I’m no one’s weapon! I fight to protect my precious people, and that’s why I’m strong. And one day I’m going to be strong enough and wise enough to protect everyone, so I’ll be Hokage. But I’m not – I’m not a tool. Shinobi aren’t tools. Haku taught me that. My fate is not to be a tool for people who’ll make me do stuff. I choose my own fate!”

“You don’t really think,” Sasuke called from across the field, pausing in his spar against Sakura. “That talking about fate to the Kyuubi’s jinchuuriki, who was made a human sacrifice and a weapon to be pointed and released at specific enemies when he was barely a few hours old, is a little bit crass? Anyway, that dobe almost flunked out of the Academy altogether, and he just about didn’t become a shinobi at all. If fate had had its way, Konoha would’ve had a useless civilian jinchuuriki.”

Kurama was not sure if that was a compliment or an insult, but it made Naruto smile brightly, and say: “Thanks Sasuke!” So maybe it was a compliment?

Hard to tell with the Uchiha kid, though.

Naruto and Neji began to fight for real. It was a brutal, ugly fight, and Naruto got hurt, a lot. Also, who knew a branch member of the Hyuuga family knew the Gentle Fist: Eight Trigrams Sixty-Four Palms technique? Kurama thought that was a main branch technique, though perhaps that was not the case, and he would need to review his clan history.

Naruto went down, hard, coughing up blood.

Kakashi watched on, mildly, and did not call the match, but did say to Neji: “Try not to kill him, even though he’s annoying. You might release the Kyuubi if you do.”

Naruto shivered and trembled and hacked up blood because his lungs were bleeding, but he was already healing and within a few moments he dragged himself to his feet.

“You sealed my chakra. I could still use Kyuubi’s chakra,” Naruto said, trying to wipe the blood from his chin and just smearing it grotesquely across his face instead. “But I don’t need chakra to fight.”

Because Kakashi had been drilling them intensely on taijutsu recently, largely for Sakura’s benefit since she’d taken such as interest in it. And Neji might be able to throw Naruto away with that nasty whirlwind-chakra technique, but Naruto had more stamina than anything else, and kept coming and coming until his tenketsu cleared and he filled the field with clones.

They fought to a draw, both of them bleeding from a dozen superficial wounds, bruised, and exhausted.

“You’re a monster,” Neji breathed, from where he was lying on the ground, covered in dirt and clumps of grass. “Do you never stop?”

“Never. Not when I decide I’m gonna do something. That’s my nindou,” Naruto said, and he grinned but he still had blood in his mouth, so it was a gross, bloody grin with his teeth stained red. “And I’m not a monster. I’m Uzumaki Naruto! Believe it! I just have a monster fox that lives in my belly, except he objects to the term monster as well. He’s actually a very old, misunderstood, slightly malevolent chakra construct, and not a demon or a monster or nothing. Just a big grumpy old chakra fox.”

“Whoever gets up first wins,” Kakashi said.

They both passed out instead.

Kakashi sighed. “Gai, I’ll take Naruto home if you’ll deal with Neji.”

 

xxxii.

Jiraiya found them while they were playing a rousing game of ninja. Konohamaru, Moegi, and Udon were the Kage Triplets, Sasuke had been promoted to Jounin Commander for the duration of the game, Kakashi was a poor unfortunate genin assigned to Naruto, and Sakura, Naruto, and Gaara were assorted jounin and chuunin. Kurama, in a role that was perhaps a bit too on the nose, although no one realised this except himself, Naruto, and Gaara, was playing the Kyuubi, because he was the most fox-shaped of any of the participants.

Gaara’s new tanuki pet, Shukaku, still fuzzy with puppy-fluff and milky-blue baby eyes, was the Ichibi, and that was just as bad, but again no one knew, and regardless, the fact that the Ichibi was being carried around in Gaara’s shirt meant he wasn’t a very active participant in the game anyway.

Kurama had not been surprised when Gaara came to him and asked on behalf of both himself and Shukaku to be shown how a bijuu might manifest a very small part of itself outside of the body of its jinchuuriki. After that, all he’d had to do was show Shukaku the form he would need to take, the form he would have to grow into at an acceptable rate – he had to look like an actual tanuki, and not the Ichibi when he was finished growing – and then come up with a believable story about where Gaara had found an orphaned tanuki.

That had been the easy part. Kurama just said he knew all the woodland creatures hereabouts and had heard that a nest of tanuki had been orphaned after that giant three-headed snake squashed their mother.

The Kage Triplets had all sorts of convoluted mission plans that they had thought up since Naruto and Kurama last played ninja with them. Most involved havoc, mayhem, a lot of paint, and a game of hide-and-seek than spanned the entirety of the Konoha. Iruka had also been roped into the game. Interestingly, he was playing the role of Iruka-sensei, and Kurama wasn’t sure whose lack of imagination that had been down to.

It might be more apt to say that Jiraiya found them as Konohamaru, Moegi, and Udon were standing on some old crates and giving a grandiose speech while Sasuke stood off to one side of them, looking cool, and Naruto, Sakura, Gaara, Iruka, and Kakashi stood before them, receiving orders as Kurama stomped around behind them, cackling maniacally and stomping on cardboard boxes that had been set up to look like a city block.

“Yes, Kage-sama,” Naruto was saying to Moegi, as he got his orders and Kurama first noticed Jiraiya peering down at them with a perplexed expression. “Come, my cute little genin. We must eliminate this menace by talking to it until it runs away!”

“Yes, Naruto-sensei,” Kakashi said, in a bored drawl.

“Quick,” Sakura said, pointing at the tiny tanuki hidden mostly by Gaara’s shirt. “Before the Ichibi joins it, and they become an unstoppable force!”

They ran at Kurama, who laughed and bounded away.

“Please let this be a genjutsu,” Kurama heard Jiraiya mutter.

Jiraiya finally interrupted the game nearly an hour and a half later, during a dramatic scene as the sun was setting, where Iruka was protecting his students, also played by Konohamaru, Moegi, and Udon, from the approaching Kyuubi in the schoolyard, as the others all pretended to be dead or knocked out. Kurama was having great fun standing in a tree to make himself tall and monologue when Jiraiya appeared.

“Can you stop now?” he asked, a little bit plaintively. “I have no idea what you’re doing, but I’ve been waiting hours for you to be finished, and I have an urgent mission I must undertake with Naruto and – no, just Naruto.”

“We’re playing ninja!” Naruto said, sitting up.

“You are ninja,” Jiraiya said, sounding incredibly perplexed and turning to Kakashi for an explanation.

Kakashi shrugged. “Team bonding exercise.”

“There’s a lot more than just your team here.”

“It was Kurama’s idea,” Sasuke said, the little tattle tale.

Kurama cleared his throat. “Everyone here except myself and you, Jiraiya, still has their child license, which means that playing ninja is an activity acceptable for their neurodevelopmental stage as humans that have not yet finished maturing either physically, neurologically, or both. However, as parties responsible for non-developed humans who still possess their child licenses, it is our sacred duty to facilitate imaginative play any way we know how.”

Jiraiya looked at him like he’d grown a second head. “Child license?” he said, dubiously. “Undeveloped humans?”

“The older ones won’t like it if I call them children, but the human brain doesn’t finish developing until the mid-to-late twenties,” Kurama replied. “If they were foxes, at this stage of their lives they would still be living with their parents, learning to hunt, and playing with their litter-mates. There is no reason they should not engage in imaginative play.”

Jiraiya glanced from Kakashi to Iruka and back to Kurama. “Uh.”

Kurama sat back on his haunches and shrugged.

“How about everyone here with a hitai-ate is legally an adult in the eyes of the village?” Jiraiya tried.

“That doesn’t make them physically an adult,” Kurama replied. “Shinobi are, sadly, and for the most part – myself excluded for obvious reasons – ultimately human beings and bound by the same laws that all humans are bound by. Just because you might kill your first man in service of your village when you’re six or nine or twelve doesn’t mean that you’re any less developmentally a child in every other way.”

“Ugh,” Iruka hissed at Kakashi. “I feel like a little kid again. How does he do that?”

“I don’t know,” Kakashi moaned despondently, covering his face with both hands even though most of his face was already covered. “But he seems to have that effect. I just do what he wants because he always knows better than me somehow. How does a fox even know about human children?”

“I mean, he grew up with Naruto? That’d be a learning experience,” Iruka suggested.

“I bet he reads those civilian childhood development books. There’s no other way. The guilt is eating me, Iruka-sensei, but he somehow makes me feel like I’m his kid, too, even though he calls me ‘nii-san.’ Ugh.”

“So, Ero-Sennin,” Naruto said. “What’s the mission?”

“Well,” Jiraiya said, slowly. “The Council is trying to make me Hokage, but if I was Hokage I’d have no time to peep on babes— I mean, research for my novels! So, Sarutobi-sensei suggested an alternative: Tsunade-hime. All we have to do is find her, convince her to come back to Konoha, and then hand her over to the evil, evil Council so that they can make her Hokage instead.”

“Didn’t she leave and say she was never coming back?” Kurama asked.

“Semantics,” Jiraiya said, flapping his hand dismissively. “I’m sure we can figure something out.”

“Can I come?” Sakura asked.

“Ah. Why would I bring you?”

“Please, Jiraiya-sama? I’ve been reading up on Tsunade-sama’s work in my medical textbooks, and she sounds amazing! I really want to meet her!” Sakura said, in a wheedling tone.

“We haven’t taken a mission in a while,” Kakashi said, thoughtfully. “We could all go. It might be nice to get out of Konoha for a while.”

Jiraiya suddenly noticed Gaara. “Why are you still here?”

Gaara shrugged. “My jounin-sensei, Baki, and my siblings, Temari and Kankurou, ran away with the rest of the Suna-nin when the Kyuubi came. I sent a messenger hawk, but no one’s replied yet… Maybe they think I died? I should probably go back… but I like Konoha. The people here are nice.”

“Tsunade can sort it out once she’s taken the hat,” Jiraiya decided. “Alright, fine. Team Seven can come, and so can the Ichibi no jinchuuriki if that’s what he wants. This is why I’d be a terrible Hokage. No one does what I say. I’m one of the sannin, people should respect my word for what it is, and what do I get? Brats, everywhere, because apparently everyone but me has a child license still. What even is that? Get packed tonight. We’ll leave in the morning.”

 

xxxiii.

Travelling with Jiraiya was… an experience.

A very, very boring one.

“Kakashi-nii-san?” Naruto said, lying on his back on one of the beds in the room they were sharing at the inn, where they had been since they arrived in the little town six hours ago before Jiraiya abruptly announced that he had research he had to go take care of right now before abandoning them. “Are all perverts this bad, and you’re just a moderate pervert, or is Ero-Sennin just an extra-super pervert like Kyuubi said?”

They had spent some time doing stealth training around the town, following one person until they were spotted then breaking off to go follow another. It was too easy with civilians, though, and after a while they went back to the inn and dropped into a lethargic haze of boredom.

“He’s an extra-super pervert,” Kakashi replied from his spot on the floor, where Kurama was curled in his lap like an overgrown cat, without opening his eyes. The boredom was getting to him, too. “Most people at least try to be discreet.”

Gaara had already succumbed, and was fast asleep, sprawled beside Kakashi.

Shukaku was tucked half under one of Kurama’s forelegs on Kakashi’s lap, also asleep.

“You aren’t really discreet when you read those books in public,” Sakura said, without looking up from the enormous anatomy textbook she was studying.

“It’s a mask,” Kurama said, before Kakashi could defend himself. “Maybe he’s a little bit perverted, but you look at a man reading porn in public, and you see something and make an assumption, and don’t look further.”

Kakashi shoved him off his lap, sending Shukaku tumbling and yowling also. “I know I said to look underneath the underneath, but I didn’t mean to use it on me!”

“You must’ve said that when I wasn’t listening,” Kurama replied. “Though that is, in fact, a good rule for a shinobi to live by, and you should all strive not to take things at face value.”

“Yes, Kurama,” everyone who was not asleep or a ruffled baby tanuki intoned blandly, except for Kakashi, who still looked faintly scandalised.

“So, Kurama, those perverted books are one of those maladaptive coping mechanisms you mentioned that all old shinobi develop to deal with the horrors of their awful, terrible lives?” Naruto asked, rolling onto his side to peer over the side of the bed at the fox.

Kurama nodded once, firmly. “That’s why all of them are so weird,” he stage-whispered.

Kakashi groaned despairingly. “My character will never recover. I’m being torn to shreds.”

“And why the ones that get to be as old as Jiraiya are super weird,” Kurama continued.

There was a knock at the door.

Gaara startled awake.

Everyone looked at everyone else.

“Uh,” Naruto said. “Ero-Sennin had his own key, didn’t he? So, who’s at the door?”

“I don’t think this place does room service,” Sakura added, flipping her book closed and sliding a kunai out of her weapons pouch.

“Even if it did,” Sasuke added, already in a ready stance. “I think we would remember ordering something.”

Kakashi stepped closer to the door. “I’ll check. It might just be a maid.”

“Maids tend to be a little less heavy-handed when they bang on your door, I suspect,” Kurama observed.

The person at the door was not a maid. The person at the door was Uchiha Itachi, Sharingan active. And he was wearing one of those black cloaks with the red clouds trimmed in a thin line of white that sent panic blaring through Kurama’s mind like a deafening siren, blocking out all other thought other than the man with the one-eyed orange mask with the Sharingan like a pinwheel and the black cloak with red clouds.

And before that, from years and years before, the terrible eyes of Uchiha Madara driving him to madness.

Fear and anger and grief so powerful it felt like his chest was being cleaved in two, like he couldn’t breathe but he needed to scream – and oh, he was screaming, wasn’t he, a high feral shrieking noise unique to the vocal chords of a fox.

There was one single thought in his mind as he launched himself across the room, a tiny furry bullet channelling more chakra than his miniscule body should have been capable of: Claw out his eyes.

Itachi had no time for a shunshin or a kawarimi or even to really dodge before Kurama was on his face, biting and scratching. Claws raked one eye, and Itachi reeled backward into the hallway, throwing the tiny fox off him, cursing colourfully, but Kurama righted himself and landed on his feet, hissing and snarling, all his fur standing on end, in time to head Naruto say: “Oh, oh, crap. It’s the black-cloak-red-cloud guys. Kyuubi really, really hates them. Whatever you do, don’t look in their eyes!”

Only now did Kurama notice the odd shark-man hybrid, also in a cloak, who had been standing right behind Itachi. Hoshigaki Kisame, another of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist. The Tailless-Beast.

He didn’t look like much in person…

“Ichibi says he hates them, too,” Gaara intoned blandly. “Kyuubi explained about the man in the orange mask. I do not need to see for my sand to protect me. Shukaku, come.”

The sound of a millions grains of rushing sand.

“I would very much appreciate it if you left,” Kakashi said, and he sounded very much like he was trying to take deep breaths. “If Naruto says the Kyuubi doesn’t like men in black cloaks with red clouds on them, then it might, in fact, be best if men wearing black cloaks with red clouds on them did not linger in our doorway in case the Kyuubi decides now is a good time to come out. It tends to do so at unpredictable and inconvenient times, and I don’t want to have to pay for damages to the hotel. We aren’t even being paid for this mission. Really, we don’t have to fight each other, I’ll just ignore the fact I ever saw you.”

Good, good, but…

“Nii-san?” Pained, confused, hurt, angry, lost. “Why are you here?” There it was. The very much present trauma that Uchiha Itachi had instilled in his younger brother, that Sasuke carried around to this day.

“The Yondaime’s legacy,” Itachi said. “We’re here for the Yondaime’s legacy.”

“Oh, way to go sharing S-Ranked secrets, guys!” Naruto yelled. “That’s so uncool!”

“Who are these people, Naruto?” Sakura demanded.

“I dunno. Kyuubi told us about them. Me an’ Kurama an’ Gaara ‘cause of Ichibi. The black-cloak-red-clouds guys. They’re bad news. The one with the orange mask pulled Kyuubi out of – out of his old jinchuuriki and sent him mad and that’s why the Kyuubi Attack happened! He hates them! You don’t just pull a bijuu out on accident.”

Kurama crept closer to Itachi, who was dripping blood onto the hardwood floor.

“It would seem we may be slightly outnumbered,” Itachi began to say to Kisame.

Kurama bit his toes because no matter who they were, shinobi were not in the habit of wearing sensible footwear. They were just asking for frostbite, or to get trodden on by an ox or bitten by something little with sharp teeth. “Hey, you! Big brother Uchiha! I wanna word with you!”

“The fox speaks. Of course the fox speaks,” Kisame grumbled. “Didn’t you kill it?”

“I’m a ninkitsune, I have killed three of Orochimaru’s summons that were large enough to swallow a man in one gulp! And you think tossing me like a ragdoll is all it will take to end my life, you glorified mud apes? Ha! But I have words to have with you, Uchiha Itachi, because you did a very bad thing for a nonsensical reason and you hurt one of my precious people and I want to know why,” Kurama snarled, and jumped out of the way of a kick aimed in his direction. “Why’d you do it, because the reason Sasuke told me you told him is stupid and makes no sense, and you’re supposed to be a prodigy, everyone said you were a prodigy and no one said you were insane until after. So tell me why you did it, since even though you were a child then and you’re still a child now you would’ve known better.”

Naruto made a squeaking noise. “A shinobi is a tool,” he recited, shakily. “To be wielded by someone with more power. That’s what I want to become Hokage to fix because shinobi are people, and you gotta protect all the people. Even the little people, even the people who think they’re weapons and nothing else, because everyone always forgets.”

A hush fell over the room as the realisation Naruto had come to reached them all.

It figured that the words of Haku were still echoing in his mind after all this time.

Kurama backed up, backed up until he reached Sasuke’s side, Sasuke who had slumped against the wall, his expression hollow with shock. He crawled up the boy’s trousers and climbed into his arms. Kurama rubbed his cheek against Sasuke’s neck, and then Sasuke’s trembling arms came up to hug him close, like if he didn’t hold on the world might disappear from under him.

“Whose orders were they?” Kakashi asked. “Someone outside Konoha? Someone inside Konoha?”

“Let me shave them,” Kisame hissed, and Itachi’s silence was more incriminating than anything else.

Then Jiraiya crashed into the room through the window, and Itachi and Kisame fled without another word.

“Eh?” he said. “They didn’t put up much of a fight. What’d I miss?”

“I think Kurama gouged out one of Sasuke’s brother’s eyes,” Sakura replied, blankly, face pale with surprise. “Gaara, you can come out of your sand cocoon now.”

“I’m not paying for that window,” Kakashi added, running his hand through his hair and looking more terrified than Kurama had ever seen him.

 

xxxiv.

“Look, I said I’m sorry, what more do you want?” Silence reigned, except for the sound of the wind in the trees. Shinobi walked without sound, or leaving tracks, after all, and that was Kakashi’s new training. The only person not adhering to it was Jiraiya, who was being loud, and didn’t seem to understand that everyone was somewhere on the spectrum between indifferent and righteously outraged that Jiraiya had abandoned them to get ambushed at their inn. Imagine if Jiraiya had taken only Naruto, like he originally wanted? It would’ve been a disaster! Naruto could’ve been killed. Or crushed half the town by panicking and sending out Kyuubi. “I won’t go researching again until we’ve found Tsunade-hime!”

“We’re training right now, Jiraiya-sama,” Kakashi said, blandly, but Kurama knew he was seething and terrified and that wasn’t a good mix of emotions.

If Sasuke, who was twelve years old, and just as angry and frightened at the prospect that no, Itachi hadn’t killed his clan to see if he could, someone else had wanted the Uchihas dead for some unspecified reason and Itachi was simply the tool wielded by the hand, and who was strong enough to control Itachi, hadn’t needed emotional support more in that moment, then Kurama might’ve gone to Kakashi.

As it was, Kurama was trotting along lightly at Sasuke’s side near the back of the group, occasionally bumping into his leg to bring him back to reality. Gaara was walking with them, but Kurama thought that was more because Gaara just didn’t like being surrounded by too many people just yet. Shukaku was crouched on his shoulder, looking around at the countryside with wide eyes and occasionally begging to be put down so he could scamper along until his short, stubby baby legs got tired and he cried to be picked up.

“I know,” Jiraiya said, suddenly brightening as he had what he obviously thought was an absolutely brilliant idea. “I’ll teach you a jutsu!”

Naruto began to pay attention, but still said nothing.

“It’s an amazing jutsu,” Jiraiya went on. “Invented by the Yondaime. Did you know that the chidori, the only original technique of the Copy-nin Kakashi, who knows over a thousand jutsu, was created by accident when he failed to apply lightning chakra to this technique?”

Oh, Kurama thought, pricking his ears attentively. The rasengan. That would be useful to learn.

Still, no one said anything. They respected Kakashi and his training too much, although Kurama noticed that Sakura looked interested now, too, and Sasuke was frowning thoughtfully but in a way that didn’t line his face with grief, and Kakashi’s body-language looked faintly offended.

Kurama scampered forward to tap Kakashi’s leg with his paw.

Kakashi sighed, heavily, breaking the forced silence. “Fine. Show us, Jiraiya.”

Naruto immediately began to hop excitedly on the spot, all grievances long forgotten, because he was a bright and happy brat who forgave quickly and never hated, even when the so many people reviled him. Instead, he grieved and promised to be better, to show them how good and nice he was, how good and nice the monster he contained was, so that they didn’t have to hate either. And if Kurama peed on a few shoes, and Naruto painted the faces on the Hokage Monument like they were wearing kabuki make-up, or sometimes the ANBU found glitter in their clean laundry, well.

They moved off the road into a clearing and gathered around the perverted old sannin. “This,” Jiraiya said, concentrating chakra in his palm and setting it spinning to form an extremely powerful little ball of destruction. “Is the Rasengan.”

“Hey,” Naruto said. “It looks like a tiny bijuudama.”

Jiraiya was so surprised his rasengan sputtered out. “Er,” he said. “Yes, that was the inspiration. You know…?”

“Kyuubi showed me,” Naruto replied. “Do it again. I wanna learn.”

Jiraiya did not do it again. “Naruto,” he said, incredibly seriously. “When, and how, did the Kyuubi show you a bijuudama?”

Belatedly, Kurama realised he was worried that Naruto had been letting the Kyuubi out in secret to blow stuff up.

“Huh?” Naruto looked at him, perplexed. “How do you think? He showed me in here!” And he tapped his head. “We can talk and all, but also share feelings if we can’t find the words, and if there’s no words for what we want, we show memories and sensations and stuff. He told me he learned from Uzumaki Mito what it felt like to vomit from when she had morning sickness with Senju Tsunade’s father, but he doesn’t remember his name and he’s sad about that, and he hates barfing, but he does it all the time now, and it’s so gross, Ero-Sennin. Sometimes he just sicks up in my mind and it kinda feels like I’m barfing too, except I’m not.”

“What a wonderful thought,” Jiraiya said, and he looked somewhere between relieved and nauseous. “I wish you had not told me that.”

“You asked!”

“I asked how you knew about the Tailed-Beast Balls, not morning sickness, and I didn’t need that much detail!”

Shukaku was howling with laughter, damn the tanuki, but because he was so little it sounded more like puppy wailing and not the cackling with glee that it absolutely was.

“The Ichibi thinks that is hilarious, and he has never, ever done that to me,” Gaara informed them, dutifully.

“Please,” Kakashi said, sounding immensely pained. “Just show them the rasengan.”

Jiraiya did, repeating the process. “Once it reaches this stage,” he said. “It is stable, and self-sustaining. I no longer need to feed it chakra. But if you do it wrong, you can explode your own hand, so learning to do the rasengan involves three steps…”

Kurama tuned him out, mostly, focusing on the way the chakra spun from all directions at once. He thought it was interesting, in a vague sort of way, that it had taken the Minato-brat three years to develop, though developing new jutsu was always a bit of trial and error, so that was not surprising. That it had taken Jiraiya a long time to learn was also interesting.

Kurama sat down and held out a forepaw, toe-pads facing the sky, concentrated a very small portion of chakra, infinitesimally small, a fraction of the amount he kept in his fox body, and set it spinning from all directions. “Is this right?” he asked, frowning in concentration.

Jiraiya made a noise of indignant despair somewhat akin to the sound of the air being let out of one of those prank fart cushions. “How?” he wailed.

“The pet fox is, unfortunately, the greatest prodigy that Konoha has ever produced,” Kakashi said. “It has exceeded myself, the Yondaime, Sasuke’s brother, and will probably surpass the Nidaime before long, too. I have spent many months trying to reconcile this fact within myself, that this odd little woodland creature is smarter than us all, and though I am loath to admit it, there are some facts that cannot be denied.”

“He’s my best friend!” Naruto said.

“And he’s attached himself to the kid who almost didn’t graduate from the Academy at all because he couldn’t produce a reasonable bunshin and failed the graduation exam three times,” Kakashi added. “Together, they’re a menace to society. I can’t do anything. I’m a figurehead, Jiraiya-sama. That pet fox is the real leader of Team Seven.”

Oh, Kurama thought, a malicious glint in his eyes. They have no idea.

“I’m a ninkitsune, not a pet,” he said, pulling his chakra back into himself and letting his rasengan fizzle and die. “So, how do we teach the other brats?”

“Are we going to teach that one?” Jiraiya asked, indicating Gaara.

“Of course,” Kurama said. “If he’s interested, and until his Suna comes back for him, he’s a member of Team Seven, too. You heard Kakashi-nii-san. I’m actually the boss around here.”

 

xxxv.

Kurama was sitting on a riverbank watching the sun rise over the distant purple mountains, the first rays of sunlight hitting the clouds high over his head and lighting them up pink and orange as the sky slowly brightened and the dawn chorus of birds and frogs gradually receded to be replaced by the chirruping of cicadas and the rustling of crepuscular animals that used the brief dusk and dawn periods to graze and hunt.

He was having a thought.

Actually, Kurama, for the most part not bound by a tiny fleshy brain contained by an equally tiny skull that could be shattered as easily as Kurama might crunch into a chicken’s egg, should it ever occur to him to behave like an actual fox and raid a chicken coop. As such, Kurama was perfectly capable of having millions of thoughts per second, although most of them were not relevant to the here and now and were consequently ignored to be re-evaluated at a later time.

Having gained some distance from the event of meeting Uchiha Itachi, both in time and actual physical distance, Kurama was considering the Uchiha Itachi’s smell. He had smelled like all the usual expected things for a man on the road travelling with a half-shark for a companion – that is, faintly fishy and a bit sweaty.

He had also smelled like blood and pain. And not just because Kurama had raked his claws through his eyes and half-blinded him. He smelled like old blood and old pain. And not anyone’s blood and pain, his own. They had been lingering smells, the sort of smell a sick man might have, mixed with fever-sweat and the bitter tang of medicine on his breath.

So: Kurama was chewing over a troublesome thought, and the thought went a little bit like this: Uchiha Itachi was very sick. It was quite possible that Uchiha Itachi was dying. And from the smell of it, Uchiha Itachi had been sick for a long time already.

Which begged the question: had Uchiha Itachi known he was sick when he took the mission to massacre his own family?

Was it supposed to be a suicide mission?

Had his goading of Sasuke, when he failed to be killed by his own clan, been another attempt to get someone to come and kill him? Why had he left Sasuke alive and none of the other children? To avenge their clan, absolve Itachi of his guilt over his actions, to save the brother that he had, to all appearances, loved above all else until that very moment, to have someone who would come and end his suffering when the rest of the world feared him too much to try?

The illness on him hadn’t smelt like the sickly sweet-rot of cancer, and a cancer would kill him faster, besides. So, a different illness. Slower. Still painful. Still a death sentence, somehow, going by Itachi’s actions. Or was it?

Would anyone treat a rogue-nin? Was he medicating himself and hoping for the best?

Was there some reason that he could not have received treatment as an Uchiha, back in Konoha?

Had he been given his orders before he could get treatment?

Kurama groaned. Too many questions and no answers! The Sandaime might know… But he was happily retired, and he seemed so old and tired and sick of being Hokage, a position he’d tried to give up before Naruto was even born, it didn’t seem fair to go pester him. Not when he seemed so happy tutoring Konohamaru and sitting in his garden smoking his pipe and listening to the birds, finally at peace after years of a job he was no longer fit for.

No, Kurama decided with a sense of finality, it wasn’t right to go and bother Jiji. Not unless he couldn’t find answers elsewhere. He had a bad feeling that people would keep their mouths tightly shut about the Uchiha Massacre, though. Like their failure of Uzushiogakure, even if they did know something, they would not speak it out of shame or fear.

Perhaps Kurama could lean on the new Hokage for answers? That was an idea. Yes, he liked that. And in the process, he could get to know Tsunade better. He wanted to get to know Tsunade. She was his granddaughter. Metaphysically speaking. Not biologically, because Kurama didn’t think bijuu were capable of procreation. He was millennia old, he should know. But that made Tsunade family all the same, and another potential precious person.

Naruto came out of the tent he was sharing with Sasuke, stretched, yawned, and wandered into the field where he began to poke around in the grass.

Kurama got up and meandered over. “What’re you doing?”

“Looking,” Naruto replied.

“Ah,” Kurama said. “What for?”

“Four-leafed clovers. I’ve never found one, but I’ve always wanted to. No one else is up, so there’s time now.”

“Alright, shall I help you?”

“Yeah, but if you find one, you gotta let me pick it, okay?” Naruto said.

Kurama considered that. “Naruto, I don’t have thumbs. I couldn’t pick it anyway.”

“Oh, yeah, alright. Hey, Sasuke has good eyes, why don’t we ask him to help?”

“That may be a misuse of the Sharingan,” Kurama suggested.

Naruto just shrugged. “Eh.”

By the time Jiraiya got up, the last of everyone, they were carefully pressing their four-leafed clovers – and between Kakashi and Sasuke, who had sharp eyes, and Naruto who was determined, and Sakura and Gaara, who were intelligent they had found one shy of two dozen – between the index pages of Sakura’s anatomy textbook.

Kakashi had explained the trick to finding them, since apparently he and Maito Gai had had a four-leafed clover finding challenge a few years back.

“See the normal three-leaf clovers?” he’d said. “They’re kind of triangle shaped. A four-leaf clover is shaped a bit like a diamond. Don’t waste your time looking at each individual clover, or you’ll be at it all day and you won’t find a single one. The human brain is made for pattern recognition. Scan a patch of clover, don’t look too hard, and just try to pick out any that look diamond-shaped.”

This had turned out to be sound advice, and they had all found an average of three each, give or take.

Jiraiya looked at them despairingly, like they were following some convoluted branch of logic he could not hope to follow. What a shame it was a concept mired in simplicity, because as much as Kurama would have liked Naruto to be brilliant and learn everything with ease, he was not a sharp child. In short: teamwork was good, information crucial to the success of the mission should be shared, teammates could be trusted, and working together yielded the best results.

Case in point: they had twenty-three four-leafed clovers.

They continued their way to Tanzaku-gai, which was the last place the Legendary Sucker had been sighted.

Kurama continued to wonder about the ill health of Uchiha Itachi, and try to puzzle out why he had joined the black-cloak-red-clouds, AKA the Akatsuki, who Jiraiya had explained were systematically attacking jinchuuriki for unknown but probably evil purposes.

 

xxxvi.

There was a festival on when they arrived in Tanzaku-gai near the fall of dusk. Incidentally, from what Kurama could tell, Tanzaku-gai appeared to be a den of every depravity known to human-kind. Alcohol, prostitution, gambling. Probably drugs and other less legal activities as well. It was like the Akasen back home, only it encompassed the entire town, not a just a few tightly clustered blocks.

Naruto, the beautiful, oblivious child that he was, utterly used to this sort of atmosphere, noticed nothing out of the ordinary. Sakura looked anxious, Sasuke uncomfortable, and Gaara blatantly didn’t care so long as no one was jostling him.

“We should split up,” Kurama decided, because he did not trust Jiraiya not to start dragging them in to bars. Gambling dens, yeah, alright. He could live with that. But he was not going to expose the children he was responsible for to brain-pickling-juice. “You, older perverts.” He indicated Jiraiya and Kakashi. “Go look in places kids can’t enter. We’re going to the festival because a festival is fun and child-friendly. Is there a hotel you were planning to stay at?”

Jiraiya did have a place in mind. They agreed to meet at midnight if none of them had any luck.

“Also,” Kurama said to Kakashi. “Kakashi-nii-san. Don’t come home drunk. I don’t care if Ero-Sennin does, but you’re still on your child license, so you aren’t allowed.”

“I’m twenty-six,” Kakashi groaned. “I’m allowed to drink.”

“In moderation, and not to inebriation,” Kurama said, firmly. “On the off-chance that we do spot Tsunade-sama while we’re doing kid stuff, how do we recognise her?”

Jiraiya described Tsunade. Badly.

“You’re too perverted, and I hate it,” Kurama said to him.

“Blonde hair, purple diamond on her forehead,” Sakura said. “Doesn’t look as old as Jiraiya-sama even though they’re the same age. We can work with that, can’t we?”

Sasuke grunted.

“Yep,” Naruto chirped, cheerfully. “Come on, let’s go find something to eat! I’m starving!”

Jiraiya called them back and confiscated most of their money, leaving them all with just three hundred ryou each. The lecture he gave them on the three shinobi taboos was the most hypocritical thing Kurama had ever heard with his own two ears. Booze, sex, and money? The three taboos that made shinobi go bad? Kurama thought it was more like power, the horrific deeds one might have to commit in order to grasp power, misguided intentions, forgetting the little people, and witnessing atrocities before they had sufficient frame of reference to process what they were seeing, but he said nothing.

“Are you going to confiscate Kakashi-nii-san’s money too?” Naruto asked.

“Kakashi-san is twenty-six,” Jiraiya said.

“Kurama said he’s not old enough.”

“Maa, maa, Jiraiya-sama, let’s not argue with the kids about this. Just – give it back after,” Kakashi said, awkwardly handing over his own wallet from one of his many pockets, obviously knowing a losing battle when he saw one and realising that discretion was the better part of valour. “Like Kurama said, moderation is a virtue. You should try not to spend too much, also! I have a sealing scroll, here, why don’t we put all the wallets in, just to remove the temptation?”

Jiraiya’s expression said that was the very last thing he wanted, but since everyone else was being virtuous, he was obliged to be as well.

They split up, Jiraiya and Kakashi heading off down a seedy-looking alley straight away, and Naruto bouncing off towards a brightly lit square lined with food stalls and games, the other children following along after him like a string of ducklings with varying degrees of reluctance.

Three hundred ryou was not a lot of money, just enough for some snacks and to play a couple of games.

By nine in the evening, the children were down to a handful of coins between them and considering going to find the hotel Jiraiya had described to wait in the lobby until the adults showed up.

Kurama grinned at them, the grin of a tricky fox, and led them up onto a rooftop.

“This is a town of vices,” he told them. “Naruto, tell me, who runs the Akasen back in Konoha?”

Naruto thought for a minute, because this was one of the things that he would forget the moment it was no longer relevant to his life – which it hadn’t been since he’d become a genin. “Those guys you said it was okay to steal off,” he replied, slowly. “The men we have to pay half the money Jiji gives us, for ‘protection’ they said, so people don’t come and trash our apartment, but they come anyway because of – uh.”

“The Kyuubi,” Kurama nodded. “And how do we pick them out? These men who run the night in places like this?”

“They’re shady?”

That was not the right answer. Kurama waited.

“Sometimes they have tattoos,” Sakura said, and Gaara stiffened. “Not like yours, or clan markings,” she added, hastily, and indicated her arms from shoulder to wrist, her chest, and her back. “These places. They’re symbolic. But they aren’t meant to be seen, so they’re usually covered. The weather is warm, so they’ll be men wearing long sleeves, collared shirts?”

“Yes,” Kurama said. “And?”

“We do not have these people in Sunagakure,” Gaara muttered, thoughtfully.

“Well dressed,” Sasuke offered, without giving any context.

Kurama huffed. “Yes, thank you Sasuke. They will dress themselves well, so that everyone around them knows they are powerful, knows they are the real people who rule Tanzaku-gai. From up here, I can spot seven, no, eight who fit that description. They’re like Gatou, except they’re happy running this one town and not entire countries. So! Training. Can you guess what we’re going to do?”

“Beat them up?” Naruto asked, slowly.

“Take their money?” Sakura suggested.

“Ah, we could beat them up then take their money,” Kurama conceded. “But that’s too obvious, and they might call in reinforcements and the whole thing could get messy. No. We’re shinobi. We use stealth, remember? You’ll pick their pockets, and if you get caught, you have to fight them then run away and go hide at the hotel to wait for Kakashi-nii-san and Ero-Sennin, which could take hours. That’s your incentive not to get caught! If you succeed, you can stay out and have fun at the festival longer with the rest of us!”

The genin darted off, and Kurama pounced after them.

If they were the ones to turn up at the hotel an hour late, brightly coloured animal masks over their faces or resting on the tops of their heads, giggly from too much sugary drinks and the rush of successfully picking a dozen pockets and coming back with more money than they’d left with, weighed down with useless knickknacks and baubles – well.

It had been something they had been in dire need of.

And if Jiraiya looked absolutely mortified as they handed him hundreds of thousands worth of notes of pilfered ryou, that was even better.

“It’s okay, Ero-Sennin,” Naruto told him, patting his arm. “We stole it from the bad guys.”

“But who are the ‘bad guys?’” Jiraiya asked and got no answer.

As revenge, Jiraiya made them all get up super early the following morning for rasengan training while he and Kakashi went off to keep looking for Tsunade. Kurama supervised for a few hours, gave them a couple of helpful pointers, and then he went off to look for Tsunade on his own, too.

 

xxxvii.

Kurama found her first.

Using unconventional methods, after his nose and ears and chakra senses all failed him.

And he may have learned to count cards in the process.

But, two weeks later, on a balmy evening, while the kids were tucked up safe in bed, Kakashi with them, alert and on guard after the incident with the Akatsuki – and Kurama still found it immensely disturbing that the black-cloaks-red-clouds were trying to collect the bijuu for some unknown reason – and Jiraiya was out womanising, Kurama met Senju Tsunade.

At a cards table.

Literally.

Kurama was sitting at the head of a cards table, on a mean winning streak that had half the people in the room either wailing in despair or hollering in delight, when who should walk in to his gambling den of the night but Tsunade herself. Jiraiya might also have been disturbing accurate in his description of her, not that Kurama would ever admit such a thing to his awful perverted face.

She was… shapely. For a human.

She looked at him, curiously. The young dark-haired woman with her, carrying a rather runty pig, also looked at him curiously.

“Why is there a fox on the table?” was the first thing Tsunade asked.

“Hey, hey,” a different patron of this particular gambling den said. “Haven’t you heard? This is Kurama! He’s a great shinobi who got a little down on his luck and was turned into a fox during an unfortunate encounter with another, even more powerful shinobi almost thirteen years ago! He isn’t really a fox at all!”

This lie worked very well on civilians, but it was unlikely to work on an actual shinobi of almost forty years. Kurama could see her scepticism. It was so strong, it was almost a physical presence in the room with them. But all she did was eye the hitai-ate tied around his neck and say: “Uh huh.”

“Shishou,” the young woman holding the pig said, uncertainly.

“I know, Shizune,” Tsunade said. “Deal me in.”

The dealer expertly gave everyone their cards. Kurama picked his up awkwardly, because dew claws did not make opposable thumbs, and looked thoughtfully at his hand. Tsunade frowned at him. Her could see her trying to work out if he was a summons, or under a henge.

“I am a regular fox,” he told her. He put his cards down and went through the dispelling technique. “See?”

He won the hand.

The next hand, he folded.

And the hand after that.

And won the fourth hand.

Tsunade squinted at him. “What rank are you?” she asked.

Kurama, still holding his cards precariously, paused to scratch an itch behind his ear with one of his back paws. He mulled that question over, and wasn’t sure of the answer because he was only really Naruto’s ninkitsune, and not a full shinobi by himself. He deflected. “Ah, the lovely Tsunade-sama wants to know about a no-name shinobi such as myself? I would much rather hear of the exploits of one of the sannin.”

“You know who I am.”

“Rather difficult not to, when I am from Konohagakure no Sato, and have met both of your equally lovely contemporaries. Orochimaru and Jiraiya. What wonderful encounters, how I hope to never see their ugly mugs ever again.” Sadly, he would be seeing Jiraiya in the morning. Probably. Unless he’d hooked up with someone and wouldn’t be back until later tomorrow. “I hope our acquaintance may be less… I can’t think of the right word, I’m sorry, but I’m thinking of something truly disgusting.”

“Jiraiya’s face,” Tsunade grumbled, and Kurama cackled.

“I’ll drink to that! May our acquaintance involve less of Jiraiya’s face!”

Tsunade twitched when Kurama downed a cup of sake that had, until that moment, been sitting on the table beside his paws. “You are very small,” she said. “And although I am not a veterinarian, I do not think imbibing alcohol is particularly safe for canids.”

“You are correct,” Kurama told her. “My liver is pathetically tiny, and not suited for filtering these sorts of toxins at all. Also, I fold.”

Tsunade won the hand, as Kurama had calculated. In fact, she won the entire game, which seemed to unsettle her more than drinking and gambling with a talking ninja fox. Kurama winked at her mischievously as they walked out of the gambling den together to go to a bar to continue drinking, Tsunade’s purse significantly fatter than it was before.

“Don’t worry too much,” Kurama said, grinning and showing off all his pointy little teeth. “You’re still the Legendary Sucker. I’m just very, very good at counting cards and know how to rig a game by strategically winning and folding hands. It was time I lost anyway, because people were starting to think my winning streak might’ve been a little more than luck, if you know what I mean.”

“You are exceptionally impertinent,” Tsunade said, eyeing him as they stepped into a bar that she seemed to have picked at random.

“I think it makes me more charming,” Kurama said, hopping onto a table in an empty booth. He considered her for a moment and decided the news he had for her required more brain-pickling-juice. There were some things, he knew from the Minato-brat more than anyone else, that were just easier to hear a little bit inebriated than stone cold sober. Not that he would know, he’d never been drunk in his life, and he never intended to try. In fact, he’d been particularly vicious about burning the alcohol out of the systems of all his previous jinchuuriki as if it were a lethal poison and not just a very mild poison that would kill off a few brain cells before inducing emesis and dehydration. “Sake!”

He matched Tsunade drink-for-drink, to the growing horror of the sannin herself, Shizune, and a small circle of nearby patrons.

“This is disgusting,” Kurama was musing, peering into his cup sometime later. “I like hot cocoa much better. Why do humans enjoy it so much?”

Tsunade was flushed and maybe slightly more drunk than he’d intended to get her, but she fixed him with a stare. “The theobromine in chocolate is lethal to canids,” she said. “You can drop the henge. I know you only pretended to dispel it earlier.”

Kurama looked at her. “Sadly,” he said. “I am, in fact, just a ninkitsune loose on the town while my genin and his jounin-sensei sleep unawares of my mischief, tucked up safe and sound in their hotel room. I am, however, a fox, and trickery is in my nature, right down to my bone marrow. You must understand. How could I deny myself in a place so ripe with opportunity, where a cunning mind and the right lie will allow me to pull any trick I want?”

“You’re a very naughty fox,” Tsunade said, pointing a finger at him and slurring just a little.

“Indeed.” He paused. “I know your uncle.”

Uzumaki Mito had not had any brothers. Her husband Senju Hashirama, Tsunade’s grandfather, had one brother – Senju Tobirama. The Nidaime. Tsunade’s only uncle.

She looked at him like he’d grown another head, or perhaps eight additional tails.

“My uncle is dead,” she said. “You’re from Konoha. You should know that.”

“Well,” Kurama hedged. “He’s more your… metaphysical uncle. In that there were three beings involved in the birth of your father. And one of those beings went on to be involved in the birth of another child almost thirteen years ago. So although you only share a very small amount of genetic material – through Uzumaki Mito, but not closely, you would be at most a very distant aunt, biologically speaking – you are, in fact, that child’s metaphysical niece. Kyuubi has claimed parental rights to Uzumaki Naruto.”

Tsunade choked, even though she wasn’t sipping her sake. She just sort of choked on nothing. “Excuse me?”

“And since he was in the business of claiming parental rights, he claimed your father also, which meant that by extension he claimed you and Nawaki as grandchildren.” Kurama paused to let this sink in, but just for a second, because his plan mostly involved bombarding her with so much mind-boggling information that she agreed to take the hat just to make him go away. It wasn’t very kind, but it was what it was. “My sincerest condolences on your loss, by the way, Kyuubi is very upset, which Naruto will tell you all about when you meet him. Incidentally, Konohagakure no Sato has no Hokage and the Council is trying to make Jiraiya take the hat, but can I just say that Jiraiya is the worst super pervert I have ever met, and Kakashi-nii-san is our jounin sensei and he walks around reading Icha-Icha in public, so I like to think I know a bit about perverts already.”

“Kakashi-nii-san?” Tsunade repeated. “The Hatake-brat?”

Oh, a kindred spirit? She truly was his granddaughter.

“Ah, yes, well, Kyuubi told Naruto – he’s my genin by the way, like attracts like, foxes attract foxes, you know – all about his parents and Naruto found out that Kakashi was basically his older brother in all but name, so we’ve adopted him. Precious people are important. On that note, we think someone within Konoha orchestrated the Uchiha Massacre and we were really hoping that once you became the Godaime you could investigate that for us because Sasuke, that’s another one of my genin but not my main one, he’s having trouble getting over what happened to his family. Oh, Sakura, she’s my third genin, you’re her hero and she wants to meet you so much! She brought this gigantic anatomy book on this trip with us, and I’m fairly certain it’s one of those ones the civilian trainee doctors use when they’re in their third year of medical studies, but she’s only twelve! She’s really smart.”

Kurama paused to take a breath.

Tsunade glared at him. “I’m not taking the hat.”

“That’s kind of a shame, because we accidentally have the Ichibi no jinchuuriki still? Suna left him behind when they ran away after their invasion failed, and we’ve already had one encounter with the Akatsuki since then – Jiraiya says they’re going after jinchuuriki and trying to collect bijuu, I don’t even want to know why – and the Kazekage’s dead so things with Suna are just as hectic as they are in Konoha. So, we don’t really have anyone to sort out sending poor Gaara home! Also, the Kazekage was killed by Orochimaru, if that news hasn’t reached this far out. That’s why Sandaime-sama committed spontaneous retirement. It all got too much for him, though being a Kage really is a much younger person’s job… Perhaps you’re too old, too…” Oh, that redness to her face wasn’t just alcohol now. That was fury, plain and simple. Kurama steamrolled on, pretending to be oblivious. “You don’t look like a baa-chan to me, but Jiraiya said you were the same age he was, so maybe the Sandaime has the right idea…”

She lunged for him, but he darted away at the very last instant, her fist closing around a couple of tail-hairs.

“Come back here!” she bellowed, but Kurama was bounding out the door and up the street, quick and light on his paws and not at all impaired. “You come back so I can hit you, you stupid little rat!”

Kurama leapt up onto a building, jumping from drain-pipe to guttering to roof, then stood on the edge, peering down at her where she stood in the street, threatening him loudly.

“Come to the forest in the morning,” he said to her. “Above the cliffs, near the little stream. If you really want a fight, I’ll meet you there. Bet you Naruto will make you think twice.”

Her expression turned shrewd. “Bet what?”

“We… confiscated a whole bunch of ryou from some racketeers that were bothering the local businesses,” Kurama said. “If you aren’t impressed by my cute little genin, you can have that cash and go on your merry way as the Legendary Sucker, keep roaming from village to village as a drunk and a loser. I win, you come back and take that stupid hat, so we can sort some things out! And you can’t lie to me. I’m the king of tricksters, I know when someone’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes.”

She considered that for a long time, then huffed irritably. “You know what. Fine! I take your stupid bet.”

 

xxxviii.

Kakashi turned to stare at Kurama, as he sauntered in through their hotel room window, which had been left open just wide enough for a little fox to slip through. His one eye hardened into a judgemental scowl, and he said: “You reek of alcohol.”

“Would you believe me if I said I tripped a drunk and he spilled his sake on me?” Kurama asked, mildly.

Kakashi’s scowl did not lift.

“I thought not. Well, good news: I found her! News that might be bad but probably does not have serious implications: I made a bet with her. If she isn’t impressed by your cute little genin, we’re giving her all our cash and sending her on her way. If she is impressed by your cute little genin, she’s the new Hokage.” Kurama grinned at him, a smug grin with few teeth on show and his eyes squinted happily.

Kakashi did not look impressed.

Kurama had a sudden sinking feeling as a thought crossed his mind. Kakashi was looking at him like that because Kurama had disappointed him. He and Kakashi were the co-teachers of Team Seven, and Kurama had been holding them all to such a high standard, it was terribly hypocritical of him to go and do all the things he’d been preaching against.

Oh.

Oh dear.

Kurama’s ears drooped and his tail stopped wagging. He slunk across the room to crawl into Kakashi’s lap and was inordinately relieved when Kakashi allowed it. “Please don’t be mad at me,” he said. “I knew what I was doing, and she’s going to be impressed. She is. Naruto and Sasuke and Sakura have come so, so far. Remember the boy who wanted nothing more than to avenge his family, who thought his teammates would drag him back, and the little girl who thought of nothing more than her childhood crush and wasn’t serious about being a shinobi at all? Look at them now. Look at Team Seven, Kakashi-nii-san. They’re so brilliant, these small human beings, they’ve made such huge strides already, and they have so much potential that hasn’t even been tapped yet.”

Kakashi idly carded his fingers through Kurama’s fur. It felt nice, but Kurama wished he would do it not because he was distracted by his thoughts, but out of affection.

No one, he thought, had ever been disappointed in him. Not since the Sage of Six Paths, and that was thousands of years ago. People just didn’t feel disappointment when they thought of the Kyuubi no Kitsune. They thought of a monster, they felt fear, they hoped they never had the misfortune of seeing him in their lifetimes. But they didn’t think highly enough of him to feel badly when he didn’t live up to their expectations.

Naruto had never been disappointed by Kurama. The way they shared thoughts-feelings-ideas-concepts directly meant they had no miscommunication.

But other people held Kurama as an esteemed teammate, colleague, friend.

And it was possible for him to fail to live up to expectations.

And until this very moment, he had not realised that.

“I’m sorry,” Kurama said. “I won’t do it again.”

“Which part?” Kakashi asked. “The bit where you failed to tell your team what you were doing? The bit where you located the target, but neglected to inform any of us and went in alone? The bit where you drank enough to come home stinking so strongly you can taste the alcohol on the air? The bit where I’m fairly certain you were doing what you prohibited of us, and gambled with our future Hokage, leaving her an out that may mean she will never return to Konoha and dooming us to Jiraiya-sama as the Godaime?”

Kurama shrank into himself. “I didn’t do any womanising,” he whimpered.

Kakashi pinched the bridge of his nose. “Your hypocrisy knows no bounds, Kurama.”

“I said I knew what I was doing,” Kurama repeated, but his voice was kind of squeaky. “She’s gonna take that hat. Trust me.”

“I don’t know if I can, Kurama.”

“Please, Kakashi-nii-san. If you don’t trust me, then don’t hate me?”

Kakashi opened his eye to peer down at him, the room illuminated only by a streetlamp outside. “I don’t hate you,” he said. “Like you said, Kurama, you and Naruto are family. You’re precious people. I just think that sort of behaviour is very dangerous to the integrity of the team. I don’t want to lose any more teammates, any more precious people, I won’t, and if that means I have to stop trusting you, then that will be what has to happen.”

“Oh,” Kurama said, softly. He apologised again.

“Actions mean more than words, Kurama,” Kakashi told him. “Telling me how sorry you are now isn’t going to change what you did.”

Kurama whined, a wordless noise of emotional distress.

Kakashi scratched behind his ears, but Kurama was too unhappy to enjoy it.

“By the way,” Kakashi said. “How did you get her to agree to the bet?”

Kurama considered not answering, just lying miserably in Kakashi’s lap and sulking, but decided that he was too old for that sort of behaviour. “I met her in a gambling den and rigged a card game, so she won. Then I followed her when she went to a bar to spend her winnings on sake, and talked her ear off, told her the Sandaime had retired and left things in a mess, and suggested she was probably too old for the job so she shouldn’t even bother coming back to Konoha. I think she was going to try to strangle me, but I ran away, and then we made the bet that if she was impressed by your genin she had to become Hokage.”

“You rigged a card game?” Kakashi said.

Kurama chewed the inside of his cheek, then decided honesty was the best policy right now. “I might have maybe spent a bit more time in gambling dens over the past few days than I should have when I may have said I was out following my nose, and I might, maybe, have learned how to count cards in the process?”

Kakashi sighed. It was an amused sigh, though, a huff halfway between a laugh and a drawn-out exhalation of exasperation. He moved his fingers to scratch Kurama under the chin, even as he said: “Of course you did. What more should I have expected from a little hellion like you?” And he tweaked Kurama’s nose, but not hard enough to hurt. “Good information gathering. And I like your ability to think on the fly. But you’re right, you’re never going to do that again, not unless you share with the rest of the team. Now, you’ve been acting a lot like a scolded dog. Stand up so nii-san can give you a hug, you mangy little monster. It sounds like you’ve conned the Legendary Sucker into a final bad bet.”

Kurama tried to shrink further into his knee, but Kakashi scooped him up and pulled him against his chest.

 

xxxix.

Jiraiya was very much a proponent of the school of letting the child work the jutsu out for themselves. Kurama hated to admit it, but in this instance, he could see Jiraiya’s point: the rasengan had been created by Naruto’s father. If someone held Naruto’s hand right through the process of learning it, then he would probably feel cheated at the end, because he wouldn’t have been able to work it out for himself, like his father had.

On the other hand, it had taken the Minato-brat over three years from conception to final jutsu, and that was an impractical amount of time to spend trying to pick up a new skill well enough to use it without difficulty.

On that note, three years would be a very short time indeed to truly master something, because with mastery came time and practice and a fundamental understanding of the time and place where applying that skill was appropriate, and it was suffice to say that none of the genin were close to mastering anything yet.

Kurama just wanted Naruto to be able to perform the rasengan.

So, he had not told Naruto how to perform it. He had shown him what it looked like again, when asked to see the final product and Jiraiya was busy. He had given the occasional hint to push Naruto in the right direction when it seemed he was stuck and having trouble progressing further. When Naruto demanded him for the answer, he had not given it, leaving Naruto to tug at his hair in frustration, until Kurama pushed at him the idea-feeling of how great it would be if he worked it out on his own, without help, just like his father had.

Incidentally, Sasuke had decided to stick with honing his ability to use the chidori. Sakura had worked out how the rasengan was supposed to be formed but decided that learning it was too damaging on the chakra pathways in her hands and arms and was now using their training time up on the cliff to practice her taijutsu against Gaara – who was going through the process of developing sufficient control that he’d didn’t instinctively go for the kill.

Shukaku, now the size and shape of a six-week-old tanuki and beginning to shed his puppy fluff, was more mobile, and had started to chase insects, small rodents, and lizards with varying degrees of success. He enjoyed padding back up to Gaara dragging a rat almost as big as he was, covered right down his front in blood.

Look, he seemed to say. Look how big this thing is, and I killed it all by myself!

And Gaara would pat him on the head, tell him he did a good job, and take him over to the stream to wipe the blood off his face.

Shukaku was going to be such a great ratter one day soon. No grain silo or food storage facility in Suna would be plagued by pests ever again with him on the case, and hopefully, if his larger part was sleeping to avoid the nauseating vertigo of being in two places at once, and his smaller part was off killing things for fun, profit, and the general well-being of the people of Suna, he would not bother Gaara with his insatiable bloodlust.

Kurama was grudgingly proud of his youngest brother.

Tsunade, sleeping off a dreadful hangover after getting into a drinking competition with a fox, turned up closer to midday than bright and early in the morning. As such, her initial impression of the genin was not quite what Kurama had wanted. He had reluctantly told them she was coming, because he knew that while Sasuke and Gaara would not care, the pressure would affect Sakura and Naruto was a bit of a wildcard. He might do better, he might do worse, if he knew that the new Hokage coming back to Konoha with them hinged on his performance.

The nervousness had showed, during the earliest part of the morning, when Sakura had had trouble sparring properly with Gaara and got a sand fist to her face because she wasn’t paying attention. Naruto, who was now at the stage of trying to keep the rasengan contained in a balloon filled with air, worked harder than usual, until his hands were peeling and burnt.

Tsunade did not arrive at any reasonable time in the morning, when the genin were bright and enthusiastic about their practice and had the energy of childhood and the interest of learning something new and interesting to keep them focused, or anxious about her arrival. She came near lunchtime, when they had already spent some half-dozen hours pushing themselves as hard as they could, and they were beginning to flag.

Kurama knew they would find their second wind about mid-afternoon, and it would take them through to a little beyond dusk. He found it fascinating that the genin would work harder alone than they did under Kakashi some days, that the act of being left to figure out a chakra puzzle while the adults went and continued the search without them could be such a motivator.

Anyway, Tsunade walked up on them just as they were sitting down to have something to eat and drink – slowly, as they had all discovered that no matter how hungry and thirsty they were, they’d puke if they gorged themselves while they were exhausted, and they only brought so much food in their bentos up to the top of the cliff each day. If they sicked up their lunch, they weren’t getting seconds.

Shizune was following a step behind Tsunade, carrying that runty pig. Kurama was going to have to get the story behind that pig, because people did not put pearls and clothing on animals they intended to eat, and it seemed like an odd choice for a pet.

Actually, foxes weren’t common pets, either. Summons? Not really but feasible at least. Pets? No. Who was he to comment on what was and wasn’t a strange animal companion?

The genin noticed Tsunade at roughly the same moment. Curiously, although they were expecting her, they did not immediately connect her with the woman they were looking for, possibly because they hadn’t believed any part of Jiraiya’s description. Also, the pig probably threw them off. Jiraiya said nothing about pigs.

Tsunade looked at Kurama. “I see you haven’t died,” she said to him.

Kurama grinned, all teeth. “I told you I wouldn’t.”

“I also see that you are still a fox, which I find difficult to believe.”

Kurama shrugged. “What can I say? I’m just that awesome. People don’t want to think that such an awesome creature, so much more awesome than they are, is in fact a mere fox. But it is the truth.”

Naruto dropped his chopsticks for the fifth time in a row, and didn’t pick them up because he was giggling too much.

Tsunade swept her eye over the genin. “So, these are the ones you told me about. They don’t look like much.”

“I told you to come in the morning. ‘In the morning’ usually doesn’t mean ‘half-an-hour from noon,’ unless Kakashi-nii-san was the one to tell us to be there,” Kurama said.

“Don’t compare me to the Hatake-brat,” Tsunade growled.

“Don’t act like him, and I won’t have to,” Kurama said.

“Kurama,” Sasuke interjected, apparently tired of not knowing who these strange interlopers were, and rightly concerned after the last strange interlopers they had encountered had been both Akatsuki and Uchiha Itachi all rolled into one nasty surprise. Also a shark-guy who was one of the Seven Swordsmen of Kiri. “Who are these people?”

“Brilliant idea, Sasuke,” Kurama said. “I’ll do the introductions, you keep… trying to eat. This is Senju Tsunade, one of the legendary sannin, and her apprentice I’m assuming, Shizune. And their pig.”

“This is Tonton,” Shizune said.

“Tsunade-sama, this is Sabaku no Gaara, of Sunagakure no Sato, and his future… ninken? Nintanuki? Shukaku. These three are the ‘official’ Team Seven which is nonsense, Team Seven is anyone we want Team Seven to be. This is Uzumaki Naruto, he belongs to me, and he’s gonna be Hokage after you!”

“Believe it!” Naruto exclaimed, and dropped his chopsticks again. “All you gotta do is keep the hat warm for me!”

“This is Uchiha Sasuke,” Kurama continued, then paused, wondering what to say about Sasuke. “He’s awesome,” he decided upon, because it was true.

Sasuke grunted in acknowledgement.

“And this is Haruno Sakura,” Kurama said. “She’s brilliant. Her chakra control is amazing for her age.”

Sakura had turned an embarrassed pink, but she squeaked out a hello.

“I dunno where Kakashi-nii-san is,” Kurama told Tsunade honestly. “But he’s the best jounin-sensei ever, even if he has trouble dumbing stuff down sometimes because he’s a genius who understood everything at a fundamental level without ever having to try which is actually kind of frustrating when you think about it.”

“I’m not impressed,” Tsunade said, flatly, and held out her hand for the money Kurama had promised, but he had anticipated something like this, or that she might declare herself unimpressed no matter what.

“You have to give them a fair chance,” Kurama said. “I have an idea. If you can catch all six of us before sunset, we’ll give you the money.”

The genin might have worn themselves out with chakra exercises, but they had enough energy left in them to run and hide. They would never exhaust themselves so much that they could not run and hide. So, Tsunade lunged at Kurama with a furious snarl as the genin took advantage of her distraction and vanished. Gaara disappeared in a sand-shunshin with Shukaku. Sasuke darted towards the cliffs. Sakura bolted deeper into the woods. Naruto leapt away towards town.

Kurama let himself be caught.

Tsunade’s grip was powerful. Being squeezed in it was like being caught in a vice that was being slowly tightened until he couldn’t draw breath – and that was while he was reinforcing his bone, sinew, muscle, tendon, and organ with his chakra.

“That was not part of the bet, fox,” she growled at him, bringing him close enough to her face that he could smell the alcohol seeping from her pores.

“Neither,” Kurama wheezed. “Was turning up late.” He paused to draw in a short half-breath that was almost immediately forced back out of him. “I will tell you something, Senju Tsunade, something you have maybe forgotten. Something perhaps you never even understood, because it was either not taught to you, or you grew so powerful it never occurred to you in the first place. Shinobi are very much like foxes.” He was paraphrasing something he had repeated to Naruto several times over the years. “Like foxes, they are predator and prey, hunter and the hunted. There is always something bigger and strong out there in the world. The wolf, the tiger, the bear. There is always the prey. The rabbits. The mice. The moles. Sometimes, the other foxes. And to survive, a fox, like a shinobi, must be cunning. Ruthless. Crafty. It is not a game of brute strength, or luck, it is a game of wits you cannot run away from, Tsunade-sama, and you have forgotten.”

He stopped reinforcing his body with chakra, so suddenly her fist closed around his ribcage and crushed its. Kurama vomited a gout of blood onto her hand and arm, and she froze, her face going ashen, before she dropped him.

He dashed away. “You lost me!” he coughed out, hacking up what he very much hoped were not shards of bone and pulped up lung tissue. “You still have six to catch, now!”

It might have been cruel and unfair to exploit a deep-seated fear like haemophilia, but the Hokage could not be afraid of bloodshed. There would come a time when she would order hundreds, thousands, to war. What was blood, what was death, to a Kage, the military leader of a country?

Nothing.

Kurama hated that it was nothing, couldn’t wait for the day when Naruto became Hokage. He would be feared, no one would forget the tremendous destructive force of the Kyuubi, a force that Naruto could call forth at will, but he would choose not to. He would struggle with his entire being for peace. And Kurama was fairly certain that that would garner respect and support more than anything else.

Senju Tsunade, after she recovered from her shock and changed her clothes, spent the day chasing henged Shadow Clones that dispersed whenever she attempted to catch one. At no one point did she notice the family of foxes following her at a discreet distance – seven of them, for they had been joined by a larger male with longer, paler fur than the others, and one blind eye. After all, they looked like two parent urban foxes, one adult russet one, and the other the pale silver one, teaching their adolescent youngsters the tricks of scavenging in a big town. At a glance, their chakra matched that of ordinary woodland foxes.

And if, at one point, one of the Shadow Clones bought a whole bunch of food and handed it off to the foxes in an alleyway in the middle of the afternoon, well, Tsunade wasn’t watching, then, she was focusing on a clone henged to look like Gaara who was sitting on the roof of a building across the square.

They followed Tsunade into a bar an hour after dusk, once she had obviously given up searching for them, and crowded into the booth around her and Shizune.

Understanding dawned on her face, right before they dispelled their henges. The small, soft, pinkish fawn fox turned into Sakura. The fox such a dark silver colour he was almost black, with little patches of red around his armpits and the joins of his thigh puffed away to reveal Sasuke. The red-burgundy fox reappeared as Gaara. The fox with the dark points but the sunny golden fur turned into Naruto. The larger, paler silver-pearl fox became Kakashi. The smallest fox, which had similar colouring to Sasuke but white patches on its face, legs, and tail, resolved itself into a little tanuki. And the big red fox puffed and was replaced… by a big red fox wearing a hitai-ate on a blue swatch of fabric tied around its neck.

“I should’ve known that I wouldn’t find the real person amongst the clones,” Tsunade groaned. “You told me shinobi were like foxes. Masking your chakra like that is quite advanced, though. You usually don’t learn that until later. How many of you can do shadow clones, then? I encountered a lot of them today.”

“Just me!” Naruto said, excitedly. “But I can make hundreds, easy! And Kurama’s a real stickler for stealth, so he made us learn to hide.”

Kakashi cuffed him around the ears, but softly. “Don’t forget me,” he said. “I can also make Shadow Clones. Although I did not assist them in their endeavour today. All I did was oversee to make sure nothing got out of hand.”

“Naruto is very good at both the Kage Bunshin no Jutsu, and the henge,” Kurama said. “If you paid close attention, all of the clones had difficulty picking things up.”

Tsunade thought over the long, exhausting day she had just had. “Yes,” she agreed. “Why is that?”

“I’m learning the Rasengan!” Naruto told her, excitedly. “But it kind of hurts my hands. A lot.”

“I’ve almost worked out Chidori,” Sasuke intoned. “It – is not easy.”

“I can mostly heal them at the end of the day, now,” Sakura said. “And my taijutsu is getting so much better! Gaara’s sand is really fast and breaking through it is super difficult so I have to channel the chakra to my fists just right or he’ll catch me.”

“I’m getting better at not killing people,” Gaara offered, blandly.

“So,” Kurama said. “Are you impressed, or do you want to take the money and run away?”

Tsunade stared at them all. “I’m impressed,” she admitted, grudgingly.

Jiraiya chose that minute to burst into the bar. “Ah ha! Tsunade-hime! I’ve finally found you! Listen, I know it’s been a long time, but I need to talk to you about something— What are you all doing here?”

“Tsunade-sama has agreed to be the Godaime,” Kakashi intoned without a hint of inflection. “Isn’t that wonderful?”

 

xl.

Getting back to Konoha was an adventure, because they ran into a bunch of debt collectors before they managed to get a couple of miles out of Tanzaku-gai. A couple of days later, they encountered Orochimaru and Kabuto, who tried to snatch Sasuke before spotting Naruto, at which point they apologised politely, and left in a great hurry. Arriving in Konoha was also an adventure, because apparently Itachi and Kisame had gone there first looking for Naruto, and ended up in a fight with Maito Gai, of all people. Gai-sensei was fine because he’d long ago worked out how to fight a Sharingan user by studying their feet in a fight, though he had a nasty patch of missing skin on his arm from a close encounter with Samehada. However, this meant that they were all scrutinised heavily at the gate, until Tsunade got sick of it and thumped Kotetsu on the head and told him to respect his future Hokage, but he was unconscious by then, so he probably didn’t hear her.

Kurama suddenly wondered how the shinobi of Konohagakure would fare under the rule of Tsunade and recalled uncomfortably that repeated head trauma was universally bad news for any creature in possession of a head. Which was the entire population of the village.

By that point in time, everyone had had enough of everyone else. Spending all day, every day, and then all night as well, with the same exact people for almost a month could do that to a team, no matter how great their teamwork was. Kakashi cheerfully told the genin they had done a good job, patted them all on the heads equally, from Kurama, who took it with good grace, to Sasuke, who scowled, and then sent them off with instructions not to bother him for a week because he was existentially exhausted.

This was negotiated down to three days, after complaints that all ran along the lines of: “But training, Kakashi-sensei!”

Also, Iruka-sensei would shout at them about mission reports if they didn’t hand them in promptly. Not even Naruto was exempt from paperwork now that he was a shinobi. But it had been such a complicated mission, everything had gone sideways as soon as they left the village, could Kakashi please help them keep their events in order?

Sounding truly exhausted, Kakashi had agreed.

Kurama knew that Kakashi despised paperwork, and the only way he made it enjoyable for himself was by filling it in terribly to watch the desk shinobi get mad.

Then, somehow, and with no discussion on the topic, Naruto and Kurama ended up at Ichiraku Ramen with Gaara, Sakura, and Sasuke anyway. They did not speak. Just ordered, and ate in companionable silence, before parting ways.

Naruto decided to visit the Sandaime.

They found him smoking his pipe in his garden, watching the birds with a pensive expression. He had moved out of the Hokage Residence after his abrupt resignation, and now lived with Konohamaru in a small house with a beautiful traditional garden behind it not too far from the centre of the village.

“Jiji!” Naruto exclaimed happily, hopping the high stone fence, landing on top of the koi pond but not falling in and then yelping when one of the larger koi poked its head out of the water to try to nibble his toes.

“Naruto,” Hiruzen said, blinking at him in surprise, where he’d tumbled onto the neatly trimmed grass, sending Kurama – who had been sitting on his shoulder – head over tail into the bushes. “Ah, you’re back. I’m glad.”

“Yeah, and we found Tsunade-baa-chan and she’s gonna be Godaime!” Naruto said cheerfully, picking himself up and brushing the dirt off his jumpsuit. “We found her in Tanzaku-gai, and Kurama made a bet with her, which she lost, then she had to come back!” He paused. “Don’t tell her I said this, but she’s kinda scary, Jiji.”

“Good, good,” Hiruzen said. “You were unmolested in your travels?”

“Eh? What? No one gave me the bad-touch. Is this because of Ero-Sennin? I think he just likes ladies.”

Hiruzen choked on his pipe smoke and spent the better part of a minute coughing and hacking and thumping his chest with his fist. “No, no. That wasn’t what I meant. I meant no bad people attacked you.”

Naruto considered. “Uh.”

“The Akatsuki visited us in our hotel room, decided they were outnumbered, and left. We were waylaid by debt-collectors. We had an encounter with Orochimaru and Kabuto,” Kurama listed off, crawling back out of the ornamental bushes to count off the incidents on his little toesies. “They changed their minds about whatever they wanted, though, and retreated. No sign of Kabuto’s teammates, though I think it is likely Kabuto at least is no longer in Konoha. And we all received threats of dire bodily harm, but Tsunade-sama made them, and I don’t think we’re allowed to count her as a ‘bad person’ since we just brought her back to be Hokage.”

“Yeah, it was mostly those debt guys and Tsunade-baa-chan who tried to attack us. The black-cloak-red-clouds just talked for a bit, though Kurama clawed Itachi’s eye and Itachi tried to kick him so maybe it could be counted as an attack? It was weird though because I don’t think Itachi killed his clan by himself. I think someone told him to, and I kinda think that person is here in Konoha, but I dunno who it could be, you know?” Naruto rambled on, blithely, but Kurama watched Hiruzen still, then slump resignedly. “But he’s really smart, so whoever told him to do it must’ve been his superior or something, not just some random guy, and why would they want Sasuke’s family dead anyway? And if it was a real order, why’d he have to run away after, and why’d he join the Akatsuki, because they’re definitely bad guys? Or is he like a spy or something?”

“Naruto,” Hiruzen said, interrupting him. “I need you to stop talking about Uchiha Itachi, and why he may or may not have killed his clan.”

“Eh? Why! It’s not fair, though. I wanna know, and Sasuke deserves—”

“Naruto, stop. That is a S-Ranked secret.”

Naruto paused, then, to look at the Sandaime distrustfully. “It wasn’t you, was it?”

Hiruzen shook his head, and he looked very sad. “No,” he said. “It wasn’t me.”

Kurama observed him, shrewdly. “I hadn’t intended on asking you about any of this, you’ve more than earned your retirement, Sandaime-sama, but I think I’m glad I came to you and not someone else. Let me ask one question.”

“One,” the Sandaime said, slowly. “And if it comes too close to something I can not tell you, then I will not answer.”

“Very well,” Kurama agreed. “The person who gave the order. If they found out Naruto was asking questions, and it might go back to them, they would have Naruto? Kyuubi jinchuuriki or not, keeping certain secrets is more important than Konohagakure no Sato maintaining control over the Kyuubi.”

“Jinchuuriki or not,” Hiruzen said, turning to gaze pensively at the birds.

Senju Tsunade’s inauguration to Hokage proved to be bumpy, but they got there in the end. Kurama felt like he should have enjoyed the festive atmosphere, but instead he sat on Naruto’s head and peered up at the elderly Council members standing beside Jiraiya and Hiruzen as Tsunade gave her first address to the people of Konoha from the top of the Hokage Tower, and he wondered.

 

xli.

One evening, not long after Tsunade’s inauguration, Gaara made the following announcement as they were sitting at the kitchen table in Naruto apartment, eating cup ramen together.

“Baa-chan finally got a messenger hawk back from Suna. Baki is on his way to come and get me. She’s is expecting him to arrive tomorrow or the day after.”

He’d been living with Naruto in the Akasen since the failed invasion by Suna and Oto. There had been no discussion about this, it had just – happened. Kurama assumed the inn had politely asked him to vacate the premises, and Gaara had, after wandering around for a couple of days, come over to Naruto’s apartment and knocked on the window in the middle of the night. And Kurama, having gotten to know him quite well by now, knew that he did it in the middle of the night just to be annoying, not because he fundamentally lacked the understanding that primarily diurnal species like humans slept at nighttime.

After Kurama got up and let him in, he’d just, sort of, ever left.

Naruto, who had woken to find Gaara in his apartment come morning half a dozen times by that stage, had not commented on the first day, and when it appeared that Gaara intended to stay the next night as well, he’d shrugged and let it lie. Days stretched into a week and then Jiraiya was hauling them off to find the Godaime, they returned, Gaara kept living with them.

Only now he announced he was returning to Suna, and Naruto peered at him for a long moment, before bursting into tears.

Gaara looked mildly alarmed and glanced at Kurama for reassurance.

Kurama shrugged unhelpfully.

“I’m sorry, I’m happy for you, you get to go home, you know!” Naruto snivelled. “I’m just going to miss you so much. You’re my friend and Suna’s so far away. I’ve never even been, how am I going to know where to go to come visit?” He devolved into noisy sobbing.

Gaara reached out to pat him awkwardly on the back. “We can write to each other,” he suggested. Naruto’s sobbing did not abate. “I’ll draw you a map,” he added, a little desperately.

“It’s alright, Gaara-kun,” Kurama said, gently. “Naruto… doesn’t have very many friends, and he loves the ones he does with everything he has. He just doesn’t know how to process the fact that he won’t get to see you every day anymore. He’ll realise that you returning home and you dying aren’t the same thing soon, and this should pass.”

I hope, Kurama thought. He didn’t want to cause an international incident by having one jinchuuriki refuse to let another country’s jinchuuriki return home. That… might make things uncomfortable.

Gaara had turned a delicate shade of pink. “You and Naruto are my first friends,” he admitted, a little shyly, before casting a fond glance at Shukaku, now the size of a nine-week-old tanuki puppy. “And you have helped me not be a monster anymore. I am in your debt.”

“Nope,” Kurama said. “Friends don’t hold debts over other friends’ heads. You can be grateful, but not in our debt. I’m sorry, but that’s the law of friendship. If we were eternal rivals, it might be different, but I want you, Gaara-kun, as my friend more than I want my stinky otouto as my eternal rival.”

Shukaku made a grumbling noise.

“That was incomprehensible,” Gaara told him. “Tell it to me properly, or I won’t relay it at all.”

Shukaku stuck his head in Naruto’s unfinished ramen cup – Naruto was too busy whimpering sadly to notice – and began to eat Naruto’s dinner as well.

“It cannot have been that important,” Gaara concluded.

True to Kurama’s word – thankfully – Naruto had calmed down by the time a masked ANBU operative came out to the training field where Team Seven plus Gaara were practicing making hand seals with only their left hands the following afternoon. Kakashi, who had never bothered to learn this particular skill, was also practicing, although he’d grasped the concept faster than any of the kids and was now working his way through low-levelled jutsu in his repertoire first with his left, then with his right, with varying degrees of success.

“Hokage-sama says your jounin-sensei is here for you. You will meet at the Tower,” the masked operative said to Gaara, before disappearing in a shunshin.

“I should go,” Gaara said.

Kakashi thought about this for approximately two seconds, then eye-smiled, and said: “Why don’t we see you off? You’ve been a part of this team in one way or another for almost two months, now.”

Kurama was sure this was out of the goodness of his anxious little heart, and had nothing to do with that Doton jutsu he was finding tricky with his right hand but not his left for some reason.

Baki was waiting for Gaara in the Hokage’s office. He looked exactly the same as the last time Kurama had seen him. And, much like the last time Kurama had seen him, he was accompanied by Temari and Kankurou. Kankurou’s face was painted in a different pattern. Temari’s hair was a little wilder than usual. Both she and Kankurou looked visibly nervous, and Baki smelled it if he did not look it.

“Here they are,” Tsunade said, as Team Seven wandered into her office.

“Temari, Kankurou, you’re alright. I thought you might’ve gotten hurt in the fighting,” Gaara said without any inflection whatsoever, approaching his siblings, only for them to draw away. “And baa-chan only said Baki was coming, so I wasn’t sure.”

“Brat! Naruto, I told you not to call me that. Sarutobi Konohamaru called me ‘Baa-chan’ to my face yesterday, that Inuzuka boy calls me ‘Baa-chan’ every chance he gets. So does that Nara kid, and that Yamanaka girl. Some of the chuunin have started it, too. See what you’ve done? It’s Hokage-sama! I’m Hokage-sama!” Tsunade thundered. She looked ready to start pelting them with books.

“But you are a baa-chan,” Naruto said, grinning sheepishly and scratching the back of his head. “Ero-Sennin said so, and Kakashi-nii-san confirmed it. Nii-san saw you in the village when he was a genin, and you were one of the sannin then, so you have to be a baa-chan.”

She did throw a book, but only at Kakashi, and she nailed him right in the forehead with it.

Suddenly, Kurama realised why hitai-ate were what they were. Forehead protectors.

Kakashi fell down in spite of his forehead protector, but he would probably only have a concussion from the general force of the impact and not a generous dent in the front of his skull.

“Are we sure that’s Gaara-sama?” Temari whispered to Baki.

Baki seemed to consider this a valid concern, for he turned to Tsunade, and said: “Hokage-sama. This person is, in fact, the genin Sabaku no Gaara of Sunagakure no Sato?”

Tsunade flapped a hand at him. “Yeah, yeah. It’s your Ichibi no jinchuuriki. I take no responsibility for whatever mental damages those idiots have done to him, though.”

“I can sleep, now, and the monster doesn’t come out,” Gaara intoned blandly, and as cheerfully as it was possible to blandly intone anything. Kurama had a sneaking suspicion that he would have fun teasing his siblings now that he knew how to be a mostly normal pre-teen and not a perpetually sleep-deprived child constantly at risk of losing the battle of wills against the Ichibi. He wondered how long it would take Temari and Kankurou before they realised he was sassing them. “Also, I am myself. Watch.”

Sand trickled from his gourd to swirl in the air around them, but softly, like snow blowing on a light wind. He made it dance, taking the wispy shapes of different animals as they bounded around the room, merging from deer to wolves to horses to whales, only half-corporeal, before they danced and spiralled back into the gourd and he replaced the cork.

“I do not like killing people,” Gaara added, as an afterthought. “It makes me sad. I want to do less killing when I come back to Suna if that would be permissible.”

Baki, Kankurou, Temari, Gaara, and the little tanuki tucked into Gaara’s shirt were seen off at the village gates by a friendly crowd of two-dozen people, to the bemusement of Baki, Kankurou, and Temari.

The last thing Kurama heard of their voices, blown to him on the wind, was Temari saying: “What did you do in Konoha?”

And Gaara replying, sounding genuinely happy: “I made friends.”

 

xlii.

“Here, my cute little genin,” Kakashi said, handing Sakura, Naruto, and Sasuke a movie ticket each. “The film starts in ten minutes at the cinema around the block. I want you to watch it because it is relevant to our current mission. Don’t be late, or they might not let you in.”

He wandered off down the street, a hand raised in a lazy farewell, presumably to go look for their client. Or an adult bookstore, maybe. Who knew.

Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke looked at each other with varying degrees of puzzlement, before glancing at Kurama, who was equally bemused and could off nothing more than a shrug and a shake of his head.

“Don’t get me wrong. I like the Princess Gale movie franchise,” Sakura said. “And I had been meaning to see this one, only we were in the Land of Waves when it came out, so I’m glad they’re showing it again here… But why does Kaka-sensei want us to go to the movie theatre?”

“How is this in any way relevant?” Sasuke asked, and Kurama had an odd feeling that Sasuke had not seen any of the films and did not particularly care to start.

Naruto was frowning. “Training?” he offered, but he didn’t sound entirely sure of himself.

They shared another uncertain look.

“We could pretend to be ANBU,” Kurama offered. “Get in, get out, without anyone seeing us or knowing we were ever there. It’s a little easy in a darkened movie theatre, though. Maybe he just wants us to have fun?”

“Maybe,” Sakura and Naruto agreed, hesitantly, and Sasuke just grunted.

They snuck in anyway because there was a big ‘NO PETS’ sticker on the window and Kurama was unfortunately fox-shaped. Then, because they could, they sat upside-down on the ceiling.

The movie was… obviously made by civilians who didn’t know very much about chakra. It was fun, the special effects were very good, and it was sufficiently unrealistic that Kurama was not reminded of any battle he’d partaken in, but most of it was nonsense.

“Kurama,” Sakura murmured at one point. “You’re really old, right? And you know heaps about chakra. There… isn’t actually such a thing as rainbow chakra at all, is there?”

Kurama considered the answer to that carefully. There had been people, over the course of his lifetime, who had managed all five elemental releases, who had even manage to combine them into one jutsu. But it had never looked anything like what was on the movie screen, which reminded him a little of the shimmer of oil on water more than anything else. Yes, he’d seen people cloaked in chakra before – should Naruto try it with the Kyuubi’s chakra, his would be red. For the most part, though – “No,” Kurama said. “It doesn’t work like that.”

“Can you burn chakra like they’re doing?” Naruto asked.

Kurama considered. “In theory, you could flare your chakra from all your tenketsu, instead of just your hands or your feet, and hold it like a barrier, but maintaining it would be tiring, and you’d be lighting yourself up to everyone around you like a beacon. Any sensor worth their salt would feel that,” and he nodded towards the screen. “From a hundred miles away. I don’t recommend trying it unless you’re a walking chakra tank, and even not then, because you’d probably just hurt yourself.”

“Huh,” Naruto said, thoughtfully.

“I liked it better when I could pretend it was real,” Sakura murmured, a little sadly.

“Really? I like it because it so obviously isn’t.”

When the movie finished, and they had snuck back outside, they suddenly realised that Kakashi had not given them a time or place to meet back up with him, and, in fact, they had no idea where he was. They were in a strange town in a far-off part of the Land of Fire, they’d left their inn that morning all packed up and ready to go, and now they had nothing to do.

For want of anything better, they went around to the vacant lot at the back of the cinema and sat in the grass. Naruto tossed a pebble. Kurama went and fetched it. Naruto tossed the pebble again, further. Kurama took it to Sakura, who threw it for him. Kurama brought it to Sasuke, who rolled his eyes, huffed, picked up the slobbery pebble, and hit Naruto with it.

“Hey!” Naruto groused, rubbing his ear. He paused. “Does anyone hear—”

A pale horse jumped the fence, almost running him over. There was a woman in full make-up on the back of the horse, and unless Kurama was sorely mistaken, that was the actress who had played Princess Gale. Had they stumbled onto a set? Surely not, he could see no cameras, and it would be weird to film a movie with a billboard advertising a previous instalment in the background anyway.

A dozen more horses, various shades of bay and black and brown, also jumped the fence.

Naruto shrieked, but managed to roll out of the way, as the armour-clad riders galloped past.

“Hey!” he yelled. “That was that princess, and they were chasing her!”

He ran off in pursuit. After a moment of hesitation, Sakura and Sasuke followed.

Kurama groaned. He was going to die of second-hand embarrassment when it turned out they had interrupted filming or a stunt practice, so he padded off with his nose to the street, following Kakashi’s scent instead. Kakashi actually didn’t smell like very much, beyond the faintest hint of dog and ozone. That scent-eliminating soap some of the jounin and all of the ANBU used was quite effective, and were Kurama a lesser tracker, he might have had difficulty.

As it was, he leapt up onto the roof where Kakashi had been perched moments prior in time to watch him tell Sasuke and Sakura that the men they had just apprehended, the men who had been previously riding the darker horses, who were dressed in heavy black armour, were employees of the client.

Kurama stretched his senses without waking up the larger part of his chakra and wondered how Naruto had come to be a dozen miles off in another direction, then decided he didn’t want to know. The feelings leaking into their mind space were of fun and general excitement, anyway, so he was probably fine.

He trailed after Kakashi, Sakura, and Sasuke as they were shown to a film studio downtown and briefed on their mission by various executive from the film company.

They were to protect Fujikaze Yukie, the actress who played Princess Gale, as the film crew filmed the first movie in the franchise on location, rather than on a set built in the studio. Apparently famous people like actors were notorious for getting mobbed, and since two little genin had managed to neatly incapacitate the entirety of the crew’s stuntmen-slash-bodyguards, Kurama supposed hiring on shinobi was reasonable.

For reasons beyond Kurama’s comprehension, they were going all the way to the Land of Snow to do the filming. As he was neither a director nor a script writer, he decided it would be imprudent to ask why they were risking fingers, noses, and toes to frostbite when they could head on down to the Land of Tea or somewhere else equally picturesque and much less lethal for the purposes of creating cinematic art.

It was as they were being introduced to members of the cast and crew that someone suddenly noticed him, the quiet fox who had been sitting by Kakashi’s feet, listening quietly but attentively.

“Oh,” the director said. “You have a little fox on your team? Is it a mascot?”

“This is Kurama,” Kakashi said. “He’s a ninkitsune belonging to the member of our team who is currently… not present.”

“A ninkitsune,” the director repeated, waving over one of the writers. “Hey, come check out their fox! Is he well trained? Can he do tricks?”

Kurama suddenly had a very bad feeling.

“Training animals for cinema is very difficult,” the director was saying to Kakashi. “We usually have to use them only for very brief shots, or add them in post-production as a special effect. Say, I’ve just had an idea for an interesting subplot, let me talk about it with my writers, but if your fox can perform certain actions on cue, then we might have a role for him in our film. It would make for a unique experience for the audience, to see an actual animal perform on-screen with the actors, rather than a puppet or a computer-generated image…”

“Ah,” Kakashi said, scratching his head. “Kurama is a valuable member of our team, and—”

“Frankly, I don’t want to,” Kurama said.

“Oh,” the gathered actors, cameramen, writers, stuntmen, and the director all cooed.

“He can talk,” the director breathed, his tone awed beyond belief. “Amazing. Yes, yes! I have the perfect role. If you can talk, you can take direction! You don’t need to be painstakingly trained to respond to cues. Can you read? If you can read, it’ll be even better, we can give you a copy of the script, and you can learn your own lines.”

“I can’t read, sorry,” Kurama said. “You’ll have to reconsider.”

Sakura nudged him with her foot. “He’s lying. He reads more than I do.”

“Perfect! Yes, yes, I’ll adjust the script now. He won’t be able to wear that Konoha-symbol, but you can put it somewhere safe for the duration of filming, I’m sure.” The director turned to one of the writers. “I’m thinking a little god of the snow to act as a guide? Do we want to give him a talking role? His voice isn’t very pretty, but it’s a shame to waste such talent… Maybe if we give him archaic enough dialogue, people won’t pay as much attention to how he sounds…”

Oh, no.

 

xliii.

Although Kurama felt immediate kinship with Fujikaze Yukie – who they found later that evening, drunk in a bar with a Naruto who had recovered from his episode of preteen film star worship in record time, exclaiming loudly to the world what a filthy, rotten career acting was – he didn’t like her. In part because she had apparently pepper-sprayed Naruto in the face simply because he’d asked for her autograph, which Kurama thought was entirely uncalled for, and in part because she was ornery, uncooperative, and downright rude. Her perfume burned his nose, although Naruto seemed to think it smelled nice. Also, she might’ve called him cute, and he was not cute, he was a fearsome warrior of esteemed calibre who was unfortunately fox-shaped.

Kurama wondered, idly, if putting her under a genjutsu to get her onto the boat that was leaving for the Land of Snow that evening counted as kidnapping? Because that seemed a lot like kidnapping, or at the very least holding someone against their will. Perhaps she’d signed a locked contract, though. Or perhaps Kurama was simply the shinobi carrying out the mission at the behest of the client, and it wasn’t his place to ask moral questions.

That dilemma was to tough for him to chew on, and Kakashi seemed unconcerned, so he left it alone.

Before they went to sleep that evening in the little cabin Team Seven was sharing, Kakashi gathered them all around to divulge some information that might’ve been nice to know before.

“As you know,” he said. “This is an escort mission. But! Because there is a lot of danger in the Land of Snow, this mission is an A-Rank mission. Normally, it would be taken on by a team of jounin, not a jounin-sensei and his genin, but Hokage-sama felt that the previous experience I have had in the Land of Snow meant that we were more qualified than another team in this case.”

“An A-Rank?” Sakura repeated, sounding dubious.

Kakashi nodded. “Yes.”

“Kakashi-nii-san,” Naruto said, perplexed and mildly upset if Kurama was reading him right. “These people, they know how the mission ranks work, right?”

“I believe so, yes,” Kakashi replied.

“Then this isn’t just an escort mission, is it?” Sakura asked. “A-Ranks usually involve the protection of VIPs, suppressing enemy shinobi forces, and missions of state-level importance. It seems a bit much.”

“Well, Fujikaze Yukie could be considered a VIP,” Kakashi said, slowly. “But I agree with you. There is something deeper going on here than the filming of a movie.” They all looked at each other solemnly. Kurama wondered if Kakashi was holding back sensitive information, the sort of secret that would only be shared with their commanding officer, so it couldn’t be tortured out of them if they were caught, or whether he also did not know. The fox was liking this mission less and less. “Well, my cute little genin. Get some sleep! Tomorrow’s going to be another big day, I’m sure.”

It was about this time that the ship they were travelling in left the calmer waters of the bay of the harbour and entered the open sea. Kurama enjoyed the feeling of the roll of the waves beneath him for about a minute, and then came to the uncomfortable realisation that he might not have crafted his inner ears and the part of his little canid brain that dealt with balance issues quite sufficiently.

“I’m going up for some air,” he said, tightly, to Kakashi, who was reading one of his little orange books.

“Try not to fall overboard,” Kakashi told him.

It took the little almost an hour of lying on his belly on the deck, in the brisk night air with the salty ocean breeze ruffling his fur, before he finally managed to rework the tiny bones in his ears and his information processing centre of his stupid squishy mammalian brain and the sensation of nausea that arose with every wave the boat crested finally receded. He felt sorry for every poor organism that had to suffer through seasickness and couldn’t just rework their own internal organs to fix the issue.

“Ugh,” he said, miserably, to himself, and went back down to their shared cabin.

Kakashi was still awake, although now he was flicking with a vague sort of interest through a sheaf of papers over an inch thick. “Oh,” he said. “Kurama. There you are. The director dropped this off while you were on deck. He says you’re to have it memorised from start to finish by the we reach Snow.”

He handed it to Kurama, who discovered it was a revised copy of the script.

“The whole thing?” Kurama said, breathlessly, and felt ill for an entirely different reason than the rise and fall of the boat.

Kakashi nodded. “Every word. You need to know what the other actors are doing and saying so you know your cues.”

Kurama considered this for a long moment. “Is this required for the success of the mission?”

“No,” Kakashi said, scratching his chin through his mask. “But it’ll keep you out of trouble. And since, out of all the members of this team, you and Naruto probably tie when it comes to walking into trouble, I think it is a good idea. Fewer idiots for me to keep an eye on.”

Kurama gave him the puppy dog eyes.

Kakashi did not relent.

Still miserable, but now frustrated, and a little bit anxious, too, Kurama crawled into Naruto’s sleeping roll, then wiggled his way right down to the bottom to curl up by Naruto’s feet, where he could mostly pretend the world didn’t exist.

His anxiety ratcheted up exponentially the next afternoon, as they sat on deck, where the crew had erected a set, and watched Yukie and one of her co-stars acting out a death scene. She might not have been a very nice person, and Kurama didn’t like her at all, but put her in front of a camera, and she truly became Princess Gale. It was possible, for a few moments, to forget who she was and think only of the rainbow chakra and hope in the face of certain death. Until someone called cut and she became rude and snappish again, and her assistant, Asada Sandayu, had to aid her with putting drops in her eyes, so she could ‘cry’ for the camera.

“I’m never going to be able to do this,” Kurama moaned, pitifully, his copy of the script open before him. “I can’t act.”

Sakura patted his head. “Sure you can,” she said, brightly. “You do it all the time.”

Sasuke grunted in what might’ve been agreement.

A few mornings later, their progress was halted by an enormous iceberg that would take hours, if not days, to travel around safely, as icebergs were notoriously dangerous to ships, being almost entirely submerged. Submerged ice posed a significant threat of puncturing the hull of this ship, or scraping the bottom of it away, sinking them if they were incautious.

This was fine, the director decided, making some adjustments to everyone’s scripts, they could begin filming here and now on the iceberg. Look how spectacular that ice was!

And so Kurama was dragged in front of the camera before he was ready, after a session with hair and make-up where his fur had been brushed until it was shining and silky and his nails buffed until they gleamed.

It was difficult to focus on saying his lines while the boom hovered over his head and he kept wanting to twitch and look up at it, or a crew member just out of sight of the camera shone a light in his face, and he had to remember not to look directly at the camera.

For the fifth time in a row, he extended one forepaw in front of him, tucked the other under his chest, and dropped into a low bow with his forehead almost touching the snow that was hardpacked on top of the iceberg.

“‘Greetings, Princess Gale,’” he recited. “‘I am Koori, the spirit of this ice.’” He rose from the bow to look up at Yukie with an expression he hoped was sufficiently awed. “‘Great tales of your rainbow chakra and your tireless endeavour have reached me, even this far north, and I am aware of your quest. I, Koori, have the greatest belief in you and have manifested as a bright flame amongst the snow to guide you to the Rainbow Glacier.’”

The director called cut.

Kurama sighed in relief as they set up for the actor playing Mao to make his entrance and he got a chance to lay down in the snow to cool himself down, because he felt itchy and hot with pent-up embarrassment. He’d just realised that he would probably have to be brushed and blow-dried before they could do his next scene when a series of explosions rocked the iceberg, and the film crew couldn’t possibly have set them because a couple of them were well up the precipice where they hadn’t had the safety equipment to climb to.

Enemy shinobi.

Kurama leapt up, even as Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura, and Kakashi arranged themselves in a protective formation in front of the film crew.

“All of you, back!” Kakashi demanded, throwing an arm out towards the boat without turning away from the threat.

There were three of them. A man on a ledge on the face of the precipice, with pale hair, short purple slashes for clan markings stretching from the outer corners of each eye, a Snow hitai-ate, and a white jumpsuit of a style that Kurama had not seen before. A woman standing high on an ice pinnacle, with pink pig-tails, and similar white chest armour to the jumpsuit. And a third man, off to their right, who had been buried in deep snow until he revealed himself, built like a tank with small beady eyes, his left arm a metal monstrosity.

“We welcome you to the Land of Snow,” the first man said, and he had a smile on his face that Kurama didn’t like.

“Princess Koyuki,” the woman added, and her gaze fell upon Fujikaze Yukie. “Did you bring the Hex Crystal? We hope you did.”

Kurama also looked at Yukie but turned his attention to Kakashi as he glanced over his shoulder. “Koyuki-hime?” he repeated, and Kurama knew that Kakashi knew her. And then he told the genin to protect her, and ordered everyone back to the ship.

Kurama went to bound forward to join the defensive line, but one of the crew-members scruffed him. “Come on, this is a battle between ninja!” It was one of the actors, the one who wore the white and purple face paint, Kurama wanted to bite his hand and join the fight, use a kawarimi, but he couldn’t – not without hurting him, which he decided would be unacceptable within the parameters of the mission. “You don’t want to get in there!”

“I am a ninkitsune, not some house pet,” Kurama wailed, even as he was bundled under the man’s arm where he could do even less without irreparably damaging the useless squishy human as he ran with the rest of the crew – bar Yukie who had collapsed in the snow, and her assistant Sandayu, who would not leave her side – for the motor launch back to the ship.

Before he knew it, he was back on the ship, watching Kakashi lock the first of the shinobi to reveal himself in combat, fighting an ice dragon jutsu with a water dragon jutsu, Sasuke battling the woman’s ice prison technique with his family’s Katon jutsu, and Naruto and Sakura tag-team the tank-like man.

The woman broke free of the ninja wire trap Sasuke had set and took to the air. Those odd metal protrusions on the back of their armour were wings. Wings that were too small to hold the weight of an adult human, wings that were oddly manoeuvrable for all that they seemed to exist solely for gliding. Then how did the enemy shinobi fly? Chakra circulating beneath the membrane of the wing to keep them aloft? Delicate shifts of body weight and chakra control to allow for raptor-like agility in the air?

Surely, that level of control would be difficult to maintain. Ah, but the armour was special.

Clearly, chakra armour was not something to be underestimated.

Kurama paced the railing of the ship anxiously, felt the moment when Naruto drew upon his chakra to augment his own strength as he locked with the tank of a man and reached a stalemate, and was ready to launch himself onto the water when the first of three great ice whales rose from the water to pulverise the iceberg.

A moment later, Naruto had made a pair of Shadow Clones who scooped up Yukie and Sandayu, and he and his teammates were legging it across the ocean as two further great ice whales dove from the water, collided, and collapsed onto the iceberg, shattering it.

Kurama sat on the railing, eagle-eyed and alert, his chakra-sense pushed wide until he could feel the oddly-contained men and woman in their suits of chakra armour, still standing on a fragment of the destroyed iceberg, watching the ship as it sailed away.

 

xliv.

They docked in the Land of Snow with no further incident. After her fright, Fujikaze Yukie had retired to her room for the rest of the trip. The shinobi were called into a small conference room at the hotel they were staying at in the port city, and told the truth.

Asada Sandayu was a resistance fighter from the Land of Snow who used to live peacefully under the rule of their previous leave, Kazahana Sosetsu. However, about ten years ago there had been a coup, and Kazahana Doto, Sosetsu’s younger brother, had usurped the rule of Snow. Sosetsu had died. His daughter, Koyuki, had not – she had been rescued by a much younger Kakashi, who would’ve still been ANBU then, and Kurama had only managed to keep a half-eye on the comings and goings of Inu that early in Naruto’s life, so that period of the Hatake-brat’s life was largely a blank to him.

Kazahana Koyuki had not died, but she might as well have. When Sandayu discovered her at last, many years later, she was living under the alias of Fujikaze Yukie.

She might not have enjoyed acting, but there was one thing she wanted to do even less: return to the Land of Snow. The Land of Snow where she had watched her father’s murder, where the people fighting against Doto would rally behind her, but she would be a figurehead only, one who had no hope in the cause, one who had been brought here through the machinations of others, one who had lost hope years ago.

“I am alive,” she said to them, when she came to the doorway of the conference room, her expression flat and emotionless. “But my heart is dead, and after that day, my tears dried up.”

Kurama thought that perhaps this was why he did not enjoy her company. It was more than the fact she was rude and unpleasant, it was that she was that she had given up. This was in stark difference to the people he usually interacted with. Shinobi endured, after all. They fought to the bitter last, or retreated, regrouped, and tried again.

They didn’t lay down in the snow and wait for death to come.

Even more so, a chakra construct was eternal. They could outlast anything. Even if they were stuck a ‘mortal’ blow, they were parts of nature – they would reform with the passing of time. There was never a choice to simply… cease.

At a loss, for this was a part of human nature Kurama did not think he would ever understand – fury, joy, greed, grief, serenity, fear, wrath, hope, pride, nervousness, boredom, exhaustion, pain, shame, even nausea, all of them he knew well. Not even bound in chakra chains and staked down by Kushina within her seal had he felt hopeless.

Quietly, he resolved to let his teammates deal with future interactions with the princess-actress, because he felt he would probably end up with his foot in his mouth.

Kurama was also only peripherally aware of lust, not a pervasive negative emotion to Mito or Kushina as pain or nausea, and Kurama felt their negative emotions stronger than any other, and thus easily ignored when they experienced it. Lust, of course, was entirely incidental and unique to creatures that reproduced sexually, which chakra constructs did not, being creatures that did not reproduce in any sense of the word at all – Naruto was his, yes, he was not Kurama’s offspring in the truest sense of the word, he had simply belonged to Kurama for the entirety of his short little life and Kurama considered him the most precious.

Although he lacked any true understanding of this particular feeling, Kurama imagined he would not be having any conversations with Kakashi over the merits of what made for good erotic literature any time soon, so the fact that this was another of those animal-human sensations that were beyond him was largely irrelevant and not something he needed to concern himself with beyond good-natured teasing.

It was decided, somehow, that not only would they proceed, they would continue filming their Princess Gale movie, which would be focused, ironically, on never giving up hope.

“I can’t believe she really is a princess,” Kurama heard Sakura repeat quietly to herself, the following morning.

They loaded the filming gear onto a series of trucks fitted with treads and skis at the front instead of wheels like Kurama might have expected to see on a cart, which burned a foul-smelling oil derivative for fuel and made quick work of the mountain roads they were taking to get further inland.

For all that it was a poor country, the Land of Snow was remarkably technologically advanced. Kurama had never seen anything like these trucks elsewhere in the Five Nations. They might not go as fast as a shinobi running at full speed, but they covered ground decently, much more than a team of dogs and a sled, or an ox and cart. And a shinobi running at speed in this frigid cold would use a lot of energy not only to make distance, but to keep themselves warm. So, actually, riding in a snow truck might not have been the fastest option, but it was the most efficient.

It wasn’t even cold! There was a heater inside!

Kurama hopped around the interior of the truck and marvelled, looking out the window on one side, and then the other, tail wagging as the scenery whipped past.

He had a question for their driver and wriggled into the cab at the front to ask.

“If you take the skis and treads off, and put wheels on, do the trucks run places other than snow?” he asked the man behind the wheel.

The man glanced at him out the corner of his eye and grinned. “They sure do. One day, these things will be all over the Five Nations, and people will be able to shift food and other goods from place to place in hours instead of days, or days instead of weeks.”

Kurama made a thoughtful noise.

The ingenuity of civilians, who did not have the same abilities as shinobi and had to make up for it with their minds, kept on amazing him, time after time.

Their procession of trucks reached a great tunnel beneath the mountain, and they stopped there to let people out to stretch their legs and go to the bathroom.

“Beyond this tunnel,” Sandayu explained, as they stood before the gaping maw in the mountainside, icicles hanging from the ceiling like frozen stalactites. “Is the holdout of the resistance. Everyone is waiting patiently for the princess to arrive.”

Kurama shivered, crouching low in the snow and biting back a miserable whimper.

He did not relish the idea of entering that tunnel, and tried very hard not to imagine the freezing, crushing weight of the millions of tonnes of stone and ice that would be pressing down above his head for the entire time they were passing through. He was a creature of wind and fire, the very antithesis of earth and ice.

Sasuke must have noticed his discomfort, because a moment later he’d been scooped up out of the snow and tucked beneath the Uchiha’s cloak.

It was with great trepidation that Kurama allowed himself to be carried back into the truck that they might continue their journey.

The tunnel, it turned out, was fine if nerve-wracking.

It was on the other side of the tunnel that everything went wrong.

 

xlv.

They stopped on the other side of the tunnel to start filming, only to discover that Yukie was gone.

Kurama peered up at the lowering sky, snow spiralling down around them, and wondered about the likelihood of survival of a lone civilian with no provisions, no means of making fire, and no precise knowledge of where they were. Even if she had spent her childhood here in this frigid land, Fujikaze Yukie had been a princess. Presumably kept safe and warm, protected, with only a few lessons under her belt on how to stay in one place or dig a snow cave if she got lost.

“We’ll split up and find her,” Kakashi said. “Radio back if you find her.” And then he glanced at Kurama. “Kurama, you stay and make sure no harm comes to the film crew.”

Kurama, who had leapt up, ready to race down the mountain, following his nose in search of that burning perfume, sat back down with a frustrated harrumph. “Yes, Kakashi-nii-san.”

He watched, feeling helpless, as his precious people left him behind.

Again.

But he was a member of Team Seven, and there were dozens of cast and crew here who were just as vulnerable as Fujikaze Yukie – just less valuable, as if one life had more monetary value somehow than another just because they were born to different circumstances. Kurama didn’t like it, but he stayed, climbing up onto the roof of one of the trucks to diligently keep watch, until the film crew moved it further up the mountain, so they would have an unimpeded view while filming. Then he clambered onto a rocky outcropping thrust up through the snow, black and cold.

In the later film that would come out, there would be a panoramic shot of the valley below the mountain, the camera slowly panning from one end to the other until it settled on him, a small, bright red fox silhouetted against the overcast sky, his ears pricked alertly, his gaze cast out across a land of blue and white, grey and green, and black, flakes of snow settling in the fur upon his back. At the time, however, Kurama had no idea he was being filmed.

Naruto radioed in. He’d found Yukie and was returning. She’d been on the other side of the mountain – she must have made her escape before they even entered the tunnel, but he would be there soon.

Kakashi, Sakura, and Sasuke were en route back to the filming site, too, expected back sooner because they were not having to carry the Princess through knee-deep snow or across sheets of treacherous ice.

Ice which promptly and spontaneously for no reason applicable to the weather melted away from the railway lines beneath with a hiss as chakra was channelled through them. There came a deep, ground-rumbling rattle that reminded Kurama of an earthquake that would not actualise.

Asada Sandayu bolted uphill, calling for them to follow or die, for Kazahana Doto was upon them.

They followed him up into the trees, where they found the gathered forces of the resistance, some forty or fifty strong, civilian all, and were joined shortly thereafter by Team Seven – minus Naruto.

Kurama got the feeling he was close, and when he poked into their shared mind space he was confronted with determination, and the sense of something huge and growling upon his heels.

But the growling rumble was not just in their shared mind space, it was in the physical world, too, and when Kurama peered down the slope at the maw of the tunnel, he saw Naruto appear carrying Yukie on his back and dive into the snow to the side of the track, just as the train screamed out after them to pull to a stop. It was a trailing monstrosity of strangely shaped wooden carriages hauled by a sweating, steaming engine that belched noxious coal smoke into the snowy air.

What followed was a massacre that reminded Kurama precisely why he hated humans. Why their ingenuity, so beautiful in one setting, was so very ugly. Doto himself was on the train, having ventured out from his castle to apprehend his niece. The resistance forces, let by Sandayu who had hastily armed and armoured himself, rallied for their Princess, and attacked. Shutters on the carriages were pulled back, men crouched inside cranked a wheel, and sheet after sheet of kunai flew through the air in a devastating barrage, mowing down everyone who stood before them.

Team Seven attacked the train, forcing it to move on with explosives, and then bringing an avalanche down upon it, but just a couple of seconds of the automated kunai throwers had been enough.

There had been no need to aim. The killing had been impersonal. Kunai no more than a half foot from another had flown like horizontal rain, bringing with it certain death from a dozen puncture wounds, driven clean through armour to the hilt in every instance.

Everyone was dead. Asada Sandayu. The entire force of men he’d brought them here to rendezvous with. Naruto and Yukie were alright, by virtue of having been on the downhill side of the train. The film crew, who had stayed up amongst the trees, were alive. Sasuke, Sakura, and Kakashi had been able to avoid being killed simply because their reflexes were faster, and they had been able to leap well clear of the rain of kunai.

It happened so fast.

Shinobi battles always happened quickly, but this had not been a battle between shinobi.

Kurama wandered between the dead and dying, feeling a hollow sort of sickness, an ache deep inside him that he would never be able to retch up, a strange breathless grief.

Sakura was crying, tears trickling partway down her cheeks only to freeze in the chill air.

“I can’t help anyone,” she said. “They’re all too hurt. I can’t help. They’re all going to die.”

Sasuke was paler than usual, even as he wrapped one arm around her shoulders and let her turn her face into his cloak.

Kakashi’s expression was carefully blank, but his shoulders were tight.

Naruto was disconsolate. Kurama went to his side, but he was uncertain if his kit even knew he was there.

And Yukie.

Yukie stared down as Sandayu’s body, her face flat and dispassionate, as if she were viewing something mildly distasteful, and not the death of someone who had loved her.

 

xlvi.

It was a zeppelin, Kurama would learn later, the flying thing that came back for them before they could even decide what to do with the bodies.

The clever, ruthless, ugly little humans had learned to fly without even chakra.

When Yukie was taken, Naruto, as tenacious as an attack dog, managed to throw a kunai with a rope and scramble up it onto the zeppelin before anyone else could react. Kurama would grant that his reflexes were getting better and better, even as his heart leapt into his throat and tried to suffocate him because Naruto was on an enemy flying ship, alone, with no backup. And then they were too high up, and it was too late.

He couldn’t even call upon the Kyuubi, not unless he wanted to everyone on board plummeting to their deaths.

Kurama’s concern must have been obvious, because Kakashi picked him up and lifted him onto his shoulder with a quick pat on the head, and a: “They’ll be heading to the black castle. We’ll follow on foot. It’s okay, Kurama. I will never, ever leave a comrade behind.”

Kurama felt the moment someone sealed Naruto’s chakra, felt Naruto’s chagrin, and renewed determination, felt the moment he lapsed into unconsciousness – and could do nothing, not without giving himself away, though he noticed Sasuke and Sakura giving him concerned glances as they raced through the snow towards Kazahana Doto’s castle.

It had been built upon the site of the old Kazahana Castle, though it was an ugly monstrosity that could hardly be called a castle at all. It looked more like a cross between a factory and a fortress, great chimney stacks spewing noxious black smoke into the air that Kurama could smell for miles as they approached, sluice gates beneath it, positioned to allow toxic runoff to flow over the cliff it was perched upon.

Kurama’s hate intensified, bitter at the back of his throat, as his lip curled back over his teeth.

Somewhere inside that horrible castle, he felt Naruto wake up.

Naruto, bright as sunshine determined for a better future, determined to become Hokage so he could fix all the wrong he looked around him and saw with sad eyes, before he blinked and grinned. Always hopeful, never one to lay belly up in the snow and die, he woke up and Kurama felt his quiet query in their mind space, felt the formation of a crafty plan forming in Naruto’s mind, a good trick.

And Kurama let the hatred recede, buried it deep inside himself and tried to smother it. Hatred and loathing were not needed. They didn’t help anything, never helped anything, might give him a sense of temporary satisfaction but there would be guilt later. He had to be positive and try his best.

Resolve hardened, Kurama stormed the castle at nightfall and led Kakashi unerringly down, down, into the freezing prison in the glacier beneath the hideous castle, where they found Naruto and Princess Koyuki making a valiant escape attempt, having managed to get free of both their chains and their cells.

Naruto had a strange metal device on his belly. This, Kurama surmised, was what was keeping his chakra sealed, and he almost laughed – because it was a little piece of metal and wire and it might suppress the chakra of a human being, but it would not contain a bijuu, nothing could contain a bijuu forever, not even the greatest of seals. All Naruto would have to do would be borrow some of Kyuubi’s chakra, and channel it, but when Kurama opened his mouth to ask, Naruto caught his eye and winked.

Ah, so Naruto was pretending to be incapacitated in order to be underestimated.

Clever.

Kurama closed his mouth and raced along at his kit’s side as they met up with Sakura and Sasuke and made a bid for freedom.

As the old adage said, no plan survives contact with the enemy, and this one didn’t, either, in spite of its simplicity.

Largely because Kazahana Doto was a shinobi. His older brother and niece had not been.

Kurama would muse upon the ramifications of an entire country ruled by ninja later and decide that it was not ideal – because the little people were forgotten. Kazahana Doto, for all that he appeared to be reasonably skilled in the shinobi arts, had fallen to greed and the want of power and money, which made him a bad shinobi.

In that moment, however, he watched Yukie find her strength – Naruto must have shown her how to be strong, and Kurama was proud of his kit – and attempt to stab her uncle, even as he strangled her. But the blade was stayed, for he, like the rest of the shinobi in this frozen hellscape, was wearing that irritating chakra armour.

He took to flight with Yukie in his grasp as the castle began to collapse, Naruto grabbing Yukie’s hand and being taken with them.

Kurama fled the castle with the rest of Team Seven, and chased after Doto towards the Rainbow Glacier. He beheld the moment when Sakura and Sasuke worked together to kill two of the enemy shinobi pursuing them, the man built like a tank, and the woman with the pink hair, whose names he understood were Fubuki and Mizore, overloading their chakra armour explosively.

Sakura didn’t seem to realise she’d made her human first kills in her shinobi career, even though they’d been shared with Sasuke who was already blooded, the two of them racing onward to the glacier and re-joining Kakashi, who had left the third of Doto’s pet shinobi, the one with the purple slashes beneath his eyes, dead of a broken neck, in the snow behind him.

Kurama summited a rise to find the film crew already there, lying in the snow, cameras rolling, as sooty ice dragons snarled and twisted to come down on the spot where Naruto stood, defiant in stance and mind.

The little red fox stood on that rise above the battle, poised to intervene even though it seemed it was no longer necessary, and Kakashi came to stand at his side.

He watched as with a great chirping of a thousand birds, Sasuke leapt to Naruto’s aid, damaging the armour’s power core before dancing out of the way.

He watched – and felt – the moment Naruto drew upon the Kyuubi’s chakra, freely given, to shatter the device keeping his own chakra in check.

He watched as Naruto created hundreds of clones to hide his real movements, as he took a moment to create the rasengan.

He watched as the rising sun hit the rasengan Naruto had formed in his hand. Refractions of light bounced off it, shrouding him in what appeared to be a miasma of rainbow light, just like in the film – and wasn’t that ironic – which he slammed into Kazahana Doto’s chest, shattering the power core of his chakra armour and sending him flying into one of the great mirrors that powered the heat generator, shattering the thick layer of ice that had formed over it.

What happened next, Kurama had no logical explanation for.

Grass and wildflowers sprung up from the centre of the generator and began to spread outwards, rapidly, lifting the frigid veil of snow and ice as skeletal trees burst into bloom. Within moments, the snowy landscape had been transformed as far as the eye could see, verdant and green and bursting with new spring life.

Kurama could only think that the great Sun Goddess, mother of all that was good and holy, and the very antithesis of the Moon Goddess who was Kurama’s grandmother, the divine being who the Uchiha had named their unholy black fire after, had bore witness to the battle that had taken place here. And in her benevolence, she had seen fit to draw her celestial paintbrush across the land, allowing life to spring up where before there was barren tundra and the sharp thrust of jagged mountains.

He padded down through the long, sweet-smelling green grass, damp with morning dew, to Naruto’s side, his worry evaporated like the snow, to sit by his boy’s side. Naruto was staring in exhausted wonder at the world around him, a beatific smile on his face, as he faded out of consciousness. He’d been awake for hours on end, fighting and struggling for many of them, but his life was not imperilled, so Kurama allowed him his rest, opting to curl up on his stomach.

Later, at the hospital where they all went to have their various scrapes, burns, contusions, and lacerations treated, Sakura cornered Kurama. “No such thing as rainbow chakra, huh?” she said, grinning mischievously.

Kurama harrumphed and was tempted to tuck his nose under his tail and ignore her. “That was a unique occurrence due to time of day and atmospheric conditions.”

She laughed, and he knew she was teasing him. She’d probably worked out the same thing. “What about the plant life?” she asked.

Kurama considered and decided not to tell her the imaginings he’d had in a flight of exhausted and battle-weary fancy. “I haven’t the faintest clue. Go ask a botanist.”

Sakura grinned at him.

“Fine, keep your magic,” he huffed at her, and she laughed, a bright, happy sound that soothed his ragged, aching soul.

He was so proud of Team Seven. He was so proud of how they had flourished since they were first put together. They hadn’t even needed him on this mission, this difficult A-Rank. They worked together seamlessly. They trusted Kakashi to lead them true, but they could work independent of him to make critical decisions in the heat of battle without his constant oversight.

Perhaps it was time he took a step back and allowed them to grow without him. They were shinobi, and he was just the chakra construct trapped in Naruto’s gut, just another weapon now that he’d been sealed away. If he continued to mother hen them, to overshadow them, they might grow stunted and wrong.

Maybe the director had been onto something.

He could be team mascot.

Not co-sensei. Not parent. Just Naruto’s ninkitsune. Just a pet fox.

This revelation was both a joyous one, and one he found very sad. The realisation that he was no longer strictly needed for the cohesion of Team Seven, for Naruto to continue to grow and thrive, he was just wanted for the sense of comfort he brought. He was quiet through the coronation of the Queen Kazahana Koyuki, but he had a soft smile on his little foxy face.

“You’re sad,” Naruto said to him, quietly. “Why?”

Kurama made a noise that was neither agreement nor disagreement. “It’s hard to explain,” he said, nuzzling Naruto’s ear. “I’m happy, too. It’s nothing to do with the Princess. I’m very happy for her. I just had a different thought.”

“Your emotions are so weird,” Naruto said, and scratched him behind the ears.

 

xlvii.

Senju Tsunade, Godaime Hokage of Konohagakure no Sato, paced in her office. She had dispatched the brats from Team Seven to the Land of Tea for a mission, B-Rank definitely, possibly an A-Rank, without their jounin-sensei. They had acquitted themselves well in the Land of Snow. Despite their successes with high ranked missions thus far, it was highly unusual to send three genin to handle a situation that would normally be dealt with by chuunin, or jounin.

But she needed Hatake and Jiraiya here, now, and the genin to temporarily be elsewhere.

During the last Council meeting, Councilman Shimura and the Elders had begun to ask pointed questions about the village’s control over its jinchuuriki. Tsunade had managed to sidestep the issue in the moment, but she knew it would have to be addressed eventually, because the Elders and Shimura were like dogs with a bone – they rarely let something lie.

An ANBU operative in a cat mask appeared in her office. “They have left the gates, Hokage-sama,” he intoned blandly.

“Thank you, Cat-san,” Tsunade said. “You may take your leave.”

The operative inclined his head and disappeared again in a shunshin.

Tsunade headed to the little tea room the Sandaime had often used when meeting with the Elders and Councilman Shimura where they were watched over by the portrait of every Hokage from over the years. She motioned for Jiraiya, and Kakashi, who were waiting in the hallway outside her office, to follow her, and found the Elders waiting, looking terse and restless. The Sandaime sat in the little tea room with them, his expression grim.

“For what purpose have you gathered us, Hokage-sama?” Shimura Danzou asked, as soon as she had closed the door and activated the privacy seals. “And why are Hatake-san and Jiraiya-san here?”

Tsunade took a seat. She took a deep breath, wished for a drink she could not have for she needed her senses sharp and clear to deal with these old vultures of war, and steeled herself. “It is time,” she began, carefully. “To address the issue you raised during our last meeting. The issue of Uzumaki Naruto. Jiraiya and Kakashi-san both have some proficiency with fuuinjutsu, being the sensei and student of the Yondaime, who sealed the Kyuubi into its current jinchuuriki, and both have interacted with Naruto and the Kyuubi. They are therefore perhaps the most qualified shinobi in the village when it comes to the Kyuubi and the boy.”

“Respectfully, Hokage-sama,” Utatane Koharu said, and Tsunade noted she didn’t look or sound respectful at all, her wrinkled old face crumpled with thinly veiled dislike. “They are also some of the most likely to be biased.”

Danzou nodded, as Mitokado Homura added: “We cannot overlook the fact that Jiraiya-sama, although a master of fuuinjutsu, is the boy’s godfather. And it is no secret that the boy calls Hatake-san ‘nii-san.’”

“And why is that?” Koharu asked. “I was under the impression that you were ordered to stay away from him.”

“Maa, maa,” Kakashi bleated, waving a hand sheepishly. “I followed my orders to the letter. But… well. I’ve learned that when Naruto decides to do something, he always follows through. And he decided to adopt me, so what can I do?”

“You are his jounin-sensei. It is against policy for a jounin-sensei to have personal or familial relations with their genin, and as Naruto’s commanding officer, it is your duty to enforce that policy,” Danzou said.

Kakashi tilted his head. “You doubt my professionalism?”

The Sandaime cleared his throat. “Let us not get off topic.”

“I feel everyone in the room should be made aware of the fact that Naruto and the Kyuubi communicate freely,” Jiraiya said. “And that while the rest of us may be bound to hold certain S-Rank secrets, the Kyuubi is not. Naruto is aware of many things he should not be. He may hold knowledge of anything the Kyuubi has seen itself or witnessed through one of its prior jinchuuriki.”

A ripple of unease passed through the council.

Danzou spoke, and his voice was chilly, his one eye flat with distaste. “Let me try to understand the situation we have on our hands,” he said. “Not only do we have an immature, out of control brat for a jinchuuriki but said jinchuuriki may have an unstable seal, given his ineptitude for controlling the beast and the number of times the Kyuubi has appeared and been fully cognizant and aware, but that brat might also be carrying around state secrets that he could spill to anyone who asked? Why have we not extracted the Kyuubi and moved it to a more suitable host?”

Tsunade watched Kakashi turn his head to look out the window, the Sandaime cough, and Jiraiya scratch his chin.

She sighed. “That would be unwise,” she said. Then she paused, considered, and went on. “Additionally, it seems the Eight Trigrams seal the Yondaime used to seal the Kyuubi away in the first place broke almost five years ago.”

“I have examined the broken seal myself. The Kyuubi could not have done it alone,” Jiraiya said. “Naruto had to have helped it from the outside, and without the key it would’ve taken years. Naruto must have been aware of it since infancy. And yet I believe that everyone was under the impression that he did not know of its presence until an Academy teacher turned traitor told him during the graduation exam before last, thanks to the law sensei passed. That is not a child who will go around spilling secrets.”

Danzou, Tsunade noted with a detached sort of medical interest, had turned the colour of sour milk. She hoped that if he were to be ill, he would not do it in the little tea room.

“Even if we could extract the Kyuubi at this stage – and I’m not certain we can, I don’t have sufficient experience to deal with the unsealing or resealing of a bijuu that is simultaneously free and not free based entirely on its own decision – then we don’t have someone suitable to seal it into. The Uzumaki were chosen to be jinchuuriki for the Kyuubi in the past for a reason… Additionally, were we to try to extract the Kyuubi at this stage, I’m not certain that we wouldn’t all end up being killed, since it seems to have a vested interest in the ongoing survival of my godson,” Jiraiya said. “And jinchuuriki tend not to survive the extraction process.”

“It is not also true that jinchuuriki do not survive the breaking of the seal?” Danzou asked.

Jiraiya nodded. “It is. It seems that the Kyuubi has deliberately protected Naruto to prevent such an occurrence. Although we only spoke briefly, it seems oddly concerned with protecting people, and is intent on helping Naruto become Hokage.”

“And you trusted it? Kitsune are tricksters!” Koharu exclaimed.

“Well,” Jiraiya hedged. “It had henged itself pink at the time…”

“A trickster, yes,” the Sandaime said. “And not necessarily trustworthy, either. But if Naruto can be taken at his word, and he is generally quite an honest child, then it would seem that the Kyuubi has had ample opportunity to repeat the attack of almost thirteen years ago within the past five years, and has opted to refrain.”

Danzou stared at him, incredulously. “Just because it has refrained so far does not mean it will continue to do so. The boy should be killed.”

The Sandaime sighed. “At what cost, though? How many would die?”

“Too many,” Tsunade answered, clapping her hands together. “So we are not doing that. Right. Now you know. The Kyuubi is a hornet’s nest we don’t want to stir up, but at the moment it’s a hornet’s nest working in our favour. And you might not like Naruto, he might occasionally graffiti half the village and prank the other half with itching powder, but it is in everyone’s best interest to let him continue to grow as a shinobi and aim for his goal of Hokage without molesting him.”

“And his use as a weapon?” Danzou asked.

Silence fell over the room.

“I think,” Kakashi said. “That you will find Naruto is not a shougi piece to be moved across the board at your will. He has a good heart that is untainted by darkness, and will balk if tasked with something unreasonable. His precious people mean more to him than anything, and he is perfectly willing to befriend someone who might, at first glance, appear to be an enemy and turn out to be an invaluable ally. And where Naruto goes, so does that pet fox of his, Kurama, who has taught him all sorts of unusual ways of looking at the world that you or I might not have considered. I would think twice before considering Naruto anything so simple as a weapon – he’s not a dog of war to point at an enemy and release. He’s a fox, that will just as soon turn and bite you if he so much as thinks you mean him or his harm.”

 

xlviii.

“So the rumours were true,” Rokushou Aoi sneered in Sasuke’s face. The Uchiha was clashing against the Raijin no Ken with a kunai, after the chidori had failed. “The last survivor of Konoha’s Uchiha Clan is the worst of them.”

“Lies and slander!” Kurama yelled, darting in to bite at the traitor’s ankles. “Madara was the worst of the Uchiha Clan, founder of Konoha or no, and you won’t convince me otherwise. And guess what? He was a traitor, too! Just like you are!”

Aoi dropped Sasuke in a heap in the dirt as he attempted to kick Kurama, but the little fox, who had begun to spew a string of vitriol so vile Naruto’s ears were turning pink, was too deft. He then went after Kurama with that nasty lightning sword of the Nidaime, and was marginally more successful, brushing it against one of Kurama’s flanks.

Getting touched by the lightning sword was like having the worst static shock of his life. Kurama yowled as he went flying, all his fur standing on end, but the distraction he’d provided proved enough for his genin to regroup. Naruto was sitting on the ground, pulling the last of the poisoned senbon from his legs, and Sakura helped Sasuke back to his feet.

Morino Idate, the younger brother of Morino Ibiki from TI, yelled for them to flee from a conveniently safe distance, over by the trees on the edge of the path.

“No, we promised we’d protect you,” Sakura said, planting herself in front of him and raising her kunai. “And I don’t break promises like that!”

“Neither do I, you know!” Naruto shouted, flicking the senbon away and leaping to his feet and beginning to form another rasengan, pulling on the Kyuubi’s chakra to increase its size and density. Kurama despaired for his problem-solving ability, but at the same time fancied that a larger, more corrosive rasengan might do the trick against that sword.

Sasuke beat him to the attack, stepping between him and the traitor from Konoha who’d fled to Ame, with a hoarse growl of: “Take it back.” But Naruto could perform the rasengan flawlessly, now, and maintained it in his hand even as he waited for the right moment to strike.

“Take what back?” Aoi asked, mocking.

“What you said just now,” Sasuke said, panting, shoulders hunched as if against the weight of the world, drawing his hand back, the chirping of a thousand birds filling the path before the bridge as he formed the chidori in his left hand. “It isn’t true. I might be the last Uchiha, but I’m not the worst!”

He dashed forward, and Naruto followed immediately behind him. As Sasuke leapt to meet the Raijin no Ken with the chidori, Naruto drove the larger, denser rasengan, maybe twice its usual size and tinted the bloody red of Kyuubi chakra, into Aoi’s side. There was a small, highly concentrated explosion. Naruto and Sasuke were thrown back into the trees, and Aoi went flying over the edge of the cliff, body caught in a tight spiral, the shattered blade of the Nidaime spinning away to fall into the water a long way out to sea.

Kurama crept onto the bridge to peer down at the waves breaking against the cliff face, and the still body of Rokushou Aoi being battered against the rocks, the water turning a deep red.

“Was he really a jounin?” he asked himself, and then advised the kids: “Come on, quick, or you’ll lose the race, Idate. And don’t look down, I’ve confirmed he’s dead, you really don’t want to see. Excellent teamwork!”

The race turned out to be a neck-and-neck spectacle, with some added drama where various parties tried to accuse various other parties of cheating, but Morino Idate was eventually declared the winner. Jirochou-oyabun of the Wasabi Family thanked them profusely and sent them back to Konoha with food for the road and a letter for the Hokage. Idate walked with them as far as the border of the Land of Tea before turning around for home, and only after getting Naruto to promise to prank his older brother for him in his absence.

Afterwards, they walked in silence for a time, each of the genin deep in their own thoughts while Kurama was enjoying the day, amusing himself with stalking the late butterflies and pouncing on anything that rustled in the bushes by the side of the road.

“Kurama,” Sakura said, after a while, a puzzled furrow between her brows, interrupting Kurama, who was pawing at a rock he’d seen a lizard dart under. “I’ve been meaning to ask this for a while. Why do you always refer to yourself in the third person when you’re talking about things you did as the Kyuubi, even when it’s just us and we all know the truth? Are you ashamed?”

Naruto tripped over nothing and fell flat on his face.

“The Kyuubi,” Kurama said, the joy of a successful mission leeching out of him between one breath and the next, the afternoon suddenly cold and grey for all the sun was still shining, the birds still chirping, the breeze still carrying with it the smells of the rich and vibrant early autumn woodland around them. “Is a monster fit only for wanton killing and destruction. It hates humanity and feels no remorse because it is capable of rage and hatred and nothing else. The Kyuubi is nothing more than a malevolent chakra construct. And everyone here would do well to remember that.”

Sakura cast a worried glance at Naruto, who looked miserable as he clambered back to his feet. Sasuke frowned. Kurama ignored them all and climbed up Naruto’s trouser leg to crawl into the wide collar of the shirt of his jumpsuit.

“Did I offend him?” he heard Sakura asked, as Kurama shut his eyes tight, both his little fox eyes and the eyes of the massive chakra construct that could watch the world through Naruto’s eyes. “I was so sure… Did he – did he lose someone in the Kyuubi attack, too?”

Kurama felt Naruto’s shoulders move as he lifted a hand to scratch awkwardly at his head. “Yeah, I guess,” his kit said.

The little fox debated with himself for several long moments.

But, Team Seven was their family.

They shouldn’t keep secrets from one another. Sasuke and Sakura already knew Naruto was the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki. Perhaps it was time they knew this truth as well. It would be safe to tell them, because unlike Kakashi – as much as they all liked Kakashi – they were not obliged to report what they knew to their commanding officer.

It could be a secret between the three of them. And Gaara and Shukaku.

People always said that sharing the burden of heavy secrets lessened the pain. Maybe that was true. One way to find out.

He nudged Naruto in their mind space. You can tell them. It’s alright. We have a lot of things to talk about, and it’s going to be easier if we’re all honest now.

Naruto sent back a sense of acknowledgement, mixed with concern that Kurama ignored.

“Kyuubi says we need to talk,” his kit said, solemnly.

 

xlix.

The decision to have a team sleepover was unanimous, and after they handed in their mission reports they all returned to Sasuke’s apartment. It was late afternoon, creeping towards dusk, and the air was still and warm. Kurama crawled under the kotatsu anyway, for some time to himself, while Naruto went out with Sasuke to get fresh ingredients for dinner and Sakura went home to drop off her pack and say hello to her parents.

Both Naruto and Sasuke had learned, after returning from the mission to the Land of Waves to disgusting messes, to always clear out their refrigerators and pantries of everything perishable before any mission that took them out of Konoha.

Sakura came back first. She knew how to get past the trap seals on the door, and they all knew how to pick locks these days, so it hadn’t been a big deal for all of Team Seven, sans Kakashi, to just share house keys with each other to save on time and effort.

“I’m back!” she called, into the quiet apartment, before saying to herself: “Ah, the others aren’t back yet.”

Kurama tucked his head under his tail and pretended he was still alone, even as he heard Sakura remove her sandals, flick on the lights, and meander into the kitchen to fill the kettle and heat water for tea.

He was drowsing when he felt a spike of irritation-surprise-concern not his own, and startled awake, realising it had come from Naruto.

It was gone as quickly as it had come, and a moment later Naruto and Sasuke burst into the apartment a little breathlessly, slamming the door, dropping various bags of groceries, and engaging the traps with a little burst of chakra that had Kurama poking his head out from under the kotatsu to peer at them.

Sakura came out of the kitchen, bringing with her the smells of tea and honey. “Is everything alright?”

“Er…” Naruto said intelligently.

“We just ran into Kabuto and his teammates,” Sasuke said.

“In the middle of the street,” Naruto added, and although night had fallen properly now and there were moths flying into the windows, Konoha was a shinobi village, and shinobi villages never truly slept.

Sakura appeared to assess them visually, as though searching for injury, but neither was hurt. “What happened?” she asked, after a pause. The tense worry that fell over the apartment tasted bitter to Kurama, a like badness on the back of his tongue and clinging to his molars.

Sasuke huffed. “To extend an invitation from Orochimaru,” he said. “He said, and I’m paraphrasing, only Orochimaru can offer me the power to defeat my enemy.”

They all looked at each other.

“This would be a prudent time to mention that Naruto and I spoke to the Sandaime,” Kurama said. “He knows who ordered your brother to carry out the Massacre. He claimed he did not order it himself, and I believe him, for his words rang true, but he was very concerned about us poking our noses into it.”

Silence.

And then: “Why didn’t you tell me?” Sasuke asked, hotly.

Kurama crawled the rest of the way out from under the kotatsu. “Whoever did order it is sufficiently dangerous that they had the Hokage cowed,” he said. “My understanding is the affair is something along the lines of a SS-Rank secret. Whoever it is, they are willing to kill Konoha’s only jinchuuriki to keep it that way – and I am sure you understand the political importance of each of the major Hidden Villages having a jinchuuriki of their own as a means of deterring invasion.” He weaved through the grocery bags to lean against Sasuke’s leg, peering up at his pale, angry face. “Had we actually learned anything of substance, anything that would have pointed us in a useful direction, we would have told you straight away. As it was, all we did was eliminate one suspect.”

Sasuke frowned, mouth drawn and eyes hard, but he nodded. “Okay,” he said.

Kurama thought. “Sasuke, pick me up.” Sasuke obliged him, with tolerance borne of knowing that if he didn’t, Kurama would pester him about it, settling the fox against his chest with Kurama’s chin hooked over his shoulder. “I have a question,” Kurama said. “About Itachi, and you might need to think hard about it. Was he sick, when the Massacre happened?”

Sasuke almost dropped him.

Kurama dug his claws into the boy’s shoulder. “Not in the head, or anything. I mean, physically sick. Remember the day at the inn for me. I was very angry at the time, because I do not like the red-cloaks-black-clouds. Akatsuki. Whatever. But looking back, he smelled sick to me. He smelled like medicine and fever and old pain. Did he look sick to any of you? Did he have a history of illness”

“He was pale,” Sakura chimed in. “And, no offense Sasuke, but you’re really pale already. But he was kind of ashen. And he looked tired.”

Sasuke didn’t say anything for a long, long time. Then, at last, he said: “When I was little, it was always a big deal if someone came home with a cold or something. We had to make sure Itachi didn’t catch it. I don’t remember why, but I know that if he did, he was always worse than we were. It was his heart, or his lungs, maybe. He got pneumonia twice that I can remember.”

“Ah,” Kurama said. And then he said: “In that case, something chronic. Maybe not immediately life-threatening, but without the right treatment… What is he doing with the Akatsuki? Why would he join them, after he was forced to leave Konoha? Because I have little doubt that he would have been forced to leave, even if he had obeyed the orders of Konoha. It would have sent the other clans into a panic if they had realised that Konoha could become the next Bloody Mist, which would have caused a massive political destabilisation.”

Everyone was frowning now.

“So,” Sakura said, slowly. “Whoever we’re looking for, whoever ordered the attack. They’re high up. It was not Sandaime-sama, but someone he holds either in high regard, fears, or both, and who would not send Konoha into internal political strife, but would readily sacrifice the jinchuuriki and face outside war, possibly because they are less concerned about external conflict than internal? That must narrow down the list, surely?”

Sasuke said nothing, and Naruto looked confused.

Kurama made a thoughtful noise. “I guess so. I suppose to find the person who ordered the mission, we don’t go around asking: Who ordered Itachi to carry out the Uchiha Massacre, because that will get us killed. Instead, we go around, and look at all of the higher ups, and we ask ourselves, would you sacrifice the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki if you thought it was for the good of the village? That should eliminate some people, and bring others forward.”

“We can rule out Sandaime-sama, and Tsunade-sama, and Kakashi-sensei right away,” Sakura said thoughtfully, before adding. “We shouldn’t keep any lists. We’ll have to rely on our memories. Paper trails will lead back to us, unless we encrypt them with a key only we know or have a way of decrypting.”

“We’ll have to think on that,” Kurama agreed.

They lapsed into another tense silence until Naruto made a thoughtful noise. “I gotta say, bastard, Orochimaru has got to be your creepiest stalker yet, you know? I thought the girls were bad, but this is a million – nope, actually, a billion times worse.”

Sasuke grunted. It was neither an agreement nor a disagreement, and sufficiently in-character that some of the tight knot of anxiety that had taken root in Kurama’s chest eased.

“We should tell Kakashi-sensei about all this next time we see him. He used to be in ANBU, and he could be really helpful, if we can get him to sweat to secrecy,” Sakura said.

“We can, believe it!” Naruto crowed cheerfully.

“I made tea, if either of you wants any,” Sakura continued, as if she had not been interrupted. “What did you buy at the store? I’m starving. Then after dinner, we should have that talk you said the Kyuubi wanted.” She eyed Naruto.

Naruto grinned, but it was an uneasy grin.

The three brats cooked, while Kurama sat on top of the refrigerator and occasionally called out instructions, like: “Mind the pork!” and: “Your rice is getting overcooked,” and “Don’t forget to wash those vegetables,” and “Not too much curry, do you want to be up all night with reflux? You may not be thirty yet, but that doesn’t mean you can just put as much as you like in, because no one is immune to gastrointestinal upset.”

“Except me!” Naruto said, cheerfully.

“You cheat,” Kurama snuffed. “And anyway, that isn’t true. You feel it briefly. You’re just lucky Kyuubi burns through physical illness or other discomfort so you can recover from a case of salmonella that would take two weeks to run its course in anyone else over an afternoon, or you’d be dead from the amount of expired shit you’ve eaten.”

“That’s not actually a good thing,” Sakura interjected. “If you’re so incautious with yourself, you could poison the rest of us by mistake.”

Naruto paused to think about that. “Oh,” he said. “I should be careful, huh?”

 

l.

“The Kyuubi is sealed in Naruto’s stomach,” Kurama explained. “Or – not sealed. There’s a space leftover from the original sealing, which is where the Kyuubi resides, but it isn’t caged or chained or staked down, or otherwise contained. Were it not a fact that the Kyuubi both trusted and respected Naruto at the time the seal broke, Naruto would have died instantly, been consumed by Kyuubi chakra as it escaped.”

Sakura was listening interestedly. Sasuke was paying attention with a carefully blank expression.

“I’m just that cool,” Naruto said. “Believe it!”

Kurama dipped his tail in Naruto’s mug of cocoa, leaving behind a dozen tail hairs that had Naruto sulking and picking at his drink. He might have finished shedding his undercoat months ago, but he moulted to a certain degree year-round.

“The Kyuubi spared someone for the first time in its long and violent history,” Kurama sniffed. “Although you’re right, it was because it liked you in particular.” He paused, not because he didn’t have the words – he did, he knew what to say – but because now it was time to utter them he found himself reluctant to do so.

He tried to work out how long he’d been ashamed of his own existence and couldn’t decide.

Was it a recent development, brought about by the transformation Naruto had had on his life? Because he could certainly admit that he had been constantly re-evaluating his priorities lately.

Was it something that had come over his gradually? Had he lost respect for himself decades ago, when Uzumaki Mito sealed him? It had been his own folly, after all, his belief that he was infallible, that had resulted in him, and then the other bijuu also, being sealed away.

Had it been before that, that he had begun to despise his own existence? Had it begun the very first time he had strayed from the teachings of ninshuu, from the words of his father, centuries ago? When he abandoned his temple? When he turned in anger and struck down his first man? When he levelled his first village?

How long had this guilt festered, unacknowledged, a festering wound he bandaged with arrogance and fury, only to leave the bandage too long and the injury untended. And when, at last, the bandage was ripped away, when he could not direct his hate outwardly any longer and he had to look inward, he found a rotten hole of self-loathing.

“You were both correct, and not,” he told Sakura. “I am the Kyuubi, but the Kyuubi is not me.”

“He’s like a toenail clipping of the whole entire Kyuubi!” Naruto said, by way of explanation. “Most of Kyuubi’s in me, except a really, really tiny part that came out to look after me when my seal was weak when I was a baby. And that tiny part is Kurama! Eh, but the whole entire Kyuubi is actually called Kurama, only don’t tell anyone that, it’s a secret. We call them separate names for, uh, secrecy.”

Sakura frowned, puzzled. “Did Naruto call you that?”

Kurama shook his head. “In the manner that most young children acquire their names, I was named by my otou-san,” he replied. Both Sasuke and Sakura looked alarmed, and Kurama knew they were having the exact same thought: Who, or what gave birth to the bijuu? “The Sage of Six Paths,” he explained. “Ootsutsuki Hagoromo. Humans have forgotten that Indra and Asura were not his only children. I think they call us creations.”

“Oh,” Sakura said, nodding frantically. “Yes, that makes sense.”

“All of the bijuu have names, then?” Sasuke asked.

“Yes,” Kurama said. “There’s me, Kurama, the oldest. Gyuuki is the next oldest. Then there’s Choumei, Saiken, Kokuou, Son Gokuu, Isobu, Matatabi, and the youngest, Shukaku.”

“The Ichibi,” Sakura said, then froze. “Wait, Gaara’s pet tanuki—”

Kurama grinned, all teeth. “Yes, you’ve met Shukaku.” He sobered, flopping onto his belly. “Some of us have been more peaceable than others. I know Kokuou has remained pacifistic to this day, but sealed in a jinchuuriki there is little a bijuu can do but fight and hate those who would dare to oppress us or give up and be wielded as a weapon. Either way, we are responsible for immense suffering and death. Nature spirit, chakra construct, it doesn’t matter what we are. We belong here, intrinsically, to this world, and even if we are mortally wounded and ‘die’ we always reform again sometime later, somewhere else, because we were born into the chakra that makes up all life and are tied there.” He drew a long, shaky breath. “Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn’t be better if we weren’t. Our confrontations with humanity destroy not only human lives, but so much else, also. Where we tread we bring death and grief.”

Naruto dragged him off the table to hug him to his chest. “Nuh-uh,” he said. “I probably woulda died of mal – uh – malnutrition years ago if you weren’t looking after me. And you’re helping me protect my precious people, too! That’s a real good thing and the opposite of killing everyone! Believe it!”

Sakura peered at him contemplatively, where he was being squeezed between Naruto’s arms. “I’m sorry you think you’re a monster,” she said. “But you’re also a really good teacher. You have great ideas for training, and when Kakashi-sensei says to do something, but not how, you always know how to explain it so we understand what he means.”

Sasuke held his hands out wordlessly, with a hard glare at Naruto, who handed Kurama over to him. It seemed that this had turned from a share secrets evening into a cuddle the fox evening.

Kurama tucked his head under Sasuke’s chin and decided his dignity as a great and powerful chakra construct had been lost – he would allow this. And maybe it was sort of nice.

A few minutes later, he twitched an ear. “Kakashi-nii-san is coming,” he said.

“Are we telling him?” Sakura asked.

“No, absolutely not, I forbid it,” Kurama said. And he could feel the lightning-static of Kakashi’s chakra as he made his way over the roofs about two blocks away. “I am responsible for the deaths of the last two members of the family he scraped together after his father died. It would upset him immensely.”

She considered that, frowning. “He might think the fact you kept it a secret is a betrayal of trust and be immensely upset anyway.”

Kurama slumped. “I know.”

Kakashi slipping in through the window. “Who’s betraying who?” he asked.

“No one!” Naruto yelled. “It was a – Kurama, what’s the word? For a situation where something might happen but won’t?”

“Hypothetical,” Kurama supplied.

“It was a hypothetical situation, you know!”

Kakashi eye-smiled at them. “Ah, I see,” he said. “Now, who wants to tell me about that nasty bit of trouble you got into on your last mission, which I had to hear about from Hokage-sama, and not from my cute little genin themselves?”

“Er,” Naruto said.

“There’s more trouble than that,” Sasuke offered.

 

li.

Of course, when they needed him, Jiraiya was no longer in Konoha. No. He’d decided to vanish overnight, and when pressed, Tsunade said he might’ve headed out the east gate. There was a hot springs town in that direction. If they were brisk, they might catch him ‘researching’ for a time, before he moved on.

Unfortunately, Sasuke, Sakura, and Naruto were three genin – it had been decided that no one had met the criteria for promotion during the most recent Chuunin Selection – and to leave the village without an express mission, they would need to be accompanied by their jounin-sensei.

“But Tsunade-baa-chan,” Naruto whined. “We’ll only be going as far as that onsen town. Can’t you let us just go?”

She would not, which meant they had to go hunt down Kakashi.

After checking the Memorial Stone, the cemetery, the training grounds they knew he frequented, and his apartment, they found him with Maito Gai, having one of their legendary competitions. This time it appeared to be a foot race around Konoha with a destination none of the genin nor Kurama could decipher, which meant that it must have been Gai’s turn to pick the challenge.

Groaning, they set off at a sprint after their sensei, and even though he and Gai were fast enough that they couldn’t keep up, following in their path was easy enough – they left a trail of consternation in their wake. All they had to do was follow the shouting of civilian and shinobi alike who had been startled as the two jounin went past at speed.

They found Kakashi and Gai at the top of the Hokage Monument, having scaled it as a part of their race, panting and laughing. As Gai was not off to do some ridiculous penalty, it could be assumed he’d won this time.

“Kakashi-nii!” Naruto cried, also panting, flopping down next to him. “Why are you so hard to find?”

Kakashi looked at them, all sweaty with red faces from their impromptu run. Well, except for Kurama. Kurama was only pretending to have flopped, winded, onto his side. He definitely wasn’t winded in reality. Nope, definitely not. “I thought you went to see Jiraiya. Why are you training?”

“Jiraiya-sama’s gone,” Sakura groaned. She’d dropped to her knees, then slumped forward onto her hands, hair hanging around her face.

“Baa-chan won’t let us leave Konoha without you,” Naruto said. “So, Kakashi-nii, you gotta come with us to that onsen town that’s in the east apparently? She said he’d stop there before he went and did his actual job. We looked all over for you. Come on, come on, we gotta go or we’ll miss Ero-Sennin.”

Sasuke made a little noise of acknowledgement, but said nothing, which was good enough.

The following day, at midmorning, they walked into the onsen town Tsunade had told them about and started asking around about a perverted old guy with white hair and red clan markings, since the town smelled too strongly of hot spring water for Kurama or Kakashi to track Jiraiya down using their noses.

Several people claimed to have seen him – that morning, too! Although none of their directions led Team Seven to Jiraiya.

“The town isn’t that big,” Naruto complained. “He’s got to be here somewhere.”

Kurama eyed Kakashi, who was dutifully peering up and down the street.

Too dutifully.

“Kakashi-nii, you’re a pervert and you’ve read all Ero-Sennin’s perverted books,” he began, and watched with interest as Kakashi tensed and his one uncovered ear turned pink. “If this was one of his dirty novels, where would the action be taking place?”

Kakashi coughed. “Not so loud, Kurama,” he said, pointedly not meeting the curious gazes of a group of civilian tourists who were probably from somewhere much father north, given how scantily clad they were for this time of year, as the chill of autumn was beginning to creep in to the nights and the trees were beginning to turn. “And if I had to guess… if there’s a mixed-gender bath, Jiraiya-sama will be there.”

Kakashi was not correct.

And they still couldn’t find him, even after they split up and reconvened at an inn near the edge of town.

“I asked around,” Sakura said. “People were still claiming they’d seen him, but I must’ve kept missing him, because whenever I went where they said he was, he wasn’t there.”

“I looked,” Sasuke said, which Kurama translated as he’d been too reticent to ask total strangers if they’d seen an openly perverted old guy hanging around being gross. The little fox considered their Uchiha teammate and decided that although he might not have been brave enough to go up to someone and ask about Jiraiya, he had a good enough head on his shoulders to have kept his ears open for tourists complaining about shady characters hanging around the baths, and he probably didn’t need to intervene and help Sasuke work on this weakness, since he could compensate for it well enough by himself.

“We didn’t find him,” Naruto said,

To be fair, Naruto and Kurama had wandered around town yelling: “Ero-Sennin! Where are you?” at the very tops of their lungs, garnering surprised and suspicious looks from everyone they passed.

“I also did not find him,” Kakashi reported. “Although I suspect at this stage that he is well aware we are looking for him and is playing games with us.”

Likely, Kurama thought. He and Naruto hadn’t even tried to be quiet.

They ordered food from the innkeeper and tried to come up with a plan of attack for the next day.

Halfway through the meal, Naruto paused. “Hey, Kurama,” he said, a devious glint in his eye.

Kurama suddenly had a bad feeling.

“You know that jutsu,” Naruto went on. “You know, the one you forbid even though I totally knocked out Jiji with it. What if we combine that with the Multi-Shadow Clone jutsu?”

Kurama wanted to say no out of principle. But… Naruto’s idea had a reasonably good chance of success. “If you sent the clones out in groups of two or three,” he mused. “Then if one group found Jiraiya, one could excuse themselves to dispel and let you know where they were while the others distracted the old pervert, and we could get the drop on him.”

“What jutsu?” Sasuke asked. “How are Kage Bunshin going to help? Won’t a whole bunch of Naruto running around just make Jiraiya run?”

Kakashi must have heard about the Kage-defeating technique, because he was silent. And this time, he was pink all the way from his ear across the top of his cheek.

“Ah,” Naruto said, hedging.

“They’d be under a particular type of henge,” Kurama explained, wishing he had fingers to pinch the bridge of his nose so he could aptly express his exasperation with the idea. “A Naruto special. The Oiroke no Jutsu. Sadly, I think it has a good chance of working.”

Ugh.

“Oiroke no Jutsu,” Sakura repeated, slowly. “Special henge. Kurama, it isn’t what it sounds like?”

“It absolutely is,” Kurama said, sadly. “However, as far as traps for super perverts, I cannot think of a better one.” With great reluctance, he added: “Well done, Naruto.”

Naruto cheered, almost upsetting his dinner.

The following morning, he created batches of clones in groups of three, and had them transform into woman modelled mostly after people he’d seen in his neighbourhood in the Akasen, only dressed in swimsuits rather than the usual suggestive clothes he saw them in and sent them out to look for Jiraiya.

“How do you know what so many women look like mostly naked?” Sakura asked Naruto angrily, flushed pink.

Naruto glanced at her, confused, paused right before he made his next group of clones. “Uh,” he said, intelligently.

Kurama cleared his throat. “We live in the Akasen in Konoha, remember? There’s plenty of opportunity to see the occurrence of things you might personally find unsavoury there.”

Entirely anticlimactically, Kakashi took them out for breakfast, and they were just considering going to train in the forest when Naruto paused, grimaced, and then said: “He’s at the river over that way. Come on.”

They found Jiraiya grinning lecherously while two of Naruto’s clones fawned over him, although the clones’ expressions were faintly strained to Kurama’s eye. None of them were wearing much in the way of clothes.

“I see you finally found me,” Jiraiya said as Team Seven approached. “Off you go, ladies. Perhaps we can pick this up again sometime later?”

“Ugh,” Naruto said. “I don’t think so.” He dispelled the clones, who disappeared in puffs of smoke, then froze with a look of abject horror on his face before shuddering all over. “Kakashi-nii,” he whined, pitifully. “Is there a way to dispel Shadow Clones without getting the memories? There’s some things I just never, ever want to know.” Before Kakashi could answer, he stamped his foot. “Kurama was right, that’s a forbidden jutsu that should only be used under the – the— Kurama, what am I trying to say?”

“Under the direst of circumstances, because you don’t like the way it makes you feel objectified?” Kurama suggested.

“Yeah!” Naruto exclaimed.

Jiraiya looked a bit ill. “Those were your Kage Bunshin?” he asked, faintly.

“Well, yeah, you were being an asshole and wouldn’t stay still for us to find you, you know?”

Jiraiya tugged at his own hair. “Oh, no,” he wailed. “The Kyuubi’s going to eviscerate me.”

Kurama levelled him with a flat stare. “Probably,” he agreed. “But not ‘til later.”

“We need to pick your brain before the Kyuubi eats your entrails,” Kakashi said, cheerfully. “It’s about Orochimaru.”

Jiraiya groaned theatrically.

 

lii.

“I have to go to Orochimaru,” Sasuke said, face blank in that disturbing way it sometimes went when he was terrified and didn’t want to show it. And the fear and anxiety in the room was so heavy it tasted bitter in Kurama’s mouth and like a chill creeping down his neck to make his fur stand all on end. He didn’t know who to comfort, because everyone was equally distressed, except perhaps Jiraiya, who felt more like bitter-grief-worry than active lung-crushing terror.

It was late in the evening. The inn room where they had convened was dimly lit by a single lamp in the corner, but they were otherwise sitting in darkness because everyone had been too engrossed in their discussion. They had not been down to order dinner, not even Naruto, who could always eat. Had Kurama been unable to feel negative emotions intimately, he would have found that fact particularly telling.

As it was, he could feel the edge of hunger-induced nausea clawing at the periphery of his mind, and he was fairly certain that more than one of the gathered shinobi were feeling it at once.

Jiraiya, after being asked several probing questions, had held nothing back.

He told them about the Ame orphans he’d taken on during the Second Shinobi War, some time after he’d trained the Minato-brat’s team. Nagato, Yahiko, and Konan. How after Jiraiya left, those orphans had gone on to found the Akatsuki in the pursuit of peace, and become terrorists instead. He’d discovered this while pursuing Orochimaru after he left the Konoha – Orochimaru had joined the Akatsuki before leaving again – and since then Jiraiya had been keeping an eye on both the Akatsuki and Orochimaru. How Uchiha Itachi was a spy amongst the Akatsuki, reporting only to Jiraiya after the resignation of the Sandaime, but that he could not afford to blow his cover.

How, if Naruto had been alone back at the inn on their way to Tanzaku-gai to fetch Tsunade, things might have gone differently.

Kurama crawled into Kakashi’s lap – because Kakashi didn’t know what he was – and curled up as small as he could, feeling guilty, because in his irrational fear he was fairly certain he’d left Itachi blind in one eye. But not only was Itachi sick, he was still a Konoha shinobi at heart, even if he was deep under cover. And he knew that, logically, that was not his fault. He hadn’t been in possession of all the facts at the time.

He felt bad all the same.

“Why?” Naruto demanded, hotly.

“It – it makes sense,” Sasuke said, and he sounded more like he was trying to convince himself than the rest of them. “Orochimaru’s going to try and steal my body because he wants the Sharingan. Okay. I don’t want that. And he’s – he’s trying to lure me in because he thinks I want to be strong enough to kill Itachi. I don’t want that, either. But nii-san’s alone behind enemy lines. And if Kurama’s right, he’s sick. I want him to come home. I want Konoha to be safe for him to come home to. Orochimaru has connections to the Akatsuki. I think I have a greater chance of encountering nii-san if I’m with him, and I can gather information about Otogakure while I’m there.”

“Please, don’t,” Sakura said, her eyes welling with tears. “We can’t help you if you go.”

Sasuke frowned, deeply. “I know,” he agreed.

Kakashi and Jiraiya shared a meaningful glance.

“It could work,” Jiraiya admitted.

“It’s a slim chance, but it could,” Kakashi agreed. “As your jounin-sensei, I cannot condone you risking your life on a mission with such a low success rate and going in with so little intel. But I also know that short of sealing your chakra and throwing you into a cell in TI, I cannot stop you. All I can ask is, are you sure you want to do this?”

Sasuke nodded resolutely.

Kakashi sighed. “We’ll need to speak to Tsunade, but other than her, the only people who can know the truth are in this room right now. Like Itachi-san, you will be obliged to play the role of traitor to Konoha. You will be pursued when you leave. Konoha shinobi may attempt to capture or kill you, should you run across any of them in the future. We may be forced to attempt to capture or kill you should we run across you in the future, before such a time as your mission is terminated or deemed successful. You will be prepared to use just-shy of deadly force, should the occasion arise?”

Sasuke paused, then nodded again. “I have to do this,” he said.

“Then that will be our course of action,” Kakashi said, and his words with tinged with sadness, like the tang of sea-salt on the air. “I wish you the best of luck.”

Naruto burst into quiet tears.

And so Team Seven, formed less than a year earlier, began to splinter.

They returned to Konoha.

Sasuke had a private audience with Tsunade.

They spent another few bittersweet weeks together, had a couple of wonderful adventures, including one to Sora-ku commissioned by Nekobaa to complete the Paw Encyclopaedia, and then one morning Sasuke didn’t turn up to team training. ANBU would later report that he’d been spotted, briefly, slipping over the wall with someone who might have been Yakushi Kabuto. There was indeed a pursuit sent after him, but they returned days later, having reached the border of the Land of Rice unsuccessful – Sasuke and Kabuto had slipped away like smoke on the wind.

It was with a sombre mood that they let themselves into Sasuke’s apartment to pack his belongings into boxes and clear the food out of the cupboards and refrigerator. They moved everything over to the compound and put it away in one of the houses, clearly labelled, for the day Sasuke came back.

What remained of Team Seven completed a few subsequent missions, often paired off with the other rookie teams, before, ultimately, Tsunade decided that Sakura showed promise as a kunoichi and med-nin and took her under her wing, and Jiraiya took Naruto on as his apprentice.

They left Konohagakure to travel around the Five Elemental Countries together, after a truly disgusting farewell to Kakashi, who endured a great deal of hugging, tears, and snot wiped all over his flak jacket, until he decided he was sick of them and shooed them out the gate.

“I’ll be fine, otouto,” the silver-haired jounin told Naruto, gruffly. “Now go have fun and learn all the things Jiraiya never taught Minato-sensei, or Minato-sensei knew but never taught me. Off you go. And remember, for Kurama: flea treatment once a month, and rabies and distemper vaccinations annually. It’s important. Rabies will kill even a shinobi if he contracts it.”

“I won’t forget, Kakashi-nii! Thanks for everything, and see you soon! Stay safe, don’t overuse the Sharingan!”

And that was how Team Seven shattered.

 

liii.

Orochimaru peered at Uchiha Sasuke across his desk, pressing down on him with the full weight Killing Intent. Sasuke glared back at him, eyes dark as pitch, the edge of the Cursed Seal of Heaven showing that it was still bound by the seal that the Hatake-brat had slapped over it. This time, though, the brunt of Orochimaru’s KI had considerably less effect on Sasuke. He did not double over and vomit and fall to the ground. He did not tremble. He held his ground and spoke.

“You promised power,” Sasuke said, without even a tremor in his voice.

“I did,” Orochimaru agreed. He glanced at Kabuto, hovering near the door of his office. “You and your team have done well Kabuto. Leave us, now, to speak in private. I will discuss your reward with you later.”

“Yes, Orochimaru-sama,” Kabuto said, inclining his head and backing out of the room.

“I gave you power,” Orochimaru said, returning his gaze to the young Uchiha. “In that seal on your neck. Or did you not notice? I could reactivate it, if I wanted.”

Sasuke’s frown deepened, his stance became tight and wary. “That’s false power. It can stay sealed,” he said, and Orochimaru felt genuine surprise, even as Sasuke kept speaking. “Shinobi are both predator and prey, and foolishly relying on physical prowess to get you through situations will get you killed. You have to be cunning. Because there is always someone, or something, stronger than you are. And if you go through your career relying solely on strength, you’ll eventually run up against one of those stronger people, and they’ll squish you because you weren’t smart enough to approach your battle with them any differently. Keep your false power. I don’t need or want it.”

What an unusual child, Orochimaru thought, pondering his terminology, because squish was both strangely childish and at the same time oddly specific. Uchiha Sasuke was somehow everything Orochimaru thought he was – and the exact opposite. It may be more difficult to manipulate him than previously anticipated – but Orochimaru had always appreciated a challenge. What an interesting stance. Where did he learn to think like that?

“Then what sort of power have you come for, little Uchiha?” Orochimaru asked, licking his lips in the way he knew other people found disturbing.

“Knowledge,” Sasuke replied, not even twitching. He was so much braver, now, scant few months after their first interaction. Why? What could he possibly have seen between then and now that had hardened his resolve to this degree? “It is my understanding that you have gathered a great deal of it, over the years. I want you to teach me everything. Kakashi-sensei was holding me back.”

“Knowledge means nothing in this world if you aren’t strong enough to back it up,” Orochimaru said.

Sasuke shrugged. “I’ll train,” he offered. “I never said I wouldn’t. I just said that brute strength wasn’t something I was going to rely on because that’s stupid.”

Orochimaru considered that. Provided he trained his physical strength and chakra reserved sufficiently so they would not inconvenience him when he took the boy’s body, what harm was there in humouring him and teaching him what he wanted to know in the meantime, provided he censored some of his more personal techniques?

“My genin teammate was Uzumaki Naruto,” Sasuke explained. “I’m sure you know who he is. He’s Konoha’s jinchuuriki, and he can unleash the Kyuubi at will. In cases where you find yourself facing down a bijuu, I’m sure you can agree that discretion is the better part of valour – or were you not intending to assassinate the Sandaime Hokage during the final stage of the Chuunin Selection Exams?”

The stare Sasuke fixed him with was accusatory.

Orochimaru did not deign to reply.

“If you had the Mangekyou Sharingan, you would be able to face down any bijuu, even the Kyuubi,” he commented, as mildly as he could make himself, instead. It would be useful if the boy unlocked the Mangekyou Sharingan before he took his body.

Sasuke scoffed. “I read the scrolls in my family compound. To unlock it, I’d have to kill the person I care about most,” he said.

“You would not do anything for power? The power to kill your brother?”” Orochimaru asked. “Then why have you come?”

“The power to avenge my family,” Sasuke clarified, and Orochimaru wondered why he thought there was a distinction to be made. “And I would. Within reason. But I can’t attain the Mangekyou when the person I’d have to kill is my best friend – and the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki.”

Ah. Yes. Orochimaru understood. Sasuke couldn’t face the Kyuubi without the Mangekyou Sharingan. Sasuke couldn’t attain the Mangekyou Sharingan without defeating the Kyuubi. Unfortunate. Never mind, a Sharingan was a Sharingan and that was what he really wanted. The Mangekyou Sharingan would have to remain out of reach for now.

“Very well,” Orochimaru agreed. “You may join Otogakure no Sato as one of my shinobi, and I will teach you. Get rid of that hitai-ate. You’re not from Konoha anymore.”

Sasuke reached up to untie his hitai-ate, then stood there, staring down at the leaf-shaped symbol for a shinobi from Konohagakure no Sato for a long moment. Orochimaru expected him to throw it aside, but Sasuke again did the unexpected. He pulled a kunai from the holster on his thigh, drew it across the hitai-ate in one sharp slash, and put it back on, meeting Orochimaru’s eyes defiantly.

Orochimaru was reminded suddenly and rather unpleasantly of the last time he’d seen Uchiha Itachi. Sasuke wasn’t quite his spitting image, but they were very clearly brothers, and Sasuke was also disconcertingly similar to Itachi in mind and mannerism. Now more than ever. The boy he’d met in the Forest of Death had been a frightened child, nothing more. The boy standing before him was still a child, but he was a young shinobi, smart and calculating and if not entirely sure of himself, then at least certain of his goals.

“Good enough, I suppose,” he said, and from the way Sasuke smirked, just a little, he knew he’d just lost a battle of wills to that child.

Autumn crept into winter. Sasuke abandoned his old clothing embroidered with the Uchiha crest in favour of the garb of the Oto-nin, and still he wore his scratched Konoha hitai-ate. He remained prickly and isolated. At no point did he draw on the power of the cursed seal, not even when Orochimaru pitted him against much stronger opponents in spars, opponents who were perfectly happy to use their own seals, and he lost, over and over again. He was regularly in the care of Kabuto or, later, Karin, receiving medical attention.

Then, as he learned more about his opponents, as he mastered new jutsu the same way his blasted teacher, the Hatake-brat did, as he continued to refine the chidori – he began to win. And Orochimaru saw he was promising, indeed.

He took up kenjutsu, took to the sword like a fish to water.

He refused all experimental procedures, and even after Orochimaru had trained four new shinobi in the art of the shikokumujin, he politely but firmly declined the Mind Awakening Pill that would have advanced the stage of his cursed seal. Orochimaru grudgingly admired his dedication.

Spring bled into summer bled into autumn again.

Orochimaru gave him a team and began to send him out on higher and higher ranked missions. Sasuke necessarily didn’t play nice with others, but he always brought everyone home alive.

Orochimaru gave him an Oto hitai-ate. He wore it tied to the rope at his waist, scratched Konoha hitai-ate still proudly on his forehead.

The last loyal Uchiha, loyal no more, was not what he’d expected, not even remotely, but was a pleasant surprise nonetheless.

Chapter Text

ii. liv.

Seasons turned to years. Kurama’s bad mood lifted, like a veil of fog that had been clouding his mind burning away beneath the morning sun, and he realised how pervasive the fear and grief that had hung over Konoha, had been directed at Naruto, had been. Slowly, slowly, he woke up with hope in his heart and a yearning to see what was over the next horizon. To see what new trick he and Naruto could play on Jiraiya. To learn what new jutsu Jiraiya had in store for them.

Until a new thought occurred to him one afternoon, as they were passing through a village, and he spied an elderly cat lying in the autumn sunshine up on someone’s roof, quiet and content, but old, her ears ragged from numerous fights, her fur patchy, an old cracked leather collar around her neck. And he came to a new realisation, one he had previously put away for another day but it was not something he could continue to defer.

A fox in the wild rarely lived more than five years – often they did not live more than one or two. Kurama had ‘officially’ become Naruto’s pet when his kit was three. Now Naruto was fifteen, sixteen in a few scant months, which made Kurama the ninkitsune twelve going on thirteen. A real fox – even a well-kept ninkitsune – would be coming to the end of their natural lifespan about now.

He was not meant to be a summons.

He was not meant to be a ninken or a ninneko from carefully a cultivated pedigree known for its longevity and chakra pools.

He was just supposed to be an orphaned fox who’d befriended an orphaned child, who’d happened to have a latent ability for moulding chakra that had allowed him to become more than he should’ve been.

Kurama spent one autumn and winter slowly and carefully altering his physical body, making it look older. Changing the texture of the fur, making it drier and slightly more brittle. Threading it through with white hairs. Altering the way he carried his weight, letting muscle definition waste away. He changed his gait, began to drag his paws. Allowed arthritis to set in to his carpal joints and his elbows and his hips and knees and wrists and parts of his spine. Took longer to haul himself laboriously to his feet after resting and spent longer pretending to sleep.

“He’s getting old,” he heard Jiraiya say to Naruto one evening, as they sat eating together and Kurama feigned sleep on the table by Naruto’s elbow, and the fox knew he’d been successful. “I’m going to be honest with you, kid. I’m not sure he’ll make it through next winter. Winter’s always harder on animals. It – uh – it may be time to start thinking about letting him go.”

“Letting him go?” Naruto asked, puzzled.

Jiraiya sighed, long and drawn out, and melancholic. “Euthanasia,” he said.

“What’s that?”

A pause, as Jiraiya took a moment to gather his thoughts. “Sometimes, when a person or animal is very sick, or in a lot of pain, it’s kinder to kill them gently than to let them keep living in suffering.”

“Oh,” Naruto said, very, very softly.

Kurama opened one eye, just a slit, and pinned Jiraiya with a flat stare. “No,” he grumbled. “Unless I get so senile I start peeing on the floor and speaking nonsense, I’ll be the one who decides when and if I am to be put to sleep, thank you very much.”

Jiraiya squeaked. “I thought you were asleep.”

“Unless he is sure of his safety, a fox does not sleep. He drowses, at best, for otherwise he runs the risk of a predator coming along and killing him in an instant,” Kurama said, closing his eyes again.

Jiraiya made a thoughtful noise. “We should take you to see a nin-veterinarian, to see if there is anything to be done to make you more comfortable, though, wouldn’t you agree?” he said, carefully. “There is an excellent nin-vet in Konoha, and I think it is probably about time we were heading back that way anyway. What do you say, Kurama, Naruto?”

Kurama grumbled softly to himself.

“Ah,” Naruto said, and he sounded off-balance, like his entire world had shifted several feet to the left under his feet. “Yeah. Yeah, I think so.”

Later that night, at the inn they were staying at, after Jiraiya had done his writing and fallen asleep, Naruto lay awake, stroking Kurama’s fur.

Why are you getting old? he wondered, his thought echoing through the dark tunnels of their shared mind space.

Kurama closed his eyes and opened the ones of the great chakra construct that lived inside Naruto’s stomach.

I am not, he replied, voice a great booming growl. Look at me, kit.

Mentally, Naruto turned to face the Kurama-the-Kyuubi, sitting tall and proud, fur gleaming, tails full and luxuriously fluffy, claws and teeth as sharp as any blade, eyes bright as fresh blood, not a grey hair on his muzzle, as great and vital as he ever was, even without his Yin half.

I don’t understand, Naruto thought.

How many people know that Kurama-the-fox is a physical manifestation of me? the Kyuubi asked. You can count them on one hand, can’t you? You, Sasuke, Gaara, Sakura. I do not age, but normal foxes do.

Oh, was the only thing Naruto thought back. Wait, but are you going to die? I don’t want you to die, you know.

Kurama-the-Kyuubi rolled its eyes. I am physically incapable of dying, kit. We’ve been over this before. I am eternal. The very fabric of my being is woven into the world. But yes, your pet fox will, eventually, have to pass away. It would be suspicious if he lived forever. It will be okay. You can conveniently ‘find’ another orphaned fox a few months on, adopt it, and call it ‘Kurama II,’ in memory of your first beloved fox. I’m not going anywhere. I promise. I live in your stomach.

I don’t want you to do, Naruto repeated, stubbornly, eyes glittering with tears.

We’ve just been over this, I won’t be dying, I’ll just be pretending to. Ugh. Please don’t cry. Alright, look. I’ll go to the vet. They’ll find I have arthritis and give you some medication to give me. I’ll get some of my pep back, but not all of it, because I’m supposed to be getting elderly. In a year or two you can retire Kurama-the-fox, and then I’ll ‘die’ the winter you turn twenty. That’ll give you plenty of time to get used to the idea. Alright?

Naruto pouted. Fine, he thought, with the closest thing possible to the mental equivalent of a huff.

They had been in the Land of Earth, intending to board a ship and head on up to the Land of Snow-Spring, but now they packed their bags at the inn and instead took the road headed south-east. A few days later, they were across the border and moving through the great tall Hashirama trees that surrounded Konoha. The spring air was warm and smelling like new growth, and Kurama, who felt the cold keenly now even in warm weather, was riding tucked into the collar of Naruto’s jacket, curled around his neck.

The walls around Konoha were as high and great as ever, as much a monument to the strength of the village in the same way as the great stone faces on the mountain.

Home, Kurama thought placidly, lifting his head to look at the huge gates standing open for foot traffic as Naruto raced ahead of Jiraiya, waving at Izumo and Kotetsu, the gate guards, and the little fox almost fell out of Naruto’s shirt he startled himself so badly.

How long had he thought of Konoha as home?

Ah, but he had spent the better part of a century here, almost since the founding of the village, even if it was oppressively grim at times.

A hand on his back, stabilizing him, and Naruto was bounding up a power pole to look out over the sprawl of buildings.

“It’s exactly the same,” his kit breathed.

“Well,” Kurama said. “It’s only been two years. I wouldn’t expect it to change that much.”

“Naruto!” called a very familiar voice from below them, and they peered down at Sakura, standing at Jiraiya’s side, along with the three brats, Konohamaru, Moegi, and Udon – genin now, from the Konoha hitai-ate they wore instead of the goggles they used to wear in imitation of Naruto from before he was a shinobi.

Naruto leapt lightly down to join them. “Sakura! It’s so good to see you! It feels like it’s been forever,” he exclaimed, cheerfully. “Minions! You made genin! Great job! How’s Jiji?”

Konohamaru leaned in close. “Don’t tell anyone I told you, but he got bored with retirement not long after you left, and he’s been annoying Tsunade-baa-chan more than the Council.”

“Actually,” Sakura said, also leaning in close. “Tsunade-shishou doesn’t mind that much, even though she complains about him all the time. Sometimes, she just lets him have the office for the day and goes to spend time at the hospital. All that paperwork is terrible for giving you hand cramps, and she says she likes sick people more than politicians, you know?”

Naruto laughed. “And how are you?” he asked.

Sakura smiled softly. “Good. I’m good. I’ve learned heaps, though I’ve got a lot left to learn, too. Are you going to see Tsunade-shishou, now? She’s been waiting for you to come back for months, now, you know.”

“Oh,” Naruto said, scratching the back of his head. “Ah, maybe in a bit. I’ve gotta take Kurama to the vet first.”

“The vet? Is he alright?” Sakura asked, frowning now, but it was a puzzled frown.

“He’s just old,” Naruto replied, and Sakura’s frown deepened.

“Do you mind if I come along? I know quite a lot about healing people, but not much about animals.”

“Sure,” Naruto agreed. He turned to Konohamaru, Udo, and Moegi. “I’ll see you guys later, huh?”

 

lv.

Inuzuka Hana was Kiba’s elder sister. She had three remarkably similar ninken who were lounging in the waiting room when Naruto entered with Sakura and Jiraiya, Kurama ambling at his heel. They had sent a letter ahead that they would be arriving in Konoha today, with the intention of seeking medical attention for a nin-animal, so they were ushered over to a corner of the waiting room and the veterinary technician who’d been staffing the front desk went to go and inform one of the vet-nins they were there.

Kiba’s sister called them through to an examination room a few minutes later.

“So,” she said, bending down to get on Kurama’s level, holding out the back of her hand for Kurama to sniff but looking up at Naruto. “This is Kurama, then? I’ve heard quite a bit about him from Kiba. Apparently he was a bit of a nuisance back at the Academy.”

Naruto laughed awkwardly. “Yeah. I think those days are behind him, now. He’s getting pretty old.”

“Well, let’s take a look, then.” Hana lifted Kurama gently onto the examination table. “I can’t say I’ve seen many foxes,” she added, as she took the pulse in his foreleg, then checked the pulse in his rear leg, and finally took the stethoscope from around her shoulders, slipping the ear plugs into her ears and pressing the drum against his chest. “Heart sounds good. No murmur. His heart rate’s a little slower than I’d expect, but you tend to see that in nin-animals. They get so fit, you see, and the fitter you are the stronger your heart is, and the less often it must beat when resting. Lungs sound clear. Let’s look at your teeth, little guy. Don’t bite me now.”

“I would never be so uncivilised,” Kurama said, flicking his ears irritably, and she startled, leaping backwards and bringing a hand to her chest.

“Oh,” she said. “You can talk.”

“Don’t sound so surprised. It’s not a new trick or anything,” Kurama grumbled.

“He’s been talking my ears off since I found him, you know,” Naruto said.

“Ah, well,” Hana said. “Things are a lot easier when you can understand your patients! I always have trouble with the cats, because I have no idea what they’re saying. But when I can ask questions, and you can answer them, it takes away a lot of the guesswork. Alright, then, Kurama. Tell me what’s going on with you, and then we’ll get on with the exam.”

“I’m thirteen,” Kurama told her. “I know I’m old. My hips and knees and elbows and wrists and back and paws hurt. I get tired quicker than I used to. It’s harder to keep up with Naruto. The cold bothers me now. I can’t see as well as I could – there’s a spot in the middle of my vision where I can’t see anything at all. I can’t hear the mice under the snow anymore.”

“That sounds like a lot,” Hana agreed. “Alright, then. We’ll start by looking at your teeth, then I’ll check your ears and your eyes. After that I’d like to take some bloods to run a geriatric blood panel for you, and we’ll do some x-rays, and we’ll go from there? How does that sound?”

Kurama nodded. “Very well.”

Inuzuka Hana turned to Naruto and Sakura. “You don’t have to hang around for this, if you don’t want to. It’ll take some time. Go get something to eat, catch up with your friends.”

“See the Hokage,” Sakura suggested.

“Yes, we should go say hello to Tsunade-hime,” Jiraiya agreed.

“You won’t put Kurama to sleep?” Naruto asked, anxiously.

Hana shook her head. “No. I don’t think we’ll even need to do a general anaesthesia, or a sedation, not with a patient we can explain the procedures to, so why don’t you come back by five o’clock? We should have finished all our tests and have the preliminary results by then.”

Naruto and Sakura both stepped up to Kurama, who sat up on the examination table to accept petting and ear-skritches as they said goodbye.

Inuzuka Hana performed an array of tests on Kurama, from running her hands, green with healing chakra, over him as a basic diagnostic, to manipulating his leg joints. He put up with all of it, tolerating the buzz of the clippers on his foreleg to take blood and the pinch of the blood draw itself, laying perfectly still for the x-rays. He did, however, balk at the idea of being put away in one of the cages for the lesser-minded nin-animals while he waited for Naruto to come back to pick him up.

“No,” he said emphatically, bounding up the wall to stand upside down on the ceiling and glare down at Hana and the technician assisting her. “I will not be caged. I will curl up in the afternoon sun in on the windowsill in the waiting room. If you like, you may bring me food. Not that kibble nonsense. If nothing else, instant ramen and an egg will do, though I would not mind a piece of salmon, if you have one on hand.”

Hana laughed, bright and cheerful and surprised. “For an old fox, you’ve sure got spunk! I like that! To be honest, I was starting to worry about how placid you were being… This is good. Alright, then, come on down. I think we can find you some clean blankets to curl up in, if you like. We can put you in the break room next to the heater, and we’ll see about something to eat in a little bit. How does that sound?”

Kurama deliberated for a moment, before nodding and dropping down onto the floor, flipping over to land on his feet at the last moment. “Tolerable.”

And that was where Kurama was when Naruto came back for him, some hours later. He drowsed through the diagnosis Inuzuka Hana gave Naruto. “Quite advanced arthritis, must be painful… Liver enzyme levels are elevated, but not excessively, I’d like to keep an eye on that, can you bring him back in a couple of months for a retest? … A little bit anaemic, you need to make sure he eats more red meat… I can give you some medication… No issue accessing his chakra, and he has really large chakra reserves for such a little guy… Life expectancy, I couldn’t say. Like you said, he’s just old. He doesn’t have anything really wrong with him except old age… Consider retirement, if you aren’t already. Have you thought of working with a ninken?”

Kurama snapped his eyes open. “Absolutely not,” he said. “I refuse to share my human with a dog. I mean no offense, but dogs don’t have the right instincts.”

Naruto laughed, and for the first time in days it was happy and carefree. “Kurama’s got really strong opinions about that! Believe it!” he said, before turning his attention to his little fox. “Anyway, Kurama, me and Sakura—”

“Sakura and I,” Kurama corrected him.

Naruto rolled his eyes and huffed, but said: “Fine, fine, Tsunade-baa-chan is making Sakura and I do a test against Kakashi-nii-chan to see how our skills have changed since were started our training. Wanna come?”

Kurama got slowly and creakily to his feet, then stretched. “Very well.”

He ended up sitting high on a tree branch next to Jiraiya as Sakura and Naruto went up against Kakashi by themselves – and fought him proficiently enough that he had to keep the Sharingan out and his book tucked away. The match lasted hours and destroyed a good portion of the training ground as Sakura knocked over trees left and right and rent the ground, Naruto’s dense, heavy rasengan tore through earth and undergrowth with equal ease, and Kakashi threw cataclysmic fire, water, and earth jutsu that destroyed everything in their path at them.

Kurama cleaned his muzzle and behind his ears, fighting the urge to burst into raucous laughter as he listened in on Sakura and Naruto as they hatched their Ultimate Plan. Kurama had not approved of the gift Naruto had brought back to Konoha for Kakashi – allowing the man his masks was one thing, enabling his porn addiction was quite another. But it turned out that Kakashi was the sort of man to read a book from beginning to end and was not at all like Naruto who got bored part-way through and tended to peek at the last few pages to see what happened, and as such the Ultimate Plan worked.

Tricksy, tricksy little foxes.

Kurama had done his job well.

Naruto burst out of the bushes, spoilers for the latest otherwise unreleased Icha-Icha book he’d brought back for Kakashi on his lips – and Kakashi had to cover his ears and shut his eyes to avoid finding out what they were, effectively tying up both his hands and his Sharingan.

Kurama fell off the branch, howling, but was caught by his tail by Jiraiya.

Thus, Team Kakashi was formed, with Kakashi, Sakura, and Naruto at its core. With Kurama tagging along until he ‘retired’ for good.

Later that night, Naruto and Kurama sat on his Naruto’s old bed in his old apartment, after cleaning away the dust and cobwebs with the assistance of his Shadow Clones. Naruto was holding the framed photograph of Team Seven that had been taken all those years ago, with Sakura in the middle, smiling pleasantly, Naruto grinning off to one side, Kurama perched on his haunches on Naruto’s shoulders, balancing himself with a paw in his hair, Sasuke on Sakura’s other side, looking flatly at the cameraperson, a Sukea-someone-or-other, and Kakashi behind them, somehow grinning even though only one eye was visible.

“I hope Sasuke’s okay, wherever he is,” Naruto said, quieter now that they were alone.

Kurama rested his chin on Naruto’s knee. “So do I,” he said.

 

lvi.

It seemed that Team Kakashi had the same penchant for tempestuous luck as the original Team Seven, for they had arrived at the Mission Assignment Room the following morning to a commotion. The Hokage had just received an urgent missive from Suna – the Kazekage had been attacked and taken by the Akatsuki.

Incidentally, Suna had elected a fifteen-year-old chuunin jinchuuriki as their Kazekage, because the Akatsuki had fought and taken Gaara.

Kurama was ready to kick up a fuss right there in the Mission Room, because one of his kits and his idiot little brother were in grave danger, but it seemed that Tsunade seemed glad they were there and promptly gave them the mission to assist Suna in recovering their Kazekage. They were setting off from the West Gate not a half hour later, but not before Jiraiya pulled Naruto aside and warned him to keep the Kyuubi contained.

Not because Naruto couldn’t control the Kyuubi, because he absolutely could.

Actually, control was the wrong word. They worked in tandem, in concert, their wills, minds, bodies as one, and it was not a battle of dominance but a dance of equal partners when Naruto drew on the Kyuubi’s chakra and Kurama gifted it to him and they bounced ideals and battle plans off each other. No. Neither Kurama nor Naruto sought to control the other. They coexisted in utter peace, and over the recent years, as Naruto had trained to master some of the partial transformations granted to him by the access to Kurama’s chakra, rather than simply swapping places with the Kyuubi, Kurama had come to understand the true strength of a jinchuuriki.

Jiraiya was rather concerned because the Kyuubi was a target of the Akatsuki, and as such so was Naruto. If Naruto let the Kyuubi free on the battlefield, and Uchiha Itachi or the fraud with the orange mask who called himself Madara but had the pinwheel Sharingan anyway were there, then they would be grave in danger. Better if he kept the fox deep inside him, with its eyes closed.

That was never going to happen, of course, but Kurama didn’t say anything since he was too antsy to get going.

Out of dubious respect for the old sannin, however, they didn’t just unleash the Kyuubi there and then to race to Suna faster than a hawk could fly, which turned out to be a good thing because they encountered Temari – Gaara’s elder sister – on the road, allowing them to inform her that her brother and Kazekage had been kidnapped. This news appeared to make her visibly distressed, and Kurama could feel the twisting turmoil of her emotions, and Kurama was glad they had let her know.

It was good to learn that she felt real concern for her brother.

They ran on.

Well, Naruto, Temari, Kakashi, and Sakura ran on. Kurama rode tucked into Naruto’s collar.

When they stopped to rest, it was for the briefest of moments, just enough to snatch a moment of sleep. They ate and drank as they moved, from dawn to dusk and well through the night, until the reached the end of the trees and were running through scrubby brushland and then out across the broad open sand, the sky vast and open above them, until a sandstorm forced them to take shelter in one of the many little caves in the great rocks that had been carved into twisting by millennia of wind.

It was while they were huddling there, none more restless to move than Naruto, that Kurama became aware of the roiling, raging chakra of his younger brother, approaching their position fast.

For a moment he felt a flicker of hope, dashed again when he realised the signature was not large enough to be the entirety of the Ichibi.

A couple of minutes later, a small, angry tanuki burst into their little cave, flanks heaving, spittle flecking his maw, the whites of his eyes visible, a Sunagakure no Sato hitai-ate tied around its neck on a red band. It was snarling softly to itself as it shook the sand out of its fur before making straight for Naruto, who yelped and backed away.

“I’m not rabid,” the tanuki said, crossly.

“Oh,” Naruto said, blinking in surprise. He blinked again. “Oh, hey, Shukaku. Wait. Shukaku. Where’s Gaara?”

Shukaku yowled angrily. “Gaara sent me away, and they took him! I couldn’t follow! Gaara wouldn’t want me to, so I had to come find you. Gaara’s mine. You have to bring him back.” He bared his little teeth, and Kurama actually found it intimidating, because there was a lot more chakra in that little tanuki body than there should have been.

Kurama slithered out from Naruto’s collar to sniff at the very cross tanuki curiously.

Shukaku rolled onto his back, showing his belly.

“Otouto,” Kurama said.

“Nii-san,” Shukaku replied, squirming.

Kurama moved closer to the entrance to the cave, where the shrill whistle and howl of the wind should prevent even the sharpest of ears overhearing them. To be sure, he adopted a very old dialect, the one their father spoke to them in, when he spoke to them for the first time. “If the black-cloaks-red-clouds took your human, how is it you’re here, and free?”

Shukaku flashed him a very brief, slightly mad grin. “I followed my beloved nii-san’s example. Broke the seal. Gaara has my Yin half. My Yang half is here playing pretend. I am loath to admit it, but you were right. This is better.”

“Is that the only reason you want him back? He’s got your Yin chakra?” Kurama asked, skeptically. “Because I don’t have my Yin half, and I’m getting along okay.”

“No! Gaara’s mine,” Shukaku said, fur all puffing up offendedly. “No one else’s. Those bastards can’t have him!”

Ah. So, they had worked things out between them after all. So what if Shukaku was possessive? Kurama was, too.

Shukaku twitched, suddenly remembering something. “Kankurou is very sick! He is poisoned and Chiyo-baa-sama can’t help him! He tried to go after Gaara, but the pursuit team brought him back the next morning.” He eyed Kurama suspiciously, glancing between him and Temari. “Kankurou and Temari are mine, too,” he said.

Kurama shrugged, a little painfully because his shoulders weren’t as supple was they were in his ‘youth.’ “More family, then.”

Shukaku looked like he was about to protest, then thought otherwise. He moved back deeper into the cave.

“Temari!” he yipped at her. “Why are we huddling in this cave? Sandstorm won’t stop me. I can lead you back to Suna tonight.”

Temari looked uncertain. “You’re certain?”

Shukaku spat derisively. “Sand’s never been my enemy. I don’t get lost,” he snapped. “It’s not such a bad storm it’ll strip the flesh from your bones. Come on.”

And so they ran on, alternatively led and herded by a furious little tanuki.

Kurama remembered when he was cute and tiny and couldn’t talk, and Gaara carried him around in his shirt. It seemed like just yesterday. How time flew. Ugh, now Kurama was old and tired and getting carried around in people’s shirts.

 

lvii.

It was safe to say that Chiyo did not like Hatake Kakashi.

In fact, she disliked Kakashi so instantly and severely that her reaction upon spotting him in the entrance to Kankurou’s hospital room was to attack on sight, shouting something about: “Konoha no Shiroi Kiba!” Kurama thought that was some pretty intense hatred for Hatake Sakumo, who’d died when Kakashi was six, if she was willing to just up and attack Kakashi without even stopping to ask questions.

He knew plenty about forgiving children the sins of their fathers, and he was one of the most immovable beings in the world.

Eh, humans were weird.

Naruto, who was both highly durable – Kurama might have learned to leave the odd bruise as a lesson, but he healed anything that would impair Naruto’s ability to fight immediately – and stupid enough to jump in the way of an attack meant for one of his precious people. Kakashi, for his part, seemed perfectly content to hide behind his student, bleating like a sheep.

Maybe he was afraid of old people.

Kurama was absolutely going to exploit that later on.

“Oi, baa-chan, what did Kakashi-nii ever do to you?” he growled, his hands stopping her fists.

Chiyo froze, then bounced backwards to eye him with befuddlement, glancing between Naruto and Kakashi, her wrinkled old face scrunched up as if she were trying to do a truly impression math problem.

“If you’re going to fight,” Sakura said, from where she was flipping through Kankurou’s medical notes. “Go do it in the hallway, please. A hospital room is not an appropriate place for this. Get out before I make you get out.”

Chastised, Naruto and Kakashi slunk out of the room, Kurama padding along behind them with Shukaku a warm, fluffy presence at his side.

“She’s scarier than before,” Shukaku whispered.

“If I remember right, she could punch through Gaara’s Ultimate Defense when she concentrated really hard two years ago,” Kurama whispered back. “Now she goes around felling trees and creating valleys wherever she likes, whenever she likes. She could probably punch one of us all the way to Konoha and think nothing of it. She’s been trained by Tsunade.”

The very old man accompanying Chiyo, apparently her younger brother, Ebizou, drew her away to sit down in the hallway around the corner.

They waited.

And waited.

And Sakura worked through the predawn and well into the morning, drawing the toxin out of Kankurou’s body. Naruto fell asleep on the bench, curling up on his side, his head next to Kakashi’s leg, and beginning to snore softly. Kurama saw on his flank and drowsed.

Sakura woke them, briefly, to tell them she’d successfully extracted as much as the toxin as possible, and now she was going down to the greenhouse off the hospital to try to create an antitoxin. They should have something to eat and stretch their legs in the meantime.

Chiyo came and joined them shortly thereafter, a tense, angry presence on the bench beside them. Kurama hopped up onto the cushioned bench between Naruto and the old lady. Her brother sat on her other side, wringing his old, age-spotted hands.

“I can’t believe Konoha sent two brats and a White Fang knock off to assist Suna,” she grumbled. “We shouldn’t need help at all, but when we do, this is what we get?”

Kurama looked at Naruto, who looked perplexed, and then at Shukaku, who was sitting on the floor, waiting impatiently, emotions and chakra too much of a furious roil to be much of a conversationalist, and last at Kakashi, who was so engrossed in his book his nose was practically touching the page – clearly he didn’t want to be part of this conversation, either.

“I do not think I’ve ever heard Sharingan no Kakashi, the infamous Copy-nin, with flee on sight orders in numerous Bingo Books, ever described as a White Fang knock off,” Kurama said.

Chiyo squinted at him. “You. Fox. You talk.”

“Some ninkitsune do,” Kurama replied.

“You look familiar somehow.”

Kurama peered up at her, flicking his ears. “You will find that most red foxes look similar. I’m not surprised.”

“It’s more than that,” she insisted. “Where have I seen you before?”

He shrugged. “Dunno, but I’ve never met you before in my entire life.” And he’d led a very long life, all things considered.

She growled at him. “Stop being evasive and answer the question.”

Kurama racked his brain. “Well, uh. Do you watch the Princess Gale movies? Because I had a minor speaking role in Princess Gale and the Land of Spring. Otherwise, I have no idea how you might have seen me before. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Suna.”

Chiyo gaped at him. “So we get two brats, a White Fang knock off, and a movie star? Does Konoha think so lowly of us?”

“Hey!” Naruto interjected. “Gaara’s my friend, you know! I woulda come anyway if I knew he was in trouble because I protect my previous people. And Kurama’s awesome! Believe it!”

“So, old hag,” Kurama said to Chiyo, before she could turn her beady, suspicious gaze on Naruto. “What’s your deal with Kakashi-nii’s father?”

“Hatake Sakumo is his father?” Chiyo screeched, immediately lunging over Kurama and Naruto to try to get at Kakashi again. Kurama was almost squashed until he slithered out from under her bony weight under the floor to watch her grappling with an awkwardly flailing Naruto.

“Why?” Naruto wailed as he clonked on the head.

Hatake Sakumo died when Kakashi was six years old, Kurama thought irritably at Naruto, wheezing as he tried to catch his breath. Tell her to keep her hair on, she’s getting worked up about someone who had minimal influence in nii-san’s life.

“Ee!” Naruto squealed, narrowly avoiding being sucker punched in the gut. “Kyuubi says not to lose your hair! Nii-san’s father died when he was, like, six, you’re blaming the wrong guy!”

Chiyo went very, very still, apart from the occasional twitching of her face and eye.

Kurama hoped she was just unpacking that sentence, and not having a stroke.

“The Kyuubi ‘says?’” she repeated, at last.

“Yeah, he talks to me all the time.”

“Konoha sent their jinchuuriki?” Her voice was getting steadily shriller.

“Ow. You’re hurting my ears, lady,” Naruto said.

Baki appeared in the doorway to Kankurou’s room. “What about the jinchuuriki?” he asked, urgently.

Chiyo levelled a trembling finger at Naruto, almost poking him in the eye because she was still practically on top of him. “This is the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi,” she said, dramatically.

The half of Baki’s face that was visible turned pallid, and he held out a hand to steady himself against the doorframe. “You… single-handedly routed the invasion that Orochimaru orchestrated after he assassinated the Yondaime,” he breathed.

Naruto threw his hands in the air, and clipped Chiyo’s jaw as he did. “Not single-handedly!” he huffed. “It was me and Kyuubi. Not me by myself, or Kyuubi by himself. We’re separate people.”

“A person and a chakra construct, really,” Kurama interjected.

“Maa, maa,” Kakashi said, then, his book still held so close to his face he couldn’t possibly be reading it, there was no way he could focus on the letters at that range. “Let’s not argue semantics. Sakura’s coming back.”

And so she was, a faintly irritated expression on her face because she had obviously spotted them shouting in the hallway. I’ll deal with you later, her expression said, and Kurama suddenly remembered that she knew he was not an elderly ninkitsune, she knew he was the Kyuubi, and she would not hold back whatever punishment she deemed fit for potentially disrupting the sick and convalescent of Suna’s hospital.

The antidote to the toxin apparently tasted absolutely foul, but worked after the toxin extraction, because Kankurou rested easy after.

 

lviii.

“We could’ve gone hours ago, but no,” Shukaku ranted crossly. “No one believes me when I say I know exactly where Gaara is, right this very second. We don’t need dogs; my nose is just as good. Even if I couldn’t lead you right to him like he was true north, I’ve spent years living in close quarters with him and know his scent intimately. I could literally follow it across an ocean. Why does everyone underestimate me?”

“You weigh six pounds,” Kurama told him, completely unapologetically.

“We believe you, Shukaku,” Sakura said, kneeling to pat him on the head.

Shukaku growled and snapped at her hand.

She flicked him, and he catapulted into the huge terraced wall that surrounded Sunagakure no Sato, cracking it deeply. “No,” she said. “Bad tanuki. We don’t bite teammates.”

“You should be nicer to Kazekage-sama’s pet,” Chiyo said, coming up behind the group who were waiting, assembled, near the partially destroyed entryway. She had changed out of her robes into a much more practical kunoichi outfit. She was accompanying them in Temari’s stead, as a puppet master herself, to take on her own grandson, Sasori, who had been identified as one of the Akatsuki attackers.

The other, according to Shukaku, used clay animals to blow things up.

Kakashi commented that technique sounded like Deidara, a missing-nin from Iwagakure and a former member of the Explosion Corps, and he’d pulled out his Bingo Book to show them the entry, which had Shukaku hopping around and spitting angrily.

“Eh,” Sakura said, shrugging on her pack. “I’ve known Shukaku since he could sit in my hand. I know what he’s capable of. Trust me, that tanuki is the furthest thing from a pet as you can get.”

Kurama bit his own paw to stop himself from chuckling. He was old. He chuckled now. It was more dignified than maniacal cackling anyway.

Kakashi turned to Baki. “I’ll leave Pakkun and a couple of my other dogs here. When Team Gai arrives, the dogs will lead them to us.”

Baki nodded. “Very well. Come, esteemed canine warriors. I will find somewhere for you to bed down while you await your compatriots.”

“Time is of the essence,” Kakashi said to the rest of the group, as they made their way through the narrow corridor between the high terraced walls. “I hope you’re prepared for a hard run—”

But Naruto wasn’t going to dither, running about on foot. He dragged himself into the seal space and shoved the Kyuubi out, immediately taking control of the giant chakra construct so inner-Kyuubi could keep its eyes closed and Kurama wouldn’t get nauseous. Naruto-the-Kyuubi stood there, tall and magnificent, higher than the walls surrounding the village, heavy corrosive chakra pulled in tight so as not to terrify everyone in the town, even as the light of the sunset illuminated the fur of his great head, back, and nine lashing tails.

“I’M QUICKER LIKE THIS,” Naruto-the-Kyuubi said, tucking his tremendous forepaws beneath his chest and dropping his huge head onto the sand next to the startled group of shinobi. Kurama marvelled at his immensity. It was one thing to be that huge – it was another thing entirely to be the size of a regular fox, regarding the Kyuubi as an outside spectator, dwarfed a million times. “SHUKAKU, CLIMB ON MY NOSE. YOU WILL POINT WHERE TO GO. KAKASHI-NII, SAKURA-CHAN, KURAMA, CHIYO-BAA-CHAN. RIDE ON MY HEAD, AND HOLD ON TIGHT. IT WOULD BE BAD IF YOU FELL OFF.”

This is the power of the Konoha’s jinchuuriki,” Chiyo breathed. “And he’s never lost control?”

“Not that I’m aware of,” Kakashi said. “Well, the Akatsuki going to know we’re coming, but maybe that’s for the best. Hopefully they weren’t planning on dealing with the Kyuubi so early in their scheme, and there’s nothing like the Kyuubi no Kitsune for causing a distraction while we sneak and perform a rescue operation. Come on, quick, before he causes too much alarm in the village.”

They climbed up the side of Naruto-the-Kyuubi’s face, using his long, bristly, curiously warm fur for handholds before settling down on the great expanse of skull between the Kyuubi’s two enormous ears. Shukaku scrambled forward to perch on the Kyuubi’s muzzle, just behind its great, glittering, wet nose, while the others burrowed into its fur. Kakashi scooped Kurama up and tucked him safely into his flak jacket, and then the tremendous beast was lifting its head and stepping forward.

Kurama’s stomach swooped, and he felt Kakashi inhale sharply, while beside them Sakura yelped and Chiyo uttered a brief breathless prayer, as the Kyuubi turned and bounded in the direction Shukaku indicated.

It was a little bit like flying.

Running as the Kyuubi always felt a little bit like flying to Kurama anyway but perched on top of Naruto-the-Kyuubi’s head, the rapidly cooling air of the desert at night time rushing around them, the desert floor hundreds of feet below them, covering almost a mile with every great leap – it was like actually flying.

Night fell.

Stars blinked into existence overhead.

The moon hung heavy and full, low and near the horizon.

Naruto loosed the leash he had on the Kyuubi’s chakra, letting a feeling of crushing fury, worse than any Killing Intent, push forward of him.

Time seemed to lose meaning, as they flew-ran-hunted across the desert floor, kicking up vast sprays of sand and leaving behind huge pawprints.

“You’re the boy’s jounin-sensei?” Chiyo asked Kakashi, at one point, having to shout to be heard over the rush of the wind in their ears.

“I was,” Kakashi called back. “Though he’s been studying under Jiraiya-sama of the Sannin for the past couple of years.”

“And the girl’s, too?”

“I have a name,” Sakura yelled at them.

“Yes,” Kakashi agreed.

Only the tip of Kurama’s muzzle and the tops of his ears were sticking out of Kakashi’s flak jacket, but he could make out the thoughtful expression on Chiyo’s face.

“The third genin on your team?” the old woman asked.

Kakashi made a distinctly sheepish noise. “Turned nuke-nin. Ran off to join Orochimaru in Oto.”

Chiyo spat, disgustedly. “You mean to tell me that each of your genin has been trained by a member of the sannin?”

They were interrupted by Naruto-the-Kyuubi. “PLEASE DON’T SPIT IN MY FUR, CHIYO-BAA-CHAN,” he said, and as he spoke his massive growling voice made their bones rattle and the air in their lungs catch.

“Apologies, Naruto-kun,” Chiyo said.

“THANKS BAA-CHAN.”

Chiyo turned back to Kakashi. “Have you ever done this before?” she asked. “Ridden on the back of – of this?”

“I’M A PERSON, YOU KNOW. ANYWAY, KAKASHI-NII-SAN HASN’T,” Naruto answered, even as Kakashi shook his head. “ERO-SENNIN DID ONCE, AND THEN HE SICKED IN MY FUR, AND I NEVER LET HIM AGAIN.”

“Ero-Sennin?” Chiyo echoed, curiously.

“Jiraiya-sama,” Kakashi supplied.

Chiyo choked.

Kurama wondered if she’d accidentally swallowed a bug. Kakashi had the right idea for travelling like this. With his mask, there was no way he’d swallow any bugs by mistake.

It was shortly after this conversation that Naruto-the-Kyuubi’s ears flicked forward and he came to an abrupt stop, nearly unseating everyone clinging to his head. Sakura thumped him soundly with her fist, and Naruto-the-Kyuubi ducked and flinched. Kurama felt a moment of terrifying weightlessness before Kakashi landed back on Naruto-the-Kyuubi’s head slightly gracelessly.

“OW,” Naruto complained, tremendous voice taking on a distinctly whining tone. “WHAT WAS THAT FOR, SAKURA-CHAN?”

“Don’t stop so suddenly!” Sakura shouted at him. “Or at least give us a little warning next time! I almost fell off.”

“SORRY. I CAN SENSE GAI-SENSEI AND HIS TEAM OVER THERE, THOUGH. SHOULD I PICK HIM UP?”

In defence of Team Gai, most people would pull out weapons and prepare for battle when confronted with the reality of the mightiest of the bijuu bearing down on them at speed. Or try to run and hide, but Kurama had never observed Maito Gai to be the sort of man to back down from a challenge, no matter how dangerous, and he seemed to have passed this very same lack of sense of when to strategically retreat on to his students.

From very far below, Kurama thought he heard: “It is tragic, my students, but the Kyuubi roaming free in this desert can only mean one thing: Naruto has lost control of it, and perished, and now we must do mighty battle to prevent it getting closer to civilisation! Pray that with our lives we may turn it away from civilisation!”

Kakashi edged over the top of Naruto-the-Kyuubi’s brow to peer down at Maito Gai, Rock Lee, Tenten, and Hyuuga Neji, allowing Kurama a good look at them, also.

“Gai!” he called. “I left Pakkun in Suna for you, but Naruto sensed you as we passed. Come on up. We’re making good time.”

“My Eternal Rival?” Gai yelped, sounding horrifically surprised, even as Naruto again tucked his feet under his tremendous chest to lay his head on the sand in front of the reinforcements.

“HURRY UP, WE’RE GOING TO SAVE GAARA, YOU KNOW,” Naruto-the-Kyuubi said.

It was at this time, in a cave that was rapidly becoming less far away, that the Phantom Dragons Nine Consuming Seals jutsu began to flicker like a guttering candle, as if reaching completion – after less than twenty-four hours.

“Stop,” Nagato called.

The nine members of the Akatsuki dropped the jutsu just before the last of the Ichibi chakra could be pulled from the Kazekage, glancing at each other and up at the dimly glowing eye on the Gedou Mazou.

“I thought you said that was going to take at least three days, un,” Deidara said.

“It should have,” Nagato replied, turning to look at the shallowly-breathing form of the Ichibi no jinchuuriki. “Did anyone falter?”

No one had.

“Then,” Nagato said, expression neutral but tone icy. “Somehow the Ichibi was not fully sealed within him, only a portion of it was.”

“Is that possible?” Itachi asked. “And if it is, was it done at the time of the sealing – or did he do it himself? Either way, where is the rest of the Ichibi, and if he did it himself, how did he achieve it without killing himself in the process?”

They looked at each other again, and would probably have continued this discussion at length, had they not become aware of the great oppressive chakra of the rapidly approaching Kyuubi no Kitsune. This necessitated a hasty unsummoning of the Gedou Mazou – they had to seal the Kyuubi last or they would destroy the statue which meant its presence was the opposite of optimal – and for the chakra shades of the rest of the Akatsuki not physically present to take their immediate leave.

Nagato’s last instruction to Sasori and Deidara was to try to wake Gaara to get answers out of him, and not kill him, please, he was sadly still useful, because if more than one jinchuuriki was up to this sort of nonsense it was going to cause the Akatsuki all sorts of headaches. Nagato promised he would be watching over them, so if they found the answer he would know and any sacrifices they made in the name of world peace would not be in vain. Suffice to say Sasori and Deidara wanted to leave also, because no one in their right mind and very few people in their wrong mind ever wanted to meet the Kyuubi, but they had a job to do.

 

lix.

“All I’m saying is a Five Seals Barrier won’t stand up to a bijuudama,” Shukaku pointed out.

“NEJI ALREADY FOUND THE SEALS, YOU STUPID TANUKI. I WANNA GET IN THERE AND SAVE GAARA MUCH AS YOU DO BUT I DON’T WANNA CAUSE A CAVE-IN AND SQUISH HIM BY ACCIDENT,” Naruto-the-Kyuubi said, being unusually logical, although it was done at such volume the water of the river they were standing on shivered beneath their feet.

“That would be bad,” Kakashi agreed, a little faintly.

Oh, that’s right. Obito died in a cave-in.

Kurama crawled out of his flak jacket to press his cheek against Kakashi’s sole uncovered ear in a motion he hoped was comforting, although everyone was feeling highly strung right now. The emotion that hung in the air was like a wire drawn too taught, ready to break at any moment, and reminded him of the taste of too-ripe berries and blood at the back of his throat.

“I’M CHANGING BACK, I DON’T THINK I’LL FIT IN THE CAVE OTHERWISE,” Naruto announced – and in a puff of smoke he was once again boy-shaped and boy-sized. He held out his hands in the universal sign for ‘gimme’ to Kakashi, who picked Kurama off his shoulder and handed the little fox over.

Team Gai dispersed to remove the seals at the same time, Sakura punched the boulder blocking the entrance, turning it to rubble, and Team Kakashi plus Chiyo and Shukaku burst into the riverside cavern.

“We’re too late,” Kakashi said.

Two men stood between them and the prone form of Gaara. One was blonde and missing an arm. It looked like a recent injury, from the ragged, bloody edge of his sleeve and the coppery tang in the air, and the other… looked like they’d been born with an unfortunate birth defect of the spine. The poor, and also very ugly, man with the birth defect appeared to be Sasori, from Chiyo’s reaction, and Kurama could honestly say he did not see the familial resemblance at all. The fox understood puppetry meant that a shinobi could fight long range, but Sasori had to have some serious back pain and mobility issues going on under that cloak.

Gaara!” Shukaku wailed, bolting from their line, darting nimbly around the mechanical tail Sasori had suddenly whipped from under his cloak, which Kurama was going to pretend wasn’t creepy enough to make his skin crawl like he had fleas, and grabbing the collar of Gaara’s shirt to drag him away from them, over to the wall of the cave.

“Gaara!” Naruto yelled. “Now isn’t the time to take a nap! Gaara! Wake up!” But Naruto thought his friend was dead. Kurama could tell from the crushing grief that was thickening the air around him, making it feel like his lungs were being squeezed uncomfortably, until he slithered off his boy’s shoulder and scampered across the cave floor to join Shukaku at Gaara’s side.

Gaara’s breathing was faint, and his heartbeat thready – but it was unmistakably there.

Shukaku was nosing along his jawline, snuffling his ears, licking his cheeks and across his eyes as a steady and barely perceptible trickle of chakra passed from one to the other.

“They didn’t take all my Yin chakra,” Shukaku murmured to Kurama, barely more than a breath. “There’s still a tiny bit left.”

“That’s good,” Kurama replied. “It’ll replenish, eventually, then. If they sealed the whole lot you might’ve lost it.”

“I don’t care about that. All I care is that whatever mistake they made, Gaara’s still alive. I don’t know what I would do if Gaara died.”

Kurama bit his ear, gently, not reproving, just a reminder he was physically there with him. “Alright. Protect him.”

Nothing gets past my defence,” Shukaku growled.

“Good. I’m going to keep my human safe.”

Kurama darted back across the cave to Naruto’s side, again narrowly dodging that weird tail thing Sasori had. Kakashi had moved to stand in front of Naruto, presumably to stop him leaping into battle prematurely.

“Sasori,” Deidara said, turning to his unfortunately deformed comrade. “The jinchuuriki have pets after the image of their bijuu, un. Do all of them?”

“Not that I have heard,” Sasori rasped.

“You’re terribly uninformed for a group dedicated to going up against the jinchuuriki,” Kurama called out, because he could not help but stir the pot a little when the opportunity presented itself. “It’s all the rage these days, didn’t you know? I hear the Hachibi’s jinchuuriki got himself a ninushi and called it Gyuuki. It’s very good at goring people and stomping them to death, but I think you’ll find that most oxen are, so it’s not really very special in that regard.”

Kakashi cast him a startled glance. “What?”

“Heard about it while we were on the road with Ero-Sennin,” Kurama said, shrugging.

It was all absolute lies, of course, but there was nothing like spreading misinformation on the off-chance one of these two idiots managed to escape to report back to – whoever was the boss of the Akatsuki. Kurama didn’t know any better than he knew who Gyuuki’s jinchuuriki was, but if this rumour got back to him he was going to be so annoyed.

Deidara and Sasori got into an argument about who was going to fight who, which segued into a much more heated argument about art. Sasori liked art that lasted aeons. Deidara liked art that lasted the blink of an eye.

Fighting the urge to yawn, Kurama wondered why it was that when fighting with bandits and low-level shinobi, everyone got straight to the actual fighting, but when a group of high-level shinobi got together and considered fighting it turned into a posturing match. Then he remembered the way foxes would occasionally solve disputes by screaming at each other until one backed down, rather than actually fighting, which was more a more sensible method of resolving conflicts than fights that could last to the death or result in infection-prone wounds, and realised that posturing in the hopes that one party would back down was actually a good way of reducing fatality from battles that might otherwise have been unnecessary.

Huh.

He resolved to share this piece of insight with Naruto later.

Now, though, he interrupted the two ostensible teammates of the Akatsuki because, frankly, he was getting bored: “There is art in both things that last time immemorial and the transient. How wonderous are the mountains, that were here for millions of years before us, and will be here for millions of years after – but consider, also, the life of the adult mayfly, which lives for less than a day, and is beautiful in its fleetingness.”

Sasori and Deidara looked at him, and Deidara, at least, looked somewhere between intrigued and irritated. Sasori’s expression had not changed, half his face covered by the tatty mask, brows drawn in a severe frown.

“What an interesting little fox, un,” Deidara said.

Kakashi heaved an exasperated sigh. “Kurama,” he said. “We’re not here to philosophise about art with the Akatsuki.”

Kurama wound between Naruto’s feet and sat on the unpleasantly damp cave floor. “Eh? Who else can I talk with it about? Naruto doesn’t have an artistic bone in his body, you think the Icha-Icha series is art, and Ero-Sennin wrote the thrice-damned books, so he’s no good, either.”

“Just get to the part where you pound them into the dirt for hurting Gaara, stupid Kurama-nii-san!” Shukaku called across the cavern.

“Otouto is so demanding,” Kurama sighed. “Very well. Sasori, I think your grandmother wants to have a word with you. That leaves Deidara for us, no, Kakashi-nii?”

 

lx.

Deidara seemed to understand the concept of a strategic retreat, because – and Kurama was still wrapping his head around this – his hand, which had a mouth in its palm, spat out a lump of chewed-up clay, which he shaped into a bird in his fist, applied chakra to so it poofed large, and flew away on the bird’s back.

Or perhaps Deidara was an idiot, because he taunted Kakashi and Naruto as he went.

It was at this point that Gaara stirred, groaned, and rolled over to face away from the light streaming through the entrance of the cave, gasping the words: “Not now, Shukaku, I’m tired,” in a voice as dry as his sand, presumably from screaming, and everyone decided to ignore Deidara unless he made a nuisance of himself. Kurama spitefully hoped he got dizzy from the blood loss caused by his recent severe injury, toppled off his animated clay bird, and broke his neck to save them all the bother.

“Gaara!” Naruto cried, ducking beneath Kakashi’s arm to bolt towards his friend – and promptly getting clipped on the flank by Sasori’s creepy articulated mechanical tail. “Ack! Ow, ow, ow,” he yowled, rolling with the force of the blow and then leaping out of range.

“Foolish child!” Chiyo barked. “Don’t run in like that against a puppet master! Now you’ve been poisoned!”

Sasori laughed. It was a disturbing laugh. “If you escape me today,” he rasped. “You will still die in three days.”

“Girl, help your friend,” Chiyo said, turning to Sakura.

“It’s okay,” Naruto said, brightly, waving them off before Sakura could move out of her defensive stance, even as he pressed his other hand over the rapid bloom of blood on his side. “Kyuubi burns off poison so fast. I’ll be fine. I might… just go sit down over here a moment.” He promptly collapsed face-first on the cave floor, not far away from Shukaku and Gaara, his wound hissing and steaming.

“Yare yare,” Kakashi grumbled. “He’s not wrong, though. The Kyuubi seems to be uncommonly good at dealing with toxins.” From his grimace, visible even in just his eyes, Kakashi was probably remembering the pufferfish nigiri incident, which had happened while they were vacationing in the Land of Moon after that mission involving the failed coup staged by Minister Shabadaba. “I’m going to check in with Gai. He and his team should’ve been back by now. Chiyo-baa-sama, will you be okay facing Sasori by yourself?”

“You doubt me? As if I were old and infirm?” Chiyo flapped a hand at him. “Go on, shoo, begone brat. I know about you Konoha shinobi and your camaraderie. Besides, I’ve let this lie too long already – I should’ve dealt with it years ago.”

Kakashi went, leaving Sakura and Chiyo – and, theoretically, Kurama, though he wasn’t going near that creepy tail-thing if he could help it, the way it moved struck him as viscerally wrong – as the only combatants remaining to face Sasori.

“I heard you retired,” Sasori said to his grandmother.

“Maybe I wanted to see my only grandson’s face again,” Chiyo replied.

Kurama hid a grimace behind a paw, because that was not the sort of adorable, chubby-cheeked face that grandmothers everywhere couldn’t resist pinching. Poor Sasori, being insulted so brutally by his own kin. Urgh.

Chiyo stepped forward, in front of Sakura, drawing a chakra-string of kunai from up her sleeves, and Kurama subtly placed himself behind her and to the left, in position to act as a shield should the need arise, because unlike Naruto, Sakura didn’t have a bijuu in her gut to burn off any poison running through her blood.

The old woman cast the kunai. Some of them were battered out of the air by Sasori’s tail, but the rest winged him.

They didn’t appear to do any significant damage, he didn’t even flinch, although they did cut his cloak to tatters, causing him to shrug out of it.

And – he was normally proportioned underneath? Only, he was standing down on all fours, hands and feet both on the ground, and some of his limbs seemed to be puppet parts.

The Akatsuki had to be the most eclectic collection of shinobi Kurama had ever had the misfortune of encountering in all his thousands of years, and he’d met many odd people in his time by sheer virtue of being very old. First it was the nuke-nin Uchihas with their pinwheel Sharingan, though Kurama still didn’t know who the man in the orange mask was, then it was the sword-wielding shark-man, then an explosives expert who had a mouth on his hand, and now it was a guy who appeared to have taken his specialty a step too far and turned himself part puppet.

Not to mention the fact that Orochimaru had also been a part of the Akatsuki at one point, and he was a whole level of weird unto himself what with that body-snatching, medical experimentation, snake-face thing he had going on.

How had his life devolved so?

He used to be a perfectly respectable bijuu, just roaming around and knocking over villages when the whim struck him.

“What’s that?” Sakura asked.

“That is not Sasori’s real body. That is a puppet,” Chiyo replied, and Kurama was so relieved. Immaturely, incidentally. “His real body is inside.”

Sasori chose that moment to explain, graphically, how he made his puppets out of human corpses before adding them to his puppet collection. Kurama did the math – it wasn’t difficult – and realised that for Sasori to be hiding inside his puppet, controlling it, he had to be in the hollowed-out chest cavity. Also, this puppet was called Hiruko, and had that been its name in life? Hiruko had been an enemy shinobi from another village.

And now Sasori wanted to add Sakura and his own grandmother to his puppet collection, which would make three hundred mummified puppets!

No. Nope. No way. Kurama didn’t want to know more. Humans were too weird. These perversions of nature were sickening.

He whined, accidentally drawing Sasori’s attention to himself.

“Maybe the fox,” Sasori mused. “It’s little, but sometimes you want a little puppet to send into tight spaces.”

“I’ll smash you and all your puppets to splinters then burn them for good measure before that ever happens!” Kurama shouted. “Don’t think I won’t!”

Chiyo called Sakura to her, and they held a counsel of murmurs, even as Sasori grumbled about not liking to be kept waiting and Kurama paced backward and forward at a safe distance from that articulated tail.

And then Sakura drew a kunai and she and Chiyo leapt forward, and the dance of the senbon began.

It was beautiful.

Behind them, watching them move in awe, Kurama might have, maybe, gotten spiked by the senbon. A little bit. Only by half a dozen of them. But no one except Sasori was looking in his direction so he hastily plucked them out with his teeth, spitting them onto the cave floor and smoothing over the wounds of his constructed body with a wash of Kyuubi chakra that wouldn’t be noticed when he was in such proximity to Naruto – who was also drawing on Kyuubi chakra, now that Kurama paid attention.

The little fox glanced over his shoulder at the spot where Naruto had been collapsed, and saw him now crouched protectively in front of Gaara’s prone form, fox-slit eyes the colour of fresh blood, a cloak of bubbling red-gold chakra superimposed over him, a pair of chakra ears rising from his head and nine chakra tails curled forward like a barrier in front of him, no senbon having gotten closer to him than about nine feet, and those that had got that close were on the ground, singed or half-melted, the metal glowing red.

Ah, good, he was up again, and helping Shukaku while Gaara was vulnerable.

Kurama looked back at Sakura in time to see her smash the puppet, Hiruko, directed by Chiyo’s chakra strings.

The real Sasori was forced to emerge, leaping away from Hiruko’s shattered remains.

For someone Chiyo supposedly hadn’t seen for twenty years, Kurama thought Sasori was remarkably youthful.

In fact, he didn’t look much older than Naruto or Sakura, who were only fifteen.

Weird, but whatever. Some people aged faster than others, and shinobi were prone to being genetic oddities. He wasn’t going to look at it too closely. Sasori cast the little fox a curious glance.

“Why aren’t you reacting?” he asked. “I saw you get hit.”

“Mithridatism,” Kurama said, absolutely lying between his teeth. “I’ve been practicing it since I was a tiny kit. Did you know foxes can’t eat onions or grapes or chocolate? After that it made sense to keep going. Your poison isn’t made up of any compound I haven’t encountered before, and combining things won’t change that.”

Sasori looked disturbed.

“Kurama’s a bit of an oddity,” Sakura offered, smiling wryly, because she knew he was just a little tiny manifestation of the Kyuubi no kitsune and could say things like that and find them funny.

“No, he isn’t! He’s a totally normal ninkitsune, believe it!” Naruto shouted at them.

It suddenly occurred to Kurama that Sasori might think Kurama was as strange as Kurama thought Sasori, and he cackled madly to himself.

Naruto sighed. “No, you’re right. Kurama’s weird.”

Chiyo was staring, aghast, at Sasori.

“Are your emotions so great you are lost for words, Chiyo-baa-sama?” he asked her. “Unsurprising. It’s the first time we’ve seen each other in two decades. While you’re here, though, I would like to show you the pinnacle of my collection.”

He unsealed another puppet.

Kurama didn’t think there was anything special about it, but Chiyo apparently did, because she identified it as the remains of the Sandaime Kazekage.

“Are the dead not sacrosanct?” the little old fox wondered, wrinkling his muzzle. “Can you not leave them to their rest?”

The fight continued, turning into a battle between puppet masters and becoming infinitely more dangerous when it became apparent the Sandaime Kazekage’s puppet was capable of using the iron sand technique it had wielded in life. Kurama tried to stay out of the way, keeping a leery eye on the proceedings. This seemed to be a family matter, and he didn’t want to hinder Sakura.

The roof of the cavern caved in after some overenthusiastic use of the iron sand.

Naruto protected Gaara, tails flicking away pieces of rock as he snarled, but he seemed to understand that he was most useful where he was. Kurama almost got squashed by falling debris and squealed as some of his tail hairs were caught.

Sakura and Chiyo continued to fight as an amazing team, and then it was revealed that Sasori had turned himself into a puppet. The only living part of him left was his sealed heart.

Kurama recoiled in disgust.

Suddenly, it was a battle of the hundreds of puppets of Sasori’s collection against the half-dozen or so of Chiyo’s, and Sakura. That was not to say that Kurama did not smash any that came too close to him where he was trying to get his tail-hair out from under the boulder, and Naruto smashed-burned-obliterated a significant number by lashing his chakra tails.

Before long, slithers of sand were wrapping themselves around the puppets limbs, systematically disabling one after another, and Kurama glanced over to see Gaara sitting up behind Naruto and his chakra cloak, leaning heavily on Shukaku, and using the damp crushed debris of the cave instead of his usual chakra-coated desert sand, but awake and furious from the hard look in his eyes.

“Chiyo-baa-sama,” Gaara called, during a brief lull in the battle. “I would appreciate it if we could take him alive. I hear very good things about Konohagakure no Sato’s TI department, and would be interested to know what they can extract from his mind about the Akatsuki. However, if he dies, that is acceptable, merely less desired.”

Sasori started to look desperate, as Gaara got to his feet and Naruto began to take a more active role in the destruction of his puppets.

Kurama supposed it was one thing to fight a little old woman, a girl, and an elderly ninkitsune. It was another entirely to fight a puppet master, a student of Tsunade with tremendous strength and healing ability, two angry jinchuuriki, a ninkitsune immune to poison, and an unknown nintanuki.

“Although they look permanent,” Kurama piped up, sagely. “Even the mountains are not eternal. They are worn down by wind and rain, snow and ice, over countless years. Eternity is a lie. Nothing lasts forever.” Kurama wasn’t even certain that the bijuu would last forever. “Sometimes, a mountain is levelled in a day with the lash of a tail of a single angry kitsune.” He looked pointedly at Naruto before turning back to face Sasori. “You can always surrender, cooperate, and hope of leniency or at the least a quick execution.”

Sasori stared at him.

The remaining puppets began to tumble to the ground, as if their strings had been cut, and Naruto capitalised on this moment to sweep his chakra tails and destroy all of them – except the Sandaime Kazekage’s puppet, which Gaara wrapped protectively in a cocoon of cave sand.

“I don’t want to die,” he admitted.

“No one does,” Gaara said. “But someone wise once told me the beautiful part of life was its ephemerality. And love is what makes it worth living.”

“Yeah,” Naruto agreed, letting his chakra cloak drop, his eyes bleed back to blue, his claws blunt back to nails, canine teeth recede. “How is any of this art, you know? How is it beautiful if you’ve taken away all the parts of yourself that can appreciate it?”

Sasori hunched in on himself.

“I surrender,” he mumbled.

Kakashi and Team Gai burst in at that moment, with the news that Deidara had flown away and they hadn’t pursued because Team Gai had triggered some sort of failsafe when they removed the four corners of the Five Seals Barrier and had ended up fighting tireless copies of themselves.

After a brief rest, during which they incapacitated Sasori as much as possible, mostly by removing and crushing inconvenient parts of his puppet body, like his hands and feet, and sealed away the Sandaime Kazekage puppet, they set out for Suna.

 

lxi.

“Naruto,” Kakashi said, sometime later, after they had met up with Temari, Kankurou, Ebizou, Matsuri, and a squad of other Suna-nin, and were now camped out under the shade of a copse of trees to avoid the midday sun before the continued toward Suna in the cool of the evening.

There was little need to rush, now. The crisis had been averted.

Naruto, who was leaning against a tree, Kurama curled in his lap, both of them partway between a drowse and actual sleep, made a soft noise.

“Naruto,” Kakashi said again, a little sharper.

“I’m tired, nii-chan,” Naruto griped.

“I only want to talk to you for a minute.”

Naruto groaned but hauled himself more upright, putting his hand on Kurama’s back to avoid tipping him out of his lap. “Okay. What?”

“It’s about what Jiraiya-sama said before we left Konoha,” Kakashi said.

“He says lotsa stuff,” Naruto replied.

Kakashi fixed him with a gimlet eye. “About not using the Kyuubi’s chakra.”

“Uh,” Naruto grinned sheepishly, scratching the back of his head. “Me and Ero-Sennin been having a disagreement, y’see.”

Kakashi lifted his one visible eyebrow. “Oh? Go on.”

“Well, he thinks I shouldn’t try and use Kyuubi chakra because I don’t have a seal, and he’s worried I’ll accidentally burn myself up with it and die,” Naruto explained. “But I think that Kyuubi would rather spend like a year untangling our souls, so he could leave and go be a hermit at the north pole if he even thought that was a possibility, you know. And, Kakashi-nii, I’m gonna tell you a secret. Kyuubi gets bored pretty easy. He wouldn’t like doing that because it’d take forever. I promise, it’s not dangerous or anything. I won’t burn up, I swear. His chakra doesn’t hurt at all when I use it, it’s kind of warm and nice, like a hug.”

Chiyo, who had been resting with her jaw pressed against her brother’s shoulder under a tree not far from them, was now looking at them in frank horror. “You hold the Kyuubi no Youko, but you don’t even have a seal?”

Naruto shrugged.

“I have my sealing materials on me, I did Gaara’s seal, I can—” she began.

“No, no,” Naruto said, and started laughing, brightly. “No. Thank you, baa-chan, but no. It took me until I was eight to get my first seal off. Me an’ Kyuubi wanted it this way, you know? Urgh. But if Ero-Sennin gets wind that I used Kyuubi, he’s going to turn around and come back to Konoha to shout at me.”

“Again,” Kurama said.

“Again,” Naruto agreed.

“So that was all?” Kakashi asked. “Alright, then. If you have a handle on it. Though, Naruto, transforming into the Kyuubi right outside the front gates of Suna might not have been your best idea if you don’t want things getting back to Jiraiya.”

“Oh, yeah. I should’ve thought of that.”

“Konoha breeds monsters,” Chiyo whispered to herself. Kurama ignored her. He didn’t like that word.

As they proceeded through the evening, they were joined by more and more squads of Suna-nin, all of whom were ecstatic to see their Kazekage alive and well enough, if a little tired and scuffed around the edges. Some quietly gave thanks to their deities. Others whooped and cheered. Others yet broke into tears of joy.

Gaara looked a little shell-shocked by all the attention.

“It’s so cool that you’re the Kazekage!” Naruto told him, when they settled down again for the night.

Gaara made a soft noise of agreement, ducking his head.

“Look how many people came to help you,” Naruto went on, gesturing at the camp of shinobi, now numbering nearly a hundred, bedding down around them. “You must be doing a really good job, you know!”

“I’d like to think so,” Gaara said, although he glanced in the direction of Sasori, who was trussed up in ropes and had a very effective chakra-dampening seal painted on his chest, courtesy of Naruto, who’d learned quite a bit about sealing from Jiraiya on their wanderings around the Elemental Nations.

“You don’t turn into Shukaku and murder people randomly anymore, do you?” Kurama asked.

Gaara turned back to face him, expression somewhere between startled and offended. “No!”

“That’s rude,” Shukaku growled, making to box Kurama about the ears, but the old fox was too wily and had already pranced out of the way.

“And you don’t think wholesale slaughter is an acceptable answer to any given problem?” Kurama asked, grinning foxily as he climbed Naruto’s shirt to perch on his shoulder.

No!” Gaara said.

“You’re doing a great job!” Kurama told him, cheerfully. “How many precious people do you have, now?”

Gaara thought. “More than I can count,” he admitted, smiling softly.

“I’m really happy for you, Gaara,” Naruto said, sniffling.

They slept side-by-side, like they used to when they were younger, and if Kurama and Shukaku sat up to watch over them, even in a camp surrounded by their allies – well, they’d had a very close call recently. The following morning they were up well before the rising sun to make the last stretch toward Suna, where the population of the village had gathered upon the tiers of the walls to see their Kazekage come home.

Their cries of jubilation came to the band of travelling shinobi for over a mile.

“So many people,” Kurama heard Lee say.

And Neji reply: “What would you expect for the Kazekage?”

Kurama felt a swell of pride for the little jinchuuriki so reviled by his own people he’d been abandoned in Konoha for more than a month after Suna’s failed invasion, now beloved.

A little while later, Chiyo said: “I didn’t expect to survive the rescue mission.”

And Sakura said to her: “Missions with Naruto never quite go as expected, but they often end up better than we think they might.”

“It’s the curse of this iteration of Team Seven,” Kakashi added, dryly.

“It’ll be alright, baa-chan,” Naruto said to her. “You can go back to being old and retired. Jiji loves it.”

“Naruto means Sandaime Hokage-sama,” Sakura said. “And he hates being retired. He’s so bored he comes in and does Tsunade-shishou’s paperwork more days than he doesn’t. How bored do you have to be to willingly do paperwork?”

“I see his irreverence is constrained not just to me, then,” Chiyo observed.

Kurama snickered.

“I think he learned it from that pet fox of his,” Sakura admitted, and Kurama turned around on Naruto’s shoulder to gape at her, even as she continued: “Kurama’s never been much for formality.”

“Slander! I will put a dead rat in your sleeping roll!” Kurama growled at her, and Chiyo and Sakura burst into raucous laughter.

Far behind them, on the border of the Land of Rivers, in the ruins of the cave where the Gedou Mazou had been summoned, Black Zetsu picked through the remains of hundreds of puppets, looking for a single detached hand. Zetsu was accompanied by a young man in a swirly orange mask, dressed in black armour. Eventually, the young man found the missing hand.

“Here it is!” Tobi called, excitedly. “I found it, Zetsu!”

He waved the hand in his, making it flop grotesquely backward and forward at the wrist.

Sitting down, he pulled the ring from the thumb Sasori’s left hand. “I wonder if I can join the Akatsuki now?” he said, although it was unclear whether he was talking to himself, or to Zetsu. “After all, I don’t think Sasori will come back after that, so a gap in the ranks should have opened up…”

He promptly dropped the ring and lost it down the crack between two bounders.

 

lxii.

For some truly, inexplicably absurd reason, Team Kakashi was being given two new members. Well, Kurama mused, no, it wasn’t inexplicable, though it was absurd. It was just more of the Council’s useless meddling. One had been personally recommended by Shimura Danzou, the old war hawk, and as such was Not To Be Trusted, Tsunade had explained. The other Tsunade had not briefed them on beyond telling them he was a competent shinobi she trusted, but it was ANBU Cat, the Mokuton user and long-time ANBU operative who used to often be found in the company of ANBU Hound, who was Kakashi, and was potentially worth considering for overtures of friendship. The fox had tagged Cat hundreds of times over the years, though his watch had been particularly frequent during the period after the failed Suna invasion, when Gaara and Naruto were cohabiting.

His chakra felt like springtime and growing things, the smell of dirt and rain on the wind, though the emotions he carried were sometimes conflicted or sad, and he’d been watching Naruto off and on since he left the orphanage.

It made sense to have a Mokuton user or someone with the Sharingan keep an eye on the jinchuuriki. Mokuton and the Sharingan were, after all, the two kekkei genkai best known for subduing a bijuu, though where Konoha had found someone with the Mokuton in this day and age, when the last, Senju Hashirama, died decades ago without passing it on to his son or either grandchild, was beyond Kurama.

Also beyond Kurama was why Team Kakashi was being sent to rendezvous with Sasori’s spy in Orochimaru’s operation.

Well, in theory Naruto, Sakura, and Kakashi desperately wanted their last team member to come home. In practice, too. In reality, they didn’t want to bother that sleeping snake too much lest it wake up and bite them. Sasuke was still sending both Jiraiya and Tsunade updates on Orochimaru’s machinations with the help of the cats, as he had been since the start of his self-imposed exile from Konoha.

They didn’t need information from Sasori’s spy since they had one of their own, and they didn’t need to rescue Sasuke, either. He would come home when he felt the time was right.

Unfortunately, Sasori had blabbed the meeting to half the TI department, and Tsunade had to send someone. Whoever that someone was, they had to be strong and cunning, in case they were walking into an Akatsuki trap.

And what was Team Seven turned Team Kakashi? A team of conniving young foxes with strong young bodies backed up by a canny old bijuu. And who cared if Naruto was still technically a genin? That was more because he hadn’t had a chance to have another go at the Chuunin Selection Exam than for lack of ability.

So, here Kurama was, a few days after their return from Suna, along with Naruto and Sakura, meeting Sai and Cat not far from the gates of Konoha, ready to leave on a mission with two total strangers. Mostly total strangers.

Cat introduced himself as Yamato.

“Huh. I’m reasonably certain that’s a fake name,” Kurama said, and Cat broke out in a sweat.

Sai immediately insulted everyone with a blithe smile on his face.

Naruto was apparently ‘dickless,’ Sakura was ‘ugly,’ Cat didn’t get called anything, the lucky bastard, and Kurama was ‘useless.’

Kurama fell back on an old, favoured insult as Cat struggled to hold Sakura back from pummelling Sai into the dirt. “I will piss on everything you hold dear, you asshole! I’ll show you useless!”

Sai tipped his head to the side, like a dog trying to pinpoint a sound, and Kurama was never going to be able to perform that same action again without thinking of the little brat now, and he said: “But you are useless, for a nin-animal. You’re old and decrepit. Anyone with eyes can see you’re about to keel over dead. How can you even fight? You should be put to sleep and Dickless should get a new nin-animal. Perhaps a dog?”

Which, of course, set off Naruto again, and then Cat was trying to restrain him as well, even as Kurama’s kit went red in the face, yelling: “Take it back, you bastard! That’s not true! Take it back!”

“You’re more upset when I tell you the truth about your pet than when I tell you the truth about yourself?” Sai asked.

“He’s my partner, believe it!” Naruto roared. “I wouldn’t be here without him!”

Sai closed his eyes, smiling beatifically. “Ah, so you’re the one who is useless?”

“That’s not what I meant!”

“Please,” Cat begged. “Stop fighting. We’re supposed to be a team.”

“Maa,” Kakashi interjected, and they all looked over to see him approaching at a lazy amble, a vibrant orange book in one hand and his pack over his shoulder. “You should appeal to the better nature of the fox, then, kouhai. He’s the one who usually deals with team disputes.”

“Not today, Kakashi-nii,” Kurama said, gleefully. “I’ve made it my personal mission to pee on everything Sai owns.”

Kakashi paused, glancing between Sai and Cat.

Cat hastily introduced himself. “Hello, Kakashi-senpai. I am Yamato, and I have been assigned to Team Kakashi for the foreseeable future.”

“Yamato today, huh?” Kakashi said, his eye twinkling delightedly as he confirmed Kurama’s suspicions about the falseness of the name. Kakashi turned to Sai. “You must be Sai, then. I’m Kakashi. You may call me ‘taichou.’ I’m afraid to inform you that you have made possibly the gravest error in the entirety of your shinobi career, and that you should endeavour to regain the good graces of Kurama as soon as possible.”

The smile slid off Sai’s face and was replaced with a curiously blank expression.

“Please tell me you aren’t serious, senpai,” Cat said.

“I have never been more serious in my life, kouhai,” Kakashi replied.

Sai indicated Kurama. “It called you ‘Kakashi-nii,’” he said. “And I am to call you Kakashi-taichou?”

“‘He,’” Kurama grumbled. “I’m not an ‘it.’”

“Well, Naruto’s my cute little otouto, and Kurama’s his cute little fox brother, and Sakura’s my cute little student, and Yamato is my cute little kouhai. So of course they will call me different things. You. You’re unknown.” Kakashi shrugged. “Nothing personal, Sai. Well, come on, then. Tenchi Bridge isn’t getting any closer.”

“Seriously, though,” Cat complained, as they wandered out the gate, waving to Izumo and Kotetsu as they went. “How do you stop them fighting?”

“I just told you!”

“But that doesn’t make any sense!”

 

lxiii.

Kakashi swore colourfully under his breath. Kurama actually learned a few interesting new phrases, and that almost never happened on account of the fact that people shouted hateful things at the Kyuubi all the time, back in the day, and they’d shouted plenty of nasty stuff at Naruto, too, so Kurama’s vocabulary for bad words was extensive.

“Stay here,” Kakashi hissed, mostly at Sai because Naruto, Sakura, and Kurama knew enough about the Orochimaru situation to understand that the mission was being ended, now, since capturing Kabuto was not worth it. The silver-haired jounin vaulted out of the bushes and onto Tenchi Bridge between Yakushi Kabuto and Yamato, who was henged into the form of the Hiruko puppet. “Excuse me, Kabuto-san,” he said brightly. “This naughty puppet has escaped from Konoha’s TI department and I really need to take it back, right now. Off we go, Sasori, we know you’re a bit confused after what the Yamanakas did to you, but we still need a bit more information… Back to Naruto and the others and we’ll take you back to Konoha…”

Yakushi Kabuto gave Kakashi and the fake Sasori a bewildered glare before darting back the way he’d come.

A minute later, safely on the ground on their side of the bridge, Yamato dropped the henge and rounded on Kakashi. “Senpai! It was imperative we captured him!”

“Ah, now, kouhai, imperative enough to warrant going into battle with Orochimaru’s right hand man, a man who single-handedly eliminated an entire ANBU squad?” Kakashi replied. “Just the six of us? I don’t like those odds.”

“They aren’t good odds,” Kurama agreed.

Sakura nodded. “Very bad ones, really.”

“Yeah, not even Kyuubi wants to fight that guy,” Naruto said. “And he’ll fight anyone.”

Yamato looked gobsmacked.

Even Sai, who Kurama learned had two expressions: blank and smiling, appeared to be faintly puzzled.

Possibly because Team Kakashi had, two weeks earlier, faced off against Sasori, a S-Ranked nuke-nin of the Akatsuki, won, captured him alive, and now they didn’t want to chase after some kid.

“Am I… am I missing something, here?” Yamato asked.

“Oh, no, no,” Kakashi assured him. “We’ve just run into Kabuto before and it is absolutely not worth the bother.”

What went unsaid was that where Kabuto went, Orochimaru was sure to follow. One was rarely seen without the other, and even if Kabuto was Sasori’s recently activated spy, Orochimaru was probably on his tail to retrieve him.

Now, if Kurama hadn’t been paying very close attention for days and days, he might not have noticed what happened next, but he did. Because Sai had told them he didn’t have emotions. Kurama could feel all the negative emotion of everyone around him for a huge distance, sometimes so strongly he felt overwhelmed, but he had never met someone who didn’t have them. Even bright, sunny Naruto felt sad-hurt-lonely-furious-anxious-scared, although he tended to bounce back quite quickly.

Sai, though. All Kurama had felt from Sai were the faintest flickers of negativity. A fleeting pang of regret at the mention of his deceased brother. The mildest of irritation at Naruto. A moment of fear when Sakura threatened to punch him. Again. He felt things so shallowly he was one of the oddest people Kurama had ever been around.

Now, though. Now there was the bitter taste of disappointment, and the hot singing in the blood of true anger coming from Sai. And then it was gone, like a fire smothered by sand.

Why?

Kurama looked at him – Sai was so emotionally oblivious the little fox didn’t need to be subtle in his observations at all, that boy wouldn’t notice – and saw his expression had smoothed from puzzled to blank.

Interesting.

They headed back to Konoha, in no particular hurry because they had nowhere important to be, stopping at the onsen hotel again.

Kurama liked going to the onsen. The warm water eased the aching pain of his stupid arthritic joints, and he would absolutely just remodel them with a tiny bit of chakra except he was supposed to be old and he wasn’t actually that great at remembering to act like he was in pain, so he had to leave them as they were. He forgot to age himself at all for ten years! He was terrible at maintaining his cover, and it was only because adults had such rigid imaginations that he hadn’t been caught.

People gave them odd looks as they settled into the onsen.

To be fair, Kakashi had most of his face covered in towels, and Naruto had brought a fox into the bath.

“Isn’t it unhygienic?” Sai asked. “Having an animal in here?”

Naruto shrugged. “We once shared an onsen with Ero-Sennin and a troop of monkeys. Anyway, Kurama’s – Kurama, what’s the word?”

“Fastidious,” Kurama replied. He was lying in the water on his belly, supported by one of Naruto’s hands, his ears, nose and mouth just of the water but the rest of his body submerged in the delightful warmth.

“Fastidious,” Naruto said slowly. “About keeping himself clean.”

“I saw him washing himself with his tongue yesterday,” Sai protested. A flicker of disgust.

“Needs must,” Kurama said, opening open eye to peer at him lazily. “Sometimes a tongue bath is the difference between bringing mud to bed and a clean sleeping roll. I don’t have shoes or clothes that I can just take off like you do.”

Stronger disgust.

“Don’t worry, Sai,” Kakashi piped up. “Kurama takes more actual baths than Naruto does.”

“I’m getting out,” Sai announced. Kurama spotted the corner of his mouth twitch.

“I will, too,” the little fox announced, swimming away from Naruto’s hand and hauling himself out of the onsen. He shook his fur out, garnering more slightly cross looks from the people around them, then padded off after Sai.

The strange boy redressed and took his painting supplies outside. Kurama followed him.

“You can draw me,” Kurama told him. “And title the picture ‘Magnificent Old Fox In The Sunset.’ What do you think?”

Faint annoyance. “Why are you following me?”

Kurama shrugged. “You’re new. I generally make it a habit to get to know everyone on the team.”

“Go bother Yamato-taichou, then,” Sai suggested, and he was smiling again.

“I already know him,” Kurama replied. “Not well, but well enough. I don’t really know you at all, except for your name and your… unfortunate habit of blurting out the first thing you think about someone. You shouldn’t do that, by the way. Or, well, the truth is a valuable tool, but it’s also… Huh, how do I put this? What you perceive as true is not what I perceive as true. You are an artist?”

Sai nodded.

Kurama hummed. “How would you define art?”

The smile dropped, replaced by a blank mask. “I—”

Kurama turned, because Naruto was coming up behind them. “Hi,” he said, sitting down with Kurama between him and Sai. “What’re you drawing?”

“I have not decided,” Sai replied.

“Cool,” Naruto said. “You should draw Kurama, and title it: ‘Grumpy Old Fox-Face.’”

Sai turned to Naruto. “How do you define art?” he asked.

Naruto shrugged. “Dunno. By whatever you find beautiful, I guess. When we were fighting the Akatsuki the other day, Deidara and Sasori had a massive fight about what art was. Deidara thought art was stuff that was… that was… Kurama?”

“Fleeting, and beautiful for the nature of its fleetingness,” Kurama supplied.

“Yeah!” Naruto nodded, emphatically. “And Sasori liked stuff that lasted forever. Like, his puppets were these preserved corpses. And he was afraid of dying. I think he’d like stuff like, I dunno, bronze statues and stuff, but Deidara would be all about those pieces of art you make at the low tide mark, that disappear as the water comes back in, if you know what I mean?”

“So,” Kurama said. “What is art to you, Sai-kun?”

Sai’s brow furrowed. Confusion.

“You don’t have to answer now. It’s something to think about, though, if you’re going to call yourself an artist, don’t you think?” Kurama had an idea, and grinned foxily. “Hey, hey. Draw me as the Kyuubi,” he said.

Alarm, now, sharp and almost pungent.

Naruto laughed, cheerfully. “Make him look like a cute Kyuubi though. All the pictures of the Kyuubi I see are of him being all snarly and vicious! Even the ones of the pink Kyuubi.”

“Is that… okay?” Sai asked, an edge of uncertainty creeping into his otherwise flat voice.

“Yeah, yeah, Kyuubi says it’s fine.”

Hesitantly, Sai glanced at Kurama and began to sketch a rough outline. “How is it you control the Kyuubi, if you have no seal?”

“We’re friends, believe it!” Naruto said. “I love him, and he loves me, so we work together really well.”

“Love,” Sai echoed. “You control the Kyuubi with love?”

Naruto nodded enthusiastically. “Eh, I don’t control him at all. No cages, no chains, no bars or stakes or locks or keys or nothing. We made a promise to each other, so he’s pretty much free, and he stays because he’s got nowhere better to be and he wants to help me become Hokage, you know. So, he hangs around and lends me his power if I need it and otherwise he watches my life and offers sarcastic commentary. He’s kind of great like that. He’s been looking after me since the day I was born, almost.”

Sadness. Hurt. More confusion, deeper now, a jarring sort of uncertainty. So, Sai could feel. He was just very good at repressing emotion. How convenient for a shinobi used as a tool, a finely-honed weapon – but a terrible price for a thinking being to have to pay. “That doesn’t sound like a normal friendship,” Sai observed, picking up a piece of chalk pastel. “Not like how the books describe friendships.”

“I doubt it would,” Kurama offered. “Those books will be talking about relationships between one human and another. Not a human and a giant, millennia-old, malicious chakra construct of immense power, wisdom, and unrivalled hatred.”

Sai made a thoughtful noise, and changed the subject. Probably wisely, because his anxiety felt like bees under Kurama’s skin. “Why do you defend Sasuke so vehemently? He’s a traitor to Konoha.”

Naruto flopped onto his back, stretching, and placed his hands under his head to peer up at the sky stained pink and red by the setting sun. “He’s my friend,” he said.

“He committed treason and turned rogue,” Sai persisted.

“Naruto exposed a highly-classified S-Rank secret to the entire world on his very first mission outside the village,” Kurama said. “What’s a little high treason between friends?”

“He’ll come back,” Naruto said, with absolute certainty. “I know Sasuke. He’s just – he’s got something he’s gotta sort out, and he can’t do it in Konoha. But he’ll come back. I know he will.”

“You’re awfully confident,” Sai observed.

Naruto closed his eyes, smiling honestly at the sky. “I trust my friends.”

Silence, but for the babbling of the brook they were sitting beside.

“I have a lot to think about,” Sai said, eventually, and went back to sketching.

Incidentally, upon their return to Konoha, Shimura Danzou got a particularly alarming report from the operative he’d had placed on Team Kakashi that left him doubting the sanity of the three original members from the most recent iteration of Team Seven. To add insult to injury, his operative had been somehow, utterly mysteriously, been corrupted and now wanted to experience love, of all the kami-forsaken things. Danzou was left with the uncomfortable sensation that the malfunction of his operative was either his fault for choosing the wrong candidate – and Sai had been so promising – or was the result of systematic reconditioning.

But who on Team Kakashi was even capable of such a thing? Not Kakashi, certainly, the man was a haphazard mess of a shinobi. And not Orochimaru’s former experiment, either, he was too socially awkward and had never left ANBU. Surely not Tsunade’s student? No. She was friends with the Yamanaka heiress, but that was the extent of her relationship with that clan.

The orange idiot and his equally idiotic pet fox?

No, Danzou had made a mistake and sent out someone without sufficient strength of will.

Too late now.

 

lxiv.

Kurama had never brought Mito or Kushina to the deep plain of his subconscious where he could communicate with the other bijuu. He wouldn’t have wanted either of them there, anyway. Naruto had always been different, so he was perfectly happy to curl up in his kit’s lap after a day training with his new team, trying to get used to their altered team dynamics, to lead Naruto down through their mindscape, deeper into Kurama’s own mind.

To his complete and utter consternation, that was how they appeared in the Seishin Sekai – as Naruto sitting cross-legged on the ground with Kurama curled in his lap as a tiny little fox, not the magnificent Kyuubi.

Kurama yelped, jumped to his feet, and promptly switched forms, inordinately glad that around them the mind-presences of the other bijuu were slumbering. Except for Shukaku, who was laughing at him.

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, otouto,” Kurama-the-Kyuubi grumbled. “Try it again in ten years, when you’ve spent every day focusing on keeping your form as a tanuki and the rest of you asleep, see how that goes for you.”

Shukaku kept laughing, and Gaara, who was sitting on his enormous head, rolled his eyes and sighed.

“We should bring the others down here,” Kurama said. “Help me wake them up.”

This didn’t go as well as anticipated because Kokuou and Choumei weren’t there.

“We weren’t quick enough,” Naruto said, lower lip wobbling, eyes welling with tears.

“I suspect,” Gaara mused. “They were taken before I was.”

Kurama wanted to rage but reigned himself in with an effort. Lapsing into frothing madness because of the Akatsuki wouldn’t help anything – they were already diametrically opposed. He already knew they were after his siblings. All this meant was they had moved faster than anticipated, and it was vitally imperative that he ensured those who remained were made aware of the dangers they now faced.

He forced himself to calm and snuffled Naruto’s hair extremely gently to comfort his kit.

Then he and Shukaku both poked at Gyuuki, who didn’t like either of them but was less violently opposed to humanity than Son Gokuu, who they decided to wake last on account of them having their jinchuuriki with them. Next they bothered Isobu, who could be relied upon to remain level-headed, before going around and pestering Matatabi and Saiken.

Gyuuki awoke first. “What do you want, Kurama?” he snapped irritably, before he’d even opened his eyes, but he grudgingly sat up to peer at them. And blink at them, for a speechless moment. “Shukaku,” he said. “I heard your jinchuuriki was—”

“Rescued!” Naruto said, cheerfully, waving from his spot between Kurama’s forepaws. “Those black-cloaks-red-clouds didn’t get him in the end! Hi! I’m Uzumaki Naruto, and I belong to Kurama! And that’s my friend, Gaara. He’s Shukaku’s!”

Gyuuki leant away from them, grimacing a little, as if they were contagious. So did Saiken, now also awake, though Matatabi observed them with interest.

“Kurama!” Son Gokuu rumbled crossly, at last. “You haven’t spoken to us in years and now you—” He froze. “Why are there humans? There have never been humans here before!”

Isobu had not roused.

“Eh?” Naruto said, turning to look up at Kurama. “Really?”

“Yes, really,” Kurama replied without elaborating, because his kit was smart enough to work that one out on his own. He flopped onto his stomach and stretched his paws out in front of him, eyeing his siblings, ignoring the way they watched him with increasing concern mixed with indignance and clear dislike as Naruto clambered up his muzzle and climbed onto his head, between his ears. “So. The Akatsuki. You’ve all heard of them, right? If you haven’t heard about them because your jinchuuriki have been out in the middle of nowhere living under a rock or something, they’re gathering the bijuu for something. Don’t know what, but I can only assume it’s something we don’t actually want any part in.”

“They’re easy to identify,” Shukaku added. “If your jinchuuriki spots someone in a black cloak with red clouds hemmed in white, and they aren’t in a position where they have readily available backup, get them to run. A pair came for mine. We assume they operate in twos, because two tried to go after Kurama a couple of years ago.”

“I notice you’re still here, Shukaku, in spite of your supposed run-in with them,” Saiken observed, solemnly. “Unlike our brothers.”

“I was made aware of the Akatsuki and their hunt for bijuu two-and-a-half years ago,” Gaara said. Heads snapped toward him, and Son Gokuu glared, as if he couldn’t believe this little human dared speak in their presence. “After much deliberation, I broke my seal and Shukaku split his chakra to manifest the Yang half outside of my body.”

Suddenly, ears pricked and all the assembled bijuu were looking at Shukaku and Gaara with vested interest.

“You did what?” Gyuuki asked, narrowing his great round eyes.

Kurama yawned widely. “Gaara broke his seal and freed our cute littlest brother. I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s not like it’s the first time it’s happened or anything.”

“Yeah, yeah!” Naruto shouted, jumping up and down on top of Kurama’s head. “We broke our seal when I was eight! It only took that long because we didn’t have the key and my tou-san was really good at seals, so we had to take it apart the long way.”

Gyuuki turned to him. “Would that explain why my jinchuuriki’s brother keeps getting reports of the Kyuubi rampaging all over the place before vanishing as if it were never there?”

“Did he hear about the time Kurama turned himself pink and sparkly practically in the middle of Konoha during the Chuunin Selection Exams almost three years ago?” Shukaku asked. “He even had a heart-shaped patch on his chest! I never saw anything better!”

“I wasn’t in the middle of Konoha!” Kurama snarled, pulling his lips back over his teeth and snapping them in Shukaku’s direction, before sniffing haughtily. “I was outside the walls, thank you.”

Gyuuki gaped. “That actually happened? My jinchuuriki’s brother thought his messenger was pulling his leg!”

“If we could all focus, please,” Gaara intoned blandly.

“Why should we listen to you?” Son Gokuu asked.

“’Coz he’s the Kazekage!” Naruto yelled. “And we know who at least three of those Akatsuki guys are, you know!”

“If you want to leave now, and get your humans killed and yourselves captured, be my guest,” Kurama said. “Go on, off you go. We’re going to talk about grown-up things, but if you’re too immature to get over your hatred then we don’t need you anyway.”

A hush fell over the group. The assembled bijuu looked at Kurama like he’d grown an extra tail, or a second head, or something.

“What?” Kurama asked, exasperatedly.

“You’re… you’re different than you were,” Matatabi replied.

The giant fox rolled his eyes. “Of course I am. I finally learned what was important in life. Now can we please talk about the Akatsuki?”

“No, Kurama,” Gyuuki said. “You really are different. Even your aura feels different. It’s lighter, less offensive. Are we certain he hasn’t been replaced with an imposter?”

“Not possible, not here,” Matatabi said, immediately, flicking her ears back and lashing her tails.

Kurama huffed. “I lost my Yin half a while ago. That’s probably what you’re feeling.”

“How? Never mind, I don’t want to know. No,” Gyuuki insisted. “You aren’t as angry or conceited. You aren’t picking fights. You and Shukaku are getting along.”

“Of course we’re getting along, he’s my cute little otouto!” Kurama snapped.

Gyuuki made a wordless gesture, and the other bijuu nodded, except for Shukaku, who snickered.

“Look, you know what they say about the fox and the tanuki.” Still the other bijuu were looking at him incredulously. Kurama made an executive decision to ignore the stupidity of his younger siblings. “You can be idiots, or we can discuss what we called you here for. So. The Akatsuki members we know of currently are Uchiha Itachi – watch out for him, he has the Mangekyou Sharingan. There’s another Uchiha with them – not Uchiha Sasuke. I don’t know this man’s name, but when I met him, he called himself Madara, and wore an orange mask with only one eye-hole. He is the one who pulled me from Kushina’s seal sixteen years ago…”

 

lxv.

One evening Sakura, Naruto, and Kurama returned from a mission with just Kakashi – Yamato and Sai had been assigned another mission, top secret ANBU stuff, Kurama assumed – to find the village tense with worry.

The following morning the tension had broken, and the civilians were in a panicked rush as they closed up their houses and businesses and headed for the bunkers, preparing for war, as the shinobi raced back and forth across the rooftops overhead. The original members of Team Kakashi were called in to the Hokage’s office without Kakashi, but with the addition of Rock Lee and Hyuuga Neji.

“Before we begin,” Tsunade said, resting her chin on her hands, Shizune standing at attention behind her and to her right. “Naruto, what does the Kyuubi know about the Mouryou, if anything?”

Kurama felt a surge of disgust at the thought of that nasty little worm, and barely suppressed the urge to wrinkle his muzzle as if he’d caught a whiff of something nasty. He immediately launched into what was probably a long-winded rant in their shared mind space that had Naruto frowning as he tried to keep up.

“Uh,” Naruto said. “I’m gonna let him explain.”

And before anyone could tell him not to, he pull his mind back from the control of his own body and thrust Kurama forward. Unfortunately, Kurama was still controlling his little fox body, and he was immediately overwhelmed by the sickening feeling of being in two places at once and viewing the same scene from two different sets of eyes, at two different heights and angles. Kurama-as-a-fox squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed a quiet dry heave, tucking his face against Sakura’s neck.

Naruto had eaten plenty of ramen and a couple of eggs as well as a big glass of milk for breakfast, and all it took was one retch for Kurama-as-Naruto to spatter the Hokage’s carpet with sick, to varying exclamations of disgust. Lee leapt away from him hastily, and even Sakura, who had seen a lot of illness in her time as a medic so far, leant away.

Gross! Naruto shouted, inside their mind. Don’t do that, you nasty old fox!

A little warning next time, then, brat!

Kurama-as-Naruto coughed nauseously, noting with glee as he did that Naruto had longer vocal chords than he did as a little fox.

When he’d composed himself, Kurama-as-Naruto straightened, tipping his head back to observe the Hokage with blood red eyes. “Apologies, granddaughter,” he said, in a low, animalistic growl, voice octaves lower than Naruto normally spoke because he could. “Human bodies are weird, and I wasn’t expecting to be thrust into control of one with no warning whatsoever.”

Tsunade smiled tightly. “I understand,” she said. “Tell us about the Mouryou.”

Kurama-as-Naruto shrugged. “It’s a nasty piece of work with delusions of grandeur. It came along sometime after us – my siblings and I – and I’m not sure where from but it’s an odd little pissant. Weak enough that it can be sealed indefinitely in a shrine and it’ll fade if it doesn’t have a physical body. It wants to create a kingdom that’ll last for a thousand years, or some such nonsense. I’m not sure, I wasn’t paying that much attention the last few times it appeared because it was focused solely on subjugating the humans, which is a weird desire for a demon if you ask me – we usually avoided contact with people unless they were hassling us and then we crushed them and moved so. Anyway, we didn’t really care about what happened to the humans or what the Mouryou was doing with them. Of course, now I’m obliged to protect Konoha since Naruto wants to become the Hokage and I’ve sworn to help him, so I guess you want me to go squash it? Or perhaps you want me to decimate its army of stone puppets? I’m very good at destroying things.”

“I’m aware,” Tsunade said. “Are you certain it isn’t you who has delusions of grandeur, Kyuubi?”

Kurama-as-Naruto gave her the stink eye. “Do you doubt me?”

“I suppose not.” She pinched the bridge of her nose, took a deep breath, and let it out again slowly. “Can I speak to Naruto again?”

Kurama unceremoniously shoved Naruto back to the forefront of his mind, making Naruto squawk and grimace, and try to wipe his tongue on his sleeve.

Kurama-the-fox tuned back in to the conversation.

“I have a different mission for you four,” Tsunade was explaining.

“With them?” Naruto asked, pointing at Neji and Lee.

“Neji is a jounin and perfectly qualified to lead a team, Naruto. The only person in this room who is still a genin is you, if you’d like to remember.”

“Huh?” Naruto said, pointing to himself. “Oh, yeah. That’s true, isn’t it?” He grinned, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. “But where’s Kakashi-nii?”

“Kakashi-san has already been dispatched to the front-lines with Gai-san,” Tsunade said. Kurama thought she was being exceptionally patient today, especially considering Kurama-as-Naruto had just sicked all over her rug. In fact, there was remarkably little in the way of any negative emotion coming from her at all, and Kurama wondered if that curious thing that happened to humans sometimes had happened to her: after spending too long in a state of profound stress, she’d simply shut down the part of herself that dealt with emotions to continue to function.

It’d happened to Kushina a couple of times, and Kurama remembered the sort of dreamlike detachment that had left even him feeling like he was floating inside of her. He was inordinately glad it hadn’t happened more frequently – there was something vaguely terrifying, after all, about watching through someone’s eyes as they eviscerated another person without even really noticing they were doing it.

Kurama had the sneaking suspicion that Kakashi was far more prone to this strange phenomenon unique to squishy-brained mammals than Kushina had been, or Tsunade was, and he worried sometimes.

“You will be going to the Land of Demons,” Tsunade told them. “To escort the Priestess Shion to the Sealing Shrine in the Land of Swamps, to prevent the soul and body of the Mouryou from being reunited.”

“What happens if they are reunited?” Naruto asked.

Tsunade fixed him with a flat stare. “The end of the world.”

Kurama cleared his throat, sitting from his slump on Sakura’s shoulder. “It sounded to me like the Kyuubi said the Mouryou would try to take over the human world, which, let me tell you now, as a woodland creature, is quite different from taking over or otherwise ending the entire world. And he sounded pretty happy to squash this Mouryou for the benefit of Konoha, so why, exactly, don’t you just… let him go do that and send someone else to escort this priestess?”

“Unfortunately, though that would undoubtedly be the quickest, most efficient method of dealing with the creature, in this time of international crisis it would be unwise to unleash a bijuu on an allied battlefield so rashly. Other countries might find such an action concerning, to say the least. No, as fond as I am of my honorary grandfather, that sly old fox, I think it would be best if you acted covertly in this instance,” Tsunade said. “With the Kyuubi on your side, you will have the best chance of getting the Priestess to the Sealing Shrine, and only confronting the Mouryou directly in the event that you are not quick enough.”

Neji, Lee, and Sakura nodded in understanding. Belatedly, Naruto nodded at well.

Twenty minutes later they were making their way towards the gate as Neji briefed them on their roles on the team.

Sakura would stay with their charge at all times, acting both as a last line of defence with her formidable strength and a medic, should Shion require medical attention at any point. Lee was to intercept enemy attack. Neji would scout. And, well, Naruto and Kurama were just supposed to stay out of trouble and not go charging off on their own.

“Eh?” Naruto said. “What? Neji-nii, why?”

Neji stared at him, blankly unamused. “This is why you’re still a genin, you know. You have all the subtlety of a sledge-hammer. You can turn into a three-hundred-foot demon fox at will, and if you aren’t flooding the field with so much Kyuubi chakra people dozens of miles away feel like they’re suffocating from it, you’re flooding it with thousands of noisy orange copies of yourself. Your job will be the same as Lee’s. Intercept the enemy before they can get close to the Priestess. But remember that this is a covert mission and we are supposed to be sneaking past the enemy into the Land of Swamps.”

“Oh, yeah, that makes sense, you know.” A pause as Naruto digested the rest of Neji’s assessment of his skills. “Hey! I’m totally good at sneaking when I have to be! I once stole the Scroll of Seals right out from under Jiji!”

 

lxvi.

They knelt on the floor before the Priestess Shion in the hall of her shrine. Well, Neji, Sakura, and Lee sat seiza. Naruto was sitting with one arm propped on his knee, and Kurama lay on his side with his legs stretched out after the long run from the Land of Fire to the Land of Demons. They’d taken the south route, which had necessitated skirting the border of the Land of Water extremely carefully, and it was only due to the fact that Kiri’s shinobi were all off fighting stone warriors that they weren’t accosted.

The north route would’ve taken them through the Land of Lightning, and there really was no lesser evil between the two options – Konoha had a rocky relationship with both Kumo and Kiri.

They introduced themselves. Politely. Mostly.

“This Shion-sama, the Priestess of the Land of Demons,” her attendant said, lifting himself out of his prostrate bow to address them.

Neji inclined his head. “I am Hyuuga Neji of Konoha, leader of Team Kakashi.”

“Rock Lee,” Lee said, saluting.

“I’m Haruno Sakura.”

The little fox yawned and sighed. “Kurama,” he offered, lazily.

“Hi! I’m Uzumaki Naruto. How’s it going—” Naruto began, but was silenced when Sakura leant over Kurama to jab her elbow in his gut.

“Where are your manners, Naruto? Were you raised by animals?” Sakura hissed at him, as Neji went over the details of their mission with the priestess and her attendant. As soon as she said it, she closed her mouth so quickly her teeth clicked and flushed pink. “Sorry, forget I said that.”

Naruto was still wheezing too much to reply.

“It’s alright,” Kurama whispered back to Sakura. “It’s an unfortunate truth that I do not, in fact, know much about many human rituals of politeness.” Also he frankly didn’t care all that much. He had always been more concerned with ensuring Naruto’s immediate survival and attempting to drill a sense of self-preservation into his idiot kit to worry about things like whether he was saying hello or goodbye or speaking properly in general. Not when he could be teaching Naruto how to read, what was safe to eat, how to find clean drinking water, how to disappear in plain sight, or how to sense that ANBU that had been tailing them for half the morning. “Wrangling humans is quite different from wrangling my siblings.”

He’d learned very little from his previous jinchuuriki, because he was too angry to care with Mito and so hadn’t paid attention, and because Kushina hadn’t seemed to observe social norms even when he did care to watch. Most of what he had to go on he’d learned either in the orphanage or at the Academy with Naruto.

Or from the odd book, though they never seemed to make sense to him for some reason. Possibly because he wasn’t a human in any way, shape, or form and the books were tailored specifically for humans. So he’d always discarded the information from those rather than putting it into practice.

The discussion had moved on to the priestess’ precognitions.

Which were apparently always right. Invariably. Every single time. She’d never been wrong even once. Many people had served her, many people’s deaths she’d seen, many people had died – and she sat there and smiled.

“They had no regrets,” she said, smugly. “And because of their sacrifice, here I am, alive today.”

Kurama wrinkled his muzzle in disgust. Her blatant disregard for the precious nature of life itself made him sick.

Three. Two. One.

Naruto exploded, launching at her before any of his teammates could stop him, grabbing her by the front of her formal robes to shake her, as if that might somehow dislodge the nonsense from her brain. “How can you say that?” he wailed. “Those people loved you enough to give their lives for you, and you don’t even care! How can you—”

Neji grabbed him by the collar, hauling him backwards, Lee shoved him back onto the hardwood floor by his shoulders, and Sakura slapped her hand over his mouth.

“Just,” Neji said, sounding existentially exhausted, as most people who had not had sufficient Naruto exposure did when they had to spend a protracted period of time around him for the first few times. “Sit down and be quiet.”

Naruto licked Sakura’s hand, making her shriek and thump him on the head.

The Priestess Shion seemed unruffled, except now she turned her odd lilac-coloured eyes to the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki for the first time and fixed him with a cold stare. “You are going to die,” she told him softly, emotionlessly. “I have foreseen it.”

Naruto made a wordless shrieking noise of horror. A moment later he recovered himself to say: “What did you say?”

“You will die,” she repeated. “You will be pierced in the chest and die!”

Kurama sat bolt upright. “You actually foreseen that, or are you just saying that because he’s being a brat and you want to give him a fright?”

“I have foreseen it,” Shion replied.

Naruto squeaked and turned pale. “Don’t say things like that, you know! It’s scary, and that’s not nice!”

Kurama cleared his throat, drawing everyone’s attention to the little fox. “I would like to speak to Shion-chan alone for a moment regarding her most recent prophecy.”

There was a brief argument, but Team Seven and Shion’s attendant eventually retreated to the other end of the hall to give them privacy.

“What would you say to me, fox?” Priestess Shion asked, observing him through half-lowered eyes. “What more would you know, except that he will die?”

Kurama considered. “For starters, that’s Uzumaki Naruto. Konoha’s Number One Unpredictable Ninja. Incidentally, do you know what he’s carrying in his gut? It’s common knowledge, he’s Bingo Books in Kiri, Iwa, Oto, and a dozen smaller Hidden Villages besides, so if you don’t, I don’t see the harm in letting you know.”

Shion shook her head – she didn’t know.

“The Kyuubi no Youko. He has the Kyuubi in his gut. Not sealed, oh no. Naruto broke that seal years ago and the only thing holding that monster in check is its love for him. So, Shion-chan, think carefully, because if Naruto does die there is going to be a very, very angry giant kitsune on the loose – and let me tell you right now, you think the Mouryou is bad? Consider the most powerful of the bijuu loose and out for revenge on humanity at large. If it was still sealed, it would die with him, its chakra would disperse, and it would be years before it reformed. But it isn’t sealed, so if Naruto dies that thing is going escape and come for all of us. You understand?” Kurama asked. Shion was already pale, but she turned ashen at the thought. “You are going to tell me exactly how Naruto dies in this precognition of yours, so I know exactly how to subvert it.”

“He’s fighting the Mouryou,” she murmured. “It has regained its body. He – he gets distracted by something, and one of its tails pierces his chest, impaling him. His spine, his heart, his lungs, they’re crushed.”

“Where?”

She shrank in on herself. “The – the Sealing Shrine.”

“Who else is there?”

“Just – just me and the Mouryou,” she replied.

This was useless. “Tell me what Naruto looks like. Normal? Are his eyes blue, or red? Is he covered in a chakra cloak? Are there dozens of clones of himself on the battlefield, or is he alone? What ninjutsu is he using, if anything?”

Shion paused, brown furrowed as if trying to remember. “Chakra is visible in his hand,” she replied. “It is spinning. It hurts the Mouryou but does not kill it.”

“The rasengan, then. Is it blue, or red?”

“Blue,” she said.

“How big? This wide,” and Kurama indicated the usual dense head-sized rasengan Naruto produced these days with the spread of his paws. “Or this wide?” He tapped a spot on the floor with a paw and hopped to the side to tap another spot, because he was too little to accurately show the size of an oodama rasengan.

“The first,” Shion said.

Kurama hummed. “Okay. And I wasn’t there, and he was not using Kyuubi chakra, which, for the record, is red?”

She shook her head.

He fixed her with a leery stare. “As a rule, I don’t believe in fate,” he told her. “But just in case, I’m changing this.”

“Wait,” she said. “You cannot. If you do, I will die.”

“Eh?”

She looked at the floor. “That’s how it works. People give their lives, so I can keep living. If they subvert the vision, I die.”

Kurama tilted his head. “Alright. Explain to me why I should care?”

“I’m the only one who can seal the Mouryou,” she replied.

“The Kyuubi can kill it, so I don’t see the relevance. I don’t have an issue with a selfish girl like you, who doesn’t even care about the people whose lives have been sacrificed for yours, dying so that Naruto lives.”

Her eyes shone with unshed tears. “You’re a cruel fox,” she said.

He glared at her, as the tears began to run down her cheeks and drip onto her robes, silently.

“Kurama!” Sakura shouted, from the back of the oratory hall. “Ease up on the Killing Intent! Taruho-dono just fainted!”

“Gai-sensei would say it is most unyouthful to unleash such hatred upon one’s own client!” Lee added.

Oops.

He reigned himself in, sat back on his haunches and shrugged. “I’m just looking out for the future.”

“What would Naruto say?”

“He would be disappointed in me,” Kurama conceded. “I do not make a habit of leaving kits such as yourself in danger, and he would not want you to die. My hypocrisy would hurt him. But sometimes you have to make a choice, and a living person can always forgive you. A dead person cannot. So this is my decision.”

The priestess’ breath hitched. “You are the Kyuubi, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“You’re insane,” she hissed.

“I’m a malevolent chakra construct,” Kurama said, nonchalantly. “And I hate everyone and everything in this world except Naruto, and by extension, his precious people. Nothing will take them from me but time itself, and even time is going to have to pry them out of my claws at the end of the day.”

“You don’t care about me, or this crisis, then?”

“Nope. Couldn’t care less, really.”

Shion stood and dashed from the hall, sobbing.

“Kurama!” Sakura shouted, furiously.

 

lxvii.

For a moment it looked like they would have several dozen of Shion’s bodyguards accompanying them on their trip to the Shrine of Sealing in the Land of Swamps, which would have slowed them down by days, if not weeks. Thankfully, Shion proved to be a little bit sensible, after she had recovered herself from her fit of tears, for she came to the room where the four shinobi were irritably discussing the logistics of moving a small army to tell them to come with her, she would leave with them alone.

They stole out through an escape used by previous priestesses, under another waterfall.

Naruto, who was quite capable of doing more with the tajuu kage bunshin technique than flood the field of battle with clones, created a couple hundred of them that immediately henged into various woodland creatures, tamping down their chakra signatures and spreading out in a broad fan-shape behind the travel party. Some became birds and insects and squirrels, taking to the trees, while others became foxes, boar, deer, mice, raccoon dogs, weasels, and vanished into the trees. There were even a couple of moles that would keep their ears to the ground for people moving beneath the earth.

If one of them spotted any signs of pursuit, it would dispel, immediately alerting both the rest of disguised clones along the path of the approaching enemy, and Naruto with the main traveling party.

If Neji was at all put out that Naruto could perform both the function of a scout and an intercept, he said nothing. Kurama spotted him eyeing a pair of serows with a furrowed brow as they crested a ridge in the heavily forested mountains, the goat-antelopes peering right back at him without curiosity. Then, as one, the serows turned to look at Naruto and winked before skipping away up a brushy scree slope, hooves clattering.

Naruto was scouting ahead, too.

And those goat-antelope had been remarkably convincing. Kurama hadn’t picked them. Neji probably only could because he had that doujutsu.

The first day, Naruto paused once. “That Taruho guy is coming up behind us,” he announced. “No one with him.”

Neji’s expression remained carefully blank, though his emotions were not hidden from Kurama, who felt his flicker of irritation.

“Just how many clones can you make?” he asked, exasperated.

Naruto shrugged. “Never tried to find out.”

“Between naturally large chakra reserves, and the Kyuubi’s chakra to pull on, it would probably be a truly ridiculous number,” Kurama commented idly, bounding along at the heels of the shinobi.

“How ridiculous?” Lee wondered aloud.

“Thousands, I expect,” Kurama replied. “But since each time one dispels, Naruto must assimilate their memories and experience, that sort of chakra expenditure would be impractical.”

Sakura sucked in a sharp breath. “I’d forgotten about that – but Naruto, don’t you sometimes keep dozens of clones active for days at a time?”

Naruto shrugged. “Yeah. Why?”

Sakura exchanged an incredulous glance with Neji and Lee, adjusting Priestess Shion’s weight on her back almost absently as she turned back to Naruto. “Doesn’t that mean you have to take in literally hundreds, or thousands, of hours of memory at a time?”

“Guess so. I never really thought about it, I just do it. I think what Kurama means is it’s kinda distracting when I’m fighting if someone wipes out like a hundred of my clones at once. Kinda like being hit with a hundred killing blows, you know? But it can really help me get an overview of the whole battlefield at the same time, and I get to see my enemies from a different perspective, so it kind of pays off? But yeah, even though I can make heaps it would – Kurama, what’s the word I want?”

“I think you’re looking for the law of diminishing returns,” Kurama replied. “After reaching a certain number, your kage bunshin begin to become more of a hindrance than a help.”

“That’s it! Yeah, ‘coz they get too distracting. Too much information, y’know?” Naruto said, grinning.

“I don’t think they do know,” Kurama told him, wryly.

Taruho caught up to them as they settled in a copse of trees growing around a spring to rest for the night. Had they been a team composed entirely of shinobi, they might have eaten, had something to drink and possibly snatched a half-hour or so of sleep before continuing. Unfortunately, the priestess was unused to that sort of pace, and as she was the one who needed to be in top form for the sealing of the Mouryou, they were obliged to stop almost as soon as the sun had dipped below the distant mountains to their west.

Shion and Taruho proceeded to have an exceptionally repetitive and unfortunately loud argument.

“Go back to the shrine!” Shion shouted, gesturing angrily in the direction they’d come.

“I will not,” Taruho replied, a little breathlessly from running all day to catch up.

“Go back!”

“I will not.”

Kurama groaned and walked off to climb one of the trees at the edge of the copse to ostensibly keep watch but more because he was going to bite someone if he had to listen to that idiotic arguing a moment longer.

“I’m hungry!” he heard Shion snap at the others, a while later. “Make me something to eat.”

Brat, he thought, without a scrap of affection. Could’ve at least asked instead of demanded.

And then, later, more shouting, followed by the clattering of a bowl against the ground. “I can’t eat this! This soup is cold! I can’t eat this, either! Or this!”

Kurama spun around to see her throwing food on the ground, and leapt back towards her with a snarl. “Don’t be such a spoiled little rat,” he growled at her. “If you won’t eat it, starve for all I care! But food is food and since you’re so spoiled you might not know this, but food is not always available, so if you aren’t going to have it, give it to someone else who is hungry, don’t ruin it for the sake of your petty spite!”

Shion drew away from him, curling in on herself, but Kurama ignored her, picking instead through the thrown onigiri.

“Naruto,” he said, calling over his kit. “This one has not touched the ground, and this one is still wrapped. These ones are a bit dirty, but if you brush off these bits, you can eat them. I’ll eat the spilled soup. No point wasting food.”

“Thanks Kurama!” Naruto said, cheerfully, handing the pieces of onigiri that hadn’t touched the ground to Sakura and Neji, before setting about using a clean kunai to trim the dirty rice off the rest to share with Taruho and Lee before eating himself. Kurama lapped up the spilled soup, which tasted perfectly alright for a cold soup.

“How can you eat off the ground?” Shion asked, disgusted.

“Eh?” Naruto said, cheeks full of rice. He swallowed. “This is nothing. Sometimes, when I was really hungry, I used to eat bugs, if I could find them and I knew they didn’t belong to the Aburame. And once or twice in winter none of crops had come in and the animals were hibernating or had migrated, and it was the end of the month and I’d used up the allowance Jiji gave me on rent and bills, me and Kurama used to eat stuff we found in dumpsters.”

“Anyway, if you’ve ever deboned a fish, gutted a rabbit, dug up potatoes, or worked in a rice paddy, you know that a bit of dirt is nothing,” Kurama added.

Neji and Lee were regarding them with something close to horror, though Sakura just looked sadly resigned. The original Team Seven had helped out with Naruto’s various herb and vegetable gardens often enough that they knew food scarcity had been an issue for Konoha’s jinchuuriki.

“Dumpsters,” Lee murmured to himself, tears of inspiration running down his cheeks. “What fiery will to survive! What youth!”

Neji looked perturbed, like he was suddenly seeing something his eyes had failed to reveal to him before.

Shion wrinkled her nose in revulsion.

Naruto shrugged. “It wasn’t that bad, guys. It’s not like I got sick or anything. Oh, I should tell you about this time before Kurama or I got any good at identifying safe mushrooms, so we’d just watch the other animals in the forest to see what they ate…”

They shared out more rations between them, no one but Taruho offering anything to Shion, though she continued to turn her nose up to any and all offerings they had for her.

Kurama and Naruto had the predawn watch and left the copse of trees to watch the sky lightening on the horizon to the east from the top of the ridge. A little while later, Taruho came out to join them, sitting beside Naruto on the slab of stone where he and Kurama were meditatively observing the fading of the stars.

“I apologise on behalf of Shion-sama,” Taruho said.

Naruto pouted. “If she’s actually sorry, she can tell us herself. Somehow, I don’t really think she is, you know?” Silence between them. “Say, about those predictions she makes…”

Taruho smiled sadly, turning his head to gaze at the sky also. “No matter what you do, or how you try to change them, they always come true. But… Only the people who are honoured to give their life for hers die.”

Aw, crap, Kurama thought, because Naruto was a selfless idiot who’d hand his heart away on a silver platter if someone asked for it. How am I going to keep my kit alive?

 

lxviii.

Naruto was distracted, his gaze turned towards the shimmering purple seal space the Mouryou’s numerous great heads were rising out of. The seal space that had once held its body. The seal space that Shion had been dragged into. He still had clones fighting the army of stone puppets topside, but down here his only other pair of eye was Kurama.

Kurama, who could see the blade made out of one of the Mouryou’s tails hurtling straight for his stupid brat’s chest, about to impale him.

Neji had sent them on alone as they waited for Lee to recover from his bout of spontaneous drunkenness. He’d said they would be fine, if anyone could shirk fate, it would be Naruto.

Kurama didn’t think.

He felt for his chakra, and hauled on it, dragging a sizeable portion out of his kit and into the physical manifestation he was maintaining outside of Naruto’s body. His tiny fox shape couldn’t contain the tremendous influx of power, exploding outward in a flash of light and teeth and tails, and the next moment there were three tails lashed around the one the Mouryou had aimed at Naruto’s chest, dragging it off-course and driving it straight through one of the demon’s own heads.

“HEY, PISSANT,” the Kyuubi roared, as Naruto fell from the Mouryou’s grip accompanied by the tinkling of Shion’s bell, leaving scorching burns wherever he touched the great purple beast until he landed on one of the narrow stone walkways between the lava far below. A blessing from Shion? Had she decided to change fate by protecting Naruto? Fascinating, but not needed. Kurama was going to tear this little upstart to pieces.

Ow. That hurt, Kurama, Naruto thought to Kurama, darting between fox paws and the flailing heads of the Mouryou. Warn me before you borrow that much chakra. I’m going to see if I can help Shion.

Fine. If she can’t seal this thing, we’re skipping straight to killing it. I might kill it anyway. I’m feeling particularly uncharitable today, since it almost killed you!

A flicker of amusement. Yeah, yeah, you old grump. I love you, too.

The Mouryou was shrieking. “Why are you interfering, kitsune-baka? What are you even doing here? What do you care for the affairs of humans?”

The Kyuubi raked at one of its necks with lethally sharp claws, sending a spray of fiery purple arterial blood spattering everywhere. “YOU TRIED TO KILL MY JINCHUURIKI, YOU UNPLEASANT, USELESS INFANT, WHAT DO YOU THINK I’M DOING HERE?”

“I always knew you bijuu were stupid, but this is going too far!” the Mouryou bellowed. “If your jinchuuriki dies, you get free, you idiot!”

“YOU’RE AS UNOBSERVANT AS YOU ARE IGNORANT,” the Kyuubi replied, ducking beneath the stab of one of the Mouryou’s other tails and retaliating with a lash of its own, creating a swirling gale that sent the demon’s heads cracking flat against the ground of the Shrine of Sealing, where they were licked at by the glowing molten rock. “I AM ALREADY FREE. HE BELONGS TO ME. NO ONE TOUCHES MY STUFF BUT ME.”

The Kyuubi pounced on one of the heads, crunching it between its tremendous teeth before rearing back, spitting, because the Mouryou’s blood tasted fouler than anything the Kyuubi had ever had the misfortune of having in its mouth before. The Mouryou laughed, hauling its body the rest of the way of the seal space, and the Kyuubi glanced down in time to see Naruto had reappeared with Shion and was quickly bounding away, murmuring something to her that the Kyuubi couldn’t hear, though it thought it caught the high-pitched shout of her reply. “I don’t – I don’t want to lose anyone else! Not for me!”

“You do not like the taste of my flesh?” the Mouryou asked, and its laugh was a deep, gurgling thing that reminded the Kyuubi of the rattle of blood in the lungs.

The Kyuubi gagged, dipping its tongue straight into the lava to try to wash away the taste.

Kurama would later learn the Mouryou was born from all the hatred of humanity, every malicious sentiment that he was particularly sensitive to given a body of its own, and again Kurama would lament how twisted his father’s original vision of ninshuu had become that it had allowed such an abomination to come into creation. Though it would let him understand why he found the Mouryou so particularly repugnant, and why he felt like he needed to scrape his entire mouth clean with the sands of the Land of Wind.

“YOU TASTE OF ROT AND FESTER AND MOLD SLIME,” the Kyuubi said. “TAKE YOUR KILL, PRIESTESS.”

Take you kill, brat-child, Kurama thought. Many have died for you, and I know you now regret their deaths – and you would have saved Naruto by opting to sacrifice yourself for him, though he would not let you. Now, let the lives of the fallen mean something, and strike the killing blow on this wretched thing. Understand what it means to bring death by your own hand, instead of letting others fall in your stead.

And Naruto and Shion, who had run up one of the Kyuubi’s tails together, along its spine, and were crouching in the shadow of its head, an oodama rasengan fed by both of their chakra held between their palms, leapt from the Kyuubi’s muzzle side-by-side to slam it through one of the Mouryou’s heads, and then another, before driving it deep into the Mouryou’s grotesquely misshapen body.

The Mouryou burst like an overripe fruit.

This was disgusting, and had the sad side-effect of destabilising the cavern roof of the Shrine of Sealing, bringing great chunks of the mountain above down upon their heads. Again the Kyuubi didn’t think, scooping Naruto and Shion out of the mucky centre of the exploded Mouryou and into its mouth and leaping upwards to break through the crumbling stone, out into the night sky as lava erupted around them.

Inside the Kyuubi’s mouth, Naruto was hammering against the cage of its teeth with his fist. The Kyuubi could feel them shifting around on its tongue, and it had to resist the urge to swallow or chew them up as it shook the fire from its fur and bounded down the side of the mountain – now a volcano – to spit them out in a glade of trees not far from a somewhat marshy lake.

The Kyuubi immediately shoved the excess chakra back at Naruto, who was sitting in the grass trying to wipe purple blood and Kyuubi-saliva out of his hair. Kurama ignored Naruto’s yowl of pain, focusing instead on carefully re-manifesting his little red fox shape, arthritis and greying muzzle and all. He’d lost his hitai-ate in the Shrine of Sealing, and he’d either burned it up himself manifesting as the Kyuubi or it had had been melted by the lava by now, so he was naked for now, which felt odd after so long with the weight of the symbol of Konoha hanging around his neck.

After a little while, Shion composed herself. She’d been a little insensible, having been temporarily stunned by her moment of coming one involuntary swallow away from being eaten alive by the Kyuubi no kitsune.

“You saved me,” she said, turning to Kurama.

Kurama sniffed. “I might have accidentally bitten off Naruto’s hand if I’d tried to separate you,” he said, though the act of not saving her hadn’t actually occurred to him.

She smiled, softly. “Thank you, Kyuubi.”

“My name really is Kurama, you know. It was given to me by the Sage of Six Paths. And you… aren’t as bad as I thought you were, I guess.”

Shion made a thoughtful noise, turning to Naruto. “I suppose you’ll take me back to my shrine, now?”

Naruto shrugged. “Guess so. We’ll find Neji-nii and see what he says.”

She eyed him, considering. “That Mouryou is dead,” she said. “But it was born from the evil thoughts of men. There may be a second, and even a third Mouryou in the future. I’m going to need to continue the line of priestesses.” Her smile turned coy. “You wouldn’t like to help me with that, would you, Naruto-kun?”

“Nope,” Kurama said, before Naruto could say anything. “Absolutely not. Naruto’s descendants can’t spend all day sitting around a shrine learning how to seal only one thing.”

“I can seal lots of things,” Naruto interjected cheerfully. “I learned heaps about fuuinjutsu from Ero-Sennin, but I’m better at unsealing, honestly.”

Kurama continued as if Naruto had said nothing. “They will be shinobi, obviously, and since I’m the guardian of the Uzumaki Clan, whichever child or grandchild or great grandchild of his has the most compatible chakra will be my next jinchuuriki.”

Naruto nodded. “Yeah, me an’ Kurama planned it all out ages ago. ‘Coz I’m not gonna live for ever, I’m just a human, you know? So, I need to make sure there’s someone who’ll look after Kurama and not do something evil like use him as a weapon or anything, and you really need an Uzumaki to be the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki since he’s the strongest of the bijuu and the mostly likely to kill the person you’re sealing him into if they aren’t strong enough to…” Naruto froze and trailed off, going completely red in the face. “Wait, were you propositioning me?” he shrieked, so loudly that had the birds roosting in the trees around them not taken flight at the erupting of the volcano, they would have done so at the volume of his voice.

This, incidentally, was the exact moment that the rest of their team as well as the reinforcements from Konoha burst into the clearing, having raced down the mountain after spotting the appearance of the Kyuubi to ensure the safety of Naruto and the priestess. Since the Kyuubi almost always meant death and destruction and everything.

Shion giggled helplessly.

 

lxix.

Kakashi found them in the library. Naruto was lying on the floor on his belly by their table, reading manga and idly kicking his feet to-and-fro, his tongue stuck out in concentration. Kurama sat at the table, a pair of children’s reading glasses perched precariously on the tip of his nose, a hefty old tome about the coalescence of naturally-occurring energy, since the Mouryou had been the second time they had encountered such a phenomenon.

Granted, the Gelel hadn’t been sentient, nor had it been malevolent without man to twist it, but it had been like the Mouryou and unlike the bijuu, and Kurama had decided the entire matter was worth further investigation.

Surprise of surprises, his siblings knew nothing when he asked them. He’d also accidentally appeared in the Seishin Sekai looking like an elderly little red fox again but forgotten to fix himself to appear as the Kyuubi, so the entire questioning had been more them laughing at him and him haranguing them until he just gave up and left in a huff. So, here he was, the studious little fox, doing his own research by going through the materials the humans had gathered on these things.

Sakura was sitting beside Kurama, poring through a psychology textbook written by a Yamanaka woman with great interest.

Sai was also there, sitting across the table from the fox and the girl. He seemed embarrassed whenever one of them tried to look at the titles of contents of the books he was reading, but foxes weren’t considered sly for nothing – and he seemed to be reading another Yamanaka book on how to be social, intended for the socially inept shinobi.

Kurama thought that was fair enough, and wondered if Kakashi had read it, because if not he probably needed to. Kakashi was a little useless at understanding people. So was Gai. Kurama liked Maito Gai well enough, every single facet of his personality was just too loud, and he’d infected Lee. Actually, Neji should read it, too. Neji was polite, when he wanted to be. Charismatic, however? Not so much.

Really, Kurama mused. A good shinobi should blend into any situation without drawing attention to themselves and without having to resort to hiding themselves with chakra, but they’re all so eccentric I’m not sure if any of them are remotely capable of hiding in plain sight.

“Hi, Kakashi-nii,” Naruto said, glancing up from his manga briefly.

“I just spent half the morning looking for you, Naruto,” Kakashi replied, mildly. “What are you doing in the library? I wasn’t aware you even knew what this place was.”

Mean, nii-chan. I’ve got better at reading since Ero-Sennin made me his copy-editor,” Naruto replied.

Kakashi seemed to have a brief episode where his brain malfunctioned and his eye glazed over in horror, a drop of sweat trickling down from beside hid eyebrow to soak into the fabric of his mask. “You what now?”

Sakura looked up. “I thought you said you hadn’t read Icha-Icha Tactics?” she asked.

Naruto smiled foxily at her. “Oh, the publishing process is weird and takes years. Did you know that? I didn’t know that, y’know. Anyway, Ero-Sennin had already finished that one when I started traveling with him, and I didn’t read it. Though… I guess I’ve read the sequels? They were boring though.”

Like a dog shaking off water, Kakashi shook his entire body. “Never mind,” he said. “Naruto, come with me. I have some specialised training for you. Hokage-sama received a toad this morning, and it seems the Akatsuki is not remaining idle after their failure with the Ichibi. I would feel a lot more comfortable if you had more techniques under your belt than the rasengan and the kage bunshin.”

“Ooh, you’re gonna teach me a jutsu?” Naruto asked, hopping eagerly to his feet and scooping up his scattered manga to place on the returns trolley.

Kurama sighed. “Fishcake, my book, too.”

Sai perked up. “Your fox calls you Fishcake?”

“Yeah, it’s a pun on my name, but he’s the only one who’s allowed to call me that, so don’t go getting any ideas, you weirdo,” Naruto said.

Sai slumped in his seat.

It turned out Kakashi didn’t want to teach Naruto one of the hundreds of jutsu he knew himself – he wanted Naruto to create one of his own. Like the chidori. Kurama tuned out most of the following discussion of chakra affinities, and speeding up the process of jutsu creation – which could apparently take years – by cheating using Shadow Clones. And because Kakashi wanted Naruto to use so much chakra he’d be tapping into the Kyuubi’s chakra, he’d roped Yamato into assisting with the training.

For Kyuubi suppression or something.

It was at this point that Kurama decided enough was enough.

This stupid fear Jiraiya had put into everyone’s heads that the Kyuubi might take over Naruto one day was absolute nonsense and would never, ever happen. The old pervert had started out afraid of the Kyuubi and becoming increasingly terrified with each new thing Naruto and Kurama worked out they could do together, culminating in the bijuudama incident.

Admittedly, they’d made quite a mess of a stretch beach and almost caused a localised tsunami, but they’d been in a really isolated location at the time so it wasn’t even like it was that big of a deal.

Naruto, Kurama said in their shared mind space, with absolute solemnity. We have to tell him.

Naruto replied with a sense of shock-surprise-anxiety-excitement. Tell Kakashi-nii? What? I thought we were going to hide it from him as long as possible because he’s emotionally unstable and doesn’t have a proper support network for dealing with traumatic events?

He doesn’t, but if we don’t we’re going to have to deal with Kyuubi suppression from Cat-san, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to find out what that is. I had enough of the Mokuton while Senju Hashirama was holding me down with it, and I don’t want anything to do with it again.

A pause lasting a fraction of a second, because their communication like this was almost instantaneous. Oh, yeah, that might be a problem, y’know.

“Kakashi-nii,” Naruto stage-whispered, glancing around the training field they were using. “How much do you trust Yamato-taichou?”

“With my life,” Kakashi replied immediately.

“With Naruto’s?” Kurama asked.

“I wouldn’t have asked him to be here if I didn’t. What’s this about?” Kakashi was frowning.

Good enough, Kurama thought, because he could feel no malice from Yamato. I trust the Hatake-brat’s judgement. Do you trust him?

Yes, was Naruto’s firm response.

The mental equivalent of a nod. Alright then. You want to tell them?

“Uh,” Naruto looked around again, making absolutely certain they were alone. “Kurama and I gotta tell you a secret. But… it’s a really, really, really big secret! The biggest, most secret thing I know. Not even baa-chan or Jiji knows! Only me and Kurama and Sasuke and Sakura. Oh, and Gaara and Shukaku. And Matatabi and Saiken and Gyuuki and Son Gokuu.”

Yamato’s eyebrows crawled towards the top of his faceguard. “That’s a lot of people for something that’s supposed to be extremely secret.”

“Er…” Naruto said. “Would it help if I told you that Matatabi, Saiken, Gyuuki, Son Gokuu, and Shukaku aren’t really people?”

“Isn’t Shukaku Gaara’s nintanuki?” Kakashi asked. “Or do you mean the Ichibi?”

Naruto squirmed. “Okay, so, here’s the secret: Yes and no.”

Kakashi and Yamato shared a confused glance, because that was a frankly terrible answer and Kurama wanted to cover his muzzle with his paw out of second-hand embarrassment. Poor Naruto. He was such a charming child, yet his vocabulary and ability to describe simple concepts… left things to be desired.

“Here, kit, I’ll explain,” Kurama said, and Naruto was so relieved he flopped onto the ground in a heap. “Okay, it’s like this: Gyuuki is the Hachibi. Saiken is the Rokubi. Son Gokuu is the Yonbi. Matatabi is the Nibi. Shukaku is the Ichibi. Isobu is the Sanbi, but there’s something wrong with him and he won’t wake up. The Akatsuki have Kokuou, the Gobi, and Choumei, the Shichibi. And Shukaku the nintanuki is a physical manifestation of a portion of the chakra of Shukaku the Ichibi.”

“The bijuu all have names?” Yamato asked Kakashi. “I thought Suna was weird and named theirs just because they could.”

Kakashi’s eye was narrowed in suspicion, though, and he was staring at Kurama intently.

“Yes, they have names. All of the us were named by our father, the Sage of Six Paths,” the little fox said. “I am Kurama, this form is a manifestation of but a fraction of my entire chakra, and I am the Kyuubi. I taught Shukaku how to manifest outside his seal.” Defiantly, he added: “And I would never, ever hurt my kit, so you can stop worrying because it is becoming annoying and getting in the way of Naruto’s progress as a shinobi.”

Silence.

“What,” Yamato said, with no upward inflection in his tone to indicate he was asking a question.

At last Kakashi spoke. “Naruto,” he said, cautiously. “Either your elderly ninkitsune has gone around the bend and is now completely senile, or…” he trailed off, apparently too horrified to speak.

“I’m sorry we kept it from you so long, Kakashi-nii,” Naruto said, looking at his lap where he was twisting his fingers together rather than meeting Kakashi’s devastated gaze. “Only, Kurama knew what you lost that night, you know.”

“But the Akatsuki is a serious threat, they’ve already taken two of my siblings and presumably killed their jinchuuriki, and we cannot have Ero-Sennin’s illogical paranoia forcing you to hold us back,” Kurama added.

“What,” Yamato said again. Everyone ignored him.

“Prove it,” Kakashi said. “Prove you aren’t just a regular elderly ninkitsune playing an awful joke.”

“I wish I was,” Kurama replied, and he de-manifested, pulling the little scrap of malevolent red chakra that was his fox-shape to join the rest of himself, where he was curled around Naruto’s soul.

 

lxx.

Kurama didn’t really like sitting inside Naruto and watching the world through his eyes. It reminded him of being trapped inside Mito and Kushina, unable to move, a little too much and made him feel claustrophobia. Sure, this was where he kept the majority of his chakra most of the time – but that didn’t mean he didn’t much prefer looking at the world through the eyes of his little manifestation.

Still, at least he was inside Naruto right now, and that meant there was the barrier of Kakashi’s most beloved sensei’s son between Kakashi and Kurama, so Kurama was theoretically safe from retaliatory attack.

Oh, look. He’d brought the Sharingan out.

Maybe he wasn’t that safe. Uh oh.

Kakashi’s absolutely betrayed expression made Kurama’s chest hurt like Gyuuki was sitting on his ribs. No, wait, that was the actual weight of Kakashi’s grief.

“Senpai,” Yamato said. “That wasn’t a shunshin. He turned into chakra and it went in to Naruto’s stomach.”

“Yes, Tenzou, I did see that,” Kakashi said, and his voice was – flat. Emotionless.

Kurama started to wonder if he should have eased Kakashi into the truth, rather than giving it to him with blunt succinctness. Too late now. Something to keep in mind when telling people in the future, perhaps.

“Tenzou?” Naruto asked.

“Forget you heard that, that’s not my name,” Yamato said hastily. Ah, so that was Yamato’s name, then. Interesting. “Senpai. Do you realise this means you told me to ask the Kyuubi no Youko to help mediate the problems between Sakura and Naruto and Sai?”

Kakashi paused. “Oh, kami,” he said, surprise and a sudden overwhelming wave of existential dread rippling through the crushing grief that was rolling off him so strongly Kurama felt like he was being buffeted in a storm of emotion for all that he appeared reasonably composed. “Oh, kami,” he repeated, sounding a bit like he was being strangled. “I’ve slept with the Kyuubi in my bed. The Kyuubi woke me up from a nightmare once by licking my ear and told me everything was going to be alright.” He brought his hands up. “Kai.”

Nothing happened.

“That’s kind of embarrassing, senpai,” Yamato said.

Kakashi dropped onto the ground, covered his face with his hands. “I don’t believe this. I can’t believe this. It – it makes no sense.”

“Why?” Naruto asked. “Because Kurama’s not evil?”

Silence, but for the rustling of the leaves in the wind.

You should come back out, maybe, Naruto said in their mind space.

Kurama baulked. I don’t know if I want to. Kakashi might be disappointed in me. I can just hide here for a little while longer and it’ll be fine, right?

Naruto, apparently, was not going to condone that sort of cowardice, however. No! Kurama, you told me to face my problems head on, not run away unless facing a superior force where strategic hauling ass in the other direction made the most sense. Kakashi-nii and Yamato aren’t a superior force, and you’re gonna have to face them eventually.

Damnit, I hate when you’re right.

Kurama drew up a sliver of chakra and slithered back out onto the grassy field, immediately adopting the shape of a decrepit old red fox.

Yamato squeaked.

Kurama gave him an unimpressed stare. “I’m exactly the same as I’ve been the entire time you’ve known me. I didn’t suddenly become the Kyuubi overnight, I was always the Kyuubi. I’m not going to eat you or anything. You’re Naruto’s precious people? You’re my precious people.”

“Why are you old, then, if you’re the same?” Yamato asked.

Kurama sighed. “Because ordinary foxes age, and I’m pretending to be an ordinary, unremarkable ninkitsune so people don’t run around in a panic like headless chickens. It would be very suspicious if I was still as young and spry as I was when Naruto entered the Academy, don’t you think?”

Yamato nodded grudgingly. “I should inform the Hokage of this.”

Kurama flinched. “I would really rather you didn’t,” he said, immediately. “You see, the Kyuubi has retroactively adopted baa-chan as its granddaughter, and I feel like the whole thing might get a bit messy.”

“What.” It was Kakashi’s turn to ask questions without asking questions.

Naruto decided to field this one, which was good because it was one of those slightly more abstract concepts Kurama would have struggled to explain.

“Kurama’s family tree is a bit messed up because he’s had two female jinchuuriki who both gave birth. He’s kinda like a third parent to those kids, you know? Tou-san, kaa-chan, and in kaa-chan’s belly, the Kyuubi, wrapped around the soul of her baby. Anyway, baa-chan’s grandmother was Uzumaki Mito, who was Kurama’s first jinchuuriki, and he was kinda too angry at being sealed to really acknowledge her kid, but he’s a reformed bijuu now, so that’s why baa-chan’s retroactively adopted. But Kurama also kinda feels like a sibling? So we’ve been using my names for everyone, not his ones which are all confused, which is how his granddaughter can also be his baa-chan!”

Kurama nodded. That made enough sense.

“Wait,” Kakashi said. “If I’m ‘Kakashi-nii’ to you…”

“Uh-huh,” Naruto agreed. “You’re my adopted big brother! But because Kurama was also my mother’s, you could also be considered his kid. Believe it!”

“If you aren’t comfortable with me calling you Kakashi-nii, how do you feel about ‘Kashi-chan?’” Kurama asked, feeling much more cheerful because Yamato had turned a sort of ashen colour and Kakashi looked less like he was about to walk silently away to find a dark hole to wallow in for the next week and more like he was trying to do a set of advanced algebraic equations in his head. “Kushina was very fond you, but Obito-chan was admittedly her favourite of the Minato-brat’s students. She was very sad about what happened to him. My condolences, by the way. I know he was your friend.”

“How can you sit there and say that when you’re the reason Minato-sensei and Kushina-nee are dead?” Kakashi asked, incredulous, and angry now.

“Eh! Nii-chan!” Naruto interrupted him. “Don’t get too mad at Kurama! The black-cloak-red-clouds guy with the orange mask and the funny Sharingan pulled him out and made him do it, y’know! There’s a reason he hates them so much!”

Kurama grimaced, pinning his ears low and to the sides, rolling over to expose his belly, and tucking his tail, the picture of harmless submission. “I’m so sorry,” he whimpered. “I don’t even remember most of that night. I do not beg forgiveness, for the breadth and depth of my sin is unforgiveable, but please allow me to offer my sincerest apologies, and understand that I wish as much as anyone for the same thing to never happen again.”

Kakashi and Yamato stared at him.

“This… is the Kyuubi,” Yamato said, slowly. “This. How do we know it’s being honest?”

Naruto shrugged. “We can feel each other’s emotions?” he offered. “Anyway, his name is Kurama. Are either of you gonna pick him up? Because he really wants a hug and some ear skritches right now.”

Warily, as if Kurama might bite his fingers off, Kakashi picked Kurama up by the scruff of his neck. Kurama did not struggle or protest. He simply wagged his tail gently, and when pressed close to Kakashi’s chest he buried his face in his armpit.

“I don’t think Hokage-sama would believe me anyway,” Yamato decided, sadly. “I’ll leave you to your training. I need to go… meditate. Or find something strong to drink. Or both maybe.” He stumbled off.

Sai, who Kurama still could not reliably feel and especially not when inundated with incredibly strong emotion from other sources, slipped away unnoticed with yet another utterly confounding report for Danzou. Danzou secretly thought that Sai had decided to join the pranksters of Team Seven and he was pulling on his leg, but just in case there was some truth to the matter he intended to have a group of his ROOT members abduct that pesky ninkitsune for interrogation tonight.

 

lxxi.

Kurama had had all sorts of horrible things happen to him in his very long life. Most of them in the last century or so when he was being sealed away and passed from jinchuuriki to jinchuuriki, controlled, summoned against his will, and forced to kill and destroy, when he really would have preferred to go find somewhere as far away from humans as possible to take a nice long nap to recover from the trauma.

Of course, during that time he’d also met Naruto, his most precious kit, had what amounted to the very best times of his entire very long life, and learned an entirely new way of looking at the world.

He could say with absolute certainty that no one had ever stolen into his home on silent feet while he was sleeping next to Naruto, picked him up by the scruff of the neck, shoved him into a damp, smelly linen bag, and abducted him.

He wondered if Yamato had tattled to Tsunade after all, then decided it wasn’t likely. He and Naruto had spotted Yamato and Kakashi a couple of hours after training ended that afternoon as they went to Ichiraku’s. They’d been in a bar, and it was obvious they had been day-drinking, because Yamato had been face-down on the table in the booth they were sharing, and Kakashi looked like he was using the wall to prop himself up rather than sitting under his own strength, groaning loudly enough to be heard in the street.

Also, Kurama found these ANBU were blank, emotion-wise. Like Sai but worse. Not like the regular ANBU, who were very good at pretending they didn’t have emotions but were either walking maelstroms stewing in negativity or completely off their rockers.

It would have been very easy to burst out of the bag. He had chakra and he had sharp claws, he ripped things up all the time. Later, he would find out the bag had been soaked in a sedative typically used as an aerosol that was supposed to render him unconscious, but since he didn’t know that he didn’t even get sleepy. He did not escape the bag because he was actually sort of curious about why he was being suddenly kidnapped in the middle of the night.

He was carried in the bag for a while, until he got the sensation they were inside – and then the feeling they were underground. The air was different, the chakra around him was different. He could feel the weight of the earth, but smell nothing because the bag was stinky, and hear little because the weird no-emotion ANBU moved without sound.

At last the bag was tipped upside down and he was dumped onto the ground on a metal catwalk about halfway down a deep shaft.

“Ow, my hip,” he groused. “I’m old, asshole, you could be a little more careful with me.”

He turned around to bite one of the ANBU, and found them all kneeling.

“Eh?”

Someone behind him, great and terrible. Kurama spun, expecting someone like Madara, and found himself confronted with an old man with a heavily bandaged head, one of his eyes covered, and an arm in a sling hidden beneath his cloak, leaning heavily on a wooden cane.

“Eh?” Kurama repeated. “You gotta be older than Jiji!”

“I see the sedative didn’t work,” the old man said.

Wait, that scar on his chin.

Kurama had seen that before, through Mito’s eyes. This was Shimura Danzou, grown old. Oh. Wait, hang on a second. Danzou, shadowy secret sub-section of ANBU. One of Sarutobi Hiruzen’s former friends and teammates. Someone powerful enough to give the order for Uchiha Itachi to kill his own clan, someone Jiji was afraid of.

The little fox decided to play ignorant.

He needed information before he acted. If he had the wrong person and he tore Danzou to pieces, he might tip his hand to whoever was actually behind the massacre. If he had the right person, however…

He also wondered if Sasuke would forgive him if he stole his revenge, then decided he probably would.

“Sedative?” Kurama asked, squishing down the rage that was rising in his chest and making him want to tremble. “I dunno when you tried to sedate me, but I’ve been practicing mithridatism since I was a little kit. Sedatives and poisons don’t work on me. Unfortunately, pain medication for my arthritis don’t work now either… I really didn’t think things through when I was a young kit. Every action has consequences, you know! Never mind. Who’re you? I’m Kurama! Are you my kidnapper? I’ve never been kidnapped before. This is so cool. I like your weird hole in the ground.”

Danzou was apparently not prepared for this line of questioning, because it took him several seconds to formulate an answer. “You have been brought here for interrogation,” he said, at last.

“This isn’t TI, though,” Kurama said. “I should know, me an’ Naruto have been there so many times! Who woulda thought sneaking into ANBU HQ was such a big deal? We just wanted to replace the coffee with decaf to see what happened. And who knew impersonating Jiji or the Yondaime wasn’t allowed? No one ever says these things, so how are you supposed to know? Have you seen Ibiki-san’s head without that bandana on? Do you know how he’s still alive and not lobotomized? No one will tell us. Hey, where’s Naruto? I don’t normally get into trouble without him.”

“This is not the Torture and Interrogation department, you are correct,” Danzou said impassively, shifting his weight against his cane, though he appeared to have to fight to stay impassive. Kurama knew that the patented idiotic blathering ramble technique was great for irritating people in power. “And Naruto is not suspected of being an enemy of Konoha.”

“Oh, okay,” Kurama said, affecting geniality. “So, this is like the super top-secret dungeon lair place where you take the people who are too nefarious for even TI. I guess that makes sense… but why am I here, then? I’m just Naruto’s ninkitsune. Also, baa-chan knows my health is bad. I don’t think she’d condone midnight interrogations… Does she know I’m here, or are you operating without her permission?”

“You mean Hokage-sama?” Danzou asked.

Kurama nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah, yeah! Baa-chan! Can we do this somewhere more comfortable? This cold metal is making my joints hurt.”

“Put him back in the bag,” Danzou informed his emotionless ANBU, and Kurama was unceremoniously picked up and stuffed back into the stinky linen bag.

“You know, if you don’t want me to know where you’re taking me, you could’ve just asked me to close my eyes!” Kurama called out. “I’d have to be a pretty rubbish shinobi to not be able to escape a flimsy fabric sack like this. Oops, there we go.”

He ran his claw along a seam, tumbling out of the bottom of the bag and onto the ground in a long concrete hallway.

Danzou closed his eyes, took a slow deep breath, appeared to count to ten, and opened his eyes again.

“You can say it, if you like,” Kurama said, peering up at him. “I’m very annoying. Thank you. I try. It’s part of my secret plan to send all the mentally unstable shinobi running around Konoha to therapy so they can work through their issues. I’ve discovered if I’m just annoying enough, they reach a degree of unhinged somewhere between complete existential despair and going on a killing spree and go to see a Yamanaka for help all by themselves. It’s working very well so far, except for the handful I may have accidentally encouraged to take up alcoholism instead. Really, shinobi are terribly unbalanced people with dreadfully unhealthy coping mechanisms, and the longer they’re in the job, the worse it gets. At least Kakashi-nii just refuses to show anyone his face, talks to ghosts, and has a dreadful pornography addiction.”

“You openly admit to that?” Danzou asked.

“Well, I’m doing it to help people in the long run, even if they hate me in the short term, so I don’t see there’s anything much to admit,” Kurama admitted, making Danzou twitch. “So, how come you’re just allowed to kidnap and interrogate shinobi of Konoha without baa-chan’s input? That seems like the sort of thing she should oversee, or at least know about, you know.”

Danzou opened one of two doors set close together and ushered him through it into a concrete cube of a room. Inside was a table with two chairs with a single uncomfortably bright light set in the ceiling overhead. One of the chairs was an ordinary wooden chair. The other was made of iron and had seals painted all over it, heavy chakra-suppressing manacles on equally heavy chains set into the floor on either side, with a chest strap hanging loose.

Kurama looked at the iron chair, then turned back to Danzou. “I’m going to need a cushion to sit on that,” he said, plainly. “First, because I’m not going to be able to see over the edge of the table without it, and second because that cold metal is going to do murder on my hips and paws. Haven’t you seen my veterinary x-rays? The life of a ninkitsune is a hard one. I have arthritis everywhere!”

“Go get a cushion,” Danzou said to one of his masked operatives, and they flickered away in a shunshin. A minute later they returned with a pillow that might have been borrowed from a bed and placed it on the chair, but that was good enough for Kurama, who hopped up and sat down. The operative silently left the room, and Danzou sat down in the plain wooden chair.

“Alright,” Kurama said, tucking his tail neatly around his feet. “Want to explain to me what sort of treason I’ve committed to land myself here in your lovely underground… hole?”

“I suspect you know,” Danzou replied.

Kurama genuinely had no idea. He explained as much, at length, in the rambling, roundabout sort of way that had Danzou pinching the bridge of his nose as if to ward off an incipient migraine.

“—and that was the last time Naruto or I committed treason either accidentally or deliberately, but baa-chan already knows all about it and said we did a good job in the end and it didn’t even really matter that we broke the law kind of a lot, though she had Shizune-nee go get her some sake after, so I don’t really know,” Kurama finished. “But I’m not here for that. Am I?”

“No,” Danzou said, exasperatedly. “Tell me, what do you know about the Kyuubi?”

“Naruto’s grumpy stomach fox?” Kurama asked, as if that needed any clarification at all. “He’s big.”

“Big?” The Killing Intent in the room spiked exponentially.

Kurama flicked an ear. “Yeah. Have you seen him up close? He’s taller than the walls of Suna!”

Danzou sat back in his chair. “Why don’t we cut the act?” he asked. “You’re the Kyuubi, aren’t you?”

Huh? How’d this weird old geezer manage to make a leap in logic no one but children had managed so far? He was way too old and set in his thinking to have possibly come to that conclusion… on… his… own. Oh. He hadn’t. Someone was spying yesterday. Yeah, that’d make sense, since Kurama couldn’t even feel most of his ANBU.

And which one of Danzou’s men hung around them the most, on Danzou’s own orders?

Kurama wrinkled his muzzle. “Sai told you that, didn’t he?”

Danzou squinted at him suspiciously.

“Oh, put your hackles down, old man,” Kurama grumbled at him. “Baa-chan told us you had Sai assigned to Team Kakashi. Something about keeping an eye on him because you personally recommended him and, no offense, but she thinks you’re kind of shady.”

“They call me the Darkness of the Shinobi for a reason,” Danzou said, darkly.

Kurama sniffed. “That’s stupid.”

“I beg your pardon?”

The little fox sat back on his haunches to shrug. “Everyone has light and darkness in them. Shinobi have enough darkness all by themselves by the very nature of their work. They certainly don’t need a personification of darkness running around making things worse, they’re struggling to keep themselves from drowning in it already. Honestly, this is why when Naruto becomes Hokage he’s going to mandate it that every active shinobi will have mandatory psych evals every quarter, to make sure they’re doing okay and not sinking into the black pit of despair or about to go off the rails. Incidentally, what did you do to Sai? He’s really messed up.”

“I should be asking you that!”

Kurama looked at him blankly.

Danzou appeared to immediately regret his outburst, and said, slowly and carefully: “Here in Root, the operatives are taught to suppress all emotion. Recently, Sai has refused to continue his training.”

“Er, maybe I’m missing something obvious here, but why suppress emotion?” Kurama could admit it was great for things like sneaking up on him, but otherwise it seemed like a terrible miscarriage of justice to inflict on someone, and no one could need that many shinobi trained solely for the purpose of sneaking up on one specific bijuu.

“To create the ultimate shinobi,” Danzou replied.

“Stupid,” Kurama sang.

Danzou’s eyebrow twitched.

“Haven’t you ever read a childhood development book?” Kurama asked. “Maybe that might be okay with your older recruits, I dunno, but shinobi are supposed to blend in. They can’t do that if they’re emotionally stunted. Seriously. Naruto’s rude, sure, but at least he knows he’s rude and he has enough empathy to realise when he’s gone too far. Your kid? You’ve done one heck of a number on him, Councilman Shimura. I don’t think he’s ever going to be able to interact normally with any sort of peer group. If the rest of your shinobi are anything like him, I pity them, for they are barely functioning human beings.”

“They are shinobi. They’re weapons.”

Kurama hated him with the entirety of his being but refrained from bringing his Killing Intent to bear because he knew he was in a precarious position. “Wow. You’re a complete sack of dicks. They’re living, breathing beings who have just as much right to feel as anyone else and you’re taking advantage of them by stripping away what essentially amounts to their free will. Every shinobi should have the choice to turn down a mission if they think they are not suited to it, but none of your men have that option, do they? No, you send them to their deaths and force them to leave comrades behind and they aren’t even allowed the option of mourning. You shouldn’t even have control over a house plant if this is the way you treat your underlings. I’m telling baa-chan. Anyway, the Kyuubi is not me. You have the wrong fox. I’m outta this hole.”

“I think not,” Danzou said, getting to his feet and drawing his arm out from where it was hidden beneath his cloak. “You will tell me the truth, fox.”

Kurama, at this point in time, knew nothing whatsoever about Kotoamatsukami, that it didn’t require eye-contact to work, or that it would force him to do precisely what Danzou said. Nor did he know that Danzou could only use it once per day and that he had wasted it telling him to tell the truth, which Kurama had been mostly doing anyway.

What the little fox did do was squeeze his eyes shut, because Danzou’s arm was weird and pale and kind of shrivelled up and full of transplanted Sharingan eyes, which was the weirdest, grossest thing he’d ever seen in his life.

“You want the truth?” he asked. “Yeah, alright. You’re trapped in a little concrete box with a portion of Kyuubi chakra and, if I’m being honest, I’m really pissed off at you because I think you are quite possibly the biggest asshole I have ever met in my entire life and holy crap I just realised you are responsible for the Uchiha Massacre. I mean, I had suspicions but that is literal proof. Why else would you steal their eyes? What else was in it for you? Why would you put them in your arm? That is so disgusting I can’t even go there. In fact I’m going to vomit right here, right now.”

He promptly did, retching and hacking noisily.

“And now, Shimura Danzou, I’m going to kill you.”

 

lxxii.

Danzou’s corpse fell down the main shaft of his underground base and landed with a wet splat deep in the darkness below. Kurama peeked open one eye, taking in the scorched, torn-up walls, crunched pipes hissing steam or leaking water, catwalks high overhead hanging by cables, metal melted or sheared clean through.

There came a sudden ominous rumbling, and the heavily injured Kurama skittered off the large main catwalk just in time as a huge tree erupted from the hole below him, growing up, and up, destroying the catwalk completely, and bursting through the ceiling above him with a thunderous crash, so that Kurama could see the distant predawn blue of the sky around its spindly limbs.

Masked shinobi moved around him in the weak light cast by the strips of flickering electric lights up and down the underground shaft. There was fear present in them, now, the fear of people who had before been sure of their place in the world and now found themselves lost and without direction. No one approached the little fox, who started lightly hopping from broken fixture to the tree and back, making his way up out of the shaft in the ground and out into the predawn, where he was met by a swarm of ANBU, jounin, and tokubetsu jounin converging on his location from every direction.

Probably because of the vast tree now spreading its branches across the sky, leaves unfurling, the tiles from the shattered roof spread across streets and buildings in a wide radius. They were in the middle of Konoha, the building the tree had exploded out of had been an old shipping warehouse not far off one of the main roads leading through the village from the gates.

Kurama scurried back into the roof space and hunkered down to wait until there were fewer people in the area to make his escape, trying to ignore the kunai lodged uncomfortably in his chest and scraping against the bones of his left shoulder whenever he moved. He was too grievously injured to casually explain his presence here. In fact, were he an ordinary fox he’d be dead a dozen times over, and that just wouldn’t do.

Kurama also wasn’t really sure where the tree had come from, but he suspected it had something to do with Danzou’s weird shrivelled-up Sharingan arm, which he’d been using Mokuton with. Ugly, simplistic Mokuton, wielded with nothing like the finesse of Senju Hashirama, or even Yamato, which Kurama had been able to avoid by using the limited spaces of Danzou’s underground hideout and his small size to his advantage.

The roof above his head creaked as someone stood just above him.

“Someone find Yamato for me!” Tsunade.

Kurama pulled his chakra in close and tried to project the signature of a very frightened mouse.

“Hokage-sama, I last saw Yamato-san with Kakashi. They were… unyouthfully indisposed,” Gai said. Oh, Gai was here, too. Actually, almost everyone was probably here except the shinobi manning the walls.

“‘Unyouthfully indisposed?’” Tsunade repeated.

Kurama heard Gai clear his throat awkwardly. “Heavily intoxicated, Hokage-sama. I was doing some early-morning laps around the village and spotted them… uh… attempting to walk home from the bar about half-an-hour ago. They weren’t doing very well.”

“If Yamato isn’t responsible for this, then what on earth happened here?” Tsunade asked. Probably rhetorically. “Monkey-san, Tiger-san, scout this… hole. But be careful.”

What had happened was this:

Back in the interrogation room Kurama had closed his eyes and leapt at Danzou blind. Foxes had exceptionally sharp senses, and even dulled with age, Kurama’s hearing was better than that of any human. With his precise sense of smell, proprioception, chakra-sense, ability to accurately locate someone’s location from their emotions – and Danzou’s men might suppress their emotions, but Danzou did not – and the highly sensitive whiskers on his face with which he could detect the faintest of movements, he could fight just as well with his eyes open as he could with them shut tight.

Danzou had retaliated with the Mokuton, but it had been imprecise, and he’d destroyed most of the room. Darting through falling debris, Kurama had formed a rasengan in his mouth, which was quite different from the formation of a bijuudama and could not be used as a projectile, but Kurama feared both bringing the warrenlike building down on top of himself and drawing far too much unwanted attention if he unleashed a bijuudama, so biting reinforced with rasengan it was.

Danzou blocked with a kunai in his other hand, driving it deep into Kurama’s chest, right through his trachea, through his tiny heart and into his left lung, but Kurama wasn’t a real fox dependent on these bodily systems to survive, and though he’d coughed bloody foam, he’d turned his head to blow Danzou’s normal hand off his wrist in a splatter of gore.

Danzou hadn’t seemed to notice.

Now, it should be noted that Kurama had never really cared to learn very much about the Sharingan except that it could be used against him, and that the odd-looking advanced version, the Mangekyou Sharingan of Uchiha Madara, was the most dangerous. As he was unfamiliar with Kotoamatsukami, he had also never heard of Izanagi, and since he was fighting with his eyes closed he knew he’d inflicted several fatal wounds on Danzou, but he had not faltered. Sasuke would later tell him about both, having read of them in his clan’s archives.

Shortly after this point in time, their fight had spilled from narrow hallways back into the great square pit, which Kurama found to his advantage, because he could avoid both Danzou’s Mokuton here as well as his elemental attacks. By now the little fox had been drenched and singed, cut and narrowly avoided being crushed by ninjutsu. Though he’d met wind with wind, and fire with fire, overwhelming both to send them back at their creator – it was unwise to use Fuuton and Katon against a chakra construct of wind and fire – he was still more than a little worse for wear.

Indeed, perhaps the only thing that had stopped the little fox from getting furious and just levelling the place was the fact he could feel Danzou’s frustration at the fact that Kurama wouldn’t die or run out of chakra and dispel, or whatever he was expecting.

During a pause toward the end of their long and seemingly futile fight where neither party would lie down and die, Danzou’s breath rasping loudly in his throat, Kurama had asked: “If you actually thought I was the Kyuubi, why bring me down and provoke me? That’s either stupid or extremely arrogant, and I cannot decide which.”

He didn’t really expect Danzou to reply, but apparently the old man had needed a moment longer to gather himself before he launched his next volley of attacks, for he chose to speak. “I thought the likelihood of you being the Kyuubi was extremely low. Far more likely would be you playing tricks on my agent or encouraging him to bring me false information. Regardless, you are guilty of sedition and it is high time I did something about you.”

“I’m what now.” Death, destruction and mayhem? Check. That was the Kyuubi’s modus operandi. Sedition? Uh. Not so much.

“You spread corruption wherever you step, whenever you open your mouth, foul creature. Hatake was had promise. Sai had promise. The jinchuuriki had promise. The Uchiha boy had promise. What has happened to them? They have become weak or rebellious or abandoned Konoha altogether,” Danzou spat.

“Actually, Sasuke’s on a long-term undercover mission for baa-chan,” Kurama said. “He’s a spy, and he’s been sending back regular reports on Orochimaru’s movements. You know that tortoiseshell and white stray cat that she feeds whenever it stops in for a visit? That’s actually one of Sasuke’s ninneko summons from Sora-ku, Suzu, and she’s his messenger.”

“What?” Danzou all but shrieked.

Eyes still closed, Kurama shrugged a little awkwardly around the kunai still buried in his chest, bloody foam on his lips and trickling down his chin to drip onto the metal under his paws. “Hey, it’s the truth. I like Sasuke. He’s a good kid. In fact, I’ve told you only the truth since I’ve been down here, you know. I’m the Kyuubi, I’m a part of the larger whole of the Kyuubi, but the Kyuubi is not me, because I’m just a fraction of it. So, take from that what you will.” Kurama paused, hacking up a bloody globule of lung tissue and spitting it out. “If I weren’t the Kyuubi were you just going to make me disappear?”

“I still intend to make you disappear,” Danzou growled. “I have the Mokuton. I have the Sharingan.”

Kurama tried to puzzle that one out. “And yet you have mastery over neither. You Mokuton can’t touch me, and I’m not stupid enough to look at your collection of Sharingan. You must realise that won’t work. You can never kill me – I can’t die. I am eternal. I am Kurama. I am the Kyuubi no kitsune. I’m a little old ninkitsune with a tiny scrap of Kyuubi chakra in me, but everything I see, everything I hear, everything I feel, that’s experienced by all of me. I know the truth of what you’re doing down here, now, and you are an enemy of the Konoha I want to build with Naruto.”

“I can extract you from Naruto and put you in someone loyal to me!”

Kurama laughed, a coughing, hacking, choking laugh. “Don’t be foolish. None but an Uzumaki can contain my immensity. If not Naruto, then who, old man? Who? I’ll kill them all, burn them from the inside out. And then I will come for you, but I will not be so merciful as I will be now. Give up now, and the death I will give you will be quick.”

Wordless with roiling rage-horror-shock-fear, Danzou attacked him, kunai infused with wind lashing at Kurama’s flank, flaying him down to the bone. Kurama had responded by resorting to brute force, paws touching the wall briefly as he turned, reinforcing his tiny muscles and joints and sinews with chakra and bounding off again with force strong enough to leave a small crater behind.

He’d gone head-first through Danzou’s chest, ribs and spine shattering beneath his skull as internal organs were displaced or ruptured and caught himself on catwalk several yards away as Danzou stood there, gasping for a breath that wouldn’t come, before collapsing bonelessly, dead, into the shaft in the ground.

And now the little old ninkitsune was hunkered down in the roof-space, hiding, pulling a kunai from his chest slowly, slowly, with a soft squelching he hoped the shinobi standing just above his head could not hear. His fur was singed and covered in blood, both his own and Danzou’s, he was damp from Suiton jutsus, and he was trying to heal over a dozen lethal wounds as quietly as he could and hoping no one noticed his chakra signature.

If Neji or Hinata or any of the other Hyuuga turned up, he was done for.

Someone found Yamato first and brought him to Tsunade.

“Hokage-sama,” Kurama heard Yamato slur cheerfully. “Where’d – uh – where’d this tree come from? It’s beautiful.”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” Tsunade said.

Yamato hiccupped. “Why would I know?”

“Hokage-sama,” someone else said, female voice, chakra-signature Kurama had pegged as one of the ANBU that used to watch Naruto sporadically. He didn’t know their name and hadn’t seen them often enough to assign them one. “As Gai-san said, we found him drunkenly singing with Kakashi, sitting on top of the Hokage Monument.”

Then Yamato said: “What’s this tree doing here, though? I’ve been here before. This is – this is where ROOT used to be.”

Thank you, Yamato or Tenzou or Cat, whoever you are.

Kurama slipped away in the ensuing chaos, because apparently the Sandaime had shut ROOT down and the fact it had still been operating was very illegal and caused a lot of people a great deal of distress. Interesting. Not his problem now. He just wanted a nice bath, a cup of hot cocoa, maybe some instant ramen and a boiled egg, and to sleep for a month.

 

lxxiii.

Kurama was asleep. He’d made himself a nice nest out of Naruto’s bedcovers and pillows, then crawled into it, covered his head with blankets, and gone to sleep curled in the tightest little ball he could curl into. He was warm, had found a comfortable position to lie in where nothing hurt too badly, and mostly alone except for Naruto, who was puttering about the apartment, occasionally commenting on another group of ANBU going past or marvelling at the sheer size of the tree that had sprung up overnight on the other side of town.

He’d patched up the worst of his injuries and washed off the worst of the blood, and though he still had contusions here and fractures there, deep wounds that weren’t bleeding only because he’d cauterised them, and his fur was patchy and burnt away, Kurama had decided he would fix the rest later. First, though, he needed time to process everything he had learned and time to settle his nerves because he didn’t have the concentration for stitching lacerated skin back together or re-growing fur or knitting bone.

Someone shook him gently.

He groaned and tucked his head more firmly under his own tail. “Sleeping.”

“Kurama,” Kakashi said.

Oh. Kakashi was in the apartment now, too. Kurama had slept through his arrival.

Sleeping,” Kurama said again, a little more forcefully.

“Tsunade-sama would like to speak with you immediately, Kurama,” Kakashi said.

“Bite me,” Kurama grumbled. “I’m sleeping, nii-chan.”

And he went back to sleep to the quiet murmur of Kakashi and Naruto’s voices around him.

Vaguely, he thought he heard someone say: “Well, I guess we there’s only one thing we can do…”

He was aware, in a distant sort of way, of movement. Of being pressed carefully close against the body-warmth of someone else. He dismissed these sensations, as he was still wrapped in Naruto’s blanket, cosy and warm and safe. When he woke again, someone was peeling back the blanket over his head to peer in at him, and he snarled at them irritably, showing off sharp little teeth yellowed with age.

“Why hasn’t he been taken to see a veterinary med-nin?” Tsunade asked.

Why was Tsunade in Naruto’s apartment?

Kurama squinted around and realised that they were now in the Hokage’s office, but he didn’t remember how he got here. Huh. His existential exhaustion must have been worse than he thought. He swore it must be because he was inundated by all this hateful humanity all the time, though Danzou’s particular brand of human evil had been exceptionally tiring.

“No. I don’t want to go to the vet,” Kurama complained. “They might euthanise me against my express wishes.”

“Well,” Tsunade said. “You’ve certainly seen better days, I’ll give you that. I’ll see what I can do for you now. If you’ve held on this long, and you’re still cognizant enough to talk to me, you can’t be too badly off.”

She pressed a hand glowing green with healing chakra gently against his flank. A moment later she drew her hand back a little and ran it over him, frowning deeply.

“If it wasn’t Danzou you got in a fight with – and believe me we are going to address that in a moment, just as soon as I’m sure you’re stable – then you certainly picked a battle with someone you shouldn’t have,” she muttered to herself. “Shizune! Write this down.”

“Yes, shishou,” Shizune said, from somewhere else in the room, but Kurama couldn’t see her.

“Fractures of the radius and ulna of the right foreleg. Shattered left scapula. Pleural effusion of the left lung, suspected blood, significant risk of pneumothorax. Fractured zygomatic arch, right side. Right-sided subconjunctival haemorrhage. Laceration on the right flank, affecting the latissimus dorsi, bone-deep. Puncture wound in the front of the chest, affecting the transverse pectoral muscle. Missed the heart and major arteries, just. Crush damage to the ribcage, damaged costal cartilage,” Tsunade rattled off.

Kurama had absolutely no idea what parts of him she was talking about, but if she showed him on a picture he’d probably know.

“That’s bad, isn’t it?” Naruto asked, doing a very good job of sounding like a child worried about his best friend.

No, wait, he genuinely was worried about Kurama’s ongoing good health because he had once again forgotten that Kurama wasn’t really a fox.

If it wouldn’t have hurt, Kurama probably would’ve rolled his eyes.

“Second degree burns to the tips of his ears and his right hip, and borderline chakra exhaustion,” Tsunade finished. “Well, you stupid old fox, you shouldn’t be alive. You will live, but a fraction of an inch to either side, or just a little deeper, and that kunai wound on your chest would’ve killed you.”

She didn’t need to know that it had gone quite a lot deeper and he’d just been too tired to fix that bit yet.

“I’m like a cockroach,” he told her, trying to grin and realising that one of the things she’d said was fractured was probably that bone in his face, just below his eye, and grimacing instead. “I can survive anything.”

“Including, it would seem, a fight with one of the strongest shinobi of our village, which you came out on top of,” Tsunade said, dryly. “Don’t look at me like that. You’re not in trouble – in fact, we’re thankful for the service you have performed on behalf of Konohagakure no Sato, at grave risk to your own health and wellbeing. Even if I would prefer if you had been a bit subtler about it. I’m not even surprised anymore. You’re Naruto’s ninkitsune. If he can pull off the impossible, why can’t you?”

“I would like it noted that that old creep started it,” Kurama said, petulantly. “He had me abducted in a smelly bag and then he interrogated me and then he was going to have me disposed of for sedition. That’s the stupidest thing to have someone try to off you for, by the way, and I am genuinely offended. If someone was going to try to kill me for being a menace to society, I’d at least like it to be for something good, like killing a kage or actually inciting a rebellion. Not just… talking about it. I still don’t even know what I said that was so seditious! Anyway, then he pulled out his gross Sharingan arm and I was obliged to kill him in self-defence. Also, he turned into a tree.”

Tsunade made a thoughtful noise, running her glowing green hand over his flank again. Kurama felt his skin begin to knit back together, and he found it interesting that the construct of his fox body was so lifelike that medical jutsu could effectively be used on it. “Yamato gathered as much,” she said. “Although Konoha outlawed experimentation with my grandfather’s cells years ago because they were unstably dangerous and killed everyone they were applied to with a single exception, two now actually, Danzou elected to ignore the edict of the Hokage. It seems spent a lot of time going behind various the backs of various Hokages over the years. Now, what was this about a Sharingan arm?”

“Oh, his right arm, the one that was always in a sling that he was hiding under his robes? It was the one he was using Mokuton with, and it had maybe a dozen Sharingan implanted in it. Tell me, baa-chan, where does a man get a dozen or more stolen doujutsu belonging to an extinct clan unless he had something to do with that clan’s extinction in the first place, having planned it with the intention of capitalising on their deaths?”

“Wait, this Danzou guy made Itachi kill his clan, so he could steal their eyes?” Naruto asked, and he sounded so utterly betrayed that Kurama lifted his head to look at his kit. “Why? Why would he do that? Why would Itachi go along with that?”

“I expect there’s more to the story than that,” Tsunade mused. “I will need to speak to sensei. He knows more about this situation that he’s been letting on.”

“We know, baa-chan!” Naruto said, hopping from foot to foot. “We asked Jiji about it back when we found out Itachi was made to do it, which happened on our mission to come get you to be Hokage! But he said not to look into it, because the guy who gave the order was really dangerous and would kill us if he thought we were snooping, you know!”

Tsunade glanced at Kakashi.

“Sounds like Danzou to me,” Kakashi said, nodding slowly. “There’s still a lot of paperwork down there to go through. He was meticulous about his filing.”

“It seems this village has done the Uchiha Clan the gravest of wrongs,” Tsunade murmured.

And so the tapestry of lies of the dark foundation of Konoha came unravelled.

 

lxxiv.

The day after the Godaime Hokage issued a blanket pardon for Uchiha Itachi, declaring him welcome to return to Konoha, his little brother appeared at the gates accompanied by a girl with hair and eyes the bright red of arterial blood. They were promptly arrested and taken to TI, and shortly thereafter to the Hokage’s office.

One moment Kurama was at home, napping and pretending to convalesce, while Naruto learned how to use his wind chakra affinity with Kakashi. The next Sakura had burst in, hoisted him unceremoniously from the patch of warm sunlight he was sleeping in to tuck him under her arm, and was on the way to the Hokage tower over the roofs without even a by-your-leave.

“Why is everyone so mean to me?” Kurama whined, piteously.

“You aren’t even actually hurt, you giant fraud,” Sakura replied. “You’re literally made of chakra. I will admit to being impressed that you constructed yourself a form so convincing you fooled Tsunade-shishou, though. Sasuke’s back.”

“He is?” Kurama perked up, squirming until she loosened her grip and the little fox could scramble up to perch on her should. “How is he?”

“I don’t know. I was just summoned by one of the ANBU and I thought you should be there, too.”

They arrived at the same time as Kakashi and Naruto, and Yamato and Sai. Apparently this was a Team Kakashi meeting of some variety or other.

Naruto took one look at the inhabitants of the room, paused briefly to inspect the violently red-headed girl with a flicker of curiosity, then launched himself in a flying tackle-hug at Sasuke. Kurama had never managed to train him out of those, but at least he hadn’t knocked over any old people except Ero-Sennin. Sasuke appeared to have predicted this hug attack with equal amounts exhausted anticipation and dread, and was braced appropriately as Naruto immediately began to blub tears of joy into his shirt.

Sasuke met Kurama’s eye over Naruto’s head and gave him a long-suffering look.

“It’s good to see you, kit,” Kurama said, cheerfully, internally wondering where on earth he’d seen this girl before, because she looked familiar for some reason.

“What happened to your fur?” Sasuke replied.

“I met a firebug. What happened to your clothes?”

Sasuke grunted, lifting one shoulder in a lopsided shrug because he was still stuck in Naruto’s increasingly snotty embrace. “Grew out of them.”

“They don’t suit you. Pale shirts don’t go well with your complexion. Stick to darker colours.”

And Sasuke snickered. “You haven’t changed, have you? Any of you?” He looked around the room, taking in Sai and Yamato with a furrowed brow, meeting Kakashi’s eye evenly, smirking faintly at Sakura who flushed a little, and finally shoving Naruto off him and into a heap of limbs on the floor.

“Not in any way that matters,” Kurama replied. “I mean, Naruto got taller?”

“I did!” Naruto agreed, springing back to his feet. “I’m not the second-shortest member of the team anymore!”

“This blonde idiot is the Naruto you kept going on about?” the red-headed bespectacled girl asked, frowning.

Sasuke shrugged.

Tsunade clapped her hands, drawing everyone’s attention to her. “Very well, Sasuke. I approve of your proposed mission. I had intended to send Team Kakashi on a different mission – there’s a temple not far from here that has been having issues with grave robbing – but I think Team Gai can take it instead. Karin-san, I’ll assign a genin to show you around the village and get settled. As Sasuke will have noticed, there are a couple of new faces on Team Kakashi. Go off and get acquainted with each other, have a team dinner, while I write up a mission scroll. This will be an S-Rank mission, so make sure you are all prepared.”

“Yes, Hokage-sama,” Yamato and Kakashi said.

Naruto wanted ramen, but there weren’t enough seats at Ichiraku’s for all of them, so they ended up going to the Yakiniku-Q restaurant instead. There, the introductions proceeded in fits and starts.

“I’m Sai, your replacement,” Sai said, to Sasuke’s face. “And you’re Uchiha Sasuke, the traitor. You’re in my Bingo Book.”

Sai smiled, expression vapid and empty, and Sasuke stared at him, blankly, until Sakura reached around Yamato to whack Sai around the head, knocking him into the wall. He yelped like a dog whose tail has been stepped on.

“Don’t be rude to Sasuke-kun!” she snapped.

“Maa, maa. There’s no need for violence, everyone, so settle down. And Sai, shinobi who are working undercover are not technically traitors,” Kakashi said.

“Hello, Sasuke,” Yamato said. “I am Yamato. It is a pleasure to meet you at last. I’ve heard a lot about you, both from Kakashi-senpai and from these three.” He indicated Naruto, Sakura, and Kurama. “You have been sorely missed.”

“His name isn’t really Yamato,” Kurama said, leaning over the grill on the table to stage-whisper to Sasuke. “He just wants us to think it is. I haven’t worked out what his real name is yet. He uses Mokuton, though. It’s fascinating.”

“My name is so Yamato!” probably-not-Yamato cried, indignantly.

Sasuke nodded.

“This is Kurama, then?” the girl asked, pointing at the little fox sitting on the table. “I don’t know why, but from the way you described him I expected him to be… bigger? And look less like he’s dying, maybe.”

“Excuse you,” Kurama grumbled. “You’re not the one who picked a fight with a kage-level shinobi four days ago, are you?”

“His nickname used to be ‘Useless,’” Sai said. “Because he’s old and Dickless carries him around all the time, like he can’t even walk anywhere by himself. But he killed Danzou-sama single-handedly, and with his eyes closed, so I need to come up with a new nickname for him. He’s a monster. So I think ‘Kyuubi’ fits nicely.”

Yamato turned an interesting shade of pale. “That’s not very nice, Sai,” he squeaked. “You should t-treat your teammates with a little more tact.”

Sai smiled at him. “It’s true though.”

Sakura growled at Sai wordlessly, and he wisely chose to close his mouth and say nothing else.

Kakashi groaned and asked the ceiling: “Is it too much to ask for a team that gets along?”

“I’m Uzumaki Naruto! Pleased to meet you!” Naruto said, cheerfully, to the red-headed girl, holding out his hand for her to shake.

“Karin,” the girl replied, cautiously taking his hand and shaking it once before letting go. Then she asked: “Are you really an Uzumaki?”

Naruto nodded and began to ramble with his usual enthusiasm. “Uh-huh! My kaa-chan came from Uzushiogakure! I mean, my tou-san was from here, so I’m not a full Uzumaki, but Kurama said that’s a good thing because if you have kids with your own cousins they can come out kind of weird anyway. And only Uzumakis can be the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki, because our chakra’s compatible or something and we won’t die but everyone else will.”

“The Kyuubi, that is the… evil chakra you have contained within you?” she asked.

Oh, she was a sensor. Apparently a very good one. Kurama hoped his disguise was up-to-par.

Naruto gasped dramatically, leaning as far away from her as the booth would allow and almost climbing onto Kakashi in the act. “Kyuubi isn’t evil! Why would you say something so mean?”

Kurama snickered. “Naruto’s stomach fox is just a little grumpy sometimes,” he said. “Really, calling him evil is a bit of an exaggeration, isn’t it?”

Karin looked at Kurama suspiciously for a long moment. He almost quailed.

“I like Kyuubi,” Sakura, who had recovered her temper, chirped.

“He’s just a giant fuzzball,” Sasuke agreed, with no inflection whatsoever.

Kurama watched Kakashi and Yamato share a terrified glance.

Karin had turned to Sasuke, and was now regarding him with something akin to horror. “Who are you, and what have you done with Sasuke?” she demanded. “Sasuke would never say something like that!”

Sasuke looked back at her coolly. “Tell him,” he said, eventually.

Tell who what? Kurama wondered.

Karin sighed, and turned to Naruto. “I am also an Uzumaki. My mother was a refugee from Uzushiogakure.”

During the brief moment of stunned silence they had while Naruto digested that fact, Kurama remembered where he had seen this girl before – during the Chuunin Selection Exams. Kurama had stolen her team’s scroll. Then Naruto was jumping up to flail joyously, elbowing Kakashi in the head and upsetting his plate as he did so.

“I have a cousin!” he crowed. “I have a cousin! Guys, guys, this is the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me in my entire life! Oh, wow, this is so cool, believe it! What do I do? What do I say? Uh. Welcome to the Konoha branch of the family? Kyuubi’s the guardian of the clan, so you have nothing to worry about from his end, y’know, even if you are a meanie who thinks he’s evil he’ll protect you and everything, and so will I because we protect our precious people, you know! And, and, this is Kakashi-nii, he’s kind of my adopted big brother. Can I call you Karin-nee? You’re older than me, right?”

Sasuke gave a tiny little huff of amusement. “See?” he said. “I told you he’d be over the moon.”

 

lxxv.

The Itachi retrieval mission started out with the usual Team Seven that was now Team Kakashi sort of luck. That is to say: not very well. Team Kakashi was being sent out to fetch Uchiha Itachi home, against his will if it came to it, since neither Tsunade nor Sasuke really thought Itachi was just going to come home, even with an open invitation, because of the guilt of being forced to kill his entire clan or see them slaughtered for him. Because they knew, now, what Danzou had done. The ultimatum they had given a thirteen-year-old child, who, for all his genius, was still a child.

Danzou had been meticulous about keeping records, and after his death his lost, nameless ROOT shinobi had been too disoriented to destroy them.

What sort of terrible choice was that, anyway?

Kurama couldn’t imagine having his hand forced like that. He couldn’t imagine having the awful choice of either having to kill Naruto himself, or forced to watch him killed while he watched, helpless. The thought made him want to rage, and he was extremely glad Danzou and his Sharingan arm were dead, now, and gone from the world forever.

The last known sighting of Uchiha Itachi had been some weeks ago, and shinobi were unfortunately highly mobile targets, which meant he could be on the opposite side of the continent now. Instead of searching blindly, they decided to send out Kakashi’s ninken, and Sasuke’s ninneko, both of which had extremely sharp senses of smell. Unfortunately, the only sample of Uchiha Itachi’s scent they had was his bedroom in the old Uchiha Compound, which had been closed for almost ten years.

Pakkun’s expression when Kakashi sent him into the empty, dusty room to search for any hint of a scent was extremely unimpressed. Sasuke’s best tracking cat, Daisuke, looked equally put out, sneezing offendedly.

“This is a long shot at best, Boss,” Pakkun said skeptically, sniffing around the room.

“I’m afraid to say I agree with the mutt,” Daisuke agreed. Daisuke was a lanky grey tabby.

“Excuse you, I’m a pedigree pug. You’re the mangy street cat,” Pakkun replied, sniffing disdainfully – then sneezing also because of the dust.

“Enough,” Sasuke snapped at them. “We don’t have time for you to argue like – like cats and dogs. We’re trying to find nii-san!”

Eventually, through the combined efforts of Pakkun and Daisuke, with a little nudging from Kurama who’d smelt him most recently, they found a spot in the room, where the bedding was kept, where Itachi’s scent still lingered faintly, and the rest of the cats and dogs were summoned perfunctorily before all of them were sent out in different directions from Konoha in teams of two.

With little other direction to head in, the Team Kakashi left Konoha and began toward the last known location of Uchiha Itachi and Hoshigaki Kisame – the northwest of the Land of Fire, somewhere near the borders of Rain and Grass, less than two days away at good speed.

It became apparent the following morning that they must be drawing near, for they began to run into karasu bunshin in Itachi’s shape. The clones would mock them, mostly Sasuke, until someone dispelled them into a flock of crows again.

“Come alone, Sasuke,” the crows would caw, before flying away to reform.

Finally, Sasuke got fed up, and shouted: “Come where, nii-san?” at them.

“Uchiha no Ajito,” the crows cawed.

“Why?”

That gave them pause, for rather than disappearing into the trees they formed a clone again on a branch not too far.

“Surely you aren’t so foolish that you cannot work that out yourself, otouto,” the clone said.

Sasuke looked almost angry enough to tug at his own hair, only he didn’t. Probably because he had marginally better impulse control than Naruto, who was already pulling his hair and groaning in frustration.

“You’re so cryptic, you know!” Naruto yowled frustratedly.

“No,” Sasuke said. “I understand. I’ll come to Uchiha no Ajito. Alone. The others – they’ll stay outside the boundary walls. Is that good enough?”

The clone dispersed into crows again without answering, and the crows flew away.

“I don’t want to fight him,” Sasuke admitted quietly, as soon as Team Kakashi was alone in the forest. “But that is what he wants. He wants me to kill him. He’s always wanted me to kill him.”

“Then why not just kill him?” Sai asked.

“You don’t do that to people you love, idiot!” Sakura hissed at him.

Sai appeared to consider that for a long moment. “Yes, I suppose that makes sense.”

Sasuke turned to Kakashi. “Who is Sai, exactly? Where did he come from? Why is he…” Sasuke apparently couldn’t find the correct word to describe Sai, so he just made a vague sort of gesture in his direction.

“Danzou pulled some strings and had him placed on our team,” Kakashi replied, shrugging. “He’s ROOT, so he’s a bit strange. We’re keeping him since Naruto and Kurama actually seem to like him well enough.”

Kurama was curled around Sasuke’s shoulders under the collar of his travel cloak, and now he pressed his fuzzy cheek against his Uchiha kit’s neck. “He doesn’t know how to be a human being,” Kurama said. “It’s both funny and sad. A bit like a three-legged dog. We’re working on it. So far we’ve discovered that negative reinforcement is the most effective behaviour modifier, specifically pain, because it’s very hard to positively reinforce someone who has been trained to suppress all feeling. At least he still has a sense of self-preservation. Anyway, where’s this Uchiha no Ajito?”

“Somewhere… probably not far from here,” Sasuke replied. “I’ve never been, though I saw a map in my father’s study once. I think it was a stronghold back during the Warring Clans Era.”

“Maa, I might know where it is, if it’s the place I’m thinking of. Of course, I might be thinking of the wrong place, but…” Kakashi said. “Follow me.”

Sasuke and Kakashi both recalled their summons, and Kakashi sent Sai up into the sky on the back of one of his painted birds to scout from above because he hadn’t had the Sharingan the last time he came this way during the Third Shinobi War, and even if he had the vegetation was all different. Kurama was grudgingly willing to admit that Sai’s beast scroll technique was amazing, even if Sai adamantly refused to paint and animate any foxes whatsoever no matter how much Kurama and Naruto pestered him about it. That one artwork, Grumpy Old Fox-Face, was the one thing he was ever going to create for them, he said.

Possibly because they’d badgered him about changes and finickity details from sketch to completion, which he’d seemed to find extraordinarily annoying for some reason.

They found the old Uchiha Clan hideout near dusk, after running around in circles for an embarrassingly long time, although Kurama guessed from the presence of that fishy-smelling shark guy, Hoshigaki Kisame, that Kakashi had, in fact, led them to the right place. It was a building at the top of a terraced mountain with two large, but crumbling, towers built from its sides.

At the base of the mountain were the abandoned remains of a village. An actual village, just a small handful of dilapidated old houses with the wilderness encroaching upon them, and not a village the size of a small city, like Konoha. It was here that Hoshigaki stopped them.

“Only Sasuke goes up,” he said, grinning at Team Kakashi with sharp shark teeth and flat fish-like eyes.

“Maa, maa. We were only making sure he got here without running into trouble,” Kakashi said.

Sasuke met Kakashi’s eye, then Naruto’s, and finally Sakura’s, and nodded, once, firmly. Kurama, still curled around Sasuke’s shoulders under his cloak with only his nose and ears sticking out but hidden by Sasuke’s hair, kept his chakra tamped down tight and didn’t move an inch.

“Be careful, Sasuke-kun,” Sakura said.

“You as well,” Sasuke replied, casting his gaze now over Yamato and Sai before turning to leap up the first of the terraces.

Behind them, Kurama heard Kisame say: “I did not expect that brat to show up with Konoha shinobi at his back. Itachi seemed pleased when he went to Orochimaru.”

And Naruto shout: “That was an undercover mission for baa-chan, believe it!”

“My cute little otouto is correct. Sasuke was an excellent spy, but Orochimaru has this nasty habit of stealing bodies, which we all agree is creepy, so it was never going to last forever…”

They were out of hearing range.

Kurama wondered if Kisame and Team Kakashi were going to get into a fight. Then he decided it would be alright. Between Sakura’s tremendous strength, Kakashi’s genius, Yamato’s Mokuton, and Sai’s… creativity maybe… they’d be fine.

“You’re sure you want me here for this?” he whispered to Sasuke.

Sasuke nodded wordlessly.

“I mean,” Kurama continued. “Your brother does have the Mangekyou Sharingan and that is my one biggest weakness.”

“Keep your eyes closed, then,” Sasuke hissed back. “I know you can fight like that.”

They had reached the top of the mountain, and now Sasuke stood before the great front doors. He took a couple of seconds to breathe in through his nose and out through his mouth before pushing one of them open and slipping inside. A subtle tremor ran through his body, and Kurama pressed his head against the young man’s neck again, a small warm presence, a quiet comfort to bolster his strength because Itachi had long been Sasuke’s greatest enemy and most terrifying nightmare.

Sasuke made his way down a long dusty corridor, down a flight of stairs and into the stone of the mountain, where Kurama could feel the burn of Itachi’s chakra, more like the guttering of a candle than anything else. There was little light down here, but from the flicker cast by a couple of torches sitting in sconces on the walls.

Itachi was waiting for them, sitting at the end of a long empty meeting hall, in an old stone throne before a wall-hanging with the kanji for “kitsune” painted on it.

“Your Sharingan,” Itachi said. “How much can you actually see?”

“I know that you’re sick,” Sasuke replied.

Itachi inhaled sharply. “I see that you will not even open your eyes.”

“Kakashi taught us to fight sightless a long time ago,” Sasuke replied.

“He was a better jounin-sensei than I thought he would be.”

“Kurama helped him quite a lot.”

Kurama peeked over Sasuke’s collar to look at Itachi’s face, at the milk-blindness of his right eye and the four close-set, jagged claw-marks that ran from his eyebrow almost to his jaw, a shadow beneath his eye. He saw sickly pale skin, and lines of exhaustion etched deep in Itachi’s face and the set of his body. Then Kurama caught the faint glint of red in his peripheral vision and ducked back down.

“You are not alone,” Itachi observed. “You brought the beast that blinded me.”

“To be fair,” Kurama said. “I’ve had kind of a bad run of experiences with men with the Mangekyou Sharingan. The two worst nights of my entire life started by looking that Sharingan in the eye, and the second time it was with a man in a black cloak with red clouds hemmed in white. I… might have overreacted without having all of the information available, and I’m sorry. On the other hand, I killed Danzou and baa-chan and everyone in Konoha knows everything that happened that night, so you can come home now because you’re pardoned and everything’s all cleared up now!”

A pause as Itachi tried to digest this flood of new information. Finally, he picked a piece of it, and asked: “Baa-chan?”

“Tsunade-sama, our Godaime Hokage,” Sasuke explained, with just the faintest hint of a tremor in his voice, eyelids fluttering. “She knows you’re sick, too, and she said she will treat you, if you come home.”

“You were supposed to resent me for what I did,” Itachi said, voice curiously blank. “You were supposed to despise me.”

“Why? I know the truth, and I don’t want to.”

“Because the Uchiha Clan is cursed!” Itachi exploded, furiously, and Sasuke launched himself out of the way of a flurry of kunai, deflecting several and sending the unprepared Kurama toppling out of his cloak and onto the floor.

“Ow, ow, ow,” Kurama complained, because he’d landed ungracefully on his flank.

“You’re fine,” Sasuke told him, a little bit crossly.

“I am, but it’s the principle of the thing,” Kurama whined. “What’s all this about curses?”

Itachi told Sasuke everything. The Curse of Hatred, how Uchiha Madara attained the Eternal Mangekyou by stealing his younger brother’s eyes, some other stuff that Kurama kept half an ear on – right up until he said that Uchiha Madara was the one to set the Kyuubi loose fifteen years and a few months earlier.

“Wrong,” the little fox said. “That was an imposter pretending to be Madara.”

Itachi appeared to have forgotten he was in the room, but now he whirled around – Kurama heard the quick stagger of his feet, the sound of the fabric of his cloak. “What?” he said.

Kurama watched Sasuke as he spoke, not Itachi. “You think Kyuubi can’t tell the difference between one person and another, from their chakra, from their hatred? Kyuubi’s been controlled by both Uchiha Madara, to attack the fledgling Konohagakure no Sato, and again when he was pulled from Kushina’s seal by the imposter. The fake in the mask. Completely different people. Sasuke’s chakra feels more like the real Madara’s than that fraud.”

Sasuke twitched.

“Who are you?” Itachi asked Kurama, interested now.

“Me? I’m Naruto’s ninkitsune! But Naruto and Kyuubi are friends, they talk all the time in his head, and sometimes Kyuubi just talks to people on the outside using Naruto as a mouthpiece, so I’ve talked to Kyuubi, too. I like to think I know him quite well…”

Sasuke was now biting the inside of his cheek.

“You killed Danzou,” Itachi said slowly.

“Oh, well, yeah. Why do I have to keep having this conversation? It was self-defence! All I did was say shinobi were people, not mindless tools, no one should be a tool, ever. I think. It may have been one of me and Naruto’s other extremely radical ideas instead, dunno. Anyway, Danzou… didn’t like that. Also, after you killed your clan he took advantage of the abundance of available doujutsu for a bit of theft and desecration of the dead, and stuck a whole bunch in his arm, which didn’t sit right with me at all,” Kurama rambled.

“You won’t look at me, either,” Itachi observed.

“Well, yeah, I’m not an idiot and I looked a guy with the Mangekyou in the eye before and it was a terrible idea that I will try my best to never, ever repeat,” Kurama said.

“You said two men.”

Kurama shrugged. “First one’s dead, don’t have to worry about him. Second one was that imposter, and I am going to pee on his corpse. He deserves it. Anyway, you’re wrong about a lot of stuff. The number of people in the world with the Mangekyou is three. I’m fairly certain Kakashi-nii has it.”

Another pause.

“What?” Itachi said. “That isn’t even his eye!”

“Well, he and Naruto are doing this training—” Kurama began.

“That was a rhetorical question,” Itachi snapped.

Kurama waved a dismissive paw in his general direction. “Yeah, yeah. But I have an answer anyway, so keep your hair on, impatient human. So, Naruto’s trying to craft an entirely new jutsu, you see, and it’s taking a little while, and while he’s learning to cut up leaves with chakra Kakashi-nii has been doing his own training with his Sharingan, and mostly he’s just making bits of dirt from the training ground vanish into this weird portal, but he’s definitely got the funny pinwheel. I mean, I spent most of the day he was doing that napping because I’m supposed to be on bedrest since Danzou got be pretty good, but I did notice that.”

“Kamui,” Itachi breathed, and Kurama heard him sit back down. “Kakashi does have the Mangekyou. How?”

“Well, I have no idea what a Kamui is but Kakashi-nii’s lost a lot of people he loved in his life. I imagine it was one of them that triggered the… how do your eyes even work? It’s weird. Evolution, I guess. Why’re you so against just coming back to Konoha, anyway? Why do you want your cute little otouto – look how cute he is, Itachi-nii—” here Sasuke’s eyes snapped open and he threw an absolutely murderous glance in Kurama’s direction. “—so why do you want him to kill you?”

“Because I’m irredeemable!”

“You’re wrong,” Kurama said. “You feel bad about it, so you’re completely redeemable. Come, come,” he darted across the room to Itachi’s side and began to chivvy him to get up with his muzzle and paws, still avoiding looking at his face. “Naruto knows lots about this because he redeemed Kyuubi, the biggest, most hateful and malevolent chakra construct that ever existed.”

Please, nii-san,” Sasuke added. “I don’t want to fight you! I don’t want the Mangekyou Sharingan, I don’t need it to be strong. I don’t want you to die. I just – I just want you to come home, and I forgive you for everything, because I understand. You had an impossible choice, and I understand why you chose what you did because I’d do anything to protect my precious people.”

This seemed to decide Itachi, for he allowed himself to be pushed onto his feet by Kurama, and led without protest from the meeting hall, out into the sunlight, and back down the terraced mountain.

At the bottom, they found Team Kakashi still posturing against Hoshigaki Kisame.

“I’m going back to Konoha, Kisame. I have been pardoned, and I wish to be with my family at the end of my life,” Itachi told the shark man, shrugging out of his Akatsuki cloak and pulling a ring off his finger to lay them on the roof of the crumbling building they all stood on. “Thank you for your companionship these years.”

Kisame stared at him, shocked beyond words.

“Hey, hey!” Naruto interjected at his usual volume – loud. “Baa-chan’s the best at medical ninjutsu in the entire world! You’re not going to die!”

 

lxxvi.

Unlike the outgoing journey, they returned to Konoha at a more sedate pace over the course of the better part of a week and a half – largely because Itachi’s condition was significantly worse than the last time they had encountered each other, and Sakura didn’t want him to overexert himself. She stayed tight-lipped on precisely how severe it was, but the fact that she wouldn’t touch him herself beyond cursorily making sure he wouldn’t die on the trip back to Konoha said enough.

She did, however, tell him firmly to deactivate his Sharingan before he toppled over, which revealed to everyone present that he was functionally blind in both eyes without it. To prevent him from using the Sharingan reflexively, Sakura had Kakashi retie Itachi’s hitai-ate over his eye, the same way he wore his own.

They had spent an uncomfortable half-hour or so trying to work out how to lead a suddenly completely blind shinobi who had previously been heavily reliant on his doujutsu before Sai had an idea, reminded by one of the jobs a dog from a line of pedigree ninken might sometimes go into if they decided they didn’t want to be shinobi. He hastily sketched it to show Kakashi, then the rest of the team, who made suggestions and argued for a while but ultimately decided it was worth a try. It took longer to get a length of spare rope and tie it into a comfortable harness for Kurama to step into, with a braided rope-and-wood handle provided by Yamato – but it worked.

“Don’t worry, Itachi-nii!” Kurama said, stepping forward in the harness and feeling the slack go out of it as Itachi held on with a white-knuckled grip. “I won’t walk you into any trees, I promise, and Naruto and I make a habit of keeping our promises.”

“I see,” Itachi said.

Kurama cackled gleefully. “No, you don’t, you can’t see.”

Kakashi groaned in a longsuffering manner. “Please, Itachi-san, do not encourage him. He’s as annoying as Naruto, but he’s smart enough to be deliberate about it.”

A pause.

“I’ve been meaning to ask about this ninkitsune—” Itachi began.

“Please do not,” Yamato said, hastily. “Whatever you think you want to know, trust me, you don’t. I never believed ignorance was bliss before I met Kurama, but now I have, and I’ve had to take up day drinking just to cope.”

“I no longer find joy in Icha-Icha,” Kakashi added, woebegone and drooping.

Naruto snickered. “That’s just ‘coz you’ve read them so often you can recite them word-for-word, you know! Read something new! Or – or – there’s a new volume coming out in like two months. You can wait until then, right?”

Kakashi immediately perked up. “Why didn’t you say earlier?”

Naruto scrunched up his face. “That stuff’s boring, though, you know.”

“That’s really unhealthy, Yamato-taichou,” Sakura interjected, tone admonishing. “If you’re having trouble with the stress levels associated with your job and can’t find an outlet that isn’t damaging to your liver, you should consider therapy. There’s an excellent treatment program being run by one of Ino’s great aunts at the hospital. I can get you an appointment, if you like. Or perhaps it might be time for a career change?”

“Don’t ask about the ninkitsune, though, Itachi-san,” Kakashi said, serious now. “Sai, you’re not to say anything, either. And his nickname is still ‘Useless,’ alright? Not that other one, which I shouldn’t have to tell you is inappropriate though I will remind you.”

“Yes, Kakashi-taichou,” Sai said, but he seemed put out.

“Sasuke, will you tell me what this is all about?” Itachi asked.

Sasuke grunted. “I have no idea. These people are all mad. Just ignore them.”

Itachi sighed, and allowed Kurama to lead him onward.

Naruto began to try to get to know Sasuke’s brother with no hesitation whatsoever. Possibly because Kurama immediately liked him. Itachi smelled like blood and sickness and felt like grief and pain and regret, but Kurama wasn’t getting any inherently malicious vibes from him for all his misery was uncomfortably pervasive.

“What’s your favourite food?” Naruto asked, falling in to walk beside Kurama and Itachi, because this was as good a conversation starter as any. “I like ramen, y’know!”

Itachi hadn’t seemed to be expecting this line of inquiry and frowned, bemused.

“Ramen’s good,” Kurama agreed. “But I like hot cocoa better! I offer it to all our guests who come in through the window after midnight. Unless they’ve come to kidnap me by shoving me in a smelly bag.”

“Maa. You aren’t letting that bag thing go, are you?” Kakashi asked.

“No,” Kurama said. “My pride has been sorely wounded. And do I really seem so unreasonable that I wouldn’t have walked into an interrogation room if I was asked nicely?”

“Yes,” everyone except Naruto and Itachi said, and Naruto was just laughing about that time ANBU chased them around the village for three days when he was nine because of the thing with the glitter and the Hokage’s hat. Kurama could concede that they hadn’t come quietly then, so perhaps there was precedent. Itachi was still just frowning.

“So, Itachi-nii, what do you like to eat?” Naruto pressed. “I gotta know so me an’ Kurama can buy it for when you come over to visit!”

“I’ll be coming over to visit you?” Itachi asked.

“Yeah, or I’ll come see you. We have team slumber parties! Everyone comes!” Incidentally, team slumber parties had recommenced after Naruto had returned to Konoha, though the first time Sai came to one it had been… awkward. Kurama supposed that if family members were now being invited to slumber parties, Karin would probably also be asked to come to the next one.

“We do,” Sasuke agreed. Kurama felt Itachi twitch through the harness. He obviously hadn’t been expecting that.

“They’re the best! By the way, I love your nail polish,” Sakura said.

“It is very nice. The Akatsuki have very good taste in nail polish,” Kurama agreed. “Do you think someone would paint my claws if we acquired shinobi nail polish? I was thinking… huh. What colour would suit me?”

“Pink!” Naruto said without hesitation. “Like Sakura-chan’s hair!”

“We could match,” Sakura said.

“I like dango,” Itachi offered, at last.

And so they continued toward Konoha, companionably. Kurama or Naruto would force the mood of the group up whenever it became too dark or introspective, joking and playing, and doing some light training. Naruto finally managed to cut a leaf with his wind chakra and had moved on to throwing kunai infused with wind under Kakashi’s watchful eye, crowing with glee whenever his kunai went deeper into the tree than it had on previous throws. Yamato followed along behind him, healing over the trees with his Mokuton and grumbling under his breath about respecting nature.

Over time, Itachi got better at reading the world around him without his eyesight, and Kurama was a very good guide-fox and didn’t walk him into any trees or over any cliffs or anything. Though over their last few days of travel, Itachi was almost good enough at sensing the immediate world around him that he didn’t even need to hold on to the handle of the little fox’s harness anymore. There was nothing like losing one sense to enhance another, and the world was made up of chakra. Kurama was quite certain it wasn’t as hard as the little humans made it out to feel the world around them rather than see it.

Then, near sunset on their last day of travel, as they were strolling up towards Konoha’s gates, a sudden wash of vile chakra swept over them, freezing everyone in their tracks, as a spiral of red light rose toward the heavens.

The first person to speak was Itachi. “Why does that feel like the Kyuubi?” he asked. “I thought it was… I thought it was sealed within Naruto.”

“Well, Kyuubi isn’t sealed,” Naruto replied. “And I mean I only have the Yang half because the Yondaime sealed the Yin half in the gut of the Shinigami, but Kyuubi’s right here!” He gestured emphatically at Kurama.

Kurama began to back out of the harness.

“Then what,” Kakashi said, pointing to the writhing orange tails rising one after another above the trees in the hills behind the village. “Is that?”

Kurama had no idea, but he was going to find out.

“Sorry Itachi-nii!” Naruto said, scooping Kurama up and shoving him onto his head. “I gotta borrow my ninkitsune for a moment! He’s a bit of a Kyuubi expert, believe it!”

Between one step and the next Naruto pulled the Kyuubi from his gut and switched places with it, immediately taking over the form of the great chakra construct. Kurama found himself perched between Naruto-the-Kyuubi’s ears as he leapt agilely and nimbly around the border wall of Konoha, up the cliff, and over the trees, letting out a great bellow in challenge to the enemy… Kyuubi?

Kurama was so confused.

 

lxxvii.

It was all part of a larger political discussion that should’ve ended ten years ago, apparently. Something about an attempted coup d’état in in the capital. Kurama hadn’t heard anything about it. Not that Kurama had been particularly politically minded when Naruto was five-going-on-six. He’d had much more practical concerns regarding the day-to-day wellbeing of his strange new human kit to be concerned with what happened to the daimyou halfway across the country.

Now, one of the failed instigators of the coup, a man called Kazuma, had come to attempt to wipe Konohagakure no Sato off the map, using his own son, Sora, as a sort of pseudo-jinchuuriki bomb primed and ready to detonate to destroy the village. He had been counting on the actual Kyuubi no jinchuuriki remaining outside of the village a little longer, on whatever highly-classified S-Ranked mission it was that Team Kakashi had been sent on.

Sadly, in the ensuing scuffle to subdue Sora before he could die explosively, Naruto-the-Kyuubi stepped on Kazuma and turned him into a bloody smear on the ground.

Not one single person shed a tear.

Sora’s fate was a little less lethal, but no less grisly. When no one could talk him down, and he began to charge what was maybe a very weak bijuudama in his mouth, aimed right at Konoha and the Hokage Tower, Naruto-the-Kyuubi panicked and did the only thing he could think of, since even a weak bijuudama had the potential to be extremely destructive.

He snatched Sora up in his mouth and swallowed him in one quick gulp.

Kurama felt the bijuudama in his own stomach. It was like a sudden and terrible episode of heartburn.

Naruto-the-Kyuubi groaned and flopped over.

The excess Kyuubi chakra bleeding off Sora was safely absorbed by the actual Kyuubi.

And then Naruto-the-Kyuubi’s eyes widened in comical horror as he realised he’d eaten a person.

Kurama squeezed his eyes closed and covered his ears with his paws as Naruto retched gigantically beneath him, vomiting Sora back up into a heap of saliva-covered limbs on the ground. Naruto shoved the Kyuubi back into whatever the leftover seal space within his soul was that it lived in, drawing himself out in the same moment with a poof of smoke. Kurama found himself a little disorientated, having been three-hundred feet in the air one moment and five feet up the next, but then he leapt off Naruto’s head and they both approached the groaning, slobbery, and slightly charred boy lying on the ground before them.

He was alive! But it kind of looked like he’d walked face-first into one of Sasuke’s grand fireball jutsus and stuck around while the flames licked his flesh.

“Ah!” Naruto cried, hovering uncertainly over the glaring Sora. “I’m so sorry for eating you, y’know! You were doing the bijuudama, though not very well that was actually a terrible bijuudama, and I couldn’t think of a way to – to – Kurama, help.”

“Mitigate the potential damage,” Kurama supplied.

“That!” Naruto said. “So I just… I’m so, so sorry! I know it was awful, that’s a horrible thing to do to someone, I got eaten by one of Snake-Face’s summons once and I still have nightmares about being stuck in its stomach even though it was like three years ago.”

“Who are you?” Sora growled at them, though Kurama couldn’t feel any more heavy caustic chakra in him anymore. Just the hurt and rage of a child who didn’t know which way was up anymore.

Naruto blinked. “Ha?”

“This is the real Kyuubi no jinchuuriki of Konohagakure no Sato,” Kurama said.

“I’m Uzumaki Naruto, and I’m gonna be the Hokage one day, believe it!” Naruto said, nodding enthusiastically.

“I’m his ninkitsune, Kurama! And you’re Sora, the pseudo-jinchuuriki from the Fire Temple if I heard right. It’s a pleasure to meet you!”

Sora groaned in pain, then rolled over to avoid looking at them. “Konoha shinobi,” he spat, disgustedly. “I can’t trust any of you.”

Kurama and Naruto looked at each other.

Naruto looked bamboozled, the poor kit.

Kurama shrugged. “Well, that’s actually quite wise. Shinobi, as a general rule, are thieves, spies, and assassins. You’d be very stupid to go around trusting every one of them that you met because they’re nasty underhanded creatures who do what it takes to get the mission done. Even the dullest kunai in the pouch has been practicing misdirection practically since the cradle. As it is… It sounds like that other shinobi that Naruto stepped on, uh, sorry if he actually was your father though I don’t actually see any sort of familiar resemblance between you… Anyway, it sounds like he was manipulating you.”

“You seem kinda… burned,” Naruto added. “How’d that happen, anyway? Did someone get you with a Katon jutsu?”

Kurama clapped his ears. “Remember what I told you about bijuu chakra?” he asked.

Naruto frowned, thinking hard. “It’s red?” he said, at length.

Kurama groaned. “No. It’s corrosive, and it’ll burn you!”

Naruto had obviously completely and utterly forgotten this fact, for his eyes suddenly went all round and frightened. “Wait,” he said. “So Kyuubi chakra could burn me up into ashes?”

“No, because the Kyuubi likes you for some kami-forsaken reason,” Kurama grumbled, rolling his eyes. “Sora, however, only had the chakra, and it burned him.”

“Ah! We should get him to the hospital right away! Baa-chan or Sakura-chan could help, I’m sure! But he’s all burned. How do we get him there without it hurting? Maybe Ero-Sennin knows. Ero-Sennin!”

“Who are all these people?” Sora asked the sky, as Naruto darted off to talk to Jiraiya, who was lingering with the others at a safe distance. “Snake-Face, Ero-Sennin, baa-chan?”

After seeing Sora safely installed in a secure room in the hospital, tended to by a different med-nin than Tsunade who was off overseeing the Uchiha case apparently, and since their mission had been successfully completed, Kurama and Naruto decided to go pester Iruka to see if he would shout them ramen. It’d been a while since they last talked to their favourite Academy sensei, after all.

Then again, he’d been their only Academy sensei to last more than a couple of weeks.

Kurama refused to think it had anything to do with himself or Naruto, or the ridiculous everyday pranks, mischief, and shenaniganry they used to get up to. No, it had obviously been a class effort of the combined Nara laziness, constant Akimichi snacking, the episodic escapades of both Akamaru and Shino’s kikaichuu, and Sakura and Ino’s volatile rivalry, and the weird dynamic of the girls surrounding Sasuke.

Halfway to Iruka’s apartment, Naruto remembered he had a cousin now, and they went to cordially – read: loudly and with a lot of enthusiasm – invite her to join them for ramen.

High in a tree above the sight where the Kyuubi and the pseudo-jinchuuriki had met, and Sora had been so anticlimactically eaten, Tobi’s brows furrowed behind his mask. There had been something different about the chakra trapped in Sora, compared to the heavy, choking chakra of the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki. It was almost like the blistering heat of the Kyuubi’s hatred was just… not there anymore. Vanished. Gone completely. Its chakra was still overwhelming, and it was still a bit like trying to breath molasses when surrounded by it, but it was tinged now not with hate but with an electric feeling of bright-happy-love-expectation that sent his heart galloping joyously in his chest against his direct wishes.

Tobi wondered, as his Sharingan whirled to life and he stepped into Kamui to return to Deidara’s side, what could possibly have happened to that monstrous beast to scramble its mind like that.

Surely it had nothing to do with that night almost sixteen years ago?

No, something else must’ve happened.

Maybe Itachi, that traitor, had done something to it.

 

lxxviii.

Team Kakashi had a problem. Konoha and by extension the entire world also had a problem.

Team Kakashi’s problem was a little like this: the original Team Seven worked together like a well-oiled machine. Though it hadn’t been obvious at the start of their careers, it was now. They were primarily a front-line battle team, and they would destroy enemy lines, with secondary specialties in stealth, infiltration, and tracking. And although they’d been apart from each other two and a half years, and had all picked up new skills during their time apart, they knew each other well enough that they could dance around each other in battle, and any formation they were put into together was a beautiful dance.

Kakashi and Yamato worked just as well with each other, but were very much more inclined to resorting to ANBU tactics when they worked together, sticking to the shadows unless they were flushed out. Naruto, Sakura, Kurama, and Sai had a decent team dynamic, but with Sai in the mix they found themselves getting in each other’s way. Similarly, Kakashi, Yamato, and Sai, who all had ANBU and ROOT training, could work together reasonably cohesively – but again, they didn’t instinctively work like a front-line team might.

By Tsunade’s decision, and since she thought there was no better way of rehabilitating an indoctrinated ROOT agent than by having him on a team with two former ROOT agents of differing career lengths, Sai and Yamato were remaining with Team Kakashi indefinitely.

Half of their problem was that they were trying to mesh two essentially very different groups of people with very different sets of training, and a grumpy old bijuu, together. The other half of their problem was that no one was where they were supposed to be during whole-team formation drills. Yamato tripped over Kurama, Sasuke got in Sai’s way, Sakura tended to drop behind when her chakra-enhanced speed and strength were real assets that could put another shinobi on the wrong foot, Kakashi either worked himself to exhaustion or hung back and didn’t engage at all with little in between, and Naruto managed to make himself a nuisance to everyone except Kurama, who cheated by reading his thoughts.

Kurama went to complain to Itachi about it.

Itachi was in the hospital, having daily treatments from Tsunade to gradually heal the extensive damage his prolonged illness had done to his heart and lungs. He was no longer on the brink of death – in fact, he wasn’t even terminal, but Tsunade was not pleased with his condition at all and wasn’t hopeful about him ever returning to the field as an active shinobi.

Which was probably wise, since most of his vision was unsalvageable and he’d spent more than half his shinobi career refining his skill with his doujutsu. His right eye could never be healed. Kurama had damaged it irreparably. The blood vessels and chakra pathways of his left eye were heavily damaged, but some of it was reversible, and provided he didn’t use the Mangekyou Sharingan again he would retain some degree of eyesight. Not a lot, but enough to read and navigate the streets of Konoha, provided he wore glasses.

“Yamato-taichou stepped on my tail three times,” Kurama lamented, lying on his belly at the foot of Itachi’s bed. “And one of Sai-kun’s lions ran me over. I’m very sad.”

“Indeed. You’ve come to bother me about it,” Itachi observed.

“Actually, no, I wanted to ask you about the Akatsuki,” Kurama said.

Itachi sighed. “You’re very single-minded. You realise I’ve already debriefed by Morino-san personally?”

Kurama flicked his ears. “Yes, well. I have a personal investment in this issue, don’t I? Apart from you, that shark guy—”

“Kisame-san,” Itachi supplied.

“That shark guy,” Kurama insisted. “And Deidara, I don’t really know about the others. I mean, I know of the Ame Orphans but that was just because Ero-Sennin mentioned them, and there was Sasori, but I think he’s still down in the TI basement. There was also Orochimaru, but he left.”

“Not before trying to take my eyes,” Itachi said. “I’m glad Sasuke escaped him.”

Actually, the way Sasuke told it, he’d just up and left after the news of Danzou’s death and the truth of the Uchiha Massacre reached him, cordially inviting Uzumaki Karin to join him, since he knew she was interested in her fabled cousin in Konohagakure no Sato.

“And what about the false Madara?” Kurama insisted. “What’s his role?”

Itachi sighed. “Let’s call him Tobi. I don’t know how long he’s been manipulating things behind the scenes, but he recently ‘joined’ the Akatsuki masquerading as a fool named Tobi.”

“I assume you had no mysteriously missing relatives who were known to have unlocked the Mangekyou Sharingan that were not killed that night?” Kurama asked.

Itachi shook his head. “No. Not that I ever knew of. He is an Uchiha, though, of that I am sure. That much is without doubt. He knows too many clan secrets not to have been raised within the clan, and he can activate and deactivate the Sharingan at will. I just – I don’t know who he is.”

Kurama chewed that over. “Who else?”

Itachi smiled wryly. “Hidan and Kakuzu. They make your team sound positively functional. Incidentally, there is a reason the Akatsuki are paired off into two-man teams and not larger teams, like the standard four-man team that makes up the backbone of most Hidden Villages.”

“Personality clashes?”

“That would be putting it mildly,” Itachi said. “Kisame-san and I actually got along tolerably well compared to some of the other pairs.”

“I noticed Deidara and Sasori didn’t get along very well,” Kurama mused.

Itachi looked at him thoughtfully. “I’ve been wondering about that. How did the Kazekage manage to seal such a large part of the Ichibi’s chakra somewhere else?”

Kurama blinked. He’d forgotten it wasn’t common knowledge that not all the bijuu were sealed anymore. “Oh, Gaara-kun didn’t. He just unsealed it completely like Naruto did to the Kyuubi and the Ichibi left its Yin chakra behind so it could take its Yang chakra cavorting around the Land of Wind to stretch its legs. From what I understand, being sealed away is very tedious.” Kurama could practically see the moment Itachi’s brilliant mind came to a screeching halt, because people didn’t just break the seals containing bijuu unless they wanted to die, and he carried on talking regardless. “I suppose if you’re trying to gather the bijuu up that sort of thing would be quite annoying. So, what exactly were the Akatsuki doing with the bijuu chakra? Not sealing it into themselves, surely?”

“No, there was this statue—”

Kurama’s own mind stuttered and he sucked in a sharp breath. “It wasn’t a big, ugly statue with nine eyes that should still be on the moon, by any chance, was it?”

“I don’t know about the moon,” Itachi said. “But it did have nine eyes.”

Kurama reared back in horror. “On, no, Itachi-nii-san. No.”

“What?” Itachi asked.

Kurama was too startled to censor himself. “The Akatsuki are all idiots! Idiots! Why does no one consult anyone who knows anything before they do ahead and go playing with things they know nothing about? If you put bijuu in that thing you’ll wake up Kaguya-baa-sama, and she’ll kill or enslave everyone on the planet! Why isn’t it still on the moon?”

And that was the problem the whole world was facing.

“Why would it be on the moon in the first place?” Itachi asked.

“My otou-san put it there,” Kurama replied, vaguely, already thinking of the horror his grandmother might wreak if she were loosed once again on the world.

Silence, as they digested each other’s words.

“You are the Kyuubi, aren’t you?”

Kurama also had a problem.

He leapt up to shove his paws into Itachi’s mouth to stop him speaking, yelping as he did: “Nope! Definitely not! You fell asleep while we were talking and had a nightmare, that’s all. Kyuubi. How could a cute little fox like me be the Kyuubi? I said nothing!

Looking supremely unimpressed, Itachi lifted Kurama off himself and placed him back at the foot of the bed. “I have fur in my mouth, now,” he said. “Thank you, you horrible little beast.”

 

lxxix.

“Tsunade-baa-chan!” Naruto hollered, throwing open the door to the Hokage’s office and completely ignoring the furious glances Utatane Koharu and Mitokado Homura threw in his direction, though Kurama stuck his tongue out at them behind Naruto’s head. Sarutobi Hiruzen, the Sandaime, merely raised his eyebrows in askance.

“Naruto,” Tsunade said, tightly, one of her eyes twitching just a little. “I was in the middle of an important meeting with the Council of Elders.”

“Eh?” Now Naruto noticed the three old geezers sitting in the Hokage’s office, though he didn’t give them much more than a cursory glance. “Oh, cool. Hi, Jiji. This is more important though, y’know.”

Tsunade inhaled slowly through her nose, then just as slowly through her mouth. “Alright, what’s got you so worked up you have to interrupt me while I’m working?”

Naruto hopped on the spot, his shoulders hunched, and his fists clenched until his knuckles paled. “I know what the Akatsuki are doing with the bijuu, and it’s really bad, you know! They’re sticking their chakra in this big ugly statue with nine eyes that the Sage of Six Paths sealed into the moon but apparently they, the Akatsuki, they got it back from the moon, and it’s actually the body of the bijuu’s grandmother, Kaguya-baa-sama, and if they put the chakra of all the bijuu in it, Kaguya-baa-sama will wake up again and kill everyone because she thinks all the chakra in the world is supposed to belong to her!”

“Tsunade-sama,” Utatane Koharu said. “Are you really going to entertain the fantasies of a child?”

Tsunade’s eye twitched again. “Naruto—”

“It’s true,” Kurama said. “Kyuubi and Itachi-nii spoke, and Itachi-nii described the statue with sufficient detail for the Kyuubi to be certain. Kaguya is not to be brushed aside as a children’s story or a myth, she is very real, and she will first enslave us all, and then she will systematically leech the chakra from our bodies, right down to the marrow of our bones before she sucks it from the air and the water and the earth and the plants, leaving the earth nothing but a desiccated husk.”

“Kyuubi said if you won’t do something about it, he’s going to – to – Kurama, what was the word? It means take over.”

“Commandeer,” Kurama supplied.

“Commandeer,” Naruto said carefully. “My body and go warn everyone by himself! Tsunade-baa-chan, you have to believe me!”

“Naruto,” Tsunade repeated. “I will not be given ultimatums by one of my own genin.”

“But baa-chan! We have to warn everyone!” Naruto shouted, and Kurama nodded because people had to know. The more people knew, the more people could hunt the Akatsuki down like the vermin they were.

The sound the flat of Tsunade’s hand made when it impacted with her desk was tremendous. A crack appeared in the wood, and a moment later the entire desk shattered, spilling paperwork all over the office. “Naruto! Control yourself, and control the Kyuubi!”

“But—” Naruto started to say.

“You will do nothing,” Tsunade interrupted him.

“Baa-chan! I can’t just—”

“You can, and you will,” she said, in a tone that brooked no argument. “We already have several teams out scouting for the Akatsuki, and other Hidden Villages are going the same.”

Naruto’s lip wobbled. “But,” he said again.

“Naruto,” Tsunade said. “Regardless of whether he is my esteemed grandfather or not—” Here she ignored the startled inhalation from one of the elders sitting at the back of the office. “I cannot in good conscience allow the Kyuubi to traipse through the Elemental Nations at will. It is known to be under the control of Konohagakure no Sato, and to have it roam, unchecked, through other countries’ territories would be gross negligence on our part at the least, and considered an act of war at the worst. It is well and good to want to avert a disaster, but not at the expense of igniting the Fourth Shinobi War.”

Naruto sniffled, though he remained standing defiantly in front of her.

To the people observing, this must have looked like a blatant attempt at manipulation. An infant crying when they needed something was the earliest way of getting the attention they required, and some people carried this behaviour on into later life to twist the behaviour of others to their whims, with varying degrees of success. Little girls seemed to be the best at it, for reasons beyond the small fox.

Kurama could feel the disgust emanating from the old people in the corner, the disappointment from Jiji.

But this was not an attempt at manipulation on Naruto’s part. He wasn’t smart enough to think of it in the first place.

No, these were the tears of a boy who was terrified and lost in despair.

Not for his own life, because it had not occurred to Naruto to be frightened for himself, but for the people he loved, who he now knew with every fibre of his being were in grave danger, many of whom he had no way of warning or were too far away from him to try to protect. Haku and Zabuza, Inari and Tsunami and Tazuna, Princess Fujikaze and her people up in the Land of Snow, Gaara and Kankurou and Temari and Baki and Chiyo and Matsuri, Temujin and his people who were on another continent who they could not contact at all, Michiru and Hikaru, Shion, Idate and the Wasabi family – so many precious people were in danger. Not to mention his precious people closer to home: Team Kakashi and all his friends from Teams Gai and Asuma and Kurenai as well as Ayame and Teuchi and Iruka and Karin and Itachi and the all ANBU he played with when they chased him around the village.

For Kurama, who might be stolen away.

And Kurama was just as afraid that Naruto’s life and soul might be brutally ripped from his by the Akatsuki should they attempt to separate them.

“Please,” Naruto whimpered.

Tsunade heaved an enormous sigh, pinching the bridge of her nose. “I will try to verify your claims,” she said, at length. “We still have Sasori in custody. If I believe there is sufficient evidence that what you are saying is true, I will alert the other kages.”

Kurama didn’t like that answer. He would much rather go around and shout: ‘The Akatsuki are a bunch of dumbasses looking for peace who are going to destroy the world playing with power they know nothing about!’ at the walls of every Hidden Village he could. But Tsunade had a point. He didn’t want his and Naruto’s precious people in Konoha to get hurt because he couldn’t be patient. He couldn’t balance some people’s lives against others because he was feeling impatient.

“That will have to be good enough,” the little fox conceded. “Thank you, Tsunade-baa-chan.”

Naruto nodded, wiping his eyes and nose on the sleeve of his jacket, but when Kurama pointed out that this was a disgusting habit, Naruto always reminded him that he cleaned his butt with his tongue and had no room to talk about gross stuff. “Thanks baa-chan,” Naruto said, and happened to glance at the clock on the wall behind her head. “Oh, crap, I’m late! I was supposed to be at Training Ground Three about an hour ago and I forgot all about it. Or, well, I was actually supposed to be there four hours ago, but Kakashi-nii was the one who said to be there, you know,” he shrugged sheepishly. “But I’m late even by nii-chan’s clock. I gotta go! Bye, baa-chan! Bye, Jiji!”

He darted part Tsunade, pushed open her office window, and leapt out of it.

“Use the door, brat!” Tsunade yelled after them.

As they bounded across the rooftops towards the training grounds, Kurama realised just how difficult it must be to be Hokage. He supposed he’d understood in an abstract sort of way before, but now it hit him fully. It wasn’t just mountains of paperwork, or heroic sacrifices, starting one war or ending another, or even being the strongest shinobi in the village. It was one person taking up the mantle of responsibility and doing the best for all their people, even in the face of adversity.

The Sandaime had not been a good Hokage, at least not toward the end. He’d let that weasel, Danzou, operate behind his back, had been too weak to put him down even after he’d committed treason – proper treason, not the playful sort of mostly accidental treason Naruto and Kurama got up to – on multiple counts.

The Yondaime’s rule had been too short, far too short, though he had done what he could in the scant months he’d been in office.

Tsunade, for all her gambling and her drinking and her violent temper, was a good Hokage.

 

lxxx.

“Asuma-sensei! Behind you!” Shikamaru’s cry of warning was edged with both exhaustion and desperation.

Asuma dropped, ducking Hidan’s triple-bladed scythe as it whipped around on its cable, headed straight now for Hidan’s abdomen – but it missed Hidan, sailing over his head as he tumbled ass over kettle out of his ritual circle.

Sakura’s aim when she threw people was just as accurate as when she threw kunai, even from a half-mile distant, and Naruto’s head had impacted with Hidan’s chest with significant force, fracturing several ribs. Asuma gasped in pain, and Kurama winced sympathetically as he detangled himself from the mess of flailing limbs that had become Naruto and Hidan as they grappled on the ground, several dozen feet from the ritual circle.

Nii Yugito and Matatabi’s information, relayed in real time through the Seishin Sekai to Kurama and Naruto to Hokage, and after they moved out the rest of Team Kakashi, had so far proved invaluable.

Yugito and Matatabi had escaped Hidan and Kakuzu through a mixture of luck, acting skill, the Akatsuki’s own ignorance, Kakuzu’s impatience to get the job over with so he could get paid, and Matatabi’s freely given sacrifice of a large portion of her Yang chakra.

Kurama thought the whole thing was ingenious, really.

Well, minus the part where the Akatsuki got hold of more bijuu chakra in the end.

Yugito and Matatabi had led the two Akatsuki members on a merry chase through the sewers, finally standing their ground at a junction miles and miles from an exit. Though they had hoped they could best Hidan and Kakuzu, when it had become apparent they could not, they had enacted their backup plan. Panting, injured, and certain of imminent defeat, Yugito had pressed her fingers to the seal on her stomach and wrenched it fully open, releasing the bijuu trapped inside her with a ragged scream of pain before collapsing like a puppet with its strings cut.

Of course, Matatabi burst out of Yugito with a construct formed of only about two thirds of her Yang chakra, which not nearly enough of a loss to actually harm her jinchuuriki. But the Akatsuki thought the bijuu were mindless beasts that would kill their jinchuuriki immediately, and Hidan and Kakuzu were foolish enough to believe they had just witnessed this jinchuuriki commit suicide in an attempt to thwart them.

Matatabi’s chakra construct took them on a merry chase deep in to the oldest, filthiest part of the sewers, where they played a prolonged and disgusting game of cat and mouse lasting days, while Nii Yugito picked herself up and limped out of the sewer to rendezvous with a team sent from Konoha to aid her in her escape.

Eventually the portion of Matatabi’s chakra roving the sewers was subdued and taken away to be sealed, but before it was forced into unconsciousness Matatabi was able to confirm that the Akatsuki leader, someone called Pein, had summoned the nine-eyed husk of Kaguya’s body, the statue that they were calling the Gedou Mazou, and they were almost inevitably going to seal her chakra into it.

On the one hand, Kurama thought it was nice to know his fears weren’t based in the paranoid fear of what evil might the humans come up with next? After all, maybe Itachi had been mistaken? His eyesight had been deteriorating for years, after all. Perhaps the Akatsuki were doing something else with some other big ugly statue. On the other hand, it was now absolutely confirmed that the Akatsuki were sealing bijuu chakra into the Gedou Mazou, and Kurama couldn’t think of anything worse.

Matatabi had also provided them with confusing and terrifying information on Kakuzu and Hidan, who were no longer human in any sense of the word, neither of them. Kakuzu baffled both bijuu, but Hidan.

Oh.

Hidan infuriated and disgusted them in equal measure.

Jashin, they both agreed, was not real.

If he was, the bijuu would know.

Jashin, they decided, was a false god made up by a madman who cared for nothing but mindless slaughter.

Had Hidan invented Jashin himself, devoting his life to a figment of his imagination?

Had someone else convinced Hidan Jashin was real?

Were there any other little humans who were using chakra to practice this disgusting false religion, which could possibly not be further from the teachings of their father?

That circle Hidan claimed was for his ritual sacrifices was a perverted and simplified seal, Kurama and Naruto had theorised when Matatabi showed it to them. It had to be tied to dozens more secreted on his person, possibly under his skin, seals that twisted and distorted and stole. It was the ugliest piece of fuuinjutsu Kurama had ever had the misfortune to come across. The Eight Trigrams seal was positively benign by comparison to this monstrosity.

“Kurama!” Naruto called, grappling with Hidan even as he pulled on the Kyuubi’s chakra to coat himself in a protective cloak of corrosive chakra. “Can you do the counter-seal?”

A flash of the nullifying seal flashed across Kurama’s mind. Like his father and mother before him, having learnt the fundamentals of fuuinjutsu from birth so he could help Kurama unseal himself, and tutored by Jiraiya, Naruto could come up with workable seals on the fly, though they had thought about this one during the time it had taken to run to the battle site from Konoha.

One of these days Naruto was going to go and bother those jounin who’d been taught the hiraishin by the Yondaime to teach him. Or just work out the hiraishin by himself without help.

“I got it!” Kurama called back, hopping nimbly over to the seal, ripping at his paw-pad with his teeth, and hastily smearing the counter-seal over the ritual circle in his own blood.

The ritual circle’s lines turned black, then grey, then flaked away like ashes in the wind.

“Heathens! You’re going to pay for that sacrilege!” Hidan howled, spittle flying from his mouth.

“You’re the one using chakra to commit sins!” Naruto yelled at him and swatted him with a fiery chakra tail.

Asuma, curled on the ground with several broken ribs, a compound fracture of his femur, and horrific third-degree burns, wheezed in pain. “Naruto. You shouldn’t be here. What if they catch you?”

“Me an’ Kyuubi are a team! These losers aren’t gonna get us, and we couldn’t let them get you, either. Believe it, Asuma-sensei!”

The rest of the reinforcements from Konohagakure no Sato arrived – Ino and Chouji, Raidou and Aoba, Sakura and Sasuke and Sai – and they immediately launched a multi-pronged attack on Hidan and Kakuzu.

As Aoba, Raidou, Ino, and Chouji went after Kakuzu, Hidan was blown back by an oodama rasengan to the gut from Naruto, straight into the jaws of Sai’s ink lions. When he cut through the lions, causing them to burst in inky splashes on the blades of his scythe, Sakura was there, pummelling him into the ground with Sasuke at her side, deflecting the triple-bladed scythe with his sword one-handed while he flashed through the seals for a Katon jutsu with the other.

Naruto, having had a few moments to collect himself, bounced back in with the newly created rasenshuriken, explosively shredding Hidan’s torso and sending him flying. Naruto was going to be severely scolded for that – the rasenshuriken, although delightfully destructive and virtually impossible to counter, had an awful tendency to mutilate the user’s own chakra pathways, and Kurama was getting frankly tired of having to meticulously heal a decent sixth of Naruto’s entire chakra network over and over again. It was fiddly work, and he was constantly afraid he’d make a mistake and completely ruin Naruto’s ability to mould chakra with his right hand and arm.

The stitches keeping Hidan’s head attached to his body came undone, and his head went rolling off into the grassy verge on the side of the road while his body collapsed.

Kurama had heard about Hidan’s ability to survive decapitation second-hand through Matatabi as they rushed here to reinforce Team Asuma, but seeing it was something else entirely. All his fur puffed up to stand on end as a crawling sensation of utter revulsion rippled over his skin, like the tiny itchy legs of a thousand itchy bugs.

“You’re a freak!” the little fox shrieked at the decapitated but still blinking, snarling head that was spitting vitriol at them.

Hidan’s head attempted to hoick a globule of spittle at him.

Kurama backed up to a safe distance and climbed onto Naruto’s shoulder.

After Kakuzu was forced to release Izumo and Kotetsu, he scooped up as much of Hidan’s body as he could, tossed it over his shoulder, grabbed Hidan’s head with his other hand, and beat a hasty retreat.

For the members of Team Asuma and the reinforcements from Konoha, it was now a matter of triage. Shikamaru and Yugito were suffering chakra exhaustion. Yugito was also injured, though she would heal faster than a normal human thanks to Matatabi, who sat discreetly on her shoulder in the form of a fluffy grey ninneko. Kotetsu and Izumo were bruised and battered but could stand on their own.

Asuma was in a bad way, coughing up blood and bleeding heavily from his shattered leg.

“A punctured lung is always serious,” Sakura said, as Sasuke and Raidou hastily assembled a makeshift stretcher from the materials on hand while she and Ino applied a tourniquet to Asuma’s leg. “But I saw the trajectory of that scythe, and as a physician I would prefer to deal with a punctured lung than a perforated intestine any day.”

Ino, who had also studied under Tsunade, echoed that sentiment whole-heartedly. Something about gut bacteria and the bloodstream.

They stabilised Asuma as best they could in the field, gave him some emergency painkillers, then hurried back to Konoha, trying not to jostle him too much on his stretcher.

Half out of his mind on pain medication, Asuma was utterly incorrigible. “Can someone hand me my lighter and my box of cigarettes?” he asked, pleadingly. “I need a smoke.”

“Asuma-sensei, I don’t know how to tell you this nicely, but you’re an idiot. Your right lung is literally full of blood and bone shards and you want to inhale an irritant? Do you want to die? You will kindly wait until after you’ve had surgery, thank you!” Sakura snapped at him, in a very convincing imitation of Tsunade.

“If I’m dying, I want to have one last cigarette.”

Sakura rolled her eyes heavenward. “I didn’t say you were actively dying right now. I asked you if you wanted to kill yourself. Because you are not fatally wounded. Badly? Yes. Fatally? No.”

“I can see the Pure Lands when I open my eyes,” Asuma replied to her, dazedly. “Are you certain?”

Shikamaru, who was being helped along by Chouji, looked up. “It’s just overcast, Asuma-sensei. You’re looking at cloud cover.”

“If I’m dying, there’s something I need to say to you, Ino, Shikamaru, Chouji. Come here and listen to your old sensei for a moment.”

“For the last time, you aren’t dying!” Sakura growled.

Asuma ignored her.

Asuma’s ostensible last words had something to do with shougi pieces and children. The analogy went over Kurama’s head. Then Sakura got fed up and used medical chakra to force him to sleep, because she was getting annoyed with his dramatics, and the rest of their return trip to Konoha was actually quite peaceful.

Somewhere not too far away, Jiraiya, Kakashi, and Yamato were having a much less peaceful return to Konoha.

Jiraiya had so far attempted to leave for Amegakure four times in an attempt to retrieve valuable intelligence on the Ame Orphans he’d left behind there, who had later gone on to found the Akatsuki, to his consternation and despair.

The first time had been just after he’d left Naruto in Kakashi’s care with a stern warning for him not to use Kyuubi chakra unsupervised by Kakashi, and away from the village. He knew Naruto trusted the Kyuubi with his life, and the Kyuubi claimed to be a pacifist now, but Jiraiya was an older, wiser shinobi than Minato’s child and had seen the havoc that beast could wreak. He’d been nearing the border of the Land of Rain when he felt the choking roil of Kyuubi chakra coming from nearby, somewhere in the Land of Rivers, and he’d turned around to go back to Konoha to shout at the kid for being an idiot and Kakashi for letting him be an idiot.

On the other hand, he did get to sit in on the interrogation of Sasori of the Red Sand, so coming back was a good thing.

The second time, he’d at least gotten over the border between the Land of Fire and the Land of Rain before he was called back by one of Tsunade’s slugs because his idiot godson’s idiot ninkitsune had killed Shimura Danzou and in the process uprooted ROOT, which had still been operating under all of their noses. Jiraiya, as Konoha’s spymaster, was obliged to return to help sort through the mass of information they had discovered because Danzou, it seemed, had been the root cause of many problems and the solution to many others. He’d even been working on and off with Orochimaru.

The third time, he’d set out a week or so after Team Kakashi set out to retrieve Uchiha Itachi – something Jiraiya was not at all confident in them accomplishing – after finally getting most of Danzou’s movements and machinations in order. He was called back a few days later because Team Kakashi were successful, and arrived back in time to debrief him personally, since he was the most credible source of information they had on the Akatsuki so far.

The fourth time, he went to Tsunade and requested to take Kakashi and Yamato with him. Most of the trouble back in Konoha came back to Team Kakashi in one way or another, and if they were grounded or kept to missions close to the village because he’d absconded with the team captains then surely they couldn’t get into too much mischief.

Right?

Jiraiya was wrong.

This time they were summoned back to Konoha by one of Tsunade’s slugs, having been told that Tsunade had despatched Konoha’s jinchuuriki and the remainder of Team Kakashi along with a couple of chuunin from Team Asuma on an intercept mission involving another country’s jinchuuriki and Hidan and Kakuzu, and if they could come back because Tsunade wanted Jiraiya to debrief the Kumo jinchuuriki and Kakashi and Yamato to go after Kakuzu and Hidan to put them down for good.

Frantic with worry, all three of them turned around and bolted back to Konoha.

 

lxxxi.

Being in hospital was boring.

Boredom, Kurama had discovered a very long time ago, was the very cruellest punishment he could possibly inflict.

Usually Naruto didn’t have to spend much time hospitalised because Kurama healed anything that might be life-threatening immediately. However, Kurama disapproved of the rasenshuriken out of principle. His kit was being weaselly about promising not to use it in battle, though.

But if Naruto was going to use what was essentially a kinjutsu and shred his own chakra pathways on a regular basis, then he could spend time in hospital letting it heal the regular slow way under the close watch of the med-nins. Kurama would not encourage self-destructive tendencies – the rasenshuriken should be held in reserve for absolute emergencies and not thrown around every chance he got.

A fair enough consequence, Kurama thought.

Of course, Naruto was a trouble patient and didn’t tend to stick to his bed or even his ward, so here they were, wandering around the hospital just after dawn, Kurama padding along at Naruto’s heel. Naruto’s arm was wrapped from his fingers to his shoulder in thick bandages. His kit had been admitted yesterday evening with the rest of the casualties from the group that had faced Hidan and Kakuzu of the Akatsuki, and he was wearing nothing but a hospital gown, boxers, and a pair of hospital slippers. Despite his change of attire he was stealthier than ever, which was how he’d snuck out from beneath the watchful eye of the very strict nurse who had been assigned to his ward.

Kurama and Naruto peeked into Asuma’s hospital room then made themselves scarce.

Sarutobi Asuma was going to survive, though it would take him some time to get back on his feet after that nasty compound fracture to his femur. He would also never be as classically dashing as he once was. Third degree burns to the face had a way of doing that to a person. Yuuhi Kurenai, former sensei of Team Eight, now leader of Team Kurenai, which included Kiba, Hinata, and Shino, didn’t seem to mind.

She was sitting in one of the uncomfortable hospital chairs beside Asuma’s bed, her fingers tangled in his, her head resting on his bed as she slept, and he watched her quietly with an emotion Kurama did not recognise in his eyes, but might have been besotted adoration.

Ugh. Human feelings.

Neither Kurama nor Naruto really knew how to deal with deeply moving scenes, so they deemed it prudent to go bother someone else and went to visit Nii Yugito. She was on the secure ward one floor up, incidentally four doors along from Itachi. Naruto could get in to anywhere, however, and not technically being allowed in one place or another had never deterred him before, something which had frustrated head of the TI department, the ANBU Commander, the Hokage, and Umino Iruka almost equally.

Yugito was awake and alert when they entered her room, Matatabi the ninneko curled on the end of her bed in a ball of fluffy bluish-grey fur, mismatched eyes observing the world warily.

“Hello!” Naruto said cheerfully, closing the door behind himself. “We met yesterday but I didn’t get to introduce myself. I’m Uzumaki Naruto, and I’m going to be Hokage one day, believe it! And this is my ninkitsune, Kurama!”

Nii Yugito observed them for a long moment. “I am Nii Yugito. I’m pleased to meet you, Uzumaki Naruto, Kurama. Kurama, you look… older than I had expected.”

Matatabi observed Kurama coolly. “Ani-ue,” she greeted him with all the mild cordiality and politeness of a cat that could be seconds away from eviscerating someone, because cats were like that. Kurama preferred dogs. Dogs were more honest. “You look like you’re on your way to meet the Shinigami.”

Kurama inclined his head. “My cute little imouto-chan,” he replied, with a foxy grin. “I am very glad you’re still with us.”

Matatabi’s expression turned flat, her ears flicking back and her tail twitching warningly. “Don’t test me, Kurama.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it, Matatabi.”

She regarded him for a long, long moment with the unblinking stare only another cat could match. “You really are very different,” she decided, at last, echoing an earlier sentiment shared in the Seishin Sekai. “More bluster. Less bite. Your hatred is gone, like it was never there.”

“No great loss.” Kurama sat back on his haunches to shrug, then hopped up onto the foot of Nii Yugito’s bed to curl up next to her, tucking his tail tidily under his forepaws.

“That wasn’t what you were spouting the last time we met face-to-face, two centuries ago.”

Kurama sighed and flopped onto his side. “Yes, well. We bijuu might be eternal, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not static. An old fox can learn new tricks, and holding on to old hate was taking me nowhere.”

“Except getting yourself more deeply entrenched in that hole you dug for yourself,” Matatabi said smugly. “I have to say, I didn’t think you would be the first of us to achieve harmony with your jinchuuriki. I admit I didn’t think it was possible at all. I mean, I knew Gyuuki was getting close with the Raikage’s brother, but I fancied it might’ve been chance more than anything. Yet here you are. And here’s your human.”

“Hi,” Naruto said, waving at the cat. “It’s so cool to see you in person, Matatabi! Your fur looks real soft. Can I pet you?”

Matatabi cast a disbelieving glance at Kurama.

“Naruto,” Nii Yugito said, sounding just as disbelieving. “You realise that is an avatar of the Nibi, right? Not a house cat, or even a normal ninneko.”

Naruto pouted at her. “Well, yeah. That’s why I asked, you know.”

That was where Jiraiya found them, about the time the nurses started coming around with breakfast for the patients. The med-nin who’d discovered Naruto in Yugito’s room had sighed and gone off to tell someone that Naruto had been found, safe and in one piece, and they were sharing breakfast and discussing differences in their training as jinchuuriki.

Nii Yugito had Matatabi sealed within her when she was a toddler and underwent rigorous and forced training for years to keep her bijuu under control.

Naruto found this puzzling.

Naruto had Kurama sealed within him when he was a scant few hours old, and there had been a law in place that prevented anyone from telling him he was the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki. If Kurama hadn’t told him, then he wouldn’t’ve known until that traitor Mizuki told him when he was twelve.

He’d had no training whatsoever.

He didn’t even know what jinchuuriki training was.

Yugito seemed to find this something somewhere between baffling and utterly terrifying.

“You unsealed the Kyuubi when you were eight?” she asked, sounding just a little hysterical.

“Well, yeah. I didn’t see a reason to keep him locked up all the time. That’s just mean, you know.”

“It is,” Matatabi said, pointedly. She had migrated onto Naruto’s lap, and Kurama was trying very hard not to feel jealous of the way Naruto was scratching behind her ears. Kurama didn’t want his ears scratched like that. No he did not.

“Killer B isn’t going to believe you. I hardly do. You don’t just – make friends with the bijuu sealed in your gut,” Yugito muttered to herself.

“’Course you do,” Naruto said, cheerfully. “I did it. Or did Kurama make friends with me? I dunno. He’s my best friend now, though. Believe it! And Gaara, he’s Kazekage now, isn’t that amazing? Gaara, he has Shukaku, he did it, too. Shukaku’s an asshole, but he’s Kurama’s otouto, so I like him.”

“I still don’t believe the Nibi didn’t outright kill me when I loosened the seal against those Akatsuki monsters,” Yugito replied. “I thought it was a ploy to kill me, but I didn’t have a choice.”

Matatabi sniffed. “Killing you at this stage would be counter-productive. Why must you humans always assume the worst of us? And it worked, didn’t it? We’re both still here.”

Kurama cocked his head, for he could hear the clatter of sandals of someone running in the hall. Jiraiya burst into the room. He was all dusty, he had twigs and leaves in his hair, and he was panting.

“Quick!” Naruto said. “It’s Ero-Sennin! Hide under your sheets. He’s a super pervert!” He paused. “Eh? Ero-Sennin. I thought you were going to Ame. What’re you doing back here so soon? Oh! Does that mean Kakashi-nii is back?”

Jiraiya was leaning bonelessly, and wordlessly, against the doorjamb, now, trying to catch his breath. Eventually he composed himself.

“Why are you in hospital, Naruto?” he asked, slowly.

Naruto’s expression became one of childish petulance as he hunched his shoulders and crossed his arms as best he could with his right arm so heavily bandaged. “Because I used the rasenshuriken and I didn’t need to, the situation wasn’t ‘dire enough’ apparently, so Kyuubi’s being mean and making me heal the slow way so I can ‘learn the consequences of my actions’ and baa-chan backed him up and won’t heal me or let Sakura-chan heal me either and I’m so bored.”

“He was admitted last night,” Kurama said, helpfully.

“But!” Naruto brightened. “I got Hidan so good his head fell off!”

 

lxxxii.

Shikamaru was a genius.

There was a saying. No plan survived first contact with the enemy. No plan of Naruto and Kurama’s ever did, that was for certain. But Shikamaru had plans and backup plans and backup plans of his backup plans, and he ran through each of them with his assembled team with great care.

Kurama didn’t have trouble memorising and running through various scenarios in his mind. He did, after all, have a very vast mind that was not limited to the confines of a tiny squishy flesh body.

“You,” Kurama said to Shikamaru, after he’d finished running them through the fourth backup plan for their confrontation with the Akatsuki. “Are absolutely the smartest human I have ever met in my entire life. Sorry Kakashi-nii, I know you were a prodigy, but you weren’t even smart enough to know when to pretend not to be.”

“No offense taken,” Kakashi said, mildly.

“Are you capable of remembering your role on the team?” Shikamaru asked Kurama.

Kurama flicked his ears backwards in annoyance. “I rescind my previous comment, you’re an idiot. Of course I can remember my role, who do you think I am?”

“Naruto’s partner in crime,” Shikamaru replied.

Oh. “Fair enough,” Kurama conceded. “But it’s not like we’re the same person! Just because I’m his ninkitsune and usually get dragged into whatever nonsense he’s run headlong into doesn’t mean I’m incapable of forethought.”

Kakashi made a muffled noise that might’ve been a snort of amusement.

“What?” Kurama demanded.

Kakashi lifted his hands and eye-smiled placatingly. “I didn’t say anything.”

Ah, the familiar ribbing was back. Kakashi must have finally recovered from his fright when he realised Kurama and the Kyuubi were one and the same. It was about time.

They laid their traps. Kurama showed them all the nullifying seal for Hidan’s ritual circle one last time and had them all draw it as quickly as they could in case things went south and he was taken out of action for some reason, though that was highly unlikely. Then Kakashi, Kurama, and the Ino-Shika-Cho trio set out towards the last known location of Hidan and Kakuzu – the bounty station. The second team, captained by Yamato, and consisting of Sasuke, Sakura, and Sai, would follow at a discreet distance and swap out with Kakashi’s team if things looked dire, or they needed to implement one of the backup plans. For the initial confrontation, however, Shikamaru wanted fewer players on the field of battle, mostly to provide Hidan with as few potential victims to his false god as possible.

There had been rain since they were last at the bounty station, which made picking up Kakuzu and Hidan’s trail difficult. Kurama had an extremely keen nose, and a keener sense of negative emotions. The faintest of whiffs of the smell of Kakuzu – who had smelled particularly peculiar, and not at all like normal flesh-and-blood – pointed them into a swath of huge dead trees.

Ino took control of a hawk to scout and narrowed down their search area further, and they bounded off between the massive trunks of the towering dead trees, harsh afternoon sunlight glaring down upon them with no canopy to mute it.

It was strange to deliberately go towards a fight without Naruto at his side. It had been a few scant years, and Kurama was millennia old, but somehow his kit had become something a bit like gravity, or a limb. Kurama felt weirdly off-balance without him, and wondered how he could possibly have existed before Naruto was there. What strange half-life had he lived?

Hidan wasn’t looking so good, when they caught up to the two Akatsuki members. Naruto’s rasenshuriken had done a real number on him, and as a result he was moving at a sort of lopsided shuffle. His head was back in place, his hitai-ate tied about his neck to hide the thick, ugly stitches keeping it there. His left arm had obviously been badly broken, and had not healed correctly, nor had his equally damaged leg. His face was twisted up in a grimace, and Kurama wondered if he’d forgotten what lasting pain felt like.

Shikamaru and Kakashi slipped forward to proceed with their first plan of attack.

Kurama hung back.

His task was essentially the same in all Shikamaru’s plans. Counter Hidan’s ritual circle if it was required, and otherwise act as a diversion. Kurama was small, incredibly annoying when he tried to be, and as hard to kill as a particularly stubborn weed. This made him perfect to duck in and bite at hamstrings and calcaneal tendons to hamper the movements of enemy shinobi, or draw their attention at critical moments by riling them up or throwing flashy or fiery jutsu at them.

Otherwise, he was to lay low, circling around the battle and keeping an eye on his teammates, ready to intervene to give one person time to regroup, or draw away an attack that might otherwise be devastating to another.

Now, they had intended to kill Kakuzu first before focusing on the functionally immortal Hidan. Going after Hidan first didn’t work as well when Kakuzu could use that freaky thread jutsu of his to stitch Hidan back up and stick him right back on the battlefield. This, however, proved to be less straightforward than anticipated because Kakuzu was also functionally immortal, albeit in a different and significantly creepier way.

If Kurama never saw another earth worm, it would be far too soon.

The little fox promptly found himself quite busy distraction Kakuzu’s heart-masks, which could throw around truly devastating combination attacks, to the soundtrack of Hidan’s delighted whoops and howls and occasional yelps as he tripped over his own mangled leg.

Finally, the two sides broke apart for a moment and Kakashi passed something to Shikamaru, who pocketed it, caught Hidan in his shadow, and drew him away from the field of battle.

That would deal with another of Kakuzu’s hearts.

“Shouldn’t someone go with him?” Kakuzu asked. “You’re underestimating Hidan. A shame. That Shikamaru kid, or whatever his name was, might’ve grown up to have a decent bounty on his head one day… Oh, well. He’s dead now, and your decision was the right one.” Black tendrils erupted from one of the seams of his arms. “I’m powerful.”

Kurama snorted at this point, drawing Kakuzu’s flat green gaze to himself. Kakuzu narrowed his eyes. “Sorry,” Kurama said. “Do go on. I just have trouble taking people seriously when they go on about how great they are. Makes it hard for me to believe you, if you have to give yourself constant affirmation like that.”

Kakashi groaned. “Shut up, Kurama.”

“Yes, shut up, impertinent little fox.”

Kurama said nothing, because he was a good fox and was shutting up like they asked him to.

“I would take your heart,” Kakuzu said to him. “But I couldn’t use it. So I’ll content myself with crushing it between my fingers instead.” He paused. “There is a great difference in battle experience between you Konoha children, you Konoha animals, and myself. Looking at your hitai-ate reminds me of the very first shinobi of Konoha that I fought… the Shodai Hokage, that is.”

He’d been stealing hearts to prolong his own life for a long time, then.

Also boasting for a very long time. How unattractive.

Not that the worm-chakra-threads thing wasn’t also unattractive, in Kurama’s personal opinion.

“So you’re really immortal, too, then?” Kurama asked.

“No. Something like that does not exist in this world.”

“Semantics,” the little fox argued. “If you keep with the heart stealing you’ll keep on living until someone kills all your hearts in one go or you off yourself out of despair, which is close enough to immortal for it to count to me. But, tell me honestly, don’t you get bored? Or tired of it all?”

Kakuzu paused. “I only care about money,” he answered, at length.

Kurama tilted his head. “What’s money get you, though? I mean, apart from using it to barter for food and shelter, the ability to mate with certain people in the right parts of town, and paying people to do stuff you don’t want to, what use does money have? And is something so meaningless to a shinobi as monetary reward really worth extending your life indefinitely and condemning yourself to interminable tedium? You know you can just take what you want, right? You’re an S-Rank nuke-nin. No one’s going to stop you if you roll in and rob a casino or two for everything they have.”

Kakuzu was frowning, deeply. “You are a forest creature with no concept of human values,” he said, at length, and then toppled over, clutching his chest.

“Ah,” Kakashi said. “Shikamaru was successful. Kurama, why don’t you go check on him? You’re the fastest.”

Only a rabbit could outrun a fox, and not always. Foxes were excellent at running. “Sure, Kakashi-nii!” Kurama chirped, and bounded off, hot on Shikamaru and Hidan’s scent.

He found them deep within the Nara forest, where Shikamaru had Hidan tied up in ninja wire rigged with explosive tags over a deep pit trap. He looked exhausted, and he was leaning against one of the Nara deer to stay upright, but he was otherwise unharmed.

“Well, I see you didn’t need backup,” Kurama observed, padding across the mossy ground to join them. “Hello, heathen.”

“My name is Hidan, and you’re the heathen, you atheist!” Hidan shrieked impotently, not even able to wriggle lest he trigger one of the explosive tags and blow himself to little pieces. He must’ve had at least a little bit of a sense of self-preservation.

“Shikamaru, do you mind holding off on the rest of the plan for a little while? I want to have a word with our captive,” Kurama said.

Shikamaru shrugged. “Just don’t do anything troublesome, like let him go. I’m going to lie down for a moment, if you don’t mind.” He promptly dropped down onto the ground at the feet of the deer and flopped onto his back with an aggrieved sigh. “This whole thing has been troublesome,” he said, to no one in particular, or perhaps his deer friend. Kurama wasn’t sure.

“Do whatever you like,” the little fox said. “Now, Hidan, while you’re stuck there I would like to talk to you about religion, the importance of respecting all life, even that of your fellow human beings, and ninshuu, the philosophy of the Sage of Six Paths as it was told to me by the Kyuubi no kitsune. I’m sure you’ll find it very interesting.”

Hidan screamed.

Chapter Text

lxxxiii.

Kurama wasn’t there to see it, but Kakuzu was apparently killed in a beautiful combination of attacks between Sasuke, Sakura, and Sai, overwhelmed by Sakura’s sheer physical strength, Sasuke’s combination of lightning and fire jutsus that were complimented extremely well by his kenjutsu, and Sai’s incredibly distracting ink animals. Hidan, meek as a kitten, only put up a token resistance when Kurama slapped an advanced and semi-permanent chakra suppression seal onto his belly, and was led as docilely as to be expected down into the bowels of the TI department to be tossed into a cell next to Sasori and thoroughly interrogated and examined at a later date.

Perhaps because Matatabi was his sibling, or perhaps because they didn’t like foxes, Kurama had never found any sort of cat meek, not even the baby ones, which were all spitting and hissing and tiny hooks for claws.

It was all very successful, really, and the Akatsuki suppression teams headed back to Konoha in good spirits, if some of them were a little bruised, battered, and tired. Kurama almost went to visit Naruto, but abruptly decided – inconveniently once he’d reached the doorway to Naruto’s room – that he didn’t actually want to stay another night in hospital with his kit because Naruto was in a bit of a snit about missing out on the fight because of his arm.

Naruto and Jiraiya had their heads together over a series of hastily scribbled diagrams on various scraps of paper, and he didn’t want to interrupt their brainstorming session too much, anyway. Jiraiya was, after all, technically a genius in his own right. There was a very good chance he would be able to help Naruto iron out the kinks in the rasenshuriken where Kakashi and Yamato could not.

He turned and left them to it.

Kurama met Uzumaki Karin in the hallway, being shown around by Shizune.

“Good afternoon, Karin-nee-chan,” he greeted her, pleasantly surprised to see her. “Have you come to see Naruto?”

Karin shook her head. “I was – I was thinking of learning some medical ninjutsu. I mean… I already know some, but I’d like to be better!”

Kurama smiled at her, wagging his tail. “You should speak to Sakura-chan, or Ino. They know a lot about medical ninjutsu! They learnt under Tsunade-baa-chan, after all. I’m sure you’ll do great!”

“I hope so,” Karin said. “If I’m going to stay here, I feel like I should try to be useful.”

“You’re Naruto’s cousin. The Shodaime’s wife, who was Tsunade-baa-chan’s grandmother, was an Uzumaki, and one of the founding members of the village., The Yondaime also married an Uzumaki. There will always be a place for Uzumakis in Konoha. You don’t have to be useful to earn your place here. But it’s good to keep busy, and healing is a noble cause. Naruto will never be able to do it, he’d kill someone by accident, not enough chakra control, and Kyuubi chakra, which is all mixed up with his, has a nasty tendency of burning people, though I think he’d love it if he could help people like that,” Kurama paused, considered his next words. “Make sure you have a decent foundation in taijutsu and at least some ninjutsu. Med-nins are valuable resources in wartime and are often targeted because of it.”

“I know,” Karin said, softly.

She felt like aching hollow misery.

“If you want a strong foundation in taijutsu, I suggest you ask Gai-sensei for help. I warn you now, though… He’s eccentric. And if you find healing isn’t for you, or you want to augment it, you can always ask Naruto to show you some seals. The Uzumaki have long been known for their fuuinjutsu like the Hyuuga and Uchiha are known for their doujutsu, the Inuzuka for collaborating with ninken, the Aburame for their kikaichuu, the Nara for their laziness and genius as well as their shadow jutsus, the Yamanaka for their mastery of the human mind, and the Akimichi for their cooking and ability to manipulate their own size. You might be quite good at it!”

Karin still felt sad, but she smiled at him. “I’ll think about that. Thank you, Kurama. I better go catch up to Shizune-sensei.”

She hurried off.

Kurama watched her go, feeling fond.

Everyone was at the hospital today, because he’d hardly darted around the corner in the hallway when he almost ran into Sasuke’s legs. Sasuke was carrying a box of something that smelled delicious and sweet. Dango. Ah, but Sasuke hated sweet food, so he must be visiting his brother. The nervous buzz coming from him, which felt like little a restless twitchiness that made Kurama want to bolt, only confirmed his theory, because who else could Sasuke be visiting in hospital that he was afraid of seeing one-on-one?

Sasuke pulled up sharply to stand in the middle of the corridor in front of the little fox, a blank expression on his face that belied his tenseness.

“Hi, Sasuke,” Kurama said, cheerfully. “Here to see Itachi-nii? He’s been asking after you.”

Sasuke shifted from one foot to the other and grunted what might have been an affirmation, but didn’t say anything.

Oh, his anxiety must’ve been bad, if he’d regressed all the way back to grunting when asked direct questions.

“Use your words, kit,” Kurama chided him gently, stepping closer to bump his bony little shoulder against Sasuke’s shin. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, and I’m not fluent the Uchiha language of wordless sounds.”

A soft snort. “I thought you could read minds.”

“Ugh.” Kurama wrinkled up his muzzle. “Come on, I’ll walk you to Itachi-nii’s room.” When the little fox turned on a paw and headed toward the stairwell, he was pleased that Sasuke fell in beside him. “Could you imagine how horrible that would be, though? Hearing everyone’s unfiltered thoughts all the time, from all quarters? All the awful things people think about each other and themselves? I can feel negative emotions, and that’s it, which is already more than I’d like. People feel too much. It’s overwhelming.”

“Ah,” Sasuke said, and no more until they were on the secure floor, passing the ANBU operative sitting at the nurse’s station with an inclination of their heads. “Nii-san is getting out of hospital in a few days. Tsunade-sama thinks his condition has stabilised enough to move to weekly treatments.”

“That’s good, isn’t it?” Kurama asked.

Sasuke looked at him. “Yes,” he said, hesitantly.

“I feel like you don’t agree,” Kurama observed.

Sasuke huffed, and stopped walking in the middle of the hallway. “I just – I don’t know what to do, Kurama. I thought I would be happy. I’m finally back in Konoha, we did it. Nii-san’s home, and he was never a traitor, and he was only doing what he had to, if it wasn’t him it would’ve been someone else, but…”

But in a single evening, Sasuke’s whole world had been destroyed. Everything he thought he knew was suddenly gone, stolen away from him by the person he trusted the most, leaving him just another traumatised orphan in a shinobi village, which by its very definition already had more than the normal percentage of traumatised orphans.

Kurama hooked his claws into Sasuke’s trousers and crawled up his clothes to sit on his shoulder, pressing his flank against the human kit’s cheek and ear.

“I won’t say it’s alright,” Kurama said. “Because it isn’t. But there is the possibility that it could be, because neither of you have done anything stupid and you’re both still alive and here. Now, I want you to remember something. I want you to remember what you felt like three years ago, when you were about twelve or thirteen.”

Sasuke grimaced. “I was an idiot,” he said, immediately. “Everything I thought about everything and everyone was all wrong. I can’t believe you didn’t just squish me and be done with it. It would’ve been easier than dealing with… that.”

Kurama huffed in amusement. “You’re forgetting that I raised Naruto. I would like to think my tolerance for the nonsense of juvenile humans is quite high.”

“Astronomical, maybe,” Sasuke muttered.

“Maybe,” Kurama conceded. “Now, Sasuke, I want you to recall that that that night, Itachi-nii was also thirteen years old. He might be a genius, but every single human I have ever had the displeasure of knowing has been an idiot when they were thirteen, because thirteen-year-old children do not have the necessary perspective to make rational choices. Even the geniuses.” He thought about that for a moment, recalling the Minato-brat, and sullen, isolated little Kakashi. “Especially the geniuses, because someone who is a genius in one field may be lacking in others.”

Sasuke turned his head to look at him. “You just thought about Kakashi-sensei, didn’t you?”

“Never. And even if I did, I wouldn’t say. Though it wouldn’t be untrue to suggest that rule applied to Kakashi-nii particularly when he was younger. Honestly. Anyway, do you want me to come with you to see your brother, or will you be alright by yourself?”

Sasuke considered. “I think I need to do this myself,” he decided.

Kurama licked him from his nose to his forehead, making his squawk indignantly. “Go on, then. He’s not that scary, I promise. You should see the glasses baa-chan got for him, they’re hilarious – green is not Itachi-nii’s colour at all. Maybe you can help him pick out a nicer pair when he gets out?”

He hopped nimbly off Sasuke’s shoulder.

Sasuke smiled at him. “Thanks, Kurama,” he said, softly, before turning, taking a deep breath, and continuing down the hall by himself, his anxiety nothing but a faint murmur in Kurama’s ears now, more like the hum of a heartbeat than something that made him want to claw his own skin off.

Kurama meandered out of the hospital back towards Naruto’s apartment feeling content and pleasantly sleepy. He thought he might take a nap.

 

lxxxiv.

Kurama was firmly of the opinion that the beauty of human beings was their transience, and their knowledge of the fact that their lives were limited was what made them so wonderfully, adorably human. It was the uppity little humans that shook off their humanity in their quest to be something more, something greater, that both disgusted and perplexed him.

Kurama had encountered more monsters in human skin than usual, recently.

Orochimaru, who in his search for eternal life became less than human and closer to a parasitic worm than anything.

Sasori, who was so afraid to die he’d turned himself into a puppet.

Hidan, who was left with nothing but bloodlust, fury, and delusion.

Kakuzu, who stole and stole and stole and couldn’t even remember what he wanted anymore.

Did Tobi the false Madara count? Kurama couldn’t decide. On the one hand, he was a fraud. On the other, he was a faceless, nameless shinobi using the long shadows Uchiha Madara had cast across history for his own means…

Shimura Danzou. Izanagi and the Sharingan-Mokuton arm.

And finally Hiruko, who had the same name as Sasori’s infamous puppet, who was a contemporary of the Sannin, who was stealing and absorbing kekkei genkai, who had already assimilated four kekkei genkai from shinobi from Iwa, Kuma, Kiri, and Suna. Hiruko, who had been so bold as to pick Kakashi and his Sharingan as one of his victims, placing a puppet curse seal on him several years prior, before Naruto was even born, and before he was chased out of Konoha by the same Sannin he was so envious of.

Hiruko, who had been going to take Kakashi’s life to steal his Sharingan.

Kakashi didn’t seem to realise just how precious he was, because he was willing to sacrifice himself to remove the threat of Hiruko at the same time. The political situation was delicate enough as it was, what with the Akatsuki marauding around the place attacking everyone, so he did what he thought was best for the village.

Naruto disagreed. Sakura disagreed. Sasuke disagreed. Kurama disagreed, vehemently. Sai went along with them because he was reading a book that suggested he should, though Kurama thought he probably disagreed to Kakashi’s brand of self-sacrificing idiocy at least in theory, also.

They might have disobeyed a direct order from the Hokage not to go after Kakashi, sparking a massive pursuit led by Shikamaru and consisting teams Asuma, Gai, and Kurenai – sans Asuma who was still in hospital, Gai who had to go to the battle lines being hastily drawn up at the border, and Kurenai who was mysteriously pregnant and was remaining in Konoha.

Kurama didn’t want to know how she became that way.

It was none of his business.

Hiruko did not attain a Sharingan. He did get a rasenshuriken to the face, however, and Kurama was furious enough that he considered it a completely justified use of a kinjutsu and promptly healed the damage Naruto did to his own arm.

Regardless of the fact they were successful, they all returned to Konoha a little shaken. Kurama knew that Naruto at least, and probably Sakura and Sasuke to some extent as well, were having trouble reconciling the Kakashi who would walk willingly to his own death for the good of the village with their seemingly indomitable sensei. Sure, Kakashi wore himself to chakra exhaustion more than anyone else they knew, but they had not truly witnessed his preparedness to lay down and die for them before.

Kurama understood, though.

Kurama remembered hushed conversations between Minato and Kushina about a thirteen-year-old boy who’d lost his team now lost to the darkness of ANBU.

Kurama remembered the youth in the hound mask who carried a crushing grief and the sharp edge of fear who was occasionally on Naruto’s guard when Kurama’s kit was an infant, the youth in the hound mask who was so afraid he never ventured too near, unlike some of the other animal masks did. He never played with the baby when he thought he could get away with it, never told him a story when Naruto was awake in the middle of the night or brought him treats behind his orphanage caretakers’ backs.

Kurama knew that the fragile, broken boy who’d lost his teammates and his sensei within a few scant months of each other, whose father had killed himself when he was a child, who had no one left but a child he was forbidden to interact with, who had gone on to become their jounin-sensei was still there – just hiding behind another mask.

A mask that had slipped on this day, letting everyone else see, too.

So they headed back to Konoha, and they tried to joke and tussle playfully, as shinobi are wont to do when coming down from the adrenaline high of a close call, but there was an undertone of tension and concern to all of their interactions that made it feel like Kurama had a large stone sitting on his ribcage, making it hard to draw breath.

As a means of distracting himself, the little fox fell in beside Shikamaru as they went, because he was curious about something Shikamaru had said.

“So, if Konohagakure no Sato is a part of a shougi board,” Kurama said. “Then the children are the king, right? Because in shougi you protect the king, or you lose. Pick me up, I’m old and tired.”

“You’re so troublesome,” Shikamaru grumbled, but obligingly lifted Kurama up and let him settle on his shoulder. “I don’t know why Naruto keeps you around. And yes, the children are the king.”

“You know that as long as there are still a handful of adults left, they can breed and make new children?”

Shikamaru looked at him with disgust.

Kurama wrinkled his muzzle, showing off his canine teeth. “Don’t give me that look. I don’t relish the idea any more than you do, but I thought I’d just point that out. Suppose a meteor dropped on Konoha tomorrow, and all that was left were the shinobi out on field assignments? I’m not saying it would be easy, but I am saying that it wouldn’t be the end of everything. Humans have an odd ability to recover from the most horrific tragedies imaginable.” Kurama knew this because he’d knocked over enough settlements then come back thirty or fifty or seventy years later to discover that the people had rebuilt after the tsunamis and landslides and earthquakes he had set upon them. “Humans are a bit like rabbits. They mate a lot. I think that’s partly why the Warring States Era went on so long. Sure, every side was sustaining massive losses, but they made up for it by popping out kids like there wasn’t going to be a tomorrow.”

“I feel like you do not fundamentally understand the human psyche,” Shikamaru told him.

“Eh,” Kurama said, unrepentant. He wasn’t a human, and he was never going to be one. “So, the king is the children, because the children are the future. What piece is the Hokage?”

Shikamaru considered. “The rook,” he decided. “And the bishop is the jinchuuriki.”

“Uh huh, even though Naruto’s a genin,” Kurama nodded. “On that note, genin?”

“Are they career genin, or newly-promoted genin?” Shikamaru asked.

“I suppose you’ve made a distinction.”

Shikamaru gave a single, brief nod. Kurama didn’t ask what the distinction was, because he felt he could guess with reasonable accuracy.

“What am I?” Kurama asked.

“I don’t know,” Shikamaru said. “I would say you were a pawn, because you’re just a ninkitsune, and your presence in any given location at any given time hinges on whether or not Naruto will be there. But you don’t behave in a logical manner. I cannot predict your moves, and even today I am uncertain precisely what you’re capable of. It’s incredibly troublesome. If you were more like Akamaru, I’d know better how to place you.”

“So, Akamaru would be a pawn?”

Shikamaru gave him a sharp look. “Answering that would be too troublesome. Kiba is within earshot.”

“Do you want know what I think?” Kurama asked.

“I think you’ll tell me regardless of whether I want to hear it or not,” Shikamaru said.

“I think I prefer Go to shougi. It makes more sense. All the pieces hold the same inherent value, just like all life, and you don’t have to keep track of what piece can move where. Shougi is too confusing for an old fox like me.”

“You realise that most people consider Go a much more difficult game to master than shougi, don’t you?” Shikamaru asked. “They say you can devote a thousand years to it and still not truly understand all of the intricacies of the game.”

“Really?” Kurama asked, deadpan. Truth be told, he had once spent a couple of centuries deep in the forest, playing Go with Kokuou. That had been before he really descended into the madness of hatred, but after he abandoned the temple the Sage of Six Paths asked him to tend.

“You remain a walking contradiction.” Shikamaru sighed. “Why do you have to be so troublesome,” he muttered again, but to himself.

Kurama really wasn’t a contradiction – provided one had all the requisite information to understand him. Like the fact he was a bijuu in disguise. He felt he made perfect sense.

He sighed, too, then crawled into the collar of Shikamaru’s flak jacket to go to sleep.

They made it back to Konoha without incident.

Unfortunately, they had only a few short hours to gather themselves before Tsunade, only just returned from the front lines herself, called the entirety of Team Kakashi and several others into her office with grave news. One of her ANBU Black Ops operatives had sent her a scroll from the north-east of the Land of Fire containing an urgent but extremely brief missive about a sighting of the Sanbi no jinchuuriki, last seen in the presence of a Kiri missing-nin with a large sword and couple of other persons, though the ANBU had not been able to ascertain their identity.

The jinchuuriki and the Kiri nuke-nin had been ambushed shortly thereafter by Oto shinobi operating without permission within the borders of the Land of Fire. The ANBU agent had been caught in brief but brutal ensuing battle.

The missive was smeared with bloody glove-prints.

The ANBU operative was presumed dead.

Sighing exhaustedly, Kakashi turned to his team. “You have twenty minutes. Get packed and meet me at the East Gate.”

Naruto shared a glance with Kurama, then they both met Sasuke and Sakura’s gazes, before turning back to Kakashi.

“Kaka-sensei, do you actually mean twenty minutes, or your version of twenty minutes?” Sakura asked.

Although it looked like it physically pained him to say it, Kakashi said: “Twenty actual minutes.”

And, in fact, Kakashi was waiting for them when Kurama and Naruto arrived at the gate, eighteen minutes later, slightly ruffled and quite out of breath, having packed a bag in record time between them and then used several successful shunshins to get from the Akasen to the gate.

Ideally they would keep a bug-out bag in their apartment, prepared and packed and ready for those last-minute missions, but they didn’t, because Naruto wasn’t that good at organising his things, and Kurama was a fox. He’d never even had to deal with pockets. It was one of those things they kept promising they’d work on, never got around to, and then they had to shove all their weapons, clothes, first-aid, and food into scrolls and stuff them into a rucksack at the very last minute every single time.

“Kakashi-nii,” Kurama gasped, dramatically. “You’re early!”

“Is this a genjutsu?” Naruto asked, bringing his hands up into the release seal and muttering: “Kai,” to himself before checking to see if Kakashi was still there.

He was, and he looked distinctly unimpressed.

When Sakura dropped down beside Naruto a moment later and did an almost comical double-take before also subtly flaring her chakra and attempting to dispel any possible genjutsus, Kakashi began to look harried.

Yamato arrived. He checked the level of the sun in the sky, and glanced around at the rest of the people assembled. “Senpai,” he said. “You have another two minutes before you’d technically be considered late. Are you feeling okay?”

Kakashi’s shoulders drooped.

Eventually the others trickled in, in ones and twos.

Hinata, Shino, Kiba, and Akamaru – a specialised tracking team, since they were headed into an area with only vague directions. Shizune, as a backup med-nin, since they would be further out from Konoha this time, closer to the border of the Land of Rice than the village. Ino, Tenten, Lee, who were not being scrambled to other locations in the Land of Fire to deal with other threats that had cropped up during the standoff that had occurred after Hiruko revealed himself, and they didn’t know precisely what they were heading into, so a variety of skills was considered best, especially if they were required to reseal the Sanbi.

Sasuke.

Sai, who was the latest to arrive because he had to run out and buy a spare ink-stone. “Forgive me for my tardiness, Kakashi-taichou,” he said.

“Try not to make a habit of it,” Kakashi replied, wryly.

Kurama groaned. He wasn’t the only one to do so. The hypocrisy.

Ah, well. Kakashi had to be feeling okay if he could make terrible jokes like that.

“What?” Sai asked, obviously perplexed.

Kurama could feel the tense set of Naruto’s shoulders entirely without needing the skim the surface of his mind to feel the worry that was gnawing at him.

“Kakashi-nii isn’t alright, but he’s the same person you’ve known all this time, kit. I promise,” Kurama told his kit quietly, as they started out from the gate in groups of three and four. “We just saw behind another one of his masks, is all.”

Naruto said nothing for almost a mile. “I wish he didn’t have to wear that particular mask,” he replied, at last.

“I know. I do, too.”

 

lxxxv.

A tall man with dark hair, scored Kiri hitai-ate worn crooked and sideways, the bottom half of his face covered by bandages, Kubikiribouchou strapped to his back, stepped out of the forest onto the lakeshore before them. He was accompanied by a slender youth in a beautiful kimono with long dark hair, another youth in a blue kimono with a tree made of bubbles on the back and pale gold eyes, and a mousy-haired child with pink eyes and an ugly scar running from beneath his left eye to his jawline.

Everyone was tense, ready for a confrontation after Naruto had announced the Kyuubi could feel the Sanbi and curiously also the Rokubi nearby.

“Haku-nii!” Kurama exclaimed, at the same time Naruto cried: “Zabuza-san!”

Naruto broke formation, even as Kakashi holstered his kunai and relaxed into a slough, Sasuke scowled but sheathed his katana, and Sakura dropped her fists and shifted into a neutral stance. They’d honestly been expecting Hoshigaki Kisame, but then again, he wasn’t the only Kiri missing-nin with a big sword out there.

Zabuza managed to utter half an expletive before he was hit with a flying tackle hug courtesy of Naruto that sent the both of them tumbling, along with Kurama, who had been perched on Naruto’s shoulder.

“Oh, kami,” Zabuza wheezed, lying flat on his back with the waves from the lake lapping up on the stones beside him. “Not you lot. Anyone but you lot.”

Kurama stood on his chest, wagging his tail and grinning foxily. “It’s good to see you, too, Zabuza-san,” he said, cheerfully.

“Zabuza!” the mousy-haired child barked. He was wielding a hooked club with a flower on it, and Kurama thought he looked adorable, even as he turned to glare at the team assembled behind Kakashi. “Who are you? What do Konoha shinobi want with us?”

Haku was smiling softly, but the young man in the blue kimono had put a significant amount of distance between himself and the child with the club, and also Naruto and Zabuza, and he was looking at everyone with suspicion in his narrowed eyes.

Naruto picked himself up, and he and Kurama both looked at the child and the unknown curiously.

Kurama tried to poke at Isobu down on the Seishin Sekai. Isobu resolutely ignored him. But he could feel Isobu’s chakra in that child. His brother was right there, and ignoring him. Why? What happened to make Isobu withdraw from the world so? Saiken, on the other hand, was shouting too much in high-pitched excitement about… something incoherent, and Kurama quickly ignored him.

“Maa,” Kakashi said. “Stand down, everyone. We’re not enemies, are we, Zabuza-san?”

Zabuza made a disgruntled noise. “Debatable,” he said. “But I know my own limits, and I’m not stupid enough to cross him in battle again.” He inclined his head toward Naruto, who grinned at them all, sheepish more than anything, before turning to the mousy-haired child. “Yagura-sama, they aren’t with the Akatsuki, and I know at least Kakashi-san and his students to be… honourable. Utakata, stand down.”

The child sniffed disdainfully. “What high praise from a nuke-nin.”

“Technically,” Haku interjected demurely. “You are also a nuke-nin, Yagura-sama. Utakata-san.”

The child huffed. “You want me to just trust them?” he asked.

“I hate to agree with him,” the young man in the blue kimono said. He was wielding… a bamboo pipe? Kurama would ask later. “But he’s right. The Akatsuki are everywhere.”

“You do not have to trust them,” Haku replied. “But I believe that you may want to. Yagura-sama and Utakata-san both share something in common with Naruto-san, and it would be prudent to hear these Konoha shinobi out before we dismiss them out of hand.”

“What could we possibly—?” Yagura began.

Naruto interrupted him, because he had terrible manners that Kurama still hadn’t done anything about because he frankly couldn’t be bothered. “You have Sanbi, right?” He blithely ignored the way the colour seemed to leech out of Yagura’s face, and his knuckles whitened as he tightened his grip on his club. He turned to Utakata. “And you have Rokubi! Hi, I’m Uzumaki Naruto, and I have Kyuubi! You’re, uh, Zabuza-san said Yagura and… Utakata? Did I get that right? I’m not that great at names.”

The club was lowered as the boy stared disbelievingly at Naruto. “Karatachi Yagura,” he said, inclining his head. “Perhaps Haku-san is correct. I will hear you out.”

Kurama wondered idly where he’d heard that name before. It sounded familiar.

“Utakata. I will listen.” He bowed, briefly, then stood, quiet and still, waiting.

“Oh, awesome! Because me an’ Kyuubi got something real important to tell you and Sanbi. Come with me and Kurama, it’s like Clan secrets but for jinchuuriki, so the others probably shouldn’t listen.” Without waiting for an answer, Naruto grabbed Yagura by the wrist and tugged him along the shore until they were out of earshot, but not out of line-of-sight, completely ignoring Yagura’s furious spitting protestations. Utakata was obliged to run after them or be left behind.

Kurama bounded along behind them, laughing to himself.

“Sit, sit,” Naruto urged, settling himself on a driftwood log.

Utakata considered for a long moment before settling seiza on the ground a safe distance away.

Yagura scowled at them both, but especially Naruto. “You don’t just manhandle strange shinobi. That sort of thing will get you a kunai in the gut.”

Naruto shrugged. “Kyuubi can heal that sort of thing, easy,” he said, unperturbed by the thinly veiled threat.

Kurama cleared his throat, pointedly. “Yagura-san has a point, brat. Kyuubi prefers not having to fix you up when you get yourself hurt for stupid reasons because you didn’t think. He might heal you just enough to stop you from dying, then let you do the rest yourself. And gut wounds are no laughing matter, if you listen to Sakura-chan at all.”

“Oh, yeah,” Naruto said, grimacing and cradling his right arm closer to his body. He turned back to Yagura. “So! First things first, can you talk to your bijuu?”

Yagura eyed him flatly. “Of course I can. Why would I, though?”

Naruto and Kurama shared a glance.

“You aren’t mean to Isobu, are you?” Naruto asked.

Yagura stilled. “Where did you hear that name?”

Naruto bounded excitedly. “Oh! Isobu told you his name? You guys must be pretty good friends, right? Right?” He turned to Utakata. “What about you? Do you talk to Saiken?”

Utakata nodded.

“That’s great! So, do you listen to what they say?”

Apparently not.

“So…” Naruto said, at a loss.

Kurama decided there was no point trying to phrase this carefully. “Hi!” he chirped. “I’m Kurama, and I’m a physical manifestation of Kyuubi chakra! In a way, you could say I am the Kyuubi. It’s good to meet you, Utakata-san, Yagura-san. Yagura-san, It’d be a real big help to me and my siblings if you could have a word with Isobu and tell him to stop ignoring us down on the Seishin Sekai because we found out what the Akatsuki are doing with the bijuu – they aren’t sealing us into other people, they’re sealing us into something they’re calling the Gedou Mazou, which is actually Kaguya-baa-sama’s body. It’s supposed to be sealed on the moon, but the Akatsuki unsealed it somehow. And if they seal chakra from all of us into that statue, then Kaguya-baa-sama’s gonna wake up and destroy everything. You two and Isobu and Saiken have to be really careful, Yagura-san, Utakata-san, because they already sealed Choumei and Kokuou completely, and woulda sealed Shukaku if they could, except you know what they say about tanukis. They’re full of tricks, you know. And they have some of Matatabi’s chakra, now, too.”

Yagura dropped his hands to his sides. “Can you repeat that?” he asked.

Utakata looked intrigued. “The Rokubi was not making things up in a flight of fancy?”

Naruto and Kurama explain again, more slowly this time, and offering more context. About halfway through Yagura sat down with crossed legs on the rocky lakeshore before them, frowning heavily.

“Can you prove this?” he asked, eventually.

Naruto took a moment to consider the answer to that. Kurama didn’t know, because all the ways he could think of to prove his words true were a bit… noticeable. And they preferably didn’t want to draw attention to themselves, if possible, since there was a high chance there were Oto-nin in the area, and who knew where the Akatsuki would pop up next.

“Speak to Isobu!” Naruto crowed. “Isobu will know.”

“The Rokubi agrees,” Utakata said, softly.

“Why would I trust the words of your demon, traitor?”

Kurama bristled. “Saiken isn’t a demon! None of us are demons. We’re chakra constructs. I know there’s a lot of misinformation floating around, but we aren’t actually youkai. Honestly, how long have you been a jinchuuriki, brat? Two years?”

The look Yagura gave him was extremely offended. “Longer than your jinchuuriki has been alive.”

Wait, what?

“Wait,” Kurama said. “What?”

“Aren’t you like twelve or something?” Naruto asked. “I’m almost sixteen, y’know. It’s okay if you aren’t good at math, I’m not, but you should just know.”

Yagura groaned in frustration. “Don’t you know who I am?”

Naruto sent a wordless query Kurama’s way, but Kurama had no idea, so he responded with the mental equivalent of a shrug.

“Uh, should we?” Naruto asked.

“I was the Yondaime Mizukage!”

“I would kill him, if I could,” Utakata grumbled. “For what he did, to everyone.”

“Oh,” Kurama said. “Now I remember where I last heard your name! It was back in the Academy during on of those really boring history classes I used to sleep though, but Iruka-sensei said I would find this one interesting, so I paid attention. You’re the Mizukage who turned Kiri into the Bloody Mist. I didn’t realise because I thought you’d be… uh…”

“Taller?” Yagura asked, dryly.

“Scarier,” Naruto suggested.

Kurama nodded. “Definitely scarier. Scariest of all five kage.”

Unfortunately, the fact that the Sanbi no jinchuuriki was the recently deposed and currently on the run Yondaime Mizukage sort of complicated things. It didn’t help that Utakata was also a Kiri missing-nin. That just muddled things up a bit. Under ordinary circumstances, they would have invited a foreign jinchuuriki in danger from the Akatsuki to Konoha, patched them up if they required it, then sent them back to their village accompanied by a couple of ANBU teams. That’s what they had done for Nii Yugito, after all.

Sadly, Terumii Mei, the Godaime Mizukage would have Yagura executed on sight rather than ask questions about why he’d returned, so that wasn’t feasible. Yagura, it turned out, had barely escaped Kiri with his life in the first place, even after it had been discovered he was trapped in a genjutsu and had been for an indeterminate amount of time.

They didn’t know what she would do with another Kiri missing-nin who’d gone rogue during the Bloody Mist era. Kurama wasn’t willing to bet there would be a positive outcome.

“I’m inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt,” the little fox said to the deposed Mizukage, after thinking about it for about two seconds. “Getting caught in a genjutsu sucks. That’s why I attacked Konoha both times, did you know? Genjutsus cast by the Sharingan.”

Yagura cocked his head. “You mean you wouldn’t attack Konoha if you got free of your seal, now?”

“Ha! No. I’m not currently sealed. And I may be the chakra embodiment of hate and malice, but I’m not stupid. Even back then, I knew if I got free of my jinchuuriki then turned around and attacked Konoha, I’d just get trapped again. Namikaze Minato was my jinchuuriki’s husband, it’s not like I wasn’t aware of his genius with fuuinjutsu. So, what does this genjutsu caster have me do? Attack Konoha. And I end up locked in Naruto’s gut.”

“Ne, Kurama, there’s worse places to be though,” Naruto said.

“There are,” Kurama agreed.

Yagura was staring at Kurama like he’d sprouted nine extra tails. “What do you mean you aren’t sealed?”

“Well, if Isobu would listen to us when we talked together on the Seishin Sekai, you’d probably know that already because he would’ve told you. Tell him to stop sulking about the genjutsu thing and come out to talk.”

 

lxxxvi.

They were ambushed by a team of Oto shinobi led jointly by a terrifying woman called Guren, who wielded a kekkei genkai that allowed her to weaponise crystals, and Kabuto. For several moments Guren rained crystals down upon the Konoha shinobi while her team attempted to flank them. Kakashi’s team prepared to launch themselves into a fierce battle, and Yagura drew on Isobu’s chakra, manifesting two tails.

And then Kakashi waved at Kabuto. “Hello there, Kabuto-san!” he sang out, faux-cheerily, drawing the eyes of every shinobi preparing to do battle, or already locked in a skirmish, to himself. “Fancy meeting you here, so close to the border with the Land of Rice, what a surprise. Anyway, we’ve just found these Kiri missing-nin in our back yard, and we’re taking them to Hokage-sama, so she can decide how we proceed from here on. Don’t mind us! He shouldn’t mind us, should he, Naruto? You aren’t going to squash them, are you?”

It took Naruto a moment to cotton on. “Oh, uh, yeah, yeah, I won’t squash you, you know! Good to see you again, Kabuto-san!”

He waved.

Kabuto turned as ashen as his hair. “Naruto-kun,” he managed to croak, bowing shakily. He turned his head, regarding the rest of the party of Konoha shinobi. “Sasuke.” Then, to the frightening woman: “Guren, tell your men to stand down. Now.”

Sasuke grunted in acknowledgement. “Is the old snake still alive?”

“Kabuto!” Guren hissed. “What are you doing? We’re here for the Sanbi!”

“We’ll try again another day,” Kabuto hissed back, but not so quietly that Kurama couldn’t hear him with his sharp little fox ears, before he addressed Sasuke again. “Orochimaru-sama is as well as to be expected. I’m sure he’ll be pleased to hear of your concern after his health, though he is still very… disappointed that you left.”

Sasuke shrugged. “What’s a little inter-village espionage between neighbours? It was never personal. We’re shinobi.”

“Yes, that is reasonable.” Kabuto had, after all, been a spy within Konoha for years. “It is not too late to change your mind, however. If you came back now, Orochimaru-sama may be inclined to forgive your transgressions.”

“No, thank you,” Sasuke said, the epitome of politeness, with a completely straight face. “I’m afraid I’m fond of maintaining my own bodily autonomy. As such, were I to return with you Orochimaru-sama and I would invariably clash, and one of us would end up dead. In the interest of minimising casualties in these uncertain times, with the Akatsuki on the move as they are, it is better that I stay away.”

Kabuto nodded knowingly. “Yes, that is true. As you wish. Well, pardon us for bothering you, shinobi of Konoha. We’ll just be going.”

He turned to leave.

“Kabuto!” Guren roared, leaping after him.

“Guren, that blond kid is the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki. Not even Orochimaru-sama is strong enough to meet him in battle. Live to see another day. Come. We will not be punished for this failure.”

“Bye!” Naruto called after them.

The small boy with a white camellia tucked behind one ear, being given a piggyback by one of the other Oto shinobi, waved back. “Goodbye!”

Silence descended upon the group of assembled Konoha shinobi. Eventually, Shizune broke it, by turning to Kakashi, and saying: “What was that, Kakashi-san?”

“Maa, what was what?”

“Are you kidding, Kakashi-taichou? Oto is the enemy! We coulda kicked their butts,” Kiba said, Akamaru backing him up with a sharp bark. “We outnumbered them two-to-one! And we just let them go?”

Kakashi shrugged. “Who’s to say who is really the enemy in these trying times?”

“Stop being all weird and cryptic, nii-chan,” Kurama said, then explained to the others. “Orochimaru and Kabuto are scared out of their wits of Naruto. Won’t lift a finger against him. No clue why. They always run away, though. It’s funny, and convenient. As much as I dislike leaving a potential enemy at my back, there’s also little point fighting and risking casualties when you can just posture a bit and sort your differences out that way.”

Kiba whined in disappointment at missing out on a good scrap, but had to agree. Shizune, after reflecting upon the time she and Tsunade had run into Orochimaru and Kabuto when Team Seven had gone to recruit the sannin to become Hokage and Orochimaru had positively fled with his tail between his legs, also conceded the point.

Utakata moved in stride with Naruto and Kurama for a moment, just long enough to say: “Saiken thinks you’ve gone mad, Kyuubi.”

Kurama sniffed. “I’ve gained perspective.”

“He doesn’t believe that.”

“He can stick his head under a log and keep it there, for all I care, it’s the truth.”

Utakata stared at him, bemused. “You said you thought the Mizukage would be scarier, but I thought you’d be scarier.”

“He’s not trying to be scary, you know,” Naruto said. “He’s in disguise.”

“I mean no offence, but it’s not a very good disguise.” Utakata frowned. “It’s a bit obvious, isn’t it?”

“Nah,” Naruto replied. “People just think I attract foxes because of the Kyuubi, not that the fox that follows me around is the Kyuubi.”

Utakata shook his head, dropping back to walk beside Haku, who was walking with Sakura and Ino. They were discussing medicinal herbs, poisons, and the art of using senbon to induce a death-like state in battle.

As they had on the outbound journey, they split off into smaller groups. Team Kakashi moved as one unit, accompanied by the Kiri nuke-nin, while Shizune led the other. Team Kakashi remained within Hinata’s line-of-sight – which was considerable – and Shizune’s unit was within Kurama, and therefore Naruto’s, ability to sense emotion, so they were not incapable of signalling for assistance at a moment’s notice.

Though they did not immediately request aid when a high, childish voice echoed through the tall Land of Fire trees, calling: “Senpai! I found them! I found them! Am I a good boy?”

A man wearing a spiralling one-eyed orange mask and a black cloak with red clouds dropped onto a broad bough above their heads. He was covered from his fingertips to his toes in clothing, with only a scruffy tuft of black hair sticking up above the band of his mask.

The false Madara.

He was joined a moment later by Deidara, who had somehow recovered his previously missing right arm.

“Whoever fixed your arm did a truly admirable job, Deidara,” Kurama said, because it was the very second thing that crossed his mind. The very first thing that crossed his mind was that Itachi had been down-playing the situation when he said that the false Madara was ‘playing the fool.’

False Madara was behaving less like Naruto, who was an actual fool but an adorable one, and more like someone who had an unfortunate defect in their brain.

“A shame, then, that you killed him,” Deidara replied. “So. The jinchuuriki don’t all have pets that look like their bijuu. I’m a bit disappointed, un.”

“Aw,” false Madara said. “Tobi wanted to see the turtle!”

False Madara was referring to himself in the third person.

Okay, then.

Not the weirdest thing Kurama had ever seen in his life. It was getting up there, though.

“To be fair, outside of summons, turtles and slugs tend not to make particularly good nin-animals,” Kakashi, ever the voice of reason, pointed out blandly. “I’m sure you would find it illogical, too, it you thought about it for more than a couple of seconds. Neither is known for their speed or agility, and it would be exceptionally difficult to train a normal animal to shinobi standards.” Quieter, so that only the people around him could hear, he said: “That’s Tobi, the man Itachi told us about. The suspected shadow-leader of the Akatsuki. Everyone be careful not to look into the eye-hole in his mask. We know nothing about his skill, except that Itachi was wary of him. Deidara specialises in explosives, so spread out. Groups of two, like Drill E. Watch each other’s backs. Don’t die today.”

They spread out, as instructed. Naruto and Kurama took to the trees with Sakura. Sasuke and Sai distanced themselves on the ground. Yamato motioned for Utakata to join him, and they moved to another tree. Kakashi snagged Yagura by the back of his shirt, pulling him close, and Haku and Zabuza began to circle.

“I suppose you killed the others, too, un,” Deidara said. “I wanted to kill that bastard, Itachi. I suppose I’ll have to settle for killing his dear little otouto.” He looked at Sasuke and Sai, the corners of his mouth curling downwards and his brow furrowing deeply. “Which one of you is Sasuke, yeah?”

Sai pointed at Sasuke.

Sasuke, who had a terrible sense of humour, pointed at Sai.

With his dark hair, dark eyes, pale skin and delicate features, it wasn’t a stretch of the imagination to look at Sai and see an Uchiha. Actually, that was an interesting thought. With how long he’d planned the Uchiha Clan’s downfall, and his frankly disturbing preoccupation with their kekkei genkai, it was entirely possible that Danzou could have made one of the children from the clan’s minor families… disappear. They would probably never know the truth, either, unless he manifested the Uchiha Clan’s famous doujutsu.

“I’m beginning to get annoyed, un,” Deidara said, his hand in the messenger bag hanging from his shoulder which Kurama knew he kept his clay in. Things were going to start blowing up soon, no doubt.

“That’s him!” Tobi said, hopping up and down on the spot, and gesticulating wildly in Sasuke’s direction. “Him with the sword! That’s Itachi’s brother! Tobi knows because his hair looks like a duck’s butt.”

Deidara peered at Sasuke, then blinked. “He said something about that, once, didn’t he?”

“Itachi-nii is a no good, dirty traitor and I’m going to kill him,” Sasuke announced.

Kurama thought that was fair enough. Shukaku would kick Kurama’s ass if he went around telling the Akatsuki embarrassing childhood stories about him, which is what Itachi did to Sasuke.

“Duck-butt,” Sai echoed in a whisper, looking inspired.

Sasuke had just landed himself his official Sai-given nickname.

False Madara made a confused whimpering sort of sound. “Tobi thought Sasuke killed Itachi already. That’s what Itachi said would happen. Is Tobi wrong?” He sounded a bit like a dog that had lost his owner and was on the brink of breaking out into howling wails of bewilderment.

Well, Kurama reflected, that sort of fishing for information was about as subtle as a kick in the head.

It was just annoying enough to work, however.

And he’d thought giving up his dignity as a bijuu to take on the shape of a common fox was difficult. He couldn’t begin to grasp the lack of unabashed shamelessness required to act like such a fool in front of so many people. In front of his own peers, the very people he was manipulating to work for him.

“Why would I kill nii-san?” Sasuke asked.

Deidara harrumphed. “You just said you were going to kill him, un.”

“Because he told you my hair looks like – well. He couldn’t think of some other way of describing his cute little otouto to his S-Ranked missing-nin peers?”

“It’s hereditary, isn’t it, yeah,” Deidara said, an expression of dawning realisation on his face even as he drew his hand out of his bag. “The Uchiha are all crazy.”

Sasuke nodded, solemn. “As a bag of rabid cats,” he agreed. “It’s because our kekkei genkai is intimately linked to the experience of traumatic events. And then the maddest of them were the most successful because their inherent instability meant they had a higher likelihood of developing both the Sharingan and its evolutions. Take Uchiha Madara, for example. One of the greatest shinobi to have ever lived, but categorically insane.”

False Madara twitched.

Deidara didn’t notice. Everyone else did.

“He’s an example of what happens when you marry your own cousins once too often, and selectively breed for mental instability,” Sasuke said, sighing sadly. Then he said: “But nii-san is feeling much better, now. He’ll never be a field shinobi again, so I doubt you’ll get your chance to fight him face-to-face like you want, but the disease that’s been rotting his heart and lungs isn’t terminal. They caught it just in time.”

What, un.”

 

lxxxvii.

They were pressing Tobi hard.

A catastrophic Katon jutsu was used as a diversion for a particularly nasty Raiton that had probably originally been a chidori, but didn’t resemble it much any longer except for the chirping of birds.

The very earth itself was rent with the force of the heel-strike of a young woman when she narrowly missed her target.

Acidic bubbles floated through the air.

A tremendous explosion rocked the forest, the shockwave tearing trees out by their roots and hurling them into the air while the closer trees were instantly incinerated. The Kyuubi came out of nowhere, taking the brunt of the detonation on its flank as it shielded its allies.

Tobi narrowly avoided being caught in the blast radius of the explosion, a rush of boiling hot air rolling over him as he ducked behind a large, sturdy outcrop of stone thrust up from the earth and grown over with moss, but which might’ve been the remains of another, much older shinobi battle fought here on this very spot.

In case a certain jinchuuriki proved too difficult to capture alive, their orders were to kill them. Bijuu never truly died. Their chakra dispersed, then gathered and reformed again whole someplace else, sometime later, usually no more than a handful of years. Two Akatsuki members against three jinchuuriki, two of whom had mastered their bijuu, was never a fight they could realistically turn in their own favour, especially not since Tobi was hiding his most remarkable skills.

Deidara had obviously opted to kill everyone on the ground, here and now, in the hopes that the Akatsuki could snatch up the bijuu when they reformed at a later date, rather than allowing the jinchuuriki to escape to a more fortified position where they could remain indefinitely.

It was a shame, because under different circumstances Tobi would very much have liked to have recruited Sasuke as a replacement for his ailing brother. Unfortunately, the Sasuke Recruitment Plan had hinged on the youngest Uchiha going ahead and killing Itachi, as Itachi had wanted ever since he and Tobi had wiped the entirety of the clan out in a single night.

As it was, that had fallen through spectacularly.

Itachi’s plans were almost always fool proof, so it was odd that this one had failed.

Now, not only had Itachi defected from the Akatsuki, the pardon issued by Konoha had been genuine and he was apparently getting medical attention, and Sasuke had never truly left Konoha for the power offered by Orochimaru in the first place. In fact, Sasuke was remarkably cool-headed for an Uchiha, enough that he could look at himself, look at his clan, look at the history of that clan, observe the flaws he found there, and quite possibly make chances to his own behaviour that would alter the way the clan existed as he moved forward into the future.

Tobi knew he would never lure him away from Konoha.

So Sasuke could die here like all the others, his blood feeding the roots of the trees.

If Deidara managed to slip something past the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki, who was oddly cunning for a child of Minato and Kushina.

“Senpai!” Tobi wailed, over the ringing in his ears. “Are you trying to kill me, too?”

High above the battlefield, well out of reach of the snapping jaws of the Kyuubi, on the back of his great clay owl, Deidara called back: “No. That would just be a happy accident, yeah. With this type of art, there is a high chance of collateral damage.”

“Tell that to the poor trees,” someone said sadly, and Tobi leapt about five feet into the air, shrieking, ready to activate Kamui and disappear – but there was no one there.

Okay, so, Tobi was surprised because it was rare that anyone but Zetsu got the drop on him, but the shriek and the exaggerated startle reflex were definitely feigned.

Tobi looked down.

The Kyuubi no jinchuuriki’s pet fox had apparently decided to weather the explosion behind the same up-thrust of stone as Tobi had. It was a ragged, elderly creature with torn-up ears, a dirty, matted coat, and a worn and scuffed hitai-ate on a fraying scrap of fabric. The hairs on the tip of its tail were smouldering from Deidara’s explosions.

Tobi couldn’t remember its name, but it didn’t look like anything impressive.

And yet he knew from his spies that this little animal had killed Shimura Danzou, by all accounts a shinobi of kage calibre, single-handedly. Single-pawed? What was the correct term for someone who didn’t have hands? Itachi had been tight-lipped about what happened to his right eye, but from the hints Kisame had dropped, it was this vicious little fox that might also be responsible for half-blinding him.

Tobi wondered if he should kill the little thorn in his side.

On the other hand, the fox looked like it would keel over all by itself from old age, and sooner rather than later.

“The little fox looks so cute and fluffy!” he squealed. “Can Tobi pet the cute little fox?”

The fox shot an incredibly dry look in the general direction of his face. Tobi noticed that its eyes were clouded with cataracts.

Who knew foxes could look so scathing, though? Tobi hadn’t met such an unimpressed looking animal since Pakkun.

From above them, there came the screech of a hawk. Tobi looked up to see the pale boy, Sai, who was now a part of Kakashi’s team, riding a large ink hawk that was harrying the less manoeuvrable clay owl.

“Oh,” the little fox said, also peering up at the sky. “They’re going to compare art styles. This might be interesting, don’t you think, Tobi-kun? Do you mind if I call you that?”

Tobi did mind, as a matter of fact. “No,” Tobi said, falsely cheerful, itching to pull his chains from the Kamui dimension and strangle the little beast. “Can Tobi pet the little fox?” he repeated.

The fox heaved a tremendous sigh. It looked like it was about to say something.

A moment later its eyes widened comically, and it spun around to chase its tail, yowling crossly because the smouldering hairs had caught alight and its tail was burning. Tobi watched it spin around and around, swiping at its own tail with its paws but always missing, spewing such violent and colourful vitriol that had Tobi’s ears were burning, and he once spent several days in a row in the company of Hidan.

At last it managed to pounce on its own tail, patting at the flames with its paws even as it swore between clenched teeth.

“Those aren’t nice words,” Tobi said.

There was another explosion above them, followed by Deidara shouting obscenities.

“You ever tell him that?” the little fox said.

“Yes,” Tobi said. “Deidara-senpai doesn’t like Tobi very much, though.”

“I wonder why.” There was an awful lot of sarcasm in the fox’s tone. Tobi briefly wondered if he was overdoing the idiot act. Then the fox said: “Oh, hello nii-chan.”

Kakashi had vaulted over the top of the rocky outcrop to drop between Tobi and the fox, a kunai in hand, and Tobi found himself looking into his own Sharingan, spinning wildly in Kakashi’s face, and given in good faith so many years ago. Tobi wanted to claw it out and take it back.

Tobi shrieked again and leapt backwards, away from him.

Tobi didn’t want to admit it, but Kakashi looked well. Healthy. There was a graceful, self-assured strength in his movements these days. Gone was the skilled but awkward child. Gone, too, was the tense young ANBU member. Here stood a man grown, confident in both his ability and his place in the world. It wasn’t right that the member of Tobi’s generation of Team Seven with the most blood on his hands should be the only one of them to truly live.

Tobi thought he might kill Kakashi before he deployed the Infinite Tsukuyomi.

Kakashi shouldn’t be allowed to share in the dream.

Here and now, though, Kakashi said: “Are you alright, Kurama?” He feinted forward, not taking his eyes from Tobi’s mask, and Tobi dodged backwards, up onto the outcrop.

“Yeah, yeah, I just singed my tail is all,” the little fox – Kurama, apparently – grumbled.

“You didn’t—” Kakashi began, leaping after Tobi again. Tobi darted away, across the cratered and smoking ground.

The fox huffed. “I didn’t look in his eye, nii-chan, I’m not stupid. Thanks so much for the vote of confidence.”

What? Surely, they couldn’t mean his Sharingan?

Had Itachi guessed that much, yet held his tongue?

“Excuse me for worrying about my cute little otouto,” Kakashi replied, even as he flicked through a series of hand-signs with just his free right hand, too fast for Tobi to track without activating his eye, and a ball of singing lightning formed in the palm of his hand. Since when could Kakashi do one-handed seals?

“Oh, wow,” Tobi said, putting his confusion aside for the moment. “Is the cute little fox your little brother? You look nothing alike! Tobi would never have guessed! Was one of you…” He dropped his voice into a stage whisper. “Adopted?”

“You can drop the act,” Kakashi said, paused on top of the outcrop. “We all know this idiot persona of yours is just a charade.”

What?

“We know you aren’t Madara, either,” Kurama added.

Tobi’s mind stalled.

“Did you really think the Kyuubi no kitsune, who can literally feel negative emotions, wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the taste of your grief, your hate, and the hate of the original Uchiha Madara?” Kurama asked.

“Tobi doesn’t know what you’re talking about,” Tobi said, even as his heart lurched in his chest and he almost retched. How could he have been so stupid?

… To be fair, who would’ve thought that the Kyuubi would willingly cooperate with its jinchuuriki?

“Are you sure that’s him?” Kakashi asked the fox.

“Naruto said the Kyuubi was certain, that’s the man who pulled him out of Kushina. I mean, he might have sustained a significant head injury after all and that’s why he’s an idiot now, but I’m personally betting on the false personality thing. Dunno why he’d want to play with his own people like that, though.”

Tobi had to kill them. Here. Now. Before they could go spreading this information around.

As if reading his mind, Kurama said: “Tsunade-baa-chan and Gaara-kun both know. So do all the other jinchuuriki.”

Damn it all, that was an information leak too big for him to plug.

Kakashi lunged at him with the chidori. Tobi had to use Kamui to make himself intangible or risk dying the same way Rin did.

Deidara’s howl of rage from above them. Another explosion. A splatter of ink like falling rain. The Kyuubi yowling furiously and the movement of something truly tremendous right above their heads. Kakashi and Tobi darted away from each other as they attempted to avoid being squashed by a huge paw.

Tobi took stock of the situation.

Deidara had detonated his owl, destroying the ink hawk. He’d fallen onto the back of the Kyuubi, then leapt off into the trees, while the Kyuubi had lunged to catch its artistic teammate in its mouth, and was now setting him down gently on his feet. A team of fresh Konoha shinobi had just arrived, one of them immediately deploying a swarm of kikaichuu.

A moment later, Deidara dropped down beside Tobi.

“Come on, yeah,” he hissed, frantically. “I don’t have enough clay, we’re retreating.”

“Yes, senpai. Let’s go quick. These Konoha ninja are too scary!” Tobi whimpered.

There were things he needed to rethink.

Plans that would have to be completely overhauled.

And he needed to speak to Pein.

Everything was so messed up.

Tobi felt sick, because he didn’t know if he could fix it.

 

lxxxviii.

“Utakata, formerly of Kirigakure no Sato. Karatachi Yagura, Yondaime Mizukage, formerly of Kirigakure no Sato. I grant you asylum from your enemies, the terrorist organisation known as the Akatsuki, here in Konohagakure no Sato,” Tsunade said, but her eyes were hard and flat as a snake’s. No threat was uttered, but it was implicit in the words that were not said.

“Thank you, Hokage-sama.” Yagura bowed low at the waist. Utakata echoed him.

Tsunade turned her gaze upon Zabuza and Haku. “You can stay, I suppose. We don’t need the bounty. Cause trouble, though, and you won’t live to regret it.” She sighed, before addressing Naruto. “This whole mess is a political nightmare, I hope you know.”

Naruto shrugged, grinning.

Kurama, who was curled around his neck, closed his eye and went back to sleep.

The following morning, they learned from Jiraiya that Uchiha Itachi, fresh from the hospital, dressed, and wearing those hideous green spectacles he had yet to replace, had gone to see Tsunade at the Tower to tell her that keeping three jinchuuriki in the same place at the same time was a terrible idea – Pein would come. They could be sure of that.

Jiraiya wasn’t entirely certain which of the Ame Orphans who had gone on to become the Akatsuki Pein was. From the description Itachi gave, Pein sounded a lot like Yahiko – except for the fact that whoever Pein was, he possessed the Rinnegan, which had belonged to Nagato, not Yahiko. Pein was also ostensibly the leader of the Akatsuki, although everyone knew he was a figurehead, and the actual leader of the Akatsuki was the false Madara, Tobi.

“Let Pein come,” Jiraiya said to Naruto, as Naruto and Kurama were eating breakfast and the old sannin was sitting on their windowsill. “It’s not like Tsunade-hime can turn around and tell those Kiri jinchuuriki: ‘Oh, sorry, we can’t provide you safe harbour after all.’ We, all of the Five Nations, we can’t let the Akatsuki succeed, because if the Kyuubi is correct—”

“The Kyuubi knows what it’s talking about,” Kurama said, around a mouthful of egg and rice.

“Yes, thank you, Kurama. If the Kyuubi is correct, and I’m inclined to believe it is, having had the unprompted corroboration of four other jinchuuriki who have also spoken with their bijuu, now, then if Kaguya is unleashed upon the world, life itself will come to an end. It would be reprehensibly irresponsible to kick them out for fear of drawing the attention of one Akatsuki member, when they would undoubtedly have come for you, Naruto, eventually anyway.”

“Thanks, Ero-Sennin,” Naruto deadpanned. “That’s really comforting.”

Ah, Naruto was getting quite good at sarcasm, Kurama thought.

“In the meantime,” Jiraiya said. “I think it might be a good time for you to begin your senjutsu training at Mount Myouboku. The rasenshuriken has potential, but it is still an incomplete jutsu, and incorporating senjutsu may be just what you need to finish it.”

Naruto thought about that for a moment. He was obviously sorely tempted – never let it be said he lacked for enthusiasm.

“Can Kurama come, too?” he asked.

“Huh,” Jiraiya said. “That’s a good question. I’ll have to ask the toads. I’m not sure they’ve ever brought a kitsune to Mount Myouboku.” He scratched his shaggy white hair as he thought. “I don’t see why not, though. He’s your partner. Even though he’s retiring soon, he should still know how to have your back no matter what fighting style you’re using.”

He went off to find an area with more space, so he could summon Kousuke to go and ask Fukasaku. Naruto’s apartment was just a little cramped for any sort of summoning technique, even the small ones.

“You realise that even if they say no, I’ll still be there, right?” Kurama asked, licking his bowl clean. “Most of my chakra is stored in your gut.”

“Of course I do,” Naruto said. “But – it’d be weird, is all. Having to talk to you inside my head all the time, instead of out loud, you know? I kind of like it when you’re out.”

Naruto wasn’t wrong.

It would be weird.

Kurama could probably count on one paw the number of hours he’d spent entirely in the seal space, without an avatar, a manifestation of his chakra out in the physical world, since he first discovered how to slop around the Minato-brat’s seal all those years ago.

Being stuck in Naruto’s gut, only able to see the world around him through Naruto’s limited human senses, with little ability to provide aid except in the form of chakra, was stifling.

He hated it.

“That is also my preference,” Kurama admitted. “But I would do anything for you, you know that, kit.”

“I know.”

While they waited, Kurama washed the dishes from breakfast, and Naruto dried them and put them away.

“Do you think the cats would teach Sasuke senjutsu, if he asked them?” Naruto asked.

“Don’t know,” Kurama replied. “It’ll depends on whether or not the cats have worked out senjutsu for themselves, I suppose. Even if they have, they might not. They’re cats, and cats are odd, finicky creatures. I will never understand how their minds work. You can think you’re having a perfectly civil conversation with one, right up until it claws you on the nose, and you can be thinking about that conversation years later and still not know what you said that offended them.”

Naruto snorted in amusement, then tried to cover it with a cough. “Matatabi?” he asked.

“Matatabi,” Kurama agreed, sadly.

“She really clawed your nose?”

“And boxed my ears. I don’t even know what I said.”

Jiraiya came back. “Kashira-nii said it’s unorthodox, but the toads will allow it this time. Pack your things, I don’t know how long we’ll be away for. Bring as many ration bars as you can pack. You may not appreciate toad cuisine. We’ll be leaving Kousuke here to alert us in Mount Myouboku in case anything happens back here.”

“Can you finish up here?” Naruto asked, nodding to the stack of dripping dishes he hadn’t dried yet.

“Yes.” Kurama sighed, and Naruto dashed off to stuff his things into a rucksack. He turned to Jiraiya. “I assume we’re being reverse summoned to the toad realm?”

Jiraiya nodded.

“That will be interesting, I suppose,” Kurama mused, remembering the last time he’d been summoned anywhere, which had been the night Naruto was born, when false Madara summoned him into Konoha and sent him on a rampage. He didn’t remember it very well. “Clear the refrigerator of perishables while I finish the dishes, would you, Ero-Sennin? I don’t want to come back to spoiled milk, and if we leave that fish behind for a week there’s going to be a problem that I won’t touch with a ten-foot bamboo pole. A shame. I was looking forward to eating it.”

Jiraiya grumbled about being bossed around by a fox, but acquiesced, because Kurama had trained him well on Naruto’s two-and-a-half-year training journey with him as a teacher. He was still a massive pervert, but he didn’t waste Naruto and Kurama’s time while he went off and did perverted things instead of teaching them stuff.

Eventually, however, Jiraiya finished the tasks Kurama set him. “About ten more minutes,” he said, before calling for Naruto to hurry up.

Being summoned – or reverse summoned while he clung to Naruto’s shirt with all his claws hooked desperately into the fabric – was about the same as Kurama remembered it. The toad realm, however, was not somewhere the Kyuubi had ever had reason to visit. He was, after all, a fox, and while he may have visited the foxes every now and again, where he was welcomed by the zenko, the kanko, the yako and the kiko and the kouko, and even the tenko who also had nine tails but were inherently different from bijuu, he would have been an intruder here, where the toads lived.

It was bright here, the sky vast and open, the air pleasantly warm and the plants huge and splendid.

“Naruto!” a vibrantly orange toad called.

“Gamakichi! Wow, it’s so good to see you!” Naruto cried back, and they had a joyous reunion even though the last time Naruto had summoned Gamakichi had been just last week, shortly before Kakashi was kidnapped, as a part of a rousing game of ninja played with the Konohamaru Corps while Naruto got used to using his arm again.

“Jiraiya-chan,” a very old little wrinkly green toad said. Kurama noted with amusement that the toad had great tufty white eyebrows, tufty white hair, and a tufty white beard, though until this very day he’d had no idea that toads could even grow hair. “This is your student, then? The Yogen no Ko.”

Kurama pricked his ears. The Child of the Prophecy? What? Naruto?

“Kashira-nii,” Jiraiya inclined his head respectfully. “I believe so, yes.”

Hold on. This little, wrinkly old toad was Fukasaku, the head toad? Really? Kurama had trouble believing that, after seeing Gamabunta’s tremendous size. The little fox hopped nimbly off Naruto’s shoulder and padded over to Fukasaku to sniff at him, interestedly.

“And you are the kitsune,” Fukasaku said mildly.

Well, it was something of a dramatic understatement, but he wasn’t wrong. “It’s nice to meet you,” Kurama said. “Thank you for allowing me to be here. Please take care of me.”

“So you can be polite,” Jiraiya marvelled, a faint mocking amusement rolling off him in waves.

“I’ll eat your geta again, Ero-Sennin, don’t think I won’t,” Kurama replied, without missing a beat.

“I still don’t know how you ate them the first time. I knew you could eat leather, but I still don’t know how you can digest wood.”

“With malevolent glee,” Kurama said, sitting down to lift his nose into the air and slick his ears back, adopting the image of snooty self-righteousness. “Malevolent glee will take you a long way, should you let it.”

Naruto wandered over. “You aren’t relapsing, are you?” he asked Kurama.

“I’m just making a point.”

Fukasaku gave a croaking laugh, and Jiraiya introduced him to Naruto. Naruto immediately dubbed the old toad Sennin-jii-chan, to Jiraiya’s dismay. Gamakichi had trouble smothering his own laughter, but Fukasaku took it in stride.

“Come, come,” he said. “Before we train, we must eat!”

Naruto had obviously forgotten Jiraiya’s warning about toad cuisine as soon as it had been made, because he said: “Food?” and bounded off after Fukasaku eagerly.

Toad cuisine, as Jiraiya put it so delicately, consisted mostly of bugs and grubs cooked in various soups and sauces, skewered on pieces of bamboo, fried, roasted, and in some cases still alive and wriggling. There were crickets and cicadas, centipedes and worms, slugs and snails and fat white larvae. Jiraiya sat down at the table in the house Fukasaku shared with his equally old little wife, Shima, with what appeared to be a tremendous amount of reluctance, having turned several shades closer to the colour of his hair since he slipped his sandals off at the front door.

Naruto looked intrigued, and was peering into the bowl of purple soup, served with the leaf of a lily pad floating on top of it, with an expression of fascination.

“Now! Eat up!” Shima chirped. “I put all I had into this meal! Go on, don’t be shy, try these caterpillars.”

Next to Kurama, Jiraiya broke out into a sweat.

“Thank you for the food!” Naruto said, and it was obvious that he didn’t know what to try first – unlike Jiraiya, who was trying to find whatever option offended his odd human sensibilities the least.

Jiraiya, of course, had never spent his formative years being raised by a forest creature who saw nothing wrong with eating whatever bugs they happened to find under any given log or stone they turned over in the woods, since bugs were both excellent protein and often required less effort to catch than fish or other animals, essentially making them a staple food item.

Naruto decided to try one of the large and vibrantly coloured caterpillars Shima was offering. Kurama started on his soup.

Jiraiya seemed to be trying very hard not to retch into his.

“The lad certainly has an appetite, doesn’t he, Jiraiya-chan?” Fukasaku asked, a sly twinkle in his eyes. “He didn’t learn that from you.”

Kurama crunched up a cricket, feeling particularly vindictive because if Jiraiya had done his job as Naruto’s godfather, then his kit would never have had to learn how to stomach bugs in the first place. Jiraiya could suffer the visceral horror of watching another human being slurping down earthworm and cricket soup with the same relish he reserved for the ramen he ate from a cup.

On the other hand, it did mean that Naruto could genuinely compliment Shima on her delicious worms without the faintest hint of falsehood, because Kurama had managed to manufacture the least picky eater on the entire continent.

“No,” Jiraiya said, faintly.

Now, over the years Jiraiya and his human eccentricities had grown on Kurama like a particularly stubborn mould underneath his claws, and the little fox was grudgingly fond of the perverted old sage.

So Kurama waited for an opportune moment to say: “Naruto and Ero-Sennin don’t share any sort of appetite in common,” and watched as Jiraiya choked on the spoonful of soup he’d just summoned the courage to taste as he caught the double meaning of Kurama’s words.

Fukasaku toppled backwards onto the floor, croaking with laughter.

 

lxxxix.

Somewhere high up in a tower in Amegakure, Obito met with Pein and Konan.

“We’re having… recruitment issues,” Pein said.

“Explain.” It was not a question. Obito-as-Madara did not politely ask for clarification. He demanded explanation.

Pein handed him a scroll. “I was sent this by the Hokage not long ago, as the leader of Amegakure. Copies have apparently been sent out to all four of the other kage, as well as the leaders of other smaller Hidden Villages around the continent.” He pursed his lips. “I initially thought it was a part of an ill-conceived smear-campaign targeting the Akatsuki, but it would seem that people are taking these… accusations at face value. Rumour of them has spread far enough to come back to us through more than one of Sasori’s former spies.”

Obito unrolled the scroll and skimmed it briefly with his Sharingan activated. His first thought was to wonder who he should curse: Itachi, for being a traitor and possibly providing the Hokage with information about the Gedou Mazou, or Sasori, who had surrendered to Konoha early on in the plan and could have been provided them with a tremendous amount of intel.

He paused. Frowned behind his mask. Turn the scroll sideways, as if that might make the words any easier to understand. It did not.

“So,” Pein observed. “You noticed, too. Who is Tsunade’s honourable esteemed grandfather?”

Obito almost said: Shodai-sama, but he caught himself, and instead said: “Hashirama?” Because Madara and Hashirama were friends and rivals, and contemporaries, and it would be strange for Obito-as-Madara to refer to him as the Shodaime Hokage. “But he’s dead.”

“Respectfully, Madara-sama, everyone believed you were dead for the longest of times,” Pein said.

Obito had nothing to say to that, since the real Uchiha Madara was quite deceased – Obito had watched him die. “What’s this about waking the rabbit goddess,” he said, instead.

Pein sighed. “I was hoping you knew.”

“Folk stories, there’s no truth to this,” Obito said.

Konan spoke up. “That’s what we thought, too, Madara-sama. Unfortunately, this is one folk story that everyone has apparently decided to invest personal belief in. I spoke to that potential prospect out of Kumo the other day, and he laughed in my face when he realised I was with the Akatsuki and said some… things he should not have. He did not survive, so he wasn’t worth our time anyway, but apparently the Raikage has teams of chuunin out delivering pamphlets to towns across the land of Lightning. His brother, the jinchuuriki, you know the one, is backing the Hokage up vehemently for some reason.”

“So you’re telling me that the entire shinobi population from the Land of Bears to the Land of Demons has turned into mindless fools, and they think we’re raving lunatics?” Obito asked.

“Or the other way around. We the fools and they’re the lunatics,” Pein suggested.

Obito made a disgusted noise. “Assign the capture of Killer B and the Hachibi to Tobi, Deidara, and Kisame. The Kyuubi, the Sanbi, and Rokubi are all in Konohagakure no Sato. Now would be an opportune moment for you to make a move, Pein. It may well be a trap, but they cannot account for the true strength of the Rinnegan.”

“Yes, Madara-sama.”

Obito-as-Madara turned to leave. Then he paused. “Quick question. Deidara wants to know if Killer B has a ninushi.”

A pause, where no one said anything.

Then Konan said: “Apparently, he does. It’s a large brown bull called ‘Gyuuki.’ Quite lethal – it’s very good at goring people to death, or trampling them, even without the ninjutsu it seems to know.”

Huh. Who would’ve thought that irritating little fox was telling the truth?

Elsewhere, Naruto was having the process of learning the basics of senjutsu explained to him without understanding a word. Fukasaku started off by explaining Yin and Yang chakra – the spiritual and the physical – and trying to describe how a chakra external to the body, nature chakra, could be added to the balance to form the basis of senjutsu.

Naruto’s expression remained blank.

Jiraiya tried, but his explanation was too convoluted to follow and involved math scratched into the dirt for some reason. To be entirely fair to Naruto, not even Kurama, that irritating little fox, could follow Jiraiya’s explanation.

Gamakichi explained with an ice cream metaphor. Naruto grinned, his face brightening as comprehension washed over him. Kurama thought Gamakichi deserved an award for that analogy. It was brilliant! Better than any of the classes Mizuki taught at the Academy, and sadly a few of Iruka’s worse lectures as well, which was a shame because Iruka was one of Kurama’s favourite people.

Kurama would’ve shared his knowledge on the subject, if asked, but he thought it was better if Naruto worked things out on his own. It was cheating, getting Kurama to solve everything for him, especially at times like this, when there was no pressure to succeed now or die.

Fukasaku demonstrated the power of senjutsu by lifting one of the hundreds of tremendous stone toads that sat in a pose of permanent meditation around the waterfall of toad oil.

“How about that?” Fukasaku asked, shifting the weight of the stone toad to just one of his scrawny little arms. “This is the power of nature chakra-enhanced senjutsu!”

“Wow,” Naruto said, looking suitably impressed. “I have no idea what you did, but the chakra all around you went all funny. If I was fighting blind and relying on my sense of chakra to navigate my surroundings, that would’ve really messed up my sense of where I was. I’ll have to warn Itachi.”

“I can never quite tell if you’re an idiot, or just pretending to be one,” Jiraiya mused.

“I’m an idiot!” Naruto said, cheerfully. “It’s fine, though. I usually get there in the end.”

Fukasaku placed the stone toad back down, then turned back to Naruto, opening his mouth to say something else, and then he paused, his face wrinkling up in a severe frown.

“What?” Jiraiya said.

“What?” Naruto echoed him. “What, what? Is something wrong?”

“Your chakra is severely out of balance,” Fukasaku said, coming closer to peer at Naruto, starting at the tips of his messy hair and moving all the way down to the toes sticking out of his sandals. “You have nearly a hundred times more Yang chakra than yin chakra! In all my long years, I have never seen anything like it.”

Naruto pressed his hand to his chest, letting out a long sigh of relief. “You had me worried there for a moment, Sennin-jii-chan,” he said. “I thought something was seriously wrong with me!”

“Something is seriously wrong with you, Naruto-chan!”

“That sort of chakra imbalance doesn’t sound good, Naruto,” Jiraiya said. “It doesn’t sound like Tsunade’s seal. It sounds dangerous.”

Naruto grinned, sheepish, and shrugged. “It’s just Kyuubi. If Yondaime-sama hadn’t sealed away his Yin half then it’d be evenly balanced.”

“Your chakra and the Kyuubi’s is so mixed I can’t tell where one ends and the other begins,” Fukasaku said. He turned to Jiraiya. “I am sorry for not believing you, Jiraiya-chan. It is a well-known fact that the Kyuubi no kitsune has become hateful and reclusive in his old age. I never thought I would see the day when he shared his chakra so freely, and with so little malice, I did not even recognise it. We toads had long believed that the time might never arrive when someone would befriend him. Naruto-chan must truly be the Child of the Prophecy.”

Don’t let this prophecy nonsense go to your head, Kurama thought, morosely. Also, I resent that. I’m not old, or hateful. This old toad is woefully misinformed.

Naruto snickered. You are old though!

Only this form, and only because I want it to be. Yeah, laugh it up, brat, but I started looking after you before you had any sort of redeeming qualities. First you were in Kushina’s stomach, and let me tell you, human kits are all kinds of weird looking before they’re born. Did you know you have a tail for a while before you reabsorb it? Then, afterwards, all you did was sleep, scream, and poop yourself for almost three years. You weren’t even cute. Human babies are all red and hairless and smushy-looking. If anything, I befriended you, not the other way around.

Abruptly, Naruto choked on his own spit. Kurama had to squash the urge to grin at him viciously.

“You look like you just swallowed a lemon without even stopping to peel it,” Jiraiya said, observing Naruto’s bright red face with interest, as the brat sputtered, wordless with indignation. “What did the Kyuubi say?”

“Nothing!”

“Whatever it was, it was too embarrassing to share,” Jiraiya said to Fukasaku. “Usually Naruto tells everyone within earshot what the Kyuubi thinks.”

Kurama sighed. “So. Senjutsu. Is the Kyuubi induced chakra imbalance going to stop the kit from learning the sage arts?”

“Oh, yes, that should be fine. I was just surprised.” Fukasaku was scratching at his tufty little beard, eyes gazing off into the middle distance, deep in thought. Then he shook himself and smiled at Naruto toothlessly. “Shall we begin?”

“Wait? You mean I might not have been able to learn to be a sage after all because of Kyuubi? Don’t scare me like that, Sennin-jii-chan!” Naruto whined, having suddenly caught up to the meaning of the conversation.

 

xc.

Naruto turning into a stone toad would, objectively, be terrible. Kurama was extremely concerned. Watching Fukasaku wallop Naruto and his kage bunshin with his, uh, baton for beating nature chakra out of the body was subjectively hilarious. Especially since Kurama was fairly certain that was just a regular stick, and it was the surprise of getting hit that made Naruto release the nature chakra.

The little fox was trying very, very hard not to cackle with glee from where he was sitting on top of one of the stone toads’ heads. Mostly because he thought it would hurt Naruto’s feelings. Maybe a little bit because Jiraiya and Gamakichi were still there and he didn’t want to alarm them by seeming, well, maliciously sadistic about harm coming to his ninja partner.

“Don’t be discouraged,” Fukasaku said, standing over Naruto, who was sitting on the ground, holding his head and grimacing where he’d received a thorough whack on the head. “Speaking truthfully, even Jiraiya-chan hasn’t able to completely master this step.”

Naruto blinked. Kurama pricked his ears.

Jiraiya slumped, sighing miserably. “Don’t tell him that, Kashira-nii,” he said to his knees, not to the little old toad.

“Oh, no, go on, this is fascinating,” Kurama said.

“When he moulds sage chakra, Jiraiya-chan always acquires some toad features,” Fukasaku said, ignoring both of them. “But he is one of the more skilled pupils to learn the sage arts.” The unskilled ones all turned into stone toads, after all. “Well, will you continue?”

“Yeah, but you could hit a little less hard, you know,” Naruto grumbled.

“Nope!” Fukasaku said. “I’m hitting you precisely as hard as I need to.”

“Fine.”

They went back to it.

Jiraiya climbed up onto the head of the toad to sit beside Kurama. “He’s very dedicated, that godson of mine,” he said.

“Yes,” Kurama agreed. “I find that rather than encouraging things, I usually have to dissuade him from trying them. The months we spent trying to teach him to cast a successful genjutsu are a testament to that. Once he makes up his mind on something, he stays his course.”

Jiraiya made a thoughtful noise. “The rasenshuriken.”

Kurama nodded. “An example, yes. It’s a kinjutsu, but he knows he will heal, so he will use it over and over if he thinks he can protect his precious people, which is one of his most important goals in life, along with never backing down or giving up. It’s all very commendable, but also very stupid. I have to remind him that running away to live another day has strategic value. Ah, but that’s part of his charm, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Jiraiya said. He seemed to consider something for a long moment, and then he pulled a book out of his shoulder bag. “This was the first novel I ever wrote,” he said, sliding it across the space between himself and the little fox. “It never sold well, but I had high hopes for it. Before you say anything, there’s no porn. Perhaps you and Naruto would like to read it this evening, after training is over. I feel like he would enjoy it.”

“Naruto, enjoy something that Ero-Sennin wrote? That will be the day,” Kurama scoffed, but it was playfully mocking, and he reaching out a paw to drag the book closer to read the cover. The Tale of the Utterly Gutsy Shinobi. He flipped open the front page to read the blurb on the jacket cover. “… This actually looks good, Ero-Sennin. I didn’t know you could actually write.”

“What do you think I’ve been doing all these years?” Jiraiya wailed.

Kurama considered him. “I thought you had adopted the persona of a terrible pervert and a dreadful author who wrote terrible and formulaic porn novels, which sell well because human men are disgusting, and using the excuse of ‘research’ for said novels to get you into countries that you would not otherwise be able to roam as freely as a shinobi associated with Konohagakure no Sato, and once you have infiltrated a location you either pick up intel from your local spy network, or establish a new one, and move on. Though it is possible that you are genuinely a super pervert at the same time. I’ve never quite managed to work that one out, though it’s always best to base your lies on truth, so I suspect you are, genuinely, perverted.”

Jiraiya gaped at him. “Fair,” he said, eventually. “I will never understand how you can deconstruct such a carefully cultivated identity.”

“I’m a fox, not a human. The different perspective is everything.”

Jiraiya reached out to scratch behind Kurama’s ears, and the little fox melted and rolled over onto his side. “You mean because you’re really short?”

Kurama just made a contented sort of humming noise.

Down below them, Naruto wailed as he was once again hit with Fukasaku’s nature chakra dispelling baton. “Ow, ow, ow! I wasn’t even turning into a toad! My face is like this because you hit me so many times!”

“Oh, sorry,” Fukasaku said, without sounding remotely apologetic.

Surreptitiously, the Kyuubi in Naruto’s gut stirred, circulating Kyuubi chakra around his body to additionally accelerate his already advanced rate of healing.

“Did Yondaime-sama ever become a sage?” Kurama asked Jiraiya.

The white-haired sannin was silent for a long, long time. Eventually, he said: “Yes. I brought Namikaze Minato, Naruto’s father, here too, and he also learned senjutsu. However, it clashed with his style of combat, and he did not use it in battle often.”

Kurama nodded towards Naruto. “Tell him that tonight, after Fukasaku calls an end to today’s training. I’m sure he’d love to hear about his father from you.”

Jiraiya rubbed his chin with his hand, watching Naruto thoughtfully as he got back onto the stone steps around the foot of the waterfall to continue with the training. “The truth of Naruto’s parentage is a S-Ranked secret,” he reminded Kurama.

“Kyuubi already told him,” Kurama said. “But Kyuubi only saw Yondaime-sama through Kushina-san’s eyes. I think Naruto would like to hear about his father from someone else who knew him, don’t you? And here, up on Mount Myouboku, no one will know if you’re spilling S-Rank secrets, because it’s just us and the toads.”

“Point,” Jiraiya said.

“You can show him the book, then, too.” Kurama yawned, tucked his nose under his tail, and closed his eyes. “Wake me up when we’re going back.”

“You’re very lazy,” Jiraiya observed.

Kurama grumbled. “I’m old.”

“Perhaps you should go to the fox realm,” the sannin suggested. “Become a yako, grow your second tail, and start down the road to becoming a tenko.”

“Or perhaps I’ll just accept my lot in life, and let the years take me when they will,” Kurama replied. “I don’t want to leave Naruto. He needs me. And everyone dies in the end.”

Except Kurama was not going to die. Kurama and the other bijuu would never die, unless their grandmother was reborn and reabsorbed them, like a pregnant mother rabbit would absorb the kittens in her womb if the world they were to be born into was too harsh – only Kaguya was not a benevolent mother, grandmother, sparing her offspring a life too brief and too brutal. She was a monster who would take and take and take until there was nothing left of the world.

Jiraiya would die. Kakashi would die. Naruto and Sasuke and Sakura and Gaara and all of Kurama’s precious people would die.

And Kurama would remain, on and on and on.

Anyway, to become a tenko a fox had to turn a thousand years old, at which point they would grow their ninth tail. Kurama had been born with nine tails, and he was already well over a thousand, so unless he took this farce far further than he’d ever anticipated, it wasn’t even possible, because he wasn’t a real fox. Just the chakra facsimile of one, even if the real foxes adored him for unknown reasons.

“Have it your way,” Jiraiya said. “For the record, I think you’re making a mistake.”

“I still don’t actually know where the fox realm is, you know,” Kurama pointed out, without opening his eyes.

That evening – after another delicious meal of delightful bugs and grubs – Jiraiya sat down with Naruto and gifted him with the book. Naruto, having copyedited a full half-a-dozen upcoming Icha-Icha volumes, regarded it with a suitable degree of suspicion.

Jiraiya laughed at his expression, a deep, full-bellied laugh. “Don’t worry, kid,” he said. “It’s not what you’re thinking. Read the first couple of chapters.”

Naruto did. He lay down on his belly on the floor of the room in Fukasaku and Shima’s house that they were sharing and flipped the cover open. Kurama flopped onto his flank against Naruto’s side, resting his chin on his paws, and Naruto obligingly tilted the book so he could read too.

A few moments later, Naruto leapt up. “Ero-Sennin!” he said. “The main character is called my name! Did you name him after me?”

Jiraiya chuckled. “No, no. I wrote that book a long time before you were even born. For some reason it never sold very well. But your father read it, and I’ll never known if he was humouring me or not, but he said he enjoyed it. Your parents decided to name you after the main character, though, so perhaps he did.”

“Oh, wow,” Naruto said, voice dropping down to a soft and reverent whisper.

The smile on Jiraiya’s face was equally gentle. “You can read the rest of that later, kid. If you like, I could tell you more about Minato-kun now.”

A tremor of repressed emotion went through Naruto, one strong enough to make his and Kurama’s shared mind space tremble like an earthquake was rolling past, and he dropped back down onto the floor, expression bright and alert. “Yes! I’d really like that you know, Ero-Sennin!”

 

xci.

Sai had a rare day to himself and found himself somewhat at a loss.

Naruto was off on Mount Myouboku, learning senjutsu with Jiraiya and the toads, and he’d taken the Kyuubi with him. Life was a lot less – Sai wanted to say interesting, but that wasn’t the word, perhaps hectic, yes, that worked – life was a lot less hectic without Konoha’s number one unpredictable ninja and his bijuu sidekick hanging around causing mischief.

Kakashi was at the Memorial Stone, speaking to the dead, and Sai had been informed that Kakashi’s time with the dead was inviolate, and he was only to be interrupted from this odd ritual in the event of an emergency.

Yamato was a part of the ANBU detail watching the two jinchuuriki formerly of Kiri, and their nuke-nin comrades, currently being housed in an inn not far from the main marketplace. Sai’s skillset meant he would not prove particularly useful for the detail, so he had not been assigned also, even though Yamato was technically his sponsor for his post-ROOT rehabilitation.

Sakura was working at the hospital with Ino, as she usually did when she was between missions.

Sasuke was at the old Uchiha District with his brother, recently released from the hospital, and a whole clowder of summoned cats, working on getting their old house liveable again since his apartment – while big enough for the regular team sleepovers that Sai had inevitably been dragged into joining – was not really large enough for more than one person to live in continuously in close proximity. Since Itachi was no longer an active shinobi, it wasn’t like he could go and live in the chuunin dorms, and Tsunade wanted someone to keep an eye on his health whenever possible anyway.

This left Sai with his books and his art, but he was in something of an artistic slump. He just didn’t know what to paint, what to sketch. He’d tried drawing the Danzou-tree, but halfway through found himself both dissatisfied with his sketch and disgusted by the subject matter.

He could read, but he didn’t know which book would be helpful to him.

He could, he supposed, go and bother the Hokage for a mission. Naruto did it all the time.

… Then again, Naruto took a lot of liberties that other people didn’t seem to be able to get away with, and Sai knew he was awkward and might accidentally upset Tsunade. He also didn’t particularly feel like being punched through a wall by her, so he decided to forgo that, and took himself off to the library instead.

Sai was not sure what book he was looking for at the library, since he’d read almost all the ones on human interaction already, so instead he just wandered, gaze slipping from one title to the next in the vague hope that he’d see something that looked useful.

Eventually, he found just the thing: a small book on the various summons creatures with known historical alliances to the clans of Konohagakure. Dogs, toads, slugs, snakes, cats, crows, hawks, and deer were among them. Then, the last chapter detailed how a person who had no personal summons could perform the summoning ritual and attempt to reverse summon themselves, whereupon they had a possibility of ending up in the realm of the animal that most suited their soul.

Sai didn’t really understand the part about matching souls, but he was tempted to try reverse summoning. A shinobi should never overlook a potential tool for their arsenal.

He carefully memorised the hand-signs, put the book back on the self where he had discovered it, and took himself out to Training Ground Three, which was semi-permanently reserved for Team Kakashi, and since Team Kakashi was all busy he was guaranteed near-privacy. Kakashi himself might still be at the nearby Memorial Stone, but so long as Sai didn’t bother him Kakashi would leave him alone.

Kakashi wasn’t at the Memorial Stone, though, which meant Maito Gai had probably come along to pester him for a challenge, and Kakashi had either made himself scarce, or had taken Gai up on whatever bizarre and unusual challenge he’d thought up today.

Sai went over the hand-signs one last time in his mind, and certain he did not have them incorrect, he bit his thumb in blood sacrifice, ran through the hand-signs, pressed his hand to the ground, and uttered the words: “Kuchiyose no Jutsu.”

If he was completely honest with himself, Sai wasn’t expecting it to work, so he was surprised when he felt the immediate drain on his chakra. Nor was he expecting the ground under him to shift or for it to suddenly become nighttime.

He fell over, tumbling into long green grass wet with dew.

It took him a minute to gather himself. During that time, no one and nothing attacked him, for which he was immensely grateful.

“Well,” he said. “I guess that worked.”

He sat up and looked around.

And looked around some more, frowning in confusion.

He had no idea where he was, except that there was neither sun nor moon, and the stars were very bright. He was sitting in a field of grass, gentle rolling hills in the distance, and a sakura tree in full bloom not far away. It was an unusual looking tree – he didn’t know cherry trees got that old, curled and knotted around themselves like ancient oaks, trunk knotted and whorled. It was also unusual because it was the wrong time of year for sakura blossoms, yet he could smell them from here, see the soft pink in the partial darkness.

What realm was this?

The book had not mentioned it.

… How did he get back to Konoha?

Where were the animals?

No need to panic, yet. He could send out some rats to scout. They wouldn’t use too much chakra. A minute later, a dozen little ink rats were scurrying through the long grass. Sai watched them go, then slumped in on himself, exhausted.

A surprised squeak and a splatter.

Alarmed, he looked up – and found that where before there had been a vast empty field, but for the sakura tree, there was now a brilliantly white wolf. He had no idea where it had come from, but he watched it examine the ink on its paw, its ears swivelling back and forth, tail wagging slowly, before with a joyous bark the wolf pounced off the crush all of his other ink mice. When she was done, there were specks of black in all the way from her muzzle to her belly, right up her forelegs, but as Sai watched it seemed to melt off her.

She padded toward him.

Behind her, he was aware of other white animals beginning to appear. A white dragon uncoiling itself from around one of the branches of the sakura tree. A boar and her piglets stepping from behind a stone. A rabbit that came up from a burrow he had not noticed. A horse. A trio of cheerful monkeys that immediately began to play lively music. A phoenix. A bull. A sheep. A cat and a rat side-by-side.

What sort of realm was this?

The wolf sat down before him, and tilted her head to the side.

“Hello,” Sai said. “It’s good to meet you. I am Sai.”

She made a softly encouraging chuff, and he realised she did not speak. He had been learning canine language from Kakashi, though, and also partly from Kurama, so he understood that she wanted him to go on.

“I was attempting to reverse summon myself to the realm of the summoning animal that was most compatible with myself,” he told her.

She made an interested grumble.

“Has that ever happened before?”

A yawn. Sai didn’t know how to interpret that.

The wolf stood, coming closer, and nosed at his scroll.

“This? This is my specialty. I’m an artist. I fight with ink, mostly.”

The wolf barked again, but her tail was wagging, now, her tongue lolling from the side of her mouth. Sai noticed that her eyes were darker than any Uchiha’s, darker than his own, and that peering into them was like peering in a bottomless abyss. And then the wolf did something with her tail and ink fell onto the grass between them into Kanji. It was a word.

Unknown fire.

“Shiranui?” Sai said.

The wolf barked again, tail lashing backward and forward ecstatically.

“Oh, you’re Shiranui?”

Another joyous bark.

Where the ink from her tail had fallen, little flowers were appearing in the grass. Sai peered at them, surprised, as they grew to full-sized plants.

“You’re an artist, too,” he murmured. “Though I’ve never seen this technique before.” When he looked back up, Shiranui had produced a scroll and was unrolling it on the grass before him.

It looked a lot like a summoning contract. There were a couple of names, so old the blood was beginning to flake off, written in a neat but tiny hand, with equally little handprints pressed against the parchment.

“You want me to sign?” he asked.

Shiranui play-bowed before him, and for a fraction of a second he saw two images overlaid over her. One was of a tall woman with pale hair and pale skin and eyes like the deepest caverns, regal and elegant, and the other was of a larger wolf, lines of fire dancing across its fur, a disk of sun-fire on its back. Sai blinked, and both were gone, leaving behind a plain-looking white wolf with a tail tipped black, like it had been dipped in an inkpot, and black eyes.

He had ink on his thumb, but it was still bleeding sluggishly. It wasn’t difficult to squeeze his thumb and force some fresh blood to well up to sign his name with, then press his hand against the dry old parchment of the scroll.

As soon as he did, the scroll disappeared, and a moment later he was back in Training Ground Three, collapsed in the grass under the sun, with a white wolf at his side and no real idea of what had just happened, because it seemed that the animals he’d just signed on with did not speak.

He felt like he hadn’t eaten in a week.

He looked at Shiranui. “Are you hungry? I know somewhere we can get good ramen.”

Shiranui wagged her tail and did that high-pitched excited bark again. He supposed that meant yes.

 

xcii.

“I can’t believe I spent years trying to master the sage arts, and Naruto has very nearly surpassed me in just a matter of days,” Jiraiya said. He didn’t sound very sad about it, though. Instead, there was a proud gleam in his eye, and an expression of rapturous joy on his face, like everything he could possibly have hoped for had come to fruition. Then he added: “There’s nothing more I can teach him, now.”

“Not about ninjutsu, or senjutsu,” Kurama agreed. “But you’re an old shinobi, and there are still things you can teach him about subtlety, strategy, and spy craft, and you haven’t finished with fuuinjutsu yet, don’t forget.”

“Ah, right you are, Kurama, right you are. Though he could probably manage the fuuinjutsu without me at this stage. He has the basics down, and the inventiveness required to be great. All the fuuinjutsu I could teach him would be pre-existing seals and how to counter them, though he’s not really… made for rote memorisation.”

That was an understatement if Kurama ever heard one.

They peered up at the towering spires where Naruto was having to balance on a precarious pinnacle as he gathered nature chakra on his own, without the assistance of toad oil, watched over by Fukasaku.

“He’s going to fall,” Kurama predicted. “In… three… two… one… Ah, told you.”

High above them, the little stone platform Naruto was balancing on had slipped, and Naruto was now clinging desperately to the side of the spire with chakra.

“How’d you know?” Jiraiya asked.

Kurama grinned. “He was falling asleep. The sun’s just the right temperature, and breakfast was just the right amount of time ago, to make taking a morning nap attractive. Also, his head was starting to nod, just a little.”

“Your eyes are remarkably sharp for someone with such severe cataracts,” Jiraiya observed.

Kurama shrugged. “I’m not using my eyes. When I look at things, I have to compensate, observe through my peripheral vision. Shinobi endure, isn’t that right? I lose my direct sight, I make up for it with indirect sight, and other senses, and keep on going. I know how Naruto fares from my other senses.”

“You’re a canny old thing, and I despise that I’ve become fond of you,” Jiraiya grumbled. “You are the absolute bane of my existence. You should just go to the fox realm.”

“I thought the bane of your existence was Orochimaru,” Kurama said, mildly. Though Jiraiya was not exaggerating. Kurama had made it one of his missions in life to reform the old sannin while they were on their training trip around the Elemental Nations. Jiraiya had not enjoyed it one little bit. On the other hand, Jiraiya was better than ever at handling money, and he was a recovering alcoholic rather than an active one, which was more than could be said for Tsunade. He was still a raging super pervert, but the little fox knew when to pick and choose his battles, and anyway, the royalties from the Icha-Icha series had made much of their trip rather comfortable, so Kurama couldn’t complain too much about it. Since, well, it was Jiraiya’s perversion that had allowed him to bathe as often as he wanted in an onsen, sleep on a series of comfortable beds night after night and eat good food. As an afterthought, Kurama added: “Likewise, I am fond of you, you old pervert, so don’t do anything monumentally stupid and die before I do.”

Up above them, Naruto had retrieved a new stone platform and climbed back up to the top of the spire, where he carefully balanced it, before hopping up and settling back into a meditative position.

It wasn’t long before he moved on to learning the Frog Kumite under Fukasaku’s tutelage.

Naruto had become adept at balancing the nature chakra he drew in with the chakra he already had, and the only toad features he developed were a slight discolouration around his eyes that looked more like bad eyeshadow than anything else – in orange, too – and a horizontal barring of his pupils. On the one paw, he had not looked good with sagging cheeks, bulging eyes, webbed fingers and toes, and great warts.

On the other, Kurama had to admit that he didn’t like Naruto’s barred pupils very much.

“I know they’re a toad feature,” he said to his kit that evening, while they were lazing around after another delicious meal prepared by Shima. “But they make you look like an ungulate. Like prey. I don’t like it. You look much better with slit pupils, like a fox, like a snake – like a predator.” He paused. “I approved of the colour. Nice colour, amber eyes. Very attractive.”

“You’re just saying that because that’s the colour your eyes are,” Naruto groused.

Jiraiya, who was listening in because he was a spy master and as a result one of the nosiest people Kurama had ever met with a truly nasty habit of both peeping and eavesdropping, burst out laughing.

Kurama’s kit was, of course, approaching his sage training with his usual level of dedication for something he had set his mind to. Which meant with every fibre of his being, going so far as to slip out at night to sit in the still darkness and practice drawing in chakra by himself. Kurama went with him more to keep him company than anything else, though he didn’t need so much company when he was meditating because his mind was on other things entirely, so it was really for those moments before he slipped into a meditative trance, and after he came back out, that Kurama was really there for.

The little fox lay on his back in the grass and stared up at the stars, observing the movement of the deep purple sky with the interest of a millennia old being who had spent many nights studying the heavens from different places upon the earth.

Naruto was quite good at staying almost perfectly still, but for the faint rise and fall of his chest, because he’d learned it from Kurama, who once took a nap for so long that fallen leaves had built up on him over the seasons until he was an oddly-shaped hillock, and had woken to find his flank covered in grass and wildflowers. It was a perk, Kurama supposed, of having a chakra construct that was not actually an animal sharing his body and twined around his soul – certain things just came easier.

One morning, when Shima took Jiraiya off to gather more ingredients for lunch, Fukasaku sat down with Naruto and Kurama, and suggested that in battle he and Naruto merge themselves, so Naruto could fight while the old toad sage drew in nature chakra.

“No!” Naruto yelped, and Kurama saw the image that went through his mind of a sort of Naruto-Fukasaku chimaera with features of both. It was… not pretty. Kurama really hoped that wasn’t what Fukasaku wanted.

The old toad clarified. He would sit on Naruto’s shoulder or back. They wouldn’t actually become one being.

That sounded less terrible.

Kurama still wasn’t sure that he liked it, though.

They went out to practice in the shade cast by the great orange-speckled green leaves of the giant lilies that grew in the toad realm, because it was another beautiful day outside. Kurama flopped onto his side to watch, not feeling particularly apprehensive, but neither particularly calm.

Fukasaku hopped up onto Naruto’s shoulder, they began to breathe in sync – and Kurama saw red. A moment later, Fukasaku went catapulting off Naruto’s shoulder, thrown halfway across the field.

“Sennin-jii-chan!” Naruto exclaimed. “Are you alright? What happened?”

Sorry, Kurama thought to him, feeling suddenly very sheepish. That was me. I’ll try not to do it again.

“Oh,” Naruto said, helping the old toad up. “It was Kyuubi. Reflex, you know. I guess.”

“I had suspected,” Fukasaku said, hopping back onto Naruto’s shoulder, but much less nimbly this time.

Kurama tried very, very hard not to react when Naruto and the old toad began to breathe together again, and he felt the first flicker of the nature chakra filter into Naruto’s system through Fukasaku – but he didn’t like the way it felt. It was like having a tick attached to his skin, regurgitating poison into his bloodstream, and his visceral response was to scratch it off.

A moment later, almost without conscious thought, he flared his chakra, and Fukasaku leapt away as though burnt.

No, he was burnt, his feet still steaming where they had been in contact with Naruto’s shoulder, little wisps of smoke curling up into the air from his cloak.

Oops, Kurama thought, fighting the urge to visibly cringe. Tell him I’m sorry and I did not mean to do that.

“I don’t think this is going to work, Sennin-jii-chan,” Naruto said, helping the little old toad up carefully and flinching at the wounds on his feet. “Kyuubi really doesn’t like the way that feels. He’s sorry, that was an accident. Again. Maybe I can just leave two or three kage bunshin meditating somewhere away from the battle, really far away y’know, and they can disperse when they’ve gathered enough chakra, and then I won’t need you to help?”

“Yes, you’re right, this definitely won’t work,” Fukasaku agreed. “Help me home, Naruto-chan, so I can bandage my feet.”

It was while Naruto was very carefully wrapping Fukasaku’s toes that Jiraiya burst in, accompanied by Kousuke. “We have to go,” he said, urgently. “Konoha’s under attack.”

Naruto glanced at Fukasaku.

“Go, Naruto-chan. I have taught you all I can.”

 

xciii.

The Paths of Pein wrought death and destruction through the village. They just didn’t have enough warning, no real idea of their enemy’s true prowess beyond the fact he – they? – possessed the Rinnegan from the old fables about the Sage of Six paths.

One shinobi fell after another. Civilians perished in droves, even as they fled for the tunnels that led to shelter deep beneath the Hokage Monument.

Hatake Kakashi succumbed to chakra exhaustion, protecting Akimichi Chouji.

Akimichi Chouza died in the rubble no more than a dozen feet from him.

Umino Iruka fell while protecting the children being evacuated from the Academy.

Haku and Momochi Zabuza’s last stand was side-by-side, and they died that way, together.

Izumo and Kotetsu died a minute apart, not far from the gates where they spent so much of their time.

Katou Shizune.

Yamanaka Inoichi who died with his daughter at his side, Nara Shikaku, and Morino Ibiki, Shiranui Genma and Mitarashi Anko, and countless others, who died when the TI department was destroyed by the Animal Path’s summoned rhinoceros.

Sasori and Hidan, crushed deep down in the TI department’s bowels without ever knowing it was their old comrade who ended their lives.

Uchiha Itachi, who refused to be evacuated, like a civilian, and went to do battle, left eye blazing with the Mangekyou Sharingan as he drew up the Susanoo around him. He saved many lives, including Sasuke’s, but the strain of the exertion was too much, and he succumbed to a mixture of his illness, chakra exhaustion, and grievous injuries. Sasuke almost died in spite of his brother’s sacrifice, tears of blood streaming down his face as his own Mangekyou manifested and he threw himself against the Asura Path with vengeance on his mind, hatred and despair warring for dominance in his heart, and no thought for his own survival.

Tsunade couldn’t save them. Not even with the assistance of Katsuyu, and the Immense Healing Network. She tried, though. Desperately. Until she was interrupted.

The Deva Path, the corpse of Yahiko who Tsunade knew, deigned to speak to her. When the ANBU surrounding her attempted to attack it – he? – repelled every projectile or jutsu thrown at it, and landed on the roof of the Hokage Tower with a gentle tap of his – its? – sandals.

“It’s been a long time, Tsunade-hime.” The Deva Path said, face devoid of expression, voice flat and emotionless. “I would take a moment to speak with you.”

“You’re Jiraiya’s boy,” Tsunade said. “From so long ago.”

“It seems you remember me.”

“Hokage-sama? You and Jiraiya-sama know this man?” one of Tsunade’s ANBU members asked.

“Only a little,” Tsunade replied, not taking her eyes off the Deva Path. “This is Yahiko, one of Jiraiya’s students. Tell me, Yahiko, where are Konan and Nagato?”

“I am not Yahiko,” the Deva Path said, ignoring her question, and saying instead: “I am a kami who would restore order.”

A flash of white, as Sai flew past on one of his ink hawks, a snowy wolf crouched behind him, in pursuit of the much larger summoned bird with a drill for a beak.

“He’s mad,” one of Tsunade’s other ANBU guards murmured.

“Where is Uzumaki Naruto?” the Deva Path asked. “Where is the Kyuubi no kitsune?”

“Who knows?” Tsunade said.

“The hunt for the jinchuuriki is almost over. The bijuu will no longer be used as power balances, to equalise the strength of the Elemental Nations, to intimidate the villages into false peace.”

Tsunade scoffed. “From what I have learned from my esteemed grandfather, they never should have been in the first place. The bijuu are as sentient as the next person, and caging them against their wills for decades on end, when they did nothing to us without provocation – well.”

“Regardless, there is no longer any point in protecting the Kyuubi,” the Deva Path intoned, blandly.

“He’s my esteemed grandfather! I’ll protect him as I would Shodaime-sama, or any other citizen of Konoha!” Tsunade snapped.

The Deva Path paused. “What?”

“I was quite surprised myself,” Tsunade admitted. “When the Kyuubi informed me that he felt a certain kinship towards me. But it makes sense. My paternal grandmother, Uzumaki Mito, was his first jinchuuriki, who became pregnant with my otou-san after the Kyuubi’s imprisonment. However, the Kyuubi, it turns out, is unusually possessive of the offspring of his jinchuuriki – they belong to him as much as they do either parent. So, you’re here for Naruto. I hope you don’t expect him to be at odds with the Kyuubi and easy to pick off because of it, as that is not the relationship you will find between them – Naruto’s mother was the Kyuubi’s jinchuuriki before Naruto himself, so Naruto might as well be that grumpy old fox’s own son.”

“Are you trying to frighten me away?” the Deva Path asked. “It will not work. The war will begin soon. The seeds of discord were sewn years ago, right across this land, and they are ready to explode. We, the Akatsuki, will control those wars. If you cooperate, we would not be averse to assisting you. From the state of your village, you know what we are capable of.”

“Don’t underestimate the kages!” Tsunade snapped. “You are nothing but terrorists who seek to destroy the world. Even if you weren’t foolishly threatening the existence of everyone on the planet, you would throw away the hard-won peace our predecessors fought and died for! We will not negotiate with you!”

“The rabbit goddess nonsense,” the Deva Path said. It might have been a question. It might not. It was hard to tell when he spoke with no inflection in his voice. “And you heard of it from… your esteemed grandfather, the Kyuubi? Foxes are tricksters, Tsunade-hime, and you have fallen for the trick of a beast that will inconvenience you for the sake of it.”

“I’m inclined to believe him,” Tsunade replied. “Especially when the Kazekage and jinchuuriki of the Ichibi has conferred with his bijuu, and confirms the Kyuubi’s story. The jinchuuriki of the Nibi, the Hachibi, the Sanbi, and the Rokubi also corroborate the tale. I requested Raikage-dono to ask his brother to speak to the Hachibi and ask one thing: ‘What will happen if the Akatsuki put the chakra from the bijuu they are stealing into a big statue with nine eyes?’ Raikage-dono informed me that he has never seen his brother so discomfited – the Hachibi apparently told him it would awaken Usagi no Megami, his grandmother, and all life would cease. The Kyuubi called her Kaguya-baa-chan. The Ichibi called her the mother of the Sage of Six Paths, and the Nibi called her the mother of chakra, but they all agreed: if she was awoken, the world as we know it will end. Their stories were similar enough that I am certain they speak of the same entity.”

“Lies,” the Deva Path said.

“Would hearing it from Jiraiya help? You were once his student, and he was there with me when I spoke to the other jinchuuriki,” Tsunade offered.

“Irrelevant!” And the Deva Path activated that same jutsu again, almost sending everyone else on the roof of the Hokage Tower tumbling head-over-heels into the streets below. “Your peace brought violence upon us.”

Tsunade inclined her head. “I will be the first to admit that the past actions of Konohagakure no Sato were not just – but we have been taking steps to grow toward a brighter future and not repeat the mistakes of our forebears.” She gestured in the vague direction of the Danzou-tree. “Your actions, however, are unforgiveable. People cannot change if you kill them all before they are even allowed to try!”

The Deva Path’s expression finally changed, its – his? – eyes narrowing. “Mind your words, Tsunade-hime,” it said. “This is your last warning from kami. Where is Naruto? Speak!”

“All I have to say is that we do not know, and that you will not defeat that boy! I place my absolute faith in that boy and his bijuu, and you are making a grave mistake,” Tsunade said.

“If you think Konoha has what it takes to protect Naruto, then—” the Deva Path began.

“You’re wrong!” Tsunade interrupted him. It. It was unclear. “It is not Konoha that protects Naruto, but Naruto that protects Konoha!”

“Then he has failed. And he is truly not here. Then – lingering here is useless.” The Deva Path turned away. “May I ask you one last question? That chakra in your feet and legs – was it to counter my jutsu? It seems you understand my ability. However. It is useless against my power.”

Tsunade quietly wished for Kurama at her side to make a sassy comment about shinobi who were overcompensating when they went around telling the world how powerful they were, or something about the greater the shinobi the greater the fall. Something to break the tension. Not that she would ever admit to missing that little monster of a kitsune.

Maybe something about monologing as a distraction technique.

“Your great nations proved that without a doubt,” the Deva Path continued. “You all think that you have the leading roles in this world, and do not think twice about your death.”

Wrong. Tsunade was a medic before she was anything else. Before she was a shinobi. Before she was Hokage, even. She looked death in the face and fought it for other people every day. She lost everyone during the Second Shinobi World War, left her village in her grief. Beneath her veneer of youth, she was getting older, and she had always been aware of her own mortality.

“Dulled by peace, you become shallow. But if you kill people, you shall be killed.”

Pot, meet the kettle. Tsunade hoped Naruto wasn’t far away, that Kousuke and Jiraiya had made haste.

“The cycle of hatred is perpetuated.”

“Stop with this nonsense and go already,” Tsunade said, because she was not Kurama. She was the Hokage. The last line of defense, or the first, and not some laughing kitsune.

“In both sides,” the Deva Path continued, as if it had not heard her. “Both sides suffer injury, death. Pain.”

“And we from the Elemental Nations have endured our share of pain!” she yelled. “So stop looking for excuses for your own crimes!”

“Laughable,” the Deva Path said bitterly. “Feel pain. Contemplate pain. Accept pain. Know pain!” His feet left the ground, and he floated up into the air as if he were weightless, calling down: “One who does not know pain cannot possibly understand true peace!”

And then the Paths and Konan withdrew, taking with them the unconscious and nearly chakra exhausted Yagura and Utakata, who had fought and ultimately lost against the Preta Path, which killed countless others. Pein had been hoping that Naruto would be in Konoha also.

It was disappointing that he was not.

The Deva Path detonated the Shinra Tensei – and levelled Konohagakure no Sato, killing countless others with flying debris as buildings were blown away and trees uprooted. Every tree except the Danzou-tree, which was tall and strong and had roots that reached deeper into the earth than any other, though it did lose most of its leaves.

That was how Ayame and her father, Teuchi, died. Not shinobi, but brave civilians helping others, who waited too late to get to shelter. And how Sarutobi Asuma, his father the Sandaime, and nephew Konohamaru, and fiancé Yuuhi Kurenai were killed, as the hospital collapsed upon them.

Some people survived, encased in the many replications of Katsuyu. Most were not that lucky.

It was to this devastation that Naruto, Kurama, Jiraiya, and the greatest warrior toads of Mount Myouboku appeared – in the centre of the crater where Konoha once stood.

 

xciv.

Sometimes, a person’s emotion lingered in the air after they had died, just for a short few moments.

Kurama, sitting perched on Naruto’s shoulder, atop Gamakichi’s head, who in turn was sitting upon the tremendous shoulders of his father, Gamabunta, choked on the miasma of terror and despair, which was so thick that it felt like his lungs had filled with grave dirt. Tens of thousands of people had died in fear and agony.

After the fraction of a second it took him to take in the fact they were too late, Konoha was gone, more thoroughly erased than the damage he had wrought sixteen years ago, his first instinct was to look for the familiar beacons amongst the masses of humanity that always grounded him, the negative emotions that he recognised almost as closely as his own mind, and held dear.

But he could not find the Sandaime, who felt like regret and pain.

He could not find fully half of the Rookie Nine.

He could not find Maito Gai.

He could not find Itachi, who felt like guilt and hate and eternal mourning.

He could not find Kakashi, who felt like old grief tinged with omnipresent fear.

Sakura was there, but she no longer felt like hastily stifled frustration but of overwhelming sadness and desperation. Sasuke was flickering in and out, and he felt like sharp grief and the bitter sort of hatred that made Kurama’s stomach turn instead of the muted anxiety. Sai was at the edge of his senses, and rather than his usual cool collectedness, he felt like a fluttering mess of panic. Yamato, too, was distant, and felt like shock and hopelessness.

And then the echoes of the emotions of the dying were gone, too, fading into nothing, and Kurama found himself surrounded by a vast emptiness where once there had been thousands and thousands of people. So many of his precious people were missing, dead they were dead, he wanted to and scream and howl and cry his pain at the unforgiving sky.

And hovering high above them was a man in an Akatsuki robe with orange hair and Rinnegan eyes, though he dropped out of Kurama’s sight a moment later.

“Where are we, anyway?” Naruto asked, peering through the dust-choked air.

He didn’t know.

Kurama had to fight to keep his emotions, his revelations, from reaching his kit through their shared mental space. Naruto would need to keep a clear head to fight their enemy, and he wouldn’t be able to do that with the Kyuubi’s mad grief overwhelming him.

Shima appeared out of the swirling dust.

“What is going on, kaa-chan?” Fukasaku asked her, hurriedly. “Why didn’t you summon us to Konohagakure no Sato?”

Kurama hoped she would not say something… unwise.

“This is Konohagakure no Sato,” Shima replied.

Naruto froze, barred yellow eyes widening and glazing over even as he cast his senses out to try to confirm information he thought could not possibly be true. Well, forget fighting with a clear head. Naruto would probably be alright anyway. He was resilient. Just so long as he and Kurama didn’t start up a feedback loop of grief that drove them both insane. Easy enough, surely?

“What do you mean, Shima-baa?” Gamakichi asked, because Naruto and Jiraiya were unanimously too speechless to do so.

“Look carefully around you,” Shima replied, and turned to face the Hokage Monument, just visible through the slowly settling rubble dust. There were the five heads of the Hokage, looking out over the decimated earth where Konoha once stood. And there was the Danzou-tree. Kurama would recognise that particular piece of graffiti halfway up the trunk anywhere, though the tree was looking somewhat naked. “It’s obvious who did this,” Shima continued.

“Pein,” Naruto supplied, gaze still distant.

“We thought we were setting a trap for him,” Jiraiya said, blankly. “We were blinded by our own hubris.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Naruto said. “But alright, if you’re sure.”

“Overconfidence,” Kurama informed him.

“Ah.” Naruto did not refute the claim.

Someone was moving toward them through the dust and smoke. He emerged, the young man with the orange hair and the Rinnegan eyes, and beside them Jiraiya stiffened.

“Yahiko,” he croaked. “How could you, Yahiko?”

Yahiko, Pein, whoever, ignored Jiraiya and turned his gaze upon Naruto. “You have saved us the trouble of looking for you – indeed, your return has been fortuitous for us for we were about to leave.”

He didn’t feel like anything to Kurama. The little fox could feel his chakra – it was oddly familiar – but there was no emotion there. It was like beholding a corpse standing in front of them. And then another red-headed shinobi in a black cloak appeared overhead, summoning four others, and there were six of them. Five men and one woman, all with orange hair and Rinnegan eyes, with the exception of the one who was bald.

Kurama recoiled.

The same chakra.

The same lack of emotion.

“They’re puppets,” he snarled. Puppets still made his skin crawl, ever since Sasori.

Jiraiya looked at him sharply. “What?”

But Tsunade had leapt into the crater, placing herself between the Pein puppets and Naruto, Jiraiya, and the toads.

“Tsunade?” Jiraiya murmured, so softly Kurama almost didn’t hear him.

“I am the Godaime Hokage!” she shouted across the empty space between herself and the Pein puppets. “And you trample on the dreams of my predecessors – of my grandfather, my grand uncle, who fought with everything they had to see a place where children do not have to fight and die, and you kill the children anyway! I will not forgive you! I will settle this now, as the Hokage!”

Kurama was very good at getting into trouble when he acted before thinking, but his granddaughter was about to launch herself into battle with the being, or the corpse-puppets of the being that had levelled the entirety of the village. So, he did not think.

Some things were more important than maintaining cover or long-term pranks, anyway.

He leapt from Naruto’s shoulder, releasing the chakra he kept tamped down so tight and pulling on some more from the part of himself coiled around Naruto’s soul beside. His form exploded outwards, and when his paws touched down on the faintly smoking earth he was taller than Gamabunta, one tail had become nine, his eyes bled red and black markings crawled up from his muzzle all the way to the tips of his elongated ears. He wanted to look as threatening as possible as he placed himself in front of Tsunade, muzzle wrinkled, teeth bared, ears pinned back, hackles raised, tails lashing.

“NO, TSUNADE-CHAN,” he growled in a great, booming rumble, and picked her up by the back of her haori to the consternation of her ANBU guard. “YOU ARE TIRED,” he continued, between his clenched teeth, ignoring Tsunade as she tried to punch him in the nose. “KONOHA IS AS MUCH MINE AS IT IS YOURS, HAS ALWAYS BEEN MINE, SO, ALLOW ME TO FIGHT IN YOUR STEAD.”

She slumped in his grip, which was testament to how exhausted she truly was. “Very well, ojii-sama. Be careful of the one that looks like Yahiko. That’s the one that destroyed the village. They all seem to have different abilities, and they’re all equally dangerous from what Katsuyu and I could discover.”

“YOU HAVE DONE WELL, GRANDDAUGHTER.” With a single elegant bound the Kyuubi leapt up out of the crater, and deposited her next to Sakura, before stalking back down, grinning a mad, malicious grin. “I HAVE A BONE TO PICK WITH YOU, PEIN, AND YOU AREN’T GOING TO LIKE IT. FIRST, I’M GOING TO CHEW UP YOUR LITTLE HUMAN PUPPETS. THEN, I’M GOING TO HUNT YOU DOWN AND CHEW YOU UP AS WELL, WHEREVER YOU ARE. THEN, I’M GOING TO PEE ON YOUR CORPSE.”

“As far as threats go, that one was good, right up until the last bit,” Gamakichi said. “That last bit sounds too much like something Kurama would do.”

“Wait,” the Kyuubi heard Jiraiya say. “Wasn’t that – Naruto, that’s Kurama! Your ninkitsune just turned into the Kyuubi!”

“Well, yeah. Kurama was the Kyuubi the whole time.”

 

xcv.

“WHY?” the Kyuubi asked, watching the meat puppets of Pein without looking at any one of them in the face, because he knew about the Rinnegan. “WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS?”

“My business is with your jinchuuriki. For now,” the Yahiko puppet, the Deva Path, intoned blandly, staring at Naruto without glancing at the Kyuubi menacing him, and the bald puppet launched itself at the toads and Jiraiya. Naruto was quicker. He moved in an instant, crushing the bald Asura Path into the ground, revealing it to be full of machinery on the inside. It was the most complex puppet Kurama had ever seen, leagues more advanced than Sasori’s creations. “Uzumaki Naruto,” the Deva Path acknowledged.

“We’ll settle this, you and I!” Naruto yelled, gesturing broadly to indicate himself and the Paths, which abruptly rearranged themselves into a battle formation.

In response, the Kyuubi hunkered down at Naruto’s back, a low rumbling growl echoing throughout the crater, ready to move to assist his kit at a moment’s notice.

“Kurama,” Naruto said. “Tell everyone in the village to stay out of the way! I don’t want anyone to get squashed, by you or the toads.”

The Kyuubi nodded curtly. It was a wise decision. A battle between the greatest of the bijuu, multiple sages, and someone wielding the Rinnegan with such destructive force was not something an ordinary shinobi could hope to survive. Many already hadn’t, and the Kyuubi had a sneaking feeling that Naruto had realised this already and carefully set that realisation aside to deal with later, when there weren’t people left who were still depending on him as Konoha’s last bastion in the face of overwhelming odds.

“HEY! HUMAN FLEAS! IF YOU’RE STILL ALIVE UP THERE, LISTEN TO ME AND STAY AWAY FROM THE BATTLE THAT IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN UNLESS YOU WANT TO DIE, TOO! I DO NOT WANT TO CLEAN YOUR GUTS OUT FROM THE FUR BETWEEN MY TOES BECAUSE YOU WERE TOO STUPID TO AVOID GETTING TRODDEN ON,” the Kyuubi bellowed.

“I meant it’d be hard to fight if I had to defend them as well,” Naruto said.

“CLOSE ENOUGH. THEY SHOULD’VE GOT THE MESSAGE ANYWAY.”

Pein moved first. The Animal Path summoned a dog with no ears and wings upon its back, an enormous shaggy brown ox, and a huge rhinoceros to the battlefield. Naruto, channelling sage chakra, ploughed through them as he charged head-first at the Paths of Pein, and the Kyuubi idly smacked the dog with one of his many tails as it sailed past, slamming it into the ground and crushing its skull. It dispersed with a puff of smoke as the toads fell upon the other summons.

The Preta Path, a stocky man, stepped forward to meet Naruto – and absorbed his oodama rasengan completely.

Naruto disengaged and sprang back, cursing.

“Kurama, did you see what happened?” The Kyuubi shared what he had witnessed through their mental link, and Naruto made a noise of comprehension. “I can only use taijutsu against this one, then?”

“YES, I BELIEVE SO. BE CAREFUL.”

Naruto nodded, dropping into a taijutsu stance. “Frog Kumite it is.”

They exchanged blows. Naruto quickly worked out that the Paths were all visually connected, which meant that so long as the other four Paths were watching the fight he could not possibly use the normal sort of feint and misdirect that was common in taijutsu. That was fine, Naruto didn’t necessarily need to land a direct hit when using senjutsu and fighting in the Frog Kumite style – a blow that missed by a couple of inches would connect because of the nature of senjutsu.

And it did.

He missed the Preta Path’s jaw, his fist slipping past its ear instead, and the Path’s head snapped around, neck breaking with a sickening crunch.

The Kyuubi was most leery of the Preta Path, since it could steal chakra, which meant it could possibly steal his chakra from Naruto, and he wasn’t certain how these dead-not-dead corpse puppets worked, so as Naruto bounced back again to gather himself for his next volley, the Kyuubi reached out to snag the fallen corpse on his claw and bring it to his mouth.

True to his word, the Kyuubi chewed the Preta Path into a pulpy mash before digging a hole and spitting it up then burying it and glassing the earth with a boiling fire jutsu, just to be absolutely certain it wouldn’t come back like some sort of perverse zombie.

To the Kyuubi’s vindictive pleasure, the four remaining Paths looked somewhat disconcerted.

The Kyuubi gave them a bloody-toothed leer.

“Gross, Kurama,” Naruto complained, and the Paths simultaneously refocused on him.

The Deva Path spoke. “You know that you and I have both been trained by Jiraiya-sensei?”

Naruto scowled at him. “I know. Ero-Sennin’s kind of great and kind of terrible at teaching. It seems to depend on the day, you know. So, you came out bad. You didn’t have Kurama there to make sure you weren’t corrupted by Ero-Sennin’s perverted wiles.”

“Kurama is the demon fox,” the Deva Path said, without inflection, but it seemed like a question.

“YES,” the Kyuubi boomed. “I, KURAMA, AM THE KYUUBI NO YOUKO, AND I MADE SURE NARUTO DID NOT LEARN ANY VICES FROM ERO-SENNIN. THE THREE TABOOS FOR THE SHINOBI ARE MONEY, ALOHOL, AND SEX, BUT ERO-SENNIN IS A HYPOCRITE SO IT WAS IMPORTANT TO PROVIDE AN EXAMPLE OF MODERATE BEHAVIOUR WHEN TRAVELLING WITH HIM.”

“Just tell everyone, then!” Jiraiya shouted from behind them. He had Shima and Fukasaku perched one on either shoulder, and they were drawing in nature chakra quietly.

“We are sibling disciples,” the Deva Path said, ignoring them. “Sharing the same master, you and I should be able to understand each other. I only desire peace.”

Naruto glanced at the Kyuubi.

“Uh,” Naruto said, even as he began to prepare the rasenshuriken, and the Kyuubi nodded and started collecting chakra in his mouth for an immediate follow-up bijuudama. “Yeah, no, you know? Because Ero-Sennin was my fourth sensei. My first was Kurama! My second was Iruka-sensei! My third was Kakashi-nii! And then Ero-Sennin, and they all taught me really valuable lessons, believe it! All that you’ve done here, there’s no peace here!” By the time he finished speaking, he had the rasenshuriken spinning above his head, and it was finally complete and not harmful to the user – the senjutsu had been the final requirement, as Jiraiya had hypothesised.

“You’re looking at the tree, not the whole forest,” the Deva Path said. “You do not know the meaning of peace. So, let yourself be captured. Your death will lead to peace.”

The Kyuubi swallowed the chakra he was gathering, so he could speak. “THAT IS A STUPID ANALOGY. THE LONE TREE CAN BE THE START OF A GREAT FOREST, OR A SINGLE TREE INFECTED WITH BLIGHT CAN DESTROY THE FOREST. AND WE KNOW MORE ABOUT PEACE THAN YOU DO, YOU INSOLENT BRAT. GETTING MYSELF SEALED INTO YOUR GEDOU MAZOU WILL ONLY WAKE BAA-SAMA UP, AND THEN THERE WILL BE PEACE, OH YES THERE WILL, BUT ONLY BECAUSE THE PLANET WILL BE A DESICCATED HUSK WITH NO LIFE LEFT. REAL PEACEFUL.”

“Yeah! Just shut the hell up because you don’t know anything,” Naruto snarled, and hurled the rasenshuriken with a screaming whistle.

The Kyuubi coughed up the bijuudama and spat it in a concentrated beam a moment later.

 

xcvi.

The Animal Path and the Human Path perished almost immediately. The Human Path was nailed by Naruto’s rasenshuriken. The Kyuubi hit the Animal Path with his follow-up bijuudama, and clipped the Naraka Path as it tried to dart out of the way. Only the Deva Path, quicker and lighter on its feet and with an unusual range of escape options considering it could levitate, made it out unscathed.

As Naruto began to square up with the Deva Path, the Kyuubi darted across the crater, snatching up the corpses of the Human and Animal Paths, and the flailing Naraka Path, and beginning to chew until they were mixed into a paste in his mouth. He repeated the actions he had taken with the Preta Path – digging a hole, spitting them up into it, covering them over, and turning the earth to glass with an extremely hot Katon jutsu, so hot it made the air around him boil and threaten to ignite.

It looked, for one glorious moment, like they would come out on top of this confrontation.

And then the Deva Path began to fight in earnest. The Kyuubi didn’t know why it hadn’t been engaged in the battle before now, not when its restraint had meant the decimation of the other Paths which surely put Pein at a tactical disadvantage.

But at the end of it, the boss toads had retreated the Mount Myouboku, severely injured, Fukasaku had been impaled and was dead, Jiraiya was pinned down with a half-dozen black chakra rods, sure to join Fukasaku in the Pure Lands any moment, the Kyuubi had been staked to the ground by his paws, muzzle, and each of his nine tails, and Naruto was pinned through his hands as the Deva Path stood over him and spoke.

The Kyuubi could have escaped, of course, but not without causing a tremendous amount more damage to the village in the attempt. Unless… Maybe that would work…

“You asked me, your bijuu asked me, why I have done this,” the Deva Path said, crouching down to be on Naruto’s level.

The Kyuubi snarled at it, him, even around the blood filling his mouth from the rod impaling his muzzle. He could not speak, but in his mind he was shouting: Away! Get away from my kit!

The Deva Path continued: “Even if I told you why, I doubt it would change anything.”

Yes, because you’re too blind to listen to reason, for all that you have the most powerful doujutsu in the world!

“But what if we tried to have a discussion one more time?” the Deva Path asked.

“I have nothing to say to you,” Naruto said. “But if you take that rod out of Kurama’s mouth, he has plenty.”

“Jiraiya-sensei desired peace, but took no steps toward securing it. My goal is to attain the peace he could never, would never achieve,” the Deva Path said. “Creating peace, and meting out justice.”

“Peace?” Naruto echoed, disbelievingly. “Justice? Yeah, right! Don’t give me that crap!” The Kyuubi took this moment to subtly shove almost all of the chakra he had been using back at Naruto, pulling away from the stakes as his form shrunk to the size of a little red fox with a single tail once more. His paws and muzzle and tail were bleeding freely as he stumbled across the charred battleground of the crater to hunker down at Naruto’s side and glared at the Deva Path’s feet. “Ero-Sennin? Kakashi-nii? Iruka-sensei? Itachi-nii? My family? My friends? My village? After everything you’ve taken, don’t you dare talk about peace and justice!”

Naruto’s fingers scraped at the dirt.

Naruto was hurt-furious-terrified-distraught.

Kurama was trembling with barely repressed rage.

The little fox spat out a mouthful of blood, even as the hole in the roof of his mouth healed over.

“Did you hit your head at some point recently?” Kurama asked. “Because I think you’ve got genocide mixed up with peace, and despotism mixed up with justice. Take it from someone who used to regularly knock over villages. I can tell. At least I did it impartially. This screams personal.”

The Deva Path turned its head to look at him. “So, that’s how you bijuu have been hiding parts of your chakra outside of your jinchuuriki,” it observed, mildly.

“Well, it worked, didn’t it? Shukaku and Matatabi are still free.”

“Tell me, then, what is your goal with this ruse, Kyuubi?” the Deva Path asked.

Kurama blinked. “Eh? My goal? I’m going to help Naruto become Hokage – thanks so much for destroying the entire village and killing everyone, by the way, I always wanted to help rule over a village of ghosts – and continue my role as the guardian of the Uzumaki Clan and Konohagakure no Sato as a whole. I was here when this village was founded, you realise. I might not have had much of a say about it – Uzumaki Mito was a cruel jailor – but I was still here, and this is still my village and I will still protect it with everything I have.”

“Tsunade-hime was not lying, then,” the Deva Path observed. “How do you think Naruto becoming Hokage will help you attain peace?”

“Because,” Kurama said. “All it takes to break the cycle of war is for one person strong enough to perpetuate the fighting to instead turn around and offer his enemy his hand, and say: ‘Let us be friends, instead. How can I assist you?’ I can see you’re doing an exceptional job so far. Well done.”

“You could help me by coming peacefully,” the Deva Path suggested.

“Yeah, no,” Kurama replied.

“Did you not hear the part where that would wake up Kaguya-baa-sama?” Naruto snarled. “I don’t want to have to kill you, I don’t want to have to kill anyone, but if you’re going to do that then I’ll have to!”

“Technically, the dead are at peace,” Kurama pointed out. “And if every single person is dead then there will be no one to seek justice or continue the cycle of war. Even the bijuu will be dead. There will just be baa-sama and nothing else. But I feel that is less preferable to just working out how to be peaceful without getting her involved. I still think otou-san was correct with his idea of ninshuu. Pein, did you know Hidan was a convert, before you killed him?”

The Deva Path told them then about the loss of his village. His friends. “How is it fair that only you, of Konohagakure, may preach about peace and justice?”

“I’m pretty sure Gaara’s thinking about it, too,” Naruto grumbled. “And Yagura seemed interested, after the genjutsu broke, before he – where’d you take him, anyway? Isobu’s asleep again, and so is Saiken, so they aren’t sealed. They aren’t in another genjutsu, are they?”

“It’s not very nice to turn sentient beings into weapons of mass destruction against their own wishes,” Kurama pointed out. “Much kinder to release them if they’re in a genjutsu, and let them go on their way. Anyway, that sounds a lot like something Shimura Danzou did, war for profit. Fairly certain that was in the paperwork we recovered from his ROOT hideout. But! Guess what? We don’t like people like him! He was an asshole, he orchestrated the Uchiha Massacre, amongst his other sins, so I killed him, and because he’d been stealing kekkei genkai, including the Mokuton from the cells of the first Hokage, he turned into that tree over there, see? We call it the Danzou-tree. It has been left as an example for other shinobi who grow too greedy and power hungry. Honestly, war is not the only way to grow an economy, even in a shinobi village.”

“You don’t even have room to talk! War hurts everyone,” Naruto added. “Not just the little nations. Baa-chan left Konoha for decades after the Second Shinobi War because everyone she loved died! Kakashi-nii’s tou-san died because of the Third Shinobi War! Then his teammates died in the war, too! Their names were Obito-nii and Rin-nee! And finally, just after the war was over, his sensei and his sensei’s wife, my parents, died as well, and then he didn’t have anyone, he was all alone for years and years. It took him a really long time, but he was starting to get better, and you killed him. Gai-sensei’s tou-san died fighting the Seven Swordsmen. Neji-nii’s tou-san, Hinata-chan’s uncle, died to stop war breaking out again. Itachi-nii’s father took him to the front lines to see the war when he was four years old and he wanted to be a pacifist ever since. No one is unaffected! You call yourself Pein but you don’t have a – a – Kurama, what’s the word?”

“Monopoly,” Kurama suggested.

“You don’t have a monopoly on pain!” Naruto shouted into the dirt, tears trickling down his cheeks.

“It would seem we are not different after all,” the Deva Path observed. “We each act according to our own sense of justice. The justice I delivered to Konoha is no different from what you will do to me. The pain of losing something dear to you is the same. And both of just know that pain all too well.”

“Of course he does, asshole,” Kurama growled. “I can feel negative human emotion for miles around! There’s emotional bleed-over through our shared mental space! I’m pretty sure Naruto can feel the grief of that great-grandmother over by the West Gate who just watched her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren all get killed by rubble from your jutsu.”

“I can,” Naruto said, very quietly. “She can’t believe she outlived them all, she was supposed to die first. She feels like she’s going to fly apart from the grief.”

The Deva Path paused. “Fascinating,” it conceded. “You have your justice, and I have mine. We are both ordinary men—”

“Excuse you, you’re a corpse puppet,” Kurama said, but was ignored.

“—driven to seek vengeance under the banner of justice. However, if there is justice in vengeance then then justice will only breed more vengeance. And trigger a cycle of hatred.”

“I don’t want vengeance! I just want you to stop being dumb. Use your ears and stop monologing!” Naruto snapped, wrenching at his hands only to hiss in pain.

“Hate is such an ugly emotion,” Kurama said. “I hated for centuries, but it was ultimately just unfulfilling and sad. Love is much better.”

The Deva Path continued ignoring him. The little fox began to wonder if he and Naruto were just talking to themselves. Or maybe—

“Hey,” Kurama said, cutting off some monotonous speech about history always repeating itself, so it was better to just give up now. “Hey, hey! Listen to me for two seconds! The false Madara, the head of the Akatsuki? He doesn’t have you under a genjutsu, does he? Because you’re either a self-impressed moron, or Tobi’s manipulating you.”

“False Madara?” the Deva Path repeated.

“Same man who pulled me out of Naruto’s mother. Swirly orange mask? Calls himself Madara sometimes, but isn’t actually Madara?” Kurama said. “I met the real Madara. Their hate, their chakra, both are different. Not the same person. Please tell me you weren’t stupid enough to believe that was actually Madara. He’d have to be well over a hundred by now, and he was an Uchiha, not an Uzumaki. I can see an Uzumaki living that long, but not an Uchiha. Immortality isn’t actually a thing, you know.”

 

xcvii.

“Irrelevant,” the Deva Path ultimately decided. “Tell me. The shinobi world is a world governed by hatred. How would you confront this hatred, in order to create peace? I want to hear your answer.”

Naruto looked up and met the Deva Path’s eye defiantly. “I can’t help you with your goal of uniting the bijuu, because that will end the world and is stupid, but I know the answer to this anyway. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive you for what you’ve done, but that doesn’t make it impossible to move forward for the good of everyone anyway. So. Hello, Pein, if that’s really your name, you know. It’s nice to meet you. My name is Uzumaki Naruto. Do you want to be my friend?”

The Deva Path sneered at him. “Do not mock me.”

“I’m not, believe it!” Naruto shouted, and he drew on Kyuubi chakra to burn away the rods pinning him to the ground.

Away from the village! If you do what you’re thinking, there will be other people at risk! Kurama thought at him, and Naruto sent back a flicker of agreement.

And then he was dashing away, up the Hokage Monument, speed augmented by Kyuubi chakra. The Deva Path took off after him. Kurama took a moment to heal his paws, and bolted along behind.

The ensuing battle reshaped large portions of the landscape and spanned mountains and valleys and lakes. Naruto-the-Kyuubi was almost caught in the Chibaku Tensei jutsu – in which the Deva Path pulled up stone from the earth and condensed it into a small planetoid around Naruto – but Naruto-the-Kyuubi destroyed it from within with a supercharged bijuudama, sending rock fragments flying.

At last he defeated the Deva Path.

And then he hesitated.

“I don’t want to destroy this one, Kurama,” he said, quietly, as the little red fox came up to sit beside him. “This was Yahiko.” His voice hitched. “He was one of – one of Ero-Sennin’s students. If we pull the chakra conducting rods out, that should be enough to stop – to stop Pein using him anymore. We can – we’ll come back and bury him.”

Kurama considered that, then nodded, and helped Naruto remove the rods one after another.

Naruto sniffed. “It’s really sad what happened to them,” he said. “Ero-Sennin’s other students. They lost their village, you know.”

“I know,” Kurama agreed, because it was heart-breaking. And Naruto had lost so much today, but he could still find it in him to grieve for the loss someone else had experienced. “The real Pein is over on that mountain.” He could feel his siblings’ chakra, though it was weak, and it was overlaid by the emotions of someone he did not know. Someone desperate and angry who had been in mourning for a very long time, it felt like.

“Up in a tree, I think,” Naruto added. “I could… How do I explain? I could feel the chakra coming through the rod and sort of tell where it came from. I think… I think I need to go talk to him, y’know. The real Pein, not his puppets.”

“Very well,” Kurama said.

“Will you come?”

The little fox looked down at the pale face of the corpse of the orange-haired man he was sitting beside. “Only if you wish me to, kit. I know it’s personal.”

“You’ve lost just as much today as I have,” Naruto pointed out.

Kurama cleared his throat. “I have, but I’m – I’m used to grief. It’s part of being immortal.”

“Doesn’t make losing people hurt any less, does it.”

“No,” Kurama sighed, and climbed up onto Naruto’s shoulder. “Let’s go, then.”

He was going to sleep for a month after this was over and done with. He needed time to process, to work through the grief weighing on his chest and lodged in his throat.

They were not intercepted on their way to the tree. No one even knew where they were – they were alone and without backup. When they got there, they discovered it was not a real tree at all, but a structure made of a million pieces of paper layered over one another in the shape of a tree. Naruto scaled it easily, then pulled on Kyuubi chakra to sprout claws so he could cut his way through to the interior of the tree, where Kurama could feel four chakra signatures.

It was dim inside the tree, but there were Yagura and Utakata, unconscious but not dead, on the ground behind a woman with blue hair, orange eyes, and a sombre expression wearing an Akatsuki robe. Konan. Another of Jiraiya’s students.

And a skeletally thin man with blood red hair standing in a strange contraption with a dozen chakra conducting rods protruding from his back. That had to hurt.

Nagato, then.

But—

“Oh, no, you’re an Uzumaki!” Kurama exclaimed, throwing his forepaws into the air in abject horror and almost toppling off Naruto’s shoulder. He knew that hair, and it would not be possible for him to have wrought that degree of damage without the chakra reserves inherent to the Uzumaki Clan. He also knew now that his chakra had felt familiar. “I am literally your sworn Clan guardian. This is the worst. Naruto, he might be your second cousin or something.”

Why,” Naruto opined, to no one in particular. “I can’t hurt my own family. Why do you have to be such a colossal dick?”

“Can’t choose your family,” Kurama said. “But you can choose your friends. This, though. This is just tragic. The Uzumakis are almost extinct. Far as I know, there’s just you two and Karin-nee left—”

“Karin-nee-chan!” Naruto shouted, and whirled on Nagato. “Did your weird corpse puppets kill a girl with red hair, and red glasses? Because she’s our cousin!”

Nagato blinked. “No,” he said.

“Oh, thank goodness.” Naruto slumped, and then just looked at him for a long moment.

Nagato and Konan looked back, expressions perplexed.

“Wow,” Naruto decided, at last. “You guys are really, really sad, huh? But, you know, killing people won’t bring whoever you lost back, right? In the long run, killing the people who wronged you – that won’t give you happiness. You have to find it yourself, with what you have, you know? I mean, my kaa-chan imprisoned Kurama for years and years, and then Tobi pulled him out of his seal and Kurama killed her, and my tou-chan also, but it didn’t make him feel better. I know, I share a mind space with him, and it’s hard to lie with your feelings. And I could’ve made Kurama’s life really miserable, but I chose to unseal him instead, because that would’ve been mean, and instead we’re best friends! Anyway, I guess I just came to say the offer’s still on the table, you know.” He sniffed and wiped his eyes on his tattered sleeve. “I won’t help you seal the bijuu, because I trust Kurama, and he says that’s a stupid idea, so I believe him. And I – I’m really upset with you for kill – hurting my friends, but, uh, I’m gonna be the better man. So, hi. I’m Uzumaki Naruto. I can be your friend, if you like.”

“He is a kitsune. They are notorious for being liars and tricksters, yet you still trust him,” Nagato said.

Naruto shrugged. “Yeah, well. Pranks and tricks are only fun as long as no one gets hurt, you know?”

Kurama nodded emphatically. “Glitter is the greatest human invention, ever. Especially if you want to annoy someone but not cause them lasting harm. It gets everywhere. Everywhere. Nothing will ever top the time we put glitter in the Hokage hat and Jiji put it on.” He tried not to think about the fact that the Sandaime was dead now.

Nagato stared at them with incredulity, breath rattling faintly in his chest. “You maintain that I am being manipulated by Tobi, and that I will wake the bijuu’s grandmother should the Akatsuki’s plan come to fruition?”

Naruto paused, frowning, as he worked through the long words. “Yes!” he said. “And she’s metaphysically my great grandmother because of Kurama, but I still don’t want to meet her! She sounds really scary!”

“Perhaps,” he said, at length. “I will trust you, as you trust your bijuu, and he trusts you. I do not believe I have ever seen anything like it.”

“Nagato, are you sure?” Konan asked.

A longer pause.

“I’m certain, Konan. Stand down.”

 

xcviii.

“I can bring them back,” Nagato said, at last. “I think I should. I think I have made an error here today that has caused pain that should not have been.”

Kurama tilted his head. “You can do that with the Rinnegan,” he said, and it was partly a question and partly a statement.

Nagato nodded. “Yes. The technique is called Gedou: Rinne Tensei no Jutsu.”

“You can’t!” Konan objected. “You don’t have enough chakra for that jutsu! You’ll die!”

“Perhaps that no longer matters,” Nagato said.

“It absolutely does matter!” Naruto shouted. “Wait, wait! I know! Borrow some of my chakra! Between me and Kurama, we’ve got lots! Even after our fight. If that’s alright with you, Kurama?”

“Yes, that is fine,” Kurama agreed. “It is for a worthy cause, so my chakra is yours. You should be able to tolerate and convert my chakra well enough – you appear to have absorbed a large portion of Isobu and Saiken’s chakras without ill effect, and you’re an Uzumaki besides. You’re bred hardy.” He considered. “If you weren’t, I’m not sure you would have survived – whatever it is you’ve done to yourself.” The little fox indicated the chakra conducting rods protruding from Nagato’s back.

“You will need one of these,” Nagato said, producing another of the rods and handing it to Naruto. “Channel your chakra into it.”

“Okay, I can do that!” Naruto said, sitting cross-legged on the ground within the false tree, the chakra rod held tightly between both hands.

Nagato flicked through a couple of hand signs, then sucked in a sharp breath. A moment later, Kurama felt a massive amount of chakra begin to drain out of him, so he nudged Naruto and placed his own paws on the chakra conducting rod, shoving raw red Kyuubi chakra into it.

And then…

And then little flickers of confusion began to appear at the edge of his range of sensing human emotion. Fear. Bewilderment.

Somewhere far off, in the ruins of Konohagakure no Sato, he felt the Kakashi come back to consciousness, distant and familiar and curiously calmer now than he had been the last time Kurama had seen him, but that was undeniably the old grief feeling of Kakashi, and the little fox knew it was working.

“It is done,” Nagato said, a scant few seconds later.

Kurama glanced over at him, to see there were now threads of grey running through his hair.

“Thank you,” he said, softly.

They sat in silence for several long moments, the quietness broken only by Nagato’s raspy breathing.

And then Naruto said: “What about Yahiko? Did you bring him back, too? Because it’s not fair if you bring all my friends back to life, and not yours.”

“He – Yahiko died a long time ago,” Nagato replied. “It is easier to bring back a soul that has freshly passed on, than one that has been at rest for years. And… I am not certain he would wish to come back, not to this. Not after what I have done in his name, using his body. He never wanted us to join Tobi – he saw through his manipulation. It was only after he died that we reconsidered.”

Naruto looked at the chakra conducting rod in his hands, biting his lip. “I think, if he’s as good a friend as you think he is, then he’d probably understand, you know. And – and, I still have more chakra I can let you use! Lots!”

“Konan?” Nagato said.

“I just don’t know,” Konan replied. Her gaze was unfocused. She was looking into the middle distance, and her eyes were looking suspiciously shiny. Kurama politely didn’t mention it.

Nagato was looking thoughtfully at his hands. “Perhaps,” he said. “It was wrong to try to follow his dream without him there to guide us, because our vision was clouded by the grief of his loss, and we allowed ourselves to become mislead… You are correct, Naruto – I think Yahiko will forgive us. He was the best friend I ever had. And if he doesn’t, I do not think his soul will return, and then we will know for certain. So, I will try, if you would lend me more chakra.”

“Okay!” Naruto said, happily.

Nagato flicked through the hand signs.

This time, the chakra drain Kurama felt from him was markedly different. One moment, it seemed like he had somewhat low chakra, but not yet dangerously so – the next, it was flicking in and out like a guttering candle.

Even with Naruto pouring Yang Kyuubi chakra through the chakra conducting rod, sharing it with Nagato, he was going to die.

When Sora the pseudo-jinchuuriki had released the pent-up Kyuubi chakra within the Kyuubi’s gut, Kurama had reabsorbed that chakra. Because it was Kyuubi chakra harvested from before the Kyuubi was split into its Yin and Yang halves by the Minato-brat, Kurama had found himself suddenly with a little seed of Yin chakra again, one which he had buried right at the core of his being and allowed to grow without drawing on it – or allowing Naruto to draw upon it, either.

Now, it was not so large as the amount of Yang chakra he possessed, but it was not insignificant, and unlike Yang chakra it would not need to be converted for use in Nagato’s jutsu.

Kurama knew what to do.

He ripped his Yin chakra out, every last root and tendril of it, and shoved it into the chakra conducting rod in such a density that he was afraid the rod might disintegrate.

Nagato’s eyes snapped open and he gasped, choked on his own saliva, and started coughing. “It worked,” he said, a few moments later, and perhaps just a little disbelievingly. Then he said: “What was that?”

“My Yin chakra. I only just got enough back to start regenerating it myself a few months ago,” Kurama told him. “But it seemed like you needed it, and I don’t. I spent almost sixteen years without any, after the Yondaime sealed my Yin half into the gut of the Shinigami.”

Nagato turned his head to Naruto. “You were fighting me with the power of half the Kyuubi?” he asked.

Naruto looked at him blankly. “Yes…?” Then he said: “Wait, it worked? Come on, come on! I wanna meet your friend!”

Yahiko was very confused about waking up nearly a decade after he allowed himself to be killed to protect his friend, half naked, in the middle of the Land of Fire, with two dozen facial piercings. After a lengthy explanation, he hugged Konan, and then sort of awkwardly patted Nagato on the shoulder – and indeed forgave them before thanking Naruto profusely.

Acutely aware that teams of shinobi were now being sent out to scour the countryside around the village – he could feel them – Kurama warned the others to come up with a cover story quickly, unless they intended to leave right now.

“I’m too tired to travel,” Nagato admitted. “I need to rest.”

“Cover story it is, then!” Naruto said, clapping his hands together. “Don’t worry, me and Kurama are great at these. I, uh, got into a lot of trouble as a kid.”

“Yeah! We convinced everyone that I was his ninkitsune partner and not the Kyuubi for like, thirteen years,” Kurama added. “I mean, I gave it away today because I had to protect baa-chan—”

“If she’s your granddaughter, why do you call her ‘baa-chan’?” Nagato interjected.

Yahiko choked.

“What now?” Konan asked.

“Long story,” Kurama said. “Anyway, I had to protect baa-chan, so our glorious deception came to an end, which is very sad. Rest in peace Kurama the ordinary ninkitsune persona, you shall be missed now that everyone knows you were secretly the demon fox. But! That shows just how great we are at coming up with airtight cover stories!”

“Or your idiocy has spread to the people around you,” Nagato suggested.

Naruto and Kurama shared a glance.

“That is highly probable,” Naruto admitted. “Okay, so, here’s my idea…”

It was decided that it would be best if they told everyone that Pein had died. It was true, in a sense, anyway. Kurama pointed out that if Konan removed her Akatsuki cloak, Yahiko took out his facial piercings, and Nagato removed the rods from his back, didn’t use that odd machine for mobility and instead pretended to be a severely injured refugee, they could get into Konoha, and Tsunade might be able to help him with his legs.

They would, of course, have to tell Jiraiya and Tsunade everything, since there was no way they would be able to slip this under Jiraiya’s nose – the Ame Orphans had been his own students, he wasn’t going to forget what they looked like. And Tsunade should know because she was Hokage, and she needed to make informed decisions.

“Wait, if she needed to make informed decisions then why wasn’t she allowed to know you were the Kyuubi, Kurama?” Yahiko asked.

Kurama waved a dismissive paw at him. “She already knew Naruto and I were friends, and that I wasn’t sealed, and that I would invariably side with Konohagakure no Sato so long as Naruto was willing to do the same. A three-hundred-foot malevolent chakra construct in the shape of a fox is scary, though. You know what isn’t scary? A cute little ten pound fox! Anyway, once I’d lived out the natural lifespan of an ordinary fox, I was going to pretend to die then Naruto was going to immediately discover a conveniently orphaned fox kit to take my place. It was a brilliant plan!”

“It was, believe it!” Naruto agreed, enthusiastically.

Nagato, Yahiko, and Konan all looked at them like they’d gone mad.

“Are you sure this will work?” Yahiko asked, uncertainly.

Naruto nodded. “You don’t have the Rinnegan, so you don’t look like the corpse puppet I fought, so it should. Come on, let’s go! We’ve got so much rebuilding to do and I want to check to make sure Kaka-nii and Itachi-nii and Ero-Sennin and Sennin-jii-chan came back okay.”

Incidentally, Kakashi and Jiraiya met them as they were returning to the remains of the village, being led by the noses of Kakashi’s ninken.

“Nii-chan!” Naruto wailed, crying with joy, dropping Nagato in an undignified heap, and launched himself at him in a flying tackle hug, while Jiraiya eyed his old students, then the two unconscious jinchuuriki they were carrying between Yahiko and Konan, warily.

“It’s okay, now, Ero-Sennin!” Kurama told him cheerfully, clawing his way up Jiraiya’s somewhat stiff and bloody clothes to perch on his shoulder. “Look! Nagato-nii brought everyone back to life, including Yahiko-nii, and they’ve all decided to leave Tobi’s Akatsuki because Tobi is a stupid liar who doesn’t know anything.”

“You,” Jiraiya said, slowly, turning his head just enough to behold the little fox on his shoulder from the corner of his eye. “Are the Kyuubi.”

The little fox bopped him on the nose with a paw. “I’m still just Kurama, though. Don’t get all weird about it.”

 

xcix.

“Excuse me, Deidara, Kisame, I need to borrow Tobi for a moment,” the white half of Zetsu said, appearing in the middle of the little cave they were bedding down in for a couple of hours before they continued their journey to the selected sealing site. They had killed all of their pursuers, mostly explosively. Their bound jinchuuriki was oddly placid, even after he woke up, which seemed out of character, but Tobi had dismissed it and placed him under another genjutsu.

“Tobi is coming, Zetsu-san!” Tobi said, scrambling to get up and bouncing out of the little subterranean cavern out into the bright light of the late afternoon, playing the fool all the while wondering why Zetsu had deemed it necessary to interrupt their mission when it was going well.

He scrambled over rocks and low scrub, skirting around patches of early snow, until Zetsu deemed they were a sufficient distance from the camp and it emerged from the earth in Tobi’s path.

“Pein failed, didn’t he?” Tobi asked.

“Yes and no,” the white half of Zetsu said, handing over a storage scroll.

Tobi took it, laid it out flat, and pressed a little bit of chakra into it. A moment later, a mound of crushed flesh threaded through with shards of bones and threads of black fabric appeared in the centre of the scroll before him, stinking of putrefaction and old blood, and Tobi recoiled sharply. He was as used to death as the next shinobi, but being given a mystery scroll of old meat was something of an unpleasant surprise. “What is this?”

“That is what remains of Pein’s Preta Path, and because of its nature it still contains traces of chakra from the Sanbi and the Rokubi,” Zetsu said, reaching out a finger to reactivate the sealing array and store the chunks of mulched and rotting human flesh back into the storage scroll. “It will have to serve our purposes – unless you are capable of taking down three jinchuuriki at once, where Pein did not succeed?”

“So, he got the chakra of the Sanbi and the Rokubi,” Tobi said. “But the Kyuubi no jinchuuriki bested him, I suppose?”

Black Zetsu spoke, now. “Pein and Konan have betrayed us,” it said. “And left the Akatsuki.”

“Pein was wrong!” White Zetsu said. “The Akatsuki isn’t just having recruitment issues, it’s having issues with treachery, too! Sasori just surrendered like that, and then Hidan did too, and Itachi outright abandoned us. Now Pein and Konan.”

Tobi glanced back toward the cave where Kisame and Deidara were waiting.

Deidara, who never wanted to be a part of the Akatsuki in the first place.

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