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[scintilla / sinˈtilə/ , a tiny trace or spark of a specified quality or feeling. From figurative use of Latin scintilla “particle of fire, spark, glittering speck, atom,” probably from proto-Indo-European ski-nto-, from root skai- "to shine, to gleam"]

 

Kurama's first instinct is to throw himself forward, claws leading, and rip the intruder open from stem to stern. His second is to dive for safety and set the forest on fire to cover his escape.

His third, in contrast, is to twitch with tension, but otherwise stay where he is, because that lichen-like shock of grey hair is very, very familiar.

Thankfully, the masked nin—ANBU, clearly—doesn’t make any hostile moves either. He eyes Kurama, who eyes him right back, and neither of them move.

Very carefully and slowly, Kurama takes a half-step away and then lifts his hands, palms facing out, to show they're empty of weapons. Honestly, it’s an idiotic gesture, probably propagated by civilians—there's never been a single shinobi anywhere who stopped being a threat just because they weren’t holding a weapon. Still, the meaning behind it is clear, and Kurama really doesn’t want to start a fight with this particular ninja. Not because he thinks he’ll lose—he’s the Kyuubi no Kitsune, and after Kakuzu he’ll be damned if he’ll let himself lose to anyone ever again—but because if they do get in a fight, it will be to the death.

Living in Kaguya’s war-torn world means Kurama's very familiar with hoarding power. However, that’s hardly the same thing as holding back. All it’s taught him is how to win with as few blows possible, and he can't risk that here. Not with the changes to the timeline—and to Naruto himself—that would doubtless occur.

If it comes down to it, he’ll abort the mission and go chop the stupid firewood. He’s not about to risk his Naruto never coming into being because of this man’s death.

Then the man’s head tips, birdlike and curious, and he lifts gloved hands. Rapid-fire hand signs flicker in the firelight, and Kurama squints at him dubiously. He might have shared head-space with Naruto for almost forty years—and, as Hokage, Naruto had to learn ANBU signs—but like fuck he knows what the collection of gibberish means.

A sharp gesture, clearly impatient, and then the ANBU repeats the signs more slowly. Now that he can actually see the damn things, Kurama can catch a few he remembers—that’s ‘captive’, definitely, and that’s either ‘rescue’ or ‘contain’—or possibly ‘dinner’, Kurama's pretty sketchy on that particular sequence—and…maybe six?

Ah, fuck it.

Kurama rolls his eyes, waves to get the man’s attention, and then jerks his thumb at the camp. He holds up eight fingers, for the eight bandits grouped around the fire or sleeping off to the side, then points at himself, at them again, and then drags a finger across his throat in a gesture that can't be mistaken.

For a long moment, the ANBU stares flatly at him. Then he sighs softly and nods in agreement.

Good enough.

Giving him a toothy smile, Kurama digs his claws into the tree trunk and leaps upward, silently pulling himself onto a wide limb. From there it’s easy enough to inch his way along the branch and out over the edge of the camp, and one look tells him just what the ANBU was trying to say.

There's a girl. Young, small, delicate-looking, her hair up in buns and tears on her cheeks. Her dress is better quality than anything he’s seen in a long time, and she looks too scared to be a shinobi. Civilian, then, and likely noble—probably a hostage of some sort. Kurama grimaces faintly to himself, because that just made everything more complicated, but…it’s salvageable. Probably.

A quick glance shows that more than half of the rough-looking men are bedded down, either asleep or on the verge of it, with only three sitting awake around the fire. There's one on either side of the girl, but Kurama thinks he can work around that. Quickly, he shrugs out of the voluminous kimono shirt Han provided, re-knots the sash around his waist, and looks for his temporary ally.

From the shadows near the base of the tree, the ANBU looks back, mask tipped questioningly. With an effort, Kurama dredges up a few of the very, very long forgotten hand signs—which he honestly never paid any attention to, mostly because it was Sasuke teaching Naruto, and things had quickly devolved into sex—and signs carefully and awkwardly, I retrieve. Cover?

A nod, sharp and quick, and the man crouches down, letting his body block the light as he draws his tantō so that no one will notice its glint. Seeing that he’s ready, Kurama takes a breath, gathers himself, and leaps.

Black cloth drops right over the little girl’s startled face, covering her completely even as Kurama lands on the man at her right. A shove puts the bandit on the ground, and a sharp twist breaks his neck before Kurama launches himself at the other guard, claws first. At the same moment, the ANBU explodes out of the shadows, appearing between three bandits as they scramble to their feet, but Kurama doesn’t pause to watch. He tears out the guard’s throat in a splatter of blood, ducks the swing of the third’s long knife, and then gathers his chakra and swipes down hard.

From this distance, with a bijuu shockwave set against a normal human? Kurama hears bones snapping as the bandit and the man behind him both go flying.

Fighting hasn’t been this easy in a long time. Kaguya’s undead soldiers, pulled up like grisly puppets by their chakra networks and drawing power directly from the goddess herself, were never this easy to put down, and they always tended to get back up unless burned to ashes. But these are humans, civilian men who can't even mold chakra, and Kurama feels almost ridiculous pitting his strength against them. It’s one thing for the Kyuubi to wipe out whole towns full of humanity’s darkest members, but eight of them, with assistance?

It almost makes up for his stupidity against Kakuzu yesterday.

The last of the ANBU's three opponents is just falling as Kurama straightens, the girl safely behind him. The last bandit is trapped between them, wild-eyed and pale, clutching a dulled sword. With a low laugh, Kurama takes a menacing step forward and man’s eyes automatically dart to him. Too late he realizes the consequences of the action; his head snaps up, horror blooming, but at the same instant a tantō drives right through his back. For a long moment there's silence, and then with a short, choking gasp he crumples bonelessly.

Kurama's seen enough death; he doesn’t linger to watch this one.

Leaving the ANBU to deal with the bodies, Kurama turns to where the bound little girl is still sitting, covered by his shirt. The fight was quiet, but for her sake he hopes she passed out rather than listening to it. The kid can't be more than four, if that, and Kurama remembers the orphans Kaguya’s forces left behind. He’s dealt with enough traumatized kids for one lifetime, thanks.

Futilely, Kurama wipes his gory left hand on a clump of grass, then gives it up as hopeless and simply tucks it a little behind him. With his clean hand he reaches out and pulls the dark cloth off the girl’s head, and when wide, terrified eyes snap to him immediately he gives her the gentlest smile he can muster.

What would the brat do? he thinks a little desperately. Damn it, how would Naruto handle this? Think!

“Hey,” he says softly. “You're okay now. They're never going to be able to scare you again. You're safe.”

No matter how many other duties Naruto and Sasuke had, they always made a point of it to spend time with the orphaned children. Every day they were in camp or traveling, they helped care for the kids, played or taught or simply talked to them, and Kurama can't help but remember those pale, tired, grief-stricken faces right now. There's not really any use comparing kidnapping to seeing your entire world shattering around, because they're horrible in different ways, but they're both terrible. They're both things no child should ever have to face.

Kurama is…fond of kids, for the most part. He likes them well enough, for being tiny larval-stage humans, but he’s never really had to interact with them beyond just watching Naruto do it. Once or twice, before things got really bad and they had to conserve strength wherever possible, Naruto had let Kurama manifest a time or two so the brats could use him as a jungle gym. It had been well beneath his dignity, but even so Kurama had never complained. They were wary of him, for the first few minutes, but after Naruto had scaled his side and perched proudly between his ears, laughing his idiotic head off, they’d been more than willing to take advantage. Having humans accept him so easily, overcome their fear so quickly—that part Kurama had…enjoyed.

This—helping the girl—is something Naruto would have strongly approved of, even if he would have been saddened by Kurama's slaughter of the bandits. Kurama doesn’t particularly care about the latter—he’s still a bijuu, after all, still a creation of chakra that feeds off malice and hatred—but for Naruto, he’ll try to keep her spirits up.

The terror in her face isn’t quite disappearing, although it’s easing a little. She blinks, sending more tears cascading down her cheeks, but she’s stopped whimpering. Kurama gives her another smile, trying to make it encouraging rather than scary, and reaches out slowly.

“I'm going to get that gag off, if you're okay with me touching you,” he soothes. “Once that’s gone you might feel a bit better.” Lifting his hand, he twists it to show her his nails, and says, “I don’t want to cut you, but these are pretty sharp so try not to wiggle. It okay for me to take that off?”

A pause, and then the girl nods emphatically, making muffled noises. Kurama chuckles a little, reaching out, and she goes determinedly still. “Here goes,” he warns her, then tips her head slightly to the side, slides a claw up under the rough twine, and presses carefully. It takes a moment, and a bit more pressure than he’d like, but with one or two cautious sawing motions the threads part. Kurama unwinds them from her head, then helps her get the wad of cloth out of her mouth.

While she’s busy spitting out stray threads and making disgusted faces, Kurama cuts through the ropes binding her hands and legs, and, remembering the few times Naruto got tied up, carefully starts to rub the chafed areas to get the blood flowing again. The girl hisses a little, and Kurama winces.

“Sorry, sorry, but we don’t want your fingers falling off, right?” he murmurs, glancing up, and finds that wide blue eyes are fixed on his face.

His heart shudders and stumbles in his chest, even though they aren’t quite the right shade of blue.

One little hand comes up, reaching out, and Kurama warily holds still as the girl snags a handful of his hair. She pulls the locks towards her, studying them intently, and then looks up to tell Kurama very seriously, “It’s like my favorite red crayon.”

Kurama looks down, too, and supposes that of all the things she could have compared it to—blood, fire, anger, death—that’s probably the nicest he’s going to get. “Thanks,” he offers with a small smile. “Your hair’s very pretty too.” Not blonde, and he’s glad of it—he doesn’t think he could handle the combination again so soon, no matter how different she is from his jinchuuriki. Brown is good. Brown is safe right now. “Did you get hurt anywhere?”

Almost instantly her eyes fill with tears again, and with a muffled whimper she throws herself forward. Kurama just barely manages to swallow a yelp as she collides with his chest, rocking him back on his heels. Tiny shoulders shake with what is clearly the beginnings of a sob, and Kurama feels panic building.

“Hey,” he tries, soft and as comforting as he can manage. “Hey there, what's this about? I know you were scared, but you're okay now. The bad men are dead, they can't hurt you ever again.” That gets him a sniffle, and with absolutely no idea what else to do, Kurama wraps his arm around the girl and shifts back to sit in the dirt, pulling her more securely into his lap.

Oh Sage, why me? he thinks, entirely, unbecomingly agitated, and tries to drown out the avalanche of alarm with the quiet shushing noises he’s heard Naruto make when in this situation. And babbling. That always seemed to work for Naruto. “Shh, shh, everything’s okay. You're fine, you've been saved—just like a princess, huh? A beautiful princess with big blue eyes, bet you’ve got dozens of boys in love with you back home, you’ll definitely have any boy you look at tripping over his own feet. Never seen a braver princess, your dad must be so proud of you.”

The muffled sobbing is tapering off, replaced by quiet hiccups that manage to sound completely forlorn. “I wanna see my daddy,” she manages, barely understandable between the mucus and the way her face is smashed against Kurama's bare chest. “I wanna see my daddy, but they wouldn’t let me!”

Kurama casts a near-desperate glance at the ANBU who is—like a damned coward—keeping a good ten feet between them at all times, even as he warily checks the perimeter. The man seems to feel his look, because he glances back and answers the questioning jerk of Kurama's head with a single sign that’s thankfully recognizable.

Alive.

Thank fuck.

“You're going to see him really soon, princess,” Kurama assures her, and is unspeakably relieved when she pulls away enough to look up at him. Except, damn, those wide, watering eyes might as well qualify as a lethal weapon, and it takes effort not to flinch back. Instead, he strokes his clean hand over her hair and gives her what is hopefully more smile than grimace. “I promise, he’s waiting for you, and he misses you a lot. Look! He even hired a big, strong ANBU to find you and get you back from those bast—ah, bad men.”

The girl shifts just enough to stare dubiously at the ANBU, who holds his ground and stares right back, brightly painted mask eerie in the flickering firelight. The man takes a step forward, as if to join them, and the girl squeaks in fear, ducking back down into Kurama's hold.

Oh no. Kurama's getting a bad feeling about this.

“Hey, hey,” he soothes, shooting the ANBU a nasty, pointed look over his shoulder before going back to trying to coax the girl-shaped leech off of him. “None of that, now. He’s one of the good guys, and he’s going to take you back to your dad. That’s what you want, right?”

Not only does the girl refuse to budge, her small arms come up to wrap around Kurama's neck, clinging so tightly he suspects he’ll need a pry bar to get her off. “He’s scary!” she protests. “Like an oni!”

And…there's that sniffle again. Oh no.

Conceivably, Kurama could wrench her off, shove her at the ANBU, and go back to making tracks for Konoha as quickly as humanly possible. He’s tempted to try it, if only because all his past interactions with children have had a time limit, and he has no clue how to interact with them for longer than a few hours.

But…

Naruto wouldn’t do that. And though he’d be unhappy about Kurama killing—which Kurama always tried to tone down for his sake, at least where basic humans were concerned, though he’s never really seen the point of sparing those who feel truly wicked—he’d be furious if Kurama abandoned a child.

Even now, the thought of Naruto angry with him is enough to make Kurama wince.

He casts a look at the grey-haired ANBU, who tips his head questioningly in response. Rolling his eyes, Kurama gestures at the girl, then at himself, and then points at the man and waves a hand in the direction of Konoha.

The ANBU hesitates, body language wary and cautious, and then slowly nods his head.

“Shh,” Kurama urges the girl again, resigning himself to his fate. “He’s not an oni, I promise, but if it makes you feel better I’ll come too. We’ll bring you back to your dad together. That way there's no chance of anything else happening. Now, what's your name, princess?”

The hands curled around his shoulders unclench a little, even though she’s still gripping tightly, and she whispers, “I'm Naho.”

“Your dad’s bright purpose, huh?” Kurama teases gently. “That’s a pretty name for a pretty girl. I'm Kurama, Naho. It’s very nice to meet you.”

“Thank you for saving me, Kurama,” Naho whispers. “I was really, really scared.”

Despite himself, Kurama remembers a little blond boy in the woods, calling on his power for the first time to save a teacher. Remembers a haze of terror and resolve, the drive to protect even if it cost him his life. A sob catches in his own throat, and he bows his head, pressing his cheek to Naho’s dirty hair. “That’s okay,” he whispers back. “You were really brave anyway. I'm glad I could save you.”

It’s true. He hadn’t expected it to be, but it is. This isn’t attacking Kakuzu in a haze of crimson fury and the choking need for revenge. This is just…a little bit of good. One life made brighter, and even if she’s not quite one of Naruto's precious people, he knows Naruto wouldn’t mind this pause in his mission. Not when it helped rescue a little girl.

An icy wind slides through the forest, rustling the treetops and making Kurama shiver. He eases back a little, stroking Naho’s hair comfortingly, and clears his throat. “Think you can let me get my shirt back on?” he asks, patting her head. “If I'm going to Konoha with you, I don’t want to scare people.”

“It’s about a day and a half on foot,” the ANBU says unexpectedly, making Naho flinch as he crouches down next to them. A sharp grey eye studies the girl, then flicks up to Kurama's face. More quietly, he says, “I can put her to sleep and take her myself. It would make things easier.”

Unconsciously, Kurama's arm tightens around the little girl, and he bares his teeth before he can stop it. “Keep your damned jutsus to yourself,” he growls. “She’s just a kid, and she’s fine. I’ll carry her. There's no need for that shit.”

The man snorts softly, even as Naho glances up at him with bright-eyed curiosity and says, “My daddy told me those are bad words.”

“Yeah, well, it was a bad suggestion,” Kurama huffs, reaching for his shirt. The tacky blood on his fingers smears a little, and he grimaces as he stands. That’ll teach him to go for the throat with his bare hands. Thankfully, there's plenty of snow, and he settles Naho by the gnarled roots of a tree while he scrubs his skin clean. The ANBU follows, hovering like a shadow and making wary sweeps of their surroundings.

Giving the man a roll of his eyes, Kurama shakes excess water from his hand, then reaches for his top. “Cool it,” he orders. “No one with ill intentions is within a mile of us. We’ll be fine.” He shrugs the fabric on, and maybe it isn’t as warm as it could be, but the heavy cloth is still a relief against the bite of the wind. Quietly enough that the girl won't hear, he asks, “Her parents are in Konoha, right?”

“Her father hired me,” the ANBU answers. “He was there when I left.”

Satisfied, Kurama nods and rises to his feet. “Are you cold, Naho?” he asks, figuring that she’s not. Her robes look pretty warm, and she’s got a shawl over her shoulders, but if she is he has no compunctions raiding the bandits’ supplies; it’s not like they're going to be using the stuff, after all.

“I'm okay.” The girl smiles at him, still a little wary but mostly just sweet. “Are we going to see my daddy now?”

“We are,” Kurama assures her, crouching down to pick her up. She comes readily, and there are still tear-tracks on her face, there's still a faint tremble in her voice, but she looks like a stubborn little thing, and despite the trauma Kurama is willing to bet she’ll be fine. Little kids are amazingly resilient. With a smile in return, he scoops her up, propping her on his hip, and turns to raise an expectant brow at his companion.

The ANBU looks at him, looks at the girl, and steps back. “I’ll set up a perimeter,” he mutters, and is gone in a blur.

“Coward,” Kurama huffs, but when Naho glances at him he just shakes his head. “It’s nothing, princess. Some people are just silly.”

She gives him another faintly tremulous smile, then says, “If I'm a princess, does that mean you're my knight?”

Naruto would be laughing his ass off right now, Kurama thinks with a sigh, and it hurts, like a crippling blow. But it’s bearable, if gutting. “I could be,” he answers, glancing at the sun that’s just starting to rise and then turning south. “But I think I’d rather be a monster.”

He can't quite tell if that statement’s a lie; this is Naruto's body, and as much as he’d prefer Naruto to still be the one in it, if that’s out of the question Kurama would rather it be in his own possession—and the irony of that statement makes him want to laugh bitterly—than Kaguya’s.

Naho wrinkles her nose. “Don’t monsters eat princesses?” she asks skeptically.

“Well, normally, but you're a special princess,” Kurama counters, tapping her lightly on the tip of the nose. “You’ve got powerful monster-taming abilities to make me your friend. ‘Sides, I think the ANBU over there would be a lot better at the whole knight thing than I would.”

There's a sound suspiciously like the ANBU missing a branch and having to lunge for another, and Kurama hides a smirk.

The girl looks equally doubtful. “Really?”

Kurama really, really shouldn’t. He doesn’t want to get dragged into T & I the moment they set foot in the village after all. But…well. Kitsune, and all that. “Sure!” he says, just managing to smother the pure wickedness in his voice. “ANBU are strong and brave, right? And I best Sir ANBU over there has a dark, tragic past he’s trying to atone for—that’s how most knights are, right? He’s probably really handsome under that mask, too.”

“I still like you better, Kurama,” Naho declares after a moment of thought, apparently not convinced. “You can be a monster if you want to, as long as you're still my friend.”

Blue eyes just aren’t fair, Kurama thinks with an internal sigh, and pats Naho’s head. “No worries,” he tells her gently. “I’ll be your friend for as long as you need me.”

Satisfied, Naho puts her head down on his shoulder, one arm curled around his neck. The thumb on her other hand is inching towards her mouth, but Kurama isn’t going to say anything; he’s hardly going to deny her what small bits of comfort she can find. Gently rubbing her back, he makes for a small break in the trees and then towards the road beyond the woods.

Originally, he’d been planning to sneak into Konoha, find Naruto to make sure that some version of his jinchuuriki was still alive and well, and then hightail it back out to hunt down Akatsuki. Still, as far as sneaking into a ninja village goes, walking through the front gate with an ANBU at his side will doubtless simplify things. Even if it puts him in the spotlight, Kurama's confident that he can slip a watcher if he needs to. He won't do anything to hurt Konoha—after all, there's never been a place Naruto loved more—but he won't let them hold him, either. He’s got his mission, the one Naruto died for, and he’ll never waver from it.

With deadly silence, the ANBU leaps from the trees to land in the road beside him, then straightens easily and falls into step. Kurama gives him a sideways glance only to find that he’s getting the same in return, and has to look away again. Without the adrenaline, without the fight, it’s easy to remember just who this man is, what he meant to Naruto. Dead—long dead—but still a pain that was second only to Sasuke's.

“So,” he says gruffly, glancing down at Naho for want of a better place to aim his eyes. “What should I call you?”

Names have power. Names have meaning. Kurama knows it better than anyone; before, he only ever gave his name to one person, and only Naruto used it. Sasuke, Sakura, and the rest simply called him the Kyuubi, and Kurama preferred it that way. His name is his own, given to him by the Sage of Six Paths himself, and even now Kurama will never give it lightly. The rules are a bit different for humans, but…Kurama thinks this man would agree with him.

There's a long, long pause, and Kurama looks up again, half to check that the ANBU is still there. He is, gaze turned away, shoulders stiff and back straight. There's blood on his gloves, though he doesn’t seem to have noticed. Or maybe he has—Kurama's not good at catching things like that, especially when he himself doesn’t particularly care about the deaths they caused. Humans, and poor ones at that, and Naruto would yell and hit him for it but Kurama will never mourn them.

Then the man shifts, just a little, and his head lifts. One grey eye, sharp and steady, and the other…

Kurama feels his hackles rise at the sight of red and black, and has to strangle back the low, furious growl that wants to rumble out. The Sharingan, and that Sharingan in particular, is never going to hold good memories for him.

A quick tip of the ANBU's head to check their surroundings, a glance at Naho—mostly asleep already—and then he says very quietly, “I'm Hound.”

Kurama inclines his head, but doesn’t otherwise react. He already knew, after all, but he’s not about to use a name he hasn’t been given. A moment, a sudden thought, and then his mouth quirks up in a small, faintly wistful smile. Another bad idea, but…well. They always seemed to work out pretty well for Naruto.

Not looking at the man, he offers, “Uzumaki Kurama,” and pretends he doesn’t hear Hound’s breath catch.

Well. It’s something, at least.

Something to hold on to, Kurama thinks, burying his nose in Naho’s hair and just…missing. Missing Naruto.

Soon, he promises himself, and…it will be. Even if it’s just a glimpse, just a moment, that’s all he needs. Proof that Naruto, even if he’s not quite his Naruto yet, is still alive. Then he can move forward.  Then he can keep walking, and he tells himself he won't look back.