[vespertine / ‘vespər , tīn,- , tēn / , relating to, occurring, or active in the evening. Late Middle English from the Latin vespertinus, via Latin vesper ‘evening’.]
Kurama's first sight of Konoha in years isn’t the triumphant reclamation of a haunted ruin that Naruto always envisioned. It isn’t even the clandestine mission far behind enemy lines to finally bury the dead that his jinchuuriki wanted. Instead, it’s two hours after midnight, and Kurama's feet are sore and cold. Naho is asleep on his shoulder, bundled up in her wrap but leaving a wet patch of drool on his shirt. He’s cranky, temper short but directionless, and just the knowledge that Naruto is somewhere nearby—practically close enough to touch—has every square centimeter of his skin itching with the urge to find the little blond brat.
Hound in ANBU means that Naruto is alive. In the pale light of the moon, Kurama can just make out the four faces on the mountain, but though he’s not very good at telling humans’ ages, he doesn’t think Hound is just fourteen. So that means the Yondaime is dead, and Naruto is already a jinchuuriki.
His Naruto didn’t fling him back quite far enough to prevent everything—that probably would have taken Sasuke's chakra as well—but despite losing the chance to stop Obito's accident, or even just kill Madara when he was a child and take care of Zetsu before he could twist the knowledge in the Uchiha Shrine, Kurama can't be anything but pleased. Doing this in a time when Naruto didn’t exist, saving a world that wasn’t Naruto's and possibly never would be—he doesn’t know how well he’d be able to do something like that.
The gates gleam silver in the darkness, painted by the moon. Closed after dark, and Kurama glances at them a little warily, shifting Naho higher on his shoulder. Shinobi villages don’t stop working after nightfall, but people tend to be warier, and Kurama is an unknown. He doesn’t have a past, an identity, not so much as a single person able to vouch for him. (Well, Killer B might, knowing him, but he’s obnoxious and Kurama would prefer to keep half a country between them whenever possible.) If they let him in…
Then again, Kurama thinks a little wryly, glancing sidelong at his companion, maybe he’s not the most suspicious thing the ANBU has ever dragged home with him. The man certainly seemed eccentric enough when he was training Team 7.
As if hearing the thought, Hound casts him a sideways glance and says, “You can use chakra, right?”
Kurama only just manages not to splutter. He is an eons-old construct of power and might, shaped by the Sage of Six Paths himself. Use chakra? He is chakra. And if this skinny, scrawny, breakable human thinks that he can—
“Yes,” he gets out through gritted teeth, when it becomes obvious that Hound either doesn’t notice or is ignoring his indignation. “Yes, I can fucking use chakra, thank you.”
Hound hums, as though he’s not convinced, and that’s it, future teacher or not, Kurama is going to murder him. He’s going to string him up by his heels and—
Because he’s a rude, inconsiderate bastard, Hound leaps up and forward before Kurama can take his revenge. He lands on the top of the wall, then tips over and out of sight, and Kurama gives an aggravated huff. Shoving his hair out of his eyes again, he makes sure Naho is steady, then crouches, shoves the barest trickle of chakra towards his feet, and leaps. The wall passes below him, easily cleared, and Kurama touches down lightly in the street, barely stirring the dust. It’s a textbook-perfect landing.
Of course, Hound isn’t even looking at him. He’s half a block away, walking quickly, and as he turns the corner he glances back to give Kurama an impatient jerk of his head.
Dead man. That is a dead man right there, and Kurama will be more than happy to remind him of that fact.
With a low growl—not nearly as intimidating as it should be, and that still ticks Kurama off, because Naruto played around with his appearance easily enough; would it have been so damn hard to give him the vocal cords he was used to as well?—Kurama stalks after the ANBU, reminding himself that no matter his irritation, no matter how much he wants to shove Naho at the other man and run to where Naruto is, he has to be patient.
Patience is something Kurama knows. He’s been trapped inside human bodies for over a hundred years now, and a good portion of it was spent waiting for one of them to use too much of his chakra and let him out. Of course, it never happened, and then Naruto appeared and turned everything on its head, but the waiting still took place. Kurama knows how to bide his time, even when it’s as important as this.
“You know,” he says a little sourly as he catches up with the grey-haired ANBU, “she’s fast asleep. I'm sure you won't get hives if you just carry her wherever you need to go.”
Hound glances at him sideways, and even though it doesn’t look like he took a step away, there's suddenly more room between them than there was a moment ago. “Mm,” he hums noncommittally, then tips his head in the direction they're heading. “The lights are on in the Hokage's office. Only a few more minutes and you’ll be free.”
Kurama rolls his eyes. “So? I don’t particularly want to see your Hokage, and if I'm going to find somewhere to sleep that’s not the ground or a tree, I should go before the inns close.”
That gets him another sideways look, sharper than he’d like. If Hound gets too suspicious, it will make getting to Naruto, even just to look at him, far harder than it needs to be. Still, all Hound says is a lazy, “You don’t want recognition for your actions?”
“What actions?” Kurama asks grumpily. “The innkeeper in the town said she’d let me stay the night if I took care of the bandits, so I did. I somehow doubt that you needed the help, even if you are an asshole who’d knock out a terrified little brat, so I pretty much muscled my way into your mission.”
There's a pause, and when Kurama warily glances up, Hound is watching him much more blatantly. “Eight to one,” the ANBU points out after a moment. “Those are heavy odds.”
“You're ANBU,” Kurama counters, confused as to why they're even arguing about this. If that’s even what they're doing. “If stacked odds were a problem, you wouldn’t be. Now are you going to take her or not?”
“Not,” Hound says calmly. “We’re here, and I don’t want to wake her. You might as well keep carrying her.” Then, casual as anything, he subtly quickens his steps and strides right into the Administration Building.
Fuck, Kurama thinks tiredly, staring after Hound as he pauses on the threshold. He…really doesn’t want to do this. Really. Going to the Hokage's office, having to stand in front of that desk, with the familiar view of Konoha at night beyond it—
No. That’s supposed to be Naruto's chair, his desk, his window. That’s supposed to be Naruto in those robes, that stupid hat. And anyone else—they might as well be an imposter, a fake. No matter how much Naruto loved Sarutobi, the man isn’t Kurama's Hokage. He isn’t Naruto. He just—isn’t. And no matter how easily Kurama gave himself away to Kokuō, he’s not about to broadcast the news to anyone else. Kokuō would have recognized him by his chakra if nothing else, because the Gobi knew him when he wasn’t completely consumed with rage and hatred. But the people of Konoha have never seen him another way, and Kurama doesn’t want to risk them finding out.
Resenting the Sandaime for his identity, being rude to the man called the God of Shinobi just because he’s not the one Kurama wants to see—that’s probably a good way to get their suspicions fixed squarely on him. And Kurama knows himself; it’ll be damned hard not to be rude, given the twisting, roiling knot of emotion in his chest.
Still, it’s not like there's really much choice. If anyone can get him tossed out of Konoha on his ear, it’s the Hokage, and getting in after that without alerting the Barrier Squads will take more work than Kurama would like. He’s got power, definitely, but it’s similar to Naruto's. Finesse isn’t something that comes easily to him, and to slip in undetected…
Well. Even Obito didn’t manage it, when he met with Itachi before the Massacre, and he was trained by the sneaky bastard Madara. In comparison, Kurama might as well be a hurricane trying to pass itself off as a zephyr.
With a huff that’s nearly a groan, Kurama follows Hound, slipping through the darkened lower levels and up the stairs. There are more ANBU around him—he can feel their chakra, even though they're probably trying to hide—but he ignores them in favor of tracking Hound’s voice, then Sarutobi's. The office door is open when he reaches it, and Kurama steels himself, touches Naho’s back to ground himself a little, and then steps through.
Sharp, dark eyes land on him instantly as the Sandaime gracefully rises to his feet. The robes and hat are gone, something Kurama is grateful for, but it doesn’t do much to make Sarutobi look any less dangerous. Maybe a civilian would write him off as an old man, but Kurama can feel the vast, perfectly controlled chakra coiled beneath his skin, just waiting to be used. This is the man who walks firmly in the grey of a shinobi’s world, who survived three wars. Kurama will never see him as anything less than the serious threat he is.
“Hokage-sama,” he says quietly, bowing as much as he can without waking Naho.
The Sandaime smiles faintly, eyes crinkling. It’s a warm expression, natural more than calculated, and that’s one of the things that makes Sarutobi so dangerous. Every move he makes, he means. His conviction is a terrifying thing. “I hear that you are Uzumaki Kurama,” he says warmly. “You're a long way from home, then.”
Kurama stiffens a little, and has to force himself not to take a step back. For half a second, all he can see is Naruto falling, a dark sky with Kaguya looming before them, blood on the ground and the smell of rot in the air. That was home, Naruto was his home, and now—
“I have no home,” Kurama growls, low and sharp. He carefully tugs Naho’s arms from around his neck, settles her in the chair before the Hokage's desk, and then takes a step back. When he glances up, Sarutobi is watching him with something unreadable on his face, and Kurama has to grit his teeth for fear of snarling at the man again. Once he has his mouth under control, he takes a breath and says, “Mission complete, right? Then if you don’t need me for anything else, I have to find a place to sleep.”
One last jerky bow—and that’s getting old fast, no matter how he knows that if he wants to blend in with the humans he has to follow their customs—and he turns on his heel, marching out of the room without waiting to be dismissed. It’s idiotic, showing such clear disdain, but…
But this place is getting to him. All of Konoha, the formerly dead faces once again appearing everywhere, buildings that Kurama saw collapsing into rubble steady and strong once more. There are only a handful of people on the streets, but they're mostly shinobi, and that makes it even worse.
At one time, Naruto knew every last one of his shinobi by name. He knew their faces, their files, the stories that the official records left out. They loved him, and he loved them. He died for them, and they’ll never know it. Whatever version of Naruto that exists is going to have to fight to get them to acknowledge him. He’s going to have to struggle and strain and bleed, just so they’ll stop calling him a monster, just so they’ll see the hero instead of the jinchuuriki, and Kurama hates them for it. Hates every last one, from Naruto's future teammates to the oldest civilian, and…
Naruto wouldn’t want that. Naruto loves Konoha, loves its people no matter how they hate him. The little bits of resentment festering in his soul are so much less than they would be in anyone else. Kurama had to dig, the first time, in order to find them. It was hard, and in any other person that resentment would have consumed them years earlier. But Naruto was, is, special, and never let other people’s impressions rule him.
Kurama needs to leave. He needs to see that Naruto is alive, prove it to himself, and then he needs to go. Akatsuki is aware that someone is hunting them, so he has to move quickly if he wants to catch them off guard. There's no time to waste; the sooner Akatsuki is gone, the sooner Kurama can deal with the Gedō Mazō—preferably by smashing it into tiny little bits and scattering the dust to the winds.
His fists clench, and he has to push down the chakra that wants to rise, reacting to a threat that isn’t present. Maybe—maybe he should take out the Statue first. That would neatly negate the problem of Akatsuki catching the bijuu. Without somewhere to seal them, it will be useless to capture them. And there wouldn’t be a vessel for the Juubi, even if they did manage to resurrect it.
Kurama likes this plan. He likes it even more because it means he gets to bring his full power to bear, and break something really thoroughly.
In this, at least, he’ll need to be subtle. Barging into the Akatsuki base flat-out is a bad idea, and while Kurama isn’t entirely opposed to those, he is opposed to getting ripped out of his body and stuffed into a demonic statue. Again. So he’ll have to make his move when the base is empty, or at least mostly unoccupied. Which means he’ll have to rig some sort of distraction, but what on earth would be important enough to get all nine Akatsuki members out—
A hand on his shoulder, sudden and startling. On instinct, half of it Naruto's well-remembered reflex and the other half driven by the memory of grey-veined hands dragging shinobi down to their deaths, Kurama spins, lashing out with claws. They scrape across porcelain, leaving long gouges before Kurama wrenches back, heart pounding in his throat.
“Don’t do that!” he snarls. “Do you want to lose that empty head of yours?”
He can't quite see the ANBU's expression, but he gets the feeling that there's a brow arched in his direction. “Oops,” Hound says blandly, raising a hand to finger the long score-marks in his mask. Then he shrugs faintly and tosses Kurama the envelope he’s carrying.
Automatically, Kurama catches it, feeling the heft. It’s thick—full of paper, by the weight, and with a faint frown Kurama opens it. Ryō, and a lot of them.
“If you were trading bandit extermination for a room, I'm assuming you're low on funds,” Hound says, calm and the next best thing to lazy. “That’s half of the mission pay. The Hokage agreed that you earned it with your assistance.”
The flashfire surge of fury takes Kurama by surprise, and he clenches a hand around the envelope. “I don’t need your pity,” he growls, and the only reason he doesn’t throw it straight back in Hound’s face is because he knows the ANBU would dodge it. “I don’t need anyone’s pity! I've survived on my own, I can—”
“It’s not pity,” Hound cuts him off, still calm. “You were my comrade for this mission, and you took care of the girl. It’s what’s owed to you for that, and I have more than enough money. Splitting the pay is nothing to me, but it will help you get a room and a meal. Accept it.” A tip of his head, faint in the moonlight, and then Hound leaps up onto the rooftops and is gone.
Kurama can't move, frozen in the street with the man’s words ringing in his ears. You were my comrade, he said. You were my comrade, so much like Naruto's words to him on the battlefield. So much like that first acknowledgement of him as something more than a mindless, malicious beast. So much like the words he’s held dear for decades now.
You're not the monster fox anymore. You're one of my teammates from Konoha, Kurama.
Naruto's first use of his name, and the memory of it makes Kurama's eyes burn, makes him press a hand over his face and concentrate on breathing. Comrades, and he hadn’t thought he’d ever be called that again, because—because this is a mission, alone in what might as well be a foreign, hostile land, and Kurama can allow nothing to distract him, stall him. There's absolutely nothing that will stop him from rooting out Akatsuki and destroying all of Kaguya’s paths back to existence, but—
It’s…nice. Nice to hear, nice to know that, even for a few hours, he was what he used to be, a part of something larger. A partner, even if it wasn’t to Naruto.
It will never happen again, of course, but Kurama can still appreciate that it did.
Enough, he tells himself, and this time it works. He shakes off the thoughts, tucks the memory of Naruto's words and bright-edged conviction back down inside himself, and turns away. It’s tempting to leave now, head for the Akatsuki base in the Mountains’ Graveyard, but he doesn’t have a plan yet, doesn’t even have the vaguest idea of one. One night to rest his feet, safe in a shinobi village and a warm bed, won't hurt.
Tomorrow he’ll find Naruto, even if all he can manage is passing him on the street. Tomorrow he’ll make sure that his jinchuuriki is all right, and then he’ll go.
He tells himself yet again that once he does, he won't look back.
“Well,” the Sandaime says a little wryly, “if someone went looking for an actor who could play an Uzumaki, they certainly found their money’s worth in Kurama.”
Kakashi doesn’t look at his Hokage, eyes on the four long scratches decorating the mask in his hands, but he nods in agreement. That was Kushina’s reaction, almost exactly, the one time Minato tried to split his mission pay with her. Of course, she’d also beaten him over the head with her sheathed tantō and kicked him in the ass so hard that he flew face-first into a mud puddle, and Kakashi is relieved that Kurama's temper doesn’t quite seem to match hers, even if the rest of their actions are eerily similar.
“You think he’s an actor?” he asks, finally glancing up.
Sarutobi's mouth tightens a little and he sighs, turning away towards the window. “I don’t know,” he says after a moment. “It could be a very clever trap, given who else bears the Uzumaki name, but…there is grief in that man, Kakashi, and I don’t think it’s the type that could be faked.”
Kakashi thinks of Kurama's voice when he talked about his brothers, thinks about the small, sad smile he gave when he spoke his name. Remembers the moments of inattention on the road, touched with grimness, the way he looked at Konoha when it came into view. Uncertainty, wariness, resentment, longing, grief—all of it played over his face, then was firmly stuffed away and ignored.
That’s a reaction Kakashi is intimately familiar with.
“Uzushio fell a long time ago,” is what he finally says.
Sarutobi hums, not quite agreement, but acknowledgement of a factual statement. “It did. However, Kurama couldn’t have been more than twelve at the time, and losses suffered as a child are…hard to overcome.” He gives Kakashi half a glance before turning away, and Kakashi grimaces, knowing that was pointedly aimed at him. Entirely true, but…a little more blatant than the Hokage would normally allow himself to be. Then again, seeing a ghost is always unsettling. Even if it is just a ghost of a bloodline thought lost.
Carefully, Kakashi sets his mask down on the desk between them, making sure the claw-marks are completely visible, and offers, “What he used against the bandits—I've never seen an ability like that. It was like a shockwave. Not gravity, just…force. Enough to break bones.”
“As far as I'm aware, there were no kekkei genkai unique to the Uzumaki,” Sarutobi allows after a moment of thought. “But then, Kurama hardly looks to be pure Uzumaki. Something from his other parent, perhaps? Given the state of our relations with Kumo, we can hardly expect a full accounting of their bloodlines.” He touches the surface of the mask lightly, then glances up. “Since you’ve already seen him fight, I want you to follow him, either as Hound or as yourself. Whoever he is, there are too many questions, and I don’t want to be caught off guard.”
“Yes, Hokage-sama,” Kakashi murmurs, dipping into a brief bow and then stepping away. A shunshin carries him down to the street, and he pauses in the moonlight, casting a glance around the sleeping village.
Kurama had faltered, when Kakashi called him a comrade. His eyes had gone wide, his breathing stuttered, and he’d frozen as though Kakashi had stabbed him. Except that getting stabbed likely wouldn’t have made him so much as blink, and Kakashi's words had practically cut his legs out from under him. It was the reaction of a man alone, a man with nothing and no expectations of that state ever changing.
Kakashi knows that intimately, too, from the first lightless days after Rin’s suicide, and then again after Minato's death. It speaks of a loss that gutted, that nearly killed. A loss that would have been kinder were it actually fatal, because what it leaves behind—a husk, a doll, a creature of grief and anger and aching, tearing loneliness—is worse than any sort of death could ever be.
His suspicions haven’t abated in the slightest. Kurama is still one half-step above enemy, and only kept there by the genuineness of his response to Naho. One wrong twitch and Kakashi won't hesitate to kill him, to remove him as a threat to the village and Naruto.
However, that doesn’t mean he can't understand the man’s grief. He understands it all too well.
With a tired breath, Kakashi summons Bisuke—one of his ninken who can be counted on to actually manage subtlety, unlike the majority of them—and sends him after the redhead, with orders to report when the man wakes. For his part, Kakashi heads towards his tiny apartment, more than ready to sleep. The mission was hardly strenuous, but an entire day walking next to a man who could possibly attack him at any moment—or attempt to kidnap the Daimyo’s illegitimate daughter and only current heir—has left him tense, and eager for a few hours of mindlessness.
Despite the draw of unconsciousness, however, he finds his feet carrying him right past his building, through the darkened training ground with its three familiar posts, and finally coming to a stop before an achingly familiar shape.
It’s too dark to read the names carved on the Memorial Stone, but even so, Kakashi's eyes unerringly fall on the correct lines, and he tucks his hands into the pockets of his flak jacket as he says his silent hellos.
Six years now, since those last two names were added. Six years since Kakashi lost the closest thing he had to family since his father’s suicide. Six years since he threw himself headlong into ANBU, never quite expecting to survive. He’s a genius, though, no matter how little good it’s done him, and part of his genius is the ability to adapt. He’s lasted, even if he didn’t expect to.
And now, looking back, he regrets it. Not his survival, but the decision as a whole. It’s been years, and he’s come to term with the Sandaime’s actions, Minato's, Kushina’s. He understands, too, that Minato's choice was the necessary one where the village was concerned, and while he’ll always miss his sensei, he’s proud of him, too.
The only one he really hates is himself.
Six years ago he buried himself in ANBU, half slow suicide and half a quest for forgetfulness, and it’s only now that he’s finally surfacing. Only now that he can see how his retreat has effected the one person he never wanted to hurt.
Naruto has grown up alone, outcast, reviled. The only kindness he’s ever experienced has come from the Sandaime, his Academy teacher, and the owner of Ichiraku. Kakashi himself has done nothing, and though he loves the boy, he can hardly bear to look at him sometimes. He’s so much like his parents, and it…hurts.
How selfish, Kakashi thinks a little wryly, but really, when in his life hasn’t he been selfish? Always protecting himself, always retreating, always holding himself apart until it’s just a little too late. With his father, with Obito, with Rin—maybe, if he’d just tried harder, he could have saved all of them.
Now he’ll never know.
And still his cowardice is keeping him from being anything to Naruto, even a distant friend. He could, if he wanted to; it’s been long enough that a solitary ANBU befriending a lonely orphan won't raise too many brows, and Kakashi is already considered eccentric even among shinobi. Minato's enemies are no longer quite so interested in getting their revenge on anyone connected to the Yondaime, and the Sandaime has managed to keep Naruto's existence quiet until now, so very few people know Minato spawned. Kakashi could walk up to Naruto, buy him ramen, and gain a friend, and no one would look twice at it.
He already knows he won't.
It’s cruel, craven, selfish. It’s terrible and awful and despicable, but he won't. Maybe someday. Maybe then.
But not today, not tomorrow. Kakashi is mired, stuck. Understanding and forgiveness don’t do away with the hurt, and not even the thought of Naruto in need of a friend, of support, is enough to drag Kakashi forward.