[specious / ‘ spēSHəs/ , superficially plausible but actually wrong; misleading in appearance. From Late Middle English specious “beautiful”, from Latin speciosus “fair”, from Latin species “appearance, form, beauty”.]
“So what's in Suna?” Fuji asks, leaping across a narrow creek and landing lightly enough that she doesn’t even jar her passengers. “You seem pretty desperate to get there, Kurama-sama.”
“Hokage-jiji says it’s another ninja village,” Naruto chimes in helpfully. “Are we gonna be ninjas there?”
Kurama rolls his eyes at the two of them, but keeps his gaze on the horizon, where the rolling yellow dunes of Wind Country are slowly coming into focus. Already the grass beneath them, the last sign of River Country’s lushness, is patchy and dry, and the air is warmer. It’s a relief from the chill of northern Fire Country, but Kurama's a little wary of it regardless. They have water, if only a few bottles bought with his rapidly dwindling funds, and enough food for a few days, but the desert is wide, and Suna is well-protected just by its distance from anywhere else.
“A friend,” he answers after a moment. “Hopefully. There's—one of the others should be there, and if I'm lucky he can watch Naruto while I finish keeping my promise.”
“The Ichibi?” Fuji sounds surprised. “I thought he…wasn’t well.”
“He’s bat-shit insane,” Kurama agrees without hesitation, “but a lot of that’s the seal they slapped on him. If I can fix it, he should be fine.”
“Seal? On your friend?” Naruto sounds confused. “Is it punishment because he did something bad?”
Kurama pauses, debating, but…he’s not going to lie to Naruto. He might not tell him the full truth, but he won't keep everything to himself. “Can we stop for a second, Fuji?” he asks quietly. “This might take some explanation.”
“Of course, Kurama-sama.” The white fox slows, then comes to a stop beside a stand of dusty-brown rocks. She crouches down, letting them slide off her back, puffs back into her tiny form, and promptly flops down on her side, stretching out on the sandy earth. “Mmph. I was getting ready to take a break anyway.”
“Sorry, Fuji,” Kurama offers, tugging gently on one pointed ear. She’s the sole reason they’ve managed to outpace and lose their pursuers—Fuji only has three tails, but she’s fast and can hold a transformation for a long time. It’s not entirely impossible that Kakashi will manage to pick up their trail, but it’s fairly unlikely since he has no idea of Kurama's intended destination. After all, he never even mentioned Suna in the Copy-Nin’s presence, and it’s a long shot as it is.
He’s well aware that Shukaku is not actually mother material in the least, and that Gaara doesn’t exactly have a life of luxury even if he hasn’t already been psychologically traumatized, killed his uncle, and gone nuts. But it’s still safer for Naruto than parading him right under Akatsuki’s collective nose, and if Gaara's uncle is still alive—well. Maybe that’s another tragedy Kurama can head off at the pass. His Naruto would want him to save Gaara the pain of that incident if possible, after all.
If Yashamaru is already dead, things are going to be a little more complicated, but even so, Kurama thinks he can swing it. Naruto is fairly self-sufficient, and Gaara is living separately from his father. The kid’s older siblings are too scared of him to do more than hover on the outskirts of his life, so if Naruto keeps his head down—something he’s had practice doing, in Konoha—everything should be just fine.
(Maybe that’s too optimistic, but Kurama honestly can't think of any other options that will let him see Naruto again before the kid is old and grey. Bringing him back to Konoha is definitely out of the question, and no innocent child should ever be exposed to Killer B except as a world-is-ending-we’re-all-screwed sort of last resort. Since Kurama doesn’t have a clue where any of the more levelheaded bijuu are at the moment, Gaara and Shukaku will have to do.)
“Occhan?” Naruto asks, tugging at his sleeve. “Occhan, are you okay?”
Kurama smiles, sinking down to sit in front of the boy with his legs crossed under him. “I'm fine,” he says reassuringly. “But…you know how I told you about your parents, and the village not hating you because of them? Do you…do you want to know the real reason?”
Wide blue eyes stare up at him, traced with equal parts trepidation and resignation. “Are you gonna hate me too?” he asks, expression heartbreakingly solemn.
“Never, kit,” Kurama swears, ruffling his hair. “I already told you that, didn’t I? And besides, I already know why, and I just think they're stupid.”
The wariness slides into determination and Naruto nods, looking set. “I wanna know,” he says firmly.
No matter his age, Naruto will always forge blindly ahead no matter what. It makes Kurama smile a little, and he leans forward to rest his elbows on his knees as Naruto drops to sit across from him. “Well, I already told you about your mom. But what I didn’t say is that she was the Kyuubi jinchuuriki. Do you know what that means?” When Naruto shakes his head, Kurama sighs and drags a hand through his hair. “It means she had such powerful chakra that she was chosen as a container for one of the tailed beasts—the Kyuubi no Kitsune.”
Horror and devastation creeps in around the edges of Naruto's expression, and he tenses like he’s about to run. “The—the demon fox?” he manages, but his voice wobbles. “The one that attacked the village?”
“Yeah,” Kurama says gently. “Your mom was the Kyuubi’s host, and when she gave birth to you, the seal weakened and the Kyuubi escaped. Then someone took control of the fox, and turned him on the village. Your mom and dad defeated him and sealed him into you in order to save Konoha. That makes you a jinchuuriki just like Kushina was, but a lot of idiots don’t understand that being a jinchuuriki means you're not actually the Kyuubi, just his container, so they get scared.”
“But I'm not, right?” Naruto demands. “I'm not the Kyuubi, right? I'm not a monster!”
Gently, Kurama raps his knuckles against Naruto's skull. “Of course you're not,” he scoffs. “And I would know. I used to be just like you, kit, and I can tell the Kyuubi is asleep inside you, but he’s not you.”
Fuji, silent until now, makes a noise of startled understanding. “Another nine-tailed fox?” she demands, rolling partly upright. “I thought there was only one.”
Kurama ignores her, keeping his eyes on Naruto. The boy is staring back at him, looking torn. Then, slowly, the confusion shifts into determination again, and he squares his shoulders. “My mom was the same as me?” he asks, and when Kurama nods, he smiles bravely. “Then I'm gonna be just as amazing as she was! I'm gonna be Hokage and a jinchuuriki and I'll prove to everybody that I'm not a monster!”
The rush of relief is heady, and Kurama smiles, kissing Naruto's forehead soundly. “Good. That’s a good goal. Now, any more questions?”
Naruto's face scrunches up for a second, and then he asks, “Can I learn to turn into a fox like Fuji can?”
For half a heartbeat, Kurama thinks about explaining the intricacies of the tailed beasts and their various forms, up to and including a jinchuuriki’s ability to let the bijuu inside them manifest, but at the last moment decides that that’s a conversation that can wait for a later time. As it is, he just chuckles and shakes his head. “Sorry, Naruto, but Fuji’s a fox summons, not a human. She’s a fox who can look like a human sometimes instead of the other way around.”
“Yeah,” Fuji chimes in cheerfully, apparently over her surprise. “There's a bunch of us who live on Mount Inari, and every time a fox lives long enough to get more than one tail, they can become a summons if they want! But nobody has signed our contract in a long time, which makes it boring, so I sneaked out to go explore.”
If Kurama needed a reminder—beyond the fact that she has just three tails—that Fuji might generously be considered a teenager in the lifespan of a kitsune, it’s that. However, given that he’s hardly one to talk about responsibility and thinking things through, he rolls his eyes and lets it go. “Ever wanted to make a clone?” he suggests, because there's absolutely no reason not to. “That much I can teach you.”
Naruto's face screws up in consternation. “I don’t know,” he says dubiously. “Iruka-sensei showed us how to do a clone and I'm really bad at it.”
“That’s stupid,” Kurama counters without hesitation. “You're a jinchuuriki—of course you can't do the Academy standard clone. With as much raw chakra as you have, you need something a little more impressive. Like the Multiple Shadow Clone Jutsu, which I know you’ll be good at.”
If Naruto's eyes get any wider, they're going to fall out of his head. He stares at Kurama for a moment before his gaze goes watery, and he throws himself at Kurama. Small hands tangle in his hair, and then Naruto beams up at him, nova-bright. “Thanks, Occhan!” he says happily. “I promise I'm gonna make you proud of me!”
“I already am,” Kurama laughs, helpless to be anything but painfully honest. “Naruto, I am. Just being yourself is all I ever need to see you do. That’s my promise. And I always keep my word, kit.”
“Just like me!” Naruto looks entirely enthused by this idea. “We have the same nindo!”
“That we do.” Kurama heaves himself to his feet, then reaches down, offering Naruto his hand. “Come on, Naruto. Let’s go see if there's a hill around here that we can scout from while Fuji takes a break. We might be able to see Wind Country, if we’ve come as far as I think we have.”
Naruto grabs his fingers, small hand barely able to close around Kurama's, and chirps, “Sure, Occhan!” as Kurama hauls him up. On a whim, Kurama catches him around the waist and heaves him up further, swinging the little boy up onto his shoulders. With a theatrical grunt, he grips the kid’s ankles, holding him in place, and feels hands twist into his hair.
“Easy on the goods,” he teases. “You’ve got quite the grip there for a six-year-old.”
With a laugh that’s close to delighted, Naruto lists forward, wrapping his arms around Kurama's neck as much as he can. “You're hair’s so red,” he says. “It looks like it’s gonna be hot, but it isn’t.”
Kurama snorts, because that’s just the sort of whimsy he expects from his jinchuuriki, and hides his smile by looking away. “Yeah, yeah, I've heard it all before,” he grunts. “It’s pretty close to your mom’s color, though hers was a lot longer.”
“I don’t look like her?” Naruto asks, sounding disappointed.
Before he can help it, Kurama laughs. “Sure you do,” he reassures the boy. “You look a whole hell of a lot like your mom, kit, and you act like her, too—all you got of your dad was his coloring, far as I can tell.” Hearing the soft sound of concern, he adds, “It’s a good thing, believe me. He was smart, but unless lives were on the line he was the ditsiest scatterbrain I ever saw—‘specially when your mom was in sight.”
When Kurama tilts his head back to check how this is going over—not that he’s worried, because he’s pretty sure that any sort of knowledge of his parents will make Naruto happy—Naruto looks somewhere between overwhelmed and overjoyed and very, very sad. Deciding that the conversation’s taking a turn he doesn’t like, Kurama bounces the kid and makes him yelp delightedly, then offers slyly, “One time, right after they started dating, your dad asked your mom out to dinner. But when he was halfway to their meeting place, he realized that he hadn’t gotten her any flowers, so he grabbed a bunch from the first training ground he came from. What he didn’t realize was that the Aburame Clan had been breeding a new type of bug, and it loved those flowers.”
When he pauses for effect, Naruto wriggles impatiently. “So?” he demands. “What happened? What did he do?”
“Do?” Kurama repeats, grinning, as he heads up a fairly steep slope. “Well, he walks right past the Aburame Clan lands, happy as a clam and so proud of himself. Your mom’s waiting under some trees, all dressed up, and suddenly this huge cloud of black bees comes pouring out the gates and swarms after him. ‘Course, your dad’s a lovesick moron, so he only has eyes for Kushina, and she’s pointing behind him and trying to warn him but he just thinks she’s waving. He waves back, and then the first one bites him. He turns to see what got him and screams, just like a little girl.”
Kurama laughs at the memory, and grins up at Naruto when he hears the kid laughing too. “Yeah. At that point Kushina has stopped trying to save him and is laughing so hard she can barely breathe, and your dad goes flying past her with a vast swarm of bugs after him, and because he doesn’t realize that they're after the flowers, and he doesn’t want to drop them when they're a present for Kushina, he lets them chase him all around Konoha for hours. Your mom was pretty impressed. By his determination and his stupidity.”
Naruto is snickering, and he crosses his arms on top of Kurama's head and drops his chin on top of them. “Did she prank him a lot?” he asks cheerfully. “He sounds like he’d be really fun to prank.”
“All the time,” Kurama promises. “She’d pull the greatest tricks, and then when he turned around to accuse her—because she always laughed, not that I blame her—she’d just give him this innocent, hurt, big-eyed look—” With a pout, Naruto pulls it, and it’s so much like Kushina's that Kurama snorts. “Yeah, that one exactly. She’d pull that and he’d fall over himself to apologize for doubting her, and then they’d do it all over again.”
“She sounds like the coolest shinobi ever,” Naruto says, clearly awed. There's a pause, and then, “You said she could make weapons from her chakra?”
“Her Chakra Chains,” Kurama confirms. “They were strong enough to hold the Kyuubi back until your dad could seal it—he was better with seals than Kushina, because your mom liked sharp, shiny stuff too much.”
Naruto beams. “Can you teach me that, too, Occhan?” he asks excitedly. “I wanna learn to be just like Kaa-chan!”
There are, quite honestly, far worse people to aspire to emulate. Kurama nods. “Sure, kit. You're gonna be better at the big stuff that the little stuff, so I think you’ll manage pretty quickly.” At the top of the rise, he stops, staring out at where the land opens up before them. Just a short distance ahead, sand peeks through the scrubby grass, getting more prolific with every meter. On the horizon the dunes start, long and sloping, only interrupted by the sharp jut of rock formations protruding from the earth like shattered bones.
“There,” he murmurs. “That’s Wind Country. Lots of heat and wind—our affinities. We’ll get across just fine, Naruto.”
The small chin presses a little more firmly against his skull. “Is your friend gonna like me?” Naruto asks wistfully.
“Shukaku doesn’t like anyone,” Kurama huffs, torn between amusement and aggravation at the mere memory of the pissy tanuki. “But he’ll take care of you if he knows what’s good for him. And besides, he’s got a kid with him right now, just about your age—Gaara. I think you’ll like him. You two have a lot in common.”
The thought of a friend seems to lighten Naruto's mood slightly, but a moment latter he frowns again. “I'm gonna miss you, Kurama-nii,” he complains, and Kurama blinks at the shift in names, but doesn’t comment. He’d rather be a big brother than an old uncle, anyways.
“I’ll miss you too, kit,” he says a little gruffly, and looks away. “But it won't be for more than a month, I promise you that. All I have to do is break something and throw a wrench into this one group’s plans, and then we’ll be good for a couple years at least. It’ll give me plenty of time to come up with a better idea on how to deal with them.”
“Okay.” Naruto's apparently decided to be cheerful again, and the force of it is nearly tangible. “Now can you teach me that cool clone jutsu, Kurama-nii?”
Kurama huffs. “Now’s not exactly the—” He stops. Reconsiders. “Actually, you're right. Now is the best time. We’re going to lay a few false trails, kit, and you're going to help me.”
Naruto laughs like a fox with a trick up his sleeve, and Kurama grins right back, swinging him down and then dropping to the ground to start the impromptu lesson. He knows every inch of Naruto's chakra reserves intimately, at any age. Maybe Iruka never managed to teach him how to make a clone, but for Kurama? This is cake.
“…Hmm,” Kakashi hums warily, crouched in the sparse grasses that mark the border with Wind Country.
It is, perhaps, just slightly telling that Tenzō twitches like he’s looking for the best cover to dive behind. “‘Hmm’?” he echoes. “Senpai, why do I get the feeling that that’s not a good noise?”
“What exactly are you implying, Tenzō?” Kakashi asks mildly, pinning the other man with a raised brow.
With a low groan, the Mokuton user raises his hands. “That you're the best tracker in Konoha and shouldn’t be sounding like you just took the wrong turn to Tanzaku-Gai,” he defends. “We’re right next to hostile territory, I’d prefer to know exactly where we’re going.”
“Technically Suna is allied territory,” Itachi points out, crouching down a few feet from Kakashi to study the tracks as well. This is why Itachi is Kakashi's favorite. Also, he’s a very subtle smartass when he’s a smartass at all, which is whole leagues better than either of the other two, who are never anything less than utterly blatant about their insubordination.
Shisui scoffs, shaking a rock out of his sandal. “Technically, the only reason why there aren’t Suna shinobi trying to slit our throats in our sleep is because they're too poor to afford a war right now,” he counters. “Kinda like Kiri—they’d kill us if they could, but that would mean they’d have to stop killing their own shinobi first, and that’s not going to happen for another decade at least.”
“Weren’t you impressed by that one Kiri shinobi you failed to kill?” Tenzō asks, sounding vaguely amused.
With a huff of laughter, Shisui drops into a crouch, stretching out his shoulders. “That slippery guy with the stolen Byakugan? Yeah, he was pretty impressive, but Ao is old guard. Like, Nidaime Mizukage kind of old guard mindset. He’s the type to keep his mouth shut and follow anyone who can make Kiri strong. A lot of Water Country shinobi are like that. It’s one of the reasons it’s been so hard for Kiri to change—power is the currency there.”
Sounding aggravated and mildly pained, Itachi sighs, rubbing at his temples. “You know Mother and Father think you're an imbecile most of the time?” he growls at his relative. “Why don’t you ever talk like that around them?”
Being Shisui, he just laughs at Itachi's expression and rocks back on his heels. “Because it’s fun watching them try to figure out how I graduated at the top of my Academy class like this,” he says cheerfully. “And it’s really amusing to watch their faces when someone promotes me and they just smile like they know why, but they're actually so confused.”
It’s possible that Itachi whimpers.
For the sake of the boy’s dignity, Kakashi pretends not to hear it. “Anyway,” he says pointedly, and is mildly surprised when they all stop bickering to listen to him. It’s a minor miracle, honestly. “The scent doubles over itself here, and then separates. One set heads towards Ame, and the other heads deeper into River Country.”
“A false trail,” Tenzō concludes. “But which one?”
Kakashi considers, but…Kurama's not in the best situation right now. He’s just moving, trying to put distance between them, to give himself a buffer that will keep him safe, and that means there's a fifty-fifty chance that he’s running on instinct or blind panic as opposed to calculated reasoning. Kakashi can account for reasoning, can figure out how most people think. Blind panic is a whole hell of a lot harder to predict.
The scents and tracks are perfect copies. Chakra lingers around both sets, just the faintest trace visible to his Sharingan and fading quickly. Each set has the prints of a man’s bare feet, a child’s shoes, and a small fox’s paws. They're over a day old, which is annoying, but Kakashi thinks he can close the gap quickly now that the trail is clear again. Well, mostly.
“I don’t know,” he admits, rising to his feet and dusting off his hands. “They're perfect copies, and we don’t have the time to run one to ground if it turns out to be fake. We’ll split up.” For a wistful moment, he thinks of assigning Tenzō and Shisui to one team and taking Itachi for himself—the kid may be eleven, but he’s smart, capable, professional, and above all easy to work with. However, having Tenzō and Shisui in close proximity for extended periods of time is just asking for one of them to end up buried in a shallow grave somewhere, so he dismisses that thought with a resigned sigh and says, “Shisui, you're with me. We’ll head north. Itachi, Tenzō, take the south-bound tracks. I’ll send one of my ninken with you so you don’t go off-course.”
That way, at least, there's one shinobi in each party capable of subduing Kurama if they do run into him. After all, Kurama was wary of Tenzō’s Mokuton, and nearly had a heart attack at the sight of Shisui's Mangekyo. Hopefully, splitting them up will double the team’s chances for success, rather than cutting it in half.
Tenzō makes a soft sound of assent, though his expression is grim as he reaches up to adjust his happuri faceguard—Kakashi's seen it enough times to recognize it as a nervous tic. “If we lose the trail, should we turn around and try to reach you, or head for Konoha?” he asks.
“Head for us,” Kakashi answers after a moment of contemplation. “It will probably be too late to help with the capture, but I don’t think Kurama is going to come quietly, not after the last fight. Hauling him back to the village will probably be just as hard as catching him.”
Even Itachi grimaces faintly at that. “Good luck,” the boy says quietly, clearly under the (understandable) impression that they're all going to need it.
“Yeah,” Kakashi sighs, and turns north. “Be careful. Shisui?”
Shisui gives his cousin a quick, one-armed hug, nods to Tenzō, and flickers over to Kakashi's side. “Ready when you are, Captain,” he offers, all brazen cheer and knife-sharp resolve hidden behind dark eyes.
Kakashi just sighs. This is going to be a long trip.
(They don’t see it, but once all sense of their chakra has faded, another set of tracks shimmers out of nothingness. One set of fox’s paws, large and weighted down, heading towards the setting sun.)