[quisquous / kwis , k(w)əs/, difficult to deal with or settle; perplexing; (of a person) of dubious character. Origin uncertain; possibly from classical Latin quisquis “whoever” with subsequent alteration of the ending after adjectives in –ous.]
“I'm starting to sense a pattern here,” Tenzō says unhappily, leaning down to test the heat coming off the smothered fire. He rocks back on his heels, and adds, “This is an hour old, maybe a little more.”
Kakashi makes a vague sound of acknowledgement as he and Baki turn over the pair of corpses left crumpled around the camp. The one in front of him is a woman, and the cause of death is easy to see—there's a kunai in her heart, driven up from underneath the breastbone. Kakashi doesn’t have to look at the remnants of a Doton jutsu or the scuff-marks on the ground to realize just what happened here. This was clearly a fight, and one this kunoichi had little chance of winning.
Baki’s quiet noise of disgust pulls Kakashi's attention to him, and the Suna nin nods at the body he’s studying. “Took out his throat. Not a blade, I think, but…”
“Claws,” Kakashi finishes for him, remembering the bandits when he and Kurama first met. And—maybe it’s stupid, but it’s almost a shock to remember just how easily Kurama killed those men, how easily he must have killed these two. Kakashi won't quite go so far as to say that Kurama's avoided killing them all the time they’ve been on his tail, but…he hasn’t been trying as hard as he likely could have. The one time they managed to confront him, he was more focused on getting away than anything.
Baki raises a pointed eyebrow.
“Little ones,” Kakashi clarifies, waving a hand. “Like fingernails, but sharper. I've seen Kurama use them before. It was definitely him.”
With twin thumps, Itachi and Shisui land in the clearing, and a moment later Shiba wriggles his way out of the undergrowth. “We couldn’t find anything,” Shisui announces. “They dragged themselves out of the river, came here, and then the trail goes cold.”
“These are Taki shinobi,” is Itachi's quiet input. “Do you think he took something from them?”
“Something to get him into the village?” Tenzō suggests. “They still have their hitai-ate, though.”
Baki shakes his head. “Taki is small enough that a gate guard would know pretty much everyone on sight. If Uzumaki really is aiming to grab Taki’s jinchuuriki, he’d have to sneak in. Killing a patrol isn’t exactly the best way to maintain your cover, though.”
“If they are a patrol,” Shisui counters. “There's only two of them. They're packed for speed, not a long trip, and their water bottles are inconveniently small if they're going to be some place removed from water. Even in Taki, that’s most places a patrol would take you.”
Kakashi blinks at Shisui, long and slow. This would be the brain that got Shisui promoted so quickly, the one he rarely shows under the carefree smile. It kind of makes Kakashi want to punch him, after spending the last week listening to him and Tenzō bicker like idiot children.
Judging by the narrowing of Itachi's eyes, the eleven-year-old feels the same. He sighs through his nose, giving his cousin a longsuffering look, and crouches beside the body of the man. “Teeth,” is his contribution, pointing at the shinobi’s leg. “Here. Too big to belong to a six-year-old, and too small for an adult. They were attacked by someone else as well.”
“Or someone else fought back,” Tenzō murmurs, kneeling beside his teammate and beginning to inspect the body for more signs. “There are nail-marks up and down his arms. Kurama's claws wouldn’t have done that.”
So Kurama rescued someone, likely another child, though older than Naruto and Gaara. Kakashi stares into the darkness of the trees, feeling a distinct unease curl in his gut. He’s never heard mention of how old Taki’s jinchuuriki is, or even which beast they hold. There's no reason to think chances would align enough for Kurama to accidentally stumble over another jinchuuriki, unless…
What if they had plans to meet? Kakashi has little idea what Kurama was doing before he appeared out of nowhere to help rescue the Daimyo’s daughter. If Taki’s jinchuuriki was old enough to make their own decision, and Kurama contacted them, the unknown jinchuuriki could have arranged for Kurama to find them and take them away. The idea feels uncomfortably likely, given the facts Kakashi has managed to scrape together about the wayward Uzumaki.
You blind fools will never understand even the smallest portion of what it means to be a jinchuuriki, but I do. And I’ll make sure Naruto does too. You want to punish him for it? Cast him out? Fine. But I’ll teach Naruto just what it really means to wield the power of a bijuu.
If this is some sort of—of jinchuuriki revolution, the countries need to be warned. Before anything else, before they even take another step, they need a plan to take word to Kiri, Iwa, Taki, and Kumo, because Kurama is dangerous. It’s tradition for hosts to be picked from the Kage’s close family so that they’ll be loyal, but…Kakashi has seen firsthand how much hate jinchuuriki garner. It would be hard for anyone’s loyalty to hold up in the face of that. Couple it with a man who clearly knows what it means to be a jinchuuriki, promising freedom and power, with two or even three containers already under his thrall—
This is a recipe for another war, and no matter the logical outcome of nine jinchuuriki against all of the Elemental Countries, Kakashi feels unhappily pessimistic about the nations’ chances. He’s seen what the Kyuubi was able to do to Konoha in a handful of minutes, after all, and none of the other villages have an impossibly stubborn Uzumaki kunoichi, a newborn Uzumaki child, or a fuinjutsu master on Minato's level to save them.
“I think,” he says slowly, “that our first priority should be warning Taki, and then Iwa.”
Baki shoots him a sharp look, sinking back on his heels. “You think this has something to do with Taki’s jinchuuriki,” he says, assessing.
Kakashi meets his stare without wavering. “I think we can't afford to assume anything less,” he counters. “I know exactly what one bijuu can do to a village. Kurama already has two, maybe three. If he gets any more on his side…”
The pieces are visibly coming together in Baki’s mind, and he grimaces, dragging a hand over his face. “Right,” he says grimly, looking around the small camp. “Good spot for an ambush, if these two were waiting for the jinchuuriki to lower their guard. But they wouldn’t have expected Uzumaki.”
“No one ever expects an Uzumaki,” Kakashi says dryly, making the other man snort.
“Got a sealing scroll?” Baki asks. “The least I can do is take the bodies with me, if I'm legging it for Taki.”
Kakashi honestly hadn’t expected him to volunteer for the task, but given Konoha's history with Taki, it’s likely for the best. He pulls an empty scroll out of his belt pouch and hands it over, then asks, “Iwa?”
Baki grimaces. “Suna and Iwa have too much history for me to go waltzing up to their gates and not expect to get a hostile mountain dumped on my head. No, I’ll ask Taki to send someone. You’ll aim for Kumo?”
“At this point, we’re better off tracking Kurama.” Kakashi tips one shoulder in a faint shrug. “The Hokage's message will reach Kumo before we can, and he’ll be able to get word to Kiri as well. With enough shinobi on alert, there shouldn’t be a way for Kurama to steal any more jinchuuriki.”
With a snort, Baki rises to his feet. “Here’s hoping. Now get a move on. Uzumaki's got an hour’s head start, and knowing him, he’ll take advantage of it. There are only so many passes into Kumo. Figure out which he’s heading for, get there before him, and cut him off.” Something flickers over his face only to be ruthlessly crushed, and he turns away, busying himself with the scroll. “Get the kid back. Gaara doesn’t need more reasons to hate humanity.”
Well. The Suna nin has a heart after all. Kakashi would smile, but…all he can think of is Naruto in the same situation, and that takes all the humor out of his realization. Instead, he hums a vague acknowledgement, tips his head at his team, and warns, “Head on a swivel.”
“Way I was born,” Baki retorts, waving him off. “Same to you, Hatake.”
Kakashi waves back, then leaps for the trees. Itachi is a beat behind him, Tenzō and Shisui bringing up the rear, and Kakashi again says a wistful goodbye to all thoughts of rest and easy paces. There's no time. No matter Kurama's intentions, he’s on a mission that could throw the entire shinobi world into war, and there's no way Kakashi is going to have that on his head.
After two days of dark tunnels, unable to catch even the faintest hint of a breeze or any stray shaft of sunlight, Kurama is honestly ready to climb the walls if it will get him even a little closer to the open sky. He’s grateful for the detour, and for the way that Fū clearly knows these passages so well, but he’s not a creature meant to stay underground for long stretches of time. It’s bad enough that Kurama is fairly certain he’d pick another hundred years in a human host before he picked a month below the earth.
“Only a few more minutes and then we’ll be near the Moon Country border,” Fū says cheerfully, though she doesn’t look behind her. Naruto is on her back, fast asleep, but she’s not struggling to carry him yet so Kurama hasn’t tried to take the boy. He’s carrying both Gaara and Fuji anyway—the latter also deeply asleep, the former drifting towards that state. Fuji has woken up a few times, but she’s still exhausted, and the boys are as well.
Because he can, Kurama shifts his hold on Gaara and reaches out to ruffle Fū’s hair, smiling at the grin it earns him. She’s a bright, happy girl, and even if bringing her along was spur of the moment, Kurama doesn’t regret it. Not only for her knowledge of the tunnels, either.
“You okay?” he asks. “That’s a lot of deadweight you're dragging around.”
Fū glances over her shoulder, where Naruto's face is pressed right up against the scroll she’s carrying. She just looks for a long moment, then smiles and says, “That’s all right. I can go a little further. He’s really cute when he’s asleep.”
Kurama snorts sharply. “Yeah, I guess he is. More than when he’s awake, at least.” On his shoulder, Gaara makes a sound that’s vaguely a protest, and with a roll of his eyes, Kurama allows, “Yeah, yeah, he’s still cute no matter what. Go to sleep, squirt.”
Muffling a giggle with one hand, Fū offers, “There's a place to camp right outside the tunnel exit. I think it’s nighttime, too—are we going to stop?”
Kurama debates for a moment, but…it’s probably safe. If Fū is right and no one knows about these tunnels but Taki shinobi, and high-ranking ones at that, Kakashi and his Freak Squad will be taking the long way around Taki’s forests and rivers. Maybe they’ll catch up, but even if they outpace Kurama's little gaggle of children, they likely won't be able to predict exactly where Kurama is headed.
Besides that, he could use a spare hour or so to get in contact with Matatabi again. It’s probably not fair to dump another child on her without warning, especially when she agreed to take Naruto and Gaara without a fuss.
“Yeah,” he confirms after a moment. “We can spare a few hours. I want to get some water and food into Fuji, and meditate for a bit. You three could do with some uninterrupted sleep, I'm sure.”
“This isn’t too bad,” Fū says, determinedly cheerful. “Grandfather’s training is a lot worse. I always feel like I'm going to die afterwards. This is just walking.”
Kurama can't quite suppress the low, angry growl that worms its way up from his chest. Fū is ten years old, not the eight he first thought—small for her age, on the edge of too thin, with calluses and sores and scars that even Chōmei couldn’t entirely erase. They’ve been traveling for two days now, and Fū has spent a large portion of that time carrying one of the boys, who can't weigh all that much less than she does. She’s never complained, never faltered, and…
He hates it. Hates what it means for Fū’s past, for what she’s gone through. Hates the way those deep bruises are hardly noticeable to her. She’s a child, but no one has ever given her the opportunity to be one. Because she’s a jinchuuriki, a weapon, she’s been training for as long as she can remember, pushed to be better and stronger and less human. For all that Kurama thinks Sarutobi went about things the wrong way where Naruto was concerned, at least the old man never treated Naruto like a weapon. Not the way other villages treat their jinchuuriki.
Humans are so goddamned blind, and it’s lucky for this world that Kurama knows things can get better. If he didn’t, if the version of him that came back was the one from before he’d formed even a vague attachment to Naruto's precious people—well. Kurama isn’t entirely certain how many of the countries with jinchuuriki would still be standing.
“You're tough as nails, sweetheart,” he says gruffly, not looking at her. “I think you could teach most shinobi a thing or two about being strong.”
Fū is quiet for a long moment, but she slows her steps a little, dropping back to walk right beside him. And if she’s leaning into his side a little, Kurama isn’t about to call attention to it. Not unless she wants him to.
“I think—I think I hate everyone in my village,” she confesses in a small voice, keeping her eyes fixed ahead of them. “They all glare at me and whisper all the time, and it doesn’t matter what I do, they're just—always angry. They always hate me. It’s like—like I'm always standing far away, while they're all standing together, and sometimes I just get so angry at all of them.”
Kurama takes a breath, then lets it out slowly, trying to contain his temper. There's no one to get angry at down here, no good way to release it outside of wanton destruction that’s more likely to bring the tunnel down on their heads than do anything productive. “I'm…probably not the best person to talk to about anger issues, sweetheart,” he manages, and it takes effort to keep his voice even. “There's a hell of a lot of hate in me, and there has been for a long time. But I’d say you're absolutely justified, if that’s how you feel. No one should ever tell you that you have to love someone who hurts you, even if it’s just mentally. You're the only one who can decide to forgive them for it. And if you never want to? If you always want to carry that grudge, and hold them at a distance the way they did to you? That’s entirely your choice.”
The tense, tight line of Fū’s shoulders relaxes just a little, slumping into something more natural. “I thought adults were supposed to tell us that peace was the best thing, and that you should forgive people, and that they were just being stupid and ignorant and it wasn’t their fault,” she says almost accusingly, though there's relief in her orange-gold eyes. “That’s what Mom always said.”
Kurama snorts, reaching out with his free hand to lightly ruffle her hair again. “Maybe,” he admits. “But I'm pretty terrible at being human, kid. The only advice I can give is what I know, and it’s probably not majority approved, sorry.”
Fū takes a careful breath, then looks up to flash him a smile. “That’s okay!” she says brightly, hoisting Naruto a little higher up on her back. “I think I like your advice a lot better than all the rest I got. If that makes me a terrible human too, I don’t really mind. We can be bad at it together!”
That…wasn’t quite what Kurama was getting at, but he supposes it’s close enough. Chuckling, he shifts Gaara into his other arm, then nods in front of them. “That my imagination, or is there actually sunlight up ahead?”
Fū blinks, lifting her head, and then laughs. “We made it! Come on, I'm hungry!” She takes off for the crack in the stone, leaping lightly across the roughly hewn floor and then right out the gap. Kurama follows a little more slowly, turning sideways to slip through the narrow opening. It’s clearly late afternoon, the sun low on the horizon and the moon already rising above the treetops, and Kurama takes a long moment just to breathe in the smell of something besides bare stone and dirt. Moving air is a blessing he’ll never again disregard. Even being trapped in that terrible sewer in his Naruto's mind wasn’t as bad as being stuck underground.
From even a few steps away, the entrance to the tunnels looks like nothing more than rough stone, and Kurama makes note of its exact location in case he’s ever passing back this way and desperate enough to use it as a getaway. He doesn’t expect to be, but—well. Naruto taught him a lot about expecting the unexpected.
At the edge of the treeline, Fū is crouched down, busily building a ring of stones for a small fire. Caution makes Kurama hesitate, but at length he decides that they’ll be fine lingering for a few hours. They're getting pretty far north, after all, and it’s still winter. The air has bite once the sun goes down, and Kurama isn’t about to let the kids suffer through a night without any warmth. They’ve got blankets, but those can really only do so much.
Carefully, he sets Gaara down next to Naruto, then carefully lifts Fuji from where she’s been curled around his neck and sets the vixen in Naruto's lap. She shifts a little, one amber eye slitting open, and grumbles softly. Kurama steps away, deciding to leave her to either wake up or slip back into sleep on her own, and makes a circuit around the edges of their little camp, collecting dry sticks and stretching out his senses. There's no one else around them, though, not that he can feel by way of chakra or malice, and he allows a little bit of tension to ease from his spine at the realization. His range is decent, so as long as he keeps an eye out they should have enough warning to hightail it if someone gets too close.
By the time he makes it back, Fū has the fire going, and is seated cross-legged on the ground in front of it, watching Fuji with bright-eyed enthusiasm. The fox is sitting up, truly awake for the first time since they landed in the river, and though her fur is still a little dull she otherwise looks recovered.
“Fuji,” Kurama says, dropping the wood off to the side and sinking down next to her. “You're up. Feeling okay?”
Fuji gives a bright yip and pounces on his lap, curling up and wrapping her three tails around herself. “I'm fine, Kurama-sama. I take it we got away? I'm sorry I wasn’t able to take us further—”
Kurama cuts her off, tapping a finger on her pointy nose. “Hey, shut up. You were fantastic, Fuji, and you got us to safety even though it could have killed you. And it’s thanks to you that we were in the right place to rescue Fū, so none of that blaming yourself shit, okay?”
Pointed ears fold back, and a long tongue flashes out to lick Kurama's knuckles. “All right,” Fuji allows, a touch grudgingly. “I'm glad we got away, Kurama-sama.”
“Thanks to you,” Kurama repeats, smoothing a hand over her soft fur. “Now. How are you really feeling?”
“A little tired, but I'm all right,” she admits. “I can keep watch if you need to rest, Kurama-sama.”
Sleep sounds tempting, but it can wait. “Not yet. I need to get in touch with Matatabi again, though. Can you keep an eye on things while I'm out? Fū will help; she’s had a lot of training already.”
Fuji's ears perk up, and she pokes her head over Kurama's knee to take a look at Fū. In an instant she’s gone, flowing out of Kurama's lap and darting around the fire and hopping into Fū’s lap instead. “Oh, you've picked up a girl!” she says cheerfully. “How cute! I'm Fuji.”
Fū’s expressions shifts to outright delight. “You're cute too,” she answers. “I'm Fū. Are you a summons? Can I pet you?”
Fuji preens a little. “I am, and of course you can. Right behind the ears is good, and down my back.” Fū’s fingers immediately find the right spot, and Fuji half-closes her eyes in bliss, a gargling purr rumbling up from her throat.
Kurama chuckles, settling back a little. “Keep watch,” he reminds them, and gets a flick of Fuji's tails in response. Deciding that’s as much as the vixen is capable of right now, Kurama closes his eyes, rests his hands on his knees, and reaches for the shared mental realm of the bijuu.
It’s…not the same as last time, he realizes, even before he opens his eyes. No campfire, no vast forest of monolithic trees. Instead the roar of a waterfall fills the air, cascading down from high cliffs in a narrow torrent. There's an island in the center of the resulting lake, just a small patch of grassy ground, and around the edges of the pool the trees press close. The air is wet and warm, the sun at its height, but—
The Falls of Truth. Kurama takes a breath, rising to his feet, and tries not to dwell on the memories that pervade this place. Naruto, all of it Naruto—that’s all he can see and sense. The battle between Naruto and his darker half, the first time Naruto fully took his chakra, where Naruto learned his past. It’s all here, in the lake before him and the temple behind the falls. And of all the places for his subconscious to manifest, this is likely one of the most painful, because this is where everything started to change. This is where Kurama lost all hope of anything ever being different, but where it began to shift regardless.
For an endlessly long moment, Kurama stares out over the rippling water of the lake, halfway expecting to see Naruto step out of the temple and smile at him. But there's nothing beyond the thunder of the water, the spray of mist drifting away. Only silence, painfully empty, and Kurama drags in a shaky breath and swipes a hand over his eyes.
A flicker behind him, an impression of rapid wingbeats, bright laughter, and the thrill of flight all caught up in physical form. Kurama turns, claws half-raised and ready, only to see a familiar shape drop from the sky and settle on the bank, six wings folding away. Chōmei’s head tips curiously as the beetle shifts back to sit on the grass and says, “Kurama. I thought that was you I felt the other day, but…you’ve changed.”
“Chōmei,” Kurama returns, trying to banish the emotion from his face and voice, even though he knows he doesn’t quite manage it. This isn’t exactly a place that promotes emotional equanimity for him. “A lot can happen in a hundred years.”
Chōmei squints at him for a long moment, wings flickering out and fluttering briefly, gossamer-bright, before they fold away again. “I suppose,” the beetle allows. “But you’ve spent a long time not changing, haven’t you? Why now?”
“Extenuating circumstances,” Kurama says succinctly, crossing his arms defensively over his chest and trying not to fidget. “Was there something you wanted, Chōmei, or is this just a social call?”
“Can't a bijuu talk to her brother?” Chōmei complains, and apparently Kurama was massively wrong about only having brothers. Not that he’s about to protest. Another flicker of wings—embarrassment, Kurama thinks, though it’s been a very long time since he had to read Chōmei’s body language—and she says, “You…saved my host.”
Well. Not the conversation Kurama was expecting to have, but not one he’ll complain about. “I did. She probably could have saved herself, but since I was there, I figured I might as well. Though I noticed you weren’t trying to take control, Chōmei. Feeling polite all of a sudden?”
Her wings flare up and out, and the beetle bristles. “I'm always polite!” Chōmei protests. “I'm Lucky Seven Chōmei, and anyone would be fortunate to have me as their bijuu! Those fools in Taki can't see it, but Fū has never been ashamed of what she is!”
Kurama can imagine that she hasn’t. Fū is a strong, stubborn girl, as bright and happy as Naruto with a seething edge of darkness that reminds him of Gaara's aching fury more than anything. It would be a potent combination in a regular shinobi, let alone a jinchuuriki. With a faint sigh, he holds his hands up, a vague attempt at placating her, and answers, “Hey, cool it, that wasn’t a criticism. Just—observation, okay? I just got done dealing with Shukaku being a greedy, malicious bastard and trying to drive his host insane. Forgive me for not being overly optimistic about all of this.”
“We’re not all Shukaku,” Chōmei reminds him with an amused snort. “Though I’ll admit, I might have a few screws loose, too, if I was trapped in a crazy priest for years on end.”
Rolling his eyes, Kurama gives her that one. Between the seal, his natural crazy, and his previous hosts, Shukaku didn’t have the best chances of coming out of this mess sane. “Right,” he allows. “Still a bastard, though.” He ignores Chōmei’s laughter, and adds, “I’ll take care of Fū, as much as I can, but I need to get all three of the brats to Matatabi. Heard anything from her?”
Chōmei hums, settling back again, and then shrugs her wings in a flicker of iridescent color. “Not yet, but none of us speak much anymore. You know how it is, Kurama. We’ve been apart for a very long time now—you can hardly expect us to be best friends after the way we separated.”
Kurama ignores the pointed look being aimed his direction. After the way the Fourth Shinobi World War played out, he knows for a fact that he’s the strongest of the bijuu—he faced down most of them combined at one point or another, after all—and if the others don’t like being reminded of that fact, well, it sucks to be them. “Maybe not friends, but we’re all still connected. Now buzz off, the squirt is fine and I'm not about to drop her back off with Taki. So get out of my face and let me find Matatabi.”
With a clatter of beetle-wings and a sharp humph, Chōmei launches herself from the ground, pausing to hover over Kurama's head. “I don’t care if you're older, Kurama, one of these days you’ll have to stop being a prickly jerk or I’ll sit on you!”
“I'm not prickly!” Kurama snarls. “Go perch on a flower, you overgrown bumblebee!”
Chōmei gives an angry, rattling buzz. “Thanks for saving Fū, you bastard!”
“You're welcome, witch!” Kurama snaps back, and glares as Chōmei turns, pointedly flickers her barbed tail, and soars away.
Sage, he hates his siblings sometimes. Most of the time. In general.
Kurama thinks about how he’s setting himself up to interact with all of them at one point or another, and groans as he drags a hand through his hair.
Goddamn, does his Naruto owe him big time for this saving the world crap.