[exaction / ig ‘ zakSHən /, the action of demanding and obtaining something from someone, especially a payment or service. From late Middle English via Latin exactio(n-) from exigere “ascertain, perfect, enforce”.]
Kirigakure lies in a long, narrow valley between the mountains and the sea, wreathed in a thick fog that muffles sound and blocks the light, and edged with heavy rain. The grey, cylindrical buildings are scattered around the Mizukage’s tower, half-covered with trees and greenery, and while Kurama supposes it’s a neat effect, it’s also…eerie. Like the land is pushing back, trying to reclaim the space where the village sits, and the buildings are slowly being subsumed.
On one of the craggy cliffs overlooking the village, Kurama stares down at the streets and fields, trying to sense any familiar chakra. He could flare his own, try to call Saiken’s attention to him that way, but Saiken isn’t the only bijuu down there. Kurama doesn’t know how often Obito shows up to play puppeteer with Yagura’s brain, but he assumes it has to be fairly frequently if he’s going to keep control of a creature as strong as Isobu. Better not to attract his attention just yet.
“Kurama-nii?” Naruto asks, seated back against the bulk of the mountain and munching happily on some of the cookies Anzu had slipped into their bags. Gaara is beside him, eyeing the excess of water warily as it clatters down beyond the overhanging rock. He lasted through Ame’s steady drizzle, but Kiri's type of downpour is something else entirely for a boy who’s only seen rain a handful of times in his life.
“Yeah, kit?” Kurama asks, turning away from the dimness of the village below. The rain is confined to the mountains for now, the clouds breaking open on the peaks, and he wants to get them into the dryness of the village as soon as it lightens a bit. Might as well, now that they can afford it. All of them could use a bath.
With a beaming smile, Naruto holds out one of his cookies. “Here! I saved you one! It’s sweet and yummy, you should try it!”
It’s instinct, by now, to lean in and kiss his messy hair in thanks. “Well, if you say I should, I definitely will. Thanks, Naruto.”
“Of course, Kurama-nii!” Cheerfully, he goes back to his snack, adding, “You guys should eats yours too!”
“Maybe later,” Fū says, perched on the very edge of the rock with her feet hanging down. Her face is raised to the sky, and she’s smiling even though she’s getting wet. “Yugito, Yugito! This is fun! Come sit with me!”
Yugito looks at the drenching rain and wrinkles her nose a little. “I'm all right back here. It’s…really wet.”
She’s definitely one of Matatabi’s. Kurama swallows a snort, then sinks down to sit with his legs crossed under him. “I'm going to try and get in touch with Saiken. If anybody falls off the mountain, they’d better figure out how to fly on the way down, got it?”
“Or,” Momiji adds dryly, “I could just catch them.”
Kurama rolls his eyes and determinedly doesn’t smile. “I'm trying to teach life lessons about responsibility and self-sufficiency here and you're ruining it,” he complains. “You’re just as much of a brat as Fuji, I don’t know how I was ever fooled into thinking you weren’t.”
“I'm not a brat!” Fuji protests, jerking her head up from where she’s sprawled across Yugito’s lap. “And you’re a grumpy old jerk. Who’d want to learn from you?”
“Oh, stuff a sock in it,” Kurama growls. “What happened to me being a god among foxes, huh? Brat.”
If Fuji were in her human form, she’d stick her tongue out at him. As it is, she chatters, high and sharp and annoyed, and then pointedly flicks her tails over her face. Kurama harrumphs right back at her, folding his arms over his chest, but before he can retort Fū says brightly, “Oh, hey, the rain’s stopping! Can we go now, Kurama-nii? I've never been to one of the big shinobi villages before!”
For a moment, Kurama wavers, debating it with himself. He hasn’t gotten any answers as to whether Obito is in the village, or even whether Saiken and his host are, but…Obito's chakra is fairly familiar. Except for a lingering residue that Kurama assumes is Yagura, he can't sense it below them. He can't sense Obito's malice, either, and if there's one thing that will give the Uchiha away, it’s that. Kurama's been alive for a long time, but out of all the people he’s met, Obito as he is now is one of the angriest and most hateful. There's not much of a chance Kurama would miss his presence.
“All right,” he agrees at length, and adds over Fū and Naruto's cheers, “But! This place isn’t like Whirlpool, got it? You stick with me and don’t run off, or I’ll have Momiji sit on you.”
Fuji opens her mouth, expression delighted, and Momiji growls warningly and snaps his teeth at her. “One word about my weight, little sister, and I’ll throw you off this cliff.”
The vixen deflates with a sigh. “You don’t know that that’s what I was going to say,” she mutters mutinously.
“Yes,” Momiji informs her dryly. “I really, really do.”
“Okay, okay,” Kurama cuts in long-sufferingly, before they can devolve into further bickering. “Can either of you cast an illusion strong enough to get us over the walls without a bunch of bloodthirsty shinobi noticing? Make people look past us, that kind of thing?”
“Fuji's better with illusions,” Momiji admits, rising to his feet and shaking the mist from his silver-tipped coat. “Mine have a tendency to break at…er, inopportune moments.”
Fuji gives him a smug fox-grin. “Of course I can,” she says haughtily. “It’s easy.”
“Yeah,” Momiji retorts. “Just like flying.” He catches her glare and grins back, tongue lolling.
Kurama sighs. “Let’s just—go,” he says. “Before I'm tempted to throw both of you off this cliff and figure out how to get down by ourselves.”
With a yipping laugh, Fuji rises, and with a whirl of smoke crouches in front of Yugito in her large form. “I'm ready when you are, Kurama-sama,” she says. “Naruto, do you want to ride with me today?”
“Sure, Fuji-nee!” Face and clothes dusted liberally with crumbs, he leaps to his feet and bolts for her, leaping onto her back like a baby monkey. Yugito follows more sedately, collecting both of their packs and slinging them over her shoulders, then climbing onto the vixen’s back.
“Guess that leaves you with me, squirt,” Kurama tells Gaara, giving him a smile as he rises. “You okay with that?”
“I like you a lot, Kurama-nii,” Gaara informs him solemnly, reaching out, and Kurama chuckles and picks him up, settling him on Momiji’s back.
“Yeah, yeah, I like you too.” On a whim, he kisses Gaara's forehead the way he does Naruto's, and has to laugh at the look of wonder that crosses the kid’s features—it’s either laugh or head straight back to Suna to start ripping off heads. Ruffling Gaara's crimson hair, he turns to look at the last member of their little troupe. “Sweetheart? I’ll ask Chōmei to teach you how to grow wings later. Come on. It’s almost sunset.”
“Wings?” Fū bolts to her feet so fast she’s nearly a blur of motion, and throws herself at him bodily. “I can grow wings?”
“That overgrown bumblebee had better be good for something, if you're stuck with her,” Kurama grouches, peeling her off his leg and hoisting her up behind Gaara. Chōmei’s chakra flickers with annoyance, but if she’s eavesdropping, what she overhears is her own fault. “Fuji, ready? Their guards might not be looking up, but that’s not a chance I want to take.”
Fuji crouches slightly, expression going intent, and foxfire ripples through the air around them like an aurora. Flickers of color blaze into existence, then fade away, and she flicks her tails. It doesn’t quite feel like a genjutsu settling around them, but…similar. One step to the left, maybe. Kurama breathes it in, because it’s familiar; he was never one to shape chakra this way, but he remembers how the foxes he first taught took to it, and this is one of the things they came up with.
“Neatly done,” he says, and pretends not to see the way Fuji puffs up proudly as he vaults onto Momiji’s back. “All right, out and down. Fuji, let me know if anything’s about to break, got it?”
“Of course, Kurama-sama.” With a light leap, she bounds past Momiji and hurls herself off the cliff.
Her brother follows with a warning snarl, setting more foxfire dancing under her feet just before she starts to fall. “Watch it!” he warns. “I'm not that quick, Fuji.”
The vixen ignores him like a queen, turning a wide loop that makes Naruto laugh as she descends. “We look like a patch of fog,” she tells Kurama proudly. “I figured no one would notice that around here.”
Probably not, Kurama admits, eyes on the village as it comes closer. There are a handful of people on the busier streets, and more clustered near the Mizukage’s tower. East of it is quieter, clearly a slightly lower-class business district, and in the gathering darkness he can only pick out a few shinobi.
“There,” he says, pointing to a patch of dripping forest that might be either a training ground or a park. “Head for that part. Looks like there's an inn the next street over.”
“We get to sleep at an inn?” Fū sounds incredibly enthusiastic. “I've never been in one before, Kurama-nii. Are they nice?”
“They're all different, sweetheart.” Kurama remembers the inn his first night back, the woman who gave him a room and a meal in return for clearing out some bandits. It’s hard not to compare her to the sour woman in Ame, unwilling to bend, though Kurama knows there are a hell of a lot of differences between central Ame and northern Fire Country. Hopefully, actual money will sweeten this innkeeper’s mood; Kurama is familiar civilian prejudice against shinobi with bloodlines in Kiri, and between himself and his claws, Naruto with his whisker markings, and Gaara's tanuki eyes, they don’t have much of a chance as passing as anything else.
“I like inns,” is Fuji's verdict as she drops through the thick treetops and alights on a branch, balancing neatly with her three tails fanned out. “The beds are soft.”
Kurama huffs as Momiji follows her down, then passes her, heading for the ground. “Like I said, they're all—”
Movement. Just a flash of light off swift metal seen out of the corner of his eye, but it’s enough. With no time to call up his chakra, Kurama hooks an arm around Fū and Gaara and throws himself off of Momiji’s back, shouting, “Down!”
The fox drops instantly to his belly, and the flight of kunai just skims the tips of his tails as he jerks them down. Kurama rolls off the two kids and comes up in a rush of movement, catching the next kunai as it flies at his face. Instinct makes him hurl it back—Mito and Kushina and Naruto were all so accustomed to the weapons they could use them half-asleep or half-dead with blood loss, and their bodies were Kurama's too. He remembers, knows the slight twist of the wrist that lets the kunai fly true, and—
A gloved hand flashes up, catching the kunai in a blur of impressive speed, and spins it casually around one finger. “Quick,” the man approves, a half-mocking rumble with an undertone of cautious interest. “I don’t think I know you, Red. And I've got a decent memory for faces.”
Kurama's nerves are still humming with tension, not quite abated by the sight of the huge and all too familiar sword on the man’s back. “Yeah,” he says warily, taking a step forward to put himself directly in front of Gaara and Fū. “That’d be because we’ve never met.”
There's a rustle of leaves, a scrape, a thump. Yugito lands lightly beside him, half-crouched, with Matatabi’s chakra just beginning to flicker around her. Her nails haven’t quite grown into claws yet, but she’s not all that far off from letting them. “Kurama-nii?” she asks, and that tone is tight and tense and dangerous.
Kurama takes one more look at their unexpected companion and makes a split-second decision, stepping back and dropping out of a ready stance. “Easy, kitten. Should have expected something like that, dropping into a training ground.” Which this apparently is, given the jutsu and weapon scars studding the trunks around them. He should have known better than to expect something like a park within Kiri's walls.
Yugito doesn’t look overly comforted by this, not that he really expected her to be. She’s a shinobi, after all—Kumo made damned certain she wasn’t anything else. She regards the man unhappily, and Kurama turns to look as well, already knowing what he’ll see.
Sword strapped in place, tall and wide and carrying a scent of old blood. Kiri uniform, ripped and slightly stained. Unmarked hitai-ate, worn with what might be pride but is probably closer to stubborn threat. Bandages worn as a mask, careful eyes, short and messy brown hair. Kurama knows him, and not just through Naruto's eyes—this is one of his first clear memories after the night Obito controlled him, the first time since that night that he rose to the surface, looked and saw and scented blood and lightning on the air. Remembers, because this man looked at him, saw him and was one of the first to do so since October tenth so many years before.
Momochi Zabuza grins back at them, assessing gaze taking in Yugito, then flickering to Gaara where he’s tucked behind a bristling Fū, passing over Fū herself, and then darting up to linger on Naruto, still relatively safe on Fuji's back even if Kurama can feel his chakra rising in preparation for defense. But Zabuza doesn’t make so much as a threatening gesture. With a snort, he simply crosses his arms over his chest and drawls, “How cute. A mother and her ducklings, out for a walk.”
Kurama snarls, and in a blur of motion launches himself at the other man, sweeps his feet out from under him, and slams him into the ground, claws pressed tight against his throat. And, Sage, Kakashi would have seen that coming. The Zabuza from the bridge would have seen it. Even Kakashi's team would have good odds for noticing what he was going to do. This Zabuza isn’t weak—Kurama can feel his chakra, the strength that makes him the Demon of the Hidden Mist—but he’s…untried. His edges haven’t been fully sharped yet.
Well, Kurama supposes. He’d have to be. He’s still in the village, after all.
A distance away, quiet footsteps approach, and Kurama holds Zabuza’s bristling gaze as they do, silently warning him to keep his mouth shut. Another second, and a soft voice says, “Zabuza? I brought the—” A gasp, a clatter as something drops, and a fierce hiss of, “Let him go!”
The chakra feels like a cold wind against Kurama's spine, and he doesn’t need to look to know who it is. Instead, he just raises a mocking brow at Zabuza, and gets a snarl in return. With a low laugh, he slides off the taller man, darting back out of range of retaliation, and says, “Glass houses, shark-face.”
“Fuck you,” Zabuza spits, twisting back to his feet, but he holds out a hand to block the oncoming blizzard in miniaturized human form. “Knock it off, Haku. Ameyuri’ll have my balls if you destroy her favorite training ground.”
The little boy can't be any older than Fū, tiny in a way that Kurama takes a moment to adjust to, but the cold glare he’s sending Kurama is enough to show that he won't hesitate to attack if he thinks it’s required. Even so, he subsides obediently, murmuring, “Yes, Zabuza.” He keeps his eyes fixed on Yugito, clearly aware of who he’ll be facing if this does dissolve into a fight.
Honestly, Kurama doesn’t think it will. Zabuza’s frame is loose, not quite relaxed, but not on edge, either. He doesn’t have any more kunai in hand, and he hasn’t reached for his sword. Kurama could be vastly overestimating his ease, but…he doesn’t think so. The Zabuza he met on the bridge was full of anger, fury at too many things to name. This one is milder. There's still a seed of rage, but it’s all bound up and tangled with determination and something that’s not quite selflessness, but maybe the next best thing. And, even at his worst, Zabuza has never tasted of outright malice. There was never an edge of pettiness to his hate. Everything he felt had a cause. Everything he did was for a reason.
For a long moment, Zabuza studies Kurama, then relaxes, shifting his weight off the balls of his feet. It’s as close to let’s be friends as two wary shinobi can get. “Got a name, Red?”
“Yeah, and it’s not Red,” Kurama retorts, baring his teeth. It might pass for a smile. Maybe.
Zabuza snorts softly. “Momochi Zabuza,” he says, watching Kurama's face intently. “Of the Seven Swordsmen. If we haven’t met, I'm assuming you're not from Kiri. Got a reason to be dropping out of trees?”
“Kurama,” Kurama answers briefly, because Yugito already called him that. He pointedly doesn’t offer a last name; there's no reason to make it easier for Zabuza to connect the dots, if the Kage have managed to get a warning to Kiri already. Luckily, he’s already thought of a passable excuse for their presence in the village. “I've heard that Harusame is one of the greatest fuinjutsu masters still alive. I wanted to talk to him.”
The interest in Zabuza’s gaze sharpens. “You're a seal master?”
“I'm decent.” It’s true enough; he remembers most of what Mito and Kushina knew, and what Naruto learned. After all, when he was trapped it was a possible way to win his freedom, if he could find a weakness in the seals. Beyond that, Harusame is Utakata's master right now. Find the old man, and Kurama will more than likely find the jinchuuriki.
“We should spar, whenever he lets out of that dusty old library he calls his house,” is Zabuza’s immediate verdict, and Kurama's fairly certain he doesn’t imagine the swift, exasperated glance Haku throws at his guardian.
That’s—that’s a terrible idea. Really, really terrible, because Zabuza is the type to taunt his opponents, and Kurama is all too aware of his own short fuse. When one wrong word could out him as having a bijuu’s power, it’s probably best to avoid situations like that.
Still. It might be fun.
Very firmly, Kurama squashes that little thought and waves a dismissive hand. “Yeah, not gonna happen. ‘Sides, I think the kitten might be a better match for you.” He tips his head at Yugito, who very much looks like she will be obliging if Zabuza ever wants to get his face clawed off.
Zabuza eyes the thirteen-year-old, raises one short brow, and levels an assessing stare at Kurama. “She’s not your daughter.”
“And he’s not your son,” Kurama counters, flicking a glance at Haku.
Instead of taking offense, Zabuza just shrugs. “Useful,” is his only explanation, but from the way it makes Haku light up, he might as well have called the boy his own flesh and blood. “You're the same, yeah?”
Perhaps predictably, though, it makes both Fū and Yugito bristle. “He’s not!” Fū protests fiercely. “Kurama-nii took us away from the people who wanted to make us be weapons, and useful, and—”
“We are people,” Yugito adds, quieter but just as sharp. “Kurama-nii lets us be people, even when no one else will.”
Gaara nods emphatically, hands fisted in the back of Fū’s skirt as he glares at the two Kiri nin, and there's a loud, “Kurama-nii is awesome!” from above that’s Naruto's contribution to the conversation.
“Shut up,” Kurama says gruffly. There is definitely nothing going soft and goopy in his chest, because he is definitely not touched by the defense, or these four ridiculous children. “All of you, just—stop.”
Naruto laughs at him, and Fū giggles. Gaara smiles a little, while Yugito gives him a sideways look that says very clearly Try harder if you want me to believe you mean that.
They’re all brats.
Zabuza chuckles, shifting his weight forward slightly and dropping his arms from his chest. It’s enough of a warning that Kurama goes still, but before he can do anything more than tense, Zabuza says mockingly, “Such adorable little monsters. I bet if you told the rest of the villages that you knew how to tame jinchuuriki, they’d give you whatever you wanted on a silver platter.”
Fuck. Kurama coils, ready to launch himself at the other man again, but Zabuza raises a hand to stop him.
“Hold it, Uzumaki,” he says sharply, and the killer from the bridge bleeds into his features. Still not entirely present, still not quite as sharp and dagger-edged as Kurama remembers, but that undercurrent of rage is there, cut through with satisfaction. “You attack, I raise the alarm, and then you’ll never get close to Utakata. I assume he’s the one you're after?”
Apparently the Kage did manage to get a message to Kiri, or Yagura learned about him some other way. Kurama calculates the odds of killing both Zabuza and Haku before one of them can alert the village and decides they're too low to risk it. He eases back, trying not to growl, and inclines his head. “Well, I was.”
Zabuza tips one shoulder in a shrug, dismissing that even as he starts to grin beneath the bandages. “Far be it from me to stop you, Red. But if I'm going to keep quiet about you and the pipsqueaks, I want something in return.”
Of course he does. And, knowing what Kurama does about this man’s future… “You want me to help you kill the Mizukage,” he concludes, and is satisfied to see Zabuza’s eyes widen.
“How the fuck do you know that?” Zabuza demands as the smugness eases out of his posture, replaced with hostility. At his side, Haku goes tense as well.
Another teeth-bared almost-grin and Kurama crosses his arms again, watching them carefully. “Call it intuition. I assume this is you kicking off a civil war?”
“I prefer to call it a revolution.” Zabuza eyes him right back. “So what’s your choice, Uzumaki? The rest of the shinobi here know about you, too, before you get any bright ideas. One step outside this training ground looking like you do now and there won't be a single place left to hide.”
Which would be fine, except Kurama can't ask Fuji to keep up an illusion that long, and it won't work if they're ever separated. He glances back at the four kids, eyes landing on Naruto last of all. The little blond is clinging to Fuji's ruff, eyes wide and worried.
Haku and Zabuza died in front of him once before, and Kurama knows better than anyone just how it affected him. He’s not about to put Naruto through that again. And besides, he’s always known that Yagura is a problem that needs to be dealt with. This is just…a slightly more expedient method.
“They don’t get involved,” he says succinctly, tipping his head at the children. “If you don’t agree with that, I’ll kill you, even if it blows my cover.”
There's a brief pause, startled and still, and then Zabuza laughs. “Didn’t want ‘em to,” he promises, and there's something like relief in his voice. “I've got a house on the edge of the village. Haku can keep an eye on them while we work. You get to convince Utakata to give us a hand, since you’ve got such a way with jinchuuriki.” Sharp eyes study his clawed hands. “Is that because you're one yourself?”
“You don’t get answers from me,” Kurama growls, not so much as attempting to keep his voice even. “You're blackmailing me, Momochi. If I didn’t have a reason to go along with you, you’d be eating that sword by now.”
Zabuza just laughs, rough and sinister. “You're the one who landed in the middle of my workout,” he retorts. “What kind of shinobi would I be if I didn’t take an opportunity that all but threw itself into my lap?”
He doesn’t need to rub it in; Kurama's already cursing his terrible luck enough for both of them. “Fuji,” he says instead, a little more sharply than he intends to. “Another illusion, just over you, Momiji, and the kids. I’ll use a henge.”
“Of course, Kurama-sama.” Fuji eyes Zabuza with a healthy dose of dislike, but concentrates again. This time, Kurama can see all six of them fade out of existence with barely a ripple of chakra, and he takes a breath, trying not to let Naruto's sudden absence unnerve him. He’s still there, and if Kurama listens closely enough, he can hear the soft thump of Fuji leaping down from the tree, the rustle of Fū and Yugito talking in bare whispers as they get Gaara up onto Momiji’s back again, and then negotiate Fū climbing up behind him and Yugito returning to her perch on Fuji.
Kurama takes it in, breathes deep, and says quietly, “Fuji. Sound and smell too. Lock it all down, there's a girl. Once we’re alone you can let up again.”
Everything vanishes in a flicker of foxfire, and Kurama forces himself to turn away. He breathes out, concentrates, and feels his own chakra shift as the henge covers him. Naruto's kind of henge, strong and deceptive, able to fool even a goddess, if only for a moment. He grabs the first thing he can think of to give it shape, and—
Pink hair in a short bob, steady green eyes, a woman’s body. Strength of a Hundred Seal on her forehead, because it wouldn’t be Sakura without it, not the way he knows her, and he doubts anyone else will recognize it. He does, though, knows this body as seen from the outside, has seen it in just about every situation he can imagine, and he’s not about to let it slip.
He opens his eyes, wearing Sakura's form over Naruto's body, and almost laughs at the bitter humor in all of this.
“This way,” Zabuza says, and then thankfully keeps his mouth shut, leading Kurama out of the training ground.
Obito isn’t in the village, Kurama knows. He isn’t here, isn’t nearby, but—with that eye of his, distance means nothing. Kurama is going to knock Yagura out, strip off Obito's control, and he has no doubt that Obito will feel it. Maybe he won't attack Kiri, an entire village poised on the edge of a civil war and ready for anything, but…
What if he does?